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A golden skull skin in Fortnite. Image: Epic Games

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Epic’s Fortnite fight against Apple and Google is bigger than greed

‘Epic Games just wants more money’ is too simple of a narrative

It’s easy to roll your eyes at Epic Games’ “Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite” ad, which parodies a 1984 Apple commercial about the company’s fight against a monopoly. Can a gaming company valued at $17.3 billion really act like it’s an underdog sticking it to the man? Then again, the alternative — rooting for Apple — doesn’t seem much better. Apple is the most valuable company in the world; surely it can live with taking a smaller commission from products sold on its storefront.

Everything about this sucks,” laments gaming website Kotaku. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen echoed on social media, where some folks posit that in a slap fight between two tech giants, the only real winner is the corrupting tendrils of capitalism. After all, this issue comes down to money, and making more of it.

But that skeptical narrative also flattens what else is at stake in the legal battle between Epic Games and Apple. The language of the lawsuit is revealing. In it, Epic says it doesn’t want monetary compensation from the proceedings.

“Nor is Epic seeking favorable treatment for itself, a single company,” the document reads. Many folks worry that this tussle will just end with Apple easing up on Epic Games while ignoring everyone else, but Epic’s lawsuit explicitly says the company doesn’t want special treatment that isn’t afforded to others. “Instead, Epic is seeking injunctive relief to allow fair competition in these two key markets that directly affect hundreds of millions of consumers and tens of thousands, if not more, of third-party app developers.”

Epic’s complaint against Google reads similarly, with Epic stating that it is not seeking “favorable treatment” for itself, but rather, a more open environment for everybody. Obviously, winning this battle would mean that Epic Games makes more money, which would be “favorable” to them. But the implications of the lawsuit could be more far-reaching for the gaming industry at large, especially when it comes to smaller game developers.

A few skins from Fortnite. Image: Epic Games

If Apple — or indeed, any major storefront — took less than its usual 30% cut for apps and in-app purchases, it could make a world of a difference for indie developers. The percentage that Apple takes is pretty standard on digital storefronts, like Steam or the Nintendo eShop. But mobile devices are more ubiquitous than dedicated gaming hardware, and seeing a notoriously stubborn company budge on something like this could help sway other storefronts to reconsider their commissions, too.

One recent viral tweet by game developer Emma Maassen posits that if storefronts took a smaller revenue share, like the 12% that Epic Games takes on its own storefront, that extra income would have allowed her studio Kitsune Games to develop a new title without crowdfunding. The replies to the tweet include other indies sharing similar opportunities that would have become possible with more equitable revenue sharing models across the gaming industry.

“The amount of extra stuff we could add to our game would be insane,” wrote indie developer Elwin Verploegen.

On platforms like Steam, the more you sell, the better you’re rewarded; the revenue share can go down to 20%. Arguably, a smaller developer needs that extra money more than a blockbuster studio. The stakes of a smaller fee are higher for the little guy, which typically doesn’t get to influence what these numbers look like. Epic almost seems like it’s taking up the mantle for them.

Is this giving Epic Games too much credit? Possibly. But the company does seem to be walking the walk. Beyond offering a better revenue sharing model on its own storefront than other major players, Epic has been making other progressive strides that help smaller developers across the board. Earlier this year, the battle royale maker announced that anyone using its proprietary Unreal Engine would no longer have to pay royalties on the first $1 million in revenue, a move that only affects indies. This is on top of offering $100 million in grants to people using the Unreal Engine in novel ways, including the improvement of open-source tools that help the community at large.

In practice, Epic appears to uphold the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats. A smaller revenue share might mean fewer profits for gatekeepers in the short term, but if it empowers creators to make and do more, the long-term tail is better for everyone involved.

It’s a generous philosophy that has become rare to see within tech. We live in a world where Facebook has destabilized democracy, Google has previously held contracts with the government to improve weapons, food delivery services like Grubhub can contribute to the destruction of small businesses, and Uber threatens livelihoods. Algorithms tuned for engagement and expansion regularly betray everyday people. Google’s old motto, “Don’t be evil,” now seems like a joke.

To see a company like Epic Games not just pick a fight but act righteous about what it stands for seems wrong in a world where tech giants repeatedly fail us. Corporations don’t get to act like they want what’s best for everyone — not anymore.

But when I look at the messaging surrounding Epic Games and its values, I don’t entirely see a soul-sucking machine looking out for number one. Instead of a completely depersonalized brand, Epic Games also exists as an extension of a specific idiosyncratic personality: company founder and CEO Tim Sweeney.

I see Sweeney waxing poetic about wanting to build the metaverse and destroying any barriers that stand in his way, like some starry-eyed idealist. I see Sweeney, a billionaire who probably never has to look at code again, excitedly talking about programming minutiae on social media. I see Sweeney quietly using his fortune to buy huge tracts of land for conservation.

What kind of a business plan is it to take your video game off two of the biggest platforms available, for who knows how long? Why pick a fight that will cost you boatloads of money? Who takes on Apple and Google and thinks they can win? More than any big, modern tech company I can think of, Epic Games seems like the personal vehicle of an optimist who believes in something bigger than himself, even if it’s unrealistic or foolhardy.

Speaking of being unrealistic, maybe it’s naïve of me to believe in the supposedly noble intentions of an eccentric billionaire. Even so, if Sweeney succeeds against Apple and Google — and this is definitely Sweeney’s fight, given his extremely anti-monopoly Twitter feed — Epic Games won’t be the only party that stands to benefit.