By Sarah E. Needleman
When season 4 of "Fortnite" launches Thursday, players like David Morell won't be able to log into the popular videogame from their iPhones.
Mr. Morell, 32 years old, would first need to download the latest version from Apple Inc.'s App Store -- but it's no longer there. Apple and Google removed "Fortnite" from their app marketplaces earlier this month after the game's creator, Epic Games Inc., added an unauthorized payment system that skirted the tech giants' 30% commission on in-app purchases.
Epic in response has sued Apple and the Alphabet Inc. unit in U.S. District Court in Northern California, saying the fees were excessive and that app creators shouldn't be restricted to the Apple and Google payment systems to process sales.
The legal battle has gamers caught in the middle, with some taking sides and others struggling to wrap their heads around the matter. Mr. Morell, a freelance video producer who lives in Cranston, R.I., normally plays "Fortnite" on an iPhone XR with a controller. He isn't sure where to channel his disappointment. "I am an Apple die-hard but I am an avid player of 'Fortnite,' " he said.
Part of Epic's strategy has been trying to rally support from its more than 350 million registered "Fortnite" players, nudging them to share #FreeFortnite across the internet.
Nearly 200,000 posts across Facebook and Twitter have mentioned the campaign in the two weeks since its Aug. 13 launch, according to an analysis by Storyful, the social-media intelligence company owned by News Corp, which also owns The Wall Street Journal. The conversation was driven by posts from Epic, with the majority in support of the campaign, Storyful said. Discussions about the Epic versus Apple and Google battle also circulated in social platforms such as Reddit and Discord.
Closely held Epic, which is valued at more than $17 billion, has said it is committed to the fight, but the dispute could cost more than legal fees. Though "Fortnite" is free to play, Epic sells virtual goods inside it such as character costumes and special modes. Last month, the shooter-survival game generated about $52.5 million of in-app spending through the App Store and Google Play combined, research firm Sensor Tower Inc. estimates.
With downloads blocked through those two marketplaces, Epic could miss the opportunity to engage new players. "Left unchecked, Apple's actions will irreparably damage Epic's reputation among 'Fortnite' users," the developer said in an Aug. 17 court filing.
During Monday's remote hearing, attorneys for both Epic and Apple described fielding customer complaints and refund requests from "Fortnite" players, blaming each other for the predicament. Apple argued that Epic brought the problem upon itself and could remedy it by removing its payment system from the game.
The battle hasn't been a total loss for Epic. The in-app payment system enables it to collect 100% of customers' purchases instead of sharing a portion with Apple and Google. Epic hasn't said how much money it has made, but in a court filing last week the company said more than half of customers opted for Epic's payment method, which offered players a discount on purchases, over Apple's. Depending on how long the dispute lasts, Apple and Google could lose out on millions of dollars.
Current players unable to download the latest version after Thursday also won't be able to play the new season with friends who can. Unlike most videogames, "Fortnite" enables people on almost any device -- a console, computer, mobile phone or tablet -- to jump into a match together.
"It's sad that all platforms can't be included for events and tournaments," said Amanda R. Johnson, who is 38 and makes "Fortnite" videos on YouTube from her home in Akron, Ohio. Though she primarily uses an Xbox console to play the game, "I play with all different people and it's just nice when you can get everyone together."
Long-term damage for Epic, Google and Apple is possible, said Jefferies analyst Alex Giaimo. Mobile "Fortnite" players could invest in other hardware, such as a console or PC, potentially costing Apple and Google revenue, but they also could switch to other games, like "Call of Duty: Warzone" and "PUBG Mobile," Mr. Giaimo said.
Some players are torn. "I would lean more toward Apple," said Jed Martin, a sophomore at Butler University, in Indianapolis, who manages a "Fortnite" esports team on campus and who plays "Fortnite" mostly on a PC. "They were doing their job and Epic Games was not complying."
But the 19-year-old empathizes with mobile gamers. "If the game I love to play every day got banned out of the blue, I would be very upset and would do whatever I could do, small or large, in order to play again."
On Monday, a California judge determined Apple can continue to block "Fortnite" from the App Store though it couldn't revoke Epic's developer credentials including those needed to update its flagship product, Unreal Engine. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 28.
After filing its suit, Epic released a video parody of Apple's famous "1984" commercial that aired nationally during Super Bowl XVIII, with the iPhone maker cast as Big Brother. On Sunday, it launched a "Fortnite" tournament with prizes such as hats designed to show animosity toward Apple. A few days later, the developer published a post on its website entitled "Why We Fight" explaining its mission to players.
Apple has defended its 30% App Store commission, saying it is justified because the company provides services such as user security and privacy, and that it is the same as what most other app marketplaces charge. "Our very first priority is making sure App Store users have a great experience in a safe and trusted environment," Apple said in a statement in response to Monday's ruling.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
August 27, 2020 12:40 ET (16:40 GMT)Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.