• Salient Strategies

Uber's Lessons Paved the Way for Fortnite Fight

If you haven't heard of "Epic Games" before, you may have heard of (even if you haven't played) one of their most famous games, Fortnite. It is WILDLY popular among kids and young adults, garnering $1.8 billion in revenue for Epic just last year, making Epic worth an estimated $17 billion overall.

But you may have heard about a new fight that has popped up and made huge headlines lately - that Epic Games is suing Apple and Google over being expelled from each respective marketplace for trying to have in-game purchases that do not flow through the app stores.

Generally, this would be a very weird blog post to have on a government affairs website. But the tactics used by Epic in this fight seem awfully familiar and start to form a pattern that could inform how we see public affairs strategies evolving across the United States.

Public affairs is clearly about more than lobbying a state capitol for a law change, and these companies are showing how it can be done creatively through a built-in grassroots base to great effect.


- Apple and Google both have their own app stores/marketplaces where users can download apps, subscribe to services, and make in-app purchases.

- The in-app purchases are really the issue here and have been hotly debated and litigated over the years.

- Apple and Google have terms of service and rules in place for developers stating that Apple and Google will collect 30% of in-app purchasers, downloads (if they aren't free), and subscriptions effectively as a hosting fee. Both companies state that this is necessary because bandwidth isn't free, and neither is hosting. It costs money to host these platforms and it shouldn't be a free service especially with the sheer number of apps there are at this point.

- Developers say that Apple and Google play favorites and that the rules are not uniformly applied to everyone. They also say that the 30% fee is excessive and that the two giants operate anti-competitively by forcing everyone to use their app store/marketplace services and banning apps that don't comply.

What Happened

Fortnite created a way around in-app purchases by creating a store inside the app and offering a permanent 20% discount on in-app purchases that do not go through the Apple/Google store payment system.

Naturally, Fortnite was promptly kicked off of both platforms so that iPhone/Android users who had not already downloaded the game no longer could find it to download and play.

However, and here's where it matters for our purposes...Epic/Fortnite had essentially set a trap for Apple & Google. They had a full PR campaign, anti-trust lawsuits, viral video, and twitter campaign at the ready, and unleashed absolute hell on both companies.

Here's the video that Epic launched on their website the minute that they were booted off the platforms:

...which specifically parodies this video put out by Apple which put them on the map in the fight against IBM in 1985:

A Lesson from Uber

If we've learned anything from Uber or the great scooter wars of 2018, it's that sometimes companies can create an intense loyalty and perceived need by their customer base such that the customers themselves will advocate on the company's behalf.

Uber didn't ask for permission. They set up in cities and their PR/marketing went to work, gathering hundreds and thousands of users in record time. And then they weaponized those users against any regulator who wanted to shut them down for violating archaic rules that kept the existing (usually frustrating) framework in place.

So Uber went after the taxi industry because taxis had a horrible public perception and they were easy to root against, especially when the alternative was cleaner, faster, more reliable, and mobile-friendly.

Same goes for the scooter wars. Cities hated, and continue to hate, scooters (whether they'll say it out loud or not). They popped up all over the US using the Uber model of asking for forgiveness rather than permission, and soon they were so pervasive that even South Park made a parody episode about them - the true mark of "making it" in pop culture.

But this tactic only really works when you have a product that is perceived by its users as SO necessary and popular that the users themselves will fight for it. It's usually rare, but it seems to be more and more common lately.

Fortnite's Gambit

Epic is gambling on a few things here, for better or worse:

- Apple and Google have been sued on this exact issue multiple times before, with the same non-result - settlement or dismissal. But this time may be different - Epic is putting its $17 billion to work for them, whereas no one previously had near that deep of pockets.

- The PR campaign is sophisticated and ruthless. They are striking Apple specifically at a time some are already arguing that Apple has lost its way since the death of visionary Steve Jobs. The viral video depicting them as the same goliath monster that Apple warned against with IBM is brutal advertising, and it's working.

- Epic knows it's demographic better than anyone. They know that their users are young and active on social media. They know that their users LOVE this game, and will very likely blast out a few mean spirited tweets with the hashtag #FreeFortnite at the drop of a hat if it will get their game back into prime form.

- They are also betting on the developer community to get behind them, and some already are. Facebook, Spotify, and Match have all already come out in support of Epic. They're going to need all the help they can get though because they are hitting at a big source of income for the two companies - Apple made around $15 billion from their app store just last year - and they will protect it at all costs.

What's Next?

It's certainly possible that this is just a case of a few companies fighting with each other over money. But it's also very possible that we're seeing companies getting much savvier at public affairs and public relations campaigns to move the needle on an issue they care about.

Public affairs is clearly about more than lobbying a state capitol for a law change, and these companies are showing how it can be done creatively through a built-in grassroots base to great effect.

But one thing is also very clear. To do it well, you need to choose your battles and your targets very carefully, time it right, make sure you aren't on that island alone, and put the effort and money behind it that it needs to succeed.

©2020 by Salient Strategies