Feature Article

Fortnite: Epic's Weird, Wonderful Creative Departure

Oh, what a nite.

Fortnite may not have an official mascot, but it certainly has an unofficial one. You just have to do some searching to find it.

It's not any one of the game's playable classes, heroes whose stylized appearances owe a clear debt of gratitude to Team Fortress 2. You won't even find it among the creepy yet oddly likeable assortment of enemies, which includes, among other things, a monster with a beehive stuck on its head and another who hurls bones at you while decked out in full baseball attire. No, when I say you'll need to search out for Fortnite's mascot, I mean it. Because Fortnite's mascot is toilet bacon.

It's weird, gross, and wrong on so many levels. But it's also wonderfully apt. See, Fortnite is a game about scavenging. You're always on the lookout for any resources you can find to help you in your quest to fight off enemies known as husks. Sometimes that means gathering wood and metal to assemble a defensive fort, sometimes it means crafting weapons from random odds and ends, and other times it means finding whatever nourishing food you can get your hands on--no matter its point of origin.

But here's the other thing about Fortnite: it's also a game with a pronounced sense of humor. So when Fortnite's procedurally generated levels reward you for your thorough searching with tasty meat hidden inside a toilet, you just laugh it off and wonder what other silly surprises the game has in store.

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That emphasis on humor and open-ended game design is new territory for Epic Games. This is the studio that brought us Gears of War, a series whose dedication to handcrafted battles and scripted grandeur influenced an entire generation of shooters. According to lead producer Roger Collum, this creative departure is no coincidence.

"To be entirely honest, Fortnite is a palette cleanser for this studio," says Collum. "Gears was something that we'd done for a long, long time. And that's a franchise that we hold close to our heart. But we wanted to do something new and refreshing."

While this may be a change of pace for Epic, it's hardly a leisurely one. Fortnite is an ambitious amalgam of genres that employs shooter combat--the type of stuff Epic is so well known for--as one small piece of a much larger puzzle. Everything else, including the game's free-to-play business model, is uncharted territory for the studio that gave us Marcus Fenix and company.

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First, there's the element of exploration. Every level, from a picturesque forest to the cluttered remains of a city ravaged by husks, is one big procedurally-generated sandbox meant to be explored to your heart's content. Forests contain an abundance of raw materials you can gather by harvesting trees and stones, and there's a good chance you'll also find caves containing rare minerals that will come in handy for crafting explosives. Pillage the garages, living rooms, and offices of a lived-in town and you'll have a better chance of finding pre-assembled weapons and tools. That could mean a high-level katana tucked away in a treasure chest in someone's attic, a better pickaxe for scavenging resources, or that most valuable of crafting ingredients: duct tape.

But it's Fortnite's inherently goofy nature that makes this scavenging system so interesting. Sure, you can knock down a chainlink fence for metal, but you can just as easily take your pickaxe to an old pickup truck or a fire hydrant, each object bouncing jauntily like a big cartoon jello mold . Wandered into a cemetery? You can turn that grave stone into a perfectly good brick wall! And then you have things like ammo in plants, guns in refrigerators, and, yes, bacon in toilets. At no point does Fortnite take itself seriously.

In that sense, Fortnite walks a fine line between the type of self-aware humor most often found in offbeat indie games and the serious, big-budget production values of a much larger project. But it's a balancing act that Epic seems to be pulling off, at least at this stage in development. Fortnite's world is a vibrant and detail-rich one that often feels like a Pixar movie in video game form. These are places that you actually want to explore because there's so much character to them.

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That level of presentation is a far cry from the survive-and-build games that have become so popular on Steam Early Access recently, games where you're buying into the hope of what a game might eventually become more often than the software as it currently exists. But even so, games like Rust have a scrappy charm to them--and Epic knows that's something it has to contend with.

"Rust is a great game and you can see the passion that goes into the development of it," says Collum. "We're hoping that people will see the same genuine passion and love for the game that we have, but with the polish and shine that Epic is known for."

That level of shine is most readily apparent in Fortnite's building system. It's a remarkably painless process that allows players to construct towering, multi-story forts full of traps, sniping perches, panic rooms, and whatever else comes to mind. Building parts have their own dedicated row of hotkeys (F1-F7), so as long as you've got the resources in your inventory you can quickly throw down a wall or stairway on the fly.

Fortnite's world is a vibrant and detail-rich one that often feels like a Pixar movie in video game form.

And it is quick: the process of switching from a metal ceiling to a brick wall, then altering the flat wall into a functional doorway only takes a few brief mouse clicks. In fact, the biggest challenge is making sure you've got a good building plan in mind as you hastily assemble the thing. If you're not careful, you can turn a perfectly good fort into an absolute maze in no time at all.

Designing a good defensive structure is key. As you proceed through a campaign made up of farms, small towns, and construction yards, you're always building up to, well, building. You start out by searching for resources, whether it's bits of metal to craft new shotgun shells, or plants to craft healing items. After enough searching, you'll inevitably find a portal to another world that's been letting in those mysterious monsters. After you find that portal, you can slap a special device around it called an Atlas, which serves as a tool for closing down the portal while--wouldn't you know it--alerting all the monsters in the area to your presence. Let the monsters destroy the Atlas, and you'll need to try again. Hold them off and you're onto the next level.

In that regard, Fortnite is very much a game of interlocking parts. The same metal you use to craft a new rifle for combat can be used to reinforce the steel walls on your fort. And if your fort is secure and well designed, the impending battle will be that much easier. Add in the RPG progression system that lets players build up their characters via discrete skill trees and the fact that every level is procedurally generated right on down to the placement of resources--hence the toilet bacon--and what you have is a game made up of many different variables and gameplay systems that have to exist in absolute harmony with one another.

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That's been the biggest obstacle for Epic, and a big reason why Fortnite went dark for so long after it was first announced back in 2011. "We're really good at the extremely scripted, tight style of narrative gameplay," admits Collum. "So the thing that's been most challenging for us is moving to something that's more systems-driven. We're building a world where even the level designers don't know what the players are going to experience from one instance of a map to another."

"When a lot of our designers came on, Unreal Engine 4 couldn't even import Excel files. That's pretty fundamental for systems designers. It's how they work! They have thousands of dials they need to tweak. So even at an engine level, it was a fundamental challenge."

Of course it helps that combat--that final stage of each level--is something that Epic has plenty of experience with. But even still, this is not a pure third-person shooter. Melee weapons are a big part of the experience, especially for the Ninja class who can really focus on that style of fighting if that's how players build their skill trees. Then there's the Constructor class, who often has to balance time between fending off enemies and frantic repair work.

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In fact, it's all that plate-spinning that makes Fortnite's combat system so interesting. There are large husks who can hurl their smaller companions onto the roof of your fort, forcing you to run upstairs and fend off enemies coming at the Atlas from above. There are traps you can place inside your fort if they manage to breach the outer walls. And all the while, if you're running low on ammo or healing items, you might need to scurry off to a quiet corner to craft some more or see if your buddies can spare some of their own.

When you complete a level, you're rewarded for your efforts with experience points to unlock new abilities and a sort of roulette wheel of post-level prizes. These prizes generally include special weapons that will eventually wear down and break, but if you're lucky you might also get a blueprint that lets you craft that weapon as many times as you like so long as you've got the ingredients.

It's this item progression that serves as the basis of Fortnite's business model. While the game itself is free, you can pay money to purchase card packs that contain a random assortment of weapons and blueprints--all of which you can gift to friends at any point you desire. (There will also be cosmetic options a la Team Fortress 2 hats.) And that, naturally, is the biggest question surrounding Fortnite.

As of right now, Epic is saying all the right things when it comes to its free-to-play ambitions. "Our intent is that anything that can be acquired through card packs can also be earned in the normal game," says Collum. "As corny as this sounds, we have the noblest of intentions with this. You can do this business model nefariously, or you can do it right."

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But Fortnite is an ongoing project, a game designed to be supported with free updates for upwards of five years. Epic plans to release new campaign content, as well as a competitive mode that integrates all the fort-building mechanics from the co-op mode. Collum is ready to admit that five years is a long time, and anything could change.

"Is there a future where there might be special things that you can only get at certain times with money? Maybe," says Collum. "But it won't be for power or advantage. We're not going to sell power in order to make players better."

In the end, free-to-play is a tricky beast no matter how you approach it. But one clear advantage Epic possesses is a game with a strong foundation. Fortnite is an absolute blast, with a goofy charm and enough emergent gameplay to suggest a long-running future. So long as Epic treats its players with respect and continues to support Fortnite with a generous pipeline of content, the studio behind Gears and Unreal might just carve out an entirely new identity.

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