Fortnite: The Free Phenomenon

Fortnite: The Free Phenomenon

March 14th was a momentous day; the gaming world finally became mainstream. Hip-hop star Drake joined professional video game player “Ninja” (a.k.a. Tyler Belvins) for a live gaming session to play Fortnite: Battle Royale. Drake and Ninja’s stream on Twitch drew a record-breaking 628,000 concurrent viewers to the channel. This impromptu crossover event is already being heralded as a “new marketing trend” that could see other artists use gamer channels to promote their new albums. Since this event, Fortnite has become mainstream and companies see the marketing dollar signs.

What exactly is Fortnite: Battle Royale? Kotaku, a video game website, summarized it best saying, “Think Hunger Games, except you can build fortifications.” 100 players are dropped from the sky onto an island without any items or weapons. Once the game starts, you need to find weapons and build fortifications in order to defeat your opponents. The goal is to be the last player standing. Sounds simple, right?

This simplicity has launched Fortnite into a full cultural phenomenon and is the current peak of “freemium” gaming. Fortnite is so wildly popular that when a free mobile phone version was launched, entire school districts had their internet grind to a halt because their students were playing on the WiFi. Players like Ninja are making upwards of $500,000 a month playing on gaming streams on sites like Twitch and YouTube Gaming. This phenomenon is astonishing considering the game was barely a blip on the radar last fall.

Why Is Fortnite So Popular?

That’s the question everyone in the gaming world has been asking since its popularity erupted earlier this year. Just a month ago, Fortnite reached a playerbase of 150 million people worldwide. It is the best-selling app in 13 countries. By all accounts, it is just a simple third-person shooter with cartoonish graphics. It’s more than that, though.

For starters, the game is easy for beginners to pick up and is available across all gaming platforms, save Nintendo. It’s game design has been likened to “Pixar-meets-Minecraft.” It’s visually appealing, and there’s an absence of gore. The game is not just about shooting other people. It involves a building mechanic that is creative and fun to watch due to the skill, speed, and accuracy required. Overall Fortnite is a fresh, high-quality game. Timed events, constant updates, celebrity mentions, and streams on Twitch and YouTube drive the game’s popularity.

All of those things make for an immersive and fun game, but how did Fortnite become so popular so quickly?

Social Media Drives Fortnite’s Popularity

Fortnite’s game developers, Epic Games, have cornered the market on utilizing social media to promote in-game events. In order to get a sneak-peak at what the developers have in store for the players, gamers have to keep an eye on Fortnite’s social media feed. For example, a mysterious emergency broadcast showing a llama over a test pattern was shared on both Fortnite’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The game developers also have been sending fans into a frenzy over the “comet in the sky” that is visible in every battle royale match. Fans have been theorizing what it could mean all over social media, but no one knows what exactly what will happen. This is a brilliant marketing strategy by Epic Games. These in-game events create a sense of mystery about where the game may be headed. It keeps fans interested and creates a constant buzz around the game. And overall, it’s just fun!

Fortnite is also infinitely shareable and loves diving head first into today’s internet meme culture. Twitch streams showing live matches between professional players. School kids share their favorite moments on Snapchat. The game begs to be social and people gladly oblige.

Freemium Games and the Free Phenomenon

Another perk? IT’S FREE.


Have you ever played Candy Crush or Clash of Titans on your mobile phone? These games are consistently the top grossing games in all of mobile gaming… yet they are free to download and play. How do these games make money if they’re free? Unlike premium games where you pay upfront, many of these “freemium” games lure users in and then offer in-app purchases to either eliminate ads or progress further in the game.

Fortnite follows this “freemium” business model but also improves upon it. The game is initially free to download, but then in order to customize the game, you can make in-app purchases of equipment, character skins, and weapons. What sets Fortnite apart is that the developers don’t skimp on the free offerings. The game is fully functioning and fun regardless of whether you pay or not. Whereas other “freemium” games offer in-app purchases for a competitive benefit, Fortnite only offers cosmetic improvements to the game via purchases. Epic Games even offers a Battle Pass for $9.50 that makes it easier to earn more cosmetic items but does not make people better players.

Overall the “freemium” game experience can be a rewarding feedback loop between players and developers if done right. When players constantly spend money in the game, this incentivizes developers to continue to put that revenue back into the game. This loop has been so successful that some “free to play” games like League of Legends have made more than $1 billion in 2014 from in-game purchases. Fortnite raked in $126 million in February alone!

The Pitfalls of Freemium Games Like Fortnite

There is a danger to the “freemium” game business model though. By allowing freemium apps to install on your mobile phone, you often relinquish a treasure trove of data that these game developers use to track player behavior. An anonymous producer of several major, free-to-play games said that they knew where you lived, your income level, personal relationships, favorite sports teams, political preferences, and even when you went to work. The goal went from creating a fun, interesting game to creating a data mining app that tried to retain users and expose them to as many ads as possible.

These games can become addicting, especially for people with gambling problems. The unfortunate thing is developers will often target these types of players (also known as “whales”) in order to boost sales. Even games where you purchase upfront can have their pitfalls too. The game developer Electronic Arts was recently embroiled in controversy over its loot crates (boxes that give random items to the player) in Star Wars Battlefront 2. Belgium actually outlawed loot boxes because the country considers them a form of gambling since the loot boxes are a game of chance.

The “freemium” business model is here to stay. Like all business models, it required time to be sorted out so there was a balance between the interests of the consumer and the business. Fortnite is the culmination of that relationship. The customer is able to have a fully-fleshed out game that is fun while the business is able to profit in an honest and transparent way. Respect is key!

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