There is no question about Apple’s dominance in the smartphone market. The iPhone accounts for approximately 50% of all smartphones in the United States and there are an estimated 1 billion iPhones across the globe. For developers looking to distribute their apps or games to as many customers as possible, the Apple App Store is a must. Of course, Apple tightly controls access and requires developers to comply with Apple’s terms and policies, including with respect to customer payments. For real-money skill-game developers, the App Store is even more important because it is essentially the only way to get their product onto mobile phones. In May 2021, Google banned real-money skill games from its Play store. Setting aside sideloading (risky) and progressive web apps (not familiar to all), if you want real-money skill games on a smartphone, Apple is your only option.
One of the more controversial App Store rules is the 30% commission on all transactions. In essence, whether a developer sells their app for a one-time fee, offers a reoccurring subscription, or provides an option for in-app purchases, 30% of the payment goes to Apple. In the gaming market, this model is especially profitable in so-called “freemium” games, which are free to download and play, but offer players the option to unlock additional content, levels, and other upgrades for an additional fee. The insanely popular game Fortnite is a great example of a game that’s free to download and play, but brought an estimated $5.1 billion in revenue from cosmetic and other optional items in 2020 alone. In response to increased media and regulatory pressure (including outside the United States), Apple modified its rules to allow for a reduced commission of 15% for “small” businesses that make less than $1 million in annual revenue. Recently, Apple further amended its polices to allow certain “reader” apps like Netflix or Spotify to redirect their users to outside the app for additional payment and subscription options. The out-of-app payment option was added in direct response to laws passed in South Korea and Japan.
In the United States, the recent court decision in the Epic v. Apple antitrust lawsuit unlocked the out-of-app payment options for all. In early 2020, Epic (the owner and developer behind Fortnite) decided to deliberately circumvent Apple’s rules against out-of-app payment options and offer mobile players a discounted option to purchase in-game currency directly through Epic’s website. Apple predictably responded by pulling Fortnite from the App Store, and Epic sued, alleging anti-competitive behavior and violations of various federal and state antitrust laws. Apple countersued for breach of contract, accusing Epic of deliberately breaching the terms of the App Store agreement and diverting Apple’s share of app revenue.
After a 16-day trial, the United States Court for the Northern District of California issued a 185 page decision largely in Apple’s favor and ordered Epic to pay Apple $6 million in breach of contract damages. However, the Court also found that Apple’s “steering” provisions that prohibited developers from offering alternative out-of-app payment options violated California’s antitrust laws. The Court issued a permanent injunction that precludes Apple from implementing these “steering” provisions, leaving developers free to include buttons, external links, and “other calls to action that direct customers to purchasing mechanisms, in addition to In-App Purchasing.” The injunction will take effect on November 10, 2021.
What does this ruling mean for real-money skill-based game developers? It certainly opens up more options to direct customers to your external website, advertise promotional pricing, and innovate your business and pricing model without direct involvement from Apple. Additionally, the Epic v. Apple ruling also frees developers to communicate directly with customers through information obtained via the in-app registration process. At the same time, developer guideline 5.3.3 already prohibits in-app purchases from being used to “purchase credit or currency for use in conjunction with real money gaming of any kind.” In other words, real money skill games were treated like casino gambling apps and excluded from the in-app purchase mechanism. The Epic ruling simply means that all app developers will have access to a flexible business model and be able to determine how to best monetize their game without Apple dictating the business terms and imposing a mandatory 15-30% commission on revenue.
Nevertheless, real-money skill-based games remain subject to heightened review and scrutiny from Apple. Advertising through Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., also requires a specialized (and sometimes lengthy) approval process. Skill-based real-money gaming operates in an unregulated area, and applicable laws and regulations change frequently. For example, the IRS recently signaled that it intends to tax daily fantasy sports wagers the same as sportsbook bets. Although DraftKings and FanDuel will likely fight the IRS’s interpretation of the Internal Revenue Code, any resulting ruling may impact the skill-gaming industry as well. Stay vigilant and retain an experienced gaming attorney to guide and consult your business the right way.
Disclaimer: This guide is not intended to be and does not constitute legal advice. It is for informative and promotional purposes only. Do not take any action or refrain from taking any action based on this guide, and always consult with a qualified professional about the circumstances of your particular case. Each set of facts is unique and different circumstances apply to each individual business.
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