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Fortnite’s $147million ‘bribe’ only highlights Google Play’s ongoing payola problem

Google offered big money to keep Fortnite on Play. Now what’s to stop everyone else from holding the Play Store to ransom?
Fortnite’s $147million ‘bribe’ only highlights Google Play’s ongoing payola problem
  • Google throwing money at the problem is looking less like sound business sense and more like trying to plug a sieve
  • When a game gets too big, and the balance of power shifts, Google's Play Store plan starts to increasingly make less sense

Of course it’s not illegal to pay to play or to grease the wheels of commerce in the hope of recouping rolling riches in return, but when it comes to Google’s Play Store and their recently revealed panic to keep it’s biggest players playing the game, throwing money at the problem is looking less like sound business sense and more like trying to plug a sieve.

But that’s the scenario that’s come to light as part of Epic’s ongoing court case with Google, in which - after gunning for Apple - the Fortnite maker is seeking to cause similar upset with their closest rival. Short version is that Epic took issue with both store’s 30% fees and after successfully dodging them, they don’t think that anyone else should have to pay them either.

Now, as part of the in-court muck-dredging, Google’s offer of $147 million to make Epic’s Fortnite a Google Play Store exclusive is being paraded in court by the recipients of the deal, not as a generous offer for a cool new game, but as a prime example of just how bent out of shape the big business of App Stores has got.

So when does paying $147 million to get a game on your App Store (and more importantly persuading it to stay there) start to make sense?

You can’t buy friends (but you can try)

In order to get in deep with Google’s Play problem it’s important to make the distinction between the differing skills and abilities of Apple’s App Store (on iOS and Apple devices of course) and its on-the-surface to-all-intents-and-purposes identical Google Play Store rival.

In short, while Apple are able to ‘lock down’ access to their devices and users, Android - built on far more ‘open’ and ‘fair’ standards and available on near countless manufacturer’s devices - is not. As such Apple users are forced to engage Apple’s App Store to download apps while Android users are able to side-load content onto their devices from any store or outlet offering content. Thus, while Apple App Store is the only game in town on iOS and their 30% fee an unavoidable money tap that developers must fuel, the creation and implementation of the Google Play Store is, essentially, a cardboard storefront and the fees charged there (30% as per Apple’s trailblazing lead) are easily avoidable.

Google are, of course, famously heavy handed with their warnings and checks for any such side-loading - perhaps sufficiently so to scare off only the bravest or most tech-savvy gamers - but when a big game from a big name is ONLY available by the back door it’s becoming increasingly obvious that they’re frankly unable to stop its makers doing as they please.

Nice game. Do you take cash?

All of which has left Google in the strange position which the Epic case is increasingly shining a light upon.

Simply put, Google are at one turn offering free and ‘easy’ access to Android devices (and selling this very much as a win over the ‘walled garden’ of iOS) but at the same time are desperate for users to take their preferred route through the Play Store so they too can grab some of the dough that Apple have been helping themselves to (and developers are seemingly happy to pay).

The problems come when a game gets too big, and the balance of power shifts and the above plan starts to increasingly make less sense.

Which leads us to the trials (literally) and tribulations of Epic’s Fortnite. In short, Fortnite simply got so big that remaining on the Google Play Store (and paying 30% to Google) became a laughable inconvenience for its creators, Epic. Instead - thanks to Android’s openness - Epic could offer Fortnite on their own store and dodge Google altogether and they’d have been fools not to have done so.

(Meanwhile refusing to acquiesce to Apple’s demands that they remove the ability to buy V Bucks outside of the app and thereby bringing a ban upon the game and its removal from iOS is a separate and probably even more heavyweight matter that formed the core of their completely separate Epic Vs Apple court case.)

Thus - in the face of increasingly powerful devs being able to play Google’s platform how they please - Google have - it turns out - taken to buying affection for the Play Store and - the case has revealed - has been parting with some considerable sums to prevent Play Store defection including the above $147 million for Fortnite and only charging Netflix 10% fees instead of the understood 30%.

Don't panic… Yes, panic

And now documents have outlined Google’s panic, fearing that if other game developers such as Blizzard, Valve, Sony, and Nintendo were to follow Epic’s lead it would out the Play Store as the evil, easily skippable cash grab that Epic claims it is. Measures to stem the flow even went as far as early plans to buy Epic in order to secure the game’s loyalty, it’s been revealed.

Documents shown in court put the potential lost revenue from Fortnite going solo at between $130 and $250 million with predictions of a nightmare “contagion” of big name developers and publishers following suit as potentially costing them up to $3.6 billion.

“We just wanted developers to choose Play,” Google’s VP of Play partnerships, Purnima Kochikar said in court. And that winning games for the service, “was worth all the dollars”.

But where does it end? And what’s to stop others now following Epic’s lead? Can Google really just spend their way out of a mass Play Store defection? We can’t help thinking that right now there’ll be more than a few devs and publishers either planning their escape or at least putting their requests in for that fat Google cheque.

Perhaps, regardless of how the in-progress court case pans out, Epic have just won the victory they wanted.