Epic Games announced today that it will not distribute its massively popular game Fortnite on Android through Google’s Play Store marketplace. Instead, the company plans to directly distribute the software to players through the official Fortnite website, where Android users can download a Fortnite Installer program to install the game on compatible devices. The news confirms reports from earlier this week that Epic would bypass Google for the Android launch of the game.
There is no concrete release date yet for the Android version of Fortnite, but rumors circulating suggest the game’s release will be tied to the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Note 9 launch. Epic declined to comment on the game’s release date or any partnership plans with Samsung.
Regardless, the announcement marks a bold departure from the widespread industry practice of using mobile operating system makers like Apple and Google for app distribution. For Fortnite on iOS, Epic decided to distribute the game on the App Store, most likely because it had no other method of getting iPhone users to easily download the software. (Apple, unlike Google, does not allow iOS users to download apps that are not first approved by its internal review processes and distributed through its proprietary marketplace.) With Google and its more open platform, Epic can get away with distributing the app itself.
CEO Tim Sweeney says the primary motivation here is twofold. Epic wants to maintain its direct relationship with consumers. (The company currently distributes Fortnite on PC through its own Epic Games Launcher, instead of using Valve’s popular Steam platform.)
“Epic wants to have a direct relationship with our customers on all platforms where that’s possible,” Sweeney told The Verge over email. “The great thing about the Internet and the digital revolution is that this is possible, now that physical storefronts and middlemen distributors are no longer required.”
The second reason is financial: Epic does not want to pay Google’s 30 percent cut, especially considering the entire game is funded through in-app purchases. “The 30 percent store tax is a high cost in a world where game developers’ 70 percent must cover all the cost of developing, operating, and supporting their games,” Sweeney says. “There’s a rationale for this on console where there’s enormous investment in hardware, often sold below cost, and marketing campaigns in broad partnership with publishers.”
But on mobile platforms that are open, like Android, “30 percent is disproportionate to the cost of the services these stores perform, such as payment processing, download bandwidth, and customer service,” he says. Sweeney adds that Epic is “intimately familiar with these costs” from its direct distribution of Fortnite on Mac and PC.
Fortnite on iOS made $15 million in its first three weeks on the market, so it’s reasonable to assume the mobile version of the game is a sizable source of revenue for Epic. Last month, the company also reduced the revenue cut it takes from asset makers who sell digital work on its Unreal Engine 4 platform, in part because of the ongoing financial success of Fortnite.
Reasonably, there are some concerns about how exactly this will work, and whether it opens up Android users to any potential security or data privacy risks since running third-party software outside the Play Store involves removing certain protections on Android devices. Sweeney says he doesn’t see security as a big issue here. “Gamers have proven able to adopt safe software practices, and gaming has thrived on the open PC platform through many sources.” He cites marketplaces like Steam, Activision Blizzard’s Battle.net, and Riot Games’ League of Legends platform.
“We’re confident Android will be similarly successful,” Sweeney adds. “Most importantly, mobile operating systems increasingly provide robust, permissions-based security, enabling users to choose what each app is allowed to do: save files; access the microphone; access your contacts. In our view, this is the way all computer and smartphone platforms should provide security, rather than entrusting one monopoly app store as the arbiter of what software users are allowed to obtain.”
There are a number of open questions from here onward, principally how Google will respond. (The company was not immediately available for comment.) Furthermore, we don’t know how this will eventually impact availability in China. Sweeney says the initial Android launch of Fortnite will be worldwide excluding China, and he says Epic is currently working out a China launch for both iOS and Android.
“Because Google Play doesn’t operate in China, the whole China Android market is already served by other direct-to-customer software sources such as Tencent’s WeChat and the Xiaomi Store,” Sweeney says. He added that the company is “exploring various possibilities” for distributing Fortnite on other third-party app stores, but it has nothing to announce right now.
That said, Epic’s move here will surely have a big impact on what app makers decide to do in the future. Fortnite is popular enough — it has more than 125 million registered players as of June — that scores of Android users will likely download the game at launch, even if it requires a little bit more technical know-how than usual. And Epic has the industry clout and technological resources to go it alone in this regard, as it has been doing for years now on the PC platform.
Still, that Epic is making such an audacious move with the Android release of Fortnite, which will arguably be its most popular platform, is an eye-popping turn of events for an already unprecedented gaming narrative.