It’s hard to miss the man with an apple for a head. Tall and lanky, he glares at the camera with hands steepled in sullen malevolence. His suit is sharp, his shirt is crisp, and his wire-framed glasses bear more an odd resemblance to those worn by Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple.
What he looks like, however, is less important than who sees him: namely, tens of millions of adults and children who regularly find him pushed onto their screens inside one of the most popular and addictive video games of the last decade.
The game is Fortnite , and the “bad apple” is a mascot within the game created as part of a fierce legal and PR battle being waged by its creator Epic Games against the iPhone titan. While the two companies duke it out in United States monopoly courts over Apple’s punishing 30pc App Store “tax”, Fortnite players – largely below the radar of parents and politicians – are being bombarded with in-game videos and messages that warn them of Apple’s perfidy and urge them to “#FreeFortnite”.
This type of strategy is far from unprecedented. Dubbed “user lobbying” by the digital campaigner Matt Stempeck, it was pioneered by gig economy start-ups such as Uber and Airbnb , who successfully used their guaranteed access to millions of voters via widely-used apps to whip up resistance against mayors who tried to regulate them.
But Stempeck, who continues to monitor the practice, believes #FreeFortnite is unusual in targeting a private company rather than a democratic government.
“I'm not sure we'll ever see a campaign like this again,” says Piers Harding-Rolls, gaming research director at Ampere Analysis. “While Epic's strategy may share some similarities with other campaigns, the extent of its strategy and the approach it is taking is unique.”
Indeed, #FreeFortnite is inescapable for regular players. When Epic launched a scathing parody of Apple’s famous “1984” TV advert, it played the video to anyone who booted up the game. There is a #FreeFortnite tournament and #FreeFortnite merchandise. Apple-man (technically the “Tart Tycoon”) is easily unlocked as a player avatar, and therefore easily shot at. All of this in a game played by children as young as 13.
“I have never heard of anything like it,” Harding-Rolls concludes. “That it comes from a multi-billion company makes it even more out there.”
In some ways the campaign resembles Epic’s existing recipe for hyping up its fans with in-game pop concerts and events, relentlessly promoted through every possible channel. Now the target is bigger, and the stakes are much higher.
Epic’s court filings reveal that iPhone and iPad users are a crucial chunk of Fortnite ‘s audience, with 63pc of them never using any other device. Since Apple banned Epic for violating its rules, the number of daily iOS players has plummeted by 60pc, and even those who still frequent its sprawling candy-hued island are spending fewer hours there.
Worse, Fortnite has prospered in part because of its “cross-play”– the ability of friends to play together regardless of what device each one of them uses. Now Epic has had to split Fortnite into two separate games, isolating iPhone players from those who use consoles or laptops and thereby diminishing the appeal of the network for everyone.
The dispute also threatens Epic’s popular Unreal engine, a software toolkit used in countless other games. Epic’s lawyers said game developers are “fleeing” due to Apple’s sanctions, which they described as an “existential threat”.
So how many people is #FreeFortnite rallying to Epic’s cause? “There is no doubt that this campaign is gaining real traction with Fortnite players,” says Andy Payne, chairman of the British Esports Association, though he also warns that the “undignified” row “ultimately does no one any good”.
Chris Williams, a professional Fortnite player for the British gaming team Fnatic, known to fans and peers by his handle “crr”, likewise says the campaign “blew up on Twitter, and it's gone down well with the average Fortnite player”.
But his own stance is not exactly passionate. “If you're old enough, you understand that this is business,” he says. “They are both doing what's in their best interest.” Since Fortnite pros overwhelmingly play on PCs, his own enjoyment of the game has not been touched: “Potentially it could change in the future, but right now we chillin'.”
In fact, startlingly few pros have publicly backed #FreeFortnite – and one of them, Ben “Edgey” Peterson, chose to replace the “free” part with another four letter word. In a recent survey of competitive players on Reddit , almost half rated the game as “bad” or “very bad”. Many feel it has burned their trust with past haughtiness. .
I would tweet out free fortnite, but you guys stopped listening to us after a black hole event, and took out patch notes. And now there is no communication, so frankly Idgaf
— NRG Edgey (@Edgeyy) August 13, 2020
Casual players are also incensed, filling Reddit’s Fortnite mobile board with jeremiads against Epic’s chief executive, Tim Sweeney. “Millions are shaking their heads at his ego…” said one. “This is Epic's way of getting rid of [iOS players] once and for all.” Others accused him of “taking advantage of kids and idiot YouTubers” or called on him to resign.
The campaign is unpopular enough that when board moderators tried to show “solidarity” with a #FreeFortnite banner they were forced to remove it within a day.
Some are simply going elsewhere, more in sadness than in anger. For seasoned players, Fortnite is kept alive by its thriving in-app economy, special prizes, community events and huge story events that permanently alter its map. Now those elements are like a ghost town, and its derelict news page hosts only a forlorn #FreeFortnite bulletin, like an obsolete billboard in a zombie film. “It feels like forever,” lamented one Redditor.
To Stempeck, a scarred veteran of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential run, Epic has made a series of “reckless” tactical blunders. “Airbnb hired Obama organisers to go door to door canvassing in New York City in their fight to stay legal ,” he says. ” Fortnite basically has a nice video and a hashtag and that’s it.”
Where, he asks, is Epic’s “strategic theory of change” – that is, its pitch to supporters as to how they can make a difference? Where are the calls to action, the clear goals? Where are the new “moments” and events to keep up momentum?
More dangerously, where is the alliance-building among other software makers? Though many have spoken out against Apple’s regime, few have been willing to call Apple’s bluff and let their app be suspended. “I was amazed that Epic was willing to take that step unilaterally,” says Stempeck, arguing that Epic’s best hope of forcing Apple’s hand is to rally other app makers to its cause.
Harding-Rolls offers another possibility, saying Epic’s actual goal may be to gather up testimony to lean on in its court case. “Epic's antitrust case also holds more weight if it can prove consumer harm, so it is aiming to frame Apple's App Store policies in the context of the consumer to support this position,” he says.
Yet the rage of gamers is famously unpredictable, often biting the hand that tries to direct it, and Epic’s provocation may prove a double-edged sword. Apple has been playing its own PR game via the App Store, confronting players with an error message that claimed Epic itself had removed the app.
On Tuesday, in their latest courtroom riposte, lawyers for the smartphone giant quoted furious Fortnite players who had “seen through Epic’s subterfuge” and rejected its attempt to “use its own customers as pawns”. One made a sanguine prediction: Apple will hold, Epic will fold, and Fortnite will “be back to normal in no time”.
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