Epic pushed Xbox chief to open free multiplayer just ahead of Apple Fortnite battle

By Tom Warren

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Epic pushed Microsoft to open up its Xbox network for free multiplayer gaming just weeks before the Apple and Fortnite battle. In the weeks leading up to Epic Games’ decision to circumvent Apple’s 30 percent cut on Fortnite in-app purchases, CEO Tim Sweeney sent an email to Xbox chief Phil Spencer teasing something big and asking whether Microsoft could time free multiplayer with Fortnite season 14.

“Epic has certain plans for August that will provide an extraordinary opportunity to highlight the value proposition of consoles and PCs, in contrast to mobile platforms, and to onboard new console users,” said Sweeney. “While I can’t share details with any third party at this point, I give you Epic’s assurance that our efforts will be positive and supportive of Microsoft, Xbox and Windows.”

Epic’s email to Microsoft.
Microsoft’s response to Epic.

Sweeney also asked Spencer whether free Xbox Live multiplayer was coming, and whether Microsoft could time it to support Fortnite season 14, the season Epic Games launched its alternate payment method that got Fortnite kicked off the App Store.

Spencer replied that “we will get there and I want to partner with you,” and that pushing these policies was “at the highest levels” at Microsoft, but implied Xbox Live wasn’t ready to go free multiplayer just yet. “Totally understood!” said Sweeney in response. “I gather there’s a lot going on at Microsoft nowadays. Anyway, you’ll enjoy the upcoming fireworks show.”

The timing of the email is provocative, given the events that followed. Had Spencer gone along with the plan, it seems likely that Xbox could have opened up Fortnite to non-Gold subscribers at the same time that Apple was shutting out the game entirely.

The fireworks show that Sweeney promised certainly kicked off when Fortnite season 14 launched, and it has since resulted in Epic Games taking Apple to court in a trial that’s ongoing. Microsoft did eventually unlock Xbox Live free-to-play multiplayer last month, but it wasn’t as simple as Epic Games had hoped.

Microsoft’s removal of the Xbox Live Gold requirement came after the company was forced to reverse a price hike to its Xbox Live Gold subscriptions earlier this year. Microsoft had attempted to double the cost of a yearly Xbox Live Gold subscription, a move that backfired. Microsoft quickly reversed the decision and offered to remove the paywall for free-to-play multiplayer games.