Epic and Apple’s Unreal Adventure

The App Store spat is already shaking the world of mobile gaming

Key Takeaways

  • Apple has threatened to shut down Epic’s Unreal Engine in iOS and macOS. Unreal Engine powers many third-party games.
  • Presiding Judge Gonzalez Rogers will block Apple’s ban on Unreal Engine, but allowed it to ban Fortnite.
  • Epic’s biggest rival, Unity, just filed for its IPO.
A gamer plays the video game "Fortnite: Battle Royale" developed by People Can Fly and Epic Games
Chesnot / Getty Images

Apple's threat to revoke game-maker Epic’s Apple developer account could break hundreds of games on macOS and iOS. That’s because Epic’s Unreal Engine, a framework used by countless developers to create 3D games, would no longer be updated for Apple’s platforms.

That’s a big blow for Epic and could destabilize an entire ecosystem of mobile games. Meanwhile, just the possibility of an Unreal “ban” has triggered rival Unity’s IPO. If ever there was a news story that required popcorn and a delicious beverage, this is it. 

“If Apple and Epic don't resolve their differences,” game designer and Thunkd game studio owner Andrew Crawshaw told Lifewire via direct message, “developers that use Unreal will either stop making versions of their games for iOS, or have to change their engine.”

Unreal Consequences

The story so far:

  • Epic snuck a store into the iOS version of its popular Fortnite game, bypassing Apple’s in-app purchase system.
  • Apple removed Fortnite from the App Store for breaking the rules, although existing owners can still download and play the game.
  • Epic sued Apple, and released a premade video casting Apple as Big Brother. 
  • Apple told Epic to remove the in-game store from Fortnite, or Apple would revoke Epic’s developer account.
  • Epic applied for court orders to force Apple to make Fortnite updates available and to stop Apple from revoking its developer access.
  • A judge ordered Apple to keep Epic as a developer but supported the ban on the Fortnite game itself.

Epic set out to provoke Apple into pulling Fortnite to justify a legal battle against App Store rules that force developers to use Apple’s payment system and to pay Apple 30% of all transactions. Then things went haywire, with Apple going in hard with the developer account threat.

Epic’s problem is this: If it no longer has an Apple developer account, then it can no longer publish iOS or Mac updates to its Unreal Engine. Epic licenses the engine to anyone who wants to use it to build games, and Unreal powers as many as half the 3D games on mobile (the App Store, and Google’s Play Store), as well as PC and console games. The engine is even used in movies and TV shows like Disney’s The Mandalorian. To say it’s important is a massive understatement.

What Does This Mean for Users?

Right now, it means nothing. iPhone games using the Unreal Engine will keep on running, but the engine would no longer receive new features, nor bug fixes.

Imagine there was a glitch in the current UE that broke it in the upcoming iOS 14 release. Many, many Unreal-based games would break overnight.

Worse, for Epic at least, is that developers will no longer trust it. It’s one thing to stick by your principles and go up against a big bully like Apple. It’s quite another to play fast and loose with the livelihood of your customers. If Apple doesn't appeal the decision to keep Unreal for Mac and iOS, then this is probably a moot point. Your move, Apple.

For now, things look ok for Epic. “I can tell you right now that I am inclined not to grant relieve with respect to [Fortnite],” Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers said in a statement reported by Reuters’ Stephen Nellis, “but I am inclined to grant relieve with respect to the Unreal Engine.” And on Monday, the Judge ruled that Apple must keep Epic’s developer account running, while telling Epic that it was its own sweet fault that Fortnite got booted from the store.

Apple can still pull the plug on Fortnite, using its remote kill switch to remove the app from user’s iPhones and iPads. That would make Apple look pretty bad, though.

Benefits to Rival Unity 

Unreal Engine’s biggest rival is Unity, and Unity is so happy about this whole spat that it has filed for a $100 million IPO. According to the IPO filing, Unity’s rival engine is used in more than 50% of mobile, PC, and console games, and has two billion people using its apps every month. Unity has never made a profit, however, and according to its IPO filing, it has “generated net losses” of $163.2 million in 2019, and lost $54.1 million in the first half of 2020.

Unity being show in front of a crowd

However, Unity isn’t just a money furnace like Uber (losses in 2019 alone: $8.5 billion). It generated $542 million in revenue in 2019, up from the year before, and looks set to continue growing. The timing of the IPO might be coincidental, but it’s certainly a great opportunity. If Epic falters, Unity is there to mop up its customers.

Users Will Be Losers

Even if all game makers could and did switch to Unity, it would take a while. In reality, not all will make the switch. However this shakes out, some damage is done. Epic has lost credibility and trust, even if Judge Gonzalez Rogers rules to let Epic keep developing the Unreal Engine.

If Apple’s ban goes ahead, then many games will eventually stop working. And while iOS and the Mac will suffer in the short term, the biggest losers will be the little people.

“Ultimately, it'll cause more harm to small and indie developers than it does to either Apple or Epic,” says Crawshaw.

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