Epic Games, the Fortnite developer with a sideline in game engines, would like you to root for it as the underdog. Don’t be fooled.
There’s an admirable choreography to Epic Games’ lawsuit against Apple. (And later, Google.) You have to appreciate the way Epic played the game and just how blindly Apple walked into the trap, playing its part exactly how Epic planned.
First, came the update to Fornite on mobile that allowed players to make purchases directly from Epic Games, sidestepping the royalties that Apple and Google make on each transaction. It’s not just the games you buy that earn platform holders a cut, you see. Apple’s App Store and Google Play charge the same markup on in-app purchases as they do everything else.
To a game like Fortnite Battle Royale, which has no upfront purchase price and instead makes all of its money through battle passes and cosmetics, that’s a big deal. That royalty rate charged by Apple and Google is 30%, the same royalty rate that ultimately caused Epic Games to launch its own competitor to the Steam storefront for PC gaming. In 2019, Fortnite brought in $1.8 billion in revenue. If Epic Games had to pay 30% of that to platform holders, that’s over half a billion dollars in someone else’s pocket.
Then to sweeten the pot, to encourage players to use their new payment system and not the incumbent, Epic offered discounts on purchases, splitting the benefits with its players on those recovered royalties and cutting the platform holders out completely.
It’s understandable, then, that Epic Games put in its own purchasing options for Fortnite on mobile, and understandable that people wanted to use it. But that’s not the end of this story. It’s merely the beginning.
“The object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war”
Apple, which has wielded its vague App Store policies as a weapon to maintain its competitive advantage – hello, Microsoft xCloud – did what everyone expected it would: the smartphone giant pulled Fortnite from its App Store. You might think this would be devastating for Epic Games, but this was all part of the choreography. Epic knew Apple would take this step and had its riposte primed and ready to go.
Soon after, Epic posted a video in retaliation. This was clearly prepared well in advance, knowing precisely what Apple’s response would be. But because this is Epic Games, it didn’t just slap the video on YouTube. No, it screened the video live in Fortnite – on one of its massive telescreens, like the Christopher Nolan movie night in June – to its army of devoted players, the majority of whom are children and teenagers.
It’s a little on the nose. (Especially the bloke on the screen having an apple for a face.)
And if you thought it looks familiar, it’s a deliberate parody of Apple’s own Super Bowl commercial from 1984, itself based on George Orwell’s book, 1984, where it positioned the Apple home computer as the underdog that will save the world from the corporate dominance of IBM. It’s not exactly Winston railing against the Party, but you see what they were going for.
Again, you can appreciate the planning and execution on Epic Games’ part, having everything lined up and ready to go on the video front, knowing exactly what Apple’s response would be. The fact that it uses Apple’s own shtick against it, portraying the once-cool computer company as the villain of the piece? That’s just a cherry on top.
It’s worth mentioning that Google also pulled Fortnite from its Play Store thanks to Epic’s royalty circumvention, but they didn’t have a pithy film for Google. There were no adverts to be parodied, no stance to throw back in Google’s face. And it’s not the first time Epic has gone into battle with Google, incidentally. Players were once encouraged to side-load Fortnite onto Android phones to get around store royalties.
But that’s still not the end of the story. Once Apple and Google flexed their platform-owning muscles and removed Fortnite from the App Store and Play Store respectively, Epic launched into the coup de grâce of its plan: it filed an anti-competition lawsuit against both Apple and Google. It even referenced Apple’s 1984 advert in its filing.
It’s reminiscent of the anti-competition lawsuits levied against Microsoft and its Internet Explorer browser in 1998, referred to as the “browser wars” in tech circles. In it, other internet browsers claimed that Microsoft was abusing its unique position in bundling the browser with its own operating system by default. In Europe, the net result was the “browser choice” debacle, where Microsoft Windows would disable active web browsers and force users to select a “new” web browser from a selection of offerings, which was still a thing as recently as 2014.
The European Commission of the European Union effectively forced Microsoft to make other browsers available on its proprietary platform. They had to give other players a seat at the table or face further sanctions. It’s not inconceivable that courts may order similar concessions of Apple and Google in this context. One possible outcome is the court-mandated inclusion of alternative app stores on mobile platforms, a move Apple and Google have long fought, citing curation and security of their platforms as chief concerns. Epic Games would surely be satisfied with an Epic Games Store launcher on iOS and Android, as well as on PC.
But Apple and Google will not allow that outcome without a fight. To avoid that disastrous outcome, they might instead reach an agreement with Epic Games on the level of royalties taken on the App Store and Play Store. A secretive financial settlement is, most often, the outcome in such corporate clashes.
Which brings us back around to Epic Games and its positioning as “David” in a fight against the technology “Goliaths” of Apple and Google.
“We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it”
If Epic’s goals were altruistic, then fighting for the reduction of store royalties for all would be a worthy cause. In the same way that the Epic Games Store offers a much greater revenue share to developers and publishers for PC games (to draw publishers and developers away from Steam and onto its platform) a similar change on mobile platforms would be a boon to video game development worldwide. It’s a simple equation. More money in the pockets of developers (and less in the hoards of dragons like Apple and Google, sitting on their piles of gold) means more games, better quality and – hopefully, assuming they have a decent employer – better quality of life for workers in the video game industry.
The net result is a good one, but it’s hard to believe Epic’s goals are altruistic. Valued at over $17 billion, the Fortnite maker may not be as big as Apple or Google’s parent company, Alphabet – both valued at over $1 trillion – but it’s still a massive corporation sitting on an inconceivable pile of money. While Epic might be giving greater revenue shares to developers on its own storefront, and frequently gives out grants to further game development and associated technologies, it’s still a corporation. The primary function is to earn money above all else. Its founder and CEO, Tim Sweeney, wouldn’t have a personal wealth of over $5 billion if he were giving it all away. He’s another dragon on a pile of gold, just a smaller pile of gold than Apple or Alphabet.
Don’t misunderstand me. If Epic’s stunt (and the subsequent lawsuit) is successful and they negotiate reduced royalty rates for everyone, then that will rightly be hailed as a victory. But the goal here will be to protect Epic’s bottom line, not to raise the revenues for everyone else on the platform. It’s just as likely that some quiet, back-room settlement will take place, that resolves Epic’s complaint, but makes no appreciable difference to the industry as a whole.
You have to remember that corporations are not your friends. They exist to serve themselves alone. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Apple or Epic, Sony or Microsoft, EA or Ubisoft or Nintendo – yes, even friendly, cheerful Nintendo – they’re all the same. And when they press fans of their work into footsoldiers in their defence, it gets particularly alarming.
Keep in mind for a moment who Fortnite’s biggest fans are. They’re children. Children and teenagers. They’re young and impressionable and haven’t got the life experience or critical capacity to determine when they’re being taken advantage of. You only have to spend a few minutes watching the “up next” section of YouTube to realise just how terrifying the sorts of misinformation and aggression are being passed to our children as “fact”. It’s easy to see how something like GamerGate got so out of control. A group of young, passionate, but immature and ill-advised fans were press-ganged into a malicious hate campaign that ruined lives. We’ve seen how much damage riling up “the gamers” can cause. Epic isn’t an outsider, oblivious to the problems of the industry. It should know this history, and it should be treading lightly.
Now watch the video again. Keep in mind who the audience is. Picture children, in their millions, taking a knee in front of the dystopian telescreen, eating up the propaganda message, feeling pain for a corporation. Keep in mind how dangerous online hate movements and weaponising teenage fans can be. Then look at the early results. I’ve already seen videos online of kids that can’t even be ten years old smashing iPads with baseball bats and throwing their iPhones at the wall, all accompanied by the unsettling hashtag, #FreeFortnite.
Suddenly, it’s not just some funny parody, is it? The whole thing is, frankly, insidious. The idea that massive corporations are recruiting children in their battles against one another is, in itself, deeply dystopian.
But outside of the advertising parody, Epic referring to its war with Apple and Google as “Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite” is remarkably asinine. Imagine being in control of a platform that allows you to beam your corporate message to a captive audience of millions of children every month and thinking that you’re the Winston character in this scenario. Imagine being so irony-impaired that you’re using your massive telescreens, that people can’t turn off or escape from, and claiming that “it’s like 1984” about how someone else is treating you, a massive corporation. You are the Party, Epic, and you’re trying to recruit children to your Youth League.
The fact that phrases like “Big Brother” and “Orwellian” and “it’s like 1984” have entered our vocabulary so readily and to describe things that are nothing like the horrors of 1984 – often at the behest of governments, corporations and other organisations of power – is, in itself, some terrifying doublespeak. (I do find myself wondering, frequently, if anyone who makes these claims has ever read 1984. I suspect I know the answer, however. Just read the damn book, Epic, please. I’m begging you.)
So, by all means, root for the destruction of corporate monopolies and the reduction of storefront royalties. Advocate for the benefits it would bring to indie developers, small publishers and the games industry as a whole. You can even admire the exquisite choreography of Epic’s baiting of Apple.
But, whatever you do, don’t buy into Epic’s David and Goliath narrative. Epic is just a slightly smaller Goliath, and it’s challenging your children to come out and fight.