I still remember the first time I played Fortnite. Back then, I was well deep into the PUBG hole, and eager to get my hands on any new battle royale game. Epic Games, too, realised the genre’s potential early, and swiftly pivoted its seldom-discussed crafting and zombie defence game into a battle royale shooter.
The company moved so quickly, in fact, it caught the ire of PUBG’s developer, who took it to court for blatantly ripping off its ideas. It wasn’t an accident, either; Epic Games directly cited PUBG as the core inspiration behind its then-nascent experiment.
Game concepts aren’t proprietary, of course, so that lawsuit was never going to go anywhere. Setting aside the argument at the core of the dispute, Fortnite Battle Royale just wasn’t all that interesting back then. It stank of desperation, and the first version Epic put out felt cobbled together (probably because it was made in two months) to ride the crest of PUBG’s unbelievable wave. Its only claim to fame was bringing the instant building mechanic from the co-op defence mode into BR.
I thought it was bland and terrible when I tried it in 2017; I didn’t think any of its core mechanics felt good, I wasn’t a fan of its lighter, child-friendly aesthetics, and – more than any of that – I felt that being able to create your own cover on command robbed its engagements of any stakes.
It’s okay if you think this looks dumb now.
Over the years, I would check in on it from time to time in an attempt to try and find any fun playing it. Fortnite was, and to a lesser extent remains, the biggest game in the Western world. Even if nothing about its shtick could get me hooked, its countless cross-over events with movies, TV, anime, comics and other games made it hard to ignore.
Try as I might, however, I just never got into it. And then Epic went and created a mode without the ability to spawn a building at will.
Suddenly, Fortnite looked more like a traditional shooter to my boomer sensibilities. It felt approachable. I no longer had to compete with kids half my age who turbo-build their way into a tower and snipe me before I could even bring up my build UI.
But it wasn’t just the lack of building that brought me in.
Fortnite has been evolving with every season. It looks – and plays – like a completely different game from how it did the last Chapter, let alone when it started almost exactly five years ago. It has become an MMO in a sense; a game where your main objective isn’t to “win”, but to participate.
I’ve always been fond of modern progression systems and the trickery they play on our lizard brains, but Fortnite uses that dark science to make everything feel attainable for exactly the type of player who tends to avoid BR games.
Fortnite is also a place where you can watch movies!
When I started playing regularly towards the end of the previous season, my first few matches were spent discovering how items work, what I can use to regain health vs shields, and what ammo I needed for which guns.
This quickly turned into trying to decipher how to go about finishing my myriad quests and tracking down NPCs. Mind you, these aren’t your typical challenges of ‘get X kills’ or ‘use X item’ (though these do exist), they are entire storylines unfolding over the course of several games.
The majority of quests require little effort, which is fundamentally why you never turn them down. You get asked to land somewhere, look for an item, talk to an NPC, hit a button to perform some objective, or even dance at a certain spot. Everything you do earns you XP, which moves up your battle pass level, which gets you stars you can use to buy cosmetics on said battle pass.
You’re never, and I do mean never, not making progress. Something as simple as landing and exploring a part of the map you hadn’t visited before earns you XP. Battle royale’s legendarily high stakes vanish when the idea of taking down other players becomes a secondary or tertiary concern.
Epic knows how to keep things fresh, but not all of that is reliant on cross-overs.
Epic played well to those strengths early, too. Every season, Fortnite would get new or previously-vaulted items. Sometimes those are mobility-based like grappling gloves or jetpacks, other times they’re themed after the cross-over event of the season, or simply old favourites back in the loot pool.
Years ago, I would have chewed your ears off about how some of those make firefights unrewarding and erode the integrity of the match, blah blah blah.
Today? I could not care less! I once picked up a knocked-out enemy and threw them off the top of a mountain to kill them when I ran out of ammo. Another time I used a grenade as a defensive tool to boost myself out of a sticky situation. When fire was a major theme last season, I’d regularly burn down an entire area to flush out an opponent. The other day, I turned into a chrome blob and decided to test what I can and cannot do in that form. It was pretty rewarding.
I imagine part of my softened take on Fortnite’s whole thing might signal the onset of a midlife crisis of some sort, but while I still like my tacticool and gritty shooters, Fortnite just feels like its own thing. Often times, it doesn’t register as a shooter to me, and doesn’t trigger the same responses from my brain.
With so much varied content from seemingly the entirety of pop culture to pull from, even casually making callouts to teammates during a match can itself be unexpectedly funny. If you’re a recent Fortnite joiner, I’m sure you’ll have heard – and spoken – some truly absurd sentences without realising.
“Watch out, John Cena is Nimbusing,” is one such nonsensical phrase. I don’t even watch Dragon Ball, but I now know what a Nimbus Cloud is and what a Kamehameha does.
Or, when you need to quickly identify targets so you shout “Spider-Man and Master Chief are coming in from our right.” If you have no context of what Fortnite is, you’d think you had a brain stroke hearing that. Just the other day, I saw Darth Vader playing a saxophone in the pre-match lobby.
We have Splatoon at home.
This desire to keep things fresh and unpredictable is part of the formula. The moment-to-moment gameplay benefits from regular shakeups of the loot pool – something a certain other BR game is starting to realise. Map changes, big and small, turn picking drop spots from mundane and loot-focused to exciting escapades.
I’m probably going to get bored of the game loop eventually, but I can’t ignore how much Epic works to keep things exciting in-game, especially for people like me who play it casually without any investment in the minutia.
Ironically, aping PUBG in those early days set the tone for the future of Fortnite. Epic is happy to pull ideas from other games without remorse. It happened with Among US, more recently with Splatoon, and undoubtedly many other times before. I still believe game developers should be free to iterate on each other’s concepts, I just wish Epic wasn’t so blatant about it.
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In some ways, this little stint brought back a thought I had back when Fortnite BR became a thing: this constant evolution makes the game almost impervious to criticism. Fortnite is a game about nothing. Everyone was talking about the Dragon Ball cross-over last season, this month it’s Spider-Gwen – who knows what’ll be dominating the zeitgeist next?
How can you adequately pick apart what makes Fortnite popular/satisfying/interesting if it always mutates and never ends? Is there a final form? I don’t know yet. Now, if you’ll excuse me, some scientist needs me to dig up a thing for them to finish a quest step.