Fortnite banned from Apple and Google app stores -- and developer Epic sues

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Fortnite maker Epic Games has filed suit against after the tech giants remove the game from their digital marketplaces.

Fortnite developer Epic Games is suing Apple and Google after both pulled Epic's hit game from their app stores over direct-payment disputes. As of right now, neither are allowing users to download and install Fortnite on phones through their digital marketplaces.

At the heart of the debate is whether Epic has the right to include a direct-payments service in its Fortnite app, circumventing Apple's and Google's payments systems and the up to 30% charge Apple and Google levy on each transaction.

Epic's lawsuit alleges that Apple has become a "behemoth seeking to control markets, block competition and stifle innovation."

"Apple is bigger, more powerful, more entrenched and more pernicious than monopolies of yesteryear," Epic says in the suit. "Apple's size and reach far exceeds that of any technology monopolist in history."

Epic's lawsuit against Google accuses the tech giant of abandoning its idealistic roots and says Android's claim that it's an open ecosystem is a "broken promise."

"In 1998, Google was founded as an exciting young company with a unique motto: 'Don't Be Evil,'" reads the complaint. "Twenty-two years later, Google has relegated its motto to nearly an afterthought, and is using its size to do evil upon competitors, innovators, customers, and users in a slew of markets it has grown to monopolize." Google declined to comment on the lawsuit. 

Apple earlier Thursday said it chose to remove Fortnite from its App Store because the game violated guidelines Apple says it applies equally to every developer and that are designed to keep the store safe.

"As a result their Fortnite app has been removed from the store," Apple said in a statement, adding that it'll work with Epic to resolve the issue. "Epic enabled a feature in its app which was not reviewed or approved by Apple, and they did so with the express intent of violating the App Store guidelines regarding in-app payments that apply to every developer who sells digital goods or services."

Google also cited rule-breaking by Epic as the reason it removed Fortnite from its digital marketplace. Consumers can still download Fortnite on Android phones using other app stores, such as the Galaxy Store for Samsung devices.

"While Fortnite remains available on Android, we can no longer make it available on Play because it violates our policies," a Google spokesman said. "However, we welcome the opportunity to continue our discussions with Epic and bring Fortnite back to Google Play."

Apple's and Google's decisions to ban Fortnite from their respective app stores marks a dramatic escalation in the debate between the tech giants, the developers that make programs for their devices, and regulators interested in examining it all. Apple's iOS and Google's Android software together power nearly all the world's mobile devices. That influence has remade the tech industry and the larger world economy, helping bring to life businesses like ride-hailing and delivery company Uber, game maker Zynga and ByteDance's TikTok social network.

But the company's control over their respective platforms have drawn complaints from some developers who say Apple forces developers to pay commissions for many purchases made on apps, with no alternative. And they complain Google forces partners to bundle and promote its own apps on their devices. Both companies have also been accused of building in preference for their respective apps, rather than allowing fair competition.

Screenshot by Eli Blumenthal/CNET

Apple and Google argued their developer guidelines protect users and to ensure equal treatment of app makers, who've made millions of apps for both platforms combined. Apple and Google's critics meanwhile, say the companies are too restrictive and that they take too large a commission for commerce on their platforms.

In the past year, lawmakers and regulators have begun joining developers in this debate, pushing Apple to justify its up to 30% commission and its tight control over its platform, while probing Google's behavior as well.

Apple in particular has responded by citing a study it commissioned that says its fees are similar to those of its peers, with the notable exception of Epic, which charges 12% fees for its game store.

"Apple's commissions are comparable to or lower than commissions charged by the majority of our competitors," Apple CEO Tim Cook said during a congressional hearing in July. "And they are vastly lower than the 50% to 70% that software developers paid to distribute their work before we launched the App Store."

The company has still come under criticism for its fees, leading music giant Spotify and other companies to file complaints with the European Union's Competition Commission. The EU in June launched two investigations into Apple, focused on its App Store and its handling of the technology behind its Apple Pay payments service.

"It appears that Apple obtained a 'gatekeeper' role when it comes to the distribution of apps and content to users of Apple's popular devices," EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said in a statement at the time. "We need to ensure that Apple's rules do not distort competition in markets where Apple is competing with other app developers, for example with its music streaming service Apple Music or with Apple Books."

Cook rebuffed those concerns in his July statement before the US Congress.

"After beginning with 500 apps, today the App Store hosts more than 1.7 million -- only 60 of which are Apple software," Cook said. "Clearly, if Apple is a gatekeeper, what we have done is open the gate wider. We want to get every app we can on the store, not keep them off."

For now iOS users who already have Fortnite downloaded on their device still appear to be able to use the app in full, including the new approach to in-game purchases.

A battle royale over payments

Epic preceded its public fight with Apple with a series of high profile moves.

The company's first step was to offer a discount for its hit Fortnite Battle Royale game, which brings together up to 100 people on a cartoonish game-simulated island. There, they fight till the last player is standing (and thus wins the game). Fortnite's design hit it big; the game is easy to grasp but hard to master. Its playful and vibrant visuals, free from the blood and gore that's typical of most fighting games, made it more palatable to families and preteens. And it's free to download, with the only charges coming from "V-Bucks," in-game tokens players can use to buy different cosmetic looks for characters.

On Thursday, Epic announced discounts of up to 20% permanently if players buy V-Bucks directly from Epic. But it opted to keep prices where they were if players buy via Apple's or Google's payment system. As a result, 1,000 V-Bucks will cost you $9.99 if you go through Apple's or Google's system, but only $7.99 direct from Epic.

"Currently, when using Apple and Google payment options, Apple and Google collect a 30% fee, and the up to 20% price drop does not apply," Epic wrote in a blog post earlier Thursday. "If Apple or Google lower their fees on payments in the future, Epic will pass along the savings to you."

Shortly after, Apple removed Epic's app from its store, prompting Epic's lawsuit. Epic also posted a video online mimicking Apple's famous Macintosh ad from 1984, this time accusing Apple of being the bad guy instead of the hero.

The video ended with a suggested hashtag, #FreeFortnite, which became the top trending item worldwide on Twitter within an hour of it being posted. In the US, Apple landed second on the top-trending list, with Epic in fifth place.

Epic troublemaker

This isn't Epic's first time starting a public fight with one of its peers. Back in 2018, Epic launched Fortnite for Android by asking people to download the game directly from its site, rather than through Google's Play Store. The company confirmed to CNET that it would've done the same on iOS if it could've. 

The game came to the Play Store in April, but Epic criticized Google's efforts to warn Android users about the alleged threats posed by downloading Fortnite directly. 

Spotify, which instigated the EU's investigation of Apple, applauded Epic's suit against Apple.

"Apple's unfair practices have disadvantaged competitors and deprived consumers for far too long," a Spotify spokesman said in a statement. "The stakes for consumers and app developers large and small couldn't be higher and ensuring that the iOS platform operates competitively and fairly is an urgent task with far-reaching implications."

Epic's picked other public fights too. In late 2018, it took on Valve, a popular game maker and developer of the Steam online game store, when it launched its competing Epic Games Store for PCs. The company promised lower commission fees for developers and began paying for exclusive rights to popular games, such as Metro: Exodus and Borderlands 3.

"A lot of these issues are areas where you aren't going to satisfy everybody," Epic CEO Tim Sweeney said in a 2019 interview. "The Epic Games Store exclusives have been controversial among the PC gaming community who much prefers everything be on Steam, yet it's by far the most potent approach to ensuring the success of a new store."