SAN FRANCISCO: The video game phenomenon Fortnite slowly crept up on the industry last year and, in the violent lexicon of its players, delivered a shotgun to the face. The game seemed to come out of nowhere, but it was carefully planned, almost alchemic in its formulation, by one of the most experienced and celebrated studios in the business. Here, I will try to break down the Fortnite secret formula.
But first, a tutorial: Fortnite is a shooting game, a survival game and also one where you can build stuff. It is Call of Duty meets Minecraft, and that’s exactly the company its developers would like to keep: Like the rest of the world’s most popular games, Fortnite is printing money for its creator Epic Games Inc. The world of Fortnite is bright and cartoony, which makes the gratuitous violence seem somehow more palatable. The experience is constantly changing, thanks to frequent software updates. The entire thing is free and available on just about any device with a graphics card. And characters can be outfitted with new uniforms, for a price.
The Epic formula of the last two decades largely involves violent game franchises with plenty of sequels. At the turn of the century, that was Unreal Tournament, an over-the-top shooter. Epic created Gears of War for the Xbox, pumped out a couple follow-ups and then sold the property to Microsoft Corp. It’s also behind Infinity Blade, a visually impressive iOS game with a hearty endorsement from Apple Inc.
Epic had been hacking away at Fortnite, off and on, for years. The original concept was dark and hyper-realistic. By 2012, Epic had landed on the visual style we see today, but there was still a lot left undecided. This includes the free-to-play business model, one of the most essential ingredients to Fortnite’s success. “We’re going to figure it out,” Tanya Watson, then the game’s producer, said at the time. But she already knew they had something special. “This is not just a game for people who like shooters or RPGs,” Watson said. “It’s a game for everybody.”
In its current iteration, Fortnite is like a playable SoundCloud mashup. It’s aggressively derivative and ridiculously well-timed. It starts with a third-person shooter concept. Shooters have been a staple of video games since Castle Wolfenstein or maybe as far back as Space Invaders. But it was a particular kind of shooter, known as “battle royale,” that was gaining popularity just as Fortnite was nearing completion.
Before Fortnite, the driving force behind the battle royale craze was PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG (pronounced Pub-G). You don’t build forts in PUBG. The game is designed around realistic environments, characters and war machines. Like Fortnite, it debuted in a sort of unfinished state on the PC and Microsoft’s Xbox One, the least popular of the three major consoles.
The small studio behind PUBG was blindsided by Fortnite. From the start, Fortnite was available on PUBG’s two main platforms, plus the Mac and the world’s most popular console, Sony Corp.’s PlayStation 4. This proved to be an important move. PUBG players were decamping for Fortnite, and millions more were discovering the genre for the first time because they didn’t need to buy a new device to play it. There were enough similarities that PUBG Corp. filed a short-lived lawsuit against Epic.
But the idea that Fortnite is a PUBG rehash misses the other, equally necessary features that made this a movement—one embraced by Drake and French soccer star Antoine Griezmann. For one, it’s free. Giving away a game of this calibre isn’t as common on consoles or PCs as it is on phones. There are loot boxes, but they aren’t as disruptive to the experience as ones you’d find in an Electronic Arts Inc. game. Players pay for cosmetic alterations to their characters, not bigger guns or advantages on the battlefield. Because everyone is playing Fortnite, people want to personalize their characters and impress their friends.
The game is accessible enough that anyone can parachute in, pick up a weapon and, with a little luck, pop off a kill or two. But it’s hard enough that the last competitors standing are usually constructing towers and employing some pretty mesmerizing techniques. Fortnite is tailor-made for Twitch and YouTube viewing.
No one can ever quite master it because Epic is frequently making little adjustments, welcoming new players with versions for the Nintendo Switch and iPhone, and overhauling the game in major ways through seasonal releases. Season Five began on July 12. “A lot of its success comes down to how Epic drip feeds content into the game,” said Kirk McKeand, deputy editor of gaming blog VG247. “There is always something new on the map every week, and the change in seasons is a huge event that is teased across the entirety of the previous season. It’s clever, and it’s all presented in a very slick, impressive manner.”
Finally, don’t overlook the visuals. Parents have a lot more tolerance for gunplay when there are cartoons involved. And kids are particularly vulnerable to the allure of paying to collect outfits, or “skins” in game parlance. “A lot of Fortnite’s success comes down to the fact that it’s marketed as a family-friendly shooting game,” McKeand said. “It’s only free if you want to run around with the base skin and be the laughing stock of your group of friends.”
Fortnite wasn’t the first to do any of this. The graphics are reminiscent of Borderlands. There are lots of free games, even some on consoles. It was the combination of all the right ingredients, at just the right moment, that made Fortnite an almost-inevitable hit. In an era when every online interaction is perfected to consume maximum time, dollars and attention, the tactics that propelled Fortnite to the stratosphere feel eerily familiar. It’s a formula you’ll find in a lot of successful products and not just games.