Epic Games takes its Apple App Store fight to Europe

Epic Games has taken its fight against Apple’s App Store rules to the European Union where it’s lodged a complaint with the bloc’s antitrust regulators.

In a blog post today the maker of the popular online game Fortnite said it’s extending its battle for what it dubbed “fairer digital platform practices for developers and consumers” to Europe, noting the bloc is already looking into competition concerns attached to the Apple App Store (and its payment service, Apple Pay).

The EU opened a formal probe into certain Apple practices last year.

Regional lawmakers have also recently set out a plan to expand platform regulation to put specific strictures on ‘gatekeeper’ platforms with the aim of ensuring fairness and accountability vis-a-vis third parties. And the issue of platform power is certainly one that’s now under close scrutiny by regulators and lawmakers around the world.

“The complaint, filed with the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Competition, alleges that through a series of carefully designed anti-competitive restrictions, Apple has not just harmed but completely eliminated competition in app distribution and payment processes,” Epic writes, adding: “Apple uses its control of the iOS ecosystem to benefit itself while blocking competitors and its conduct is an abuse of a dominant position and in breach of EU competition law.”

It’s not seeking damages against Apple but wants EU competition authorities to impose remedies against what it describes as the iPhone maker’s “monopoly channels”.

“What’s at stake here is the very future of mobile platforms,” said Epic Games founder and CEO, Tim Sweeney, in a statement. “Consumers have the right to install apps from sources of their choosing and developers have the right to compete in a fair marketplace. We will not stand idly by and allow Apple to use its platform dominance to control what should be a level digital playing field. It’s bad for consumers, who are paying inflated prices due to the complete lack of competition among stores and in-app payment processing. And it’s bad for developers, whose very livelihoods often hinge on Apple’s complete discretion as to who to allow on the iOS platform, and on which terms.”

Epic launched a US lawsuit against Apple last August after Apple banned Fortnite from the App Store.

The tech giant made the move after Epic tried to bypass its in-app purchase framework (and circumvent the cut Apple takes) by adding its own payment mechanism to Fortnite to let users purchase in-game currency directly — in direct contravention of Apple’s rules.

As well as banning Fortnight, Apple said it would go further and revoke Epic’s developer account and access to developer tools for its Unreal Engine — a move that would have affected third party app makers that rely on Epic’s engine. However it was barred from going that far.

A US judge quickly denied Epic’s motion to force Apple to unblock the game but Cupertino was ordered not to block Epic’s ability to provide and distribute its Unreal Engine on iOS — limiting Apple’s ability to take a scorched earth approach to try to shut Epic’s battle down.

Since then Epic has filed legal complaints against Apple in Australia and the UK. It’s now also petitioning EU regulators.

The EU’s antitrust division, meanwhile, opened a formal investigation of Apple last summer — more than a year after the Europe-based music streaming service Spotify had made a similar complaint over ‘restrictive’ App Store rules and the 30% cut Cupertino takes on iOS in-app payments.

The Commission said at the time that an unnamed e-book/audiobook distributor had also complained about the impact of App Store rules on competition.

It confirmed today that it has received a complaint by Epic Games against Apple. We will assess it based on our standard procedures,” a Commission spokesperson told us. 

Epic’s argument is that Apple is denying Fortnight users on iOS a choice between Apple payment and Epic direct payment — claiming savings would be passed to direct purchasers (although Epic of course stands to gain money if it can open up a channel that bypasses Apple’s cut on in-app payments).

Epic has also tried to push Apple to let it operate an Epic Games Store on iOS — a move Apple refused, citing the “exacting standards for security, privacy, and content” which it argues are predicated on the App Store rules (although Apple’s claims of curation equaling ‘quality’ don’t always live up to the reality of what it allows to operate on its App Store).

Back in 2019, Apple also launched its own gaming distribution service, Apple Arcade — a pure-play content play that offers access to new and exclusive games playable across Apple’s device ecosystem.

That move was perhaps the straw the broke the camel’s back vis-a-vis Epic Games deciding to go all in on an antitrust brawl with Apple. (Its blog post references Apple Arcade, and notes that Apple has barred competitors, including itself, from doing the same).

It’s worth noting that Epic has also squared up to Google, which similarly takes a cut of in-app payments of Android apps distributed via its Play Store — and which also removed Fortnight from the Play Store last year.

However Google’s Android platform allows sideloading of third party apps and alternative app stores, arguably making it harder to make an antitrust case stick vs the tighter restrictions applied by Apple.

At the same time, though, Android dominates smartphone marketshare — while Apple’s cut of the global market is less than a fifth.

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