Epic Games' Fortnite — a game about building, combat, character customization and social interaction — may be a long way from completion, but that didn't stop developer Billy Bramer from revealing the tried and failed ideas the development team has tested so far with the game's building system.
Bramer spoke at the Game Developers Conference this week in a session titled "Crafting Fortnite's Building System," where he divulged the studio's ambitions with Fortnite's construction tools and also detailed the ideas that have been discarded so far. Bramer was careful to note that everything he showed and spoke about at GDC was work in progress and everything is subject to change.
"The big goal we had [with Fortnite] was it had to be creative enough that players could build these crazy castles of their dreams without being restricted," he said. "But at the same time, it had to be fast and robust enough. Players needed to be able to defend themselves in a hurry, they needed to be able to respond in a hurry."
During his talk, Bramer ran through some of the problems the studio encountered while trying to create a system where players could interact with an in-depth building system while also managing combat. For example, at one point, playtesters had trouble differentiating between the controls used for building and the controls used in combat. Sometimes a player would click to attack an enemy, and instead of performing a melee attack, their character would begin constructing a wall. When the developers tried to avoid this problem by giving players two sets of tools — purely melee weapons, like a sledge hammer that can only do damage, and purely construction weapons, like a regular hammer — players couldn't identify why one hammer could be used in battle while another couldn't.
"Sometimes a player would click to attack an enemy, and instead of performing a melee attack, their character would begin constructing a wall."
"To the player, a hammer is a hammer and it makes perfect sense that if a monster attacks and I have a hammer in my hand, I can hit you with it."
Bramer also said the system to build and break things was initially problematic.
"Users would be in the process of building up their wall, they would complete it, and they would keep on clicking and now the wall was being broken down right in front of them," he said. "So that wasn't going very well."
The developers tried to remove the problem by inserting a bar at the bottom of the screen where players could choose the context for their actions — construction or destruction — but the bar was unintuitive and slowed down gameplay. Bramer said the confusion caused playtesters to panic when an in-game monster appeared, and rather than toggle effortlessly between actions in the bar, players would begin building walls when they meant to attack. "So that wasn't going to do it, either," he said.
Bramer said that as much as the early game mechanics didn't work out, the feedback from players was a "proof of concept that people were invested in the systems and they wanted more depth." And while the development team were still trying to find solutions to their melee and construction problems, players were enthusiastically suggesting new things to build and new ways to interact with the game.
Fortnite still has a long way to go, Bramer said, but by sharing the game's the early iterative process, he hopes the audience will see that no development process is perfect, and even a studio like Epic has to constantly iterate and toss out ideas.