CASE STUDY: Fortnite - from a Niche Game to a Global Phenomenon

November 4, 2019
CASE STUDY: Fortnite - from a Niche Game to a Global Phenomenon

This study takes a deeper look at the success of Fortnite, its development process, and impact on the gaming industry while showing the flexibility required to make a successful title.

Fortnite began life as a video game with a small and niche audience, it was a blend of the Zombie Survival and Building genres. Fortnite wasn’t doing well, but a new trend was picking up, Battle Royale (BR) games. The quick decision by Epic Games to branch Fortnite out towards the new genre made it the success that it is today.

Case study summary

• Fortnite started as a game with no clear vision on what it was supposed to be, making the development process significantly harder.
• New investors and turbulence within Epic Games caused further issues in the development of Fortnite.
• Battle Royale games gained huge popularity, which Epic Games capitalized on by creating a new BR game mode for Fortnite.
• Fortnite quickly gained a huge following and even when the new trend began to die down, the users stayed.
• Epic Games capitalized on the games’ popularity both through the in-game store and lucrative deals with brands trying to reach new audiences.

Epic Games

Epic Games is an American video game and software development company based in Cary, North Carolina. Epic Games was founded by Tim Sweeney, who is the companies CEO to this day.

Besides Fortnite, Epic Games is behind Gears of War, Infinity Blade, Unreal Tournament, Bulletstorm, the Unreal Engine, a massively successful game engine, and the Epic Games Store.

Today, Tim Sweeney is the CEO and majority shareholder, while 40% is held by Tencent. Epic Games has an estimated US$15 billion valuation as of 2018.

The goal

Epic Games needed a break after finishing Gears of War 3 in 2011 and the developers wanted to experiment with a new type of game. On the other hand, the gaming industry was slowly going towards the Game as a Service (GaaS) model, which Epic Games wanted to try their hand at too.

The approach

Fortnite was a lot darker originally, but a decision was made to switch to a more cartoonish style to make it more appealing to younger audiences too. Simultaneously, Epic Games partnered with Tencent, a Chinese publisher which already has a lot of experience with the GaaS model.

The new partnership led to the departure of several executives who were key in the development process, but development continued. Soon after, Battle Royale games gained popularity and Epic Games funneled manpower into creating a new Battle Royale mode for Fortnite and releasing it for free to attract as large an audience as possible.

The results

Today, Fortnite is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Mobile devices, it has 250 million registered players and earned Epic Games $4 billion in just over 2 years.

Besides the player base, a good portion of the income comes from the multiple large brands which have partnered with Fortnite for successful marketing campaigns, including Air Jordan, Marvel’s Avengers, Monopoly, Nerf and more.

Fortnite went so far as to host a virtual concert by American electronic music producer and DJ, Marshmello. During the concert Fortnite had 10.8 million concurrent players, making Fortnite the most played video game of all time, based on peak player count.

Finally, Fortnite had a total prize pool of $100 million in esports tournaments for its first year of competitive play.

Fortnite

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Fortnite has two main game modes, the original one, Save the World, is a player-versus-environment (PVE) game. A storm covers the world leaving only a few survivors which are attacked by zombie-like creatures called Husks. You and your teammates collect resources, build bases and fight the Husks. The game was released to very mixed reviews, anything from 5/10 to 9/10.

The second mode that made Fortnite so popular is Battle Royale. You and 99 other players are dropped on the map to gather resources, find weapons and items, and fight other survivors. All this, while the playable zone on the map shrinks due to the coming storm. The last player, duo, or squad left wins.

How and why

Fortnite isn’t the first Battle Royale game, but it is without a doubt the most successful one. The original one was a mod for Minecraft, and the first BR game was H1Z1. While the game that really kicked off the genre was PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) which also began life as a mod.

PUBG was instantly a hit and gained a large following, but the available resources for it were limited, and PUBG had a long road of patching bugs ahead.

The success of PUBG didn’t go unnoticed by Epic Games. Manpower was quickly shifted to creating their own BR mode in Fortnite. Considering the vast resources of Epic Games, Fortnite BR was created in only a few months and ever since, it has received frequent and regular updates, and new content. Something that PUBG couldn’t keep up with.

Fortnite BR was exactly what Epic Games was looking for, a new, refreshing experience that fits right into the GaaS model. The best part being that it’s free to play, so everyone could try it and hopefully get hooked.

The player base

Acquisition

The first thing that did wonders for Fortnite BR is the fact that it’s free, which means everyone can play it. As soon as you hear about it, nothing is stopping you from downloading it and trying it.

On release, it was available on PC, Mac, PS4 and Xbox One, but to make sure that every single gamer could join the fun, it was made available on iOS, Android, and the Nintendo Switch. Making it one of the only, if not the only, video game available on every single current-gen platform.

The second thing that made it so accessible is the colorful and cartoonish design, making it appealing to kids too. There’s no blood, you eliminate opponents instead of killing them, the creatures are husks, not zombies. So, it comes as no surprise that more than half of the player base across all platforms is aged between 10 and 25.

fornite_user_demographics

Retention

The core gameplay is simple, drop onto the island, collect resources and loot, fight for survival, the loop is short and simple. To keep the players, the game can’t get boring, so regular updates are needed. As Fortnite grew, Epic Games pulled developers from other projects, even canceling some, to help and funneled more and more resources into it.

Fortnite receives a patch every week on Tuesday. The patches besides fixing bugs, also bring new content to mix up the gameplay, remove content that is becoming stale, balance out all the different gameplay aspects and in general keep the game fun.

fortnite_time
Hours played per week

Fortnite plays out in seasons, each lasting 10 weeks and telling its own story in the game. The big updates to the game, for example, map changes or things that make a very large impact on gameplay, are saved for the change of seasons.

Besides those regular updates, Christmas, Halloween, large sports events and more are celebrated through in-game events with new game modes and map decorations.

Between the events, regular updates, limited-time game modes, the Battle Pass and seasonal changes, Fortnite simply can’t become stale.

Monetization

Fortnite BR might be free-to-play, but it’s not short on ways to spend money on it. The aforementioned Battle Pass is something most players buy.

The Battle Pass costs $10 and it allows players to level up and earn rewards by playing the game completing challenges.

The rewards are cosmetic items, in-game music, characters, and even the premium in-game currency, ‘V-Bucks’. Buying one Battle Pass and completing it will earn a player enough V-Bucks to buy a new one for the next season unless they spend it in the in-game shop.

The in-game shop features new and legacy characters, skins, and emotes. The items available in the in-game shop change every day adding to the sense of urgency because you don’t know when you will get the chance to buy them again.

fortnite_spending

Not everyone spends money, but 70% of players do, spending $85 on average. That is not counting the content creators that spend significantly more money to show off new items in their content.

Brand collaborations

The Fortnite’s enormous player base also proved useful for other companies. The large number of events that happen in-game made it easy to implement marketing campaigns into the gameplay.

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There were many collaborations, but some of the biggest were:

• Marvel and The Avengers, a new game mode where players were able to play as Thanos, and in the later version as the Avengers too.
• Air Jordan, a game mode where you race through a city to collect coins was added and two skins featuring shoes with the Nike logo.
• Hasbro, Fortnite edition of Monopoly and Nerf guns based on an in-game weapon.
• Samsung, the Galaxy skin and temporary exclusivity of the Android version of Fortnite.
• Marshmello, a virtual in-game concert.
• NFL, skins of every team in the league were created and sold in-game.

Those are just some of the past collaborations that brought brands and gamers closer, with many more planned in the future.

Aftermath

The amazing success of Fortnite lead to almost every developer implementing a BR mode in their game in one way or another. Some developers were ridiculed for following the trend, others found favorable results, but nothing got even close to Fortnite.

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In conclusion, Fortnite is very much the right game at the right time. The combination of a new and popular genre and an experienced and passionate AAA developer lead to Fortnite becoming the phenomenon that it is; a game that has placed a permanent mark on the gaming industry even if Battle Royales have lost the popularity they once had.

Sources

• Paul Tassi, ‘Fortnite’ Revenues Fall Almost 40% From Last Year, But It’s Still A Cash Cow. [Online], 2019; Available from:
https://www.forbes.com/sites/paultassi/2019/06/22/fortnite-revenues-fall-almost-40-from-last-year-but-its-still-a-cash-cow/#77cb11ce75b6

• Akhilesh Ganti, How Fortnite Makes Money. [Online], 2019; Available from:
https://www.investopedia.com/tech/how-does-fortnite-make-money/

• Christina Gough, Number of registered players of Fortnite worldwide 2019. [Online], 2019; Available from:
https://www.statista.com/statistics/746230/fortnite-players/

• Mansoor Iqbal, Fortnite Usage and Revenue Statistics. [Online], 2018; Available from:
https://www.businessofapps.com/data/fortnite-statistics/

• eSports Earnings, Largest Overall Prize Pools in Esports. [Online], 2019 (continually updated); Available from:
https://www.esportsearnings.com/tournaments/largest-overall-prize-pools-x100

• Twitch Tracker, Fortnite. [Online], 2019 (continually updated); Available from:
https://twitchtracker.com/fortnite