The growing level of concern and dissatisfaction regarding app store commissions is perhaps arguably epitomised by the ongoing trials and tribulations of one insanely popular game - Epic's smash hit battle royale title Fortnite. Now, after taking the fight to Apple, it's Google's turn to feel how upset Epic are about giving them money.
Fortnite was removed from both the App Store and Google Play in 2020 following developer Epic Games’ decision to sell in-game currency V-bucks for a discount on its official site, allowing it to circumvent the 30% commission fee charged on both storefronts.
Such practices - selling to users without Apple or Google being able to grab a share is, of course - against both company's rules and while all other devs simply suck it up, pay the fee, complain about it quietly and are allowed to stay on stores, Epic - with an absolute monster game on their hands - reckoned they had the weight to take on the giants and win.
Thus Epic stuck to its guns, skipped the stores (and iOS entirely) and still made made mad money (though arguably not as much as if they'd simply rolled over and played ball like everyone else). A victory, then. Of sorts.
But for Epic, this is so much more than simply hanging onto Fortnite's winnings. They remain determined to strike a blow against the duopoly of Apple and Google stores and punish the punishers, setting every game maker free and the record straight in the process once and for all…
At least, that's the plan. And after kinda winning against Apple, it's now Google's turn to taste how angry they are.
Who wants a 30% piece of me?
While the company’s case against Apple has been tumultuous, its battle with Google has been relatively low key in comparison, but it appears things are heating up now that the trial is underway in San Francisco’s federal court following lengthy delays from the initially proposed court date in 2021 - and Google’s attempts to dismiss the suit entirely in 2020.
Epic is alleging that Google holds a monopoly on Android’s app distribution market, and - in a spicier twist than we saw in their battle against Apple - is engaging in side deals which - they claim - have negatively affected competition, including a $360 million deal with Activision Blizzard and a $30 million deal with Riot Games to dissuade either company from creating their own alternative app stores.
Google has called these claims baseless, and says that the deals it has struck with app developers reflect the heavy competition in the industry and a desire to keep developers satisfied. However it’s worth noting that the company objected to Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard due to concerns that the company could make Activision Blizzard’s mobile titles exclusive to Microsoft’s in-development app store, suggesting that there may be some truth to Epic’s allegations.
While Epic lost the majority of claims in its suit against Apple, it emerged victorious on perhaps the most important point - namely the ability of developers to offer payment through third-party storefronts, allowing game makers such as Epic to circumvent the commission fee charged on in-app purchases. As such, there’s significant precedent in the case against Google which could see Epic emerge victorious in this aspect, even if the court finds in Google’s favour elsewhere in the case.
A war of words
It’s also worth considering that, while Epic’s cases against Apple and Google boil down to anticompetitive practices, there are significant differences between the two companies. Perhaps most importantly, Google is one of the developers of the Android operating system, which has historically been more open to alternative app stores. As such, despite this precedent, Google believes that Epic is acting in bad faith.
“Android has made phones more affordable, provided consumers with more options, and enabled developers to thrive,” wrote Google vice president of government affairs and public policy Wilson White, in a blog post. “Epic Games has fought a global, years-long campaign to up-end this system all in the hope of getting something for nothing. They have already sued Apple and lost twice. Next week they are trying their luck with Android by bringing a case that has even less merit given the flexibility and choices Android offers.
“Epic argues that it is forced to distribute its apps through Google Play and that options available to developers are too restrictive. These claims are baseless. Android enables developers to distribute through multiple app stores or directly to users through the web, bypassing app stores altogether. The truth is that Epic simply wants all the benefits that Android and Google Play provide without having to pay for them. And it wants to strip away critical security and privacy protections that keep billions of users safe from things like unfair subscription practices and dishonest billing, for which Epic itself has faced record fines.”
Meanwhile over on the Epic side, they see things rather differently. Epic's lead attorney Gary Bornstein, in his opening statement said, “Google has such extraordinary power over Android phones that it can use two strategies to prevent all other competition and maintain those big green bars. Here is what those strategies are: bribe or block. Google pays actual potential competitors not to compete. It literally gives them money and other things of value.
“It’s like Google is saying here’s $360 million - that’s an actual number you’ll hear about - why don’t you sit this one out and let me win?”
Both sides make convincing arguements with either a bloodied nose for an embarrassed Epic or a complete upturn of the app stores that hold mobile gaming in their grip as possible outcomes.