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Epic’s battle against Apple faces its first real test of customer loyalty

As the Nexus War kicks off in the latest chapter of Fortnite, Epic Games is offering its biggest tie-in yet, incorporating Marvel heroes and villains such as Iron Man, Wolverine, Storm, and Doctor Doom into the Battle Royale.

But as much as half of the company’s player base may not be able to join the fun.

The latest update to Fortnite is the first in which players on iOS and Android devices are shut out, as the company’s legal battles with Apple and Google have resulted in an inability to update Fortnite on those platforms. That also eliminates crossplay capability between iOS/Android customers and anyone on another platform who updates the game. And being left behind could be a test of loyalty to those fans.

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In 2019, Epic said Fortnite had about 250 million active accounts. The prior year, the game was downloaded roughly 100 million times from the Apple App Store in its first five months of availability, according to The Washington Post. Even if the player base doesn’t skew as heavily mobile as that implies, there are still tens of millions of players who enjoy the game solely through their phones and tablets.

Courting support

Courts will certainly play a role in the growing fight between Apple and Epic – as they already have – but this is also a case where public support will be a factor. Epic is courting other developers to stand alongside it as it seeks to change the way Apple monetizes the App Store. Several, including Microsoft, have joined the fight. And Epic has spent just as much time orchestrating a campaign designed to include its players in the war – from a cinematic parody of Apple’s famous 1984 ad to an in-game skin to a trending hashtag on social media.

But when you’re the king of the hill in any industry, there’s always someone gunning for you. And there’s no bigger hill in gaming right now than the battle royale genre – so don’t be surprised if you see a marketing push for PUBG and all the other Fortnite competitors in the weeks to come.

Epic’s position seems to be that it’s willing to risk ticking off a percentage of its audience for the greater purpose of getting Apple to change its policies. The company has likely done an internal risk analysis to know, to the dollar, how far they’re willing to take the fight, though.

Analysts acknowledge there’s some risk in potentially alienating players, but given Fortnite’s dominant position in the marketplace and the ferocity of its fan base, they say it’s one worth taking.

“As far as community feedback, I don’t think you’re going to see a huge number of people fleeing Fortnite for, say, Apex Legends,” says P.J. McNealy, CEO of Digital World Research. “You’re going to have natural churn to begin with. This is going to accelerate it a little bit, but I don’t think that’s going to change Epic’s position.”

Seeking a tidal shift

The disagreement between Epic and Apple is reminiscent of the music industry battle of 2009, when the iTunes store ultimately began offering DRM-free music files. That came about for a few reasons, but was primarily due to most major music publishers banding together to stand up to Apple and growing competition from Amazon. Consumers weren’t happy to have to go to a different platform to get what they wanted, but they did. And Apple eventually capitulated.

Epic is hoping to re-create that sort of tidal shift in the App Store. And it’s willing to gamble a part of its player base to enact that change, betting that anyone it loses will come back when the fight is over, especially if it results in lower prices on V-bucks.

The X-Factor here, though, is just as interesting: What happens if Epic wins?

“This is just the tip of the iceberg for the industry, as far as margin structures go,” says McNealy. “If they can get Apple to bend or break on that 30%, then that will have ramifications across Amazon’s store, across Microsoft’s store, across Sony’s store, the Android store – take your pick.”

Low prices are always going to be welcomed by consumers. The question is: What are they willing to sacrifice in the battle to get them. And will those who walk away want to come back when they can play the most recent version of Fortnite again?

Chris Morris
Chris Morris has covered consumer technology and the video game industry since 1996, offering analysis of news and trends and…
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