In 2018, the platforms have the power. Which means if you aren’t Apple, Google, or Facebook, you answer to them. That’s true for advertisers, for publishers, and even for our democracy. And it can make for a pretty bleak outlook on our future. But this year, one company struck back–and won–in what I’ve come to categorize as the most important, overlooked business story of the year.
When Epic, makers of the mega-successful game Fortnite, brought their game to the 2 billion Android phones in the world, it made a bold decision to circumvent Google Play (that’s Google’s app store, to my iOS friends in the house). Instead, Epic publicized a workaround hiding in Android, then put their game on a website, and told people to download it there.
And by golly, it worked.
It was a big gamble. The way app stores work to date is, Apple or Google hosts (and hopefully promotes!) your app, and for every sale, they get 30¢ on the dollar. That counts for both the app itself and any in-app purchases. Apple had already collected an estimated $54 million for the iOS release of Fortnite.
There’s no avoiding this Apple tax as a developer on iOS. And almost every significant Android app pays the equivalent tax to Google. However, Google has built a feature in your phone’s settings that allows you to install software without the oversight or quality control of the Play Store. It’s both risky to activate, and a pain. Through its install process, Fortnite asks that you grant deep permissions on your phone to allow installation outside of Google Play. Android counters with all sorts of (fair!) warning screens. Once you open these floodgates, malware has more channels to set up shop on your device with impunity, until you close them.
Those hurdles didn’t stop Fortnite’s voracious fanbase, though. Within three weeks, the game had 15 million downloads on Android. Google seemed passive-aggressively sore about all the lost revenue: Within a week of the game’s release, its researchers disclosed a flaw in Fortnite that could allow the phone to download and run malicious software without a user knowing. Epic quickly patched the app. But if fans cared about the error, they didn’t show it.
Epic does not break out its active player counts on platforms like Android, and declined to share specifics for this article. But Fortnite does have more than 200 million players across systems. Epic tells me that players are very likely to play the game across multiple platforms.
By blithely ignoring Google Play, Epic beat Google at its own game. Well, I guess it was Epic’s game. But you get the idea.
So why do I bring this story up now, almost five months after Epic announced its strategy?
I believe most of us, for as loudly as we drunkenly promise to quit Facebook–first thing tomorrow–or ditch that iPhone for some dumbphone, intrinsically feel that protest is futile in the era of mega monopolies. Searcher. News provider. Photo filterer. Social keeper-upper. Messenger. Hardware maker. Retail seller. I’ve just described the business plan of the top few most valuable U.S. (technology) companies. They’ve become unbeatable through their sprawling platforms, ever a feature away from dominating your entire life. Want to quit Amazon? Ha. Have fun trading your two-day shipping for Sundays at Walmart. It sucks, trust me. And let’s face it. You quit Facebook, you join Instagram. You quit Google, you join Apple. Your business quits Amazon’s cloud services, it signs up for Microsoft’s cloud services. Your best option is to ping-pong from one conglomerate to the next.
In this bleak arena of late capitalism, Epic showed up as a surprising challenger. It’s not a new company. It’s not some hot startup that’s disrupting everything. It’s a 27-year-old software studio that develops and licenses a bunch of the foundational technology inside modern games, and, along the way, occasionally creates its own hit franchises, such as Unreal Tournament and Gears of War.
But with a single hit game–granted, a single mega-hit game that can be played on almost any device, that’s making Hollywood scared, that’s projected to take a sizable chunk of $20 billion in Battle Royale revenue in 2019–Epic proved media can be more viral than its medium. It proved that a digital product can still break free of its container.
It proved that the platform holders make a business of other people’s ideas, but you know what? Those ideas can be so big that they conquer the platform.
And so perhaps it’s ironic that two of Epic’s final announcements for the year was that it was launching a game distribution service of its own and sharing its cross-platform game SDK with other developers. The platform breaker is now the platform holder. And having assumed that role, it’s already making money off other people’s creative content: Epic is facing litigation from several black artists who have accused the game of reselling their dances without compensation. This is the sort of vital criticism we need launched against platforms all the time, because by nature, those who hold the keys to the kingdom need to be ethical rulers. Because one day, we may all be downloading our apps from Fortnite. Or whatever comes after it.