Fortnite is changing the video game landscape at E3 2018, but it's also kinda not

 cnet.com  6/14/2018 3:49:13 PM  3  Ian Sherr

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard of Fortnite: Battle Royale, the video game that's taken the world by storm.

Here's how it works: You and 99 other players are dropped out of a flying bus (not a typo) onto an island. You land with nothing but your wits and a pickax. As the game starts, there's usually space between you and the next person, which gives you time to scrounge up supplies and weapons -- and use your pickax to take apart walls, furniture and anything else you can find nearby. As the game goes on, the landscape effectively shrinks, forcing players closer together and into combat. It's them or you -- so everyone starts to pick each other off, Hunger Games-style, until there's a winner.

Fortnite wasn't the first to use this addictive formula called "battle royale" inside the video game industry, but its quirky take helped turn the game into one of the biggest hits in years. On Tuesday, Fortnite maker Epic Games said during the E3 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles that 125 million people have played Fortnite since it was released for PCs, Macs, the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One and mobile devices beginning nearly a year ago.

And though the game is a free download, in the month of April alone Epic rang up nearly $300 million in sales of add-ons such as color schemes for weapons or new outfits for characters, according to industry watcher SuperData Research. Fortnite also sells dance moves for characters, called "emotes," that have become so popular that real-life sports stars including Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield have taken to re-enacting them in real life (and Fortnite, has taken inspiration from stars like boxing champ Conor McGregor.)

So it's probably no surprise that Activision last month said its rival war simulation game, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, will also have a battle royale mode when it comes out later this year. And on Saturday, Electronic Arts said it will offer a battle royale mode for its upcoming WW II-themed Battlefield 5 game, after fans asked it to take on the genre.

"The raw gameplay is what draws people into it, which is brilliant," said Patrick Söderlund, EA's head of design. "That's how a game should be."

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Battle royale is popular for a reason. It's the latest example of how many of the games we play are changing dramatically to focus on people playing together rather than one person playing alone. Thanks to the internet and powerful services such as Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus, game makers are tapping into our primal urges to compete against one another, giving us all manner of new ways to play.

The Hunger Games approach caught on thanks to the drama that comes with it. The shrinking circle of play, the defined winner and how everyone's pitted against one another makes the game not just fun to play, but entertaining to watch too. Which is part of the reason why Fortnite is the top game on the streaming service Twitch.TV. (PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds, its next largest competitor, is currently ranked seventh-most streamed.)

Frank Azor, head of Dell's Alienware gaming PC division, said his 6- and 8-year-old kids began playing Fortnite after talking about it with friends at school and watching videos of people mimicking the celebratory dances online. Before Fortnite, they'd played the world-building game Roblox and Blizzard's cartoonish superhero shooter Overwatch. But now, it's all about Fortnite.

And he doesn't think they're alone. Sales of Alienware's powerful PCs have jumped double digits this year, he says, something he attributes in part to Fortnite.

"It's crossing into the mainstream," Azor said of the game.

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Players start each round by dropping onto an island from a flying bus called, appropriately, the Battle Bus. Because, why not?

Josh Miller/CNET

Me against you

Until recently, the top games seemed to be the ones centered on epic stories, like Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild, Ubisoft's alternative-history Assassin's Creed series, Bethesda's post-apocalyptic Fallout and Microsoft's space war Halo saga. Each of them was a visual feast, but it was the engrossing storylines that won fans over.

Those games are still among the most popular out there. But purely online titles, in which players battle each other instead of playing on their own through a story, have now become a huge draw. Titles such as Riot Games' League of Legends, Blizzard's Overwatch and Fortnite all find new ways for people to play together rather than relying on the storyline as their main selling point.

"The social aspects of video games are becoming more and more important," said Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, whose Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Siege online game, which pits two teams of people against each other, has tallied more than 35 million players since its launch three years ago.

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Online games designed for gamers to play together have become increasingly popular.

Josh Miller/CNET

Games aren't just connecting people to one another through games: The communities that spring up around them are connecting people too. Minecraft, for example, has become an entire subculture filled with its own in-jokes, conventions, books and related games. "As people tend to spend more time in games, it's important we open our eyes to ones in which we can build relationships," Guillemot added.

Even Grand Theft Auto 5, the tongue-in-cheek crime title from Rockstar, has maintained its popularity because of its Grand Theft Auto Online feature. That's where up to 30 people can play together and pull off massive heists in the game's parody re-creation of Los Angeles.

Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, said he was glad Epic made its game available for download for the $300 Nintendo Switch Tuesday, adding to the company's growing roster of well-reviewed games like Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey and Splatoon 2. In March, the Nintendo Switch itself was named the best-selling console ever in the US during its first year by industry tracker NPD Group.

"To have the conversation to bring arguably the hottest game of the moment right now onto the hottest platform of the moment right now, it's a great opportunity," Fils-Aime said. "From a Nintendo perspective, we want it all."

Not changing everything

I'm a lifelong gamer, but I haven't been a fan of online games. There's a good reason for that too: I'm just bad at playing them. Like seriously bad.

I usually enjoy games on "easy" or "medium" mode, and I prefer them when they have an engrossing story like Bethesda's Fallout games about finding your way through the US after it's been ravaged by a nuclear war. I also like when games are just pure fun in a box -- I'm a big fan of Nintendo's Mario Kart, a series of over-the-top racing games starring characters from the Super Mario Bros. franchise, Donkey Kong and many more.

So when I meet game developers who want me to try their game, I have to feign excitement as I stumble through. It's especially bad when I encounter games such as Fortnite, because it's almost impossible for me to play without losing right away.

You see, I'm that guy who dies first. All. The. Time.

The good news for gamers like me is that Fortnite won't change every video game into a last-man-standing scenario. Some game makers told me one lesson they learned from Fortnite is that offering free downloads and charging for little add-ons later can be a way to profit from a game -- just as it has been for games on phones for a decade now. Others told me Fortnite's success is a reminder of how important word of mouth is in getting fans excited.

Even so, not a lot of them are rushing to chase Fortnite. Strauss Zelnick, head of Take-Two Interactive Software, said that for his audience, a good story is important. That's what helped Grand Theft Auto V sell 95 million copies over the past five years. And the additional free stories Take-Two offers have helped draw people back into its GTA online service.

But, he added, there's a universal rule that helps explain the crazy success of games like Fortnite: "If you apply both innovation and incredible quality to a release, you have the opportunity to deliver a massive hit."

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