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Calling Fortnite a battle royale game misses the point

Fortnite isn’t what you think it is

Fortnite - everyone racing to grab a supply drop Epic Games

Fortnite is a battle royale game in which up to 100 people drop onto an island and attempt to survive longer than everyone else. Players farm resources that are used to build elaborate structures in which to take cover from, or from which to attack, other players.

That paragraph should sum up what Fortnite actually is, but it doesn’t do much to address the ways in which people play it. Fortnite’s season 5 updates muddy the waters even further by adding a working golf game, as well as go-kart racing. Fornite developer Epic Games often adds new modes that change the rules substantially for a limited amount of time, or sometimes just let people play in the world.

It gets even weirder when you think about the fact that Fortnite is now so culturally ubiquitous that Epic has turned it into a way to both create and profit from viral dance moves. It’s a situation that musicians have begun to comment on, now that the relationship between hip-hop and Fortnite has begun to move in both directions.

Our own Austen Goslin surprised me yesterday when he said that his worry with the golf cart was whether players who are more interested in killing other players than “winning” would begin to dominate rounds, now that they can move around the map so quickly. I’m not disagreeing with his analysis, but his worry made it clear that we were playing two completely different games.

What Fortnite has done, perhaps better than any other modern game, is offer the player many different reward schemes that all lock together in a way that allows 100 players with perhaps wildly different goals to exist on the same map, ostensibly hunting each other down.

Some players don’t care about their standing in that round, and are only trying to complete challenges to unlock new skins. Others may be focused purely on winning, while others are going for as many kills as possible. Still others may be trying to play in as entertaining a way as possible while livestreaming their game to an audience. There are situations in which large numbers of people show up not to play a game at all, but to witness an event ... although even that situation can be manipulated (and then argued over) due to how differently people see the goals and reward structure of Fortnite.

Part of this only works because of the game’s popularity, but it can be argued that the game is popular because of how all this works. People in the mainstream media are having trouble explaining how this phenomenon happened, and I don’t blame them. And yet, some articles explain what’s going on better than many enthusiast outlets do.

“It feels less like a thing you log in to every few days to waste some time and more like an app that you’re constantly pulling to refresh, always something new to see,” New York Magazine’s Select All stated in a recent article. “Fortnite is a candy-colored video game populated by friends and celebrities, with quantified metrics for success tucked into every corner, constantly updated, highly social, usable anywhere, dopamine-releasing, and extremely competitive. In other words, the way to think about Fortnite isn’t Halo, but Instagram. Not Call of Duty, but Snapchat. What’s the difference between racking up kills and racking up likes?”

Fortnite doesn’t seem to care why you play it, as long as you get something out of it. And Epic Games seems unusually comfortable trying new ideas within the game even if they seem risky. The company is moving fast, but still seems to be able to avoid breaking things. Items can be removed if they don’t work out, and tournament play isn’t reliant on a perfectly level playing field. We still don’t know how the best players will adapt to all the changes that were just unleashed on the game, and there’s a tournament with a $250,000 prize pool this weekend.

Competitive players exist in a landscape where there’s huge money at stake, but their favorite strategy could be based on weapons and tactics that may be useless after the next patch. Imagine if the World Cup were played on a soccer pitch that was turned into a hexagon last week, and you begin to see how bonkers — and fun (for the audience, at least) — professional Fortnite play can be. And the overall community often feels nice, which is its own triumph, and may be the hardest for its competitors to ever replicate.

Hell, at this point it seems like I’m a professional Fortnite player, even though I’m relatively terrible at the game. I play partly because it’s fun and I enjoy it, but I also play to report on it. Showing up to the rocket launch felt like being on location for a story. Sometimes I find myself busy trying to see what has changed on the map, only to be annoyed by players shooting at each other while playing the actual “game.” Rounds of 50v50 are a good way to explore while being left alone, by the way.

Talking about the rules of Fortnite, whether official or unofficial, or even caring about the genre, is missing the point. I saw a video that referred to the game as an MMO and instantly disagreed in my head, before having a hard time explaining why it didn’t fit under that label. I guess it’s not quite massive enough? But it’s not like you see more than 99 people in most instances in an MMO, anyway.

Trying to figure out how something became popular is usually a fool’s errand, no matter how many companies at the Game Developers Conference try to pretend they had a plan all along. Massive popularity often feels like an act of god, and the important thing is what happens after you blow up. Fortnite has aggressively tried to become all things for all people and, through a little luck and a lot of hard work, it seems to have succeeded.

What it is these days doesn’t really matter, because the most important thing is, it is everywhere.