On Thursday, Epic Games ($PRIVATE:EPICGAMES) picked a fight. The developer of Fortnite added an in-game transaction feature to the IOS version of their game in defiance of the App Store's guidelines. Apple ($AAPL) stipulates that any transactions made on the App Store must go through their In-App Purchase system, and that Apple should receive a 30% fee for any transaction made.
The game was removed from the App Store. Just 30 minutes later, Epic filed a lengthy lawsuit against Apple, tearing into them for anti-competitive practices largely dealing with the App Store’s transaction fee.
Epic Games has filed legal papers in response to Apple, read more here: https://t.co/c4sgvxQUvb— Fortnite (@FortniteGame) August 13, 2020
“Fast forward to 2020,” the suit reads, “and 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. At a market cap of nearly $2 trillion, Apple’s size and reach far exceeds that of any technology monopolist in history.”
Epic didn’t stop there. Another 30 minutes later, it rolled out an in-game marketing campaign featuring a parody of Apple’s famous “1984” ad recreated with Fortnite characters. A website about the suit and an accompanying hashtag #freefortnite were launched. Screenshots of the game’s iconic avatar looking frightened by a giant screen from which a literal evil apple shouts at him spread like a contagion. Epic sprung a trap, and Apple fell into it. Later, Google ($GOOGL) would remove Fortnite from the Google Play store for a similar violation.
And so millions of Fortnite’s young, impressionable players have joined in on the campaign against Apple. A quick search of the #freefortnite hashtag brings you to a live feed where tweets in support of Epic and Fortnite pour in each second like a deluge.
For the greater good?
Epic isn’t wrong. Apple’s 30% fee is egregious and rightfully came under scrutiny during last month’s antitrust hearings. The fans tweeting #freefortnite are backed by companies like Spotify who released statements in support of Epic’s lawsuit. The fee hampers growth and especially harms new apps from smaller companies. If Epic wins, everyone wins.
But Epic isn’t some underdog punching up. Worth $17 billion, Epic owns the largest game in the world in Fortnite as well as the Unreal Engine, which many developers license to build their own games. It has questionable practices of its own, like its refusal to pay the creators of dances it lets players buy in-game. The altruistic benefit is nothing more than ammunition towards Epic’s real motivation, which is to sell more V-Bucks to children.
40% of the company is owned by Chinese mega-corporation Tencent ($HK:700), the largest games conglomerate in the world, which is also currently facing a US ban of its most popular app, WeChat. What Epic is posturing as a crusade happens to also be a convenient avenue for Tencent to punch back at a similarly-sized US tech company in retaliation for the executive order banning WeChat. This isn't some sort of liberation. It’s corporate warfare.
Epic likely learned this strategy from Disney ($DIS), who last year blew up negotiations with Sony ($SNE) over revenue sharing for films featuring Spider-Man, which Sony owns the rights to. When Disney didn't get the 50-50 split it wanted and broke news that the character was out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, fans spent the next month railing on Sony until it finally acquiesced and offered Disney 25%.
So while this dispute will be fought over in court, Epic and Tencent have also ignited a culture war, the forces for which are Epic’s customers.
Players as pawns
Epic’s 1984 parody has already gotten its share of mockery. After all, why should Epic assume that a customer who’s playing Fortnite cares at all about corporate squabbles?
hold the fucking phone, a company made a parody ad based on a 37 year old ad based loosely on a book over a lawsuit involving an app store? that's frankly fucking epic to me, the consumer— chris person (@Papapishu) August 13, 2020
What Epic understands is that Fortnite has grown into a cultural staple. Its impact on pop culture, memes, and media is undeniable. More than just giving them things to shoot at, Fortnite has put on in-game movies, concerts, and shared events for its players. The average Fortnite player doesn’t see themselves as a “consumer.” When they aren’t in the real world, they’re in Fortnite, and Fortnite is their friend.
And though the majority of Fortnite’s players are on PC and consoles, the loss of the game on mobile devices isn’t insignificant.
Fortnite had 6.26 million reviews on the App Store, up 25% from January. Even if Fortnite is a free game, gaming itself is an increasingly expensive hobby, and for many people the only affordable way to play Fortnite was on your phone. Now that, too, has been taken away from them. And Epic has pointed the finger at who’s to blame.
By distributing this campaign through the same language its used to create memorable experiences for its players, Epic Games is weaponizing the same tools it used to get players emotionally attached to their game.
Games already have a deep, ugly history of identity politics being weaponized to do horrible things to marginalized communities. The most famous example is, of course, Gamergate, an online movement from the mid-2010s that led to the targeted harassment of women and people of color in the games industry under the guise of concern over “ethics in games journalism.” With the benefit of hindsight, Gamergate is often cited as a precursor to the alt-right movements of today.
Games were perhaps especially vulnerable to something like Gamergate because "gamers" have long built their identities around the products they use. “Console wars” are still “fought” by fans to this day, and some who play games on PC vy for superiority using the thinly-veiled “PC Master Race” line, which has obvious roots in racism. The language that Epic Games' own CEO Tim Sweeny used over the weekend doesn't feel too dissimilar from the kind of posturing that was used to rally support of Gamergate back in 2014. Epic has gone all-in on an oppressor narrative.
The tech monopolies would love nothing more than a battle of might, because they can muster a far larger fighting force.— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) August 15, 2020
They do not fear our weapons.
They do fear our ideas.
This may seem a lot of doomsaying around a cartoony game that has you riding around in shopping carts, and hopefully it is. After all, this is not a Gamergate. The most Fortnite fans can do in this situation is stop buying Apple products. But when corporations as big as these two behemoths start wrestling and using their limitless dollars to reinforce the notion of the individual as a consumer for their own financial benefits, the work of recovering from something like Gamergate is undone. And those with more overt political motivations could be the ones learning from Epic like Epic learned from Disney.
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