In 10 For The ’10s, The A.V. Club looks back at the decade that was: 10 essays about the media that defined the 2010s, one for every year from 2010 to 2019. Today: 2018 and Fortnite.
Whether or not you’ve ever jumped out of the Battle Bus, everyone has some passing familiarity with Fortnite. It’s the game with the dabbing and flossing. It’s the game where you pull goofy weapons out of a llama piñata and hit trees with a pickaxe so you can make ramps that go up into the sky. Mostly, though, it’s the game that everyone can play and—apparently—everyone does play, since it runs on anything from a high-end gaming PC to an average smartphone, and it’s free.
That’s what Fortnite was in 2018, the year it became the latest cultural phenomenon launched from Epic Studios. But it’s not what Fortnite was when it landed with a particularly middling thud the year before. In 2017, it debuted in retail stores as a full-price video game, and though it had the same cartoon aesthetics and core mechanics as the game that took the world by storm in 2018 (that’s a Fortnite reference), the basic goal was completely different. An unapologetically obvious mash-up of hit games like Minecraft and Epic’s own Gears Of War series, the first Fortnite was about gathering resources and using them to protect your base—or fort—from an oncoming army of zombies. (This specifically aped Gears’ beloved Horde mode, which involves defending a point from waves of increasingly difficult enemies.) By all accounts, it was fine. The problem was that it was completely forgettable.
Meanwhile, 2017 also saw the release of a game called PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG, which was essentially an adaptation of the movie Battle Royale: As many as 100 players drop onto an island with nothing, then scavenge for gear and weapons in an attempt to be the last person standing. PUBG was pretty much an overnight sensation all over the world, and the heavy dependence on luck—since you never know what loot will be present when you land—made it a game that virtually anyone with some shooter experience could pick up and play.
Nothing about PUBG’s success seemed particularly relevant to the version of Fortnite that was available at the time, since they were completely different games. But someone at Epic cleverly identified two things that the studio could do to improve upon the established hit—though, of course, nobody would ever admit that PUBG had any influence on the future of Fortnite, which is certainly possible even if it’s not especially likely (and no longer a matter for the courts). PUBG was an indie game, run by a small studio that could only make so many changes or improvements at a time, and because of that it had a tendency to completely break.
Epic, which not only created Gears Of War but develops and licenses out the extremely popular Unreal game development engine, had significantly more resources at its disposal. Using that money, it was able to build a game like PUBG (now a genre called “battle royale”) that actually ran well and cost nothing to play, improving on PUBG’s two most obvious barriers for entry. Better yet, the new Fortnite mode—called, appropriately enough, Battle Royale—didn’t require purchasing the original full-priced Fortnite game at all. Suddenly, everyone with a PC or game console (the mobile version came later) could play a more technically consistent variation of one of the most popular games at the time completely for free.
Fortnite still wasn’t an immediate hit, but its more family-friendly aesthetic (there’s shooting, but there’s no blood and defeated players simply teleport away) helped it gradually find an audience among younger people who wouldn’t have been allowed to play PUBG and anyone else who didn’t have the patience (or disposable income) to put up with that game’s flaws. Fortnite steadily grew and grew, making money off of an in-game shop that allowed players to buy skins and special dances for their characters, some of which continued the game’s pattern of flirting with copyright infringement. Fortnite didn’t invent dabbing—but then again, Super Mario Bros. didn’t invent jumping on turtles, and it would be ridiculous to deny the cultural impact of either.
As 2017 turned to 2018, the true brilliance of Epic’s master plan took shape. In December, the studio launched the first Fortnite “battle pass,” an extra premium tier on top of the existing free-to-play structure. For the low, low price of $10 or so, players could get two to three months “seasons” of exclusive skins and dabs. All you have to do is consistently play the game and work to raise your battle pass rank, which could be done through competing well in regular fights but also by doing goofy side missions like hunting down hidden treasures or attempting wacky stunts. The ingenious hook: If you made it far enough in the battle pass, you could earn back enough premium Fortnite money to buy the next battle pass. Suddenly you’ve got an incentive to keep playing Fortnite for five or six months, and all you had to pay—assuming you didn’t blow your money on one especially awesome dab—was $10.
Just as Fortnite wasn’t the first to step foot on the battle royale island, it didn’t discover free-to-play gaming with a premium tier. But the battle pass was an easily digestible one-time cost (or, at most, once-every-few-months cost) that was significantly cheaper than a regular retail-priced game and was guaranteed to provide a few months of entertainment—provided you liked playing Fortnite enough. At a point, it became irrelevant whether there were other games or better games, because Fortnite’s model has been so successful that it’s just going to stick around. If you don’t pay for the battle pass, the only thing you’re missing out on is the special skins and dabs. You can still play the entire Battle Royale mode for free on your preferred device. Consoles and PCs are expensive, but almost everybody has a smartphone and can use it to play the exact Fortnite that others are playing on pricier machines. Even family-friendly, endlessly approachable Nintendo games tend to have a higher barrier of entry than that.
But there’s another thing that makes Fortnite extremely accessible: streaming. Say what you will about professional Fortnite player Tyler “Ninja” Blevins (for example: that it’s gross that he refuses to stream games with women and that he has a nasty habit of saying the n-word), but he and other streamers have found a way to bring a game that anyone can play to even the people who can’t play it—or at least aren’t currently playing it. Blevins streamed Fortnite with Drake in 2018, obliterating a record for concurrent viewers on streaming platform Twitch and single-handedly doing more to promote the game than Epic itself had ever done. Fortnite’s simplicity means anyone can more or less understand what they’re watching during a stream, and its ready availability means anyone mildly interested in what they’re watching—or in trying to stream it themselves—can act on that interest with minimal hassle.
Fortnite’s most lasting contribution to pop culture has more to do with its business model than any creative decisions made in designing the game itself, but the idea of making the game essentially as cheap as possible and putting it on virtually anything with a screen has put it—and the very basic idea of video gaming—in countless more hands than pretty much anything else in recent memory. Whether you play Fortnite every day, are proudly sticking with PUBG, or haven’t even gotten around to seeing Battle Royale, that impact is still huge.