Fortnite Just Evolved Into A Video Game Hydra, And The Industry Must Pay Attention

Fortnite Just Evolved Into A Video Game Hydra, And The Industry Must Pay Attention

Epic Games unveiled the future of its much-loved, accidental success Fortnite. Amid the hype and excitement, I feel like the implications of what Epic is attempting to do have somewhat flown under the radar, and the games industry should be paying close attention.

I spent most of the weekend playing through Fortnite‘s three significant new game modes. They are: Lego Fortnite, a survival crafting game somewhere between Minecraft and Valheim. Rocket Racing, a stunt-heavy arcade racer built on the Rocket League framework. Fortnite Festival, a music and rhythm game in the vein of Rock Band, made by the team behind RB and original genre titan Guitar Hero.

I suppose this will constitute a review? Perhaps? I felt like I should talk about these modes because they constitute a crystalising of Epic’s vision for what Fortnite is, and what it will become in the future. I feel the ripples of this particular moment will reverberate through the games industry for some time to come, the full picture not yet completely in view.

Lego Fortnite

Lego Fortnite is, without a doubt, the biggest and most consequential of the game’s three new modes. It’s a survival game similar to others in the genre — if you’ve played Valheim, you’ve already got a clear idea of what you’ll be doing. Build a settlement. Cultivate the land, sew crops and breed livestock. Harvest natural resources to build tools and infrastructure. Survive the elements. Battle marauding enemies to defend your little town.

The bones of the hardcore survival sim are here, in addition to a versatile building system that uses digital Lego bricks. In this sense, it’s every bit as sophisticated as Minecraft. It’s the perfect game for introducing young players to the survival genre (if Miney didn’t do that already). The difference is that Lego Fortnite doesn’t have the teeth of something like Valheim or V Rising. These are games that ask the player to struggle against adversity to find success. Lego Fortnite dials down the adversity in favour of accomplishing something of substance with your friends. Minecraft has encouraged this very effectively for years.

And play with friends is strongly encouraged. Community is a huge part of the Lego Fortnite experience — harvesting together, battling together, carving out a little town and deciding what goes where. It’s all core to the survival genre, but here it takes on a friendlier, more communal bent. The ability to construct bespoke dwellings, vehicles, objects and systems using well-known Lego pieces is extremely charming. There’s a distinct pleasure to building from a plan and listening to the pieces clink and snap together. But, just like real Lego, it’s when you go off-book and start building things yourself that the real fun begins.

This decision to let the game grow or shrink in complexity with the player’s goals and desires is great, and I can see a lot of people getting hooked on it.

So far, this has been the mode that has blown even the flagship Battle Royale title out of the water on pure player interest. I will be very interested to see what its staying power is like.

Rocket Racing

Rocket Racing is a new arcade racer by Psyonix and Epic based on the enduringly popular sports game Rocket League. As a racer, it’s extremely simple: Use your car’s drifting boosts and acrobatic maneuvers to beat your rivals and get on the podium. Tracks are built for fast, frantic racing full of drifting to gain boosts and obstacles to be tackled with your car’s vertical thrusters. There’s a little bit of Trackmania in here, but it’s dialled way back in favour of short, fast races and more direct results.

The boost economy is your best friend. I have surged up through the game’s ranked mode by building and holding onto my boosts. Deploying them tactically to stay in the podium places and refilling the meter to full allows me a final lap lunge that takes entire seconds off my total lap time and frequently steals first place.

I’ve found that the racing has gotten considerably worse the further up the ranks I’ve risen. By the time I made it into gold, I was getting shunted by dirty drivers left and right, trying to spin me out and send me tumbling down the order. Part of this is that the pack stays much closer together in higher ranks because everyone knows what they’re doing. Part of it is the game’s arcade nature. Though my competitive streak tells me otherwise, this isn’t serious racing.

And I think that might be a problem for Rocket Racing. Of the three new modes Fortnite has debuted over the last week, Rocket Racing feels like the one that doesn’t have quite enough meat on its bones. It feels like the game most likely to wither on the vine. Epic might bait the hook with a few desirable seasonal skins and unlocks, but unless it evolves meaningfully (and quickly), I find it hard to envision people sticking around.

All this, and Epic’s charging up to $AU50 for car skins. Tell ’em they’re dreamin’.

Fortnite Festival

That brings us to perhaps the most unexpected of the three new modes: Fortnite Festival. If you told me that when Epic Games acquired Harmonix in 2021, it was with a view to reviving the studio’s seminal musical multiplayer game Rock Band as a mode unto itself, I would never have believed you.

And yet, here it is — a rhythm and music game built on the cooperation of a four-piece band (guitar, bass, drums and vocals), hitting notes as they fly down all-too-familiar lanes. The mode brings back the standard four-tier difficulty of Rock Band and Guitar Hero before it — easy, normal, hard and expert — and rewards players for both being precise and for their contribution to the wider band.

Songs are on a rotating playlist, but if you’d like to keep your favourites, they can be purchased in the Item Shop for 500 Vbucks a pop (a bit under $AU6 each). This is a tad expensive if you ask me. Get them down to 250, and we’ll talk.

Fortnite Festival‘s opening season is built around songs by RNB artist The Weeknd, and features some of his more recent tracks. Because even Epic Games must bow to the astronomical cost of music licensing, Festival has its own (slightly more expensive than normal) battle pass with several reward tiers attached to it. All your XP across the Lego, Rocket, Battle Royale and Festival modes counts! However, I’ve found the progress of the Festival pass to be extremely slow so far. After grinding the (currently) rather small playlist for hours on Sunday, I’ve so far only managed to unlock a single tier, and around half of the second. I understand this season is expected to go on for several weeks, and Epic wants me to come back regularly to play the new songs, but it feels like I’m not making meaningful headway.

Like Rocket Racing, it’s hard to say if Fortnite Festival will have staying power in the long run. The keyboard controls are not great. The controller experience, much like it was in Guitar Hero and Rock Band, is fine but lacks the tactile feel of the plastic instruments. If Epic and Harmonix make good on their promise to get the old instrument controllers working with Festival in 2024, it may have a much longer life ahead of it.

I, for one, am ready to buy in on this mode. I have been ready to make Rock Band my entire personality again for a long time. My love of the series went into stasis with Rock Band 4 after discovering that the Xbox One would not recognise legacy or wired controllers. I was stuck. I could have jumped to the PS4, but doing so meant abandoning an expensive song library numbered in the thousands. I missed out on the miracle dongle that would fool the machine into letting me use my electric drum kit. I still occasionally check prices to see if the collectors have lowered their extortionate rates. Post-pandemic, I secretly hoped that the cooperative music genre would make a comeback. Now, it become a single game across every platform, possessing a song library that travels with me.

Of the three new modes, Fortnite Festival is absolutely the one that is made for me. I watch its progress with great interest.

Why go to all this trouble?

The big question surrounding this massive tandem release is, of course, “Why?”

The short and rather boring answer is “Money”. That’s not all there is to it, but sure, let’s start there.

From a business standpoint, Epic’s goals are clear: this is a way to sell more Fortnite character skins in its shared Item Shop. It leverages the same simple calculus that made Fortnite‘s Battle Royale mode a global force: it’s a whole lot of video game for free. From there, why, it’s just $15 for a battle pass! And then all you have to do to unlock everything is play.

This is the second stage of Epic’s plan of attack — engagement. By pulling together three popular genres and launching them all around Fortnite, all for free, Epic takes a significant chunk of its competitor’s audiences. It can hold them captive once it brings them in and lures them into a battle pass purchase. Wanna unlock everything in the pass? You’re gonna have to log in every night and hit those dailies! That’s time you have to commit to playing our games above anything else.

This is not new, of course. Publishers have been looking for ways to put players on a monetisation and engagement treadmill they can’t escape for years now. Even compared to those lofty ambitions, Epic is making an extremely brazen bid to monopolise your time.

Third, it opens the door to a whole new range of branded content partnerships. How many automakers have already done deals with Epic to get their cars into Rocket League? Now you can pay us a little extra and have your car in Fortnite as well! How many record labels are going to want to get their artist’s songs featured in the Fortnite Festival? If the mode takes off the way Epic clearly hopes it will, it could become a musical hitmaker for young people in the same way TikTok has. And Lego Fortnite? I mean, the deals write themselves, don’t they? Two houses, both alike in their desire for licensed brand deals, together at last.

Fourth, Fortnite, once a failed PvE game and then an accidental megahit, is now entering a new era and taking on a new identity.

For the last few years, Epic has deployed Fortnite for a purpose many of its players don’t even notice: a direct appeal to major publishers. It has become a showroom for the capabilities of Unreal Engine 5 and its attendant tech. Any new features added to the engine arrive in Fortnite first as a proof of concept and live demonstration. Now, Epic is expanding on that thinking, projecting confidence to investors and potential partners alike. ‘Look at all the different types of games you can make in Unreal Engine 5,’ they seem to say. ‘Look how pretty they are. Look how interesting, dynamic and varied they can be.’

‘We don’t make an engine that’s only great for shooters, it insists. We make an engine that is great at everything.’

Fortnite is no longer a single popular Battle Royale game. It is now a stage for something bigger than itself. Call it a metaverse, call it a service, call it a platform. All three are probably correct. This is the new Fortnite: not one game, but many — and all hungry for your time and your money.

Fortnite is free-to-play on just about every platform you can shake a stick at.

Image: Epic Games

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