Image: Epic Games

Fortnite is still unafraid to blow up its formula

Protocol Entertainment

Hello and welcome to Protocol Entertainment, your guide to the business of the gaming and media industries. This week, we’re talking about the logic behind Fortnite’s surprising new update, the string of new investigations into indie studio work cultures and the return of the Game Developers Conference. Tune back in this week for more on-the-ground coverage of GDC 2022.

Fortnite’s fearless experimentation

Epic Games has done the unthinkable with its biggest and most lucrative product: It removed the forts from Fortnite. The newest update to the battle royale game, announced Sunday, featured a narrative twist that for the time being disables the ability to build structures in the game’s main non-competitive modes.

It’s a bold choice, and one of the more radical updates to a game that’s built its reputation on pulling off unprecedented stunts and in-game shake ups. It’s also yet more evidence the creators of Fortnite, which is now almost 5 years old, are still willing to take risks with their biggest moneymaker in ways other developers would never dare.

Fortnite’s building helped it stand out. Fortnite wasn’t the first big battle royale game; that title goes to Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, from which Epic borrowed the concept of 100-player lobbies and a shrinking circle. But what made Fortnite catch on so quickly was a combination of its price tag (free), its cartoony aesthetic and its Minecraft-style building.

  • Building in Fortnite often determines the tempo and outcome of combat engagements, because it allows players to create instant cover, higher ground and other forms of strategic advantages.
  • Since the launch of Fortnite, the intricacies of building have become extremely complex and helped define the game’s uniquely high skill ceiling. Having good reflexes and teamwork wasn’t enough. To succeed at Fortnite, you needed to learn how to build complex structures and maneuver around them simultaneously.
  • These unique mechanics helped Fortnite stand apart from PUBG and become a global sensation. It also attracted interest from professional gamers, who helped turn it into a Twitch sensation and a viable esport.

Over time, building has become a hurdle for Fortnite. It was arguably the most popular game on the planet in 2018 and 2019, generating a staggering $9 billion in those two years alone. But interest in the game started to wane in its third year, and building plays an integral role in that decline.

  • Epic’s breakneck update cycle has kept the game fresh and interesting with the addition of countless new weapons, vehicles, items and map changes. But building has remained constant throughout with very little alterations.
  • Because building is so important to winning fights and achieving victory, it’s become harder over time for casual players to compete. If you stop playing Fortnite for months or even weeks, it can take hours upon hours of practice to brush up on your building skills.
  • This had the effect of making Fortnite less accessible over time for new or lapsed players. Epic has tried addressing this by using skill-based matchmaking and bots, as well as in-game items designed to counter building. But building still reigns supreme.

Removing building might help rekindle the flame. Fortnite is still immensely popular and ranks among the largest games by revenue in the industry. But there are legions of players who have abandoned it for competitors like Call of Duty: Warzone and Apex Legends.

  • Free-to-play games like Fortnite can be double-edged swords. They cost nothing to download and play, but consumers may also feel less invested and more easily swayed by newer games or those their friends play more regularly.
  • This approach is a great marketing tactic, and it invites players who may not have played Fortnite in months or even years to ease back into the game without the pressure of having to use its most complicated and overwhelming game mechanic.
  • Removing building, which matters most to competitive players, may be just the beginning. It’s not hard to imagine a mainstream version of Fortnite, in line with Epic’s metaverse ambitions, that looks and plays much more like the game’s social spaces, user-generated mini-games and concerts.

Epic may resurrect building in time with a narrative thread that has players waging a resistance against in-game invaders. (The company, perhaps not wanting to seem insensitive in this regard, has decided to donate all Fortnite proceeds until April 3 toward humanitarian relief in Ukraine.)

But Epic’s willingness to rethink the fundamental pillars of its game, and even temporarily remove them, is an encouraging sign for Fortnite’s future. Epic wants Fortnite to be more malleable going forward, if it’s going to compete with other metaverse platforms more directly. And paramount to building a more accessible virtual world, and one that’s simply more fun for a much larger segment of people, is finding ways to bring players back, even if it takes sacrificing your namesake in the process.

— Nick Statt


“Coming up with names is hard, especially since ‘A Song of Ice & Fire’ uses so many of them, and I am fond of giving family members and close kin names that have something in common … but really, why would I have to hide my name inside the game? My name is right there on the game, as one of the creators. Hey, Elden Ring is exciting enough, no need to make up stuff.” — George R.R. Martin, who co-created Elden Ring’s narrative as a co-writer alongside game director Hidetaka Miyazaki, responded on his personal blog to fan theories positing he hid his initials throughout the game’s many named characters and enemies.

“This metaverse hype wave is so similar to 2008. Everything’s being repeated now — the same news stories, the same assumptions, the same mistakes. During the 2008 hype, the tech was not ready for a mass market. Today, it has become a mass-market phenomenon with Roblox and Fortnite and other platforms. I think there are upwards of half a billion people who are now active users on a broadly defined metaverse platform. It’s the things I’ve envisioned coming to being.” — Journalist Wagner James Au, who has chronicled Second Life since 2003, chatted with The Atlantic's Charlie Warzel about metaverse hype and virtual worldbuilding in a rather insightful interview from last week.


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In other news

PlayStation scoops up Haven. Sony is acquiring Jade Raymond’s Haven Studios, the company the Ubisoft veteran founded after leaving Google Stadia. Haven is already working on a PlayStation exclusive multiplayer game.

A new Witcher in the works. CD Projekt Red announced yesterday that it’s in the early stages of development on a new Witcher game, though this time the studio is using Epic’s Unreal Engine 5 instead of its own in-house development platform.

Indies can be toxic, too. An in-depth video report from YouTube channel People Make Games highlighted abuse and dysfunctional work cultures at three prominent indie studios, inspiring a viral Twitter thread from games writer Leigh Alexander about Funomena founder Robin Hunicke.

Bullying and harassment at Moon Studios. Ori series creator Moon Studios was the subject of a damning VentureBeat report last week highlighting its oppressive work culture and bullying, sexism and harassment from its two founders.

Ubisoft wants to build “limitless” worlds with the cloud. The publisher last week announced a new tech initiative called Scalar designed to help its game-makers use cloud computing to develop and maintain future games.

Apple stops selling movies through its Apple TV app on Android. Now look who’s not into paying platform fees

Qualcomm launches Snapdragon Metaverse Fund. The chipmaker wants to invest $100 million into VR, AR and related AI projects to help build the metaverse.

Nielsen rejects $9 billion takeover bid. Nielsen execs argued that the acquisition offer undervalued the company; investors promptly sent Nielsen’s share price down 16%.

GDC is back, and it’s a little weird

The game industry hasn’t had a major North American event since the start of the pandemic, but that changed yesterday with the debut of the annual Game Developers Conference. Held in San Francisco for the first time since 2019, GDC 2022 is the city’s largest event since the start of COVID-19.

The pandemic’s lingering effects are visible. Unlike last week’s SXSW, which is held in Texas, GDC attendees are almost universally wearing masks indoors around the Moscone Center complex. And because of San Francisco’s more stringent event restrictions, attendees are required to be vaccinated with no exceptions. Half of the panels I attended on Monday featured speakers dialing in over video conference.

It’s not clear whether this might stifle the conference’s networking element, which is arguably its biggest draw. Developers from all over the industry come to GDC to not only attend panels and give talks, but also to scout for new employment and to strike up the kinds of party conversations that might lead to a new game project or other business endeavors.

Still, the event already has a familiar and welcome positive energy. The industry has done a remarkable job of transitioning to a remote-first world, but events like GDC prove that there’s still a healthy appetite for talking face to face, even if it means wearing a mask while you do it.


Technology organizations need to look internally to find the talent they seek by upskilling and reskilling their existing tech workforce. For this vision to become a reality, organizations must focus on being creators, rather than consumers, of talent.

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