Google vs Epic Games


Before we dive into details of the Google vs Epic Games case, let’s set some context: Google’s app store policies have always been relatively open - at least in comparison to Apple. Unlike iOS, Android allows developers to distribute their apps via sideloading and alternative app stores. For apps distributed through the Play store, however, Google requires developers to use Google Play billing system, which takes a 30% cut on most in-app purchases (15% for subscriptions after year 1). 

It started with Project Liberty

On August 13 2020, Epic launched “Project Liberty” - a plan to intentionally violate app store policies and challenge Google Play’s payments policies. Basically, Epic surreptitiously released a new version of Fortnite to the Play Store that let users buy V-bucks at a discount directly from Epic, rather than going through Google Play’s billing system. As Epic anticipated, Google banned Fortnite from the Play Store that same day, claiming the new version didn’t meet Play Store guidelines. 

google vs epic games

Prepped and ready to go, Epic filed a lawsuit against Google in the United States a few hours later, arguing that its policies and actions were monopolistic and anti-competitive. 

In fact, Epic filed one against Apple at the same time - however, Google’s case took a pretty different course than Apple’s. Apple’s case was dealt with fairly swiftly, with the initial (mostly pro-Apple) judgment being handed down in September 2021, around a year after Fortnite was banned from the app stores. Google’s case, by contrast, only made it to court in December 2023, where it was crucially handled by a jury rather than a judge. Apple vs Epic, was a “bench” trial - decided by a judge (we’ll explain this more later on).

Also, Epic’s claims against Google were combined with similar complaints from other tech companies (Spotify and Match Group) and even joined by a coalition of 36 US States who all sued Google on similar grounds. This meant that, for a while, the Google app store case had a host of plaintiffs alongside Epic, all of whom, except for Epic, settled with Google a month before trial. The State AGs, Spotify, and Match Group were all pessimistic about their chances in front of a jury, so agreed to minor concessions from Google in exchange for some form of outcome. Keep reading for the full story. 

Epic’s anti-competition argument

Google technically enables sideloading (distributing apps outside of app stores) and downloads on alternative app stores. However, Epic argued that, unlike Apple’s black-and-white policies that ban any form of competitive app stores, Google used a range of more subtle tactics to prevent competition and maintain undue market power. 

These include forcing manufacturers into signing contracts that restricted competitive app distribution and, most notably, signing “sweetheart” deals with developers and publishers to maintain the Play Store’s position as the sole viable one Android app distributor in the West.

Project Hug, for example, was a Google initiative to quietly cut deals with 20+ major app and game companies (EA, King, Nintendo, Blizzard, Supercell, Riot, to name a few) in order to keep them in the Play Store and prevent them from either opening competitive stores or from using an existing competitive store. Google paid them hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure they wouldn’t follow Fortnite and leave. 

Project Hug was, in part, motivated by Fortnite’s original release on Android in 2018, when Epic released the app exclusively through sideloading from Epic’s website. In 2019, Google Play’s finance team raised concerns about the potential financial impact if developers followed Epic’s lead and launched their own app stores. They estimated potential losses ranging from $350 million to $6 billion by 2022 if alternative app stores gained traction. 

The next year, in 2020, Google struck deals with developers including Activision Blizzard, agreeing to pay approximately $360 million over three years, after Activision indicated it was considering launching its own app store. Later in 2020, Google also agreed to pay Riot Games about $30 million for a one-year deal to prevent them from launching a competing Android app store.

Epic even showed the jury that Google had a longstanding policy of paying off the biggest developers to stick with Google’s app store and payments services. In a 2013 email, a Google Play executive wrote he didn’t want it getting out that they pay partners to use its billing system. 

Also in 2019, Google proposed Project Banyan, a deal with Samsung to weaken its Galaxy Store. The first page in a slide deck about the project said, “How do we continue to keep Play as the preeminent distribution platform for Android?”. Basically, Google proposed putting the Play Store and the Galaxy Store side by side on the homescreen, but Google would still power the payments and security updates in the Galaxy Store. Samsung didn’t go through with it in the end. 

Finally, Epic accused Google of deleting internal texts and emails to conceal its anti-competitive behavior and destroy evidence - which of course, the judge (and jury) didn’t like hearing.

The jury’s verdict in Google vs Epic Games

Naturally, the evidence Epic showed during the trial didn’t sit well with the jury, who on December 11, 2023, found Google guilty on all 11 counts. In fact, the jury only deliberated for a few hours, unanimously answering yes to each question the judge asked - essentially declaring that Google deliberately prevented other app stores from competing in order to preserve its walled garden. 

In a blog, Epic Games wrote, the Google vs Epic Games “verdict is a win for all app developers and consumers around the world. It proves that Google’s app store practices are illegal and they abuse their monopoly to extract exorbitant fees, stifle competition and reduce innovation.”

The jury was a major factor in Epic’s win on all 11 counts. In contrast, Apple vs Epic Games was a judge trial, which saw Epic lose 10 out of the 11 counts. That’s because, typically, judges only look at previous legal precedent to base their ruling on, while juries have less technical interpretations of law and look at basic principles of fairness. Plus, because Apple is a closed ecosystem by nature, they don’t need to strike the same deals Google does to preserve its walled garden. This is why the backroom deals, deleted messages, and shady coverup worked so strongly against Google - it just came across as unfair

Google’s appeal and settlement

Following the shock of Google vs Epic Games verdict, a few things happened:

  • The settlement Google reached with Match, Spotify, and State AGs just before the trial were sealed until the verdict in the jury trial. That settlement faced scrutiny from the judge who oversaw both cases, and its future is somewhat in doubt until the judge’s remedy is in.
  • In February 2024, Google requested that the judge throw out the ruling or grant a new trial - which Judge James Donato quickly dismissed: “This conduct is a frontal assault on the fair administration of justice. It undercuts due process. It calls into question just resolution of legal disputes. It is antithetical to our system.”
  • Then, in April 2024, Google said they plan to appeal the judge's upcoming ruling - but we wouldn’t be shocked if that’s dismissed, too.

Epic proposes new policies for Google

Now, we’re waiting for Judge Donato to decide how to rectify the injustices identified by the jury - in other words, what will Google need to give up or change about their policies? 

In April 2024, Epic proposed some policy updates to Judge Donato, which they say would help boost competition and level the playing field: 

  • Require Google to make all Android apps in the Play Store available to competing stores 
  • Require Google to distribute rival app stores in the Play Store
  • Forbid Google from automatically installing the Play Store on Android phones 
  • Allow developers to offer alternative payment options without anti-competitive fees (blocking User Choice Billing)
  • Allow developers to communicate directly with players, including linking from their app to a web shop (basically, no more anti-steering provisions)
  • Forbid Google from making anti-competitive agreements and deals with developers

Google countered with a 90 page document opposing Epic’s proposals, arguing that the proposals would do more harm than good - threatening consumers’ privacy and security, while limiting financial incentives for developers and OEMs. 

Donato responded, “I just don’t buy it.” Donato will make his final ruling on what exactly Google needs to remedy in the coming months. Either way, the app store regulations that come from this ruling are sure to give much more freedom to game developers in the US. 

Google vs Epic Games: History and timeline

  • August 13, 2020: Epic purposefully violates Play Store policies and Google pulls Fortnite from the Play Store, prompting Epic to file an antitrust lawsuit against Google in the US
  • November 6, 2020: The Google vs Epic jury trial begins
  • October, 12 2021: Google countersues Epic over breach of contract
  • September 6, 2023: Google settles with 36 US attorneys general on a different antitrust case in exchange for Google paying $700 million out to consumers, reducing the User Choice Billing fee to from 30% to 26%, and loosening sideloading restrictions
  • November 1, 2023: Google settles with the Match Group on yet another antitrust case in exchange for $40 million and letting Match Group use Google’s User Choice Billing system
  • December 11, 2023: The jury delivers the verdict in the Google vs Epic games case, finding Google guilty on all 11 counts of anti-competitive behavior
  • February 2, 2024: Google asks the judge to reject the jury’s ruling
  • April 12, 2024: Epic proposes a series of injunctions, which Google vehemently opposes

Take a page out of Epic’s book

You don’t need to wait for all the legal proceedings to settle to use your own payment systems, like Epic did in Project Liberty. Talk to us at Stash to learn more about setting up alternative payments that are Play Store compliant, engaging, and profitable.

More caSh witH sTash