How Epic has bottled this lightning is a masterclass in operating an online game

Watching the flood (pun entirely intended) of news articles pour in this week about Fortnite’s latest huge in-game event, I wondered idly for a moment if somewhere in the bowels of Epic’s studio there’s a situation room with its walls covered in the long-term plan for the game; a roadmap set out three or four years ago, upon which some ambitious and visionary soul had pinned under the heading “Year Three” such things as “in-game virtual concerts by global star artists” and “take the game offline for a while but make it into a meta storytelling event that’ll be reported with wide-eyed bemusement by even the mainstream press.”

Looking at the extraordinary evolution of Fortnite Battle Royale since its launch in 2017 naturally summons such peculiar thoughts to mind. The fact that no such wall exists — if it does, I might trouble the crystal ball gazing geniuses behind it for some stock tips — actually makes what Epic has done with Fortnite even more impressive.

“Players only turned to Twitch at all because they couldn’t log into the game… The Twitch record was broken through overspill alone”

It’s not just that Fortnite has maintained its success and popularity for three years — we’ve had long-lived online titles before, even if the likes of World of Warcraft and GTA 5 never quite touched the sheer mainstream appeal of Fortnite. It’s not even that it’s maintained that popularity with a young-skewing audience, who tend to be dramatically fickle in their tastes. Rather, it’s that Fortnite v bucks generator has gone beyond mere player numbers and commercial success; the choices Epic has made with the game since its launch have pushed Fortnite into being an outright social phenomenon, not just a popular game but a defining part of life for literally hundreds of millions of players of a certain generation.

As a consequence, Fortnite continues to break records left, right and centre, long after most other games of this kind would have been well past their peak. This week it was the turn of Twitch’s concurrent stream record, with Fortnite smashing through the previous record of 1.7 million concurrent viewers — set by League of Legends last year — by having 2.3 million concurrent viewers watching the story event that marked the end of the current “season” of the game.

The Device is just the latest in a series of in-game events that have broken records of every kind

Perhaps more impressively, those players only turned to Twitch at all because they couldn’t log into the game, which had been capped at 12 million concurrent players for the event — that the Twitch record was broken through overspill alone. Another 6.3 million people also watched the stream on YouTube, implying that at least 20 million people were tuned in live to watch a brief story event in an online game whose story is not so much tangential to the experience as entirely off to one side from it.

How Epic has bottled this lightning is a masterclass in operating an online game, and in keeping an open mind about what your players want from you. Having a story at all is a weird sidestep for Fortnite, but it pales in comparison to the leaps of imagination and logic required for a host of other things the game has implemented and evolved into over the past three years. At its core, Fortnite launched as a Battle Royale game not all that dissimilar from the already-popular PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, but three years down the line it’s so much more.

“Epic recognised early that players were treating it as a space for social and creative expression, and it leaned into that hard”

Fortnite has evolved into a virtual hangout space for an entire generation of young people, replete with social features, enormous virtual concerts and events, bold updates that spark headlines in even the most mainstream of publications, and hand-wringing editorials about parents who can’t comprehend what their offspring are doing on this weird, cartoonish island.

To that latter point, a lot of other game consumers — especially older game consumers — might have a twinge of sympathy for the parents for once, because Fortnite is a bit of a mystery to many gamers as well. Battle royale games are easy enough to understand, but everything else that Fortnite is and everything else that it represents to its playerbase is utterly bemusing, to the point where older players talking about it often sound quite exasperated. Why would you have a giant virtual concert happening inside a shooting game? Why are people logging into a game where the object is to survive, and instead putting on funny costumes and hanging out together dancing? What on earth do the weird characters and meta humour that pop up in Epic’s trailers for new updates for the game have to do with, well, anything? What even is this?

It’s not that the notion of a regularly updated online game — even one which evolves pretty dramatically over time — is in itself a new thing. That a game needs to stay fresh to keep players interested is something that every online game worth its salt since the 1990s has innately recognised. World of Warcraft and League of Legends were founded on a premise of evolution, changing things up and adding or altering content in order to ensure that players never get bored or over-complacent.