Ido Lechner
Jul 25, 2018 · 17 min read

*Newsflash* if you haven’t heard of Fortnite by now, you’ve been living under a rock. Just type up ‘how many players’ and Google will autocomplete your search for you, ‘does Fortnite have?’

(The answer is over 40 active monthly players as of January, or a total 125 million and counting).

Inevitably, Epic Games, the company behind the bewilderingly successful videogame is raking in some serious cash — some $300million a month as of late. And the game has only recently made its way to China towards the end of April, so you can only imagine the kind of reception that’s to come.

Increasingly, parents are reporting losing their now insomniac children to the game, and some are even hopping on the bandwagon to see what all the rage is about. Memes are springing up of inattentive boyfriends ditching their S.O.’s for the game, pro-players are earning crazy bank, and most recently the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) announced the categorization of gaming as a potential addiction.

So what makes the game so popular? Simply put, its been designed for success. Few products, let alone video games, have struck such a cord with their audience.

Of course, if the numbers have anything to show for it, its that Fornite is no accident. While it surely wasn’t an overnight success, it did rise to fame quickly, and there’s no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

So without further ado, here are 10 Reasons Why Fortnite is Designed for Success — and What You Can Learn From It:

1. Following an Iterative Design Process

The Iterative Design Process is a simple yet powerful concept for validating and perfecting ideas. The process allows product designers to closely monitor the performance of each and every variable within their product to determine its effectiveness (or lack thereof). Therefore, in parallel to how users engage with a product, designers are able to make tweaks every step of the way (even after the product has launched) so that their design evolves over time to make for a better overall experience.

In Fortnite, virtually everything has been and still is subject to change. Over the years, publisher Epic Games has added in (and removed) different guns, items, parts of the map, game modes, characters, play mechanics, vehicles, and so forth. To call the game unrecognizable from its earlier version would be a lie, but it has evolved tremendously to what it is today piece by piece.

Takeaway:

Every week, Fortnite launches a new update with at least three new changes implemented. Though not all the changes survive, the addition of these action items in an easy-to-digest number (not too little, not too much at one time) allows the company to gauge the performance of these changes to assess whether they need to remove, update or keep the implementation as is. Under the pretext of different holidays, the game also makes contextual updates relevant to whats going on in the real world — see #3 (cultural relevance) and #9 (the FOMO effect).

2. Structuring a Collaborative Environment

Everyone remembers their first Fortnite win

From Peach to Vine to Friendster to Google+, the list of social networks that failed grows longer every year — but that doesn’t mean that the network effect died along with them.

“What people seem to agree on, whether they’re seasoned gamers or dorky dads, is that there’s something new emerging around Fortnite, a kind of mass social gathering, open to a much wider array of people than the games that came before. Its relative lack of wickedness — it seems to be mostly free of the misogyny and racism that afflict many other games and gaming communities — makes it more palatable to a broader audience, and this appeal both ameliorates and augments its addictive power.”

-Nick Paumgarten, How Fortnite Captured Teens’ Hearts and Minds, published in the New Yorker

While the game by all means falls under the ‘Battle Royale’ umbrella, an emergent genre of video games that pits up to 100 players against each other, its also managed to devise some clearcut (as well as more subtle) methods of creating a cooperative atmosphere.

One way the game does this is, in its most basic form, randomizing the skin (or character to those unfamiliar with the term) so as to be all inclusive: from match to match, players are randomly assigned the form of a black or asian woman, to a jocky blue-eyed blonde hair man, to any figure under the sun. As such, newcomers quickly come to realize that the only constant is change — few games that enable customization force players to assume the role of someone they don’t normally identify with.

Additionally, two of the three permanent game modes (doubles and teams), pit groups against each other as opposed to going solo. This drastically changes gameplay consideration as players are encouraged to share resources to increase their chances of surviving. The teams also happen to be even numbers at the start, making it easier to split off into sub-groups, distribute tasks or joining forces to take down a common enemy. And, when players take full damage, they get ‘downed’ rather than dying instantaneously, giving the remaining team members a chance to protect and revive them as their health starts dropping incrementally.

Moreover, a frequently recurring game mode, 50 v 50, further adds to the sense of unity Fortnite works so hard to build:

“In 50 v 50, players seem to go out of their way to assist strangers and with a borderline self-sacrificial altruism. Because you’re not playing for only yourself or for one or three other people — as is the case in solo or duo and squad games — 50 v 50 incentivizes players to revive complete strangers, gift weapons to spread the wealth of firepower, and otherwise be a nice human being and solid team player”

-Nick Statt, Fortnite’s 50 v 50 mode is teaching players how to be less selfish, published in The Verge

Lastly, the game is available on all major consoles, and even offers cross-play between PC, mobile and Xbox (sorry PS4 players — blame Sony), enabling friends with different devices and/or preferences to play with what they have available.

Takeaway:

Since the time before screen-based socializing has long come to pass, companies are now challenged with figuring out how to create communities in the digital age. Taking notes from Fortnite, some of the most effective ways to do just that involve building empathy by removing stigma/putting people in someone else’s shoes, purposely structuring teams in ways that afford easy collaboration, encouraging micro-losses for macro-gains and creating a cross-platform experience that translates smoothly across all screen sizes and interfaces.

3. Being Culturally Relevant

Hey, can’t say its not entertaining 😉Leave a comment with your favorite dance! (Mine is at 5:00)

One of the most easily entertaining aspects of Fortnite is its relevance to the world we live in, often alluding to internet culture as a means of connecting with its diverse audience. From its adoption of popularized dances spanning every community you can think of — from goths to K-pop to classic film — everyone can spot at least one dance they know in the game. It’s even gotten to the point that athletes are celebrating Fortnite-style after scoring points.

In addition to the dance moves, Epic Games also takes every holiday as a chance to add new skins, weapons and events to the game, such as pumpkin-shaped RPG ammo on halloween, or the nutcracker skin on Christmas.

One of their best moves culturally (and financially) speaking occurred back when the Avengers: Infinity War first came out, wherein they hosted a cross-over event that let you play as Thanos — the series’ biggest villain to date — in a limited-time game mode.

The mini-scene that occurs right after a player picks up the Infinity Gauntlet and becomes Thanos

Takeaway:

From implementing meme culture in your marketing endeavors, to baking in a healthy dose of humor from references your audience is sure to understand and appreciate, moving away from exclusively thinking about what your product offers and towards what your users are used to seeing and thinking about helps communicate that you have their best interest in mind, and also affirms your position as a cultured brand. If you can find a way to monetize on that, even better.

[For a more in-depth look of what the event looked like (😍), here’s a video highlighting when it first came out]:

4. Having Depth and Sophistication

You’re down to six players, with two small shield potions, a purple scar, some grenades and a dream. A supply drop is landing in your vicinity with the chance for some better weapons, and the storm is closing in which will inevitably force you out of your vantage point, but there’s two snipers on either side of you who probably caught wind of that same crate falling by you — what do you do?

While the game is relatively easy to pick up if you have some gaming experience under your belt, mastering the shooting and building mechanics takes some time. Once you’ve got that down, there’s still much to learn: where’s the best place to land to quickly get some treasure? Conversely, which places should you avoid if your goal is to win? Do you prefer to play with pump, tactical or heavy shotgun? What’s the best building formation to get a leg up on your opponents?

A big part of the game’s allure comes down to its difficulty: even though you’re good, or even great, you’re not guaranteed a win, and chances are you’re not getting one this time either. Though its possible to get a streak going, the feat proves difficult even for the top players in the world, and its this competitive drive that keeps people hooked for hours (and even days if you can spare the time, tears and unproductiveness).

Takeaway:

The right game design recipe calls for a healthy balance between skill and strategy — just look at soccer, chess, or any other game that’s survived the test of time. Similarly, the best platforms, media, websites, and so forth are highly approachable in that they’re easy to get the hang of, but have enough under the hood to keep you enthralled for a long time. If nothing else, remember this phrase: easy to learn, hard to master.

5. Free to Play

Perhaps the biggest reason for the game’s widespread adoption is its seeming lack of barrier to entry. Whereas most video games nowadays require a one-time purchase, Fortnite has taken the smartphone app approach to monetization by making the game completely free to play, choosing to make money exclusively through micro-transactions instead.

If popular game series like FIFA make more money through in-game purchases than they do by selling copies of the game itself, imagine what that does for a company like Epic Games whose game is entirely free-to-play.

Moreover, though some publishers choose to make items that grant some sort of competitive advantage upon purchasing, others (including Epic Games) go the route of only enabling cosmetic upgrades. Though it sounds more than a tad ridiculous to drop 15 bucks on a single outfit, thats where millions of parents’ (and grown adults’) money is going right this second.

Make it rain (for $5)

Another interesting point to mention is the means in which one acquires ‘a copy’ of the game — though there was once a time when Fortnite was available as a hard disc, the team quickly discontinued production in favor of exclusively downloading it instead. As such, the prices of the disc versions have now inflated up to $1000 on Amazon… can anything still surprise us about this game?

Takeaway:

There are countless ways to make money, many of which don’t involve a direct sale of your product. Considering different payment models can often lead to the discovery of a method you haven’t yet thought of, such as selling a feature or benefit within your product instead. Doing so can also lead to a smarter redesign of the base offering, such as how Spotify doesn’t allow you to pick which song you want to hear off a playlist, only offering what normally wouldn’t even constitute a ‘feature’ to premium members exclusively.

6. The Adrenaline-filled Reward System

We know the feeling Childish Gambino… we know the feeling…

The initial plunge hundreds of feet from the sky. The sound of footsteps pacing above you. The damage you just took from a suppressed weapon, so you’re not quite sure where it came from. The feeling when you’re one of the last three people alive. The storm starting to take two points of health per second… then ten…

As the stakes get raised, your breathing gets deeper and your heart pounds faster.

Of course, the game was intentionally designed to activate a fight or flight reaction — sticking to your guns or gtfo’ing is all part of strategizing after all.

Sound is also an incredibly important (and deliberate) element of the game — you’re not likely to get far if you can’t hear chests waiting to be looted, or enemies circling in the vicinity. There’s also that frantic feeling during a build battle, when you get rushed and your opponent starts building above you. Or when you build high up above them, and they break the base of your fort and you see the ground getting closer and closer, unsure if you’ll make it.

Though its not ultimately a big deal if you end up dying in the game — you just get sent to the lobby and start up another match in a matter of minutes — the closer you get to top 10, the more eager (and cautious) you become. In this way, the build up of tension is inversely proportional to the amount of players left at any given point in time.

Takeaway

Designing around our natural emotional responses is an understated aspect of a good user experience. Under the microscope, its easy to see how certain mechanics can influence behavior, but something gets lost in translation when going through the motions of engaging with a particular product or experience. The true genius of design of course, lies not in the flair and elegance of how something looks and feels, but in allowing the user to believe that their unique experience, and couldn’t possibly be the outcome of a designer’s meticulous attention to detail and conscious curation of these triggering elements.

For a deeper dive on this particular takeaway, click here:

7. Shareable Moments

Its official — Fortnite is the most streamed game in the world. In March of this year, PCGamesN reported that the game hit 5000 years of Twitch broadcasts (the YouTube of gaming) in just two weeks.

Evidently, the game isn’t just fun to play — its fun to watch.

The rich combination of internet personalities coupled with competitive gameplay only feeds into the addiction for those who can’t play themselves, whether its because they have other things they have to do, enjoy picking up crafty tips and tricks from the pros, want to engage passively for a short while, or simply because they aren’t near their gaming console.

But arguably what makes Fortnite streams seemingly as successful as the game itself comes down to shareable moments: though the main premise of the cartoonish past-time resembles an “all-you-can-eat-if-you-don’t-get-eaten” buffet, the video game is jam-packed with easter eggs, constant updates and enough ways to get kills that you’re never really watching the same thing twice (see #8 below — the same yet different). With so much diversity in what you can do and how you can do it, the crazier it gets the higher the viewer count.

The game also has a replay mode, where you can spectate your last few matches via a bunch of different camera angles (ie: gameplay mode, drone attach, drone follow, third person, etc…) to get the perfect shot (pun intended — again). A timeline displaying exactly when you got your kills also makes it easy to clip the best ones to share on social media, whether its a couple seconds on Snapchat or the whole gameplay on Facebook or YouTube.

Of course, while a replay mode isn’t exclusive to Fortnite, the developers really did a fantastic job with the depth and sophistication (see #4) of the system, from enabling you to jump to different points in time and speed up or slow down the footage, to viewing other players besides yourself, to tweaking camera elements such as auto exposure, aperture, focal length, auto focus, to gameplay mechanics such as name plates, player outlines, replay region, damage effects and so forth. Whereas some players choose to watch the pros to see what they’re doing right, a few others watch themselves to see what they’re doing wrong.

Takeaway

Honing in on the most shareable aspects of a product is a rare and effective form of marketing. Because everyone feels good when they get to highlight their accomplishments, empowering users to do just that ultimately benefits the reach and visibility of the platform they’ve accomplished something on. Here Medium is a good example: as the ‘central blog of the internet,’ the site encourages you to Tweet a message or post to LinkedIn whenever you publish something new, and fills in an automatic yet editable post for you to make it as easy as a click of a button. In considering where and how to install your own ‘shareable moments,’ think about how long or large what’s being shared needs to be, as well as how easy and customizable the sharing process is for your users.

8. Being ‘The Same yet Different’

‘Looting chests’ in Fortnite is like playing a mini-lottery, you never know what you’re going to get. You do know you’ll be guaranteed a weapon, but the type and rarity is a mystery until you open it.

Moreover, finding chests is its own form of luck. As you play more games, you’ll start to memorize where chests are often located, though whether or not they get generated in a match is another story…

And lets not forget about llamas (yes you read that right), whose locations are completely randomized to the point where finding one is extremely rare, rewarding you with a bunch of materials, ammo and healing items.

Moreover the storm mechanic of the game forces players to reposition themselves as it chips away at your health if you get caught within it. Not only does it get smaller over time, but they recently patched it to bounce around as well, so you never know what to anticipate until the timer for the next storm jump reaches zero and it starts to shrink anew.

This is all to say that, as this title suggests, each game has a sense of ‘randomized familiarity.’ With so many consistent-yet-variable aspects of the game, no two playthroughs are the same, situating Fortnite as the ideal balance between luck and skill (see #4 — depth and sophistication).

Even among players, the prescribed term ‘no skin’ factors into how individuals strategize their gameplay, as many expect players who haven’t swung a couple bucks towards at least one new outfit to be considerably worse at the game (some of which are in for a nasty surprise while others prophesize correctly).

Takeaway

If it makes sense to implement within your product (it doesn’t always), look for ways to change things up in a way that doesn’t disorient your users, but rather challenges them to engage more deeply. They should have a general sense of what to expect, while still being pleasantly surprised (or else eager to try again).

9. The FOMO Effect

You can see the timer ticking down in the ‘featured items’ and ‘daily items’ bar respectively

Ah, the FOMO effect (fear of missing out), one of Epic Games’ main tactics for raking in the big bucks 🤑. By setting items in the shop on rotation, so that only two or so of the main skins, dances, pickaxes and so forth are obtainable in a given instance, players are more inclined to make impulse purchases as they don’t know when they’ll have a chance to buy the item again.

Couple this with even more exclusive, holiday-themed skins that will likely never be available again, and you have a recipe for more benjamins than you know what to do with.

The same can be said for engagement as well, since the amount of playtime logged tends to rise not only because of holiday breaks, but also because of the temporary nature of holiday-themed maps and events as well.

Takeaway

In many cases, it can be advantageous not to grant users the full spectrum of purchasing options in a single instance. Instead, try to time your offerings with events going on around the world to promote a sense of cultural relevance (see # 3).

Similarly, you can experiment with expiration dates and subscription models to encourage continued purchasing, in addition to the limited-time offers made desirable by the FOMO effect.

10. Building Upon a Solid Foundation

Building upon two major gaming genres (pun intended), the minecraft-esque construction style coupled with the shooting element that’s been popularized by the likes of Call of Duty, Battlefield, and countless other gaming staples, Epic Games has created a rich and distinctive blend that the world has yet to see.

As a true testament to the idea that things can be greater than the sum of their parts, Fortnite hasn’t necessarily reinvented the wheel, but it has woven all of the standalone elements that call for a great adventure in each genre into something that, once again, feels the same yet different (see #8). From looting chests, to gunning down our enemies, to building bridges, stairs and escape routes, to destroying the environment around us, to speed boosts from drifting with vehicles, we’ve seen all these pieces by themselves, we just haven’t seen them together.

Even the Battle Royale genre wasn’t catalyzed by Fornite, but, by taking this list of 10 ways to design a successful product, Epic Games hasn’t just created the world’s most addictive video game to date, its ushered in a new era of design thinking.

Takeaway

Many times ‘the best’ product or service isn’t the first to market, but the one that properly synthesizes time-tested learnings and principles. Don’t rush excellence, but don’t wait too long either — like in the first example (the iterative design process), find a happy medium between quickly testing your own assumptions for what would make for a nice addition to your design, and borrowing successful features from your competitors alongside pre-established best-practices. The key is to challenge anything and everything to figure out what works, and what can work better.

Conclusion

Fortnite clearly has a lot going for it, not just as a game but as a collective experience. To quickly recap on all of those things, here’s the full checklist of the 10 action points that make it successful, and that you can implement in your own product designs:

  1. Following an iterative design proces
  2. Structuring a Collaborative Environment
  3. Being Culturally Relevant
  4. Having Depth and Sophistication
  5. Free to Play (or use in entertainment products)
  6. The Adrenaline-filled Reward System
  7. Shareable Moments
  8. Being ‘The Same yet Different’ (consistent variability)
  9. The FOMO Effect
  10. Building Upon a Solid Foundation

Ido Lechner

My thoughts on UX design, business and branding, as well some personal stories.

Ido Lechner

Written by

Writer, UX designer and aspiring entrepreneur. I make my thoughts real.

Ido Lechner

My thoughts on UX design, business and branding, as well some personal stories.

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