Apple's out to crush Fortnite and Unreal Engine, Epic Games says. Apple refuses to make exception

Fortnite maker Epic says Apple has "retaliated ferociously" to its lawsuit over kicking its hit battle royale game off the app store.

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Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
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Epic is in a similar lawsuit against Google, which also kicked Fortnite off its app store.

Angela Lang/CNET

Apple and Epic's legal battle dramatically escalated over the weekend. What began as an argument over Epic Games wanting to charge players directly for in-game items for its hit game Fortnite , instead of using Apple's payment system and the up to 30% commission it charges, has turned into a battle that threatens to upend game development across the industry.

After Apple kicked Fortnite and its more than 250 million players from the app store last week, Epic said in a Monday court filing that the iPhone maker is further threatening to ban the Unreal Engine code it offers to outside game developers to help them make apps of their own. 

"Not content simply to remove Fortnite from the App Store, Apple is attacking Epic's entire business in unrelated areas," Epic said in its filing, adding that Apple's set a deadline of Aug. 28. "If the Unreal Engine can no longer support Apple platforms, the software developers that use it will be forced to use alternatives." 

Epic is in a similar lawsuit against Google, which also kicked Fortnite off its app store Thursday for attempting to circumvent its commissioned payment system.

Watch this: Fortnite app banned on iOS, Android shops

Apple in a statement late Monday noted Epic "has been one of the most successful developers on the App Store," and wants it to remain on its service. In order to do that, though, Apple said Epic would need to revert Fortnite to an earlier version of the game to "comply with the guidelines they agreed to and which apply to all developers." That includes how Epic collects money from gamers.

"We won't make an exception for Epic because we don't think it's right to put their businesses interests ahead of the guidelines that protect our customers," an Apple spokeswoman added.

You may see Epic's lawsuit with Apple as a corporate squabble between two multibillion-dollar companies, and the drama certainly feels like it. Epic even launched a video parody of Apple's famous 1984 Super Bowl Macintosh ad, depicting the game maker as battling the powerful tech giant. Epic even asked users to tweet the hashtag #FreeFortnite, which shot to the top trending item worldwide on Twitter within an hour of the video's release.

Despite the antics, Epic argues its push to charge customers directly in Fortnite for in-game items is an effort to loosen Apple's grip on its app store and the more than 1 billion devices that use it. Now, with Apple's threat to punish outside app developers who use Epic's Unreal Engine, Epic says the iPhone maker is threatening its business model too.

Apple meanwhile says its fees of up to 30% are reasonable when compared to its peers, and it even hired a team of outside economists to prove it. Apple's also argued the commissions it charges for in-app purchases in part help pay for the app store's operations and further development. The notable exception to its list of peers is Epic, which charges 12% to developers who sell titles on its Epic Games Store for PCs

The European Union is investigating Apple over its 30% commission after music streaming service Spotify filed a complaint.

Apple only allows users to install apps from its app store, citing its security and reliability testing for each app that ensures they're safe. Devices powered by Google's Android software can use Google's app store, but the company also offers a way to manually install Fortnite without having to go through the app store. People who installed Fortnite on their iPhones, iPads and other devices before the app was banned so far can continue to play the game.

Epic on Monday asked the court for a preliminary injunction in its pending legal battle with Apple, essentially allowing Fortnite back on the app store until the legal proceedings conclude. Apple doesn't appear to have filed a response so far, according to court records.