When it comes to Fortnite, the winner takes it all.
One-hundred players start each match, dressed as their favourite characters and dreaming of glory, but only the last one standing claims victory and earns the right to dance over their opponents.
His fight is far from over yet, but the boss of the studio behind it, Epic’s Tim Sweeney, is in a similarly celebratory mood after a major court victory over Google – one driven by Fortnite‘s success.
The game has become a cultural phenomenon since 2017, branching out to host virtual concerts featuring stars like Ariana Grande, special events to mark major film releases such as Star Wars, and just this week launching a Lego collaboration that saw more than 2.4 million people building online at the same time.
Last month it drew in a record 45 million players in one day, outstripping the population of most countries.
Sweeney’s battle royale
Fortnite’s done all this despite being locked out of two of the world’s most popular gaming marketplaces. It’s been absent from Apple‘s App Store and the Google Play Store for years because of Sweeney’s opposition to how they dominate the mobile business.
The App Store is the only way to get apps on iPhone, while Google’s dominates Android. Sweeney believes both are anticompetitive compared to somewhere 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 transactions within apps. Fortnite is free, but generates enormous amounts of cash through items players can buy to customise their avatars and Sweeney would like more of that money to go to Epic.
When he tried to bypass the policy on both stores in 2020, they kicked Fortnite off. Sweeney clearly anticipated as much, responding with a lavish campaign video spoofing Apple’s famous 1984-style advert for the original Macintosh computer.
He has committed huge time and money to taking the fight to both companies, under the banner of a campaign dubbed Project Liberty. The Google court battle dates back to 2020, and will drag on after the search giant said it would appeal the jury’s verdict that it’s been abusing its position as the Android market leader.
A similarly bad-tempered legal fight with Apple took place in 2021, though that went against Epic.
It’s all part of Sweeney’s mission to turn Fortnite into a platform of its own. Not just a shooting game where players fight each other, but a digital second life where they turn up to concerts with friends, build houses together, and even make their own games within it. Yes, he’s described it as a “metaverse”.
Upon launching Project Liberty, Sweeney told CNN his company felt “stifled” by Apple and Google. He said “open platforms are the key to free markets and the future of computing”.
Whether out of genuine desire to share the wealth around, or to prove a point, Epic distributes 40% of the cash it generates from player-made content with creators.
The company’s PC store is also notably generous to developers, giving them an 88-12 split of money they make through game sales.
And the firm has long benefitted from the Unreal game engine – a toolkit licensed out to studios to make games. It produces such realistic visuals that it’s also used for films and TV, and will likely become more popular after its main competitor Unity was thrown into disarray by controversial price changes.
Read more gaming features:
Last year’s biggest film returns in video game form
Childhood fans are now making Call Of Duty themselves
Meet the man behind gaming’s most infamously violent series
Big bets yet to pay off…
Epic had an estimated value of $32bn (£25bn) last year – still dwarfed by Apple ($3trn) and Google’s parent firm Alphabet ($1.6trn), but it’s one of the world’s biggest game companies.
Given Sweeney founded the company out of his parents’ house in 1991, it’s been quite the meteoric rise.
But Epic’s revenues are not where they were. Until last month’s resurgence, Fortnite’s player base was down, not helped by the company having nuked its own audience on iPhone and Android.
Its PC games store is also yet to turn a profit years after launch. Epic has also made a number of acquisitions, like former Guitar Hero studio Harmonix, and paid big money to make some releases exclusive to their store.
…with devastating results
Sweeney admitted back in October the company had long been “spending way more money than we earn”, partly blaming the commitment to its revenue-sharing policies.
It led to him laying off 830 employees, some 16% of the firm’s workforce. In a year that’s seen the gaming industry battered by a raft of job cuts, it was a strikingly high number.
But nothing will likely get in the way of his crusade. He’ll hope his win against Google in the US and the EU taking an increasingly tough stance on tech monopolies are signs the tide is changing – and his position will be vindicated.
Unlike in Fortnite, he’ll hope not to be the last one standing at Epic by the time it happens.