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Epic’s ‘Fortnite’ Fight is Only the Latest Attempt to Turn Fans Into Ammunition

a still from Epic's "Nineteen Eighty Fortnite" commercial

Recently, game publisher Epic skirted around long-established App Store and Play Store policies, giving players of the mega-popular game Fortnite a discount for paying for skins directly. Predictably (in fact, we predicted it), Apple and Google pulled Fortnite from their app stores for violating terms of service.

What happened next was a study in performative press releases.

Dog and Pony Llama Show

Epic, clearly prepared for this move and ready to exploit it, instantly claimed to be a victim of Apple’s monopoly on access to its own hardware. It pronounced that the company had “banned Fortnite from a billion devices.” Epic launched a full-court press against Apple, filing an instant legal injunction trying to force Apple to bring Fortnite back to iPhones and iPads, publishing a mini-site on the “controversy,” hitting social media with an instantly-trending #FreeFortnite hashtag, and releasing a promotional video mocking Apple’s own iconic “1984” commercial.

Google followed Apple’s lead, pulling Fortnite from the Play Store a few hours later. Epic filed an injunction against it, too. It’s especially cheeky that Epic is hosting its “anti-monopoly” ad on a platform (YouTube) owned by one of the very companies it plans to sue (Google).

Epic gets extra style points for that 4:3 aspect ratio. But make no mistake: It was looking for a fight and came armed for a bear.

Apple’s response points out that Fortnite has been on the App Store for years and agreed to the same 70/30 revenue split that every other app and game follows, and Epic doesn’t get to set its own terms and stick around. Google pointed out that Epic is free to host the game itself and tell players to sideload, as it did when the game was initially released.

Epic’s grievances against the standard 70/30 split, split, and how it applies not just to app purchases but also in-game purchases like V-Bucks, aren’t new. It’s been a point of contention for a lot of developers, from Amazon’s Kindle app to the Hey email app earlier this year. While those fights tend to go on behind the scenes, Epic’s brazen addition of a non-App Store/Play Store payment method into an update was an intentional and very public way to bring this conflict out of tech trade pages and into the daily lives of millions of players.

But here’s the thing, reader: whether you’re a Fortnite streaming veteran or an Apple fan old enough to remember when the iPhone was the Newton, the fight between Apple, Google, and Epic is not your fight. This is not about an alleged Apple or Google monopoly, as Epic says it is, and it isn’t about user safety or a level playing field, as Apple and Google claim.

Nope, this is about money and nothing else. It’s about gigantic companies arguing over who should get more of it. The only wrinkle here is that Epic wants you to pick a side.

My Fans Versus Your Fans

It’s not a new tactic. If you can remember when cable and satellite TV was the primary source of premium entertainment, this will sound familiar. A media company asks a cable company for more money to include its channels in the cable lineup, then the cable company balks and pulls the channels.

BOTH companies appeal to angry TV viewers with dueling commercials, who are no longer getting the channel they wanted. The cable company tells them to call the channel owner and complain, the channel owner tells them to call the cable company.

Despite both parties’ attempts to frame the other as the offender, viewers didn’t really care: they only knew they weren’t getting their TV shows. Most saw these commercials as a naked attempt to shift a corporate stand-off. It’s no coincidence that, as cable and satellite TV has fallen victim to alternate means of entertainment, we’ve seen these attempts at audience manipulation decrease.

How about a more recent and relatable example: Spider-Man. When Sony Pictures wanted a more lucrative slice of the Spider-Man property it had been sharing with Marvel for five MCU movies, it threatened to take the character back to its own movie universe and cut off any future Peter Parker and his associated characters had in the shared 30-billion-dollar franchise. After a few weeks of back and forth—again, with plenty of dramatic appeal to fans of the character and the Marvel movies as a whole—Sony and Disney hashed out a new two-movie deal with terms that aren’t publicly known.

Epic’s trying to leverage its position as the publisher of the world’s most popular video game (at the moment) in more or less the same way, turning millions of angry players against Apple and Google by way of targeted marketing. It helps that many Fortnite players are kids without any particular interest in corporate platforms and terms of service. They just wanna play their shooty dancing game, man. Epic’s cross-platform media attack might win it some points there.

“David” and Goliath

But as much as Epic wants you to think that this is “the little guy” fighting against the mighty giants of American tech, it’s not. Epic owns the most lucrative video game on the planet, in addition to a huge business in the Unreal engine and a growing PC game store. (A game store where game sellers have to adhere to similar rules as the App Store and Play Store, albeit with a more generous developer split.) Apple and Google are bigger than Epic, sure, and they control access to their platforms to a greater or lesser degree. But Epic’s own rapid-fire response, filled with lawyers and social media influencers, proves that this is no David and Goliath story.

The timing isn’t a coincidence, either. Since late June, rumors have spread about the latest US Department of Justice inquiry into Apple’s mobile business practices, with particular attention being paid to Apple’s role as gatekeeper to the App Store.

Fortnite being played on an Android phone

The 30/70 revenue split isn’t particularly controversial to the DOJ—that’s the same split Apple’s been using since it was selling music on the iPod; it’s the standard rate in the United States, and it’s better than some international alternatives. But Epic is bringing this fight at a time when Apple doesn’t want to appear as if there’s anything rotten in its walled garden. Six weeks is more than enough time for Epic to plan yesterday’s shot across the bow.

The same can be said for Google, as its position as an advertising giant has regulatory attention focused on it more or less always. The DOJ is investigating Google’s ad business, and the European Union is looking into it again, this time for the acquisition of Fitbit. None of that directly affects gaming or Fortnite, but it’s more attention that Google wants to avoid.

Nothing to See Here, Folks

Epic wants to frame this as a fight against a monopoly, painting itself as the champion of every mistreated developer who ever tried to make an honest buck on selling apps on a smartphone.

Apple and Google just want that fight to go away. Neither company is going to miss the revenue that Fortnite brought in through the App Store or Play Store, but they can’t afford to play favorites: kicking Fortnite off is both a necessary adherence to long-standing policies and an example to anyone who wants to break them.

Apple doesn’t particularly need the headache that Epic is delivering, either, and that goes double with lawyers getting involved. Apple and Google could throw money at the problem for a century, but fighting off Epic with one hand and regulators with the other isn’t a great look.

But for you, dear reader, the important thing to remember is this: these are three giant corporations fighting about who gets to keep your money. That’s all. Picking sides as a consumer (or indeed, as a journalist who dispenses consumer advice) would be a mistake.

Eventually, either Epic will take its Fortnite ball and go home, Epic will cry “uncle” and go back to the 70/30 status quo, or Apple and Google will try to make a compromise merely to save face. But trying to encourage audience participation in this fight is a particularly cynical move. Don’t fall for it.

Michael Crider Michael Crider
Michael Crider has been writing about computers, phones, video games, and general nerdy things on the internet for ten years. He’s never happier than when he’s tinkering with his home-built desktop or soldering a new keyboard. Read Full Bio »