Royale with Cheese: An Outsider's Perspective on Fortnite

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It's a sign of the times that a blockbuster like Fortnite can become a worldwide sensation while its contents still remain a mystery to most of the medium's old guard. Fortnite has pride of place in the cultural arena of kids 8-16, and there is a limitless supply of YouTube videos with animated young men shotgunning a path through Dusty Divot. However, if you're the kind of person who reads a lot of game reviews and keeps their binoculars firmly fixed on industry news, you're probably don't spend that much time thinking about the shooter. You've heard of it and maybe seen it played on a stream. You might even have picked up its caricatured weaponry a few times, but it won't be your Game of the Year every year, which is what it is for many kids and adolescents. Truth be told, Fortnite's popularity among under 18s has given the game a stigma among the medium's aficionados.

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Most media formats undergo revolutions which the older generations decry as the ruination of the artform, but take that the younger generation by storm. It happened in cinema with the move from silent film to "the talkies", and it happened in music with the explosion of The Beatles and metal and punk and grunge. In about the late 00s, video games too provided the opportunity for enthusiasts to scowl and shake their fists at perceived shallow new experiences that could never live up to the classics. Gamers who grew up with Sonic, Mario, Mortal Kombat, and Metal Gear Solid watched bemused as a generations' eyes lit up at the likes of Five Nights at Freddy's, various F2P mobile games, physics comedy titles like Happy Wheels, and more recently, Fortnite.

And look, I get it. A lot of those experiences that got popular with streamers or that were developed for mobile devices were exploitative of their userbase and wouldn't know depth if it slapped them in the face. The talkies they were not. But you also have to treat emerging trends on a case-by-case basis; some are novelties, others are the future, most are something in between. And we shouldn't be too quick to write Fortnite off. Epic may have aesthetically tailored it for a younger audience, but it does come from a lineage of mechanically sophisticated action games, and so, there might be more to it than first meets the eye.

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It would be unfair to dismiss any game as "kid's stuff" out of hand when our elders have unfairly criticised video games as a whole as being for children. At the very least, spending some time with a sizzling success like Fortnite can help prevent us from becoming woefully out of touch with the medium. And you might want to keep an eye on this title because its microtransaction booths are printing money for Epic at an alarming rate, and could soon be coming to a platform near you. In that spirit, I made a few drops from the party bus, collected some notes, and as it turns out, the reality of Fortnite wasn't what I was picturing in my head. Here are six ways in which the game surprised me:

1. Fortnite Is Not Always a Battle Royale

By this, I don't mean that the game also contains the original tower defence mode, the marble from which Epic carved their more successful battle royale gametype. I mean that even in the battle royale lobby, you can opt to play "Team Rumble" which is just Fortnite's name for a 20-on-20 deathmatch, and there is no shortage of takers for it. Despite our belief that children always follow the path of least resistance in their activities, it makes sense some sense that Fortnite picked up nearly 250 million players on the scoop of a punishing difficulty curve.

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For the game's investors, the battle royale recipe hit a sweet spot between standing out from the rest of the shooter rabble and representing a tried and true formula, with PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds having acted as a testbed for the genre. What's more, clinching the win in a battle royale often comes down to having a well-coordinated team, so kids could mass around Fortnite as a social monument and were encouraged to recruit their friends, boosting the player numbers. On the other hand, even with friends in tow, a mode where you can have twenty minutes of progress erased in twenty seconds is potentially abrasive, and so there was always going to be a home for a less punitive gametype.

Officially, Team Rumble was a "limited access" feature that Epic intended to sunset at a future date, but there was an outcry when they cut it from the game once before, and eventually, the studio made it an official fixture, citing the "legion" of people who play it. Outside both the battle royale and tower defence modes, there's also the creative mode which allows users to design their own maps and gametypes, and it's left Fornite replete with platformers, FFA shooters, treasure hunts, puzzles, and even quizzes. There is a music sequencer in Fornite now. Incorporating all those genres into one experience ensures that players are less likely to go wandering into other games to experience a wider range of leisure, and so, customers are retained. But unless I say otherwise, assume I'm just talking about the battle royale from here on out.

2. There Is so Much Quiet Time

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Just as we tend to wrongly think that children want play without friction, we also make the shaky assumption that any media property kids love must be bombarding them with bright colours and loud noises at all times. Fortnite demonstrates that's not always true with these stimulatory deserts where there are no immediate pressures on the player, and the surrounding area is eerily silent. This atmosphere is a hand-me-down from PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds which hosted a sprawling, vacant environment. It did this because giving squads long walks to targets means all players have time to position themselves, forage for items, and generally perform prep. Having a spacious map also creates risk. Players can't camp in one spot for fear of encroaching enemies and the closing circle, but when they must trek vast expanses to reach the next puddle of safety, there's a lot of time during which they're on the move and vulnerable to hunters.

All these aspects carry forward into Fortnite, but Epic bolts resource-gathering and building mechanics onto the battle royale model. The subdued early game is a time for players to break down the furniture of the level to extract its raw materials. They will then later be able to reconstitute all that steel and wood into practical structures. It's a bit of a chore to do; that distillation of environment into items feels meaningful in Minecraft where your inventory is persistent, but Fortnite empties your backpack at the end of every match, making that acquisition feel fleeting. Still, younger people generally like repetition in their activities, and it's hard to imagine "We got the Minecraft mechanics" being an ineffective selling point.

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Where it gets dissonant for me is that PUBG's dead air was appropriate to that game's decrepit, abandoned townships and pale colour palettes, but Fortnite's play is evoking that same emptiness in a setting of bold colours and cartoonish architecture. Treading its streets and fields feels like poking about a WoW zone before the mobs have been programmed in. Although, that peaceful ambience means that you can have a lively team chat without interference from combat. If you've got a loud, energised party channel which many kids are going to, you can override that sense of desolation, and as people build strong social bonds in the game, they build strong bonds to the game. The incongruity between the play and aesthetics is also less pronounced in Team Rumble where players' infinite respawns mean that matches build to busy climaxes.

3. This Game Has so Many Mechanics

How many? Well, it's got a scavenging system where you're breaking objects down into their base components, and exploratory looting where you're opening chests and poking about for firearms and consumables. There's also third-person shooting which can take place at anything from a CQC range out to sniping distance. That shooting play combines with a construction system where you're slotting together bases in 3D space. Then, if you want, you can transport yourself across the map using the vehicular mechanics which have a Tony Hawk-style trick system balanced atop them. Sometimes, through the use of your glider, a plane, or jetstreams, you can fly. To top it off, Fortnite is a social hub where you can equip costumes, sprays, and emotes to express your style.

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The title ended up this cluttered because it fused multiple mechanically-complete genres together. The original Fortnite was attempting to garnish the tower defence format with action and packrat play, and right around that time, Brendan Greene was pioneering the battle royale genre which was itself an expansion of the third-person shooter format, incorporating RPG loot systems. Epic had a bowl of core mechanics they'd blended together for a tower defence and then poured the whole battle royale format on top of them as an afterthought resulting in all that overcrowding. And the cabaret of customisation options that we see in Fortnite exists because they're at the heart of the company's business plan.

Fortnite is a rare mechanical alloy you'd never have ended up with if Epic hadn't redesigned the game post-release to meet the market demands of late 2017. However, as a battle royale, Fortnite does accommodate its glut of mechanics a little better than a typical AAA game because the item discovery and the combat are mostly organised into two different phases in each match. We start in an organisational state and then switch to an aggressive state. I also suspect that where I see clutter, kids and some adults are more likely to see a box with plenty of toys in it: a veritable rainbow of mechanics, as colourful as the game's skybox. But because the game is so jam-packed with different tasks to complete, it means:

4. The Controls Are a Lot

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I've been playing exclusively with a keyboard, and yet, I can only assume Fortnite was made for an animal with more fingers than I have. Most games that are teeming with mechanics allow the player to rein them in through context-sensitive inputs, but that scheme only works when there won't be many different verbs in play in the same context. In an open-world crime game, it's unlikely that it will be essential for you to fire a gun while driving and you won't need to hit the accelerator while on-foot so the developers can have the RT button speed you up when you're in a car and act as a gun trigger when walking. But in Fortnite, the building and fighting systems, which are the two central systems, are often active at the same time. Constructing walls, platforms, and stairs is a strategy intended to both shield players from incoming fire and let them quickly reach opponents trying to climb out of harm's way. Because you need all the carpentry and gunplay actions available to you at once, the developers cannot apply context-sensitive controls; all actions need to be assigned an exclusive input.

So, you have the WASD/Space movement controls, and you have the Q button to pick up items and toggle quickly between the combat and creative state. However, while in the creative state, you'll need to switch between different building components (walls, stairs, etc.), each of which is assigned to one of the first four letters on the bottom row of keys. To play proficiently, you must place your fingers on W, A, S, and D with your thumb on the Space Bar for jumping, but be able to move your digits down to Z, X, C, and V at a moment's notice. Sometimes you also have to shift them to G and H to repair, upgrade, or edit placements, R to reload or rotate a building piece, F to switch to your pickaxe, or Tab to snap your reticle to a player.

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While the problem here is that the controls cannot be made context-sensitive, in other circumstances, the problem is they're so sensitive to context that they don't perform a predictable function. Because your inventory changes from match to match, your equipment set isn't standardised, and so, neither are the controls. PUBG solved this problem by effectively breaking its weapons down into classes and assigning buttons to let you quick-switch to one weapon in each class. 1 is your primary weapon, 2 is your secondary, 5 is your grenade, etc.

Fortnite gives you more customisation of your arsenal, but by the same token, less codified controls. The buttons to switch between items are not assigned based on class; instead, the game assigns them based on the order you collected the items. You can reorganise your inventory to pick what equipable activates on what key, and you can also use the mouse wheel to scroll through objects, but because of the variability of your equipment match-to-match, there's not a consistent control scheme that you can learn. Maybe in one match, the 1 key flicks you to the shotgun, but in another, you didn't pick up a shotgun, so it has to switch to an assault rifle. It could be that in one, 4 toggles you over to your shield potion, but the next go around, it selects the boogie bomb.

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Put this all together, and you learn that acting as a capable Fortnite player means being able to quickly leap between about fifteen buttons with one hand while keeping your eyes on the screen, and adapting to the item controls changing from session-to-session. The issue is exacerbated by throwables and consumables requiring you to switch to them and then right-click to use them instead of them activating with a single keypress. There's no "grenade" button or "drink potion" button, and that extra click to invoke an item can be the difference between you getting the drop on your enemy or them blowing your head off while you're fiddling with the keyboard.

But this is another one of those areas where I realise how subjective criticism of the game is. While I think the controls are overloaded, a generation of kids is assimilating them as second nature. They might perceive the criticism that the inventory management, movement, and construction are cumbersome to control the same way we perceive the criticism that independently moving a right and left stick is unintuitive.

5. The Construction Mechanics Are Meaningful

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Epic retrofitted the DIY systems onto the frantic shooting for business reasons rather than design ones. Given that, you'd expect that they'd feel like two sets of mechanics sitting next to each other rather than integrating into each other. However, being able to build paths towards opponents or place walls between you and them provides a new dimension of offensive and defensive options. In addition, you can use stairs to hop up to vantage points for sniping or to reach treasure caches. And just as building can improve your position in the armed struggles, the guns can kick back against the walls and towers. I remember fans rightfully praising Battlefield Bad Company 2 for letting the player destroy anything and everything in their eyeline, and Fortnite recreates that destructive potential, but with equal constructive potential alongside it. You're always playing on the same map, but the map often doesn't finish any two games looking the same because the forts people hole up in are unique to each match.

Up until the final minutes of a session, people can't turtle in these adhoc castles either because the ring is always shrinking and they must move on to less purple pastures. Although, when an enemy can erect a bulletproof shield in front of them with a snap of a finger, mid-range weapons are often of less use than they are in other shooters. Frequently, to kill a player you have to blindside them by headshotting them from kilometres away or you have to slither in behind their defences and take them down with the shotgun which they'll try to dodge by jumping. Therefore, a dispiriting number of faceoffs in Fortnite consist of you and your rivals jumping up and down, spamming the fire button. And if you didn't manage to fetch a shotgun during the setup phase, the prognosis is not good for you.

6. The Business Model Is Probably Even More Exploitative Than You're Thinking

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Before playing Fortnite, my impression of the product was that it effectively profited from being a casino for children. That's not wrong exactly, as there are lootboxes in the tower defence mode which Epic now calls Fortnite: Save the World. They're an uncomfortable proposition when the mode already costs $40/£35 (or £50 for the Deluxe Edition) and the contents of those "loot llamas" aren't cosmetic. Epic announced that they would make Save the World free some time in 2018 but then delayed that conversion to an undetermined date. Whether opening real-money lootboxes is legally gambling is up in the air, but there's little functional distinction between these slot machines and "actual" gambling. However, I'm more worried about what's happening in the battle royale mode as it's by far the more popular form of Fortnite and is full of more insidious psychological vices used to milk players.

Most games that place value on player expression have at least a crude character editor, but Fortnite deliberately doesn't. Without paying into Epic's coffers, you're not just sewn into the default tank top and trousers; your physical traits are randomised every match. But praise be because the outfits in Fortnite's microtransaction shop also come with bodies attached. This means that unless you pay a visit to the in-game store and spend real money, basic demographic traits like your masculinity, feminity, or race don't get represented in the game. Epic withholds the tools of gender and racial expression and then sells players' self-image back to them. This is a design choice which is going to hit people from marginalised groups harder because those people already suffer from their identity being suppressed within the broader society.

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Furthermore, Fortnite prevents the player modifying the human under the clothes or mixing and matching articles of dress to create their own outfits. The less power to create a character the player has, the more exclusive Epic's control over characterisation. They can standardise specific avatar designs to enshrine them as widely-recognised icons in the game and the marketing. They can also make it so that all our decisions to try out a new appearance must begin with paying them money. We're not talking pocket change either.

We typically consider a studio selling a single outfit for a few pounds to be rude or even unacceptable. In Fortnite, a quality new costume will run you 1,500-2,000 V-Bucks, and that doesn't get you the accessories that are obviously designed to complete the ensembles. They are priced at an additional 800 V-Bucks. The smallest package of V-Bucks you can buy and still afford one of these lustrous costumes with is the 2,800 bundle, so forget a few dollars; a single complete outfit will run you $33.49 or £20. And you can't just waltz into the item shop and buy whatever you want because Epic won't show you their whole stock at once. Fortnite loads up a small rack of products which will stick around for 24 hours before being replaced by another so if you don't buy that Cuddle Team Leader Suit now, you don't know when you're going to see it again. You could keep checking back every day to find what you're looking for, but that's what Epic hope you'll do because now they've got you playing the game and perusing their products daily.

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You might think that you can drive the cost of the items down or avoid the store by purchasing the Battle Pass for the season, but despite the name, the Battle Pass is not a season pass. Instead, it buys you the right to unlock exclusive content not available in the shop. Once you've purchased the Battle Pass, you must level it up through play, and at set tiers of that levelling process, you earn set rewards. I find this sleazy on Epic's part because, in other games as services, the choice is between grinding for rewards or paying a fee to skip that grind, but in Fortnite, you must pay the fee and grind. Your £8 doesn't, in itself, get you a product or service which is surely the bare minimum for any purchase. The intention behind this two-pronged attack is that it will make you invest further in the game, resulting in you becoming more hooked and therefore more likely to type in your credit card details again, or if you're one of the younger players in the game, your parents' card details.

Additionally, the longer any developer can keep you in their multiplayer, the longer you help bolster the player base for, keeping the game healthy. But not only must you strive your way towards new costumes, sprays, and emotes under the Battle Pass, Epic can close the gate to these rewards as fast as they opened it. A Battle Pass only lasts roughly 70 days, at which point you must purchase a new one, and you lose access to any rewards you didn't unlock in the previous season forever. Each Battle Pass has 100 levels which take as long to burn through as they sound. Additionally, a dense network of overlapping systems that level up the pass leaves you without a solid idea of how long you need to spend in the game to reach the next tier.

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Climbing to a new rung of the pass requires gaining stars which you can do by levelling up your character or beating daily challenges. E.g. killing three people with a pistol in one match or finishing in the top 50 players twice. It's often hard to tell when exactly you'll get those pistol kills or top 50 wins because you don't know what's going to drop from chests or what difficulty of player you'll end up facing. As for levelling yourself, that requires XP and the amount of XP you get out of any one match can be subject to the same rolls of the dice. So you're translating time spent to XP and levels granted, then translating those stats into battle stars which you translate into Battle Pass tiers which you translate into rewards.

The more mathematical conversions required to work out how much playtime translates to how much reward, and the more luck is involved in completing the challenges, the more likely you are to sink whole evenings into a title unaware of how far off the next reward really is. In the case of Fortnite, these obscurities also increase the chance that you won't realise you're going to come up short of the 100 levels before the end of the season. Unless you've whiled away almost all your disposable time on Fortnite, chances are you'll be invested enough not to want to rescind your claim to any rewards, but still be faced with that prospect because the season is about to end and your foot is not over the goal line. This is where Epic steps in and sells you the extra levels you couldn't hit before the buzzer. You can boost yourself ten tiers at a time for roughly £8, which is the cost of the Battle Pass, to begin with. While other free-to-play games allow the player to alleviate the psychological pressures on them by spending money, Fortnite weaves the illusion that that's what you're doing when you open your wallet and hopes that you don't notice that you're only increasing that pressure.

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If you feel like you can't see through this canopy of subscriptions and microtransactions, that's the point. If the systems are so dense and the dynamics so unpredictable that you can't tell the next trick the game is going to pull to monetise you, you're more open to each little subliminal suggestion and economic pitfall. Other games are forthcoming with information to let you make informed decisions about how you want to act within them, and Fortnite creates a hallucination of informativity by wrapping itself in all sorts of meters and metrics. But the funny money and the endless streams of numbers contextualising other numbers are there to make sure that none of the figures you do get a hold of gives you the full picture, and that there are too many pieces to put together to get it.

Any designer could lay out a more elegant version of Fortnite's progression and reward tallies in which you have fewer threads to track, but Epic doesn't want you to tell where the play is going. When knowledge is power, leaving the player ignorant of where they stand monetarily and chronologically in relation to their next jolt of accomplishment gives Epic power over them. This is especially true if that player is a child who doesn't have the critical faculties to defend themselves against adults trying to manipulate them.

Conclusion

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Common sense tells us that younger people want games that they don't have to study to understand, that don't harshly scold them when they make mistakes, and that serve as constant pumps of adrenaline. Fornite challenges all those perceptions as a title that's wildly popular with gaming's greenest generation while exhibiting subdued atmospheres, initially unfriendly controls, and in the battle royale mode, a harsh penalty for failure. I also understand why so many children and teens went all-in on a game that gives them time to chat with friends, panicked action, and the opportunity to play with some building blocks.

However, it's an experience that's pushing kitchen sink game design across new boundaries, and its fights can come down to button-mashing competitions. And even if Fortnite was the most fun you could have at your computer, that wouldn't make it one bit more acceptable when it eats developers and customers alive. Epic is using abusive labour conditions to manufacture a product that has enough colourful graphics and wacky characters to attract kids. They're then taking those kids and subjecting them to an unregulated casino and misleading progress mechanics to coax them into spending £20 on a single costume or £24 trying to get to the end of a progression ladder.

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I think I've made a case for Fortnite being a solid entertainment product, even in the areas where we see crumbling design, but if you still want to look down on it, that's fine. What I don't think we should do is dismiss its relevance or look down on its players. Older generations enjoyed games with much less depth than this one, and I think we need to exhibit concern for children playing this game when it's such an aggressive cash trap. What's more, if we want to look out for ourselves, then in the coming years, we should be wary of games with purposefully confusing progression systems, less capable character editors, and paid grinding sessions. I don't think that the gaming community as a whole would swallow these exploitative practices as compliantly as the Fortnite community has, but we're also no strangers to seeing studios force monetisation too far in an effort to recoup rising development costs and push a title to maximum profitability. Coming away from Fortnite, my impression is one of a good-enough shooter that may also be a grim bellwether. Thanks for reading.

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