Epic's Fortnite Ban And Apple/Google Legal Battle, Explained

With the trial set to begin in a matter of days, here's everything you need to know about the court case and more.

The trial between tech giants Apple and Epic Games is beginning in mere days. Following its removal from the iOS App Store and Android’s Google Play Store in 2020, Epic's battle royale game Fortnite remains unavailable on those platforms and the fight between Epic, Apple, and Google has only heated up more intensely. The fundamental way in which Epic is trying to disrupt how these mobile app stores operate is at stake in the trial, which is set to begin May 3. 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?

Last August, Epic discounted the price of V-Bucks, Fortnite's in-game currency, and began selling them directly to players, offering an alternative to using Apple and Google's built-in stores. These purchases would go entirely to Epic, and offering them at a discount clearly aimed to steer consumers toward the direct payments.

All of this set off alarm bells among observers--bypassing Apple and Google in such a way violates their respective store policies, and Apple unsurprisingly pulled Fortnite from the App Store within a few hours. Google followed suit the same 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.

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, Epic announced a new short that spearheaded a detailed PR campaign, taking satirical aim at Apple and urging fans to "Free Fortnite."

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.

At the same time as this was happening, Epic filed a lawsuit against Apple, alleging antitrust violations. 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.

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 provocative 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 has spent the past nine months or so 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 in which Apple explained that Epic’s decisions violated the App Store guidelines. Apple further argued that Epic is seeking a special arrangement, but Apple is unwilling to give in.

"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."

In its suit against Google, Epic brought up Google’s infamous "don't be evil motto" and asserted that Google is "unlawfully" maintaining monopolies across markets and denying users the freedom to choose how they want to enjoy content.

For its part, Google maintains that it has "consistent policies that are fair to developers and keep the store safe for users."

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.

Gabe Newell, who owns Valve and the Steam storefront, said in an interview with Edge that Valve takes issue with "people trying to preclude competition" as opposed to competition itself.

"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,” Newell said.

Epic has also recruited like-minded developers to its lobbying effort, The Coalition for App Fairness. The organization spearheaded by Epic Games has a mission statement and values very similar to those expressed by Epic itself, but it has the collective support of other tech companies like Spotify and Basecamp.

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%.

The Game Developers Conference recently released the results of its 2021 developer survey, and only 3 percent of respondents said they believe the 70/30 revenue share model is fair.

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 2020 that Epic planned to launch the Epic Games Store on iOS and Android, which was somewhat eyebrow-raising given Apple's policies. More recently, it was revealed that Epic is intentionally withholding Fortnite from releasing on Xbox Cloud Streaming.

Apple hasn't been pulling its punches in response. The company claims Epic's moves were part of a plan called "Project Liberty," an intentional effort to create a legal dispute that would revive "flagging" interest in Fortnite. We may see more of this documentation presented at the trial.

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.

The Court Case And What's At Stake

The Epic vs. Apple situation has escalated to the point where a trial has been scheduled to begin on May 3, and it could have major ramifications for both companies and the technology space in general. Epic CEO Tim Sweeney and Apple CEO Tim Cook have been ordered to take the stand and testify, with Sweeney on the hook to testify for eight hours and Cook facing examination for about two hours.

Based on what we know so far, Sweeney is expected to focus his testimony on Epic’s business model and practices, along with its discussions with Apple, Google, and Samsung. For its part, Samsung devices still have a version of Fortnite available through a workaround of sorts. Cook, meanwhile, is expected to discuss the App Store, Apple’s overall corporate strategy and values, and how it deals with competitors in the app space.

A tentative witness list has emerged as well, with executives from Microsoft, Facebook, and Nvidia expected to attend and weigh in. Apple had tried to block Epic from calling witness to the stand, but a judge denied this request.

The trial is expected to run for a period of three weeks.

In a worst-case scenario for Apple, Epic (and others) would be allowed to open their own competing App Stores on Apple’s own platform. This could allow for a massive shift with ramifications well beyond the world of video games. This may not be a likely result, but it’s something that Epic floated recently in its antitrust filing.

There are plenty of unanswered questions and uncertainties about this case, but the potential for this trial to set a precedent in the app marketplace is a huge opportunity and it’s seemingly why Epic is trying so hard to stand up for what it believes to be right and fair.

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. Apple is trying to maintain a status quo, so almost any shift from the current legal state would represent a compromise for Cupertino.

With the trial scheduled to begin May 3, you can expect lots more coverage in the days and weeks ahead, so keep checking back with GameSpot for the latest.

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