Epic's Fortnite Ban And Apple/Google Legal Battle, Explained
Here's everything we know about the removal of Fortnite: Battle Royale from the App Store and Google Play Store.
Update: This story was last updated on September 5 to incorporate new developments, including Epic Games filing a new injunction against Apple in an attempt to have Fortnite reinstate on the App Store.
Fortnite has been removed from the iOS App Store and Android's Google Play Store, prompting developer Epic Games to sue Apple and Google. This is huge news, both because of the potential disruption to one of the world's biggest games--Fortnite's new season won't be playable on iOS or Android as of now--and because of the fundamental way in which Epic is trying to disrupt how these mobile app stores operate. Below you can find a full explainer and rundown of everything we know so far. This will continue to receive updates as there are further developments.
What Happened to Fortnite on iOS And Android?
On August 13, Epic rolled out the Fortnite Mega Drop. This consisted of two components. First, the price of V-Bucks--Fortnite's in-game currency, used to buy its popular skins, dances, and seasonal battle passes--was dropped by 20% on all platforms. This was a straight discount on PC, PS4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, but in the versions of the game distributed through the iOS App Store and Google Play Store (there are other ways to get the game on Android), it worked a little differently.
As part of this price drop, Epic introduced direct payments in Fortnite on mobile. Rather than using Apple or Google's payment processing methods, you could pay Epic directly through the game, bypassing the phone manufacturers entirely. You could still pay the old way, but you'd be paying the existing, higher price by doing so.
Both Google and Apple take a 30% cut of those sales; they get nothing from players who utilize Epic's new direct payment method, which allows the developer to earn 100% of the sale price. Even though Epic is now selling V-Bucks for 20% less than it has previously, it still would be earning 10% more than it does by using Apple and Google's payment processing.
All of this set off alarm bells among observers--bypassing Apple and Google in such a way violates their respective store policies, so the question quickly became: Will these companies ban Fortnite from their stores? The answer was soon after revealed to be yes, with Apple pulling Fortnite from the App Store within a few hours. Google followed suit later in the day.
The moves by Apple and Google rendered it impossible to download Fortnite through their respective stores, but the game remained somewhat playable under certain circumstances. Those who have downloaded it previously can grab it again, but new players are out of luck. And if you have any doubt there are still new players to attract, know that "what is Fortnite" remains a popular search term on Google, and that the game's events continue to attract increasingly large numbers of players.
A Coordinated Rollout
It's clear that Epic knew exactly what would unfold once it launched direct payments. Almost the instant Fortnite was banned from the App Store, just before 3 PM ET, Epic announced a new short would soon be premiering in Fortnite Party Royale, the game's casual, no-weapons mode, which is where things like those Christopher Nolan movies were shown. At the time, it seemed like this could just be coincidental, although the name of the short was suspect: Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite.
At the same time as this was happening, Epic filed a lawsuit against Apple, alleging antitrust violations. (More on that below.) The entire filing contains some eye-opening language, and the opening of the preliminary statement in particular is designed to grab the attention of consumers.
In 1984, the fledgling Apple computer company released the Macintosh--the first mass-market, consumer-friendly home computer. The product launch was announced with a breathtaking advertisement evoking George Orwell's 1984 that cast Apple as a beneficial, revolutionary force breaking IBM's monopoly over the computing technology market. Apple's founder Steve Jobs introduced the first showing of the 1984 advertisement by explaining, “it appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money . . . . Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?”
Fast forward to 2020, and Apple has become what it once railed against: the behemoth seeking to control markets, block competition, and stifle innovation. Apple is bigger, more powerful, more entrenched, and more pernicious than the monopolists of yesteryear. At a market cap of nearly $2 trillion, Apple's size and reach far exceeds that of any technology monopolist in history.
Epic feels as if it's arguing its case to the public as much as it is to the court, and that's only clearer when you look at the short that debuted in Fortnite.
#FreeFortnite: Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite
The Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite short debuted shortly after the ban and lawsuit became public. It was indeed quite short, running less than a minute and lampooning a classic Apple ad. That commercial featured a dystopian vibe while announcing the launch of the Macintosh in January 1984, declaring, that "you'll see why 1984 won't be like '1984,'" again drawing a connection to Orwell, just like the lawsuit.
Epic's parody offered a play on those words, stating, "Epic Games has defied the App Store Monopoly. In retaliation, Apple is blocking Fortnite from a billion devices. Join the fight to stop 2020 from becoming '1984.'" It concludes with a black screen and a hashtag, #FreeFortnite, driving home that it wants players' support in putting pressure on Apple.
It's this aspect of the entire ordeal that has proven particularly controversial. A legal fight over money between two massive corporations might be hard to care about. Or perhaps you side with Epic due to its argument that it's doing this to help everyone, not just Epic's bottom line. But attempting to weaponize the anger of gamers, particularly younger players who are likely to fall in Fortnite's mobile audience, has rubbed some the wrong way.
So, Why Is Epic Suing Apple And Google?
Epic's lawsuits aren't about Fortnite being removed from the app stores. However, it's clear it deliberately took a step (introducing direct payments) that it knew would result in the game being banned to add fuel to its lawsuit. Instead, it's suing over antitrust violations, arguing that Apple and Google operate monopolies over their respective mobile platforms.
Epic is trying to clearly position itself as the good guy in this fight: It says it isn't seeking monetary compensation, nor is it looking for a special exception for Fortnite or Epic as a whole. Instead, it wants to see changes in the way these platforms operate, allowing for alternative payment methods and storefronts that could offer more competitive rates than the 30% cut they take. The suits both call this rate "exorbitant," comparing it with the average of 3% that other payment operators take for software sales on, say, a Mac.
In the first suit, Epic states that the "anti-competitive consequences of Apple's conduct are pervasive," arguing how central mobile devices--which are subject to the 30% fee--are to people's lives. "When these devices are unfairly restricted and extortionately 'taxed' by Apple, the consumers who rely on these mobile devices to stay connected in the digital age are directly harmed."
In short, Epic is arguing that Apple has put developers in an unfair position, as the only means for selling software on iOS is to use the App Store--other options for distribution are not allowed. Epic says that it would offer its own competing store, were it allowed to do so.
Alongside the lawsuit, Epic has its more public-facing statements available on its website. It does not shy away from taking shots at Apple, going so far as to say, "Apple intentionally sabotages consumer iOS devices to prevent users from installing software directly from developers, as consumers are free to do on PC and Mac." It also notes that direct payments are allowed in certain types of apps, but that games are not allowed to operate in this way. It further points out that it believes the workarounds used by services like Netflix are "user-unfriendly," saying, "Apple prohibits apps like Netflix from even telling customers how to pay for their subscription service outside of the app. Epic wants to give all customers simple, in-app purchasing options free of Apple obstruction."
Following Apple's removal of Fortnite from the App Store, it issued the following statement to GameSpot:
Today, Epic Games took the unfortunate step of violating the App Store guidelines that are applied equally to every developer and designed to keep the store safe for our users. As a result their Fortnite app has been removed from the store. Epic enabled a feature in its app which was not reviewed or approved by Apple, and they did so with the express intent of violating the App Store guidelines regarding in-app payments that apply to every developer who sells digital goods or services.
Epic has had apps on the App Store for a decade, and have benefited from the App Store ecosystem - including its tools, testing, and distribution that Apple provides to all developers. Epic agreed to the App Store terms and guidelines freely and we're glad they've built such a successful business on the App Store. The fact that their business interests now lead them to push for a special arrangement does not change the fact that these guidelines create a level playing field for all developers and make the store safe for all users. We will make every effort to work with Epic to resolve these violations so they can return Fortnite to the App Store.
The lawsuit against Google is similar to the Apple one, starting by bringing up Google's famous "don't be evil" motto. Epic claims, "Twenty-two years later, Google has relegated its motto to nearly an afterthought, and is using its size to do evil upon competitors, innovators, customers, and users in a slew of markets it has grown to monopolize. This case is about doing the right thing in one important area, the Android mobile ecosystem, where Google unlawfully maintains monopolies in multiple related markets, denying consumers the freedom to enjoy their mobile devices--freedom that Google always promised Android users would have."
After Fortnite's removal from the Google Play Store, Google issued the following statement to The Verge:
The open Android ecosystem lets developers distribute apps through multiple app stores. For game developers who choose to use the Play Store, we have consistent policies that are fair to developers and keep the store safe for users. While Fortnite remains available on Android, we can no longer make it available on Play because it violates our policies. However, we welcome the opportunity to continue our discussions with Epic and bring Fortnite back to Google Play.
Epic Has Support
Whether you'd argue that Epic is only fighting for itself or everyone (as it claims to be), there are countless developers that stand to be impacted by a shift in how these mobile ecosystems operate. This issue of payment services is a long-running issue--it's why you can't buy comics through the iOS Comixology app, for instance--and some companies wasted little time in speaking out publicly in support of Epic, including Spotify and Tinder.
Spotify, which has had a long-running battle with Apple and filed an antitrust complaint of its own, weighs in on Epic v Apple. Spoiler: Spotify supports Epic. pic.twitter.com/FPNLmRNYBx— Peter Kafka (@pkafka) August 13, 2020
We are united with @TimSweeneyEpic in the fight against Apple's monopolistic practices. @BlueMail has been fighting Apple in court for almost a year. Together, our antitrust cases touch a broad range of Apple's unfair App Store practices. This is a turning point for the industry.— Ben Volach (@benvol) August 14, 2020
A spokesperson for Tinder owner Match Group told the NY Post, "We fully support Epic Games' efforts today to show how Apple uses its dominant position and unfair policies to hurt consumers, app developers and entrepreneurs. Regulators across the globe have expressed similar concerns and are examining Apple's arbitrary practices."
While he hasn't spoken out on these new developments, Gabe Newell did share concerns about Apple's approach in an interview with Edge earlier this year (as pointed out by Rod Breslau). "We get a lot more freaked out not by competition, but by people trying to preclude competition," Newell said. "If you ask us which is scarier, it's people falling in love with Apple's model of controlling everything and having faceless bureaucrats who get to keep your product from entering the market if they don't want it to, or designing a store in a way that minimizes software's value-add to experience and stuff like that."
This Doesn't Come Out of Nowhere
While the exact approach Epic has taken in this situation may be somewhat of a surprise, its campaign against these sorts of dominant ecosystems is nothing new. After all, it was Steam's dominance in the PC games space (with an equivalent 30% cut for Valve) that led to the Epic Games Store and its ongoing campaign of free game giveaways and exclusives. The EGS charges a much smaller commission at 12%.
Epic CEO Tim Sweeney has also long been outspoken on such topics. He's railed against Microsoft on numerous occasions for monopolizing PC games in years past (areas in which it has changed its approach), while at this year's DICE he attacked Apple and Google. He called Android a "fake open system" because of the way Google inhibited its ability to let users sideload Fortnite, rather than downloading it through the Google Play Store (which it was unavailable through for a long time). "Undue power has accrued to participants in the supply chain who are not at the core of the industry," he said at the time.
He told GameSpot in June that Epic planned to launch the Epic Games Store on iOS and Android, which was somewhat eyebrow-raising given Apple's policies. More recently, he reacted negatively to the news that Apple was preventing Microsoft's xCloud from operating on iOS, and he's tweeted about various concerns he has with iOS, signaling his interest in seeing things change.
Apple has outlawed the metaverse.— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) August 6, 2020
The principle they state, taken literally, would rule out all cross-platform ecosystems and games with user created modes: not just XCloud, Stadia, and GeForce NOW, but also Fortnite, Minecraft, and Roblox. https://t.co/OAGC7cXfSl
Here’s another spiteful, passive aggressive Apple policy that won’t stand: banning apps which tell users how to directly pay or subscribe to their services.https://t.co/UndqtGaotS— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) June 29, 2020
What sweeping changes? Apple just moved a few of the walls in the maze they trap developers in. iOS still doesn’t allow competition among payment providers, competition among stores, or parity between what third party apps can do and what Apple’s own apps can do. https://t.co/Q2ud7XsCgi— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) June 23, 2020
Opening iOS and Android up as truly open platforms with a genuinely level playing field between first party and third party apps and stores is the only way to ensure a competitive, healthy, and fair app economy.— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) June 23, 2020
More broadly speaking, there have been ongoing antitrust investigations as of late, with executives from Apple, Google, and other companies recently being summoned before the United States Congress. This was a hot topic even before Epic got involved so directly.
Where Do We Go From Here?
That's the big question. It seems clear that this issue isn't going to be resolved overnight, which means the new season of Fortnite will launch without being playable on mobile (save for alternative means of updating the game on Android).
The legal case could take an extended period to resolve, and particularly if Epic is successful, some are wondering whether it could target Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo next, given they also take a comparable cut of game sales through their platforms. There's an argument to be made that those systems are not equivalent to more general-purpose computers or mobile devices, but these are complex legal issues.
On August 17, things escalated further when it was revealed that Apple plans to cut off Epic's Developer Program access. More than just affecting Fortnite, this would impact Epic's development of the Unreal Engine for Apple platforms. As a result, Epic has filed for an injunction against Apple, arguing it would suffer irreparable harm from such a movie. It's looking for an injunction to prevent Apple from cutting off this access, among other things.
This led Epic to seek a temporary restraining order against Apple--an attempt at sidestepping Apple's terms of service and bringing Fortnite back to the App Store with Epic's direct payment system in place. On August 21, Apple asked a judge to block the request, according to NBC News, with Apple's lawyers blaming Epic for bringing these circumstances upon itself: "All of the injury Epic claims to itself, game players, and developers could have been avoided if Epic filed its lawsuit without breaching its agreements."
A court filing from Apple also suggested that Epic began asking for special treatment for Fortnite all the way back in June. But in a tweet, Sweeney produced a screenshot of an email between him and Apple representatives where he expresses his hope that Apple would extend the privileges Epic requested to all developers on its platform.
Apple's statement is misleading. You can read my email in Apple's filing, which is publicly available. I specifically said in Epic's request to the Apple execs, "We hope that Apple will also make these options equally available to all iOS developers..." https://t.co/yRio08fPSy pic.twitter.com/HsqjApFQeo— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) August 21, 2020
In a court order issued on August 24, the judge presiding over the case granted part of Epic's motion while denying another. Apple will not be forced to let Fortnite back on the App Store, but the temporary restraining order has gone into effect regarding the Unreal Engine. That should mean that development of the engine for mobile--used by Epic and many other developers--should carry on unimpeded.
On August 28, Apple terminated Epic's dev account on the App Store, rendering Fortnite impossible to install for players who don't already have the game downloaded on their iOS device.
Apple told GameSpot, "We are disappointed that we have had to terminate the Epic Games account on the App Store. We have worked with the team at Epic Games for many years on their launches and releases. The court recommended that Epic comply with the App Store guidelines while their case moves forward, guidelines they’ve followed for the past decade until they created this situation. Epic has refused. Instead they repeatedly submit Fortnite updates designed to violate the guidelines of the App Store. This is not fair to all other developers on the App Store and is putting customers in the middle of their fight. We hope that we can work together again in the future, but unfortunately that is not possible today."
About a week later, on September 5, Epic Games filed a preliminary injunction against Apple in a bit to get Fortnite back onto the App Store. It clarified in this injunction that about 1/3 of Fortnite players use the App Store for the game.
The bottom line for now is this: None of these companies are going to back down, and Epic clearly came to fight. There are major ramifications at stake here, as Epic could force concessions that impact a huge array of mobile apps and pave the way for a reshaping of how those ecosystems operate.
But in the meantime, whatever banana-centric skin Epic dreams up next won't be showing up on your phone anytime soon.
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