In 2018, Google and Epic Games began a years-long feud Fortnite on the Play Store. Instead of distributing the game through Google Play, Epic decided that sideloading would be the best way Fortnite on Android, bypassing Google’s 30 percent revenue cut. Epic would subsequently file an antitrust complaint against Google, and new unsealed court documents spotted by The Verge reveal an interesting solution Google was working on at the time: the company was considering buying Epic.
In the document, Epic says repeatedly that Google viewed Epic’s Play Store as a “contagion” that could disrupt Google’s walled garden, and Google “considered buying some or all of Epic to quell this threat.” “. Epic CEO Tim Sweeney tweeted that this plan was “not known to us at the time”, indicating that Google never made a takeover offer. In 2018, investors gave Epic Games a $15 billion valuation, so Google would have needed a pretty hefty bid. Today, Epic’s latest funding round valued it at $29 billion. Imagine how different things could be today if Google owned an established game developer!
Epic’s antitrust complaints against Google revolve around the security, functionality, and contractual barriers Google says have been raised around third-party app stores on Android. To sideload an app on Android (such as a third-party app store), users have to go through several creepy messages warning them that sideloading is dangerous. Less tech-savvy users may be turned away by the high-friction installation process. And once installed, third-party app stores still can’t update apps in the background like Google Play can.
When Epic kicked off its plan to distribute Fortnite outside Google Play, a new document says that “senior Google Play executives began contacting Epic” to warn them that life outside the walled garden won’t be easy:
An executive reached out to Epic’s vice president and co-founder to gauge Epic’s interest in a special deal, discussing “the experience of getting Fortnite on Android” via instant download, among other things. The manager’s call notes state that she considered the direct download of Fortnite to be “frankly awful” and “an awful experience”, and that Epic should “worry that most won’t go through the 15+ steps”.
Later in the same document, Epic described the alleged contents of a Google document titled “Response to Epic:”
In an internal document titled “Response to Epic,” a Google employee explained that the “installation friction” associated with direct download was “not just a bad experience” for users, but that Google knew “from its data that it’s the [Epic’s] range.” The document further explains that “[f]uture [Fortnite] updates will be challenged regarding: targeting, update experience over the internet”; that the direct download approach was “most commonly associated with malicious apps”, which would be “incompatible with [Epic’s] brand/demography”; and that “[t]The approach will cause considerable user confusion ever since [Google Play] will still attract [billions] of users who will search for Fortnite and encounter dead ends that are not clear how to resolve.
The Google side of this argument would say that Android is much more open than iOS, which doesn’t allow sideloading at all. Google’s security stats regularly show an 8x-10x increase in malware on devices that allow sideloading, which is why the security warnings are there. In the court document, Epic claims that Google began pushing these stats through the media as an attack on Epic, but Google’s “Android Security Year in Review” series of this information dates back to 2014, before Fortnite even existed.
Google is making a concession to Epic in the upcoming Android 12 release, adding a new permission that allows third-party app stores to update apps in the background. The Android ecosystem’s indifference to sending out updates means many users don’t get a new OS until they buy a new phone, so it should take about four years for Android 12 to reach a majority of users.
Google’s hard-hitting tactics around the Play Store have also earned it an antitrust suit from 36 states. That lawsuit alleges that the company attempted to “preemptively destroy” competing app stores like the Samsung Galaxy Store. Today, the Galaxy Store is one of the largest Android distributors Fortnite.