Epic Games launched its courtroom war against Apple in an extremely curious way: with CEO Tim Sweeney describing the metaverse of Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow crash.
It is “a real-time, computer-driven 3D entertainment and social medium where real people go into a 3D simulation together and have all kinds of experiences,” Sweeney explained to a courtroom shielded by plastic barriers and a series of teleconference hotlines. .
The metaverse is Sweeney’s chosen metaphor for this Fortnite, the battle royale game that Apple banned from the iOS App Store last year. Epic sued in retaliation, and today both companies issued opening statements before Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers. Epic put Sweeney in the stands for hours of exhaustively detailed questions about – among other things – Epic’s Unreal Engine, game consoles, the App Store, and what players are doing on Fortnite’s party island. Sweeney positioned himself on the way Fortnite as something much bigger than a simple video game: it is “a phenomenon that transcends gaming,” he told the court. And in Epic’s story, Apple is falsely demanding a cut in profits.
While Sweeney called Epic’s fight with Apple a “ fireworks show, ” today’s session wasn’t as dramatic as that suggests. Sweeney is a generally soft-spoken man who testified through a barely audible microphone setup after a long period of problem solving with random teens shouting ‘free Fortnite! to accidentally un-muted conference lines. Epic’s legal team was responsible for asking questions that shaped Sweeney’s statements, resulting in both highly tailored questions (“How would you define the metaverse?”) and comical general (“Are you familiar with something called a ‘console’?”)
More generally, Apple and Epic held battle lines they drew months ago. “Developers were caught in a trap set by Apple,” Epic argued in his opening statement, and “the most common flower in the walled garden was the Venus flycatcher.” Apple responded by calling Epic’s lawsuit “a fundamental attack on Apple’s secure and integrated ecosystem.” During a cross-examination, Apple’s attorney urged Sweeney to confirm that Epic spent nearly a decade playing by Apple’s rules before starting surgery code name ‘Project Liberty’ to ignore them. Both sides promoted lofty ideals (freedom for Epic, security for Apple) and seemed shocked – shocked – that their opponent was trying to make money.
But hearing the arguments made it clear which tactic was most likely to stick. Epic and Apple compose Epic’s requirements very differently. Epic mostly stuck to discussing its most moderate request: that Apple let developers process in-app purchases through their own systems, without circumventing Apple’s fees. Apple highlighted the most extreme question: that Apple let iPhone owners load aside third-party app stores like the Epic Games Store. The former would be a major blow to Apple’s bottom line. The latter would transform iOS and create security issues that are much easier for Apple to explain. (These are separate claims, so Judge Rogers might find both sides’ arguments compelling here.)
Apple’s attorney did not complete Sweeney’s cross-examination on Monday. But he hammered out Epic’s willingness to do business with game companies like Sony, who lock their consoles in a way that Apple compares to the iPhone. For example, Sony requires Epic to pay when a user plays Fortnite mostly on PlayStation but spend a lot of money on another platform like PC. But Epic hasn’t complained about that deal.
On the other hand, Epic may point to an intuitive sense that the iPhone platform is larger and more comprehensive than the Xbox or PlayStation. But Sweeney and his lawyers have made a much finer distinction with regard to the business model, saying that console makers typically sell their hardware at a loss, so they have an incentive to treat developers better.
Judge Rogers actively questioned that distinction during today’s testimony. “Apple had to do something with the iPhone itself in terms of the technology of the iPhone so that it would be advanced enough to play your software,” she said. “How is that different from consoles – not so much about payment, but about developing the technology to play your product?”
This lawsuit is about the entire App Store model, and when Apple witnesses start to argue, that will become more apparent. Epic will grill them about Apple’s business practices and whether it lives up to its promise of a safe developer and iOS user experience. But Sweeney neatly explained a more personal view of the conflict: Fortnite is Epic’s answer to the web, and Apple wants 30 cents of every virtual dollar an iPhone user spends on it.