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Epic's crusade against 30% takes a tumble | Opinion

Fortnite finally comes to the Google Play store, marking a significant setback for Epic Games' quest to reduce the industry standard revenue share

Epic Games' decision to relent and finally put Fortnite on Google Play -- almost two years since announcing that it wouldn't be doing so with a pretty blunt statement on Google's revenue share from CEO Tim Sweeney -- has been reported in most places as succumbing to the inevitable. That's not an unfair characterisation.

The decision to bypass Google's app store on the company's own Android platform always seemed enormously unlikely to succeed, both in terms of damaging Fortnite's own performance (which it must have done, otherwise this U-turn wouldn't be happening) and in terms of Google itself being largely unconcerned by the whole affair (which, again, seems to be the case). That it's taken this long for the decision to be reversed does indeed speak to stubbornness as much as anything else.

Epic's lengthy refusal to use the Google Play store, however, hasn't happened in isolation. It's emblematic of a much broader bugbear which the developer has with the business model of digital distribution generally -- specifically, the 30% cut which has become the industry standard for digital distribution platforms. On consoles and on iOS, Epic has had no option but to go along with the policies of the platform holders -- albeit under protest -- but on the two platforms where the company could do something different, namely PC and Android, it has taken a stand against this aspect of the business.

"The decision to bypass Google's app store on the company's own Android platform always seemed unlikely to succeed"

On Android, it promoted side-loading Fortnite -- and also distributed it through some third-party app stores -- while on PC, it has launched a high-profile and richly funded challenge to Steam's dominance of the digital distribution market, with higher revenue splits for developers being a major part of the offering.

There's a whiff of a crusade about the whole thing, especially in Epic's willingness to forego some Fortnite installs on Android and to invest heavily in building a Steam challenger, even in the face of some pretty significant -- though arguably deeply misguided -- public anger about its policy of securing exclusives for the Epic Games Store. Regardless of your feelings about the 30% share itself, it's clear that Epic, and Sweeney in particular, has some genuine and deeply-held feelings on this topic. It's easy to dismiss this as a strategy for making more money, but it seems that the firm and its CEO really see it as a moral issue and a question of fairness.

That would explain why the company's statement on putting Fortnite in the Google Play store, effectively ceding one front in its crusade, comes across as quite bitter. There's a real sense that Epic feels Google has acted in an underhand way, even though from an outsider's perspective it's hard to see what Google has actually done wrong. It does give security warnings when side-loading software onto Android, but that's eminently reasonable, and not dissimilar to what many operating systems do with unsigned software from unrecognised sources. It still allows side-loading and even allows other companies to run their own software distribution stores on the Android platform; it just turns out that Google Play is the one users like, trust and use, even on devices which have other stores installed from the get-go.

"It's clear that Epic, and Tim Sweeney in particular, has some genuine and deeply-held feelings on this topic"

This isn't to say that there isn't a question mark over Google Play's dominance of the Android app ecosystem, but the evidence of underhandedness or wrongdoing that Epic alleges seems very thin. It's worth pointing out that Apple's iOS, along with every game console platform, doesn't allow anything at all to be installed without going through the platform holder's storefront. Some of the annoyed tone in Epic's statement on Google may stem from its belated realisation that Google's decision to allow side-loading and rival stores -- while playing well to a small community of power users and a broad claim of "openness" -- actually matters less than a damn for most companies doing business on Android.

The Google Play store is almost as dominant as the iOS App Store within its ecosystem despite the presence of alternative storefronts. Indeed, this should be relatively apparent from the fact that the Google Play store has maintained the same 30% revenue share as the iOS App Store, since if there were serious challengers and popular alternatives for getting software onto Android, some competition on pricing would have been nigh-on inevitable. The fact that Google didn't feel pressured to compete on revenue share should have made clear that the fate of Fortnite's shunning of the Google Play store was quixotic from the outset.

Epic bypassed Google Play due to a revenue share that it accepted on other mobile and console platforms

This leaves Epic with but one iron in the fire -- the Epic Games Store on PC -- and it all but seals the fate of the 30% revenue share on mobile. If a company as determined and deep-pocketed as Epic Games, wielding a game as popular as Fortnite as a bludgeon, cannot force even a momentary reconsideration of the revenue share, then it seems extremely unlikely that anyone else will be able to.

"In backing down Epic has done little but prove Google's point, without Google itself ever needing to say a word"

None of this, of course, addresses the actual central question: is 30% the right share for a digital distributor to take? Honestly, depending on where you stand, that can seem like a lot of money or a pretty reasonable price. In historical perspective, considering how little of the money from the sale of a game developers used to see, 30% doesn't actually seem like a huge amount, but considering the insanely low costs associated with actually processing and delivering a digital game purchase, it can also look extremely high.

Ultimately, I'm not sure there's a "right" price here; the platform holders can point to a host of costs they undertake, value they provide, and risks they shoulder in setting up and operating a successful digital distribution platform, and we could go back and forth over which of those can reasonably be considered as justification for a revenue share until the cows ice-skate home through hell.

Ultimately, 30% is probably here to stay simply because it's the share that's been established, proving lucrative enough to keep the platform holders happy while also seemingly not blocking content creators from making enough to be successful -- and ironically, Epic's attempt to hold Fortnite outside that system may ultimately have done nothing but cement the dominance of that 30% share, by proving just how much value the Google Play store actually adds even on a platform where side-loading is possible, and for a game which has its own powerful brand. That Epic is putting Fortnite onto the Google Play store and accepting the 30% revenue cut seems to suggest that it recognises -- however begrudgingly -- that being in the Google Play store adds at least that much value to its offering.

No matter how angrily worded Epic's statements may be, in backing down the company has done little but prove Google's point, without Google itself ever needing to say a word.

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Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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