When Epic Games began giving away its Unreal Engine last year to anyone who wanted it, it seemed like a bad idea to many casual observers of the video games industry. Epic hadn't published anything on consoles since 2013, didn't have any full releases planned for more than a year, and the engine seemed like its only sellable product.
It was, in fact, a very good idea, co-founder Tim Sweeney told Polygon. "Last year was our best engine year ever," Sweeney said. "By a significant margin."
Unreal switched to a subscription based model in 2014 when Unreal Engine 4 launched, and then dropped the monthly fees altogether in March of last year, in favor of standard royalties for most projects and then customized licensing agreements for large-scale endeavors. Giving Unreal out and then working on a deal fitted to the size and success of the project hasn't hurt Epic's business at all, Sweeney said, and Unreal continues to be a bulwark against financial uncertainty.
"If we didn't have the engine, we would have died," Sweeney said. "We would have died three times."
The first Unreal Engine was released in 1998 along with its eponymous first-person shooter, Unreal. It continues to be one of the foremost engines in games development, driving big-budget, triple-A console games, smaller independent games and mobile games alike. Sweeney pointed to Ark: Survival Evolved and Rocket League as two smash hits that otherwise would have flown under the radar of an Epic Games focused on selling its engine to major developers working on big games for big publishers.
See much, much more about Epic Games and its evolution, particularly after selling the Gears of War franchise to Microsoft, in our cover story on the developer.