During the pandemic, we all need something to help pass the time. I hadn’t been writing much. Not here in the blog, obviously, and not in general. I don’t go anywhere. And you can only watch Tiger King so many times before it stops being funny. So, what have I been spending time doing?
I’ve been playing Fortnite.
Now, either you know Fortnite or you don’t. It is an online game that has around 20 million active players worldwide at any given time. Free to play on gaming counsels, PC, and even mobile applications; Fortnite has been around for three years, which is ten lifetimes in the gaming world. It’s hugely popular in younger demographics, specifically teen and preteen, which can make my 48-year-old skills feel a bit creepy, but that isn’t the point.
I mean, it’s crazy how many teens are in this game … but it’s not creepy, promise.
Fortnite, or specifically, Fortnite: Battle Royal is a game about survival. You are placed into an arena with 99 other online players. The arena is set-up as an island with streams, mountains, villages, farms, fortresses, and other bits and bobs that make up the landscape. It is (in whatever is Fortnite dimensions) a five-kilometer by five-kilometer map. You are loaded up with nothing but 100 hit points and a pickax you can use to harvest building materials (wood, stone, & metal). Around the island are seeded ammo and weapons, like pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, and “others” (more on that later). There are also chests full of goodies to help your load in. You can also find bandages and medkits to heal your hit points, and shield potions to add up to an additional 100 hit points on top of your health. The objective of the game is to be the last one standing; however you get there. The winner is given a screen sowing “VICTORY ROYAL”, which I must say is way more satisfying than it sounds.
The best way to describe the game is to think of it like the book/movie Hunger Games (which was a concept stolen from a Japanese movie named Battle Royal … and Fortnite using that title is not a coincidence). The early game (the first minute or two), is like the cornucopia portion of Hunger Games. Without weapons or sufficient armor, it is a mad dash to grab whatever items you can get your hands on, all while everyone else is doing the same. Typically this means racing another player to a good item, and if you get there second you can expect to be taken out. It’s worth noting that as the game continues, a ‘storm’ closes in on the arena. Defined by enclosing circles, the storm will deal damage to any players caught outside of the safe zone, so as the game continues players are drawn closer and closer to each other. After a minute or two things settle down, and the mid-game goes into a farm mode. The building materials mentioned before are used to build basic structures that can help to get the high ground or defenses later in the game. Plus, with time you can find higher quality weapons and items. This mid-game period may give you 1v1 or 3rd party eliminations as you come across other players. Once you reach the last ten to fifteen players, the late game becomes a strategic showdown. Some try to act the sniper, some jump into the fire to hunt down others, some do some kind of mix. The storm is fairly narrow, and if the game goes on long enough, it will consume the whole map. You can get lucky and find yourself in the late game, but it takes skill to close out a victory. Depending on if you get taken out early or last the whole game, each round could take between fifteen minutes and less than thirty seconds.
On its surface, this game sounds violent and horrible for kids, but in their defense playing the game doesn’t give you that impression. Yes, this is about weapons and attacking other characters, but there is no blood. When you hit someone with a weapon, you see a number corresponding to the damage inflicted. The animation jumps slightly, but not in a way that seems violent. When you eliminate (or “elim”) an opponent, the animation shows a drone appear and zapping up the character into pixels. There’s nothing realistic about it. In fact, it’s incredibly campy.
That’s not the only thing campy about the game. You can change your character’s appearance by changing it’s ‘skin’. The default skin is a female (or far less frequently, male) dressed in an adventurer outfit; however, you can change it to be everything from a mechanic to a Korean pop star to a lazy jerk. Then again, you can also be a cat riding a robot. My two victory royals came when I was a bratwurst. So, it doesn’t sound so violent when your scuba diver is taken out by a banana with legs. There isn’t much opportunity for bullying typical in online gaming (also called trolling). You have no way to interact with your opponents except for additional dances (called emotes) you can have your character do. Emotes aren’t good for trolling in Fortnite because, for one, they are really campy, and for two, they are noisy so they can draw attention to other players looking to take you out. Even when someone tries to troll you with an emote, it’s hard to take it seriously when it is Captian America playing a llama shaped cowbell.
Why is this game so popular, you may ask. A number of reasons.
For one, it’s free .. kinda. You can download and play the game for free as long as you want. The game does offer “v-coins” which you can purchase and use to buy skins, outfits, emotes, new pickaxes, and other fun stuff. There’s also a battle pass, but i will get back to that later. This is actually a brilliant move by Epic Games, the developer; because as much as we love a free game, we don’t realize we are paying for it. In the two months I have been playing, I probably spent $75 on this “free game”, but that is part of the love.
Another reason it is so popular is that it is never the same game twice. You load into the game on a “battle bus”, a flying bus coasting a kilometer above the arena, that you have to skydive and glide out of to reach the game. While you can cover some distance when you leave the bus, it will enter and exit the arena in a random straight line – meaning you don’t enter into the same place twice. The storm circles are random as well, and the seeding of weapons & chests can change randomly. Also, when you are assigned 99 other opponents in a pool of millions, you may never play the same player twice. That’s just the basics, not the really cool stuff.
How Epic Games has sustained Fortnite’s popularity is that it changes the game regularly. Every three months or so, they change the game’s theme in what they call a “season”. This could be pirate-themed or volcano themed or zombie-themed. When I started playing, the map was nearly completely covered with water. Since the new season started and it is celebrating a Marvel Comics storyline, so we have Doctor Doom, Iron Man, and Thor themed stuff everywhere. It’s not just the big changes, sometimes, you show up and there is a new point of interest on the map. In fact, this Marvel theme is more like a Marvel story, because there clearly is something going on with the map that is leading to a bigger and bigger event.
This is part of Epic Game’s genius. Every season, they offer a ‘battle pass’, where for $20 you can get special items and do additional challenges. It doesn’t change the gameplay in a way that gives anyone a tactical advantage, but it adds to the fun. Even a ten-year-old can pool up $20 over three months, so it’s incredibly popular. Especially when you think that Epic probably got a nice chunk of change from Marvel to promote their characters in-game.
The game is so popular that hundreds of players make a living playing Fortnite, and it may not be how you think There are competitions, including a world championship that awarded the winner a million bucks last year, but that’s not what I am talking about. Really good pro players will go to Twitch or YouTube and stream them playing the game. People watching them play will occasionally donate to their stream. Commonly, it’s nothing more than a dollar per donation; however, good players can get tens of thousands of followers watching for hours and hours. Some of these players will make THOUSANDS EVERY DAY as they play. It’s through one of those players that I got interested in the game. Going by Nick Eh 30, this player runs a family-friendly stream where he shows his mad skills and a great sense of humor. In his early twenties and still living with his parents, he said when he started streaming Fortnite, he wouldn’t tell his parents as they didn’t approve of him playing games for couple hours a day. Now, he streams for seven hours a day, follows their rules (no swearing, expect your followers to say ‘please and thank you’, and if he doesn’t win a game he does 10 push-ups to keep fit); and he clearly turns over his earnings to support the family (who probably didn’t need it, but he’s the kind of guy who does it as ‘the right thing to do’). I mean, he is Canadian, they are like that up there. I hated online gaming because I didn’t want to deal with the personalities of people who only got good at one game and think it makes them the most important person in the world … and then finding out they are 12 years old. Nick proved that Fortnite supports those who are just looking for a good time, so I gave it a try.
I fit in Fortnite between meetings or after work. Because the games are short, over two and a half months I have about 850 games played. I have three victory royals, the first took nearly 750 games to win — and honestly, it was the best game I ever played. On average, I get about one elimination a game, and can get four or five if I am feeling it. That first win, I had fifteen elims. I covered much of the map, had to do major heals, and got really lucky more than once. However, when that screen froze and the “VICTORY ROYAL” showed up, it was maybe the highlight of the pandemic for me.
So, that’s what I have been up to. If you play Fortnite as well, drop me a note and maybe we can hook-up in-game for some duals or squads (right now my only Fortnite friend is the 11-year-old stepdaughter of a coworker). Otherwise, I will keep grinding out the elims and try to get another victory.