CEO of Fortnite game maker casts Google as a ‘crooked’ bully in testimony during Android app trial
SAN FRANCISCO– Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney on Monday portrayed Google as a ruthless bully who resorts to shady tactics to protect a predatory payment system.
His portrayal was reflected in an antitrust lawsuit focused on Epic Games’ attempt to upend Google’s store for Android phone apps.
Sweeney’s more than two-hour stay on the witness stand in San Francisco came less than a week after Google CEO Sundar Pichai defended before a 10-person jury the way his company manages the Play Store for Android apps. It is one of two antitrust cases against Google, whose $1.7 trillion technology empire is threatened by legal attacks seeking to break up the company.
Testimony in the app case for Android phones is expected to be completed before Christmas.
The other case, targeting Google’s dominant search engine, ended last week but won’t be decided by a federal judge in Washington DC until next year.
While Sweeney tried to portray Google as a greedy monopolist questioned by his own lawyer, Google lawyer Jonathan Kravis tried to flip the script. Much of Kravis’ cross-examination seemed designed to portray Sweeney as an executive primarily interested in circumventing a long-standing commission system to boost his video game company’s profits.
Epic, the maker of the popular Fortnite game, claims that Google engages in illegal price gouging by collecting commissions ranging from 15% to 30% on in-app digital transactions. It’s similar to a payment system that Epic unsuccessfully challenged in a parallel lawsuit against Apple’s iPhone app store. Epic will appeal the outcome of the Apple trial to the US Supreme Court.
Unlike Apple’s iPhone app store, Google already allows competition with the Play Store – something Epic tried to do when it decided to roll out Fortnite for Android phones on its own website instead of the Play Store in 2018.
In his testimony on Monday, Sweeney recalled how Google called him to its headquarters in Mountain View, California to try to convince Epic to release Fortnite on the Play Store instead. Sweeney said Google tried to entice him with a wide range of financial incentives, but he refused.
“It seemed like a crooked arrangement,” Sweeney told the jury. “Google proposed a series of side deals that seemed designed to convince Epic not to compete with them.”
Sweeney’s action came after Epic’s lawyers previously showed Google documents showing that Google had offered video game maker Activision Blizzard a $360 million package to drop a preliminary plan to compete with the Play Store.
Google’s lawyers presented other documents showing that the deal would give Activision more than $315 million in benefits.
After rebuffing Google’s overtures, Epic attempted to distribute Fortnite for Android through its own website. But Sweeney testified that effort quickly became “a depressing process” as far fewer gamers downloaded Fortnite for Android phones than expected. He attributed the disappointing response to Google’s machinations, making it a cumbersome process outside the Play Store and using pop-up “scare screens” that warn of potential problems with the software.
“We realized that Google was a tough opponent and could hinder us,” Sweeney said.
Epic finally released Fortnite on the Play Store in 2020, while devising a secret plan to ultimately bypass the commission system by surreptitiously introducing an alternative payment option as part of what Sweeney called “Project Liberty.”
The alternative payment option was released in August 2020 in revised Fortnite apps for both the Play Store and the iPhone app store, prompting both Apple and Google to block it within a few hours. Epic subsequently filed antitrust lawsuits as part of what Sweeney described as a crusade on behalf of all game makers as more gaming is done on smartphones instead of consoles and PCs.
“It’s an issue that I think is existential for all games, including Epic,” Sweeney said.
During his questioning of Sweeney, Google lawyer Kravis explained the 30% commission that Epic pays to Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo without complaint for transactions on the PlayStation, Xbox and Switch consoles, while still raking in billions of dollars in profits on those platforms.
In response to a judge’s question, Sweeney revealed that video game consoles and personal computers generated more than 90% of Epic’s revenue from in-app purchases during the period in 2020, when Fortnite was also in the iPhone app store and the Play Store . .
Sweeney didn’t say why Epic hasn’t objected to the 30% commission on gaming devices other than smartphones, but he left no doubt about his goal in this trial.
“We want the jury to find that Google broke the law so that the court can force Google to stop these practices,” Sweeney said.