Lego, Disney and a big bang: Fortnite is quickly becoming the world's first metaverse.

After a string of failed attempts, the metaverse may finally get off the ground thanks to the hit video game.

Fortnite-Metaverse
Macht Fortnite das Metaverse-Versprechen wahr?
Table of contents
  1. The last vestiges of hype
  2. Step 1: users. Step 2: Metaverse
  3. Fortnite: A New Dawn
  4. Not just a game
  5. No short supply of Fortnite Worlds
  6. The Fortnite ecosystem is a tantalizing opportunity for brands

It was once the darling of everyone in the digital space. The next big thing. The proverbial game-changer. Mark Zuckerberg renamed his trillion-dollar company in its likeness in 2021. However, the metaverse has come nowhere close to living up to the hype. Nowhere except for one place, a world that seems ready and able to deliver the outlandish expectations metaverse freak harbor: Fortnite.

Let’s be blunt: Fortnite started off as a run-of-the-mill 3rd-person shooter. Since its release in 2017, it has evolved into a thriving ecosystem of games, concerts, shopping and pop culture. Millions log in daily around the world, superstars like Eminem, Ariana Grande and Travis Scott have given “live” concerts and now international brands like Lego and Disney are establishing themselves in the Fortnite universe. Could we, at long last, finally be witnessing the first truly successful metaverse?

The last vestiges of hype

Despite the billions invested into many a different metaverse projects, nothing has really caught on or evinced anything remotely resembling staying power. Meta alone has burned through billions of US dollars. Shortly after Facebook was renamed Meta, Zuckerberg lauded the metaverse as the successor to the mobile internet. In fact, it was to be so sweeping and vast that that many companies would have to work on it together. " We want to get as many people as possible to be able to experience virtual reality and be able to jump into the metaverse and … to have these social experiences within that," Zuckerberg told CNET in 2021.

Three years after being anointed by Zuck as the next big thing, you’d be hard pressed to find even Meta employees using the Metaverse app "Horizon Worlds" with the latest stats placing the MAUs at a paltry 200k. Horizon Worlds was supposed to be flagship of Meta's metaverse doings, attracting users to meet, interact, dance, shop, watch movies—basically whatever you do in real life. Instead, Horizon Worlds is a place where you find packs of rabid kids roaming about annoying the few adults left.

Step 1: users. Step 2: Metaverse

Other metaverse projects that sold virtual properties to private individuals and large brands for real money during the pandemic are similarly empty. Another prominent example is "The Sandbox," where Adidas, for example, bought a plot of land for a planned store in 2021. In 2022, the creators earned a total of USD 1.66m from the sale of virtual land. At its peak, The Sandbox never surpassed 4,503 simultaneous users. Decentraland, another once highly rated metaverse, cannot crack 675 users at a given time.

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A ghost town: A screenshot from the barren streets of Decentraland (Source: Medium / Samin Gurung)

In Fortnite, it’s a completely different story. The game currently has 15m DAUs and over 235m MAUs. The company behind Fortnite, Epic Games, has chosen a different path than the competition. Instead of starting with the blank canvas of a metaverse and then attracting users, Fortnite started with building an audience via the “Battle Royale” game mode and then built its metaverse right on top of it.

Fortnite: A New Dawn

The shift to the Fortnite metaverse began December 2, 2023 with the aptly named live event "Big Bang." Players were able to watch events unfold in the game world, interact with some, but, by and large, not have any real influence on the outcome of said events. After a sequence of cinematic scenes depicting time machines and rockets merging, the old Fortnite world, which had mainly revolved around the Battle Royale shooter, exploded. From the ashes rose the new Fortnite. Featuring completely new game modes, including a Lego version of Fortnite, a racing game and Fortnite Festival (think Guitar Hero where players have to hit the right note at the right time). It was first unveiled to users during an Eminem concert in Fortnite. Soon after, The Weeknd was a featured artist for the offshoot game. Now, Lady Gaga is the current featured artist of Fortnite Festival with her songs.

The new Fortnite era started with new game concepts, one of them directly from new partner Lego. The investment arm of the danish company pumped USD 2b into Epic Games together with Sony in April 2022—with the explicit aim of building a metaverse featuring Lego. Following in Lego’s footsteps is Disney, after having announced an investment of USD 1.5b in Epic in February 2024. Characters and content from the Disney universe will roam freely in Fortnite, including Marvel, Star Wars, Avatar, Pixar & Co.

Not just a game

Iron Man, Darth Vader, Buzz Lightyear et al will not only be playable in Fortnite, however; Disney has already laid out its vision for users to "play, watch, shop and engage with content, characters and stories” and wants to create various Disney-themed worlds with a different focus on gaming and other content. Lego's current strategy shows just how to pull it off. After Lego Fortnite, the company released two more games in Fortnite just a few days ago: Lego Raft Survival and Lego Obby Fun. In all three Lego Fortnite games, everything revolves around building with digital Lego blocks. The goal—from Lego’s perspective—is for Fortnite players to discover the fun of building with Lego and then acquire the articles IRL.

Disney has designs on the same. "We can’t wait for fans to experience the Disney stories and worlds they love in groundbreaking new ways," says Disney CEO Robert A. Iger. "Now we’re collaborating on something entirely new to build a persistent, open and interoperable ecosystem that will bring together the Disney and Fortnite communities," adds Epic CEO Tim Sweeny.

Fortnite has checked off a few of the cornerstone metaverse features: becoming well-known characters, combining gaming, concerts and other events, like standup comedy at a Fortnite “laugh factory,” art exhibitions, etc. with more video content and streaming figuring to come soon. There’s also the virtual currency "V-Bucks," which can be redeemed by users to purchase items, such as digital clothing. In short, bit by bit (or block by block) Fortnite is building a metaverse, where people can cultivate and craft their second self (an avatar) and experience things that are sometimes doable and sometimes divorced from the real world.

No short supply of Fortnite Worlds

There are also initial indications of how the Fortnite metaverse could exist outside of deals with billion-dollar companies. The "Unreal Editor for Fortnite," which Epic just released, is a developer tool allowing third parties to create Fortnite game worlds beyond the game’s signature comic book style look—without any involvement from Epic Games. Creators have been able to create game worlds for Fortnite Creative Mode in collaboration with Fortnite developers since 2018 and the metaverse is experiencing exponential growth at present. "About half of Fortnite play time by users is now in content created by others," says Epic CEO Tim Sweeney.

The Fortnite Creative worlds feature quite prominently on the Fortnite start screen. Nevertheless, a battle for attention and active players is raging. The strategy is reminiscent of Roblox, probably the biggest metaverse competitor at the moment. The gaming platform has 70 million DAUs and, according to CEO David Baszucki, paid out an average of USD 27m to its ten most successful creators in 2023. In total, the company paid out USD 740m to hundreds of creators in the same period. In November 2023, our colleague Tanja wrote about exactly how the Roblox ecosystem is evolving (in German) and how young developers are earning significant cash with digital jewelry, clothes or their own game worlds. Roblox currently relies much more heavily on external developers than Fortnite and positioned itself as such a platform right from the start.

The Fortnite ecosystem is a tantalizing opportunity for brands

With its openness to virtual fashion and game variations from third parties through Fortnite Creative, Epic has laid the foundation for a vast ecosystem, where Epic Games acts as the game administrator, but welcomes major partners and countless solo developers or specialized developer studios. And they are already helping brands to establish themselves in the Fortnite metaverse. One prime example of how this can work is US studio Beyond Creative. Its founding team built a high-profile activation location for luxury brand Balenciaga in 2022: A Balenciaga store in Fortnite, including fitting rooms and the ability to purchase of digital Balenciaga clothes, because of course.

In the meantime, Beyond Creative has implemented game experiences in Fortnite for other brands, such as Honda, the NFL, Ralph Lauren, Armani Code and the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. One of the developer studio's current high-profile projects is "Airphoria," a game world for Nike, where players go on a treasure hunt of sorts to collect Nike shoes. The event has shown other brands how the Fortnite metaverse can be leveraged successfully: commission game development, make the new collection available for in-game purchase, launch a limited-edition collection in the real world.

Honda has announced new cars in a similar manner, Timberland has unveiled new boots and supermarket chain Carrefour has showcased some of its “delicious good food.” As previously mentioned, there are countless specialized developer studios available to brands. And Epic now wants to encourage them to build content for Fortnite—even without securing a contract. Since March 2023, creators have received 40 percent of the revenue from the entire Fortnite store - weighted according to the popularity of their game world. This could be a powerful driver for creating a huge world full of games, stores, concerts, exhibitions, shows, etc. in Fortnite, a bustling metaverse with millions of users that are already there every day.

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Scott Peterson
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