Fortnite developer Epic Games sues Apple, Google after removal of video game from App Store

Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google have removed popular video game Fortnite from their app stores for violating the companies' in-app payment guidelines, prompting developer Epic Games to file federal antitrust lawsuits challenging the two companies' rules.

Launches attack on Apple on social media with #FreeFortnite campaign

A scene from the 'Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite' short by Fortnite maker Epic Games. Epic released the parody of Apple's famous '1984' television ad after Apple Inc. removed the game from its App Store for violating the company's in-app payment guidelines. (Epic Games/Reuters)

Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google on Thursday removed popular video game Fortnite from their app stores for violating the companies' in-app payment guidelines, prompting developer Epic Games to file federal antitrust lawsuits challenging the two companies' rules.

Apple and Google cited a direct payment feature rolled out on the Fortnite app earlier on Thursday as the violation.

Epic sued in U.S. court seeking no money from Apple or Google but rather injunctions that would end many of the companies' practices related to their app stores.

"Apple has become what it once railed against: the behemoth seeking to control markets, block competition, and stifle innovation. Apple is bigger, more powerful, more entrenched, and more pernicious than the monopolists of yesteryear," Epic said in its lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California.

Epic attacks Apple on social media

Epic also attacked Apple on social media, launching a campaign with the hashtag #FreeFortnite, urging players to seek refunds from Apple if they lose access to the game, and creating a parody of Apple's famous "1984" television ad.

In the parody, which quickly garnered hundreds of thousands of views, a female Fortnite fighter hurls a unicorn-shaped club to smash a screen on which an Apple-headed character speaks of "the anniversary of the platform unification directives."

Apple takes a cut of between 15 per cent and 30 per cent for most app subscriptions and payments made inside apps, though there are some exceptions for companies that already have a credit card on file for iPhone customers if they also offer an in-app payment that would benefit Apple. Analysts believe games are the biggest contributor to spending inside the App Store, which is in turn the largest component of Apple's $46.3 billion-US-per-year services segment.

In a statement, Apple said Fortnite had been removed because Epic had launched the payment feature with the "express intent of violating the App Store guidelines" after having had apps in the store for a decade.

"The fact that their [Epic] business interests now lead them to push for a special arrangement does not change the fact that these guidelines create a level playing field for all developers and make the store safe for all users," Apple said in a statement.

Google also removed Fortnite from its Play Store, but did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.

"However, we welcome the opportunity to continue our discussions with Epic and bring Fortnite back to Google Play," Google spokesperson Dan Jackson said in a statement. Jackson said Epic had violated a rule requiring developers to use Google's in-app billing system for products within video games.

Apple and Google were among the major American technology companies to come under anti-competition scrutiny in a hearing before lawmakers last month. During the hearing, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook argued that Apple is not anti-competitive because it does not have majority market share in any markets where it operates, including mobile phones, where devices powered by Alphabet Inc's Android have greater market share.

Epic's lawsuit, however, argues that app distribution and in-app payments for Apple devices constitute their own distinct market for anti-competition purposes because Apple users rarely leave its "sticky" ecosystem, according to Epic's filing.

Way forward unclear

Epic's free-to-play battle-royal videogame Fortnite has reached massive popularity among young gamers since its launch in 2017, and competes with Tencent Holdings' PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. The title's removal from the App Store means that new players will not be able to download it and that existing players cannot receive updates, but the game should continue to work on devices where it is already installed.

The battle between the tech giants has many debating who exactly has been disadvantaged by their relationship so far, and who will benefit from the standoff in the end. 

"I don't know who David or Goliath is in this case," Kristopher Alexander, a professor specializing in video games at Ryerson University, told CBC News.

Both Apple and Google stand to lose a significant revenue stream without the game in their app stores, Alexander said. At the same time, the speed with which Epic released their response video suggests they already knew what was going to happen.   

"They're playing the game, pun intended, in their own gaming terms," Alexander said. "They're using Fortnite to illustrate a point."

Riley MacLeod, editor-at-large with video game news site Kotaku, also pointed to the seemingly strategic nature of Epic's lawsuit. In 2018, MacLeod explained, Epic launched its own PC gaming store, the Epic Games Store. That store then became a direct competitor of Steam, another prominent PC gaming store that charges roughly 30 per cent of game sales — similar to Apple and Google. 

"[Epic] has always said there should be more marketplaces, more competition, and more money for developers," MacLeod said. "I think, at the heart of it, this is sort of the next step in that crusade."

Both Alexander and MacLeod pointed to the possibility of the stand-off shifting how video games are sold and profited from. Particularly, it could allow smaller developers to see more flexibility in how their games can be delivered on iOS. 

"This is an historical moment for monetization in video games, and privatization of video games, and even online stores and distribution of digital content," Alexander said. "So we'll see how this plays out."

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an announcement of new products in 2018. Apple was among the major American technology companies that appeared before U.S. lawmakers last month at an anti-trust hearing. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Associated Press)

Because Android functions differently from iOS, users are still able to download Fortnite from Epic's website and other non-Google stores such as the one run by Samsung Electronics Co Ltd and install it on their devices, Epic said in a blog post earlier on Thursday.

"Epic is not seeking any monetary relief, but rather only an order enjoining Google from continuing to impose its anti-competitive conduct on the Android ecosystem," it said in its lawsuit. 

In a statement, Spotify Technology SA, a streaming music rival to Apple that has filed an antitrust complaint against the iPhone maker in Europe, applauded Epic's move.

"Apple's unfair practices have disadvantaged competitors and deprived consumers for far too long," Spotify said.

With files from Thomas Daigle and Jackson Weaver