Epic's legal battle with Apple over the future of Fortnite has quickly turned into an existential battle over one of the game studio's most lucrative and vital assets: the Unreal Engine platform.
After removing Fortnite from the App Store, Apple targeted Epic's other developer account tied to the game engine and put the company's licensing business at risk by threatening to cut support for iOS and macOS. Epic issued a short-term restraining order late Monday night to protect the business in the short term. However, the fate of the Unreal Engine is still up in the air, endangering an entire ecosystem of third-party tools based on the engine.
The fate of the Unreal Engine is in the air
As Epic warned in a court motion last week, Apple's moves against the Unreal Engine would threaten the software behind "hundreds of video games, the human brain, Baby Yoda and space travel." Most of these projects have no obvious connection to Epic Games and Fortnite, but they rely on the company and its tools in their work. And with Epic and Apple embarking on years of legal warfare, those projects are likely to get disrupted too.
The Unreal Engine was co-developed with the first person shooter Unreal in 1998 and has become a cornerstone of Epic's business and the entire gaming industry. It is currently used by dozens of game makers, Hollywood production and special effects studios, and other companies in the 3D rendering and computer graphics space.
Epic also uses the engine to build its own games, including Fortnite and previous big hits like Gears of War and Unreal Tournament. Numerous big budget game makers have also ditched custom internal engines for epics, such as Gearbox Software (Borderlands 3), Riot Games (Valorant), and Square Enix (Final Fantasy VII Remake). Epic licensed the software to thousands of developers who did not have the resources to create their own engine and received a five percent license fee for everything that was created. This licensing has made Epic's Unreal Engine a popular toolkit, even for big budget games, only rivaling the more mobile-focused Unity.
The Unreal Engine is at risk of collateral damage in Epic's battle with Apple
Now there is a risk that the engine will become collateral damage in the company's battle for in-app payments in Fortnite. When Apple removed Fortnite by revoking Epic's primary app developer account, Apple also planned to revoke the developer account that Epic uses to maintain the Unreal Engine on iOS to remove linked accounts after a breach of contract.
The court has prevented Apple from revoking this account for the next few weeks. However, it remains to be seen whether the account will remain protected for the duration of the process. (A temporary injunction to settle the matter is slated for September 28th.) However, if Apple prevails – either in the injunction or in the further case – Epic's testing tools for the Unreal Engine will suffer the same fate as Fortnite and the system is cutting off updates and broader development.
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
If Apple successfully fends off the injunction next month, the effect will not be felt immediately, and games that run on the Unreal Engine will continue to work on iOS – at least until a fatal error occurs. However, the longer-term effects could be disastrous, especially for iOS game developers. Because Apple controls the process by which developers create, test, and then submit iOS apps and future updates for review, Epic is unable to incorporate new operating system features or implement updates and bug fixes due to Unreal's inability to support the iOS platform A game developer may need to keep the product running and functional.
"If Epic were to lose access to Apple's developer tools, it wouldn't damage any current Unreal apps in the App Store (or other platforms)," said Riley Testut, a popular game emulator developer who now operates an alternative mobile app store called AltStore says The Verge. “The problem is more for developers in the future. If Epic cannot use Apple's tools, bug fixes or new features cannot be released. This would most likely mean that Unreal-based games would break at some point in future versions of iOS and macOS, and nothing Epic could do about it. "
Microsoft raised a similar point in court in a statement filed last week. “Developing a game with different game engines for different platforms can be prohibitively expensive and difficult. In any case, it's not as cost effective as using a game engine that supports multiple platforms, ”said Kevin Gammill, general manager for game developer experiences at Microsoft, in a Microsoft-filed statement of support for Epic. According to Gammill, Apple's termination of the Epic account would "place the company between its customers and prospects on the iOS and macOS platforms or choosing a different game engine in preparation for new game development." must choose ".
“As for Epic, the Unreal Engine is actually being destroyed. It will no longer be a viable engine. "
Gammill specifically cited Microsoft Forza Street, a mobile version of its Turn 10 Studios racing franchise, as an example of a game based on iOS support in the Unreal Engine. "Even uncertainty about Unreal Engine's ability to continue to support iOS and macOS will make Microsoft (and, I believe, other game developers) less likely to choose Unreal Engine for their projects," he wrote. "When game developers plan development projects that can take years, it is important to have confidence that the engine you choose will continue to be available and supported on all platforms on which game developers want to distribute their games."
Unreal Engine is primarily used for console and PC game development, but it has a growing mobile business that is becoming increasingly important as the gaming industry has shifted towards cross-platform gaming. Epic specifically promotes a developer toolkit that works with Unreal Engine and is called Epic Online Services, which enables games to use technology originally developed for Fortnite. The cross-platform nature of the engine is a selling point that makes it one of the preferred platforms for building virtual worlds. Without an Apple developer account, Epic cannot promise any of these benefits to developers interested in iOS. This is an undesirable shock as its main competitor, Unity, prepares to go public.
At Monday's hearing, an epic attorney argued that even the Apple thread that canceled the account linked to the Unreal Engine had developers "escaped" from the platform. “As for Epic, the Unreal Engine is actually being destroyed. It will no longer be a viable engine, ”argued Katherine Forrest of the Cravath, Swaine & Moore law firm that Epic is representing on the case. “If Epic can't offer this with the Unreal Engine, Unreal Engine will no longer exist. We get information from developers who say they are now fleeing the Unreal Engine. "
For companies that are also building smaller, less graphics-intensive projects like indie games that can be ported to multiple platforms, the lack of iOS support for Unreal Engine would be a deal breaker. For a game developer, switching to a different engine often means cutting almost every hour of work on an ongoing project and starting from scratch.
The Unreal Engine is also becoming increasingly important for Hollywood projects with real-time rendering. In particular, Disney and Lucasfilm have turned to the Epic engine as a filmmaking tool to create virtual sets, characters and animations for large Star Wars projects like Solo, Rogue One and The Mandalorian.
The set of Disney's The Mandalorian. Production teams used Unreal Engine 4 to create virtual sets.
Image: Industrial Light & Magic and Lucasfilm Ltd.
More than half of the first season of The Mandalorian was actually filmed using custom LED walls showing virtual sets, all powered by the Unreal Engine, so the crew could see in real time what the recording would look like weeks and months earlier Post production and special effects teams have completed the final product. Disney and Lucasfilm did not respond to a request for comment about how the ongoing litigation might affect the development of Star Wars projects.
Unreal Engine is also used by automakers like Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen to design cars using visualization and other software processes. Architectural firms use the engine for similar reasons, allowing these companies to visualize ongoing projects in real time. Epic also licenses Unreal to broadcast and produce live events. The engine can create real-time graphics, overlays, and other real-time rendered assets.
A well-known example is The Weather Channel's now viral mixed reality segments, which combine the effects and visual effects of simulated natural disasters around real hosts in the studio using Unreal Engine.
Many of these projects do not require iOS functionality, but may have their backend systems running on macOS, which will be less affected. Without the support of macOS in Unreal Engine, Epic will lose access to macOS testing tools and the ability to release quick updates that may contain bug fixes and security patches. Apple now also requires authentication – in other words, Apple approval – of third-party apps, even on macOS, provided they have a developer ID. Without this Developer ID or authentication, Unreal Engine users would have to effectively check for updates and click through security warnings Apple imposes on third-party software that has not been verified.
"Imagine losing access to your Google account and everything connected to it," an iOS developer who refused to be named for fear of negative effects on Apple told The Verge. "Apple is very much switching to a Mac that requires software to be signed and notarized with Apple, and Epic would no longer be able to do that." At the moment, attempting to run unsigned software on Mac is showing scary warnings and can be bypassed. Not so sure in the future. "
"It would be the end of the line for Unreal Engine on the Mac."
The developer says the effects of losing macOS support like iOS won't be felt immediately, but the risk could put businesses off. “Because of this uncertainty, developers could no longer rely on Unreal Engine to support Apple's platforms. For example, Epic would not be able to release its tools to support Apple Silicon, so it would be the end of the line for Unreal Engine on the Mac, ”they said.
It's too early to say whether the rhetoric used by Epic's legal team – claiming the Unreal Engine was "utterly destroyed" – is an exaggeration or whether Apple really has the power to keep a billion dollar company on its knees cutting off or even threatening to cut off a single developer account by terminating. But Epic has pledged to continue its battle without taking back the Fortnite update that sparked the unprecedented showdown with Apple. And it's now clear that Apple is ready to do everything in its power to ensure Epic doesn't leave a trail that other developers may want to follow.