When it comes to Fortnite, the winner takes it all.
A hundred players start each match, dressed as their favorite characters and dreaming of glory, but only the last one standing claims victory and earns the right to dance over their opponents.
His battle is far from over yet, but the head of the studio behind it, Epic’s Tim Sweeney, is in a similarly celebratory mood after a major court victory over Google – one driven off Fortnite‘s success.
The game has become a cultural phenomenon since 2017, branching out into hosting virtual concerts with stars like Ariana Grandespecial events to mark major film releases such as Star warsand just this week is launching one Lego collaboration where more than 2.4 million people were building online at the same time.
Last month it drew a record 45 million players in one day, exceeding the population of most countries.
Sweeney’s Battle Royale
Fortnite has done all this despite being locked out of two of the world’s most popular gaming marketplaces. It has been absent since Apple‘s App Store and Google Play Store for years due to Sweeney’s opposition to how they dominate the mobile industry.
The App Store is the only way to get apps iPhone, while Google dominates Android. Sweeney believes both are distorting competition compared to a place like the PC gaming space, where Epic’s own store competes against market leader Steam and others.
Apple and Google also charge a commission of between 15-30% on in-app transactions. Fortnite is free, but generates huge amounts of cash through items players can buy to customize their avatars, and Sweeney wants more of that money to go to Epic.
When he tried to circumvent the policy at both stores in 2020, they kicked Fortnite. Sweeney clearly expected as much, responds with a lavish promotional video spoofing Apple’s famous 1984-style ad for the original Macintosh computer.
He has spent enormous time and money taking the fight to both companies under the banner of a campaign called Project Liberty. The Google legal battle dates back to 2020 and will drag on after the search giant said it would appeal the jury’s verdict that it abused its position as the Android market leader.
A similarly ill-tempered legal battle with Apple took place in 2021, even if it went against Epic.
It’s all part of Sweeney’s mission to make Fortnite its own platform. Not just a shooter where players fight against each other, but a digital second life where they show up to concerts with friends, build houses together and even make their own games within it. Yes, he has described it as a “metaverse”.
At the launch of Project Liberty, Sweeney told CNN that his company felt “suffocated” by Apple and Google. He said, “open platforms are the key to free markets and the future of computing”.
Whether out of a genuine desire to share the wealth around or to prove a point, Epic distributes 40% of the money it generates from player-generated content with creators.
The company’s PC store is also extremely generous to developers, giving them an 88-12 split of money they earn through game sales.
And the company has long benefited from the Unreal game engine — a toolkit licensed to studios to make games. It produces such realistic images that it is also used for film and TV, and is likely to become more popular after its main competitor Unity was thrown into disarray by controversial price changes.
Big efforts that have not yet paid off…
Epic had an estimated value of $32 billion. (£25bn) last year – still dwarfed by Apple ($3trn) and Google parent Alphabet ($1.6trn), but it is one of the world’s biggest games companies.
Since Sweeney founded the company out of his parents’ house in 1991, it’s been a pretty meteoric rise.
But Epic’s revenue isn’t where it was. Until last month’s resurgence, Fortnite’s player base was down, not helped by the company shooting its own audience on iPhone and Android.
Its PC game store has also yet to turn a profit years after launch. Epic has also made a number of acquisitions, such as former Guitar Hero studio Harmonix, paying big bucks to make some releases exclusive to their store.
… with devastating results
Sweeney admitted back in October that the company had long been “spending far more money than we’re making,” partly due to the commitment to its revenue-sharing policies.
That led to him laying off 830 employees, about 16% of the company’s workforce. In a year when the games industry has been hit by a series of cuts, it was a strikingly high number.
But nothing is likely to stand in the way of his crusade. He hopes for his victory against Google in the US and The EU is taking an increasingly tough stance on technology monopolies are signs that the tide is changing – and his position will be vindicated.
Unlike in Fortnite, he hopes not to be the last one standing on Epic when that happens.