In the two short years since its release, Epic Games’ battle royale game Fortnite has reshaped not just video games, but pop culture. Don’t let its speed fool you, though. Behind Fortnite: Battle Royale’s monolithic popularity are creators who’ve learned hard lessons from the last 10 years in the game industry. Their game is the culmination of countless other games and, as a result, Fortnite embodies the best and worst of the 2010s.
Fortnite was first announced in 2011, but wasn’t released until 2017. That year, Fortnite originated as a $40 retail product, Save the World, without the battle royale mode that catapulted it into the global consciousness. Epic had stuffed this cooperative multiplayer experience to the gills with microtransactions. Few players took interest, and it looked like Fortnite would end up being a nearly decadelong boondoggle.
Just as Fortnite launched, Korean developer Bluehole struck gold in the PC multiplayer space with its battle royale game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Epic moved heaven and Earth internally to come up with its own version. While PUBG staked its claim as the first hit game in the battle royale space, Epic dug an entire gold mine with Fortnite: Battle Royale, released in September 2017. Where PUBG was rough, realistic, and grim, Fortnite’s take was comparably polished, cartoonish, and silly.
The Save the World mode was quickly forgotten by most people, as the new Battle Royale mode climbed to the top of its genre.
Fortnite’s impact continues to radiate outward, further and further from games. It has minted new celebrities, and played host to old ones. It held an in-game music concert attended by nearly 11 million people, and spawned a new corner of the advertising market. It showed up in just about every sports league in the world, with one lawsuit-tinged celebration dance after another.
What had nearly been a failure quickly became one of Epic Games’ defining products, opening an entire new chapter for the company by turning an idea that had been struggling to find its way for six years into an “overnight” success.
Learning to run
It’s tough to tell if Fortnite found success despite or because of its difficulty. It may look like a cute kids game, but it takes weeks, if not months, of steady practice to become competitive in its world.
Players not only master combat, but they must learn how to build structures in 3D space. The former is an assumed skill from the past few decades in games. The latter is a relatively new skill honed by the generation raised on Minecraft. It’s the collision of combat and building that makes Fortnite shine, and sets it apart from its competition.
Most players didn’t understand the advantage of the building mechanics at first. But as folks got faster at erecting defensive and offensive structures, building quickly and precisely became akin to hitting skillshots in League of Legends, or timing a dodge in Dark Souls. Now it’s a fundamental skill. If you hear a bullet, you need to construct a wall or an entire building instantly, without thinking. If you don’t, you’re at an immediate disadvantage, and the chances are good that you’re about to head back to the lobby.
Watching two pros battle becomes a vision of swirling construction and on-the-fly designs meant to trap, control, and funnel the other player into a vulnerable position. It’s breathtakingly complicated. And yet, it’s also easy and fun to watch.
Fortnite also has a finely honed microtransaction system that seems like a reaction to loot boxes and the controversy around them. Epic Games had already had negative experiences with loot boxes in Fortnite: Save the World, and clearly didn’t want to take a swim in those waters again.
Instead, the company emphasized clarity. Fortnite Battle Royale shows players which skins they can buy, and Epic only sells each one for a limited amount of time. So if you see something you like, you better buy it; there’s no telling when it may come back. It’s a fiendishly clever system, built on the backs of the almost-always-available skin system of League of Legends and the time-gating of mobile games, with a dash of Disney’s old “vault” system thrown in for good measure.
On top of that, Epic incorporated a battle pass system into the game, a system that had been a huge success in Dota 2. Fortnite’s battle pass costs $9.50 at the start of each season, and unlocks a reward path with over 100 different cosmetic items. The catch: The cosmetics must still be unlocked, by playing lots and lots of Fortnite. Since Epic implemented this system, battle passes have shown up in everything from Call of Duty to Rocket League to Destiny 2.
Fortnite proved that the way to make money — huge buckets full of money — isn’t gambling. It’s just good ol’ fashioned FOMO.
Always in motion
Fortnite is always changing, with Epic adding and dropping new ideas so fast that it can feel impossible to keep up. League of Legends maker Riot Games has been doing one patch every two weeks for years now, but Epic decided to pick up the pace with weekly updates, some of which have changed the game’s basic strategy and shaken up competitive play. It’s unpredictable. Certain weeks have bigger, more gameplay-altering patches, while others have smaller patches that add just one gun or item.
With the essentially overnight success of Fortnite, Epic Games simply didn’t have the staff to keep up with the demand for new content. Over the course of 2018, according to a report from Polygon’s own Colin Campbell, some Fortnite designers faced long hours and intense pressure to meet the tight deadlines.
Fortnite isn’t the most important game of the decade because it was the first game to try something new or the best game to come out. It’s important because it has synthesized the medium. Just about every gaming news item of the past 10 years, from the rise of battle royale to the danger of loot boxes to quality of life for developers, showed up in Fortnite in some manner.
Where Fortnite goes from here is uncharted territory. Just last month, Epic shut the game down for almost two days. Instead of battle royale, Fortnite was a black screen — and it was still the most watched thing on Twitch. No other game in the world could pull that off. Then Epic pressed reset on the game, releasing a new map and a variety of consequential changes.
Fortnite’s future, just like its success so far, can likely be glimpsed by paying close attention to what is working today across the industry. Odds are, Fortnite will incorporate it in the not-so-distant tomorrow.
The most influential video games aren’t always the most popular, and rankings never tell the whole story. To mark the end of the decade, our editorial team published a list of the top 100 games. We’ve also created this supplemental series, in which individual Polygon writers get to talk about the most important games from that same period, and exactly how they changed the course of the industry.