Entertainment juggernaut Fortnite Battle Royale has been played by 125 million people worldwide, raking in an estimated $1.2 billion in revenue between September 2017 and May 2018. If you have a teenager or know one, you’re likely familiar with the game’s free-to-play, plenty-to-buy model. To date, it’s been digitally distributed on every major digital platform save one: Google’s Android mobile operating system.
Earlier this month, Epic announced it would release Fortnite on Android, but with a twist. Epic has chosen to do what only Amazon and few others have done: issue its product directly to consumers and bypass the Google Play storefront altogether.
Why did Epic choose this path, and what might the consequences be?
At its core, Android is an open platform. Open platforms are inherently flexible and provide a fantastic environment for software innovation. To support independent developers on Android, Google operates the Play Store, a digital distribution service that every Android phone can use to download apps and updates. For developers, Google Play is a valuable but expensive proposition. In exchange for Play’s valuable promotion, distribution, and payment services, Google keeps 30% of all sales.
Most developers bite the bullet and grudgingly give Google its cut. But for Epic, the calculation is different.
First, Epic has no need to worry about finding an audience, having massive success on Xbox One, Playstation 4, Nintendo Switch, iOS, Mac, and PC.
Second, Epic already has invested in infrastructure to distribute software updates and process global payments. Epic cut its teeth running dedicated servers for games like Gears of War, and now handles the entire suite of software and payment services for Fortnite players on PC. While that hasn’t gone flawlessly, Epic has done a remarkable job of handling unprecedented demand.
Forging its own path doesn’t come without risk for Epic. The company’s primary problem might be depending on features in Android’s Oreo version (or its latest release, Pie) to make Fortnite run effectively on mobile devices. Adoption of these new operating systems is rapidly growing, but Oreo users only comprise 12% of the total Android user base (Pie was released in early August and is not included in the referenced statistics). However, as Epic CEO Tim Sweeney has pointed out, Fortnite is intended for modern phones with higher-end graphical capability—where he estimates Oreo has grown past 35% penetration.
The game industry has seen a power shift in recent years from game platform owners toward game creators. Famed Fallout and Skyrim developer Bethesda Game Studios has taken public shots at Sony’s restrictions on cross-platform play, and Epic has long been willing to stake out a principled public stance. Kudos to Epic for embracing its authoritative role and taking a risk on Android—in hopes of even greater success.
Mike Capps is the co-founder and CEO of Diveplane Corporation, a seed-funded, understandable AI company. Capps was the president of Epic Games from 2004 to 2012.