I’m sitting next to my 14-year-old brother, Zach, in the disarray of a messy teen’s bedroom, staring at his giant PC screen. As he logs into Fortnite Battle Royale, he explains the premise of the wildly popular video game produced by Cary-based Epic Games. “It’s like The Hunger Games,” he says. “It’s 100 people dropping into an arena, and you have to find weapons and kill everyone else until you are the last one standing.”
Zach’s character, decked out in fancy designer fatigues, boards a flying bus with the other players. He scopes out a good spot to land in the game’s arena, which is a giant island. Finding the right site is key to a strong start.
“There’s like four or five really good locations where people go,” Zach explains. “That’s where you go to get weapons so you can kill a bunch of people.” Once he lands, Zach runs to a nearby shack where he finds weapons and ammo. He’s grabbing up as much loot as he can — until he’s ambushed.
“Ugh! I got shot! Now I’m dead.”
He shrugs; it doesn’t deter him. He simply enters into a new game, waiting for the other 99 players to join. And so the cycle starts again.
Fortnite has become wildly popular since its release last July after six years of development. More than 45 million people had downloaded the game through January, a company spokesman says. Millions more have joined since, as Fortnite has sparked stories by the CBS Sunday Morning show, The New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine. The game is the most successful free-to-play console game of all time, reporting 3.4 million concurrent players (number of users playing at the same time) in February, according to game-industry research company SuperData Research. Fortnite has become the most-watched game on live-streaming video platform Twitch and YouTube Gaming.
It appears to be a home run for Epic Games, which declined interview requests and hasn’t provided many details to the press. Although the game is free, the privately held company makes money by selling cosmetic items such as character skins, dance moves and emotes (theatrical character reactions.) In gamer-lingo, this is known as a “freemium” model. The game generated $223 million in March alone, 73% more than in February, according to various press reports. Fortnite was the highest grossing game worldwide for console and No. 5 for PC, according to SuperData Arcade, a gaming research company.
“[When Fortnite] happened, it hit a lot of benchmarks at the same time,” says New York-based video game journalist Dan Ackerman. “It’s free, which always helps. It’s fairly easy to get into. You just go to the Epic Games website and download it, run it. It doesn’t take a lot to set up. It’s fun; it doesn’t take a huge learning curve. Although you do a lot of advance stuff, you can just start immediately. And it’s available on just about every gaming platform.”
Fortnite’s popularity also stems from peer pressure, he notes, much like Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch game that was the hot seller in 2016. “People were playing it whether they wanted to or not, because it was the game all your other friends were playing. It inadvertently became unescapable.”
U.S. video-game industry analyst Mat Piscatella of San Diego says Fortnite combines the fast-paced nature of action-based shooter gameplay with survival-game mechanics such as scavenging and crafting. “It’s as important to out-think as it is to be a better traditional gamer in order to win,” Piscatella says. “It’s a deceptively simple new genre.”
Fortnite also benefits by appealing to a slightly younger demographic. Unlike many popular titles that are the gaming equivalent of an R-rated movie, Fortnite is considered appropriate for kids 13 and up. Many parents have joined their kids to play, Ackerman says.
“It’s a little less grim and dark and violent than a lot of these other games,” he says. “The style is cartoony, and the mood is lighter. It’s not as serious and brooding.”
The ingenuity behind Epic Games started in the Baltimore bedroom of founder Tim Sweeney in 1991, where as a teenager he started creating games and writing software. The company, previously called Potomac Computer Systems and later Epic MegaGames, hit it big in the late ’90s with its ambitious 3D gaming project Unreal. Epic, which officially moved to Cary in 1999, also found massive success by selling 6 million copies of Gears of War, an Xbox 360 shooter game, after its 2006 release.
Epic Games keeps gamers interested by launching a new “season” of Fortnite every few months with changes in the map, skins and dance moves. The theme for Season 4, launched in May, is heroes and supervillains. Thanos, the villain of the Marvel superhero blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War, even makes an appearance in the game as a playable character.
“There’s room to grow,” Ackerman says. “It’s also very fast-paced. You start a game, something bad happens to you, you just start another game. There’s not a lot of waiting around.”