The Epic Fight About The Metaverse

Do you play Fortnite? If not, like me, there’s still a high likelihood that you will have come across the game in recent weeks. Epic Games, its developer, is currently embarking on a fight against Apple

The narrative Epic is trying to push was brilliantly illustrated through a short clip the company released in August: Apple, once the start-up intent on breaking IBM’s monopoly of the PC world, has now become Big Brother: controlling the way we access information, consume entertainment, and pay for services.

What happened? Epic attempted to add its own payment system to Fortnite, circumventing Apple’s 30% fee for in-app purchases. As this breached Apple’s standardised rules, Apple responded by banning Fortnite from the App Store. Further, Apple threatened to impede access to Unreal Engine, Epic’s developer ecosystem.

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The conflict fundamentally revolves around the “railroad” problem. Back during the Roosevelt era of trustbusting, half a dozen US rail companies controlled 90% of the market for coal. This led to high prices for buyers and made it difficult for smaller coal companies to transport their goods. While history doesn’t repeat itself, it certainly rhymes. Today Big Tech today controls entire markets. Their platforms have become essential to how the world communicates and conducts business.

There have been complaints for years that Big Tech puts its own products and services at an unfair advantage. More recently, a “Coalition of App Fairness” (incl. Spotify & Match-Group) has formed to protest against Apple’s alleged anti-competitive behaviour. Spotify has been fighting against the “Apple tax” for years. Microsoft, also a major games developer, backs Epic’s efforts to isolate Unreal Engine from the Apple lawsuit. Meanwhile, Tencent & Sony have a minority stake in Epic. Suddenly, Apple, once America’s favourite tech company, seems under attack from all fronts.

In late August, a judge upheld Apple’s Fortnite ban for breach of guidelines, but ruled that Apple cannot cut off Unreal Engine, as it would harm innocent third parties. For both companies there’s a lot at stake. An Epic win would threaten Apple’s App Store ecosystem. Meanwhile, a pushback against Epic would derail the company’s grand vision for the Internet’s next big thing: the Metaverse.

Tim Sweeney, Epic’s billionaire founder, has made no secret of his admiration for this digital world. The Metaverse refers to a virtual space that’s always online and active. It has its own economy, jobs, and relationships. Whether you’re located in Melbourne or Amsterdam doesn’t matter. It’s a place where your unfulfilled real-world desires get fulfilled. Fortnite – and the gaming sector – have come closest towards mirroring a version of Metaverse due to the sheer power of gaming devices and the strong bond of the gaming community.

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Fortnite, the Metaverse’s flagship game, currently counts 350 million users. That number alone exceeds the entire US population. Sweeney is well aware of the market’s size and growth potential. And when a norm-defying nerd has the opportunity to create his digital utopia, one thing is sure: he doesn’t want a gatekeeper in place.

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