Fortnite has been around for roughly seven years now, and it's been quite the rollercoaster to watch it evolve well past its initial limitations to what it is today. I'd like to briefly shine a light on the game's history and its cultural impact, and answer the question I'm sure many of us have asked ourselves occasionally: How do we keep hearing about Fortnite after all this time?
I play Fortnite about 2-3 months a year, when I get a craving to compete in a Last Man Standing setting, a game mode addiction I developed playing its older brother, Unreal Tournament (also created by Epic Games) many moons ago. These days it's called 'Battle Royale', and it earned this name due to the 100-player matches the games of yore never had the technical prowess to host. But Fortnite didn't even start as a Battle Royale!
Save the World, Battle Royale, Creative, Experiences
Fortnite can perhaps be best described as the gaming world's most adept chameleon. On a small-scale level, every time I go into Fortnite after a long break it feels like I'm playing a very different game, from the gameplay itself to the UI. To understand where Fortnite is heading, we must first look at all the things it's been.
Fortnite actually started as an internal game jam project at Epic Games in 2011. After years of slow development including issues such as having to switch from Unreal Engine 3 to 4, Fortnite: Save the World released in Early Access in July 2017. At this point, Fortnite was a fun but niche morph between construction games (Minecraft) and shooters (Just Cause). With Epic seeing the success of PUBG - the first stand-alone Battle Royale game - they scrambled together their own spin on the genre in just two months.
Thus, Battle Royale was born - the vehicle that would soon come to define Epic Games and raise it up as a leading company in more than just gaming. From here on, the game kept growing through an ever-changing set of gameplay mechanics (rotating weapons, map changes) as well as an - honestly - absurd amount of cross-media promotions. It was clear that Fortnite was becoming a space for all of entertainment to come together, for Naruto to be able to battle Superman and for Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson to play his usual heroic self.
Fortnite also launched Creative in late 2018, an in-game map editor that allowed players to create their own experiences in the game. Anyone familiar with games such as Garry's Mod or Warcraft III are well aware of impact an easy-to-use map editor can have on a game. Now, Fortnite wasn't just a Battle Royale and a construction shooter game anymore. Now, it could be anything. In March 2023, the Unreal Editor for Fortnite was released, a different version of Unreal Engine that boasted tools exclusively useful for Fortnite.
Recently, in December last year, Fortnite entered the Experiences phase. No longer is the game a Battle Royale with a separately-downloaded Save the World and a bunch of well-crafted community maps that span countless genres. Now, Fortnite has become a gaming platform that provides vastly different, curated experiences that appeal to different demographics. Let's really take a look at what's happening.
LEGO, Rocket League, Guitar Hero
Fortnite is no stranger when it comes to mashing genres together. Battle Royale had its own share of that over the years: Playable Thanos with unique abilities, Spiderman's Web Shooters, more recently, uh, Peter Griffin's Shotgun. On the customization level, it's got countless crossover in the form of skins: DC, Marvel, Naruto characters; Master Chief, Eminem, The Weeknd, Lara Croft, Darth Vader and most recently, Solid Snake, to name very few.
It was only natural that the next step would be to include other actual games in the Fortnite experience, with their own lil' spins. This is how we've ended up with:
- LEGO Fortnite, basically a LEGO Minecraft (this is getting confusing) with gathering, building, crafting, biomes, enemies and of course, LEGO versions of skins players already own.
- Rocket Racing, what could best be described as a spin-off of Rocket League that focuses exclusively on racing rather than football.
- Fortnite Festival, essentially just Guitar Hero but in Fortnite.
These are all vastly different experiences that are now part of the Fortnite ecosystem. Along with its community-created content, Fortnite has the opportunity to provide something for everyone. Most importantly, as we've seen in the past decade, it lets players inhabit the skins of their favorite characters across media, and that's no small feat. What Fortnite managed to create is a space where you can be whoever you want and play whatever you want. It's all still in the early stages, but it has the potential to become an... in-game Steam, for lack of a better term.
Fortnite May Become Our Default Virtual World
Remember Ready Player One? Cool concept, average movie? People went into the VR world and basically lived their entire lives there, because it provided limitless opportunities to have fun and all the rest. Consider that Fortnite has the potential to become that idealized space that so many dream of. A world contains all the games, where players actively come to just hang out, watch a movie, listen to music.
What most surprised me when I came back to Fortnite after this update was a "Music" section in the shop. I could buy "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga for 500 V-bucks. What? Yup, Fortnite is now in the music business as well. You can buy tracks and play them in the Fortnite Festival, or just casually listen to them in-game. Here's the breadth of content Fortnite now offers, plus a few other things it has delved into in the past:
- The still massively popular Battle Royale mode, with an ever-changing game design to keep things fresh.
- LEGO Fortnite, a direct competitor to the likes of Minecraft aimed at younger audiences.
- Rocket Racing, a racing game that still feels a little barebones but is actually fun and has great potential to grow.
- Fortnite Festival, which seems perhaps the most redundant of all of Fortnite's main game modes, but listen, once you start selling music in a game, it won't be long before you make your way into the movie / TV business.
- Live in-game concerts from the likes of Marshmello and Travis Scott (yikes).
- The occasional high-effort storyline with the likes of Dwayne Johnson.
- A space for players to exercise their creativity and create their own little experiences.
I've no doubt the plan is to keep those curated, in-house game modes coming. I don't expect us to be able to do our grocery shopping in Fortnite just yet, but bar any misfortune, that could become a possibility a decade+ from now. Once VR becomes mainstream, make no mistake that Fortnite will support it, and that's when we're all doomed!
Fortnite, a Vehicle for Epic Games
I'd like to end by talking about how Fortnite turned Epic Games into the juggernaut that it is today. Everything Fortnite does comes back to Unreal Engine, and vice-versa. You know why Unreal Engine is called, well, Unreal Engine? In the land before time, the 1990s, the Unreal franchise was launched to showcase the power of Unreal Engine. That's what Unreal Tournament was up to Unreal Tournament 3 and Unreal Engine 3, aside from an awesome game.
That torch was then picked up by Fortnite. The game is an excellent proof-of-concept for what Unreal Engine is capable of. Fortnite was initially developed in Unreal Engine 4, but it made the switch to UE5 in 2021 and brought about massive, good changes as a result. The game is constantly changing and adding new features, and those features showcase how powerful UE5 is, which in turn convinces more developers to turn to the engine for their game-making needs.
That's not all Unreal Engine is good for, however. With the massive income that Fortnite generated and still does, Epic Games had the capital to expand on all fronts. For the engine, specifically, it is now so powerful and versatile (just like Fortnite), that it is used in many more spaces: Architecture, broadcast, live events, automotive and transportation, film and television and that's just scratching the surface. If you've seen the one-season show 1899 on Netflix, all the CGI for it was done in Unreal Engine 5.
Considering the times we live in, whenever we get Unreal Engine 6, I would expect heavy AI integration to be a key feature. Imagine what ease-of-access when it comes to development will do to all those industries.
Fortnite and Unreal Engine aren't the only successes out of Epic Games' story. This massive growth, in such a short timeframe, has positioned the company in such a way that it can afford to take risks. One such risk is the Epic Games Store, which is not exactly profitable, but is a long-term venture they can afford to pump endless amounts of money into. This success also gave them opportunities to change the industry, as evidenced by their lawsuits against Apple (which they mostly lost, but won on a key dispute) and Google (which they seem to have a better shot at winning).
I suppose what I'm getting at is that Fortnite has proven it has the potential to regularly cause a domino effect and change the gaming (and others) landscape. Epic Games do not seem to be slowing down, and I'm very curious to see what they do next.
It's weird, living in a time where Fortnite genuinely looks like it could grow to be the first true game-as-a-platform. Did I expect Fortnite to be the one to potentially usher in the gaming multiverse? Not for a while, no, but now I think it has the best shot at doing it. What about you? How do you see all of this progressing? Let us know in the comments below.