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Realpolitik and Tim Sweeney's epic vision

From ZTT to the Metaverse

Realpolitik and Tim Sweeney's epic vision

Next year - according to Wikipedia - it will be 30 years since Potomac Computer Systems was founded.

Better known these days as Epic Games (although I prefer the bombast of Epic MegaGames: 1992-1999), it's a story that as much as any company history encompasses the arc of the games industry.

From Epic Pinball and Jazz Jackrabbit to Unreal, Gears of War and Fortnite, all shot through with a focus on developer tools - starting with the original ZZT, now Unreal 4 Engine and the Epic Games Store - what's perhaps most surprising about the story is the original founder remains in charge of his company in a way the vast majority of similarly feted game creatives have not managed.

For Tim Sweeney (like Valve's similarly-spiky Gabe Newell) has managed - through luck, skill, bloodymindedness; a combination thereof - to have maintained control of the company he set up in his early 20s, riding the good and bad times, and speculative interactions with global giants ranging from Microsoft to Tencent.

The man unleashed

The result - thanks to this perseverance over decades - is Fortnite; the most profitable game of the past three years, and one that's propelled Sweeney into the realms of Bloomberg's billionaire list.

Not that he seems to be splashing out on yachts or moonshots. Local conservation with a strongly analytical angle seems to be more his beat.

That and an increasingly outspoken attitude about the games industry.

In recent times, this has particularly been targeted towards Google over the standard 70:30 revenue share terms offered by the Google Play store; something Sweeney has regularly labelled "disproportionate to the cost of these services these stores perform".

(Notably the Epic Games Store for PC games has a 88:12 split.)

This was cited as the main reason that when Fortnite launched for Android devices, it wasn't available via Google Play but only through Epic's own launcher.

Confusingly, however, Fortnite did launch on the Apple App Store, which has the exact same 70:30 split, without comment.

Choose your battles

On one level, the reason was pragmatic.

It's now nigh-on impossible to distribute apps to iOS devices without using the official channel, whereas Google has always allowed the third party distribution of apps as unsigned apk files as part of its more open philosophy.

Nevertheless, such realpolitik despite fiercely stated objections - to me at least - always seemed very odd.

It's something that's only been underlined by Epic's decision to finally release Fortnite via Google Play store; a decision variously described by media outlets as 'reluctant', 'begrudging', 'bitter', 'a lost battle' etc.

In a statement, Epic pointed to the "the basic realization: Google puts software downloaded outside of Google Play at a disadvantage", to which one answer would be "You don't say!", closely followed by "Just like Apple then".

Indeed, what's behind this volte-face was Google's recent decision to tighten up its store's security through features such as Google Play Protect, which for good reason highlights the risk apps not downloaded through the official channels like Fortnite.

In this respect then, Google has become more Apple-like.

The bigger picture

This isn't to say Sweeney doesn't criticise Apple. He does, and for similar reason. But he seems to have beef with Google, in particular, and with targeted advertising more generally.

For, it's pretty clear what Tim Sweeney's base views on ecosystem and distribution are: he thinks they should be as open as possible.

That's no surprise given Potomac Computer Systems was founded in the era of shareware and until Gears of War in 2006, Epic was PC game developer.

More significantly, the counterfactual to these messy arguments in the mobile space is that Fortnite was the game that bought cross-platform play to consoles.

Sweeney himself characterised this process as "a lot of tough and painful conversations ... which ultimately resulted in great, great things for all gamers".

Hence, the fact some of his statements aren't logically coherent is, for Sweeney, irrelevant in the wider context of the changes - from distribution and monetisation to the wider vision of games as metaverse - he's trying to make.

He's not a lawyer, he's a prophet: one who believes his time is finally nigh.

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Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.