Fortnite: Battle Royale is many things. It’s a monstrous success, first and foremost, with upwards of 60 million active players worldwide. It’s been suggested that it may be the single biggest game on the planet, referenced by sports stars, musicians and actors, while being the scourge of worried parents, teachers, and precious free time. But its success is no happy accident. It’s been a carefully orchestrated plan for world domination from a studio that most had assumed were fresh out of ideas.
For the few, not the many, Fortnite began life as an unassuming horde survival type game that seemed to be in development in perpetuity. It was announced back in 2011, and during the course of several preview runs and its eventual launch into early access, the reaction was, like a Chug Jug left in the sun, consistently tepid. At times Fortnite had the whiff of vaporware, yet by hook or by crook, Epic got its game over the line. On July 25th, 2017, Fortnite entered the world as a paid early access product that huffed, puffed, and ultimately didn’t generate the success Epic was likely hoping for.
While all of this was happening though, a game from a modder turned professional developer had lit the world of PC gaming on fire. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was a familiar refrain, riffing on the Battle Royale ideas that had been kicked about by DayZ, Arma 2, and Minecraft, inspired by the novel and movie of the same name. While Brendan ‘PlayerUnknown’ Greene was fundamental to the popularisation of this game type, PUBG nevertheless was a commercial packaging for a mod game type that had already been an underground hit. PUBG did what had been done before, but better, and proceeded to monetise the heck out of it. 20 million players later, Epic was busy sitting up and taking notice.
In September, Epic announced and release Fortnite: Battle Royale, a free-to-play 100-player multiplayer spin-off based on its co-op horde game. There was much eye-rolling at what was, at the time, seen as naked bandwagon jumping. And, to some extent, it was. Only, anyone who’s played the two games know there’s only the very flimsiest connection between what they offer. Namely the rough ruleset with its constricting play zone that forces the 100 players gradually closer together. Beyond this, they’re worlds apart. That didn’t stop PUBG Corp rolling in with potential legal threats though, possibly only succeeding in highlighting Fortnite: Battle Royale’s existence rather than dampening its appeal.
Fast forward to launch on September 27th and Fortnite at 1 million players within a single day. This number had climbed to 7 million within a week. By December it was 30m, and fast approaching PUBG’s total sales. Two weeks later there were 40 million players. By February 2018, there were 3.4 million concurrent players, compared to 3.2 million in PUBG. Fortnite had toppled the Battle Royale champion.
Why is Fortnite: Battle Royale bigger than PUBG?
First and foremost, the decision to launch as free-to-play was a stroke of genius from Epic. In this scenario, Epic minimises the risk of pissing off its fans with a failed game by giving it away for nothing. It’s inherently a great financial risk, but the cost of developing Fortnite: Battle Royale was hugely offset by using its work on Fortnite as the base. The time and effort required to build a new game mode, rather than a new game, would have been minimal. At the time, practically anyone even remotely into games had heard of PUBG. Here was a game being mentioned in the same breath that was: free; on both consoles and PC, and comparatively child-friendly. There was literally nothing stopping anyone with a PC, PS4 or Xbox One from downloading Fortnite. Nothing is better advertising than word of mouth, and when someone asks a mate if they want to play Fortnite, there are zero barriers to getting them involved. It’s a self-perpetuating loop of success.
Being free means nothing if the game is bad though. There are hundreds upon hundreds of dead F2P games that couldn’t rely on their fanbase being so horrendously bored that they’d stoop to playing their terrible F2P game. The core of Fortnite is absolutely solid. The weak point is arguably the feel of the shooting, but the rush for loot, harvesting of resources, and the rapid building capabilities really help set it apart. The skill ceiling on fort builds is insanely high, allowing the best players to pull away from a pack of 100 and give themselves a damn good chance of winning, despite the odds stacked against them. In Fortnite there are few flukes, and the better players will almost inevitably have the better gear due to actively hunting other players and constructing the better defense for the end game.
Crucial to all of this, and counterpoint to many F2P games, is that Fortnite has no pay-to-win mechanics whatsoever. The only difference between a new player and someone who’s put in 1000 hours is learned experience and cosmetic skins. When all 100 players drop, they’re on a perfectly level playing field.
Then there’s the game as a service (Gaas) part that’s really helped establish Fortnite as more than a flash in the pan success. The techniques used by Epic to get players coming back again and again, for what is essentially the exact same game mode on repeat. This hinges on the use of seasons. It’s certainly not a new trick, but rarely have we seen it used so thoughtfully or capably. Each season brings with it a loose new theme, changes to the map, and literally hundreds of challenges for players to complete to unlock cosmetics, with more added each and every week. There’s a consistent reason for players to keep coming back, and of course, plenty of the cosmetics are locked behind the Battle Pass which must be paid for, unlocking yet further challenges for the keenest players.
As these seasons have evolved though, Epic has continued to get more outlandish and lavish with its plans. There’s now the loosest of story arcs connecting the seasons, and this bleeds into the map itself. Entire areas are dismantled at Epic’s whim, new objects are plonked down, and throughout it all, they’re creating a sense of goddamned history in a videogame map. It’s art imitating life, with tributes to fan favourite areas, layers of change and refinement, and a developing world that contributes to more than a simple map redesign and a ream of patch notes.
If we’re to take the recently release Season 4 as an example, the seeds were sown by Epic many weeks ago. A mysterious light was spotted in the sky following a weekly update. Then telescopes were added on hills so players could look through them and see this was, in fact, a meteor heading to Fortnite, prompting chaotic rumours about what it could all mean. Then, during the last week of Season 3, tiny chunks of meteorites were raining randomly down on the map, signalling the impending collision. Then the superhero-themed Season 4 happened. Dusty Depot had been obliterated by the meteor, leaving a savage crater in the ground filled with low-gravity pick-ups that allows players to bound around at great heights. Up top a new drive-through cinema location had opened up at Risky Reels, while Moisty Mire has been turned into a film set and the prison has been blown to smithereens, opening up a new tunnel network. It’s fascinating stuff to look at, even without playing the game, and a massively exciting example of how games can feel like living experiences rather than a rote list of changes.
It all contributes to a sense that Fortnite: Battle Royale is spearheading a new example for AAA multiplayer game development. The core is still about winning, but they’re making everything around it so much more. That all this can be free is totally bewildering, but selling exclusively cosmetics certainly isn’t doing Fortnite any harm. Last week it emerged that Fortnite generated $223 million in revenue during March alone; a staggering figure.
Naturally, all of this success comes with its fair share of detractors. Nothing is truly popular until it’s got an equally hefty hatewagon in tow, but it’s proof positive of how ubiquitous Fortnite: Battle Royale has become in such a short span of time.
Looking forward, Fortnite has surely set a benchmark for GaaS that many will attempt to endlessly replicate. It's the antithesis of Star Wars Battlefront 2’s premium model and pay-to-win loot crates, and it stands as proof positive that excessively monetising players isn’t necessary to fund a great game. The likes of EA could find it very helpful to take a long, hard look at Fortnite, and how its players are treated, when they consider their next multiplayer blockbuster.