Becoming pop culture—the Epic Games playbook
Fortnite is that rare creation uniting kids and adults around the world. Seemingly overnight, the game’s battle royale mode turned a sputtering IP into a global mass phenomenon. OMR takes a closer look at the metrics vouching for the game’s success and finds the perfect symbiosis of product development and marketing.
“First, I love your game. My friends from college and I play pretty much every night.” So begins a now famous subreddit addressed to the makers of Fortnite by a schoolteacher named Mr. Hillman. “One problem, since mobile came out my students won’t stop playing in class.”
“Game of life and death”
More specifically, Mr. Hillmann is referring to Fortnite Battle Royale (BR), a special game mode that was released last September as a free PC and console game; this past March they rolled out the mobile version (so far only for iOS). The premise is simple: on a continuously shrinking map 100 players do battle against each other with a slew of weapons and/or traps. The last man or woman standing gets the much-coveted “Victory Royale.”
The concept of a battle to the death is, of course, nothing new; Bruce Lee’s “Game of Death” and “Running Man” enthralled audiences in the 70s and 80s respectively. But with the the 2000 Japanese film “Battle Royale,” the format experienced a renaissance spawning the “Hunger Games” books and movies and, of course, a slew of releases in the gaming sector. Last year, Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds (PUBG) was the gaming scene’s darling, and now the torch has been passed to Fortnite BR.
In an effort to keep his students from playing during class, Mr. Hillmann told them that he was going to write Epic Games. They didn’t believe him. Hillmann followed through on his threat with his Reddit post. “Could you add this to the loading screen for a couple days to mess with them? ‘Mr. Hillman says stop playing in class.’” A couple of days later, Epic Games honored Mr. Hillmann’s request as this tweet shows.
My favorite thing about working at @EpicGames.
— K.L. Smith (@arCtyC) March 30, 2018
Sports stars pay homage to Fortnite with goal celebrations
Mr. Hillmann doesn’t figure to be the only teacher bemoaning a lack of concentration among his pupils because of Fortnite. Vice’s gaming mag, Waypoint, recently ran a story on the obsession kids have with the game, with some schools going as far as blocking access to the Fortnite servers via the school WLAN. (Just check out Kotaku’s thread with tweets of incredulous students—and teachers.) A gym teacher published a video on Twitter, where he confiscates phones of anyone he catches playing Fortnite, or PUBG, putting them in an aptly marked container. A gym teacher published a video on Twitter, where he confiscates phones of anyone he catches playing Fortnite, or PUBG, putting them in an aptly marked container.
— Coach Fisher (@FZN_Fisher) March 21, 2018
After taking over school playgrounds around the world, Fortnite began conquering the world’s biggest stadiums. Just last night Atlético Madrid striker and France international Antoine Griezmann busted out a Fortnite dance to celebrate his goals against Olympique Marseilles in the Europa League final. Other pro players, too, have gotten into the act in recent weeks: Julian Brandt and other players at German club Bayer Leverkusen, LA Lakers guard Josh Hart and a host of rugby players from Australia.
Fortnite passes Minecraft
Fornite’s enormous popularity goes beyond the mere anecdotal; according to Epic Games press speaker 45 million players partook in January. In February, there were 3.4 million players taking part at the same time on the Epic Games servers. The company declined to provide OMR with a concrete figure on the total number of current players.
But a quick look at how the keyword “Fortnite” has trended on Google in recent months and it becomes quite apparent that the game has undergone a massive boost in popularity. And what’s more, Fortnite has surpassed all other “major” computer games in search volume—including gold standard Minecraft, which it passed in early March.
Most popular game on Youtube and Twitch
Fortnite also proved a success on Google’s video platform as it notched more views than all other games seemingly overnight. “If the current trend doesn’t drastically change, videos about Fortnite will eclipse 2 billion views in April,” says Christoph Burseg, CEO at Youtube analytics company Veescore.
According to statistic tool Sullygnome, Fortnite is also dominating the competition on Twitch, a popular (Amazon-owned) live-stream platform amongst gamers, where it’s been the most-streamed game in the past 6 months. In the past month it’s even unseated League of Legends as the most-watched game. Sullygnome’s figures also have Fortnite lodging a total watch time of 14,611 years, nearly doubling LoL’s.
9-figure monthly revenue = 10-figure annual revenue?
Unsurprisingly, Fortnite’s popularity is also reflected in revenue generated. Although Fortnite BR (the game’s most-popular mode) is completely free, players can purchase game figurines, special gear and other goodies. In February, gaming market researcher Superdata Research estimated the current monthly revenue to be at USD 126 million. It figures to have grown significantly since then given the growth it’s experienced, as well as the fact that the mobile version launched in March. Berlin-based app analytics service provider Priori Data projects that the iOS version of Fortnite BR has generated USD 23.2 million in just over a month.
To get a feel for just how much revenue potential a free-to-play game has, you have to start with a look at the most-popular F2P title out there, League of Legends (which is behind Fortnite BR at present). In 2017, LoL generated USD 2.1 billion according to Superdata Research. Stockmarket experts speculated in a Bloomberg article from March that Fortnite was “doing a number” on other game publishers. Two competing studios, Activision Blizzard and Take Two are down 9% and 10% respectively over the past 2 months.
Success doesn’t come till hour 12
Fortnite’s success is even more incredible due to the fact that it very nearly was sent to the scrap heap and was being touted several industry insiders as “vaporware,” a piece of hardware or software that’s announced to the public but is never released. Epic Games first announced Fortnite back in 2011—three weeks after the concept came about and long before development on the game ever started. What followed was years of ups and downs, progress and setbacks—and numerous new iterations. The first snippets released to the public garnered a lukewarm reception at best. “We announced it way too early,” Epic Games’ board member iMike Fischer said in 2015.
The first version’s game mode is still available as “Save the World,” which is played (ideally) with several players, the object being build a fort and survive versus hordes of attacking zombies. “The game that they showed, subtitled Save the World, was not fun — and played nothing like Battle Royale,” writes Charlie Hall in US gaming website Polygon looking back. Others were a bit kinder with their ratings, but if you compare the game’s resonance and the interest generated on Google Trends then and now, the beta version is miles from being a hit.
From afterthought to featured release in two months
Shortly after launching the “Save the World” version, Epic Games’ strategy department decides to develop a “PvP” (Player versus Player) mode. PUBG, launched a few months before Fortnite, generated significantly more interest than Fortnite according to Google Trends. While initial development of Fortnite took years, Epic wanted results now much faster and acquired developers from Unreal Tournament to create a very similar finished product in as little time as possible.
After less than two months of dev. time, Epic Games released Fortnite Battle Royale in September 2017 as a free standalone game for PC, Mac, Playstation and Xbox. “If anyone you deal with console manufacturers, you can imagine how difficult this was in two weeks time to get through it. The marketing staff at EPIC probably worked about 14 days straight. No weekends. No kids. No anything,” said Ed Zobrist, Head of Publishing at Epic Games, in his keynote “Fortnite: an unconventional launch” in March 2018 at the Game Developer Conference. “I doubt any major publisher could have pulled off this kind of pivot in the same kind of time that we ended up doing.”
A heretofore unheard of combination of tried and true concepts
Over the next few months, Fortnite Battle Royale saw gradual growth before exploding into the success that it is now. But how? What are the decisive factors? First off, the product’s quality is unmistakable: intricately produced and supremely entertaining, and with an average game time of 20 to 25 minutes, it does not require a massive time commitment. Epic Games melds several successful concepts in Fortnite BR and gives it a unique spin: just like with mega-hit Minecraft, players can farm materials with which they can then build things. In this way, Epic Games hands over a significant amount of creativity to players. The building process in Fortnite BR is not as arduous as in Minecraft, and oftentimes these items are nothing more than a time-limited protection spell against other players.
The second Fortnite BR component, the battle royale concept, is a staple in PUBG—but with a few notable differences. Whereas PUBG doesn’t already run smoothly, the Fortnite BR servers are much more stable. While PUBG is bleak, realistic and bloody in its depiction, Fortnite BR has a quirky, almost cartoony feel to it. And due to the fact that in Fortnite contains no blood splatter, it is more attractive to younger audiences—or at least justify it to their parents. And on top of it all, the game’s comic-book character gives it a much lighter feel to it than PUBG, which may boost player retention. Eric Williamson, Lead Systems Designer at Fortnite told Kotaku that “it is a major advantage.” “Death in our game doesn’t really feel like a penalty. The experience is not nearly as frustrating. You laugh it off and then you’re on to the next match.”
Free-to-play, but not pay-to-win
In addition to its overall quality, another factor instrumental to Fortnite BR’s success figures to be the game’s “attractive price category”—as in zero. “There has never been a free-to-play game of this size before,” says Simon Wiefels, a well-known commodity in the gaming scene as a streamer named “Unge.” That coupled with the fact that Fortnite BR is now available on almost every device gives the game’s reach another boost. “Once kids on the playground get wind of Fortnite, they can download the title and start playing right away. That is a decisive factor amongst younger target groups because it makes it easier to play with friends,” says Unge.
But is that really the big difference maker? In the end, it’s not like there are hundreds of free-to-play games reaching the heights every year that Fortnite BR has.
Well, there are significant ways in which Fortnite BR separates itself from other F2P titles. First off, “Fortnite BR is free-to-play, but not pay-to-win,” says Unge. Meaning that many other free games offer special weapons and features for purchase that give owners an unfair advantage over non-pay users. In Fortnite BR, all purchases are aesthetic in nature; There is no advantage regarding gameplay.
Community as co-developer
When it comes to the game’s evolution and potential new skins, emotes, weapons and other features, there is considerable and consistent exchange between Epic Games and players. Right after publishing the first closed version, Epic Games prioritized community building and established a forum for players, a strategy the company has continued to follow. “We have an analytics system, we watch streamers, we are active participants in forums and gather feedback via Reddit,” says Spalinski, Lead Level Designer at Epic Games, told Kotaku in an interview.
It is currently legitimately possible that Epic Games won’t view Fortnite as a “finished product” for a very long time, if ever. There is hardly a week that passes without at least a minor update or patch announced on the Fortnite site. “Epic Games is developing Fortnite at a much faster rate than Bluehole’s PUBG; that’s an additional plus,” says Unge. Developers even go as far as quoting player requests and feedback in the patch notes—even if it’s negative.
Regular updates beget frequent attention
Monitoring tools show that after just about every major update there is a significant spike in interest for Fortnite BR. Example: In December, Epic Games launched a special “50 vs 50” mode in Fortnite BR for a limited time, which split teams into two teams and pit them against each other. “It soon became extremely popular,” said Zobrist in his GDC speech. A few days later, Epic Games released a patch with winter-themed skins and weapons. Exclusive data provided by social media monitoring platform Talkwalker shows that the number of social mentions of the keyword “fortnite” skyrocketed in December—from 250,000 a week before the 15th to nearly 500,000 in the last week of December and well over a million by mid-Jan.
In addition to word-of-mouth publicity, the buzz surrounding Fortnite BR is mostly a result of Youtube and Twitch. Before the first “Save the World” version was ever launched, Epic Games was already reaching out to popular streamers and implementing ad campaigns with them, as Head of Publishing Ed Zobrist stated in his GDC presentation. Furthermore, there was an exclusive cooperation with Twitch. Amazon Prime users who watched a Fortnite stream, received exclusive loot if they connected their Fortnite profile with their Twitch account. Just how powerful of a marketing lever the practice actually is, wouldn’t become clear until the months after Fortnite BR is released.
Streamers impact tonality
In doing so, Epic Games built the foundation early on for good relations with streamers, a fact that Unge also confirmed. Like many others, German streamer Unge has never been paid by Epic Games to play Fortnite BR in his videos and streams. And yet he still does. And he does so not only because he prefers Fortnite BR over “Save the World,” instead because it has a host of other advantages compared to other games.
“As an observer, it’s immediately apparent what’s going on.” Then, there’s the fact that every game is different. And because you’re doing battle with other players and not playing against the computer, the game is even better suited to elicit emotions among potential video or stream audiences.
Three weeks after Battle Royal launched, Epic Games staff put together a Fortnite video for an internal company event, showing nothing but streamers’ reactions to a match of Fortnite BR. “This video is different. It has a sense of sheer joy. Almost a playful aspect to what was going on and how much fun people were having, instead of being more focused on the competitive side on it,” says Zobrist.
That internal company video was used as the Youtube clip that Epic Games release to celebrate cracking the 20-million-player mark. From that point forward, the tonality in their videos and new features took on a more light-hearted and humorous bent. Example: For the new feature where players could hide in and run around with a bush, Epic Games released a gag clip with some seriously dramatic music. Then came the “Boogie Bomb,” a grenade shaped like a disco ball, which put its victims under a dance spell.
Another area where Epic Games draws inspiration for its emotes is the web’s pop culture: popular memes, dabbing, pony riding a la Psy or Salt Bae can be combined with newer features like Pennywise the clown’s dance, from the reboot of the movie “It” released last September. It’s a plan that should enable Epic Games to put Fortnite in a position to repeatedly piggyback on whatever’s hot. Here’s a look at some previous Fortnite BR emotes and where they came from:
Fortnite Videos provide streamers with better engagement
Emotes are welcome elements for Youtubers and streamers, as they are hugely popular among viewers. “Dancing after a kill, may be atypical, but it’s pretty hilarious. And, of course, it provides ample material for engaging video content,” says Youtube expert Burseg. New emotes, skins and other features provide impetus enough for the creation of new videos. When you search for “fortnite new” on Youtube, you get nearly 29 million results. “Skins are essential,” says Burseg. “Some of the items were only available before the hype truly took off. If you own one of those items, you’re a ‘rare butterfly.’ Videos featuring extremely rare items are insanely popular.”
No surprise then that Fortnite videos have better engagement than those of other games. “Fortnite already had more likes than Minecraft a month before it overtook Minecraft in monthly views.”
Internal game video editor coming soon
While Epic Games is committed to entertaining players with a constant stream of new gizmos, it’s also making life easier for streamers to create new engaging content for audiences. The fact that the content is popular among audiences makes it an even more enticing proposition for streamers. The resulting synergistic effect gives Epic Games a massive amount of free reach. Product development and marketing work perfectly in unison. “Epic Games has gotten a lot right and now have an excellent product that streamers love playing,” says Simon Unge.
In the future, it figures to get even easier for content creators to make attractive Fortnite videos. As Epic Games announced in March, Fortnite will be the very first game to integrate the company’s new replay editor from the company’s Unreal Engine. The editor will provide a host of attractive editing features, including choosing from perspectives that are not available during gameplay, zooming functions and altering the focus of the action. In short it is an editing toolbox that will enable the production of cinematic videos.
“Ninja”: Over USD 500,000 in monthly Fortnite subscriptions
The success of Fortnite BR on Youtube has forced established streamers to distance themselves from the games that made them popular. Australian streamer Alistair Aiken Ali-A (also depicted in the above video on the replay editors) was known for his videos for Call of Duty.
Last October he published his first Fortnite video on Youtube. In December, Aiken generated a ton of buzz through videos on the new 50-v-50 and winter skins features. Since his first Fortnite video, he’s put out 173 more. For more than four months, Aiken’s published videos have been about 90-95% Fortnite, which means he figures to generate the majority of his views via Fortnite videos and not Call of Duty. Today, Veescore lists him as the biggest Fortnite influencer on Youtube.
Just as Minecraft helped several streamers of the first generation (back then called “Let’s players”) attain fame, there is a new generation of streamers who are achieving popularity via Fortnite. Leading the pack is Tyler Blevins, aka “Ninja.” His Youtube views exploded suddenly thanks to Fortnite. What’s even more impressive is how his channel on Twitch has fared. Just as meteoric as his rise in views is the number of his subscribers—surpassing in just weeks 200,000. Each subscription runs $4.99—half of it goes to the streamers.
— CNBC (@CNBC) March 19, 2018
Are business makers turning to bots to collect Twitch skins?
Blevins confirmed to CNBC that he has generated over USD 500,000 in revenue just through Twitch subscriptions. Blevins attributes the majority of his subscribers to the exclusive loot, the gear that Epic Games gave its Twitch users via its Amazon co-op. A series of tweets, by streamer Shortly led German-language gaming publication “Mein MMO” (My MMO) to speculate if the subscription growth among Fortnite streamers on Twitch was being driven by bots. Basically, whether or not cunning wheelers and dealers were getting cheap Amazon Prime accounts just to acquire the exclusive Twitch skins for Fortnite via Ebay Kleinanzeigen (think a German version of Craig’s List) or other platforms and then sell them later at a profit.
In Ninja’s case, there were other factors involved that figured to ratchet up his subscribers. Ninja, for example, streamed a Fortnite match on Twitch together with rap superstar Drake, NFL player Juju Smith-Schuster, rapper Travis Scott and digital celeb Kimdotcom. According to digital tabloid TMZ Drake’s participation was not a paid promotion. The stream was tuned into by 628,000 people simultaneously—a then record for a live stream audience. In the following week the search volume for the keyword “fortnite” doubled according to Google Trends. And Google wasn’t about to sit on that information: In late March, Spanish gamer El Rubius streamed a Fortnite tournament on Youtube. According to Ryan Wyatt, Head of Gaming at Youtube, that stream was watched by more than 1.1 million live.
How big is @FortniteGame on YouTube? Fortnite holds the record for the most videos related to a video game uploaded in a single month EVER. Yesterday, the Battle Royale tournament had over 42M live views, and set a record for biggest single live gaming stream @ 1.1M concurrent.
— Ryan Wyatt (@Fwiz) March 26, 2018
Have we reached peak Fortnite?
It would seem that Fortnite has transcended the bread and butter platforms for the gaming world, Youtube and Twitch. As the Talkwalker analysis shows, a cross-platform comparison (without including Twitch it should be said) showed that Instagram accounts posting short Fortnite videos have the most engagement. It’s not surprising that the operators of viral accounts have jumped on the bandwagon and pinch a great deal of successful clips on Youtube and Twitch, and then post them on Instagram.
Despite the beaucoup success, Fortnite has yet to reach the absolute peak as far as video games go. Pokemon Go, Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto have reached significantly higher heights according to Google Trends and thus generated more search queries then than Fortnite has today. But there is a great deal of potential left to exhaust for Epic Games in Fortnite. For example, the game has yet to be released for Android, which is widespread amongst teenagers. And Fortnite has yet to be released in China. For what it’s worth, PUBG was a massive hit there. And with Chinese behemoth Tencent as part proprietor , after acquiring 48 percent from Epic Games in 2012, the creators of Fortnite have a powerful partner for the Asian market on their side.