An email between Epic CEO Tim Sweeney and Xbox head Phil Spencer, made public today as part of the ongoing Epic versus Apple trial, shows Sweeney trying to entice Spencer to take “free-to-play” multiplayer out from behind the Xbox Live paywall to coincide with Epic’s war against the App Store.
In an email on August 5, 2020, Sweeney wrote, “Long ago, we talked optimistically about the possibility of subscription-free multiplayer on Xbox…If this is coming, please consider the possibility of timing the program to support Fortnite Season 14 launch on 8/27. This launch will follow the confidential Fortnite Mega Drop 20% price drop that’s coming in mid August, and will be our biggest and best Fortnite season thanks to a huge collaboration with Disney/Marvel.”
Epic launched its own payment system on mobile phones on August 13, using the promise of an exciting new Fortnite season as one way to rile up players with the fear of missing out once Apple responded by removing the game from the App Store. In an email to Sweeney on August 6, Spencer, referring to Xbox Live’s free-to-play games policies, wrote, “we will get there and I want to partner with you.” Xbox eventually moved free-to-play multiplayer outside of the Xbox Live paywall in April 2021, a few months after a steep increase in the cost of Xbox Live, followed by a swift reversal.
In his August 5 email, Sweeney also hinted that its fight with Apple would be good for Xbox, writing, “Epic has certain plans for August that will provide an extraordinary opportunity to highlight the value proposition of consoles and PC, in contrast to mobile platforms, and to onboard new console users. While I can’t share any details with third parties at this point, I give you Epic’s assurance that our efforts will be positive and supportive of Xbox, Microsoft, and Windows.” In an email on August 7, Sweeney promised Spencer that he would “enjoy the upcoming fireworks show,” which the court somewhat charmingly hashed out was a reference to Epic making its new payment method live.
These emails provide an intriguing look into Epic’s public position from when its fight with Apple first kicked off. Epic pumped up the idea that players would lose access to Fortnite while simultaneously promoting other platforms through things like its marketing of the Free Fortnite Cup, promotion for which included the line, “Just because you can’t play on iOS doesn’t mean there aren’t other awesome places to play Fortnite,” and letting players win consoles and PCs for competing.
Fortnite going free-to-play on Xbox at the same time would have been an interesting move in this strategy, and demonstrates how much thought Epic put into its campaign — a campaign that’s now grown beyond a question about a single video game into one that could have long-lasting ramifications for Apple and other digital storefronts.