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Why Fortnite Battle Royale’s surprise success isn’t a matter of luck

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The engine builder made itself a shiny new platform, and the world is in love

Epic Games

Fortnite’s creators have made, over the past year, an unlikely pivot, transforming the beleaguered, long-delayed open-world game into bona fide multiplayer sensation. Its free-to-play mode, Battle Royale, a colorful entry in the survival genre popularized by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, is arguably the most popular game in the world right now. There are other companies that could have made its original Save The World mode. In fact, Epic cribbed its playbook from some of the most successful free-to-play games around. But only Epic Games could have transitioned from that lackluster launch to create Battle Royale. They were the right company, with the right vision and at just the right time to make it big.

Just under a year ago I was sitting in a hotel conference room at E3’s judge’s week receiving a presentation on Epic’s Fortnite. The hybrid building game had first been announced during the Video Game Awards in 2011 and, by 2017 its troubled development history was very nearly a joke.

“This isn’t Fortnite’s first rodeo,” said executive producer Zak Phelps, and the journalists in the room gave a polite chuckle. “It’s not even its second rodeo. It might not even be it’s third rodeo. At Epic we love our ideas, and sometimes we get so excited about our ideas that we announce it three weeks after we’ve even had the idea. Or even before we’ve made the game, which was the case with Fortnite.”

Fortnite screens
Fortnite, circa 2012.
Epic Games

The game that they showed, subtitled Save the World, was not fun — and played nothing like Battle Royale. A few months later, after some 40 hours playing Save The World ahead of release for review, I remained unconvinced that it could succeed. It was equal parts repetitive and tedious, pretty to look at but painful to play for long periods of time. Last week, returning to the game for another half-dozen hours, I found the experience of Save The World to be largely unchanged.

But Battle Royale, released as a free-to-play mode on Sept. 26, 2017, nearly two months after Save the World, is a completely different story.

Jumping into Battle Royale, I found nearly everything that was promised in the original Save The World mode and then some. There was exploration and building, the ability to play with my friends, tension and the opportunity for mastery. Changing my playstyle was as simple as picking up a different weapon, and the joy of unlocking little perks along the way made it all worthwhile.

And now, surprisingly, I can play it on my phone.

But here’s the thing: There’s nothing surprising about this. Nothing at all. Epic was built to make something like Fortnite Battle Royale. All they had to do was flip the switch, to make the decision to plow ahead full bore toward the vision.

Epic previously built its identity around Gears of War in the Xbox 360. After selling the series to Microsoft, the company started experimenting with other projects in corners of the gaming space that were pointing toward the future. Fortnite borrowed from Minecraft, the new Unreal Tournament targeted esports, Paragon hoped to emulate the success of games like Dota 2 and League of Legends. For years, Epic has been waiting, like a surfer, to catch the right wave. With Battle Royale, they did it.

The original, zombie-like adversaries from the base Fortnite experience.
Most of the people playing Fortnite right now have no idea what husks even are.
Epic Games

Epic Games makes the Unreal Engine, one of the more powerful and versatile game engines in the world. That’s the foundation for Fortnite. But they very clearly built Fortnite with the same kind of rigor that went into Unreal. Not only are the engine and the game intertwined, but they are each enhanced by that closeness. Which is to say, it’s not just a game. It’s a platform.

“This is very much a living product,” Donald Mustard, Epic’s worldwide creative lead, told me last year at that same judge’s week event. “If you look at Destiny, while it isn’t technically free-to-play, it’s designed very much like that kind of game — the robustness of their event systems and how it’s very much a living product that is constantly evolving. There’s this rhythm, this cadence that is much more alive than you’d think out of a traditionally-updated game. Our systems are even more robust than theirs.”

It is those systems that Epic was able to leverage to create an entirely different game mode. It pulled in resources from the team making the next version of Unreal Tournament, co-opted the staff making Paragon, and threw them all headlong into Fortnite and told them to make Battle Royale. And they did. And it works. And the world fell in love with it.

Epic spent years working with the creators of the Infinity Blade series, one of the iPhone and iPad’s biggest breakout successes. They baked iOS and Android compatibility into Unreal at a foundational level, and leveraged that expertise to bring Fortnite onto mobile as quickly as possible. It plays flawlessly, and allows for cross-play with PC and consoles.

They gathered the audience, kept it together, and made the product “free.” It’s almost as if the retail copies of Fortnite sitting on the shelves at Walmart and Target are the loss leader, since its free-to-play model guarantees it the opportunity to find an audience first and worry about convincing them to spend their money second.

Now look at Epic’s early access/free-to-play gambit strategically. It spent the last few years crafting its own online storefront. With it you can download the Unreal engine itself, and now its other games like Fortnite. There’s no middleman with Steam. The only thing between them and potential fans is an internet connection.

It beat its biggest competitor, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, to console by months. It also avoided making an exclusivity deal with Microsoft, which has given it the potential to reach a much larger game-playing audience it would have otherwise had access to. And now it’s available, for free, on the best-selling gaming device on the planet — the smartphone.

Looking back on that presentation from last year, Epic effectively got the gaming press all in the same room and then called its shot. We just didn’t quite believe what they were telling us at the time.

Fortnite isn’t just a game. It’s the future of Epic. Battle Royale is building brand awareness and, I’m sure, making a killing in microtransactions. But Epic isn’t going to stop there. Save The World and Battle Royale are just the beginning, and I can’t wait to see what they dream up next for Fortnite, a game designed to change.