Reflections on Fortnite

If you into video games at all, you've almost certainly heard of Fortnite, Epic Games ubiquitous multiplayer shooter. I've actually avoided it up until now, as I did its YouTuber-staple predecessor PlayerUnknown's Battleground (which has perhaps the worst acronym in gaming history, pronounced "Pub-Guh"...just awful). My reluctance to check them out stems almost entirely from my loathing of the culture of online gaming today, specifically the extremely popular shooters that draw out the most annoying types of childish, trolling gamers.

But now, I gave Fortnite a chance, and I can thank my Nintendo Switch for it. I love the Switch as a platform, but time and money have prevented me from really enjoying it much since I picked it up last year. But hey, Fortnite is free to download, and easy to jump into, so why not? And for a relatively simple game, there's a lot to unpack here.

First of, as a mini review, let me say this: it's pretty good. Its not breaking new ground, it's not the best shooting I've ever experienced in a game, the GUI and interface are cluttered and poorly designed, there are some mechanics and rules I think can be improved, and it is fairly unstable, even for being "early access". But overall, I've come back to it for a few matches almost every day since I installed it, and as much as it shames me to admit, it's actually become the first "freemium" game I've ever actually spent real money on (more on that later).

Like a lot of competitive multiplayer experiences, when Fortnite is good, it's really good. Getting into a squad with 3 other players who are competant and work together, leapfrogging cover to cover with your new buddies overwatching, ambushing unsuspecting groups and laying waste to the other 94 players is tremendously rewarding. And in the brand new 50v50 mode, rolling up to the front line and wading into combat, dropping attackers and rescuing friendlies is a wonderful experience. Devs of open-world single player games love to tout "emergent gameplay", but Fortnite is a great platform for experiencing emergent, spontaneous, and flowing teamwork and fun.

When it happens.

The problem is, it doesn't happen often. I'd say, perhaps, 1 out of 10 matches gives that sort of rewarding experience. Most of the time, you're plopping down to watch one of your squadmates crashing a vehicle into buildings over and over, another who disconnected because he didn't land where he wanted to, and the last shooting you in the back for no reason. Or in 50v50, getting swarmed by 10 enemies while your teammates wander around half a map away.

The player base is, from what I've seen, overall pretty poor. That's certainly not surprising or new; it's online multiplayer after all. You're mostly surrounded by trolls and children. And that's not to say there's anything wrong with kids playing games, especially one like Fortnite that, while violent, lacks gore, blood, foul language, and the like. It's akin to a paintball game than a hardcore military shooter like CoD.

Still, the fun makes appearances regularly enough to bring me back. At least in the short term. What's really managed to keep a hold of me, and this is absolutely by design, is the XP/Tier system in the game. With small, incremental rewards (most of which are totally meaningless cosmetic changes) it successfully scratches that levelling up itch that is at the core of so many games we love.

That's nothing new, freemium and mobile games perfected this model several years ago. Most developers, especially those making competitive games, realized that so-called "pay to win" DLC doesn't work in the long term--players catch on quickly and the scrubs like me who don't want to pay money stop playing, and the MLG pros who buy the best gun lose interest because there's nowhere to go once they spend their money, no progression to be made.

Instead, this new model of cosmetic upgrades is truly brilliant. Players who don't want to spend money can still get plenty of rewards--new skins, dance moves, wall sprays, and the like. But spending a very small amount of cash can unlock specific skins, or buy a season pass that gives many more free rewards and makes those rewards come faster.

It's surprisingly effective, even on me. As I've said, I don't spend money on freemium games, ever. If I can get stuff just by playing, I'm happy with that, at least so long as meaningful content isn't locked away behind a paywall. And in Fornite it isn't (save for the PvE mode that is currently $25 or so to unlock, but will soon be made free as well). So what about Fortnite got me to spend some cash? I mean, the desire for more cool skins and faster levelling is always there for me in these kinds of games, but I've always resisted before.

What got me in Fortnite is something that I love--and it's something that Blizzard implemented in World of Warcraft a while back. In Fortnite, you spend real money to purchase in-game currency. That's pretty standard. What Fortnite offers, though, and what more games seem like they're getting on board with, is this: if you buy a season pass, as part of the rewards you unlock during gameplay are packets of more in-game currency. So, if you play regularly enough, you will earn more than enough during a "season" (which lasts around 10 weeks) to then pay for a pass for the next season.

It's a brilliant decision, because it got me (and I'm sure many more gamers like me who tend not to open their wallets) to drop $10 on the game. And they've given me the avenue to earn that in-game currency, so long as I keep playing. And the more I play, the more likely I'll be to drop another few bucks to get a cool skin that I like, or something simliar.

In Las Vegas, the casinos do all they can to get you to stay inside and keep playing, because the longer you play the more money they will earn. Game developers have finally figured out that strategy, and are starting to implement it extremely effectively.

And like Las Vegas, so long as you understand you're just paying for entertainment, you can be happy to accept the house is going to win every time.