If you haven’t heard of Fortnite by now, you’ve either been living under a rock, or you don’t have teenagers or pre-teens in your life. In an informal survey of Phase2 staff, nearly 90% have heard of Fortnite; 42% have tried it, play it, or have family members who play.
Made by Epic Games, this phenomenon is an industry leader in ‘Battle Royale’ shooter games. Its addictive third-person shooter gameplay and fun, slightly cartoonish styling makes it accessible to a young-skewing audience, while still retaining the intensity and speed of a more mature battle game. It’s also free to download and play on virtually every current gaming platform around, including iOS and Android.
But what does that have to do with Phase2? Well, at first blush, not a lot. But as it turns out, there’s a lot lurking under the surface. And content creators of all sorts can learn a lot from Fortnite.
Know Your Audience
Fortnite is a game where a guy dressed up like a walking banana can put a bullet in your marshmallow head from 120m using a sniper rifle decorated in pink and red hearts, while riding a hovering purple snowboard off a viking ship, and then do the Carlton dance to celebrate.
Like I said, the audience for this game skews toward a youngish demographic, and it shows in their content. Though the game is free to download and play, Epic makes their money by selling skins (essentially costumes), in-game paraphernalia, dance moves and emotes (gestures or reactions).
Some of it is really silly:
A pickaxe that’s a toilet plunger with a knife stuck through it, or a unicorn head on a stick.
An assortment of Goldfish-guy and Chicken-guy skins.
A hang-glider shaped like a giant hamburger.
A backpack with a screaming gingerbread man in it.
“Thriller”-inspired dance moves.
Some of it is also really cool (according to my 14-year old son, who is the authority on cool in this house):
Skins that look like ninjas or commandos or undead pirate captains.
A backpack that’s actually two black, smoking angel wings.
A glider that’s styled like a beach umbrella, but with a spiderweb on it.
An emote that lets you play the saxophone.
You get the idea.
They also have multiple gameplay modes. For those wanting a team-based experience, they offer Team Rumble, where the first team to 100 eliminations wins. Tough-guy loners can play in Solo, where up to 99 people battle it out to the last man standing.
As silly as these examples seem, Epic Games has their finger on the pulse of their audience.
They are doing great business by giving their players exactly what they want, and the ability to customize their experience to suit their preferences.
Keep It Fresh
Fortnite’s content is constantly changing.
New or recycled skins and items show up in the item shop at 4pm Pacific time, every day like clockwork. New gameplay challenges drop daily, weekly, and by ‘season’. Their seasons are roughly quarterly, and that’s when the big changes happen.
Every 12-15 weeks, a new season starts, which typically means the introduction of a whole host of new items, weapons, skins, and thematic elements. Additionally, the map on which the game is played undergoes radical changes. Last winter, the “Ice King” invaded, and the whole map was covered with snow; players fought ice demons in addition to each other. Just a couple weeks ago, the snow thawed, and was followed by the emergence of a volcano in one corner of the map, which destroyed a town and a golf course.
In addition to these sweeping changes, Epic Games stages events in the game. Some of these are related to gameplay; the invasion of the Ice King was an event that players could log into, and watch the changes happen in real time. Others are simply fun; noted DJ Marshmello played an in-game set with full-on lighting and special effects, including some stuff—like zero-G dancing—that wouldn’t be possible in the real world. In the days before the show, posters went up in an assortment of locations around the map, the stage took shape in stages, and Marshmello-themed items appeared in the Item Shop and as rewards for Marshmello-themed achievements.
I know ‘keep it fresh’ is a common content management mantra, but it’s about more than just press releases.
Giving the audience things to look forward to will make them want to come back (a lot).
In Fortnite, the more you play, the more you get—even if you never spend a penny. Achievements earned through gameplay unlock new items and actions. Of course, if that’s not enough, purchasing their seasonal “Battle Pass” for the low, low price of 950 V-Bucks ($9.50) unlocks a whole additional tier of available stuff to earn. And recently, Epic posted a series of in-game challenges that, if completed, earned the player a free Battle Pass for the coming season. Let me tell you, my teenager was positively driven to earn that free Battle Pass. And since he has the new Battle Pass, he’s now excited about unlocking all the tiers of rewards, which requires more time in-game. And of course, the more time he spends in the game…the more he will pass by that tempting Item Shop.
Rewarding engagement drives more engagement; engagement drives action (or whatever your desired outcome is).
We often talk about community-driven content creation, but it generally doesn’t work out as well as we like. Fortnite, though, has a really robust community of players creating videos, streaming gameplay, online write-ups, and generally interacting with the official content. For example, even without logging-in, players can check out what’s in the Item Shop, complete with candid user reviews, within minutes of it dropping new content, courtesy of the user community.
How do they make it work? Two things: Number one, they allow them. It’s part of the EULA: So long as the content creators don’t claim sponsorship by Epic Games, or misuse their trademarks, they’re allowed free rein. This includes critical reviews.
Two: they have a reward system in play.
Content creators can submit their name and a link to their work to become ‘official’ creators. Then, in the Item Shop, players can select a creator to support. Supported creators will receive $5 USD for every 10,000 V-Bucks spent by players who elect to support them in-game. This is a serious incentive, and the user-choice element of it definitely drives creators to produce good content.
Rewards don’t have to be monetary (though it helps), but there should always be something in it for your community content creators.
Find Ways to Partner
Super Bowl Sunday is everywhere in the U.S. It’s on our groceries, our TV, road signs, and radio ads. And, yes, it was in Fortnite. Epic Games sold officially-branded NFL skins in the days leading up to the Big Game. Buy one of the skins (they came in eight varieties, four men, four women, four different skin tones each), and you got all the NFL home-team jerseys and helmets, plus the Patriots and the Ram’s special Big Game outfits. Numbers are also customizable, so you could play as your favorite player (or a gender-swapped version of him, if you like). Referee skins were also available.
For those of you who aren’t in the U.S., they did the same thing with futbol jerseys during 2018’s World Cup. The eight available skins (again, four men, four women, four different skin tones each) included most of the teams in the Cup, as well as several popular teams that didn’t make it (including the USA, the Netherlands, and New Zealand). Additional tie-ins, like a red-card emote, were available as well.
What did this do for them? Well, it’s hard to say, because they don’t release their business details to that level of granularity. But it’s certainly easy to make some educated guesses - engagement went up, word-of-mouth buzz went up, and, of course, spending went up—those skins aren’t free. Good for everyone concerned.
Content Ain’t Free
That’s the tradeoff, isn’t it? Constantly generating a stream of content isn’t free. The number of designers, writers, programmers, and artists that Epic Games must employ in order to keep this up for eight seasons and counting is enormous, and I’m sure the pressure to keep ROI high is equally huge.
But there’s two ways you can look at it—as a cost, or an investment. For Epic, it’s clearly an investment that is paying off.
Which is it for you?
[Senior Developer Joshua Turton hopes that if you see ‘jerichothebard’ in Fortnite, you’ll join him for a dance-off, instead of shooting him with a sparkly pink shotgun.]