Fortnite — The 6 year overnight success
We are at peak Fortnite, and the unprecedented success has prompted much discussion. Polygon has published 20 pieces about Fortnite in the last week alone. One venture capitalist I spoke to recently asserted that Fortnite’s success is due to its free-to-play (f2p) business model. This over-simplified perspective surprised me, and prompted me to take a look at the multifaceted picture that describes Fortnite’s incredible success. Timing, theme, business model, game design, and execution are all factors that play a meaningful role in the Fortnite story.
“Fortnite may not be the success Epic Games planned for, but it’s a success the game-engine creator and developer has embraced.”
— Brian Crecente (Rolling Stone)
Fortnite was announced as a co-op PvE shooter in 2011 and was in development for 6 years before their early access release in 2017. Also in 2017, PUBG made a big splash by legitimizing the battle royale genre, resulting in $700m in 2017 sales by developer Bluehole. Epic made the decision to fast follow by releasing their own version of Battle Royale and had it ready in just 2 months. Initially Epic intended to release it as a game mode bundled with the paid early access title, but changed their mind at the last minute to release it as a standalone, free-to-play game. Initially Epic suggested that Battle Royale was a temporary game mode intended to promote the core game, so even they didn’t know what they had on their hands in the early days.
There are two critical observations to make regarding timing. The first is that Epic is the creator of the Unreal Engine, and have unparalleled technical expertise with the industry’s best-in-class engine. This meant Epic was uniquely qualified to iterate and adapt to shifting market conditions. It’s equally worth noting that until Fortnite, this advantage hasn’t produced a huge success in recent years. This demonstrates that a competitive advantage is necessary, but insufficient. The other critical timing factors is that Epic had been making Fortnite for 6 years! The first implementation of the Battle Royale mode was ready within 2 months, but this was only possible because the core game had been in development for so long. They already had the game assets, the core game mechanics (discussed later), and the infrastructure to scale. It’s clear that this perfect storm of conditions meant Epic was uniquely able to capture the opportunity.
Some games make their mark through breathtaking art and aesthetics, but Fortnite is not one of them. This isn’t a problem, though, because the style is clean and readable, and the bright cartoony feel makes it accessible to a wide spectrum of players. The cartoony aesthetic coupled with assault rifles and is a bit off-putting, at least for me, but regardless of personal taste, it does its job well. It opens the game up to a wide audience, including younger players, and doesn’t evoke the negative reaction from parents that is common for more realistic shooters. As discussed before, when attempting to achieve outlier success, it’s important to focus on doing one thing very well. For a game built around a compelling, repeatable gameplay loop, the clean, friendly art style serves its purpose well.
The choice to release Fortnite Battle Royale as free-to-play was made in the eleventh hour. Serendipitously Epic chose to release it as a standalone game. They started with a uniquely compelling game loop (see more on design below), had invested 6 years in developing a different game, were uniquely qualified to adapt quickly, and made the right choice to capitalize on PUBG’s success with their fast follow approach. Combine this high engagement, social, infinitely repeatable game loop, to the zero friction adoption offered by a free-to-play approach, and you have a recipe for success. Rather than take the well-trodden path of selling power or adopting other monetization mechanisms that compromise the competitive aspect of the game (see: Star Wars Battlefront II), Epic chose to sell only cosmetic upgrades. This model worked incredibly well for League of Legends and others, but few publishers have been brave enough to follow the pattern, opting instead for the seemingly safer, but ultimately destructive, route of compromising competitive integrity with monetization. Disenfranchising the non-monetizing majority of players by selling power can work in the short term, but ultimately results in a downward spiral of player churn as described here.
The majority of game design decisions were established and refined by PUBG and the other creators who established the Battle Royale genre. However, if the longstanding feud between Apple and Samsung provide any example, it’s important to assess whether the follower chooses to “borrow” the right features. In this case Epic chose right. The unique attribute of the genre is that it manages to increase the payoff of winning while mitigating the bad feeling of losing (a very rare accomplishment in game design). By placing 100 players in a free-for-all, the player feels incredibly good when they win (because they overcame incredible odds), and feels okay when they lose (after all, they can’t be expected to overcome 99 opponents all the time). Couple this with the ability to instantly requeue after losing a game, which avoids the painful experience in most games where the player is forced to sit out for several minutes while other players complete the round, and it becomes clear how Battle Royale offers an all killer, no filler experience. In most games, the good feels of winning must be equally offset with the bad feels of losing, and due to loss aversion, players often end their session feeling worse off than they started. Battle Royale changes all that, and Epic capitalized on this disruptive new genre, demonstrating great judgement by preserving the most important features of the genre. This may seem easy to do, but it’s surprising how often game developers fail at this (eg. Wildstar… and, well, every other MMO made after World of Warcraft).
However! The building mechanic has proved to be a remarkable innovation that takes Fortnite to new heights. It’s important to recognize that this was not by design — Epic invested 6 years into a PvE, wave based shooter, but the building feature from the original game happens to be an incredible mechanic in the Battle Royale genre. To understand why this is the case we must explore the difference between tactical and arcade shooters.
A tactical shooter is a game like Counter Strike or Rainbow 6. While not truly meant to be realistic, they are more realistic than other shooters, and include features such as shooting through walls and generally limiting abilities to human levels. In a competitive environment, player skill is highly rewarded, and the result is that dominant strategies often include camping in one place, waiting for an opponent to peek around the corner. This kind of gameplay frequently feels stale to more casual players who don’t have the patience, reflexes, or competitive drive to bore themselves by sitting in one place waiting for the other player to move.
An arcade shooter on the other hand is all action all the time, epitomized by the Quake series or Titanfall 2. Players can move with superhuman speed, jumping, running, teleporting, climbing walls etc. Weapons include rocket launchers, lasers, and other fantastical contraptions that result in chaos and non-stop action. These games generally find broad appeal and provide gameplay for which there is never a dull moment, but often fall off at the competitive level because there is too much uncertainty to reward highly skilled players.
The building mechanic in Fortnite makes what would otherwise be a tactical shooter the perfect hybrid of skill and action. Because players can instantaneously create a large structure to hide behind, they are free to run through open areas that don’t offer cover. At the same time, the game allows for precision shooting and largely sticks to tactical weapons and gameplay. In PUBG, it’s common to be shot from an unknown location and die before even locating your assailant, resulting in increased frustration and a generally slower paced game. Fortnite, on the other hand, allows players to move freely without taking away skill-based combat with the building mechanic. All of this was a happy accident for Epic. They invested 6 years into a different video game and were fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, then recognized the opportunity and demonstrated great judgement and decision making.
Epic’s execution has been absolutely superb, which makes sense given their pedigree. As a player having spent thousands of hours playing Counter Strike and other shooters, PUBG was infuriating for its glitchy net code and clunky mechanics. I felt perpetually frustrated that none of my shooter experience translated to PUBG, while Fortnite was the opposite. Despite not having extensive experience with 3rd person shooters, I immediately felt at home with the core mechanics. The entire experience feels tight, responsive, and as a player I immediately felt in control of my destiny.
Another topic of discussion is the multi-platform support. It worked well for Rocket League and has been fantastic for Fortnite, especially the surprising addition of mobile support. Mobile hardware has finally caught up with the promise of mobile core games from the mid 2000s, and yet again Epic was uniquely positioned to take advantage of this as an engine developer. The important thing is not whether the mobile experience is as good as PC or console play (how could it be), but that it’s good enough that players who are otherwise unable to engage can jump in and participate. The mobile success is only possible due to the power of modern mobile devices combined with increased mobile broadband saturation, a development that has finally reached maturity. Add to this the ascent of streaming, and the result is a game that offers players perpetual engagement. The result is that Fortnite is omnipresent, accessible to everyone all the time, which is not an easy feat to pull off. Epic’s competitive advantage will not hold for long, however, as other studios develop proficiency in multi-platform support of games that until now haven’t been considered suitable for mobile, discussed here.
The timing, theme, business model, design, and execution all work together to make the Fortnite phenomenon possible. Epic can’t take credit for the timing, the genre, or ubiquitous availability, but they did recognize the opportunity, picked a great, player friendly business model, executed well, and generally made great decisions in each area. The result is a game that has grown remarkably quickly and achieved success at unprecedented levels. For anyone studying the Fortnite story, it’s important to take a holistic perspective. Concluding that free-to-play is the single defining characteristic, or that fast following a recent success is the surefire path to success, or that anyone could have done what Epic did in this particular case, is an over-simplified understanding that will lead to pain and failure. There are many great lessons to be learned, it just requires zooming out, looking at the big picture, and identifying takeaways within the context of the broader story.
“The two most important requirements for major success are: first, being in the right place at the right time, and second, doing something about it.”
— Ray Croc (McDonald’s)