Image: Epic Games

Apple has raised the stakes in its battle with Epic Games with a move that threatens other developers.

In an Aug. 14 letter from Apple shared by Epic in a legal filing on Monday, the iPhone maker said it identified several violations of Apple’s Developer Program and license agreement. As a result, Apple said that Epic’s “Apple Developer Program account will be terminated if the violations set forth…are not cured within 14 days.”

The battle began last week when Epic tried to offer in-app purchases of V-Bucks for its Fortnite game directly to users. The game maker argued that this option would save customers money as it would bypass the Apple route, which gives Apple its customary 30% cut of the sales.

Countering that this action violated the terms of the developer agreement, Apple kicked Fortnite out of the App Store. Faced with a similar situation, Google also removed the game from Google Play. Both responses triggered lawsuits from Epic against the two tech giants.

SEE: Five skills you need to become a video game tester (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

With its latest threat to revoke Epic’s access to the developer program, Apple is hitting the company in several ways. This type of step would prevent Epic from designing and distributing apps for iPhones and iPads. It would also be unable to notarize apps for the Mac, a process necessary for them to run on macOS, even if they’re not downloaded through the App Store. As a further blow, this revocation would impact the Unreal Engine, a gaming platform created by Epic Games and used by many game makers. In this eventuality, developers would need to scramble to find another platform on which to design their games.

“Over 7.5 million developers use the Unreal Engine, making it one of the most popular engines in the world,” George Jijiashvili, senior analyst for games and AR/VR at Omdia, told TechRepublic. “Mobile game developers utilizing Unreal Engine may soon be unable to make new games or updates for iOS. This would be a huge blow to Epic and its reputation among developers and content creators. If this situation is not resolved soon, developers will have little choice but look for alternative game engines.”

In response to Apple’s tactics, Epic filed a motion with the court on Monday calling for a temporary restraining order stopping Apple from taking action while this matter proceeds. Specifically, Epic wants Apple to reinstate Fortnite to the App Store, it wants to keep Apple from removing or modifying Fortnite on any user’s iOS device, and it wants to prevent Apple from suspending or terminating Epic from the Apple Developer Program. In its argument, the game maker cited the damage such actions would do to its business.

“Left unchecked, Apple’s actions will irreparably damage Epic’s reputation among Fortnite users and be catastrophic for the future of the separate Unreal Engine business,” Epic said in the filing. “If the Unreal Engine can no longer support Apple platforms, the software developers that use it will be forced to use alternatives. The damage to Epic’s ongoing business and to its reputation and trust with its customers will be unquantifiable and irreparable.”

On its end, Apple has defended the move to remove Fortnite from the App Store, asserting that Epic did violate the terms of its agreement by trying to sell in-app purchases directly to customers. Apple has in the past asserted that its 30% fee for each app and in-app purchase is fair and reasonable given the wide distribution, safety, and security of its App Store. Google also justified its removal of Fortnite from Google Play by pointing to “consistent policies that are fair to developers and keep the store safe for users.”

But in the latest round, Apple is the one playing hardball. In a statement shared with Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, Apple said it wouldn’t make an exception for Epic because that would put the game maker’s business interests ahead of guidelines that protect Apple customers.

“The App Store is designed to be a safe and trusted place for users and a great business opportunity for all developers,” Apple said in its statement. “Epic has been one of the most successful developers on the App Store, growing into a multibillion dollar business that reaches millions of iOS customers around the world. We very much want to keep the company as part of the Apple Developer Program and their apps on the Store. The problem Epic has created for itself is one that can easily be remedied if they submit an update of their app that reverts it to comply with the guidelines they agreed to and which apply to all developers. We won’t make an exception for Epic because we don’t think it’s right to put their business interests ahead of the guidelines that protect our customers.”

If Epic were removed from the Apple Development Program, what repercussions might that have, both for Epic and for game makers who use the Unreal Engine?

“It sounds to me that what Apple has said is that no future updates to the Unreal Engine in iOS and Mac games or other types of apps will be allowed, assuming their policy goes into effect at the end of this month,” Lewis Ward, IDC research director of gaming, eSports and VR/AR, told TechRepublic.”

“Moreover, if iOS is updated in some way that renders Unreal Engine unusable on iOS/Mac devices there’s basically nothing Epic can do about it until this issue is resolved,” Ward added. “The latter outcome would have much wider ramifications to mobile app development than the former, for sure. Apple basically has the power to shut down all Unreal Engine-based apps and is threatening to do so if Epic doesn’t get back in line. That second scenario would be a dramatic escalation of this conflict, basically Apple’s nuclear option.”

Looking ahead, Ward suspects there will be some type of ruling on Epic’s request for an injunction before Apple’s August 28 deadline. He also envisions a court fight here, though how long it may last is anyone’s guess.

“Epic’s well-orchestrated, aggressive attack has meant that Apple and Google are not looking for a compromise,” Jijiashvili said. “It remains to be seen what the courts decide, but it’s important to highlight that Apple is already facing scrutiny from the EU antitrust probe, driven by the likes of Spotify against Apple’s App Store billing rules. Sooner or later, regulators will twist Apple’s arm into loosening its restrictions. The regulatory mood on both sides of the Atlantic has darkened over the past few years and Apple and Google should make some conciliatory moves to preempt a serious clampdown.”

This story has been updated with additional comment.