‘Fortnite’: What is it and why is it so huge?

‘Fortnite’: What is it and why is it so huge?

Let’s make it clear up front: This isn’t a knock on PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (aka PUBG), a fine game in its own right. But in case you hadn’t heard, Fortnite is a very big deal.

It’s been a dizzying stretch of days for Fortnite fans, between some major news drops and a growing interest among popular streamers. But we realize that you, our dear Mashable readers, might not be fully caught up. 

We’re here to help you fix that. Read on.

What is Fortnite?

Fortnite is an online video game that falls under the a genre banner that’s exploded in popularity over the past year, the “battle royale.”

All games in the genre operate under the same simple premise: When 100 players are dropped into an ever-shrinking map, either as solo operators or as squads of up to four, who can survive?

Everyone in Fortnite starts with nothing more than a pickaxe (more on that later), but the map is filled with all manner of weapons, armor, and other gear. After parachuting down to the location of your choosing, the goal is to scavenge as much of an arsenal as you’re able to while fending off enemy players/squads. 

While all this is happening, a randomly chosen portion of the map — marked by a very large circle — is deemed safe. After a certain number of minutes have elapsed, anyone caught outside that safe zone takes continuous damage, until they either die or get to safety.

The safe zone then continues to shrink every few minutes, with a new, randomly selected safe zone appearing somewhere inside the current one. This has the effect of pushing all competing players — who are all trying to gun each other down while this is happening — into the same general vicinity. The last player or squad standing is the winner.

Fortnite‘s Battle Royale mode (that’s what it’s called) tweaks the formula somewhat. The pickaxe you start with isn’t strictly a weapon; it’s chiefly a tool for resource-gathering and building structures. 

You see, outside of Battle Royale, Fortnite is a cooperative online game that’s sort of like a fusion between The Walking Dead and Minecraft. In that “Save the World” mode, you spend your daylight hours gathering resources and building fortifications at your base. At night, you fend off hordes of monsters.

The monsters don’t factor into Battle Royale, but building does. As you gather resources, you’re able to construct an assortment of structures. Most of it is very temporary, often taking the form of physical cover for you to huddle behind. 

It’s one of the features that makes Fortnite‘s take on this genre unique; instead of relying solely on the makeup of the world around you, you can actively work to change the map to suit your own needs. All while under the constant threat of enemy fire, of course.

What’s this big news you mentioned?

It’s been a wild ride for Fortnite over the past few days.

The fun started on March 8 when developer Epic Games announced Fortnite Battle Royale for mobile. It’s no stripped down port, however. The mobile version of Fortnite is the same battle royale mode you can play on console/PC, but built to run smoothly on Android and iOS devices.

You’ll need more recent hardware to run it, of course. And you’ll probably want a Bluetooth controller, unless you have a masochistic love for touch-based third-person shooter controls. But it’s otherwise the same Fortnite you may know from elsewhere.

More importantly, it plays nice with other versions of the game. Epic also announced Fortnite supports both cross-play and cross-progression across all platforms, with one notable exception (we’ll get to that).

If you’ve primarily played the game on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, or PC, you can take any progress you’ve made — the game offers unlockable cosmetic gear that tweaks what you look like — over to the mobile release. You can also play with friends and/or against other people on different platforms.

The lone exception is PS4 vs. Xbox One: As of now, there’s no cross-play between those two platforms. So PS4 people can play with or against PC/Mac or mobile players, and Xbox One people can play with or against PC/Mac or mobile players, but PS4 people can’t match up with Xbox One people.

It’s dumb, and not something Epic has any control over. It’ll probably change in the future, once Microsoft and Sony work out whatever issues stand in the way. But for now, this is the way things are.

The mobile version of Fortnite isn’t fully released yet, but early access sign-ups for iOS players opened on March 12. There’s been no word on a similar offering for Android users, but it’s presumably only a matter of time.

Why is Fortnite such a big deal?

Battle royale games have exploded in popularity over the past couple years. Much of that initial buzz came from the success of PUBG, which predates Fortnite and plays very similarly. There’s no pickaxe and in general no in-game feature for remodeling the world, but they share the same basic premise.

The cooperative, Minecraft-esque side of Fortnite released in July 2017. Battle Royale came along a few months later, in September. By then, PUBG‘s dominance at the pinnacle of the genre had been well established. But Fortnite carved a different enough path to stand out.

There’s no one element responsible for making the game successful. It being a product of Epic certainly helped; the widely respected studio has a lot of name recognition among gamers, and Fortnite had been a buzzy object of curiosity since its initial announcement in 2011.

Where PUBG aims for more of a grounded, realistic presentation, Fortnite leans in on more of a cartoonish, over-the-top vibe. Characters have exaggerated, Pixar-style bodies and the world is painted in lush, vibrant colors. As a whole, the game has a strong sense of personality. It’s a joy to simply look at.

These qualities pair well with the battle royale genre, which has proven itself to be eminently watchable for casual observers. PUBG and, increasingly, Fortnite are favorites among some of the most popular streamers out there. Streams of the two games tend to bring in droves of viewers.

You want numbers? Here, have some: In Aug. 2017, PUBG accounted for 73.7 million viewing hours on Twitch, versus 71.9 million viewing hours for League of Legends, a popular but very different type of game. Prior to that, League had spent 34 straight months holding its position as the most-viewed game on Twitch. PUBG toppled it.

This feat is even more impressive when you consider the fact that League is a well-established esport with regular tournaments and other events. As of Sept. 2017, the only PUBG tournament to date was one that played out in July 2017, during the annual Gamescom trade and community show in Germany.

In other words: Even with all the “official” League play out there (all of which is broadcast on Twitch), PUBG managed to come out ahead in August.

Now, it looks like Fortnite is gaining ground. Last week, Kotaku took a look at Twitch viewer data (via TwitchMetrics) and noted an interesting trend: Fortnite is winning the crowd from a numbers standpoint.

As of today, March 12, Fortnite is averaging around 139,000 viewers per week, the most on Twitch. PUBG — which is #4 on the list, behind League and the League-like Dota 2 — is averaging around 59,000 viewers weekly. This evidence on its own isn’t enough to prove one game is “bigger” than the other. But interest in Fortnite has grown rapidly.

None of this explains the why, though. There really isn’t a simple, or singular explanation. Fortnite Battle Royale definitely rode some of PUBG‘s success, offering players a more colorful and polished alternative to the notoriously glitchy PUBG (though many would argue that glitches are part of the fun).

It helps that Fortnite‘s Battle Royale mode is a free-to-play game.

It helps — in a major way, no doubt — that Fortnite‘s Battle Royale mode is a free-to-play game, compared to the $30 up-front price for PUBG. Fortnite is also more capable of running well on a range of different computer builds.

On top of all that, there’s a sense of personality in Fortnite that isn’t evident in any of its competitors. The game’s emotes in particular play a big role here.

Emotes are player-triggered character animations. You can unlock an assortment of different ones as you play and assign them to button commands as you please. It’s not uncommon to see someone who just defeated another player do a little dance — that’s an emote.

Fortnite fans in the pro sports world especially have taken to both the game and its emotes. This fact was the subject of an entire SBNation feature. Players are adopting the quirky emote animations and turning them into referential victory dances.

Beyond even that, they’re just engaged with the game. The official website of the Oakland Raiders (whatever, Las Vegas) recounted quarterback Derek Carr’s social media poll debating which is more popular, PUBG or Fortnite. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt asked the same thing.

It’s not just popular with sports people, either. Plenty of celebrities have gotten in on Fortnite, including a few you probably wouldn’t expect.

(A “Victory Royale” is the most prestigious Fortnite achievement: It’s what your win is called when you’re the last player or team standing. In other words, Roseanne is better at this game than most of you.)

(JuJu Smith-Schuster is technically a sports guy, sure, but that video is SO good.)

At the most basic level, however, Fortnite is popular because it’s a fun video game that’s relatively easy to get into. That’s true of the battle royale genre as a whole, but all those other factors have helped it pick up an audience quickly.

Once the mobile version launches, the game will officially run on pretty much every modern platform capable of supporting games — no Nintendo Switch yet, but there’s lots of speculation that it’s coming. It’s also hard to say no when the price of entry is literally “free.”

So yes. If you haven’t been paying attention and you’ve missed out on all the hype, it’s time to stop sleeping on Fortnite

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