Fort­nite Fore­tells the Fu­ture

Why the game’s un­prece­dented suc­cess means as much for the fu­ture of me­dia as it does for the gam­ing in­dus­try

Fast Company - - Contents -

Why the game’s suc­cess might pre­dict the next evo­lu­tion of me­dia.

With mere sec­onds to go be­fore

1:30 p.m. ET, on a moun­tain­top over­look­ing Snobby Shores, Muselk scram­bled up a makeshift ramp, low­ered his sniper ri­fle, and peered down at the launch­pad be­low. Like everyone else, he was here to see the rocket.

An alarm sounded. Boost­ers rum­bled. Fiery orange jets be­gan push­ing the mis­sile sky­ward.

“Oh. My. God. Yaaaaaaaaow! It’s go­ing, boys, it’s go­ing!” Muselk shouted to his friend Lachy­dachy. He peered through his ri­fle’s scope to get a bet­ter look as the rocket dis­ap­peared into the night sky.

For a mo­ment: si­lence. But then the rocket re­turned, first as a drift­ing star, and then— sud­denly—as a mur­der­ous pro­jec­tile, bear-

“I THINK WE’RE ON THE VERGE OF A NEW FORM OF EN­TER­TAIN­MENT,” SAYS TIM SWEENEY, EPIC GAMES’ CEO.

ing down on the world be­low. The mis­sile ca­reened low across fields, buzzed build­ings, and then shot up­ward to crack the sky it­self, leav­ing be­hind a shim­mery blue frac­ture.

“Do you see that crack?” Lachy­dachy breathed.

“Do I see the fuck­ing gi­ant crack in the sky? Yes, Lachy, I do. I phys­i­cally can’t be­lieve what we just saw.” “And the servers didn’t crash.” Muselk and Lachy­dachy (whose real names are El­liott Watkins and Lach­lan Power) had stayed up un­til 3:30 a.m. lo­cal time in Aus­tralia to live-stream the June 30 rocket launch, which took place in the is­land world of Fort­nite Bat­tle Royale and was or­ches­trated by de­vel­op­ers at the video game’s North Carolina– based par­ent com­pany, Epic Games. Across the world, mil­lions of fans logged on to watch the event, and within sec­onds stream­ing plat­forms such as Twitch and Youtube were filled with their awestruck re­ac­tions, from Avxry in the U.S. (“I have chills!”) to Its­gre­f­gyt in Spain (“Oh, Dios Mio! Oh, Dios Mio!”). By the fol­low­ing week, streams and other videos of the launch, which kicked off the next sea­son of play, had been viewed tens of mil­lions of times.

Like its sky-shat­ter­ing rocket, Fort­nite Bat­tle Royale has cap­ti­vated the gam­ing and tech­nol­ogy worlds for the past year—and left them scram­bling to un­der­stand its im­pli­ca­tions. Within nine months of its de­but last Septem­ber, the freeto-play game had at­tracted 125 mil­lion reg­is­tered users, more than 40 mil­lion of whom play every month, from sixth graders to pro gamers to NBA all-stars. Mean­while, users are pop­ping into Fort­nite’s in-game Item Shop to buy out­fits for their sur­vival­ist char­ac­ters to wear, as well as emotes (funny dances and ges­tures) for them to per­form. As a re­sult, Epic Games has re­port­edly al­ready gen­er­ated more than $1 bil­lion in rev­enue from Fort­nite, which—once again—costs noth­ing to play.

Every so of­ten, a game breaks through the mud­dle of sim­i­lar ti­tles to be­come a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. With hind­sight, it’s of­ten pos­si­ble to see how its suc­cess fore­told a mas­sive fu­ture trend: In 2009, Far­mville demon­strated the huge po­ten­tial (and un­der­ly­ing risk) of build­ing an au­di­ence on top of so­cial net­works like Face­book. In 2012, Candy Crush showed off the sheer amount of time and money peo­ple were will­ing to spend while on their mo­bile de­vices. While some pre­dic­tions haven’t panned out—ask any Poké­mon Go player who an­tic­i­pated a world of aug­mented re­al­ity—fort­nite seems to sig­nify an­other pro­found shift. It’s a game where more than 100 mil­lion peo­ple are con­nect­ing with real-life friends to com­pete, spec­tate, and ex­pe­ri­ence a story to­gether in real time. “I think we’re on the verge of a new form of en­ter­tain­ment,” says Tim Sweeney, Epic’s founder and CEO.

Every Fort­nite Bat­tle Royale ses­sion starts the same way: 100 play­ers sky­dive onto an is­land, where they have less than 30 min­utes to for­age weapons and sup­plies and then fight to the death as a storm closes in. It sounds bleak, but in re­al­ity, Fort­nite feels light­hearted, al­most silly. Un­like its grim­mer peers, the game con­tains no blood or gore (play­ers sim­ply van­ish), and its is­land set­ting is lush and car­toony, as if the Hunger Games had been made into a chil­dren’s TV se­ries. While the most skilled gamers fight for vic­tory, there are plenty of ways for in­ex­pe­ri­enced ones to en­joy them­selves be­fore their in­evitable demise: build­ing forts, ex­plor­ing neigh­bor­hoods, goof­ing off with lit­tle dances. (Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey com­mis­sioned by BTIG Re­search, 21% of Fort­nite play­ers were pre­vi­ously non-gamers.) Per­haps be­cause of the am­ple sources of bon­homie, the player com­mu­nity is un­usu­ally friendly and sup­port­ive.

What makes Fort­nite even more re­mark­able is that its fans don’t sim­ply play the game. In May alone, they logged more than 574 mil­lion hours across the web sim­ply watch­ing oth­ers play; they gen­er­ate more than 130 mil­lion video views each day. Last sum­mer, a weekly Fri­day Fort­nite tour­na­ment star­ring some of the game’s big­gest stream­ers pulled in 8.8 mil­lion live view­ers one night, more than the most re­cent Walk­ing Dead fi­nale on AMC (7.9 mil­lion). When word went out last March of an im­promptu game with Ninja, Fort­nite’s top player, and the rap­per Drake, 635,000 view­ers swarmed to watch. For stream­ers like Ninja, this is big busi­ness: With nearly 10 mil­lion fol­low­ers on Twitch and an­other 16 mil­lion Youtube sub­scribers, he makes a re­ported $500,000 a month in en­dorse­ments. In May, Epic an­nounced it was fund­ing a prize pool of $100 mil­lion for Fort­nite com­pe­ti­tions, a move that is sure to stoke larger au­di­ences.

Fort­nite’s broad ap­peal is both un­prece­dented and built from the ground up. Not only can it sup­port a full 100 play­ers on the same map, but also gamers can log in and play from al­most any de­vice, in­clud­ing PCS, iphones, Nin­tendo Switches, Xboxes, and PS4S. “[Fort­nite is] an en­gi­neer­ing marvel,” says Roland Lester­lin, cre­ative di­rec­tor at New York City’s De­fi­ant Stu­dios. De­vel­op­ers like Lester­lin are sali­vat­ing be­cause Epic Games now makes its suite of game­build­ing tools, called Un­real En­gine 4, avail­able to out­siders. That means you can ex­pect more ti­tles to ag­gre­gate large au­di­ences in ways that weren’t pos­si­ble be­fore. “[Epic’s] core busi­ness is the game en­gine: The tech­nol­ogy is what they sell, the game is just an ad­ver­tise­ment for that,” says Ethan Levy, a game maker at N3t­work, based in San Fran­cisco.

Of course, a plat­form that is supremely ac­ces­si­ble, hosts mil­lions of peo­ple, and con­nects them with everyone—from real-life friends to celebri­ties—is en­abling more than just video games. Those are all char­ac­ter­is­tics of a so­cial net­work, one far more in­ter­ac­tive than an end­lessly scrolling news feed. Imag­ine a world where games will be played, en­joyed as e-sports, and serve as medi­ums for im­mer­sive sto­ry­telling. With Fort­nite, we may be wit­ness­ing the first time a video game wasn’t sim­ply pop­u­lar en­ter­tain­ment, but its own form of mass me­dia, akin to tele­vi­sion, ra­dio, or the web.

For the past cou­ple of years, main­stream me­dia com­pa­nies have been dip­ping their toes into e-sports in var­i­ous ways. Dis­ney’s ESPN, for ex­am­ple, re­cently be­gan broad­cast­ing the pop­u­lar Over­watch League from gam­ing gi­ant Ac­tivi­sion Bl­iz­zard; Turner Sports be­gan air­ing e-sports tour­na­ments on TBS last year. That may not be enough. “A com­pany like Dis­ney, in­stead of buy­ing Fox, prob­a­bly should have tried buy­ing a [gam­ing] com­pany like Ac­tivi­sion,” says Bran­don Ross, me­dia an­a­lyst at BTIG. “They need to own where the eye­balls are go­ing, rather than dou­bling down on where they’re com­ing from.”

That mis­sile hurtling to­ward the sky? It could be headed straight for legacy me­dia com­pa­nies.

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