How Epic’s ‘Project Liberty’ Weaponized Fortnite Fans Against Apple

On August 14 last year, just 24 hours after Fortnite was removed from the App Store over Epic’s bypass of Apple’s internal payment system, Epic launched Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite. The video, a parody of an old Apple ad from the titular year, positioned Epic as a hero fighting back against the Orwellian Big Brother Apple, destroying the “App Store Monopoly” with a sledgehammer. All of this was accompanied by the hashtag “#FreeFortnite” as a call to action to its playerbase: Fortnite, the beloved video game players love, was in danger. And Epic had arrived to stop the bad guys who wanted to take it away.

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The very put-together and professional-looking Nineteen Eighty-Fortnite did not come together as some kind of knee-jerk response to Apple doing something completely unexpected. The video was clearly a planned, calculated move from Epic v bucks generator, prepared months in advance in case Apple made the decision to show Fortnite the door. In fact, the entirety of #FreeFortnite and its associated video propaganda, in-game character skins, and competitions to win hats was a movement to turn public sentiment against Apple and force the multi-trillion-dollar corporation to do what the multi-billion-dollar corporation wanted it to do. With the game removed from mobile storefronts and smartphone players unable to play any longer, Epic wanted to make sure the audience knew who to blame. Epic, the sledgehammer-wielding hero, was here to beat up the mean ol’ monopoly.

In the gaming industry especially, which thrives off hype cycles, it’s often easy for audiences to ignore the motivators behind the pushes for player support. Companies will frequently make statements about wanting to listen to the fans, expressing gratitude for their players’ passion and enthusiasm and encouraging them to rally around the company. At its best, these calls for support are as harmless as asking for patience and understanding in the wake of a game delay — fine and good. At very worst, calls for support can advertently or not end up weaponizing fanbases in some pretty scary ways.

The PR play Epic made last year was obvious enough at the time to anyone who scrutinizes media. But as the Epic v. Apple trial kicked off this week, Epic’s specific strategy was laid bare. Among the many documents submitted as evidence were multiple fascinating slide presentations entitled “Project Liberty Update,” one dated May 13 of last year, another dated July 1, and a third from July 27. These multi-slide documents detailed Epic’s strategy for what would happen once it pulled the trigger on direct payments in Fortnite on mobile, with Epic itself telling the board of directors on July 27 that “significant planning has gone into Project Liberty, Epic’s war against mobile platform fees.” It even plotted out the timing, expecting that dropping Project Liberty just before the Marvel Season would “add pressure” to both Apple and Google.

A slide from Epic's July 1, 2020 Project Liberty Update presentation.

A slide from Epic’s July 1, 2020 Project Liberty Update presentation.

Though other documents revealed through the case acknowledge the possibility of Apple and Google’s acceptance or willingness to negotiate with Epic, the Project Liberty Update “assumes Apple/Google do not accept proposal,” and dives straight into their legal, business, partnership, and PR plans for what would happen when Fortnite was removed from both mobile storefronts. This includes all the ways in which Epic plotted to work its audience, partners, and the media to get a favorable response from the public, and who it would in turn use to put pressure on Apple to either lower platform fees, let apps use their own payment platforms, or permit third-party app stores within the App Store.

In the May 13 slideshow, Epic outlines its expectations for the launch of the campaign, expecting that sentiment would largely be on its side and that both players and press were likely to “highlight 20% savings” for using Epic’s payment system. But Epic also knew that negative sentiment would grow if the game was blocked. It goes over its talking points: Epic fights for players and developers in a “battle” against store monopolies, resulting in “greater savings and greater rewards.” It suggests responses to “anti-Epic messaging” as well, putting forward talking points like emphasizing savings, potential free incentives, avoidance of the “nuclear” option of accepting refund requests, and trying to refocus the narrative on Apple and Google “deny[ing]” players savings.

A later slide begins outlining the goal of getting “players, media, and industry on “Epic’s side,” suggesting a focus on the “savings benefits” for players using Epic’s payment system over the platform’s. There’s also a line in there about giving media Epic talking points so “they can have an informed opinion in discussions,” and another about providing interviews with “key friendly media outlets in tech, business.”

In the July 1st doc, there’s talk of using the press to “apply pressure and drive support” and influencing groups that might have impacts on Apple and Google. Then there’s a section on paid media efforts, including a petition, which Epic determined was the “most effective way to demonstrate consumer support on an issue,” with Epic projecting potentially millions of supporters participating depending on how much was spent on such an endeavor. Epic at one point plots to start a 501(c)4 organization to advocate for its policy concerns, which it ended up doing. There’s a lot of language throughout all these slides of Epic waging a war, fighting a battle, and generally being like a hero that stands up for the little guy.

If you’re relatively media-savvy, most of this language and battle plan isn’t really shocking. Companies are constantly trying to garner goodwill from their audiences. Happy audiences spend money on whatever companies are selling, and companies — regardless of what their mission statements might be — broadly exist for the purpose of making money. Without the context of a court case, this could probably be any marketing document for any kind of media campaign.

A slide from Epic's May 13, 2020 Project Liberty Update presentation.

A slide from Epic’s May 13, 2020 Project Liberty Update presentation.

But in Epic’s case, the media campaign around #FreeFortnite was something new entirely. Video game companies get into legal battles constantly — Take-Two Interactive was involved in at least eight in 2019 alone, and another four in 2020, according to public records. But never has a gaming company gone to the lengths Epic has to sway public opinion in its favor with the goal of putting pressure on a legal opponent as it headed into a massive, potentially industry-shaking court battle.

Through Project Liberty, Epic has successfully transformed a court case that should have been interesting only to business and tech journalists into a hashtag, a social event being streamed on both Twitch and YouTube, and an event worthy of live-tweeting like one would an E3 conference. Its in-game events and contests and freebies, while entertaining, were for Epic’s benefit, not ours. While it’s impossible to say whether or not Epic feels differently now that it’s mid-testimony, Epic clearly had careful marketing plans to spark a surge of public pressure on Apple and Google to get what it wanted. How that ends up playing out in conjunction with the courts is anyone’s guess.

None of this to say whether or not Epic or wrong or right about this particular battle. If Epic wins, that victory could potentially mean massive changes for not just the games industry, but to apps and tech in general. Some of those changes are probably good. Epic isn’t the first to criticize Apple’s walled garden verbally or legally, and Epic’s lawsuit could genuinely bring about positive change for both consumers and developers. It could also have other, unintended or unknown consequences, either for how Apple or other platforms work. It’s all very fuzzy, and depends heavily on how Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers rules. and how a lengthy, inevitable appeal process goes.

But regardless, it’s a reality that the vast majority of the millions of people playing Fortnite every month are probably not dialed in to what most of this trial means. Why would they be? Digital monopolies and App Store terms and rich CEOs duking it out in court is trivial to the vast majority of our day-to-day lives. But with Epic taking gaming marketing tactics into the courts, it’s become increasingly critical for audiences to be aware of the ways in which hype marketing like this is being used to craft narratives that may result in real, industry-shaking impacts. It’s unlikely that Epic is finished using player sentiment as a sledgehammer, or that other companies won’t eventually follow suit — for good or ill or whatever shades of money-making gray lie in-between. [poilib element=”accentDivider”] Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.