Fortnite players have been recruited into a huge anti-competition battle after the game was pulled from the iOS and Android app stores yesterday.
The game, which is one of the most popular in the world, with 350 million registered players, is at the heart of a spat over in-app payments. Epic Games, the developers of Fortnite, claimed in twin lawsuits filed against Apple and Google yesterday that the companies “impose unreasonable restraints and unlawfully maintain [their] 100 per cent monopoly” on the in-app payment process.
The tech giants charge developers a commission of between 15 and 30 per cent for any purchases made in-app – a key component of Fortnite, where weapons and outfits are frequently bought by players.
Apple, Epic claims, imposes strict rules that make it impractical for developers of apps or games to use anything other than the company’s official iOS app store to reach users. “Epic agreed to the App Store terms and guidelines freely,” Apple said in a statement.
The game developer also says that Google disadvantages apps available outside its Android Play Store – claims Google denies. “The open Android ecosystem lets developers distribute apps through multiple app stores,” it said in a statement.
To protest, Epic modified the iOS and Android versions of the game, giving gamers a discount if they pay the developer directly for in-game purchases, cutting out Apple and Google.
Apple immediately disabled access to the game, citing safety concerns. Google quickly followed suit. People who have already installed the game will continue to be able to play it, but new players will find it difficult to do so on Android and impossible on iOS. Fortnite is still available on other gaming platforms.
Epic then filed lawsuits against both companies, claiming they were engaged in monopolistic practices. At the same time, it screened a 48-second in-game film to players alleging Apple was stifling innovation, controlling markets and blocking competition, and calling for them to “join the fight” by tweeting a hashtag, #FreeFortnite. Other app developers, including ProtonMail and the Match Group, the developers behind dating app Tinder, offered support for Epic.
The commission fees for in-app purchases are increasingly coming under scrutiny. The European Commission launched an investigation into Apple in June following complaints from music streaming service Spotify and e-reader firm Kobo in 2019. Encrypted messaging company Telegram also filed a European antitrust complaint in June, while in the US, politicians recently concluded an antitrust hearing with the tech giants, including Google and Apple.
“What we’re seeing is the longer-term consequence of moving away from the open web to app stores and walled gardens,” says Jennifer Cobbe at the University of Cambridge. “If you control the app store then you have a huge amount of power over who can do what and how people can use their devices.”
“This was inevitably going to come to a head with competition and antitrust investigations,” says Cobbe.
Epic is one of the biggest names to speak out against what many in the industry see as monopolistic practices – something both Apple and Google deny – though it may not succeed, says smartphone analyst Horace Dediu.
“We’ve been hearing a lot of grumbling over time, mostly from small developers,” he says. “I don’t think they have merit.”
Dediu points out the app stores provide mass distribution to billions of users that aren’t available elsewhere. “There’s a lack of understanding about what the purpose and value-add of the stores is,” he says. However, opposition is mounting to the fees charged, and this latest development could bring public pressure from millions of gamers.
More on these topics: