THE FUTURE OF FORTNITE
Epic Games has taken over the world with its take on Battle Royale. We sit down with the studio to find out what comes next.
Fortnite was never supposed to become a global attraction. Then again, few creations ever are, and few videogames ever do. From casual players to seasoned gamers, for school children and celebrity icons, Fortnite: Battle Royale has become something of a genuine obsession. It has reached a plateau reserved for those special few videogames that are able to confidently pierce the consciousness of the general public while still igniting a spark of imagination in the minds of players around the world. The Fortnite IP has found itself in a position that few in the industry ever imagined it was capable of reaching – and that includes its creator, Epic Games.
It would be easy enough for this level of attention and success to act as a rush of blood to the head, but the veteran game creator and engine maker is humble in its assessment of the cultural compulsion it has found itself at the heart of after a whirlwind seven months. “We’re really lucky that we’ve become a part of this cultural phenomenon,” Kim Libreri, Epic Games’ chief technical officer, tells us as we attempt to navigate the storm that is currently enveloping the influential studio. “We just wanted to entertain people, but we’re a part of the zeitgeist now, just like the community that is playing the game.”
“So, where has it [the success] all come from? I don’t know, was it the chicken or the egg?” laughs Libreri, though he failed to elaborate any further on the analogy, so stick with us on this one. The egg, we surmise, is
Fortnite: Battle Royale itself; the chicken, the players that have appeared in their millions to play it; the two utterly inseparable from one another when considering 2018’s most unlikely success story.
But that success is there, and it is clear for all to see. There are Youtube and Twitch streams viewed millions of times over; we’ve seen confused cable news anchors scramble to process its impact, and it has pushed politicians and pundits to crawl back out of the woodwork to once again decry the influence of videogames on society. The industry hasn’t seen anything on this scale for quite some time, and it’s electrifying to witness it in real-time.
It has even surprised Epic’s founder and CEO, Tim Sweeny – a creative force that we’d suspect has just about seen it all after his 27 years at the forefront of the industry. Sweeny is watching on with interest, eager to see where
Fortnite could possibly go next. If he’s certain of anything though, it’s that it isn’t going far without the support of the community that has formed around it. “I have to say, because I really do wonder, but who are the real developers of
Fortnite now? By definition it is Epic, but actually if you look at what’s happening on Reddit, and between the players, the streamers and the content creators on Youtube, it’s like we are all designing the game together.”
As a sentiment, it’s one that is shared by many of the developers working to keep
Fortnite up on its feet and moving forwards. Eric Williamson, design lead and systems engineer overseeing what is arguably the most popular game on the planet, is one such developer – working diligently to ensure that an open and honest dialogue will keep Epic from straying too far in the wrong direction as it sets its sights on bringing Battle Royale out of early access in the coming months. “From the start, we wanted the development to be a conversation. When we first launched Battle Royale we knew we had work to do. We had an idea of where the game would go, but [we] wanted to stay open – not only to listening to feedback, but actually being able to act on it,” Williamson tells us. “We think of the game as a canvas and a set of tools for players to use and have fun with. It’s really cool to see the things they come up with – whether it’s rocket riding or a unique way to use building. Giving them new tools to play with is just a lot of fun.”
It is a lot of fun; so much so, that it’s easy to forget that, for Epic, this is also a critical time. There is no precedent set for managing this level of sustained success; there is no playbook for catering to an audience as large and varied as the one that has formed around Battle Royale. It has undergone a period of sustained and focused iteration, growth and expansion since its low-key launch in September 2017. Epic is processing and acting on feedback from the community in record time, and the community is responding in kind by pumping more and more of their time into it.
It’s funny, because in spite of the success, this wasn’t the future Epic had originally envisioned for Fortnite – a game that the studio had incubated in one way or another since
2011. It took six years to get Fortnite: Save The World (as the core PVE co-op mode is now known to the public) to a stage in which Epic felt comfortable releasing it into paid early access on 25 July 2017. It also took just two more months for it to approach virtual irrelevancy in the eyes of many.
Save The World amassed a passionate and dedicated audience, but something about it clearly failed to resonate with the masses. Some in the industry – us included – had started to worry that Epic would eventually begin to divert its resources and personnel towards its other early-access experiment, Paragon. Perhaps public perception isn’t everything. Fortnite’s VP of publishing Ed Zobrist would later expand on the current state of Save The World at GDC in a rare comment about the survival co-op mode. “It exceeded our expectations. It laid the groundwork for our game to continue to grow as it marches on towards its free-to-play status that will be out later this year. I’m happy to say that retention is high, and here we are over six months later, and our player base is larger than it has ever been – [and that’s] for Save The World, not just for BR. This has worked out extremely well for us.”
While Save The World is still fighting for attention, it’s impossible to overlook the impact of Battle Royale. It landed out of nowhere, and there’s no clear explanation as to how it has continued to defy all expectation. It arrived, in September 2017, just as the battle royale genre had began to reach its zenith, with console and mobile players eager to try the experience for themselves after listening to PC players and media outlets prattle on about Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds for the better part of a year. And better still, Fortnite’s family-friendly version of the game mode was free-to-play, entertaining to spectate, and easy to get to grips with.
This is a part of the story that we are all intimately familiar with. There have been hundreds of thousands of words written about the launch of Battle Royale with outlets attempting to surmise its success. We aren’t going to waste your time with another such speculative pursuit. Instead, we wanted to use our time and access to the development team and studio to uncover how any of this was made possible; to understand how Epic positioned itself in such a way that it could spend six years developing a core experience, only to take over the world on a whim just two months later.
And believe us, it really was a whim: “Battle Royale was the nucleus of about 20 people,” Sweeny tells us excitedly. “It was basically the Unreal Tournament team that [came in] and decided, ‘Hey, we love these battle royale games, lets build one on top of Fortnite’. That’s how the game emerged.”
Given that Fortnite was originally conceived as part of an internal game jam back in 2011, it seems only fitting that a mod – from the team behind Unreal Tournament no less, a franchise that has found extreme sustainability over the decades largely because of such support – should ultimately be the catalyst for Fortnite’s ascension on the world stage.
Zobrist would later expand on this process. Because if Battle Royale’s origins weren’t spectacular enough already, we were pretty shocked to discover how quickly the team at Epic put this thing together and got it out into the hands of the public. “We started working on this just about the time Save The World was coming out,” Zobrist revealed, reaffirming how eager the team were to make a competitive PVP shooter work within the boundaries of the original Pvedriven design. “So let’s do some math: Save The World, the PVE game, launched 21 July. [Battle Royale] comes out 26 September… that’s just two months in development.”
There’s an element of ‘right place at the right time’ behind the success of Battle Royale, but there’s something more purposeful and defined behind this story too. This was all made possible because of how agile Epic can be in the development space. It’s that element of the company that, ultimately, saved Battle Royale from launching into relative obscurity – trapped behind the same pay wall that has held Save The World at arm's length for so many players.
Epic had planned for Battle Royale to be a mere companion to the co-op experience, enough of a draw that it could bring in some of the competitive players that had put their trust in Epic so many times over the years without diluting the core of the game. “Then things changed,” Zobrist noted. “We were getting really close to launch. We had already started marketing it as this PVP
“Now that the core of the game Is mostly IN place, we’re able to have a lot of fun”
mode that was going to be inside of Save The World. From what we can tell, people even started to buy Save The World in anticipation of being able to play it…”
It’s around this time, just two weeks out from Battle Royale going live on public servers, that Epic saw an opportunity and grasped at it with both hands. It decided to take a huge risk, to separate Battle Royale out from Save The World and launch it as a free-to-play early access experience – one that runs through the same client, but ultimately circumvents the inherent restrictions and uncertainties attached to paid early access. “You can imagine how difficult this was in just two weeks time to get through,” Zobrist said defiantly. “I doubt any major publisher could have pulled off this kind of pivot in the time we ended up doing it.”
To be fair to him, he isn’t wrong. That sort of herculean effort from every department across Epic – from those charged with game creation and optimisation right down to UX designers and marketing – represents an agility and determination that simply isn’t reflected in many other ‘triple-a’ game companies, if any.
So how has Epic found itself in this position? It’s been a long, arduous process of self-reflection and transformation. Internally the company refers to itself as Epic 4.0 now, a title that reflects its dedication to pursuing onlineexperiences and live game development. This process began fives years ago, just ahead of the launch of the PS4 in 2013.
Epic sensed this change on the near horizon. It could see the rise of games-as-aservice and began to pivot its business in pursuit of it. Look back five years ago and you’ll find a company with fewer than 100 employees, with an identity largely inseparable from the Xbox exclusive Gears Of War IP.
Gears Of War: Judgement would be Epic’s final flirtation with a franchise that helped Epic become synonymous with core gamers on the console platform, and effectively established the Unreal Engine 3 as the last generation’s most powerful and versatile game creation tool. Many of the company’s biggest stars would walk away in search of a fresh start, all of this coming to a head as the ink dried on a contract giving Chinese Internet behemoth Tencent a 40 per cent stake in Epic for an estimated $330 million.
It was a cultural shift as much as it was anything else for Epic – a move made in earnest to get ahead of a trend. To be frank, a game like Battle Royale simply wouldn’t have been possible without it.
The model of traditional game design that served Epic so well in the past was becoming unsustainable, too slow and cumbersome to give the studio any real agility or leverage to respond to increasing demands and interest from players. Epic sensed the development space was quietly shifting beneath its feet, and it knew it needed a response. It’s the results of that response that
“we had already started marketing It as this pvp mode that was going to be Inside of save the world”
is delivering new weapons and modes through
Battle Royale to us every week.
“We’re on a weekly release cycle [now], and the team works really fast. The Unreal Engine 4 enables a really quick workflow where you can make changes, you can test them quickly and, you know, within a few days you’ve deployed them to five platforms across this huge set of device families,” Sweeny tell us, noting how happy he is with the launch of Battle Royale on the IOS and Android platforms to complement the PC, PS4 and Xbox One releases. “It’s a really wonderful process, and I think that’s kind of the model of the future, right?”
“With Gears Of War we would put out a game, and then we would get player feedback. ‘Oh they liked this, didn’t like that’ and so, okay, we’ll incorporate all of that in the next version,” Sweeny laughs, giving us an insight into how gruelling traditional triple-a game production can be on a studio eager to please its fans. “And then three years later it finally releases… no, now it’s every week!”
Maintaining this gruelling weekly schedule isn’t easy. In fact, Epic has had to quickly increase its team size to manage the workflow.
Fortnite’s combined development team has ballooned from 60-strong to now encompassing an outfit that is “bigger than the Gears Of War 3 team” Sweeny confirms with a smile, “but not by a huge amount”. This is necessary due to the huge effort that is going in to optimisation, content creation and community engagement.
“It wasn’t always that way,” confirms Libreri. “But it’s now [necessary] because we have to sustain this massive player base; they want new stuff all the time.”
It might have been a successful transformation for Epic, but it hasn’t been an easy one. Shrewd business manoeuvres and shifting internal philosophies are only one part of the picture; the road to Battle Royale’s success, to this epic internal transformation, has also been paved by difficult decisions and cancelled videogames.
It’s funny to think, but there was a time when Fortnite’s existence was being called into question by the very community that now calls it home. There seemed to be no end in sight to its protracted development, and (externally at least) Epic looked to be diverting more and more resources into its community-driven MOBA, Paragon. “You know we poured our hearts and souls into the game. We set out to build a MOBA that had triple-a production values that put you right in the centre of the action,” laments Sweeny. “I feel the team really achieved that and did an amazing job building a game that really lived up to that goal.”
Sadly for Epic, it wasn’t meant to be. The release of Battle Royale would act as a surprise death knell for Paragon. With Epic struggling to improve player retention, it made the decision to give fans what they wanted: more of a good thing. By January 2018, most of Paragon’s team had moved on to Battle Royale – assisting with quality of life improvements to the map, helping to develop new weapons, and get the recentlyrevealed Replay system into play. Eventually, Epic was forced to shut the MOBA down for good – issuing refunds to the players that had stuck with them over the years and bid farewell to the game that existed in one state or another for three years. “It was kind of a heartbreaking exercise within Epic, to cancel a project that was so dear to our hearts,” Sweeny considers. “The difficulty with Paragon is that for every hundred players who came in, a month later less than five were still playing. Over time we made a lot of incremental improvements; we made some big leaps – some were liked, some were hated – but nothing really fundamentally changed those numbers much.”
“We came to that realisation after Fortnite
came out, with numbers that were manymany-many times higher than [Paragon’s]. There was just some magic there and the best thing we could do was to put all of our resources into that.”
Epic is now fully focused on two distinct areas of business: getting the full Fortnite package – encompassing Save The World and
Battle Royale – out of early access as fullyfledged free-to-play games and on continuing to push innovation through its Unreal Engine 4. While these focuses may sound as if they are separate from one another, they are in actuality tied together in a very fundamental way.
The impact Fortnite’s sustained growth and expansion could have over the games industry is quite unprecedented. When it comes to figuring out what the future holds for Fortnite,
there’s more to consider here than the mere introduction of new maps, modes and weapons to the sprawling carnival of death that is Battle Royale. The future of Fortnite is intrinsically tied to the future of Epic Games, the Unreal Engine and, in many ways, to the future of the games industry itself.
“Fortnite is a leading edge research vehicle for driving the Unreal Engine forward. All of the systems we’re building are benefiting everybody,” says Sweeny, who is clearly overjoyed that Fortnite is finally fulfilling its role – it’s hard to believe, but Fortnite was, once upon a time, to be the very first game to utilise the Unreal Engine 4. It has effectively become the Gears Of War for the current generation, the tip of the spear, as it were, for showcasing the power and potential
Fortnite: Battle Royale has emerged as one of the biggest and most popular games in the world in just seven months. Its lack of explicit violence, the fact that its free-to-play, its vivid art-style and fast round time all factoring into its huge success.
The Youtube and Twitch communities have really rallied around Epic’s latest in a big way. Statistics would indicate that, as of writing, Fortnite is the most watched game in the world. It’s averaging close to 140,000 views on Twitch every week, which is double the traffic of rival PUBG.