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Fortnite Battle Royale

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Why is Fortnite Battle Royale so wildly popular?

Our reasons why Epic’s game is a cultural phenomenon

Fortnite Battle Royale
| Epic Games

Fortnite Battle Royale isn’t merely the biggest game of 2018; it’s a genuine cultural phenomenon. From middle-school playgrounds to frat house parties to million-view YouTube livestreams, it’s become an obsession for millions of fans. Gaming hasn’t seen anything this big since the coming of Minecraft.

What is it about Fortnite Battle Royale that has driven it to such heights? And what will other game developers be analyzing as they seek to repeat its success? My friends and colleagues at Polygon put our heads together and came up with more than 25 reasons why Fortnite Battle Royale reigns supreme.

Shareable moments

Obviously, the game is fun. But what makes it enjoyable? First and foremost, Battle Royale designed to be a blank slate for vivid personal stories. Once inside the game, it’s easy to be swept up in the travails and adventures of your avatar.

Every time that bus cruises over the island, a hundred narratives unfold. Some of them are as forgettable as “I opened the door to a house and someone blew me apart with a shotgun.” Others are more textured. When I achieved my first Victory Royale, I couldn’t stop myself from recounting the whole story to my entire family.

Fortnite Battle Royale
Fortnite Battle Royale
Epic Games

It helps that the game is eminently shareable. The flowering of Twitch streams is only part of the story. As a console game, it favors collective couch play. My kids and I sit together in our gaming den and take turns playing. Watching one another play is almost as much fun as actually playing ourselves.

The perfectly parceled span it takes to enter a game, start playing and then die (or win) is conducive to this sort of social dynamic.

Players can feel a great sense of personally directed achievement, even when they don’t win. For some, getting into the top five is enough of a goal. Others are happy to find the sniper rifle and take out as many enemies as they can, before they’re found and eliminated.

Smart design

Each elimination is an achievement in itself, yielding a satisfying loot drop from the defeated enemy. The wide range of cleverly designed weapons and gadgets on offer invite experimentation and specialization. Plenty of us are just as happy to find a mobile bush as we are to get hold of a high-powered sniper rifle (but doing both is ideal).

But killing people isn’t merely a matter of having twitchy first-person shooter skills or making use of carefully designed environmental sight-lines. It’s almost like a hunt, with attendant risks and rewards. Making use of cover and geography is a tactical game unto itself.

There are other elements at play that make Battle Royale such a good social experience. The world is cartoonishly pretty and welcoming, much more so than the slightly forbidding environs of most multiplayer shooting games — or even of Fortnite’s very obvious inspiration, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.

The map is a rolling buffet of varied environments, from close-quarter buildings to open meadows, with plenty of verticality. We all have our favorite places.

There’s also a happy lack of seriousness in the world’s gaudy coloring, as well as a complete absence of gore or even corpses, which plays well to kids and to parents.

Free and easy

Developer and publisher Epic Games has done a solid job of creating a stable game with simple interfaces, and that’s easy for beginners to play. This speaks to the company’s long and tortured investment in the original Fortnite, and in its ability to quickly iterate on PUBG’s success. Creating a world that could quickly be turned into a battle royale is probably one of Epic’s greatest achievements.

PUBG was originally a big hit with the PC gaming crowd, eventually migrating to a single console platform with a $30 price. Fortnite Battle Royale is free.

I have no doubt that it’s being played extensively by many families who own a gaming console, but who do not have the disposable income to buy all the latest games. This broad popularity expands its audience considerably, leading to shorter wait times in queuing lobbies.

Fortnite is also on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and mobile, a near-platform ubiquity that allows for widespread cultural acceptance and even hooks into celebrity co-option, as they’re more likely to use consoles than gaming PCs.

But let’s get back to the game itself, and the elements of its design that make it compelling and (yes, I think this word is justifiable) addictive.

Depth and sophistication

Unlike most popular online games, Fortnite offers players the chance to make use of multiple player skills, most of which are optional. At its core, it’s a game about shooting people. But that belies the fact that most people, most of the time, are actually not shooting people.

Battle Royale is also a pretty good stealth game, allowing players to creep their way into the end-game without firing a shot. It’s also about exploring the world, finding those loot chests, sniper positions and hide-y holes. It encourages collection of resources, which are then used to build towers.

This building mechanic is easy to understand, but takes a great deal of practice to master. It separates the great players, from the also-rans, without making the game onerous for those who don’t bother building.

Building is also a creative endeavor, albeit under the most strenuous circumstances. As a mediocre fort builder, I’m often amazed at the complexity and ingenuity of other players’ forts, all the more for their provisional nature.

Battles between fort-builders are often tactically complex endgames, revealing clever strategies that delight viewers.

There really aren’t that many build-and-battle games out there. And while the big FPS brands are searching for ways to freshen up their offerings, something that feels new has come along to eat their lunch. There are many games that could have achieved something similar. The fact is, they didn’t.

Social glue

Epic keeps Fortnite Battle Royale feeling fresh with interesting timed events and new modes. Personalization and progression, rather than the game itself, is the source of monetization.

I confess to being heartily sick of my kids begging me for this or that package, but I’ve only spent $25 to date, and I can’t count the number of hours we’ve all spent with this game.

But the game has enough hooks that are free, and that provide boasts and talking points. The multicolored llama, for example, is always a joy to find, yielding plenty of loot. Epic has resisted the urge to be stingy in its free offering, creating cultural icons that are used in memes and livestreams.

Fortnite Battle Royale
Fortnite Battle Royale
Epic Games

This generally agreeable air extends to the game’s social atmosphere. I don’t doubt that there are people playing who are happy to indulge in toxicity, but apart from fun little proxies — like the “loser dance” — there’s little evidence of players behaving badly. This is a powerful design aspect that many other online games have yet to achieve.

A great deal of work has gone into finding new ways for friends to interact through this world. It offers both the mobile-like convenience of pick-up-and-play, as well as the sort of competitive depth that motivates players of all ages to ever-greater feats, such as stacking up wins.

If nothing else, this is probably Fortnite Battle Royale’s biggest pull. It’s about us, personally, doing the things we want to do in a world that allows for individuality. But it also connects us with others in ways that many other shooting games have neglected.

There are those who say that the game is little more than an opportunistic take on PUBG, something that was in the right place at the right time. I think this argument overlooks many of Battle Royale’s unique qualities, as well as the additions and tweaks we are likely to see in the months ahead.

Epic took the best bits of PUBG and quickly iterated a game that would appeal to casual players, many of whom have previously spent little time in online combat arenas — or have never even heard of PUBG. And that’s a huge success in and of itself.