When video gaming historians sit down to pen the definitive chronicle of 2018, one title is certain to figure heavily: Fortnite Battle Royale.
In a fast-paced industry where games and even genres rise to prominence then fade away in a matter of months, Fortnite has spent the first third of 2018 breaking records – and breaking into the wider, non-gaming pop culture consciousness. It's a feat only a tiny handful of games – Minecraft being the last – have pulled off.
In February, Fortnite's developer Epic Games announced that it had clocked an astonishing 3.4 million players playing the game at one time, and the wider player base (people who have played Fortnite Battle Royale at least once) was claimed to be 45 million back in January. It's now a few months later, during which time the game has become available on iOS and Android devices, so the figure is likely to be much, much higher now.
For the uninitiated, Fortnite Battle Royale is, appropriately enough, a battle royale game. This relatively new genre, heavily inspired by books and movies like The Hunger Games and Japanese cult classic Battle Royale, sees a large number of players dropped into a fixed area, usually without any equipment. The goal is simple: to be the last player (or team) standing. Players must locate armour, weapons and other gear, fight and survive – all while the playable area of the map is shrinking in order to force them into closer contact with other remaining players.
There are other battle royale games, most notably PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (commonly known as PUBG), but Fortnite has established itself as the leading title for a number of reasons.
For one, it's free-to-play (PUBG costs £26.99 on Steam and £24.99 on Xbox One), and those that do choose to spend real money on in-game items will benefit only cosmetically, not gaining any in-game advantage. It's also available on more platforms than its rivals: the aforementioned Android and iOS devices, plus PC, Mac, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
More subjectively, Fortnite's cartoonish graphics, smaller map and faster gameplay-loop arguably make it a more accessible experience than PUBG, with rounds lasting only a few minutes (after which time you can be in a brand new round within a minute or two), and no blood or gore to put off the squeamish.
The gameplay loop – choose a landing spot, bail out of the Battle Bus, skydive down, begin looting, move to the safe area, fight with enemies – is immediately satisfying, which gives Fortnite a compelling "just one more game" addictiveness.
The quirky art style also allows Epic to incorporate bizarre weapons, tyres that bounce players metres in the air and the game's famous quick-paced building mechanic (skilled players can knock up a nigh-impenetrable fortress in seconds) without compromising the aesthetic. PUBG's more realistic, "serious" approach to battle royale combat limits its developers' scope, while Epic has free rein to add all sorts of craziness to Fortnite.
And add it does: with frequent updates, Epic is constantly evolving the Fortnite experience, whether by improving performance, altering the map, tweaking weapons or introducing entirely new items. The result is a game that, while simple in concept, is always evolving and improving.
Finally, one thing that shouldn't be overlooked is how shareable Fortnite is, thanks to its fast-paced action, propensity for wild clutch wins and general mayhem. Even when they're not playing it, people like watching other people play it. In March, Twitch streamer Tyler "Ninja" Blevins broke the platform's records for a non-esports event by attracting over 600,000 viewers (the fact that he was playing with rap superstar Drake doubtless helped), while a tournament in which 100 top streamers battled it out attracted well over a million concurrent viewers on YouTube.
Nine months ago, most experts would have pinned PUBG as the poster boy for the battle royale genre, but thanks to Epic's nimbleness, its simple, speedy gameplay and its cost-free entry point, Fortnite has usurped its position. And with Epic showing no signs of slowing down with its updates, there's every chance it could become even bigger – until the next gaming phenomenon comes along, that is...
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