Cliff Bleszinski, design director at Epic Games, equates Raleigh to an East Coast version of Austin, Texas, where technology and Hollywood and music creatives have converged. But he recalls one local incident that involved something North Carolina is known for: The team was in San Francisco to promote the launch of its first Unreal game in 1998 when they had to fly home to batten down the hatches before Hurricane Bonnie struck the state as a Category 3 hurricane. But the rare hurricane aside, there are far more pluses to the Triangle. “It’s been really fascinating since moving here in ’97 to watch the evolution of the city — not only from a cultural standpoint but also from a business-and-technology standpoint,” Bleszinski says.
Epic has also grown exponentially during that time. Sweeney founded the company while he was a college student in ?Rockville, Md., living with his parents. In order to make his first game — a PC shareware ?action-adventure game called ZZT — sound more legitimate, he called the one-man operation Epic MegaGames. But over the years, Epic, which lost the “Mega” in 1999, has lived up to its name by specializing in first-?person shooters like Unreal Tournament and ?Bulletstorm, and third-person shooters like Gears of War.
More recently, Epic has expanded across the country and around the globe. The company now owns game developer People Can Fly in Warsaw, Poland; Chair Entertainment in Salt Lake City; and Impossible Studios in Baltimore; it also has offices in Seoul, South Korea; and Yokohama, Japan. Those studios bring the total number of Epic employees to 286.
But the heart of the company remains in its North Carolina headquarters, which is where the technology and much of the creative energy flows. Epic is currently developing five new games, including the new action-strategy game Fortnite and the ?action-fantasy adventure Infinity Blade: Dungeons. The first two Infinity Blade games have generated more than $30 million in revenue since launching in December 2010.
“We have lots of different studios working on different games with teams that are very empowered to make the games they want to make,” says Mike Capps, president of Epic Games. “Our executive team focuses on paving the way to allow those teams to make the games they want through publishing and licensing deals. We’re a loose federation of game teams, and we have the structure and capability to move people among those teams and put specialists where they need to be to ensure the business is run the way it needs to be successful.”
The company has been able to remain independent amid a landscape that has seen many game companies get devoured by large publishers because of its engine-licensing business. Epic is currently busy licensing its Unreal Engine 4 — the new, more intuitive, game-development middleware — to developers interested in creating games for the next round of hardware. But Epic has also remained true to Sweeney’s shareware origins. The game maker allows anyone to download the Unreal Development Kit (UDK), a free version of its Unreal Engine technology, to create games across any platform. Once these aspiring game makers find a game they’d like to charge others to play, Epic cuts a deal with them and takes a small percentage of the profits. UDK has been installed more than 1.5 million times since it launched in 2011.
In the 20 years since Sweeney released his original game, the programming guru has watched computing performance increase by a factor of a million. “It’s been incredible to see the growth of the industry from these little 2-D games, where we couldn’t even come close to simulating reality, to these 3-D simulations that capture the real world. I don’t think any generation has lived through as much technical change and improvement as the generation that’s living today,” Sweeney says.
The game industry has experienced unprecedented sales growth of late with the introduction of new business like mobile gaming, free-to-play games and Flash-based games, and Epic’s technology works across all these booming sectors, as well as the traditional PC and console business. PricewaterhouseCoopers projected global video game sales will top $68 billion this year, which bodes well for Epic and the many licensees that rely on its technology around the globe.
John Gaudiosi is a Raleigh, N.C.-based writer who has covered Technology and games for outlets like Forbes, The Hollywood Reporter and Gamerlive.tv for 20 years.