How Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games became the latest thorn in Apple’s side

Though Tim Sweeney and Epic Games have been a major player in the video game arena for decades, it is only because of the success of Fortnite, combined with high-profile lawsuits against both Apple and Google that the company’s name has become ubiquitous.

A video gamer from the beginning

Tim Sweeney got into video games from an early age when he was 9 or 10 years old living in suburban Potomac, Maryland, when he discovered a video game arcade on his way to school. By the age of 11 he was learning BASIC and teaching himself programming, and by 21 he had founded Epic Games and released his first video game, Zzt.

Epic Games’ success came with the unreal engine

Zzt sold well enough for the time, but it was the creation of the first Unreal Engine that made the company what it is today. 90% coded by Sweeney himself, it was first showcased in the 1998 first-person shooter Unreal and was soon licensed to other developers. The engine allowed them to create complex video games with relative ease, combining a rich game engine with a real-time graphics environment. Subsequent versions have become a bedrock upon which Xbox, Playstation, PC and even mobile games are built.

Epic Games uses the engine for their own games, famously for Gears of War and Unreal Tournament, both of which were major successes. However the Unreal Engine has underpinned famous games across every genre including Warner Bros stealth beat-em-up Batman: Arkham City, Take Two’s Borderlands 3, Microsoft’s online pirate MMO Sea of Thieves and EA’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, among others. The latest iteration, the Unreal Engine 5 was revealed in May 2020 and adds the ability to import high-detail photographic source material to create extremely realistic environments. In addition, the Unreal Engine has found use in live-action TV and Film projects by rendering final-quality images in real-time.

Fortnite explodes as Battle Royale dominates online gaming

While the Unreal Engine and Gears of War series were well known within gaming circles, it wasn’t until 2017 that Epic Games became a pop-culture phenomenon.

In March 2017 an early access release of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) caused a major shake-up of the online gaming scene. PUBG brought the ‘battle royale’ genre to the forefront, a player versus player game mode where everyone is dropped into an ever-shrinking map and forced to scavenge for weapons and supplies while trying to be the last-man-standing. Epic Games saw potential, and modified their zombie-survival game “Fortnite,” releasing it as a free-to-play battle royale game on PC, console and mobile platforms in September 2017.

By May 2018 the game had over 125 million players and had grossed nearly $1 billion through microtransactions. July 2018 Epic Games was worth more than $8.5 billion, with Tim Sweeney becoming a billionaire.

Epic Games becomes embroiled in lawsuits

Given the immense success of Fortnite, it was not long before Epic Games found itself involved in lawsuits. The first came from the makers of PUBG, alleging that Epic Games had copied their ideas, notably the battle royale structure, but this was quickly withdrawn.

In 2020 Epic Games introduced an alternative payment option to mobile versions of Fortnite, circumventing both Google and Apple’s built-in app-store transaction methods and finding the game removed from both stores overnight. Sweeney and Epic Games swiftly filed antitrust complaints against both companies. For Apple in particular this is an unpleasant case, as although they do not release official numbers on their app-store revenue, it is estimated to be around $19 billion a year, most of which comes from in-app purchases on free-to-play games such as Fortnite. Allowing alternative payments could put a serious dent in that number.

Tim Sweeney has gained equal parts derision and praise for this. Epic’s positioning of itself as the ‘underdog’ in particular has drawn criticism, as the company is worth billions and has spent hundreds of million dollars simply making games exclusive to the Epic Games store. However, other developers have praised the move, labeling Apple and Google’s 30% commission on app store purchases as unfair. The cases are currently ongoing and likely to be in appeals courts for years to come even after the ruling.

Photos : Financial Times

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