See What Sticks: The Epic Philosophy of Fortnite
Epic is unafraid to break their battle royale juggernaut if it means keeping players coming back — and it’s paying off
Last week, Epic Games added its first vehicle into the hugely popular battle royale game Fortnite. Well, sort of — it’s a shopping cart, and players have been having a blast tearing around the map with a friend in the basket, crashing off jumps, and generally trying to break the game with it. It’s the latest in a series of temporary items Epic has thrown into the game, coming just after jetpacks made their debut, and the Infinity Gauntlet and gravity crystals before it.
Not all these temporary items have sat well among players, but they have gotten people excited. Each one is a new wrinkle in the mechanics of the game, mixing things up just enough to turn a strategy on its head — even if only for a limited time. But beyond that, Epic are doing something very, very smart: they are giving players a real, tangible, missable reason to come back regularly. And it’s paying off. They’re throwing everything at the wall, and seeing what sticks, and they’re keeping their players champing at the bit in the process.
Epic can’t afford to rest on its laurels. After stepping away from the Gears of War franchise they created, they tried and failed to find footing in the MOBA scene, launching too late to make a difference with Paragon. Fortnite similarly launched to crickets, and it wasn’t until they made the free-to-play battle-royale pivot that the game took off. But success is fickle, and they’d be unwise not to notice how quickly they stole ground from their direct competitor, PUBG. So, Epic made a concerted effort to keep those players coming back, by any means necessary.
Where PUBG focused on supporting the core mechanics of their experience with only the occasional new weapon or attachment, and deliberate, “responsible” content additions, Fortnite has been… slapdash. The aforementioned gravity crystals effectively broke the game when they were released, enabling players to bound like jackalopes. Jetpacks had a similar result, though most were victims of their own hubris, falling from the skies like Icarus and his melted wings. It’s too early to say what damage shopping carts will do to the experience, but if early reaction is any indication, it’s chaos.
With each new temporary item dropping into Fortnite, the most competitive players have expressed their disdain. They’ve openly voiced their concern that these items are disrupting the game’s balance, and they’re not wrong — these items drop into the game with hardly any precautions in mind, and no sensible countermeasures to the mechanics they introduce. In other words, it’s unfair… but it’s fun.
Epic’s lack of consideration for the impact these items have on their game is likely the reason they’ve been so successful, for better or worse. The key difference between the approaches PUBG and Fortnite have taken with new features and content is in their consideration for the game balance and preservation of competitive experiences in the game. Where PUBG strives to maintain and improve upon its core mechanics, Fortnite is much more prone to throw caution to the wind for the sake of a fun gimmick. PUBG’s 50% drop in concurrent players since January, and Fortnite’s unparalleled success in as much time underscores which approach better serves the bottom line. PUBG is the more competitive game of the two, but that doesn’t seem to matter to Epic. At least not yet.
It is undeniable that PUBG caters to a “hardcore” demographic, and their concerted effort to become a serious esports contender is undoubtedly a result of that. But with that kind of reputation comes a higher barrier of entry. Only the most persistent players can even learn all of the game’s mechanics, much less become experts. Fortnite, on the other hand, lowers that bar, and reaches as many people as possible. It’s easier to “get” Fortnite, and it’s accessible to everybody with a smartphone, tablet, console, or halfway decent PC. The Nintendo Switch will even see Fortnite on its storefront later this year. And it’s free, so there’s no risk in trying it out.
PUBG probably has more dedicated, highly talented players, but Fortnite has more of them (a lot more of them), and gives all those players a reason to check in nearly every week to see what’s new. And, you know, maybe they’ll check out the item shop while they’re there. And that’s why they can afford to commit $100 million in local esports competitions this year, because they’re earning upwards of three times as much each and every month.
I have faith that Epic will eventually double-down on the competitive angle of Fortnite. They’ll add permanent ranked play, and they’ll add custom matchmaking, and they’ll host official esports leagues, if not only because they can. But they’re not in any rush just yet. They’re still throwing things to the wall and seeing what sticks, and they’re reviving old players in the process. And when they finally do step into the esports arena, they’re going to crush it. It doesn’t matter who’s more competitive or more balanced — only who’s more popular.