Fortnite is turning into a digital theme park

Fortnite is turning into a digital theme park

To celebrate Polygon’s 10th anniversary, we’re rolling out a special issue: The Next 10, a consideration of what games and entertainment will become over the next decade from some of our favorite artists and writers. Here, freelance writer Jay Castello looks into the future of the industry’s closest thing to a metaverse: Fortnite.

To establish what Fortnite might look like in 10 years, you first have to pin down what it is today. And that’s no easy task. A nonexhaustive list: Fortnite is a cooperative survival tower defense game. Fortnite is a hyper-popular free-to-play battle royale that prominently features building mechanics. Fortnite is also a hyper-popular free-to-play battle royale that has no building mechanics. Fortnite is a streaming phenomenon that has fueled successful careers for hundreds of entertainers. Fortnite is an esport. Fortnite is a destination for concerts, movie showings, and dialogues on race in America. Fortnite is a tool for creators to make and share their own game modes. Fortnite is a storefront hoping to sell as many skins and cosmetic items as possible. Fortnite is considered by many to be the closest thing we currently have to a metaverse.

None of this is likely to get any simpler in the next 10 years.

“It does feel like Fortnite is a game divided,” says video essayist Chris Franklin, whose video “The Party That’s a Platform” addresses some of these tensions, particularly those between fun game, serious event destination, and profit-driven product. “I don’t know how they’re going to square that circle.”

Fortnite began as Fortnite: Save the World, announced in 2011 and released in early access in July 2017. But that tower defense game was released into a landscape dominated by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which had become a massive surprise hit in March of the same year. In just two months, development studio Epic Games responded and released Fortnite: Battle Royale.

Battle Royale quickly eclipsed Save the World, and its incredible ongoing popularity has set it up as the game to beat for the next decade. “I think it has achieved that level of cultural stickiness,” says Franklin. “It is, in a lot of ways, the Epic Games Store’s version of Counter-Strike: GO. That original big thing that’s going to be permanently popular on that platform.” CS:GO was released a decade ago, and it still regularly averages around 600,000 concurrent players on Steam.

The exact mechanics that make up the Fortnite: Battle Royale of 2032 are less clear. While the game was once defined by the inclusion of building, borrowed from Save the World, Epic recently released a no-build mode. Some, like top Fortnite streamer SypherPK, think this mode will become increasingly popular due to its lower barrier to entry. He argues that may also have knock-on effects for competitive Fortnite, which revolves around build-based strategies. Because of that, top-level esport Fortnite is becoming increasingly opaque to viewers, particularly newer ones, who play without building at all. Because of this, SypherPK predicts lower interest in the esport both in terms of viewership and in players being interested in becoming competitive.

A Fortnite version of Ariana Grande surrounded by dancing avatars in Fortnite

More Fortnite events, like this Ariana Grande concert, seem like a safe bet.
Image: Epic Games

And regardless of what the battle royale mode looks like in 10 years, it’s been increasingly overshadowed by Fortnite’s other uses. Raph Koster, CEO of Playable Worlds who has been developing virtual worlds since 1993, expects the battle royale genre as a whole, and Fortnite: Battle Royale specifically, to “fade in popularity over time.” He predicts this will allow these other modes — and potentially new, as-yet-unconsidered ones — to take over.

Currently, the other major aspect of Fortnite is Creative, a sandbox that invites players to build their own games. Koster sees this as a slower-paced option that increases Fortnite’s longevity by preventing players from burning out and turning elsewhere. “The [battle royale] game and the social space [of Creative] reinforce one another — when you’re tired of one you can hop to the other, and vice versa,” he says.

Creative mode has been called “the future of Fortnite” by Aron Garst at Wired, and, like with streaming the battle royale mode, has already launched its own careers. Haley Urbanus is one of these professionals who learned her design skills solely through experimenting within Fortnite. The studio she works with, Atlas Creative, has partnered with brands like Alienware and Target to make them custom maps. “I think players are going to grow out of battle royale and grow into Creative,” she says.

Many Creative maps get millions of plays, including one of Urbanus’ own, an underwater hiding game that has been played 45 million times. At the time we spoke, Epic had announced that Creative would be getting a “2.0” overhaul, though details weren’t yet available. But Urbanus thinks that it’s possible that in the future Fortnite players will get something close to Epic’s Unreal Engine as a tool for anyone to use.

Another major change she predicts is how those games reach other players. “Right now we have this discovery [system] that is algorithm-based,” says Urbanus. “I would say maybe in the next five years [there could be] something similar to the Epic Games Store but for content creators.” She also mentioned the model currently used by other user-generated content games, like Roblox, where creators could sell assets and games with a fee from each sale going to Epic.

“And then they’ll have another side of it where there’ll be other people that will be building in the metaverse and building their own open worlds,” says Urbanus. The idea of the metaverse seems to lurk in the background whenever the future of Fortnite is mentioned. A blog post by Koster explains that a metaverse goes further than an online world like an MMO or a multiverse like Roblox — or Fortnite’s current Creative mode. In short, a metaverse integrates itself with the real world. How Fortnite might approach that isn’t yet fully clear, but it is on the table.

“[Epic Games CEO] Tim Sweeney has been pretty explicit that this is where he sees Fortnite heading,” says Koster. In April, Sweeney called Fortnite “an aspiring metaverse platform.” (Epic did not reply to a request for comment about its ambitions for the game’s next decade in time for publication.) Koster says that the popularity of Fortnite and its ownership of Unreal Engine are advantages Epic may be able to leverage in this endeavor. But he believes it still has a long way to go “in terms of things like social complexity, freedom of action, and so on.”

And whether or not its current popularity would translate into its metaverse form being popular is another question. “There’s just no interest from users [in the metaverse], really,” says Franklin. “Fortnite is popular because it’s a popular video game to stream and play with friends.”

It’s also popular because it has constantly evolved, right from the moment Battle Royale launched just weeks after Save the World. That growth into new modes will continue. “The concerts and events are very likely to become their own full-fledged mode soon,” says Koster. Franklin also envisions a spinoff “experiences” mode. “You can come here and you can see somebody’s childhood home, walk through a museum that’s in Rome, and then go to the moon and relive the Apollo 11 landing.”

So what might Fortnite look like in 2032? Probably how it looks now, but with more of everything. According to Franklin and Urbanus respectively, the core ideas of Battle Royale and Creative mode are likely to stick around even as the details change. But Fortnite itself will expand. “It’ll become a bit more like a carnival, with each of these other modes a ‘ride’ on the side,” says Koster. “There’s a reason why we call so many online worlds ‘theme parks,’ after all.”

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