Epic is right to fight Apple, but drafting Fortnite fans into a corporate war is tacky

(Image credit: Epic Games)

In one of the strangest and most public legal disputes in recent memory, two of the biggest companies in the world (three, if you count the side-grapple Epic is having with Google) are currently fighting to see who gets our hard earned money in exchange for a John Wick skin. A brief rundown of how we got here:

  • Epic Games installed a workaround in the Fortnite mobile app that allowed players to buy V-Bucks directly from Epic, rather than through Apple; this stopped Apple from taking a 30 percent cut of transactions.
  • Apple then pulled Fortnite from the Apple Store...
  • ...Which led Epic to immediately launch an 80 page lawsuit.
  • Epic then held a conference in Fortnite itself, which parodied the famous Apple 1984 advert, with Apple in place of Big Brother/IBM.
  • Google also removed Fortnite from the Google Play Store for the same reason, and Epic sued Google.

Epic Games is right to be upset. Apple's closed ecosystem is anti-competitive, and its worst policies reach further than just skimming off the top of V-Bucks purchases. Apple taking such a large cut of in-game revenue (Epic calls it “an oppressive 30 percent tax on the sale of every app”) hurts small companies arguably far more than it hurts Epic, and if you've ever tried to get something from Mac to work on Windows or have been affected by iPhones changing their jacks, you've already experienced the ways Apple can direct the market in selfish ways. 

A win for Epic here could be massive for smaller developers, and Epic states in its lawsuit that it is seeking no monetary compensation, and simply wishes to change Apple and Google's policies in the long term. I won't complain if Apple takes one in the eye here. At a current net worth of $1 trillion, it can certainly take the hit.

For the past few years, Epic has had the chaotic energy of Willy Wonka.

It makes sense that Epic would pick up this fight, as it has previously fought similar battles. After ‘accidentally’ switching on PS4 crossplay for Fortnite, it was able to force it through to the point where it’s becoming a hugely requested feature in any online multiplayer game, if not an outright industry standard. After Steam wouldn't play ball, Epic built the only major rival Steam has ever had. Epic's stated purpose for this move was to benefit small developers, as Epic only takes an 88/12 revenue split, well below Steam’s 70/30 for most self-publishing developers. 

For the past few years, Epic has had the chaotic energy of Willy Wonka, replacing snozberries with Ninja, Harley Quinn, and Deadpool skins. It's given us front row seats to Travis Scott concerts and a sneak peek at a Star Wars movie. Apple hasn't had a serious innovation in years, and as far as modern popular culture goes, it's gone back to being a dude in a suit. Epic Games, with its youthful base of Fortnite fans, is definitely the cool guy here.

But while Epic may be on the right side of this fight, that doesn't absolve it from the weird way it's gone about it. It definitely doesn't mean I'll be cheering it on like a sports team.

Once more unto the breach, dear Peely

As far as lawsuits go, Epic's has been entertaining. It arrived with the swiftness of a Yu-Gi-Oh trap card, and contained several sharp jabs at Apple’s transition from new kid on the block to old fuddy-duddy. It also kept the battle squarely in the courts, where it belongs. But Epic couldn’t help being an agent of chaos, so it had to hold a Fortnite event, too, parodying a famous Apple ad to turn players to its side.

A wide range of people play Fortnite, but a huge slice of the playerbase is young and impressionable. These youngsters probably won't understand the reference to the old advert, or what it means for Apple to have taken IBM’s place, or the themes of the original 1984 novel. But they will understand the core message: Apple bad.

Epic is going about being right in a dangerous way.

Epic is positioning this fight as a broader culture war, one which will be played on its own maps and with soldiers dressed as bananas, Jedis, and Avengers. But this is a deeply corporate battle—a battle focused very much on long term net profits and one rich man being irritated that he has to give a fraction of his money to another rich man, money he earns by charging children to dress up in virtual costumes. Tim Sweeney, Epic’s CEO, has previously gotten into it with Apple, accusing it of having “gone crazy,” running an “absolute monopoly,” and of having “become what it once railed against: the behemoth seeking to control markets, block competition, and stifle innovation.” 

Epic will point to the positive knock on effects of all this—breaking Apple’s monopoly, more revenue for smaller companies, the upholding of a principled stance against closed OSes—but recruiting children into an army of brand defenders though an in-game event is incredibly strange and could have a long-term effect on how the already-dysfunctional online world operates. For the most part on PC, we've managed to avoid fostering strangely passionate allegiances to corporations, at least compared to the defenses of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo seen elsewhere. Putting corporate propaganda in your game feels like a direct attempt to change that.

I agree with Epic when it comes to Apple, and I want it to win this legal battle. But its strategy makes it uncomfortable to cheer for. I'm not going to express allegiance to the brand with "#FreeFortnite," or otherwise charge into a cultural battle on behalf of a giant corporation. Epic is going about being right in a dangerous way, and it’s impossible to fully know what might become of its victory or defeat. I hope that Apple and Google are unable to cope with Epic’s chaotic energy in this case, but it’s still hard to see Epic as the good guys here.