If you weren’t already one of the 45 million people playing Fortnite, last week was when you heard about it. The game—which is really two games, one about building things while killing monsters and surviving as a group, the other about building things and killing each other—is now enough of a cultural smash that the nongaming press has decided it’s time to explain it to its uninitiated readers. For the most part, it’s identified why the game is such a hit—while overlooking its debt to the many, many similar games and industry practices that came before it.
The free-to-play game, originally released in 2017 by Epic Games, has a kid-friendly color palette and (for a shooter game) a notable lack of graphic excess, making it a relatively safe entry point into the world of video games. In its more popular “battle royale” mode—the one you may have seen Drake playing—approximately 100 players travel via hot air balloon–lifted school bus to an island with quirky location names and a vaguely post-apocalyptic vibe. Here’s the trailer for the current “season”:
Fortnite’s fun, fast, chaotic gameplay evokes the craftsmanship of Minecraft (with better graphics) and The Hunger Games’ kill-or-be-killed setup. Following its debut, the game seemed well on its way to being a joyous, free-to-play passing fancy for the masses—but nothing major.
Then Drake showed up in a Fortnite stream on the video-streaming platform Twitch, and soon after the game blew up like Dusty Depot. Polygon has called its broadening success “a genuine cultural phenomenon.” It has “has taken over the world,” says Wired. The game is its own meme.
Why? Fortnite is available on your phone, laptop, or console; it’s easy to get into; there’s no tutorial, no in-game guide beyond the loading screen’s tips and tricks. You’re on a tarmac, you’re in a flying bus, you’re airdropping onto an island, and then you’re collecting, building, hiding, and killing until there’s just one person, duo, or squad standing. That kind of ease is intoxicating, addictive, and—crucially—not very time-consuming, if you stop after one game. (You probably won’t, though.) As Wired’s Julie Muncy put it, “Authentically huge games are simple, they’re increasingly mobile, and they don’t take up too much time.” Fortnite Battle Royale achieves all of this and more—but it’s easy to misconstrue success with innovation, and Fortnite has a lot more of the former than the latter.
Take “How Fortnite Captured Teens’ Hearts and Minds” by the New Yorker’s Nick Paumgarten, who wrote the quintessential profile of legendary video game designer Shigeru Miyamoto in 2010. The nearly 3,700-word feature, framed around Paumgarten’s quest to understand his son’s enthusiasm for the game, lands somewhere between “Man Discovers Video Games” and “I Just Want to Understand My Kid” in its exegesis of the game’s culture. Memorably, Paumgarten sums up the game’s popularity this way: “In terms of fervor, compulsive behavior, and parental noncomprehension, the Fortnite craze has elements of Beatlemania, the opioid crisis, and the ingestion of Tide Pods.”
Yikes! Fortnite is a lot of things, but that’s a pretty damning and unlikely combination of things to be like. Beatlemania: That can slide. The opioid crisis? Even if you take into account the documented history of sad and sporadic video game–related deaths, tying Epic Games’ latest and greatest to the ongoing struggle with opioid abuse and overdose—which kills more than 100 people every day in the U.S.—casts a morbid pall over a game whose “addictiveness” is benign and with precedent. (I’m not going to talk about Tide Pods. Kids … doing viral stuff with a colorful thing? You got me.)
As he writes, Paumgarten the elder has always been more a watcher of games than a player, and now he and other parents are watchers of the watchers:
I thought of this the other day when a friend described watching a group of eighth-grade boys and girls (among them his son) hanging around his apartment playing, but mostly watching others play, Fortnite. One boy was playing on a large TV screen, with a PlayStation 4 console. The other boys were on their phones, either playing or watching a professional gamer’s live stream. And the girls were playing or watching on their own phones, or looking over the shoulders of the boys. One of the girls told my friend, “It’s fun to see the boys get mad when they lose.” No one said much. What patter there was—l’esprit du divan—came from the kids’ little screens, in the form of the pro gamer’s mordant narration as he vanquished his opponents.
That’s a nice scene, but it tells us more about the limitations of Paumgarten’s perspective—the kids in front of him and his peers—than the achievements of Fortnite, whose capturing of the public’s attention isn’t actually any more special than the game crazes that have come before. It’s true that Fortnite is eminently more enjoyable than movies about battle royals since you can play it; it certainly helps a great deal that it is free; and it is far easier to become indoctrinated into its frenzied battle-royal mode than the game Epic originally debuted.
But—and not to be a total ZenoMachine, the seasoned gamer in Paumgarten’s story who would probably disagree with his thesis—that Fortnite game on the TV just as easily could’ve been League of Legends or Overwatch or Rocket League, all heavily watched and streamed games with winners and losers, and professional leagues, and the spirit of the couch. The real omission in Paumgarten’s exegesis is this: Fortnite didn’t start a fad, but copied an existing one, and its successes are incremental, not exponential. It’s not the first battle royal–themed IP to make it into mainstream culture (see: Battle Royale and/or The Hunger Games); it’s not the first massively popular battle-royal game (see: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds); it’s not the first game to reach an ungodly number of streamed hours on Twitch, just the latest. And to be fair, the unofficial celebrity endorsement did a lot for that last one, too.
In the most technical terms, Fortnite is available to a much wider array of players than the average game—since it’s on just about every playable platform right now. Anyone can play the game on a Windows computer, Mac, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, or iOS smartphone. (A version for Android phones was announced in March but has yet to be released.) And it did surpass its battle-royal predecessor, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, in revenue, streaming, and probably number of concurrent players earlier this year.
And Fortnite is good, if you like the game style. With its Minecraft build-’em-up aspects, it has added the potential for some of the best hastily yet well-constructed team forts and added yet another dimension to construction-related gameplay. And the free aspect can’t be ignored, though the lure of paid cosmetic microtransactions within the game is strong.
But Paumgarten calling the game a “mass social gathering, open to a much wider array of people” is a harder sell, in my opinion. If you choose a nonsolo battle royal, whether it’s duo or squad, you have the opportunity to coordinate via optional voice chat. More likely, you’ll hear this: “Anyone got a mic?” / “[Coughing]” / “[Background noises]”
That is: Lots of people are playing it, maybe even in the same room. But coordination with remote players is not a guarantee and, as with many online games, varies wildly in quality—sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, and sometimes it’s so, so toxically bad that it gets you right in your real-world feelings. The related notion that Fortnite is immune to the “wickedness” that permeates other voice- or chat-enabled online games is suspect. Epic has already had to retool the game’s mechanics to tone down some of the community’s less-than-savory aspects, and the players have started to notice an uptick in bad behavior. Fortnite is a good game, but as its popularity has grown, so too has the prevalence of bad actors in its community.
Perhaps more startling than Paumgarten glossing over the darker side of video games are the innovations with which he credits Fortnite. He writes, “One of the ingenious innovations of Fortnite is to introduce seasons of about two months, as on a cable-television series, and to integrate new plot and game elements.”
Actually, Fortnite didn’t create the competitive season of video games—not even ones that “integrate new plot and game elements.” Limited-time events, whether for plot or competitive purposes, have existed longer than the word esports has been around. Props to Fortnite for radically changing its map for its latest competitive season, though it didn’t create that either.
Perhaps the most notable thing about Fortnite is that, more than anything, it is just the latest example of a new game surpassing a similarly premised predecessor. It is what League of Legends was to DOTA, what Overwatch was to Team Fortress 2, what its own predecessor, PUBG, was to DayZ and Rust and H1Z1.
None of that takes away from how fun it is, of course. And Fortnite is very fun! But if there does have to be a phenomenon here, perhaps it should be developer Epic Games: Inching toward its late 20s, the North Carolina–based company catapulted itself back into relevance by taking the jank-filled premise of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds—a game made using the latest iteration of Epic’s proprietary game-making platform, Unreal Engine—reskinning it with kid-friendly colors and cartoonish designs, and slapping a relevant Marvel Cinematic Universe mashup on top. A well-timed bet on the genre (sorry, Paragon), coupled with the game’s cross-play compatibility on just about all your devices, will certainly keep Epic at the top of heap for the time being. Winner, winner, chicken dinner.
Did Epic benefit from an extraordinary amount of luck? Was it skill? Who knows? But when the company hops on the next video game bandwagon—when the next Big Thing supplants battle royals as the latest it genre—Fortnite’s battle bus could easily crash and burn.