It’s not exactly a giant extended middle finger pointed Apple’s way, but it’s not not that, either.
After an extended absence, Fortnite is back on Apple devices, and Epic Games has Microsoft to thank. The company’s Xbox Cloud Gaming service expanded on Thursday to add the hit battle royale game. And since the Xbox cloud service is accessible through Chrome, an Apple-supported browser, Fortnite is once again playable on iPhones and iPads after it became a casualty of a legal dispute between Apple and Epic. It’s also playable on Android in the same way.
There’s an added twist here, too, and it spells even better news for fans: You don’t need to spend a dime. Until now, Xbox Cloud Gaming has only been available to paid Game Pass subscribers. But Fortnite arrives alongside a major change in the way the service operates, with Microsoft removing the subscription requirement for free-to-play games (like Fortnite).
How to play Fortnite for free on your phone or tablet
Getting started is easy. Head over to xbox.com/play in the Chrome app on your iOS, iPadOS, or Android device. From there, sign into your Microsoft account (or create one) and choose Fortnite. (You’ll see other games listed, but for now Fortnite is the only free option.) That’s it, though. Follow these steps and you’ll be up and running.
The plan is to add more free-to-play games over time, Microsoft’s announcement confirms: “At Xbox we want to make gaming accessible to the 3 billion players around the world, and cloud has an important role in that mission.” There’s no timetable for when more games will be added, but that’s the plan.
Fortnite is a sensible place to start given that it’s one of the biggest and most popular games on the planet. But the effective skirting of Apple’s ban, which came after a contentious legal struggle between dueling tech giants, is its own sort of statement.
What happened between Apple and Epic?
The legal dispute between Apple and Epic centered on the way the former makes money off of third-party App Store releases. Apple claims as much as a 30 percent cut of every dollar spent both on non-Apple apps themselves and their in-app purchases. What’s more, the company’s policy prohibits developers from giving their customers an alternate means of purchase, say via a browser, as a way of getting around the Apple platform fees.
Epic was shown the door after the Fortnite maker updated the game’s iOS app to advertise a discount on V-Bucks (in-game currency) purchases, but only if the purchase is made directly from Epic, beyond Apple’s reach. This incident is where the legal dispute has its origins.
The subsequent court proceedings handed a partial loss to Apple after a California court found the company to be in violation of a state law that guarantees transparency in the purchasing choices offered to consumers. The result is widely guarded as a win for antitrust advocates who worry about the power and reach of an oligarchical Big Tech space that is dominated primarily by a small number of massive corporate players.
Platform gatekeepers like Apple and Alphabet face the biggest potential impact from the decision, since both collect platform fees on App Store and Google Play Store sales. It’s hard to read Microsoft aligning itself with Epic and getting Fortnite back on Apple devices — and making it the first step in a larger initiative — as anything other than a knock on the iPhone maker’s inflexibility.
Microsoft has valid reasons to counter Apple. The addition of mobile browser support for Xbox Cloud Gaming was motivated in large part by the difficulties the Xbox maker faced in getting its own Game Pass app listed in the App Store. Since for-pay Game Pass streaming requires a subscription, Apple has no way to take a cut of the app’s earnings.
When the Xbox Cloud Gaming service revved up for launch in mid-2020, Microsoft’s effort to get listed on the App Store hit an unexpected obstacle: Under its app review and approval policy that gets new releases listed on the App Store, the iPhone maker wanted to review not just the Game Pass app itself, but the roughly 200 games featured in the catalog as well. (Never mind that no such requirement exists for streaming video apps like Netflix.)
That incident is what led Microsoft to speed up the work of adding browser support for Xbox Cloud Gaming. And now, with the Xbox-assisted launch of Fortnite on Apple platforms, it sure does seem like Microsoft and Epic are getting the last laugh.