Fortnite’s incredible success is difficult to overstate–its huge viewership, massive popularity, and incredible reach are self evident. That is to say nothing at all about the $2.4 billion it earned in 2018. No other game has had an event at Time Square during the New Year’s Eve celebration, however ill-advised expecting a million people to floss in the bitter cold is. Even so, the stream was a 12 hour marathon with an average concurrent viewership around 260,000. Like most free to play games Fortnite managed to monetize a highly lucrative but difficult to capture audience and demographic. What they’ve done within the gaming scene is a stellar example of a tried and true method – ride trends in gameplay to produce a compelling experience, employ unique twists to stake out a section of the playerbase, and then monetize that player base with cosmetic microtransactions and tournaments. They are not the first game to employ this strategy. Capitalizing on the breakout success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, they were able to convert their game designed for a Minecraft-esque PvE building and crafting experience into a similar experience but with a lot more momentum with audiences by adding in the PvP Battle Royale elements of PUBG. These accomplishments, and the expertise their imagining belies, are impressive on their own. Epic, however, doesn’t seem content with just setting viewership records and breaking cultural milestones.
What Epic Games is doing that is truly unique is creating events that drive an exclusive experience for their users. Last year they had a running cycle of these events that included branded marketing events, one for the most popular movie of 2018. They have collaborated with Samsung to market the release of the S9 and S10, which included K-Pop group iKON and an in-game skin, and with Marvel and Disney to market Avengers: Infinity War, by adding a special Infinity Gauntlet item into the game. More recently, they stepped into uncharted territory by presenting a live concert in the game client. No longer simply a marketing campaign, this was a truly integrated social experience; designed to be enjoyed together as a community as much as it was designed to promote anything. On February 2nd they presented a 10 minute set from DJ Marshmello complete with a laser light show, dancing, and a crowd eager for the performance. Players were also able to commemorate the occasion with the purchase of a skin or by unlocking additional cosmetics through completion of in game challenges. The performance, which you can view here, has since garnered tens of millions of additional views on YouTube. Fortnite has begun, with this performance, to transition from just being a video game to being a platform. Instead of just trying to bring people into the game with gameplay and content they are also turning it into a virtual music venue, and they aren’t stopping there. Recently Weezer collaborated with Epic Games to produce a custom map, Weezer World, and promote their latest album which actually debuted exclusively within the map. Four of the songs are available playing on a Jukebox within the game on an island called Weezer World, which is undoubtedly the first time a band has premiered an album within a video game world.
Fortnite is doing many things most games can only dream of – from being a mainstay of the Twitch front page and Top 10 viewership, to vast commercial success and cultural penetration. A large part of that success is something few games have ever been able to do: transitioning to a platform. Brands are ever searching for the best ways to interact with increasingly difficult to reach younger generations, and through gaming and streaming is becoming a primary way.
What Fortnite stands to create is a truly unique blend of gaming, marketing, and interactive events reaching a new breed of consumer. Fortnite has become a large part of the social lives of its users. Tech-savvy youth today are going to see very few non-native advertisements during their internet usage, and are going to respond best to things integrated fully into the experiences they are already seeking out on their own. From what Epic Games has shown so far, they are more than capable of convincing brands and even high profile celebrities and movie studios that a marketing campaign within their game is worth the necessary dollars. What is yet to be seen is what other types of events they can come up with, and if they can fulfill the demands of their customers for successful marketing.
At the very least, though, they have set a new precedent for what games can hope to achieve. The old objectives of compelling gameplay and engaged audiences are still there–and still as important as ever–but a new vector for judging success in the sphere is emerging. While Epic might have gotten a touch lucky with their ability to adapt a nearly finished game to an entirely new gameplay loop, that doesn’t take away from the success. Established by the paradigm Fortnite appears to be setting, the new way to judge success would center around a game’s ability to engage their users with the task of willingly seeking out a native advertisement. During Fortnite’s marketing partnership event with Disney and Marvel for Infinity War’s release, players were actively trying to find the Infinity Gauntlet, so they could power up and become Thanos within the game. Put another way, players were actively competing with each other to be their 100 player map’s representative for the Disney marketing department. This type of behavior from a classically difficult to find demographic is a dream for advertisers.
Fortnite wasn’t born as a PvP focused Battle Royale game, predicated on cosmetic microtransactions and one of the youngest playerbases in online gaming. It became that after a long process and many twists and turns. Ultimately, that path led to a complete rework of the gameplay and character of the game. Since then, Epic has continued to utilize a strategy of flexibility and willingness to incorporate new ideas directly into their game design. This has led them to their many branded events, and now to the beginning of their rise as a true platform, just like Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube. In the future, experiences will not be happening peripheral to Fortnite, or referential of Fortnite, but directly in the game client, in their world, and how full of possibilities that world is turning out to be.