Epic Games, makers of the uber-popular Fortnite: Battle Royale, have confirmed that the game’s Android version will not be available on the Google Play store. Instead, Epic will make an installer for the free-to-play game available on its website when it’s released, probably very soon. The decision is bold, given the stranglehold the Play Store has on Android software distribution—and Fortnite’s popularity means it has some worrisome implications for Google.
Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, in a Q+A with Eurogamer, said that avoiding Google’s 30% distribution fee is a major part of his company’s motivation. In his words, the fee is “disproportionate to the cost of services these stores perform, such as payment processing, download bandwidth, and customer service.”
That sounds an awful lot like a rallying cry for other mobile developers to skip the Play store and keep Google’s cut for themselves. It’s not quite that simple, because the Play store offers incomparable exposure for even fairly large game and software publishers. Fortnite’s immense popularity—last month the game passed $1 billion in revenue from other platforms—puts it in a class by itself, and those who want to find the game certainly will. But even users already specifically looking for it are likely to head to the Play store first, and it will inarguably be less visible to potential new converts. The move could also create tension between the publisher and Google, though Sweeney doesn’t seem worried about this—he says his company “looks forward to continued collaboration with Google”.
At the same time, Epic’s decision to direct its audience away from the Play store could radically shift the way many users think about Android. Android, unlike Apple’s iOS, allows users to install third-party apps directly, a process often known as “side loading.” It’s not terribly complex, and Epic’s proprietary installer will likely make the process extra smooth.
Epic also isn’t the first big player to try and leverage the process to undercut Google’s grip on Android app distribution—Amazon, most notably, asks users to side-load its own Amazon Appstore. And there are plenty of tech-savvy users who are happy to take a few extra steps to install homebrewed, pre-release, or outright illicit apps. But Fortnite is particularly popular among users in their teens and 20s, and for many of them, installing apps directly to a phone (or for that matter, to a PC) is likely an alien concept. Epic’s decision to bypass the Play store will open their eyes to the possibilities, in turn making it more appealing for publishers to stray.
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This could actually be healthy for Android’s brand awareness, as it’s a demonstration of the system’s openness and flexibility. On iOS, side-loading apps outside of Apple’s app store is effectively not even an option, and with rising anxiety about digital monopolies, now might be the moment for Google to leverage that core difference. (Fortune has reached out to Google for any comment on Epic’s announcement).
But there’s a reason Google built the Play store in the first place: It’s a big money-maker, and it’s only getting bigger. Revenue from the Play store and Apple’s App Store jumped 35% between 2016 and 2017, with the Play store generating an estimated $20.1 billion in sales last year. If users get used to the idea of installing apps directly from publishers, growth in that revenue stream could slow or even reverse.
There are also risks for would-be Fortnite players. As Eurogamer points out, requiring users to download and install the game from the web vastly increases the likelihood that they’ll download a fake version loaded with malware. In fact, there were already examples of fake Fortnite downloads months before the real Android version was near release. Sweeney says that “open platforms are an expression of freedom,” but also that “with that freedom comes responsibility” for users to be careful to only install software from trusted sources.
Recent months have offered plenty of examples of the dangers of highly centralized and semi-curated digital ecosystems, from Amazon to Facebook. That suggests Epic’s unorthodox move and emphasis on user responsibility could be healthy overall, particularly since the Play store itself has been a fairly frequent vector for malware. But for Google, it introduces a big dose of uncertainty.