While they are a behemoth in the gaming space today, if you were to say the name “Epic Games” in the 2000s, chances are only game developers and fans of Gears of War would know who you were talking about. So, how exactly did Epic Games go from a small gaming company in Maryland, US, to one of the largest game distributors on the planet? Well, let’s find out.
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Humble Beginnings: Founding Epic Games
In 1991, Epic Games was founded by Tim Sweeney who was, then, a computer science student at the University of Maryland. Although, back then it was known at Potomac Computer Systems—named after the town of Potomac where Sweeney’s parents lived. Soon, he partnered up with Mark Rein, who had previously worked at id Software (the legendary creators of Wolfenstein, Quake and Doom), and the vision of Epic Games was born. The plan: create innovative (dare I say, Epic) games alongside marketable development tools that others could also create game with. In other words, they wanted to run a game studio while also turning their custom game engine into a product in and of itself.
It goes without saying, that these were lofty ambitions. The duo’s first endeavours were a long way from their end goal—creating a text-based adventure game, ZZT, and a 2D side-scroller, Jill of the Jungle. But they found moderate success and build the foundations of the company.
Gaining Momentum: The Unreal Engine
By 1998, the team had expanded. With a few more games under their belt, the team had hired 50 staff working for them across the globe under the new name of Epic MegaGames. Coming off the back of a Fire Fight—an isometric shooter published by Electronic Arts—the team finalised and released the game that would change everything.
Unreal was released in 1998, and was an immediate hit. This 3D FPS title, co-developed with Digital Extremes, became the competitive shooter of the generation. Spawning the Unreal game series that gained even more traction with Unreal Tournament—released the following year.
With the landmark success of these FPS games, Sweeney and the team had checked off their first goal—to make successful games. So they quickly pivoted to achieve their second goal, and began licensing Unreal Engine—the game engine behind Unreal—to other game developers. They also took this opportunity to streamline their name, now being known simply as Epic Games.
Sweeney and his team rode this wave of success throughout the 2000s, continuing to develop the Unreal Engine for professionals across the globe to use, while also developing larger titles like Gears of War using that very same engine. While Epic Games was successful over this period, 2017 would spell a whole new level of success, thanks to one little release.
Bursting into the Mainstream: The Rise of Fortnite
While Unreal catapulted Epic Games into the limelight of gaming in the late 90s, Fortnite is what propelled the company to become even bigger in the late 2010s.
Released in 2017, and becoming a cultural phenomenon overnight, Fortnite needs no introduction. It is ubiquitous with today’s gaming culture, its clips are plastered all across Twitch, TikTok and YouTube, its esports scene is one of the largest in the world and it continuously features in the news—so even your grandparents probably know what it is.
The game was so successful for a variety of reasons. Firstly it cashed in on the start of the gaming trend that was the Battle Royale genre, getting in early enough to make a splash. Furthermore, its focus on colourful aesthetics, accessibility, continuous content updates and being free to play meant that people of all ages could get involved.
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Today, Fortnite remains one of the most popular games worldwide.
New Revenue Streams: Epic Games Store
Just like what happened with the release of Unreal almost 20 years prior, Tim Sweeney and his team took the success of Fortnite as an opportunity to expand their business once more. And thus, in 2018, the Epic Games Store was launched. Poised as a competitor to Steam, many expected Epic Games to fail like so many other PC gaming storefronts had before it… but miraculously it didn’t. This is perhaps due to the fact that the Epic Games Store keeps many PC games exclusive—meaning that if you want to play Fortnite, Fall Guys or a handful of other titles you’ll need to go through their storefront.
Today, the Epic Games Store is still going strong. And, despite having a smaller catalogue than Steam, has clear draws as to why many PC gamers use, and even prefer, it to Valve’s distribution platform.
Pushing Boundaries: Unreal Engine 5
With their income continuing to multiply, thanks to the runaway success of both Fortnite and the Epic Games Store, Epic Games shifted their focus back to the Unreal Engine, which by the late 2000s had already become one of the most popular game engines for all game development—from indie to AAA.
In 2020, Unreal Engine 5 was announced—and it left developers and gamers open mouthed. The engine’s real-time graphical and lighting capabilities, alongside its rendering pipeline and other features, positioned Unreal Engine 5 as, perhaps, the most powerful game engine that’s easy to get your hands on.
For the technologically minded, this was no surprise, as Unreal Engine had already become a mainstay in both the game development and film production world. Offering graphical and VFX capabilities which simply blew much of the competition out of the water.
Here to Stay
From a small indie studio to a global behemoth, Epic Games has certainly come a long way since the early 90s. Over that time they’ve produced multiple notable game series, opened one of the largest gaming storefronts and provided tools for many others to create games of their own. Just imagine if Unreal had never been published, if the Unreal Engine had never been provided to developers, heck, if Fortnite had never been published! It’s hard to understate the impact that Tim Sweeney and his company have had on the landscape of gaming today. Because of that, and the company’s long-term dedication to creating great games and great tools, we are certain to be seeing a whole lot more of Epic Games in the coming years.