Unity Technologies and Epic Games are in a grudge match for the hearts and minds of game developers. And so when you ask which one of them has a bigger or a better business, you get some very different answers.

I interviewed both John Riccitiello, CEO of San Francisco-based Unity, and Tim Sweeney, CEO of Raleigh, N.C.-based Epic Games, this week at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Neither company is publicly traded, so each can selectively disclose numbers that make its business look good. Both are stellar companies that started out in very different ways.

Epic’s Unreal Engine 4 started out in the high end, and it has moved lower through pricing tactics and revisions that enable it to be the foundation of mobile games. Unity’s started out at the low end, enabling mobile devices to run better 2D and 3D graphics. Sadly, we don’t know which company is really in the stronger position because their data comparisons are apples and oranges.

Riccitiello said in a press event and in our interview that Unity-based games were installed more than 16 billion times in 2016, up 31 percent from 2015. The Unity-based games reached a billion new devices since GDC 2016.


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He said that 59 percent of virtual reality developers are using Unity, according to a survey by VisionMobile. And he said 38 percent of the top 1,000 free games are based on Unity, and more than half of all Daydream apps are made with Unity. He said Unity is about half of console and PC games, and it has 70 percent of mobile gaming, in terms of the unit numbers for game engine users.

“We’re picking up four or five market share points a year,” Riccitiello said. “Our growth last year was three times the business of the next-largest game engine in the West. More people build an Apple with Unity than anyone else. Ditto with Google and ditto with Microsoft.”

Tim Sweeney (left) and Kim Libreri of Epic Games.

Above: Tim Sweeney (left) and Kim Libreri of Epic Games.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Sweeney said that Unreal Engine had its best year of all time in revenues, and then 2016 revenues doubled the 2015 numbers. He said developers have made more than $10 billion to date with Unreal games.

“We think that Unreal Engine’s market share is double the nearest competitor in revenues,” Sweeney said. “This is despite the fact that Unity has more users. This is by virtue of the fact that Unreal is focused on the high end. More games in the top 100 on Steam in revenue are Unreal, more than any other licensable engine competitor combined.”

Powered by Unreal, Netmarble’s Lineage2 Revolution on mobile made $176 million in its first month on mobile on iOS and Android in South Korea. It had more than 5 million users in its first month, or 10 percent of South Korea’s population. Netmarble said that Unreal was the only technology that could enable 200 people to fight in the same arena at once. The game will expand into the West, China, and other markets soon. Sweeney said it was an example of a developer setting itself apart from others with the Unreal engine.

“There is a new way forward besides a race to bottom and high user acquisition costs,” Sweeney said. “You can find an audience of hardcore gamers and bypass the Malthusian economics of the game industry now.”

Asked if Epic’s revenues were bigger than Unity’s Riccitiello said he didn’t know without the access to the numbers. He figures there are 2 million games built with Unity and a much smaller number built with Unreal.

“I think Unreal does a lot of good things, and I don’t begrudge them,” Riccitiello said. “We’re in a different position than them. We are many times larger in our market impact. Tim is an incredibly smart guy and very outspoken. They have a different revenue stream in that they make games. I could argue they compete with their customers.”

Overall, Riccitiello said he likes market competition, including Amazon and Cocos2d. In the press event today, Kim Libreri, chief technology officer of Epic, said that everyone from hotel designers to car creators are using Unreal to design their cars. Framestore did an educational application where kids get a field trip of Mars, and NASA is working with Unreal technology to visualize a Mars mission.

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