For many of the most hardcore console and PC gamers, Epic Games needs no introduction. For the mobile crowd, they might be best known for the Infinity Blade franchise. With its recent success in porting runaway battle royale success Fortnite to mobile, Epic Games’ position in the mobile marketplace is showing no signs of slowing.
Founded in 1991, Epic broke into PC gaming when it was truly starting to hit its stride, and consoles were just starting to recover from the great video game crash. The company didn’t just make games though — Epic made technology.
Epic Games was not always Epic. The company started in 1991, in founder Tim Sweeney’s Baltimore, Maryland bedroom. A teen coding genius, Sweeney came up with a name that matched the theme of the other successful game publisher in the area — Bethesda Softworks, founded in 1985. Sweeney chose a name people would remember. With historical significance. Something for the ages. His chosen company moniker?
Potomac Computer Systems.
Haven’t heard of it? No surprise. Sweeney renamed the company Epic MegaGames soon after.
After releasing a couple of successful games via an early, barely populated and significantly less active internet (at the time this process was called “shareware”), Sweeney started looking for a business partner.
Sweeney found his partner in Mark Rein. Rein had industry experience already, after consulting for id Software. Somewhat ironically, id would go on to be acquired by ZeniMax, owners of Bethesda Softworks.
Rein’s experience in video games was a huge boon to the company, opening doors and hiring the right people to start producing more quality games, including individuals who are now major industry personalities, like Cliff Bleszinski and James Schmalz.
Epic’s first run of games lacked coherence and a single theme or voice. Pinball, action, adventure, and other genres made the company money, but Epic was still trying to figure what really worked for the team. When id Software released DOOM and Quake to wild acclaim, Sweeney and his small team knew what they wanted to do – 3D shooters, and to do that they needed to be better at it than id Software.
Sweeney would create the 3D engine, Bleszinski and Schmalz would create the game around the engine. Rein would manage things and handle the business development side of the project.
In a somewhat auspicious start, they called this project “Unreal.”
Despite a rocky development, the game shipped in 1998 and included some incredibly important pieces of technology for Epic — UnrealScript, the coding language the game was made in, and UnrealEd, a map editor.
These two simple additions would allow other developers to build off Sweeney’s engine, and with great sales and a loyal player and modding community, things were looking up.
In a very real way, Unreal Engine was born.
Unreal [the game] was an amazing showcase of the Unreal Engine. Other developers paid to license the powerful engine for their own games, and Epic, as we know it today, was up and running.
They soon changed the name of the company to simply “Epic Games.”
From a coworking space in Waterloo, Canada, the company moved to Cary, North Carolina, right outside of Raleigh. For the first time, Epic had a real studio to call home, and they set to work finishing their follow-up to Unreal, a multiplayer-focused arena shooter to rival id’s Quake — Unreal Tournament.
The rest is history.
That history is extensive though. From the early days with ZZT and Brix, through decades of Unreal and Unreal Tournament iterations, to Gears of War, Shadow Complex, and on to their latest titles like Paragon, Robo Recall, Fornite and beyond, Epic keeps pushing its gaming chops in tandem with perhaps its biggest contributor to the gaming industry as a whole: Unreal Engine.
Unreal Engine (UE) is a huge success for Epic. Crowned by the Guinness World Records as “the most successful video game engine,” the technology earns Epic enough money to focus on creating amazing tools and games that take advantage of them, rather than chasing sequel after sequel just to pay bills.
Revenue from the engine doubled in 2015 to 2016, and while Epic doesn’t release hard numbers, Sweeney detailed a bit of how important UE is to the company in a talk during GDC this year.
Unreal Engine powered 10 separate games that hit number one last year, and Unreal developers have earned more than $10 billion in sales globally. “Out of the top 25 highest grossing games on Steam in 2016, Unreal Engine is the only commercially licensable engine represented,” Sweeney said.
On the mobile side, Unreal Engine-powered “two of Korea’s number one mobile games in 2016,” which is no small feat.
With its code written in C++, the Unreal Engine features a high degree of portability and flexibility across platforms. The engine is currently on its fourth full iteration (UE4) and has grown and changed a lot since Sweeney insisted UnrealEd and UnrealScript stay in the first release of Unreal.
As of 2014 though, Unreal Engine 4 no longer supports UnrealScript, and instead, developers write events in C++. This makes the system more flexible, and easier to access for developers of all stripes, and was a huge boon in the mobile adoption of UE.
Unreal Engine 3 and 4 have become two of the most popular engines for mobile games in recent years, due in no small part to Epic themselves leading the way with an iOS title that defined what mobile gaming could look like — Infinity Blade.
The Infinite Possibilities of Mobile
In 2010, after many years of focusing on console and PC gaming, with hits like Unreal Tournament, and the Gears of War franchise, it was time for Epic to truly enter mobile.
Having recently put the finishing touches on the iOS version of Unreal Engine 3, Epic was in need of a “killer app” to show off what the engine could do — and demonstrate that mobile was a place where hardcore, intense games with AAA-quality graphics could truly flourish. Epic’s management turned to their newly-acquired subsidiary Chair Games and asked them to develop a game for the engine in five months, with a playable demo at a special Apple conference just two months away — the same event where Apple would introduce the iPhone 4.
Infinity Blade, and by extension UE3 Mobile, dropped jaws. “Project Sword” as it was known at the time, was a high-quality game running on a console-quality engine and one that Apple used to show off its new machine’s incredible hardware chops. Designed from the ground up for mobile, Chair’s team was able to create Infinity Blade around the natural touchscreen swipe motion, making the game much more immersive than other mobile titles at the time.
Infinity Blade’s initial success as a premium title was astounding and silenced many critics who still considered mobile a casual-only marketplace. Selling more than 270,000 copies and making over $1.6 million in its first four days, Infinity Blade was the “fastest-grossing app” ever released for iOS at the time.
Of course, success merits follow-ups, and Infinity Blade II premiered alongside the iPhone 4S a year later (along with Siri) and Infinity Blade III showed off Apple’s powerful A7 chip and new 64-bit architecture with the iPhone 5S. In 2012, Epic noted that the series was the company’s most profitable franchise by the measure of revenue against person-hours spent in development.
Epic has resisted the trend of moving many of its mobile titles to the free-to-play (F2P) model for some time, keeping its titles in the relatively pricey (for mobile) bracket of the $5 to $7 mark. Even its 2012-election-themed spin-off VOTE! is still priced at 99 cents.
Things would soon change though.
Since first introducing Infinity Blade, things have changed at Epic. In 2012, Epic sold a 40% share in the company to Chinese entertainment holdings behemoth Tencent, who also own significant stakes in SuperCell, Riot Games, MiniClip, and others. Longtime Epic leaders Cliff Bleszinski and Mike Capps left the company at that time to pursue their own projects. In 2014, Epic sold the Gears of War franchise to Microsoft, who turned one of their own first-party studios into The Coalition, just to work on the Gear franchise.
It was time for Epic to try something new.
With Unreal Engine 4 in the wild, and mobile continuing to prove itself a place where both hardcore, mid-core, and casual gamers can all coexist (in no small part thanks to Epic themselves) and the desire to play “whatever, wherever” becoming a growing trend amongst consumers, Epic announced Battle Breakers at GDC in 2017.
A Different Breakout Success
Battle Breakers hasn’t been the success many (including us) thought it would be though for one very simple reason – Fortnite. In the midst of launching other titles in 2017, including their own take on the MOBA genre for PC and PS4, Paragon, Epic also launched Fortnite, a survival building game.
The friendly art style and fairly tame visuals for a shooter helped the game do well across demographics at a low price point, but the explosion was yet to come.
The game saw some initial success, but soon a “battle royale” last-man-standing mode was added as an F2P benefit and the game took off, with success on Twitch and every platform. It was huge almost immediately. In battle royale games like Fornite 100 players start off on a large map that grows increasingly smaller as the game goes on, forcing players to confront and kill their opponents until only one survives, picking up weapons and power-ups along the way.
Using V-Bucks, players can customize their character with all manner of cosmetic options, and it’s this in-app currency that fuels the game’s revenue.
In March, Epic revealed the game would be coming to mobile. “On phones and tablets, Fortnite is the same 100-player game you know from PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Mac,” said Epic in a blog post. “Same gameplay, same map, same content, same weekly updates.” They even included cross-play as an option for mobile users.
While the Android version is still pending, Fortnite on mobile has been an incredible success, but its overall success of Fornite forced Epic to make some harsh calls, and the company mothballed Paragon in January. It seems Battle Breakers may be another casualty, with the Android version still MIA. Still, it’s hard to fault Epic from focusing their efforts on such a successful title. On iOS alone, the game made $25 million since its April 1 release.
With Fornite, Epic also pushing into esports in a way they haven’t since the Unreal Tournament days, investing announcing they’d provide $100 million for prize pools during the first year of competitive Fornite play.
Epic’s foundation as a technology company that makes games gives them unique insight into what developers and publishers look for in an engine and that willingness to change means there’s always going to be something to look forward to from Epic Games, whether you’re a gamer or a developer.
Epic takes its community communication VERY seriously.
If you’d like to hang out with Epic on social media, they maintain an active Twitter at @EpicGames showcasing everything from office culture, industry events, to sharing news on their latest projects. Their Facebook can be found at Epic Games.
If you’re ready to start tinkering with Unreal Engine, you can even download Unreal Engine 4 for free.
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