Epic Games’ Fortnite had a big, big year, becoming, by nearly any metric you want to look at, the most popular game on Earth. And despite the game itself being completely free to play, it’s also bringing in ungodly sums of cash. A source told TechCrunch that Epic Games brought in $3 billion in profit in 2018. For comparison, Amazon made $3 billion in profit in 2017; Target, Starbucks, and American Express all made less.
Epic has seen success before — it licenses its Unreal Engine to power a good number of other video games on the market today, and its Gears of War series was once a major hit. But with Fortnite, Epic has caught the wave that likely represents the future of gaming — not creating one-off games that customers buy, beat, and then move on to the next title, but instead titles that act more like platforms. As New York’s Brian Feldman put in July of 2018:
Fortnite is a candy-colored video game populated by friends and celebrities, with quantified metrics for success tucked into every corner, constantly updated, highly social, usable anywhere, dopamine-releasing, and extremely competitive. In other words, the way to think about Fortnite isn’t Halo, but Instagram. Not Call of Duty, but Snapchat. What’s the difference between racking up kills and racking up likes?
And remember: It doesn’t cost a penny to play Fortnite. All that cash rolling in comes from players buying cosmetics — new character costumes, parachutes, or dance moves to pull off after downing an enemy. People aren’t shelling out money for an in-game advantage over opponents; they’re paying money simply to look good while playing.
Still, gamers are fickle. A decade ago, World of Warcraft was an online gaming behemoth; now it’s mainly a ghost town of old-timers. Fortnite was originally meant to be a cooperative game where teams of four fought off zombies and built fortresses together, and it ripped off its “last man standing” gameplay whole cloth from the popular PC game PlayerUnknown’s Battleground. Epic Games was simply able to get on consoles faster and build a smoother game than the smaller studio behind PlayerUnknown’s Battleground. And while Fortnite sits at the top of the heap right now, it’s likely another game will eventually come along to take its place. (Or maybe not — many predicted that Facebook would eventually be dethroned by some new social network, the same way that Facebook demolished MySpace, and MySpace had toppled Friendster. That obviously hasn’t happened yet.)
In the meantime, Epic is using the firehose of money that Fortnite generates to try to create other sources of revenue. It recently announced it would be opening the Epic Games store, competing directly with the online seller of every PC game, Steam, which brings in an estimated $4.3 billion in revenue. Epic hopes to beat Steam by enticing game developers with a much more generous cut of profits and locking in exclusive titles to draw in gamers. Epic’s $3 billion in profit is cool, but the company is no doubt hoping that in 2019 that number goes even higher.