Fortnite’s new game mode isn’t particularly novel, but its very existence gets at the Epic Games’ Silicon Valley-sized ambition.
The mode is called The Spy Within, and it isn’t hard to see the similarities it has to Among Us, a 2-year-old game that found immense success in 2020 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fortnite’s success is built on taking popular or promising ideas and improving them. Its battle royale mode, now the core of the game, originally seemed so similar to PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds that developer Bluehole (now called PUBG Studio) attempted to sue Epic over the concept. However, Bluehole didn’t own any exclusive claim over the mode.
Tech company founders get praised and mythologized for using these tactics. Steve Jobs didn’t make the first smartphone; he just made the first one that people wanted to buy. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t invent social media, either. He made the site that helped the concept catch fire.
And like modern tech companies, Epic continues to absorb popular trends to help its product evolve, over and over again.
Shortly after EA released battle royale competitor Apex Legends in 2019, Epic updated Fortnite to include similar ping and respawn systems, albeit in a slightly cleaner fashion. The move was reminiscent of Facebook cribbing Stories from Instagram (a platform it now owns), Instagram’s Stories feature itself imitating Snapchat, and Apple throwing Android-style widgets on the iPhone’s home screen.
Like a Silicon Valley behemoth, Fortnite can pick up features and modes from other games quickly and smoothly thanks to a massive team, a pool of resources, and one of the largest player bases in the market.
It’s all about time
This year, Epic found success applying this strategy beyond games.
Just like Facebook acquiring WhatsApp and Instagram, Fortnite wants to be the underlying place you find everything you love. But with its reach and scale, it doesn’t need to acquire everything. Brands will come to Epic, eager to be associated with the phenomenon. Whether it’s Batman skins, or Marvel skins, The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda, John Wick, Sony, or Microsoft, all your favorite characters live in Fortnite now.
In an earnings report in June 2019, Netflix famously mentioned that it didn’t see its biggest competition as other streaming services. Netflix felt that it was competing for time, not subscriptions, and that meant that its competition was social media and games. Or more specifically: Fortnite.
Less than a year later, the assumption has been proven right. Fortnite has since hosted a movie screening, a lawsuit trailer, and one of the most lucrative single concerts in history. Fortnite’s no longer trying to be the first game you think of when you want to play something. Like any good tech company, it now wants a total monopoly of your time. Fortnite is a platform. With its constantly updating tools, players can make the game into whatever they want it to be.
As anyone with a TI-83 calculator can tell you, players will use any platform to make and play clones of the games they already love. This new Spy mode even has content created by Fortnite users.
No, Epic isn’t stealing Among Us. It is, however, taking the idea of a hidden identity game, and letting players know that that can be a part of Fortnite too. Why download that other game when it’s already a part of the game you and your friends are already logging into every day to talk to each other?
Fortnite used to be cool. Now it’s something more powerful than cool. It’s ubiquitous. It’s no longer the latest trend to hop on, it’s where all the other trends live. It’s not hard to see where Epic is hoping to take the game from here. A central hub. A metaverse. Just like if your friend told you to get on Facetime or message them or get on an app, the iPhone of it all would be implied. Fortnite aspires to be similarly central.
And in some ways, Fortnite is already there. If you and your friends wanted to see a Travis Scott concert in 2020, the fact that it was in Fortnite was implied. After all, it was the only place to see it.
Before Facebook became what it is now, a megalithic social-cultural giant that owns half of the apps people around the world use every day, it was something similar to this new version of Fortnite. In 2013, Facebook was the place you found videos, memes, and music, and you did all of it knowing your friends were seeing it right alongside you. Now, that space is increasingly in Fortnite instead.
Don’t be surprised if Fortnite follows in Facebook’s steps.