Epic Games put the billions of dollars it’s raked in from its hitto some use, provoking Apple and Google to kick its title from their respective platforms, then blitzing them with a pair of lawsuits and an online video mocking the two tech giants. And in doing so, Epic drew the tech world’s attention to antitrust concerns dogging both companies at just the right time.
“Epic Games has defied the App Store monopoly,” Epic said in its video remake of Apple’s famous 1984 Macintosh Super Bowl ad, which invokes the dystopian novel of the same name. In Epic’s version, posted online and in its Fortnite video game Thursday, the developer fashioned itself fighting the evil overseer. Epic said its game, which counts more than 250 million players around the world, had now been blocked from over a billion devices worldwide.
“Join the fight to stop 2020 from becoming ‘1984’” Epic wrote, along with a hashtag #FreeFortnite. The event immediately trended on Twitter, pushing it to the top spot worldwide within an hour of the video’s release.
Epic’s move marks a dramatic escalation in the debate about Apple and Google’s control over their respective platforms. Apple’s iOS software for iPhones and iPads, and Google’s Android mobile device software, together power nearly every smartphone and tablet on the planet. The move also comes at an inopportune time, as both companies wrestle with criticism over the amount of control they exert.
Epic kicked things off by purposely breaking a rule regarding how money is handled on its popular Fortnite game app, which is free to download but charges for “V-Bucks,” in game tokens players can use to buy different cosmetic looks for characters.
As a result, Apple and Google both banned the app, citing guidelines they separately created to ensure safety for device owners and fair competition for app developers. The companies said they’re open to resolving their differences with Epic as well. Gamers who’ve already downloaded Fortnite appear able to continue playing, CNET tests found, allowing them to compete in the cartoonish last-man-standing title that’s become a cultural phenomenon
The move was designed to shine a spotlight on Apple and Google’s power and how they handle respective app stores. That type of influence has helped the companies become titans of industry and ranking among the richest and most powerful companies in the world. But they’ve also increasingly invited regulatory scrutiny, with concerns the companies wield their power and influence to unfairly enrich themselves rather than allow fair competition.
While Epic’s lawsuits against Apple and Google came with flair and a healthy dose of marketing that helped it garner attention across the internet, the game maker is just the latest company to accuse the tech giants of wrongdoing. Spotify most recently filed a complaint with the European Union’s Competition Commission, accusing Apple of exorbitantly charging for commerce tied to its app store. Meanwhile, lawmakers around the world are increasingly probing Apple and Google as well.
“The stakes for consumers and app developers large and small couldn’t be higher,” a Spotify spokesman said in response to Epic’s lawsuit against Apple.
Epic’s lawsuit, publicly posted shortly after Apple and Google banned Fortnite from their app stores, played to concerns regulators have raised about both companies. Apple, Epic claimed, has become a “behemoth seeking to control markets, block competition and stifle innovation.”
“Apple is bigger, more powerful, more entrenched and more pernicious than monopolies of yesteryear,” Epic further said in its suit. “Apple’s size and reach far exceeds that of any technology monopolist in history.”
Epic’s suit against Google accuses the search giant of abandoning its roots as it’s grown ever more powerful. “In 1998, Google was founded as an exciting young company with a unique motto: ‘Don’t Be Evil,'” reads the lawsuit’s preliminary statement. “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.”
Whether Epic will ultimately be successful is unclear, but its broadsides against the companies is clearly designed to draw attention, said Marcus Carter, a senior lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney.
“Epic Games is one of the few organizations that can afford this fight,” he said.
Long time coming
Though both Apple and Google are accused of monopolistic practices, Apple’s approach to its App Store has drawn more outcry in part because of its tight control. Out of the box, the only way you can install apps on an iPhone or iPad is through Apple’s App Store. Google, by contrast, allows people to “side-load” apps without having to get them from its Google Play store.
Both companies say their app stores are designed to help people sift through and easily pay for the millions of apps available, while trusting the companies have reviewed them in an effort to avoid any viruses or other malware prevalent on the open web.
That security argument is part of why many app developers often caveat any complaints they have about Apple and Google by acknowledging the two companies help create marketplaces that people trust and use to download apps.
But still, lack of alternative options to Apple’s App Store has led to more scrutiny of its store and a series of public spats with developers. In June, Apple’s disagreement with productivity software maker Basecamp over its $99 per year Hey email app spilled over into a larger discussion about Apple’s 30% commission. Developers debated Apple’s seeming unwillingness to allow developers to accept payments in alternative ways, either in the app or on the developer’s website.
Epic’s battle with Google and Apple is similar to Hey’s troubles. Epic’s disagreements date back to 2018, when the game maker attempted to circumvent Google’s Play Store by making Fortnite available for devices powered by Google’s Android software. At the time, Epic said it did this to highlight alternative ways to download apps, instead of relying on Google’s app store. The two companies eventually came to an agreement that allowed Fortnite onto the Google Play store just this April. Epic’s Fortnite is free to download but charges for “V-Bucks,” in game tokens players can use to buy different cosmetic looks for characters.
Then, on Thursday, Epic announced discounts of up to 20% permanently if players buy V-Bucks directly from Epic. But it opted to keep prices where they were if players buy via Apple’s or Google’s payment system. As a result, 1,000 V-Bucks will cost you $9.99 if you go through Apple’s or Google’s system, but only $7.99 direct from Epic. But, the company also inserted a new payments system into its app, telling users if they bought the V-Bucks from Epic directly they’d get the 20% discount. They’d also be bypassing Apple and Google, breaking their rules.
Apple and Google’s retaliation set off the chain of events that followed.
“There’s a strong argument where they’re in a position of a duopoly and they have undue control over users, and they have a ton of lock-in,” said David Barnard, a developer advocate at app sales platform RevenueCat.
As a longtime app developer himself, Barnard said he’s sympathetic to complaints about Apple’s service. But Apple’s continued investments in the technology and marketing that help the App Store grow have made his career possible.
Finding a solution to this debate, he said, is “a really hard problem. But Apple’s making billions of dollars, and they can figure out hard problems.”
More to come
Aside from the lawsuits, Epic and Spotify’s willingness to draw attention to Apple and Google will likely invite more scrutiny, industry watchers say. That’s in addition to existing efforts by US regulators at the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission, as well as lawmakers in Congress and both presumed presidential candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden to find ways to rein in the two tech giants.
“These companies as they exist today have monopoly power,” US Rep. David Cicilline, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said during an antitrust hearing in July that involved Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google parent Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, as well as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. “Some need to be broken up. All need to be properly regulated and held accountable.”
In a rare sign of Washington bipartisanship, Trump agreed with Cicilline’s assessment that business as usual for the companies is not an option. “If Congress doesn’t bring fairness to Big Tech, which they should have done years ago, I will do it myself with executive orders,” Trump tweeted during the hearing.
Ultimately, whether by Epic or some other app that brings even more attention to Apple and Google, analysts believe the tech industry will face increased pressure to change. Or, as analysts at Wedbush Securities wrote in a July not to investors, “The antitrust storm clouds appear to be building in the Beltway against Big Tech.”