Opinion: Fortnite's Android Launch Has Been A Dumpster Fire

Epic Games' Fortnite Battle Royale is the most popular thing in the gaming space right now, and for reasons beyond just being a really good game; it's simple and free to pick up and play, is infinitely streamable by nature, and is available on just about every modern device you may want to play games on. That "just about" means that there's an exception, and in this case, it's Android. The game is available on a decent range of devices now, with modern Samsung phones and tablets at the forefront, but a lot of people with great devices are still waiting on the game to come their way. That's somewhat understandable since some manufacturers like Motorola have certain quirks in their system software that can make it hard to apply a one-size-fits-all solution to distributing a game outside of the Play Store without overstepping system functions or other boundaries. To be clear, the game's Android beta started on August 9. It's not the timeline that's the problem, though; it's how the launch has been handled, and indeed how the game's transition to Android has been going so far.

One thing you need to know about Fortnite before diving into the story of this launch so far and how it could go in the near future is simply this: the game is so wildly popular on other platforms that Epic Games decided to skip the Play Store. The company chose to eschew Google's wide distribution and usual protections in order to have more freedom in how the hit game is distributed, and of course, to avoid letting Google pocket 30-percent of all in-app purchases made through the Android version. From a business standpoint, this is a move that's actually pretty understandable, but comes with its own set of issues and new duties. One of those duties, a core one at that, is security. Epic Games had a duty to maintain the security of its players using the app. To put things bluntly, the company blew it. The initial version of the launcher had a serious security flaw, and Epic didn't find it, Google did. This is where the story starts to get a bit silly.

Epic Games knew beforehand, like any other Android developer, that Google discloses exploits and bugs under one of two circumstances; they're 90 days old, or a patch has been put out for wide availability. This policy fosters innovation and continued forward motion in the mobile security world, and it's worked quite well so far. In Fortnite's case, however, the company wanted to have its cake and eat it, too; after implementing a fix for the bug that Google's researchers had found, Epic asked Google to make an exception to its usual disclosure policy and wait the full 90 days before making the bug public. The logic was that the move would give all players time to update their installers.

While that sounds great on paper, a policy is a policy, and exceptions up to this point have been made for extremely limited and special reasons. Saying something along the lines of "we want to give our users adequate time to get the patch" has never been one of those before, and Epic Games thought it was special enough to put that one on the list. It wasn't. Google had literally zero reasons to comply with that request, and no obligation to do so. When the inevitable happened, CEO Tim McSweeney called Google irresponsible and accused the company of running a "counter-PR effort" against Epic Games and Fortnite. He claimed that the game's massive player base was grounds to make an exception, giving every player time to patch up their installer programs. The obvious implication here is that McSweeney construed Google following its own policies without exception as a direct attack on Fortnite because it skipped the Play Store and essentially took a huge chunk of would-be change out of Google's pockets. Let that sink in. McSweeney and his people made a decision that experts said would directly harm Google's potential earnings, then decided to turn around and ask the web giant for a special favor.

While one angle could say that the story stinks of vindictiveness on Google's part, it's just as easy to say that rules are rules, and if a bug had been found beyond the Play Store's protections, disclosure guidelines would have been followed whether Epic Games elected to make use of Google's services or not. It's hard to argue that putting a big-grossing game like Fortnite on Android isn't living in the house that Google built. Manufacturers and developers helped popularize the platform, and it initially existed thanks to Andy Rubin and his small startup, but the simple fact is that Google has headed up development of Android and tried its best to steer the OS's adoption and market over time. Epic Games is going to make a killing off of an Android release; common sense dictates that more people own an Android device than a gaming console or a powerful PC and that massive market is Epic's to pilfer without having to play ball like it does on iOS, PlayStation, Switch, and Xbox. Epic Games made a mistake by not releasing Fortnite via the Play Store, and choosing to turn Google down only to essentially ask the company for a special favor and slap it in the face when the answer is "no" seems pretty silly.

Asking users to disable a security feature that keeps drive-by installs from happening and keeps less tech-savvy users from inadvertently installing malware is a big ask in the first place, and a dangerous one, at that. The installer, in most cases, will automatically ask people to seal that security hole back up once the installation is completed. The prompt is plenty easy for novice users to navigate away from, and the result is a device left open to all sorts of malware. That part is actually Google's fault to a degree given how Android is designed. The security feature in question is buried deep in the system menus, and many a user may not be fully cognizant of what they're doing tinkering around in there.

Recent Samsung Galaxy devices are the obvious exception, since they can get the game through the Galaxy Apps store, but the folly there is in not addressing the rest of the Android space. Sure, Samsung is the top dog in Epic Games' homeland of the United States, and in a lot of other places, but other phone makers are fairly popular, too. You can walk into any carrier store and grab an LG device right now. Google's Pixel devices aren't hobbyist toys like the Nexus lineup was, they're seriously popular devices that you can walk into any Best Buy and pick up. Motorola offers the only phone on the market that's both extremely durable and modular. The list could go on and on, but the point is that Epic Games partnered with Samsung and made no special effort to address the idea of making things simpler for other Android users, leading to a widespread demand for a game hidden behind a clearly suboptimal distribution solution.

Looking to the near future, more and more devices are going to become a part of the supported list, and they're going to be right on board with the other users who are asked to develop a small degree of tech savviness in order to play what's currently the world's most popular game. Following prompts is simple business, but many users get intimidated easily or may mess things up, and a large part of Fortnite's target audience, being tweens, could easily be lumped into that category. Meanwhile, since Epic Games is taking a whitelist approach for now and only allowing specific devices that it vets and greenlights, it's quite possible that a lot of good devices with perfectly modern specs and compatible software are going to be left out in the cold. Meanwhile, without Google Play Protect, Epic Games will have to seriously step up its security game in order to keep players safe, and that's to say nothing of the fact that the mobile security community, on both the black and white hat sides, moves at a breakneck pace. To summarize things with an idiom, Epic Games dove way over its head in shark-infested waters just to be able to avoid paying the ferryman for a ride. This approach may pay off in the long run, but for now, it's leaving Epic with a bit of a bad look, and leaving a bad taste in a lot of current and would-be players' mouths.

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