Fortnite, for anyone who has not been on the internet in the past 6 months, is a multiplayer shooting game where players fight to the death in a battle royale-style deathmatch. It has spawned a wave of mediocre social media content, literal billions of dollars in freemium in-game sales and a worldwide, cult-like following. Fortnite is certainly a succes, however the questions remains: Is Fornite a good game?
In short, no. Fortnite is not a good game. There’s no cutting edge gameplay mechanics, no ultra-high tech graphics. At it’s surface, it’s a just shameless rip-off of PUBG with a Minecraft twist. Essentially, it’s built for kids. It’s cartoony, irreverent vibe is a testament to the tween-focused market it is hoping to attract. It’s also a free to play game. Meaning anyone with a gaming console, computer, or mobile phone can play. This is not an accident. It means middle schoolers who don’t have the allowance to splurge on a $60+ AAA title can play it. Apologies to anyone who thinks they are a good Fornite player. The majority of the people you are owning and verbally abusing are booger eating middle schoolers. Congrats, you fucking cyber bully.
The point is that Fortnites success has absolutely nothing to do with the actual quality or inherent ‘funness’ of the game. Rather, it’s a ingeniously marketed game utilizing a new twist on an age old distribution tactic; the freemium game. The freemium game model gives users a “free” gaming experience that can be supplemented by purchasing in-game boosts and aesthetic upgrades. This model was pioneered by viral mobile games like Angry Birds, Temple Run, and Candy Crush. Creators design a highly addictive game that is both simple and immediately gratifying, usually with built-in backstops to keep players coming back every day. The perfect example is Candy Crushes ingenious use of ‘lives’. Users could only play a certain amount of games per day, and in order to get more lives they would have to share the game with their friends on Facebook, thus increasing the audience of the game. Or, if they simply couldn’t wait, they could spend a couple bucks and just buy lives. And many people could not wait. Candy Crush made nearly a billion dollars since it’s launch in 2012.
These types of games have a simple formula; attract millions of players, get them hooked, and sell them premium in game content. Although the vast majority of players are content with the free game experience, a handful of ‘whales’ purchase enough premium content to make the games profitable. Usually adults with disposable income, however countless stories have emerged over the years of children racking up hundreds of charges on their parents credit cards by purchasing this in-game content.
The success of freemium games hinges on a massive user base, in that the more players in the freemium ecosystem means more potential whales to be had. Going viral is a critical step to creating a successful freemium game, and companies tried to achieve this in a variety of different ways. Some uses traditional marketing channels. Clash of Clans purchased TV ads, and inspired a wave of ripoff games (No, Kate Upton, I will NOT be playing Game of War). Angry Birds got its own fucking movie(43% on RT).
Games like FarmVille and Candy Crush broke the mold in terms of how you could market games. They had a less subtle way of going about this by forcing you to share the game in order to keep playing. I personally must have lost 15 friends due to the amount of MafiaWars requests I received on FaceBook. The point is that the games themselves became secondary to the marketing capital. It didn’t matter how shitty your game was as long as you got as many users as possible. Which financially makes sense; it’s easier to bombard the masses with marketing bullshit like banner ads and Kate Uptons supple bosom than to take the time to craft an engaging and well thought out game.
The traditional method of making money on video games is simply to make a great game and let the game sell itself. That’s why premium games cost $60 a copy. It costs a lot of time and money to make a great game. It’s art after all! Whether or not that’s a viable strategy in the 21st century remain to be seen. But if Epic actually cared about an engaging game, they wouldn’t have made it free to play and they would have offered a story mode that actually a story. Furthermore, why would they release it on mobile? Big studios don’t make mobile games. It’s almost exclusively indie studio turf.
Fortnite has had a different, and in my opinion revolutionary, approach. They have found a way of leveraging social capital as a way of incentivizing players to share the game, rather than through brute force tactics like Candy Crush, traditional marketing channels like advertising, and forced social media interactions. Countless garbage memes have garnered millions of likes a result of Fortnite, mostly pertaining to college aged boys ignoring their girlfriends in favor of playing Fortnite with their friends. Most of the stupid dances you see middle school kids doing on Instragram, from flossing to the shoot dance to the orange kid dance (which actually started on Fortnite) crossed into the mainstream as a result of being in the game. All of this really amounts to free marketing for the game, perpetuated by uber-online schoolchildren programmed from toddlerhood to seek validation online.
They also offer tie-ins to other pop culture properties and personalities to help capture other fanbases. Last summer, Fortnite banked on the built-in fanbase of the Marvel universe by making Thanos a playable character. Celebrities across the board are posting videos of themselves playing and many are banking on the burgeoning app Twitch to live stream their Fornite sessions. They even staged a ‘digital’ concert headlined by EDM artist Marshmellow, inside the Fortnite game universe.
All of this suggests that the creators of Fortnite understand the importance of staying part of the social/digital concersation as it pertains to the exchange of social capital. They have made celebrities of pro players like Ninja, who purportedly makes six figures a week just playing Fortnite. The E-Sports industry is a multibillion dollar industry in its infancy that might one day rival real sports like football or baseball. They see a big payday on the horizon and are hoping Fortnite can get them in on the ground floor.
This all suggests that this isn’t an accident by Epic Games, Fortnite’s creators. Epic is one of the worlds preeminent gaming companies and are the creators of Unreal Engine, the gaming engine driving some of the most iconic games of the 21st century (Gears of War, Bioshock, Borderlands, Mass Effect). To their credit, they have created an incredibly innovative model that bypasses traditional marketing channels by leveraging the alaway-online nature of Generation Z and certain millenials.
However, let’s not conflate an excellent business model with a good game. Epic has done something incredible with Fortnite as far as new business models are concerned. They have leverage social media in a way that Candy Crush never could, by breaking through into analog, every day life. However we are losing sight of what’s important, and that’s the actual game. It’s hard to make a good game the same way it’s difficult to write a good book or direct a transcendent TV show or paint a kick-ass painting.
I worry that the huge financial windfall that will come with the rise of Esports will banish games not of the multiplayer shooter variety to the realm of the niche. I fear that studios will stop creating games that can’t be monetized or used for Esports competition, like adventure games or open-world role playing games. Video games are art, and I fear that cheapening them to the fleeting realm of memes and social media bullshit will push studios even further away from the pursuit of art and storytelling in favor of revenue.