Thanks to the City PTSA I recently had the opportunity to work on a mobile app for The City Voice. That app was officially launched last week, but it might surprise some of you to know that the app itself was finished in May. Most of the intervening time was spent working around the Apple corporation’s ineffable App Store acceptance policies, rules so elaborate that they evoke Douglas Adams’ famed ode to “forms signed in triplicate, sent in, sent back, queried, lost, found, subjected to public inquiry, lost again, and finally buried in soft peat for three months and recycled as firelighters.” Apple does not quite go so far as to require that the mostly digital forms be buried in peat, but complying with their policies certainly feels just as difficult.
On August 14th, the same day that Apple officially cleared The City Voice app for release, EPIC Games made the first move in what has quickly escalated into an all out war in the gaming industry. They installed a remote update to Fortnite, their flagship product and the most popular game in the world at the time of this writing, as a way to implement new features without giving Apple the right to review it first.
Normally when developers make updates to their apps Apple has to clear the new code, but in this case something about how Fortnite is run allowed EPIC to completely bypass this step. This writer does not understand enough about how Fortnite works to explain exactly how this bypass slipped through, but the important thing to understand is that EPIC pushed new code to iPhone users without Apple’s permission.
The update they installed was not anything so simple as a new game feature or mechanic. They added a new payment method to in-game transactions that would send money directly to EPIC games instead of routing the cash through Apple’s built in payment system. This change seems relatively minor at first glance, but one of Apple’s keystone App Store policies is that they are guaranteed a 30% cut of all in-game transactions. For example, if you were to download an app from the App Store and spend $100 on an upgrade while using the app, $30 would go to Apple. By adding the direct payment method EPIC cut Apple out of the deal, taking 100% of the profit from all transactions. Needless to say, things escalated quickly.
It is important to note here that the 30% cut is not some new measure imposed by Apple, it is a policy that has been a part of the App Store for years and all developers are required to sign a legal contract agreeing to it along with other Apple policies before their apps are published. This means that EPIC itself must have agreed to the policy as early as at least 2018, when Fortnite first appeared on the App Store, and has been operating under it for two years. Apple responded to EPIC’s violation of the developer agreement by banning Fortnite from the App Store, a consequence that is spelled out in the contract that EPIC signed.
Then Google got involved. The Android-serving Google Play Store also charges a 30% service fee on in-app purchases and EPIC’s action violated that policy as well. Just like Apple, Google proceeded to ban Fortnite after the remote update. It is worth noting, however, that unlike iPhone users Android owners can still download apps onto their phones without using the Google Play store, which means Fortnite can still be downloaded onto Android devices.
EPIC actually took advantage of this back in 2018 to remove Fortnite from Google Play and sell it only through their own launcher, citing the 30% cut as a deal-breaking requirement. However, in April 2020 they gave up and returned Fortnite to Google Play. They blamed Google for planting security warnings on third party apps (those that come from outside the Play Store), claiming those warnings had a negative impact on their business.
Having been banned by both major mobile video game stores, EPIC responded with what seems to have been a highly calculated attack plan. First, they announced their intention to premiere an ad within Fortnite mocking Apple’s famous “1984” ad, which ran during the Superbowl in, unsurprisingly, 1984. This ad is irrelevant to the legal fight and seems more like a personal slight against Apple, a company which has always billed itself as artistic, creative, and rebellious.
In the original Apple version, dark clothed figures are seen walking into a giant room to watch an ominous figure on a giant screen wax eloquent about “information purification”. A woman runs in, smashes the screen, and walks away as a narrator intones a promo for Apple’s new Macintosh computer. EPIC’s interpretation is just about what you would expect. Instead of a man talking about information purification an apple talks about “platform unification”. A Fortnite character walks in, blows up the screen, and walks away as a narrator exhorts the viewer to “#FreeFortnite”. You can watch both ads below.
Having ensured that the internet is watching, EPIC then sued both Apple and Google for violations of US antitrust law. Thus, three of the biggest tech companies in the world officially went to war. Besides being one of the most dramatic and public showdowns between corporate giants in recent years, the conflict is even more remarkable for the fact that it all went down in a single day. In less than 12 hours, the gaming industry completely melted down and entered a legal standoff with the future of iOS, and Apple, at stake.
The sheer suddenness of the uproar understandably left a lot of people reeling for answers, and it is tempting to just pick a side and believe their arguments. Ironically, EPIC’s strategy seems to boil down to that iconic quote from Apple’s original 1984 ad: “Our enemies shall talk themselves to death and we will bury them with their own confusion.” But what is actually happening here?
Unfortunately that is far too big a question to answer in one article (we tried, it was 3000 words). Suffice it to say that once you start reading the documents none of the legal arguments here actually make much sense, until you take into account events from the past few years and some recently released, and confidential, emails at the top levels of Epic and Apple. To read more about what we found while digging into this fascinating story check back next week.