What started out as a battle between Apple and Epic over direct in-app purchases in Fortnite has evolved into an ill-advised, petty revenge scheme. On Sunday, Epic filed a new motion to bar Apple from revoking iOS and macOS support for its Unreal Engine while its other beef is ongoing.
To back up a bit, Apple and Epic have been sniping at each other since August 13, when Epic launched its own in-app direct payments system that skirted Apple’s famous 30% fee. Apple then struck back by removing Fortnite from the App Store. Epic countered with a spicy video and an anti-trust lawsuit—a timely barb given heightened scrutiny around Apple being a control freak over its App Store. Apple then responded saying Epic had been trying to get preferential treatment via a special deal—a claim Epic CEO publicly refuted. In the midst of this legal spat, Apple decided that this coming Friday, it would delete all of Epic’s developer accounts and cut off access to the Apple SDK, effectively shutting down third-party access to Epic’s Unreal Engine.
Epic’s latest filing is aimed at temporarily halting Apple from screwing over developers while they duke it out in court. Its argument is that not only is axing the developer accounts unnecessarily harsh, but pulling SDK support also hurts third-parties who have built on the Unreal Engine and have no skin in the legal games Apple and Epic are playing. (And, honestly, Epic doesn’t want to lose out on that money stream.)
Adding to the dogpile, Microsoft also filed a statement supporting Epic in which it echoed those sentiments. Microsoft’s Kevin Gammill, general manager of gaming developer experiences, writes, “Epic Games’ Unreal Engine is critical technology for numerous game creators, including Microsoft.” He goes on to explain that while some larger game companies might have the means to create their own proprietary game engines, most don’t and for them, licensing third-party engines is how they do their thing. “As a result,” Gammill writes, “Epic’s Unreal Engine is one of the most popular third-party engines available to game creators, and in Microsoft’s view there are very few other options available for creators to license with as many features and as much functionality as Unreal Engine across multiple platforms, including iOS.”
Now Microsoft isn’t being purely altruistic in sticking up for the little guy here. It’s got a stake in gaming, as well as its own ax to grind with Apple over cloud gaming. But also, it has an extremely valid point about the damage Apple is potentially doing to users and developers just so it can clap back at Epic. If Apple succeeds in cutting support to the Apple SDK, it’s not just Epic that gets fucked. Any game developer who’s made significant progress in building their stuff out on Unreal Engine faces the conundrum of not only losing lots of time and effort, but they’d also have to calculate whether to start all over on a new engine, leave out iOS and macOS users entirely, or just throw in the towel. It also means games that have already been released on iOS and macOS won’t receive critical security updates or bug fixes.
Let’s be real. Apple has little justification for this other than flexing on Epic for daring to challenge the App Store status quo. Oh, you want to change how we do things around here? You want to call us out for our 30% commission rate? You don’t know who you’re fucking with because whoops, what if we just... cripple your ability to license Unreal Engine, a pretty big chunk of your revenue stream? Oh, you don’t want us to do that? How ‘bout you learn your place and back down?
It’s a game of legal chicken, but it’s also baffling on Apple’s part considering it’s under fire for its alleged anti-trust tendencies. Whatever you think about its ongoing spat with Epic, Unreal Engine is a different, unrelated thing. Epic’s decision to introduce direct in-app purchases in Fortnite arguably does flout Apple’s App Store guidelines. It might even have a point that Epic decided to say “fuck you” in the flashiest and most clearly orchestrated way possible. Both parties deserve their day in court over it. But I must have missed how an argument over direct payment system relates to critical developer tools used by third-parties? What was Unreal Engine’s sin, other than being owned by Epic Games?
In trying to punish Epic, Apple is dangerously close to showing its entire monopolistic ass. It’s reached too far and frankly, undermined its defense that it’s not an anti-competitive asshole. In its boilerplate statement when this all began, Apple said its guidelines “create a level playing field for all developers.” It’s not creating a level playing field if you use your vast power to screw third-party developers because you want to make a point about the company they license software from. It’s hard to interpret this particular action as anything other than bullying and retaliatory.
This behavior isn’t limited to Epic Games either. Last week, Apple was threatening to block updates to the WordPress iOS app until the company enabled in-app purchases through Apple’s payment system. You know, so it could get that sweet 30% fee. At the time, WordPress promoted paid subscriptions within the app, but didn’t provide a way for users to buy those subscriptions via the app itself. Sure, Apple backed down over the weekend and even said “sorry” to WordPress. But it was an empty apology. According to CNET, Apple withdrew because WordPress removed any references in the app to outside payment options. WordPress’s Matt Mullenweg also told CNET that it had promised to build in-app purchase support within the next 30 days and then tweeted a word of warning to other developers in similar situations to do the same.
So it’s not just adding a direct payment system that will get you in Apple’s crosshairs. Even referencing that you can pay for a service but not including a means to buy within the iOS app will incur Apple’s wrath. This is arguably no longer about people violating reasonable App Store guidelines for “safety” purposes. This is about Apple hamfistedly reminding everyone to play by its rules, however, it chooses to interpret them on a given day, and always in its own favor. Apple, so used to acting with impunity, has lost all pretense of believing in fair play. If there’s any justice in the world, that’s how it’ll get the reckoning it deserves.
If you’re a developer who has had similarly unpleasant experiences with Apple you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out totally anonymously via SecureDrop if you have sensitive documents to share.