Apple Says Epic Games’ Developer Account Will Be Terminated in Two Weeks, Threatening the Viability of Games Built on Unreal Engine

Do I have to write about gigantic companies battling in a way that is shitty for everyone? I suppose I don’t — I am my own editor, for better and for worse, and it bums me out. Forgive me for not being invested in the plight of companies that make more money every day than I will see in my lifetime. But I am interested in its effects, and it is capital-i Important so here, begrudgingly, is the latest development.

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

The new legal battle between game developer Epic and iPhone-maker Apple continues to heat up, as Epic says Apple will be cutting it off from the developer platform for Mac and iOS before the end of this month.

Epic wrote in a court filing (PDF) that Apple said its membership in the Developer Program will be terminated as of August 28. According to Epic, Apple’s move threatens not only Fortnite but also every game that uses Unreal Engine: “By August 28, Apple will cut off Epic’s access to all development tools necessary to create software for Apple’s platforms — including for the Unreal Engine Epic offers to third-party developers, which Apple has never claimed violated any Apple policy,” Epic said.

This sounds extraordinary — the Verge highlighted the word “catastrophic” in its headline — but, so far, it seems by the book:

  • Given that Apple is having a dispute with the way payments are implemented in Fortnite and has no problem with Unreal Engine, there seems to be some confusion about why the latter would be affected by this dispute. It seems likely that both are managed under the same developer account, so if that account is terminated, it would lose the ability to sign anything.

  • The letter Apple sent Epic Games, which begins on page number 51 of the copy of the filing Cox posted, is not exactly a form letter, but similar wording can be found in other cases across the web. A fourteen-day timeframe to comply or appeal is typical for flagrant and repeated disregard of App Store policies. Apple has said that it treats all developers the same, though we know that is not strictly true. But, in this case, Apple’s ultimatum is in line with precedent.

  • Apple lays out explicitly prohibited behaviours for its App Store. Epic Games knowingly violated those terms. Apple responded as it would if any developer submitted an app that, after approval, enabled a workaround for Apple’s in-app payment mechanism. Now we’re all supposed to be upset?

If anything, this teaches us that those who run platforms ought to behave responsibly. That goes for Apple; it is also true for Epic Games, as it decided to embark on this public relations battle and lawsuit with little regard for all of the developers that rely on Unreal Engine.

So, is all of this to say that Apple is the hero in this situation? Oh hell no; on a PR basis alone this is a terrible move. Epic Games is portraying it as the nuclear option in the filing, though it should be noted that it carefully avoids saying that it could simply resubmit its app in a way that follows the rules.

Those rules are what is at stake here. So far, my argument that Apple was playing by the book is based on the notion that the book is accurate and can be trusted. Epic is arguing that these rules are deeply flawed and, to prove it, it is possible that it was forced to break the rules. That doesn’t absolve the company of rule-breaking; it’s just that none of the effects of the last several days should be a surprise. Epic is probably right that Apple should have changed the App Store rules. What surprises me is that a company as notoriously controlling as Apple might be required to let lawyers and judges make those changes instead of doing so of its own volition.