How Fortnite became the most successful free-to-play game ever

Raking in over $1.2bn in just 10 months, Fortnite has taken the world by storm. But how did Epic Games create this global phenomenon?

Fortnite uses cartoon-like graphics and avoids realistic violence to attract a younger audience and broaden its appeal. As such, it has found great success in varied markets

What do you get when you combine Minecraft with Call of Duty, and then add vital elements from PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG)? The biggest video game on the planet right now. Fortnite is a battle-royale-style multiplayer, filled with cartoonish characters and played across numerous platforms. It’s colourful, fun, easy to play, hard to master and enjoyable to spectate.

Released in September 2017, the current version of the game sees 100 players parachuted onto an island where they fight to survive, building forts and collecting weapons to bolster their position. According to SuperData, Fortnite made over $1.2bn in its first 10 months of operation – an extraordinary feat, especially for a game that is free to download.

With more than 125 million players around the world, Fortnite’s fan base is both colossal and incredibly varied. It has grabbed headlines and been obsessed over. In other words, there’s a buzz around Fortnite that puts it in a league of its own.

Getting under the skin
Fortnite has been a long time in the making. It’s the sum of many different parts – an amalgamation of creator Epic Games’ previous successes (think Gears of War, Paragon and Fortnite’s predecessor, Save the World). When it was first released in July 2017, Fortnite held the usual $40 price tag, and sales were steady. It wasn’t until the free version was introduced a couple of months later, however, that Fortnite became a global phenomenon.

While Fortnite is free to play, Epic Games charges for new player outfits, weapons, celebratory dances and even special missions

When asked what makes Fortnite so popular, Piers Harding-Rolls, Director of Research and Analysis at IHS Markit, told The New Economy: “It’s a mixture of things, really. The game is free to download. It is available across a wide number of devices and platforms – console, PC and mobile. It uses a genre, battle royale, which is highly engaging both as a gamer and as a live streamer.”

The move to make Fortnite a free download was an inspired decision by Epic, opening the game to new audiences beyond the die-hard gamer. But the question many still ask is how has a free online game made so much money in such a short period of time?

Here comes the clever bit: microtransactions. While Fortnite is free to play, Epic charges for new player outfits (known as ‘skins’), weapons, celebratory dances (‘emotes’) and even special missions. Bought with V-Bucks, items are only available for a few days at a time, making them all the more coveted. Players see others wearing something they like and, knowing it’ll soon be gone forever, they rush to buy it before missing out – a classic behavioural psychology trick.

Value of Epic Games

$825m

2012

$5-8bn

2018

Interestingly, despite being entirely superficial, items can cost as much as $20 a pop. “[Fortnite] monetises through [the] sale of an in-game currency [that can only be used] for cosmetic items… which means a level playing field for all gamers,” Harding-Rolls said. Again, Epic has understood the social psychology behind its customers – a natural inclination to be different, while also joining in.

In fact, those who fail to buy the optional extras are often referred to as ‘no skins’. As such, players are motivated to spend money on features that have absolutely no impact on their gameplay.

For all seasons
But that’s not the only shrewd element of Epic’s business strategy: Fortnite is also divided into seasons, introducing new themes and a number of major changes to gameplay and landscape on a regular basis.

Season five, for example, featured rifts (cracks in the space-time continuum) that players could interact with. Seasons also come with the chance to buy new ‘Battle Passes’, which, for 950 V-Bucks or $9.99, give players access to new items, providing they manage to level up during the season.

Fortnite uses a two-tier approach to its in-game monetisation,” Harding-Rolls told The New Economy. “A low-priced Battle Pass, which refreshes every season, gives players the ability to access better in-game items (emotes, skins etc.) than [those] playing for free.

Players can then go on to spend more on these cosmetic items if they want immediate access and don’t want to grind for them in-game. This Battle Pass strategy has driven high conversion, which has led to better overall [average revenue per user] for the game.

“For a session-based online game, content updates are its lifeblood. Without updates, engagement will fall and the user base will inevitably decline. The season strategy is core to the monetisation of the game. The season approach also fits with the eSports format, so I can see these two aligning in the future as Fortnite builds out that part of its scene.”

The overhaul of each season, coupled with the drip-feeding of content, ensures the game never gets old. “For many watching, Fortnite is high-quality entertainment, as every match is different, which keeps the experience fresh,” Harding-Rolls added.

Major players
The aesthetics of Fortnite is yet another stratagem for attracting a diverse fan base. As Harding-Rolls explained: “Fortnite uses cartoon-like graphics and avoids realism (blood etc.) to attract a younger audience and broaden its appeal.”

That’s why Fortnite is talked about with as much enthusiasm in the playground – many parents now worry their children are addicted to the game – as it is among seasoned gamers. With so many people playing, there’s a greater desire to stand out and show off, further feeding the appeal of buying seemingly pointless skins and emotes.

Famous fans have further cemented the game’s worldwide status. From rapper Drake and DJ Deadmau5 to Los Angeles Lakers’ Josh Hart and Boston Red Sox’s David Price (who reportedly had to stop playing the game due to carpal tunnel syndrome), almost everyone is talking about Fortnite.

And when French footballer Antoine Griezmann celebrated his goal against Croatia in the World Cup final with Fortnite’s ‘Take the L’ dance, he thrust the game onto a truly global stage. “The game has turned into a viral phenomenon,” Harding-Rolls said. “[Principally] through [the] real-life sharing of in-game emotes, which has had a bigger impact than spending on marketing.”

Then there’s the game’s accessibility. Fortnite is available on various consoles, including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC, as well as on both iOS and Android mobile platforms. What’s more, it allows for seamless cross-play between devices – a rarity in the gaming world.

Knowing the significance of the multiplatform advantage, Epic was quick to release the game on mobile and, unlike rival PUBG, avoided signing an exclusivity deal with a platform.

Next level
Epic doesn’t just make games, either: it’s also responsible for providing one of the most widely used operating systems in game development, Unreal Engine. And with Unreal Engine underpinning Fortnite, Epic has managed to eradicate the need for a middleman: rather than purchasing through a third-party platform like Steam, customers buy directly from Epic, streamlining the process for players and, more importantly, removing approximately 30 percent in commission fees from Epic’s outgoings.

With so many successful moving parts in play, Epic’s value has soared. In 2012, when Chinese tech giant Tencent bought a 40 percent stake in the company, Epic was valued at just $825m. Today, it is estimated to be worth between $5bn and $8bn.

Fortnite’s success isn’t down to good luck, nor is it a case of being in the right place at the right time: it rests on an ingenious business model that understands human behaviour, appeals to the masses and keeps them coming back for more.

Naturally, other industry players will attempt to emulate Fortnite’s success, but replicating each element of this particular formula will be far from easy. To paraphrase the growing contingent of schoolchildren, celebrities and professional athletes who have entered the gaming community via Fortnite, Epic has well and truly ‘ganked’ its rivals.