The company that owns Fortnite is making an in-your-face challenge to Apple: We’re not going to obey the rules you’ve set for your powerful App Store. And we dare you to do something about it.
It’s a fascinating standoff between a very profitable, highly valued gaming company and one of the most powerful companies in the world. The way it plays out could have consequences for Apple, its tech rivals — and antitrust regulators.
Epic Games, the North Carolina-based developer behind Fortnite and other games, announced on Thursday morning that players who want to buy Fortnite’s virtual currency no longer have to buy it via Apple’s App Store. Instead, they can buy it directly from Epic. The difference for players, however, is that Epic will charge them 20 percent less if they buy the currency from Epic instead of Apple.
It’s a small change that’s a big deal because Apple has explicitly prohibited developers from promoting these kinds of end runs around its powerful App Store. Instead, Apple wants developers to sell their digital goods within its marketplace, where it takes a cut of up to 30 percent for each purchase.
That stance has long upset developers, who argue that Apple’s fee is too onerous and gives its home-grown products a leg up on competitors by essentially letting Apple sell its own stuff with a much better profit margin. Apple sells its music service, for instance, for $10 a month; if a rival music service sold subscriptions via Apple’s store for the same price, it would have to fork over as much as $3 of that to Apple.
So, over time, some big players, including Netflix and Spotify, have stopped selling subscriptions to their services from the Apple App Store altogether. You can use Spotify and Netflix on Apple devices, but if you want to pay for them, you have to visit those companies’ websites. Spotify has also filed a complaint with European antitrust regulators, who are now investigating Apple’s policies.
Apple has also drawn attention from US lawmakers like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has said the company is trying to “lock out” competitors. Last month, Apple’s policies came under fire when CEO Tim Cook testified at a congressional antitrust hearing.
And in the past few weeks, Apple’s App Store policies have also generated conflict with both Facebook and Microsoft, who complained that Apple was barring gaming services they wanted to distribute through the App Store.
But no developer has done what Epic did on Thursday, broadcasting that it wasn’t going to play by Apple’s rules. For the time being, if you try to buy 1,000 “V Bucks” in Fornite, Epic will ask you whether you want to spend $10 to do so via Apple’s store or $8 to do it from Epic:
Epic explained the move to its users by describing it as new “discount pricing.” But in a post aimed at the media, the company went out of its way to point out that it was defying Apple’s 30 percent tax, as well as a similar one that Google’s app store also charges.
“Apple and Google collect an exorbitant 30% fee on all payments” for virtual goods, the post said, pointing out that Apple doesn’t collect a similar fee for real-world goods developers like Amazon, McDonald’s, and Uber sell via Apple apps. “Epic direct payment simply offers players the same kinds of payment options as these other apps.”
While Epic’s move affects both Apple’s and Google’s app stores, Apple is the company that clearly rankles Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, who has been complaining about the company on Twitter for weeks:
Apple’s intentional anti-competitive strategy has been running for much longer than most realize. Here they are in 2011 muscling Kindle purchases off of iPhone by demanding 30% of e-book revenue, “which we acknowledge is prohibitive for many things”.https://t.co/trnugoOZgV
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) August 1, 2020
It pains me to complain about Apple in this way. Apple is one of the greatest companies that has ever existed, perhaps the greatest. But they’re fundamentally wrong in blocking competition and choice on devices they make, and that holds up entire fields of technological progress.
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) July 29, 2020
Apple has gone crazy. If colleges hold virtual classes through an iPhone app, Apple could demand 30% of the tuition. Truly, Apple has no right to take any percent of any company’s revenue just because they made the phone people use to access the stuff.https://t.co/Pt2JlS4bvo
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) July 28, 2020
So now Sweeney is making a very big gamble. He’s daring Apple to either back down from its stance or shutter Fornite’s Apple app and see what millions of Fortnite players do next. In the worst case, the company seems to be thinking, it can survive with a player base that comes from other platforms, like gaming consoles and PCs.
While Epic doesn’t have the same kind of awareness of big tech players like Facebook and Amazon, the company certainly has the capacity to fight Apple. Epic says it generated earnings of $730 million last year on revenue of $4.7 billion; much of that money came from Fornite, which Epic says has 350 million players worldwide.
I’ve asked Apple and Epic for comment and will update if they provide any. In the meantime, it may be worth noting that Epic co-founder Mark Rein retweeted my analysis of this morning’s move, without comment:
The timing for Sweeney’s move is interesting. It comes after Epic raised a staggering $1.8 billion, which values Sweeney’s company at more than $17 billion. But it also comes after Cook’s appearance in front of Congress. Had Epic done this in the runup to that event, the situation certainly would have been raised by lawmakers.
The move also happens on the same day that Apple’s plans to sell even more of its own digital services have come into focus. Bloomberg reports that Apple plans to sell bundles of Apple subscriptions to products like its music, video, and gaming services — later this fall, at a discount.