Fortnite's unconventional launch

Head of publishing at Epic Games Ed Zobrist discusses Fortnite's unconventional beginnings.

Fortnite, one of the most widely played games in the world today, mostly thanks to the post-launch addition of a fashionable ‘battle royale’ multiplayer mode, had a complicated, unorthodox gestation.

Development on the game began seven years ago, explained Ed Zobrist, head of publishing at Epic Games, at the Game Developers Conference this afternoon. At that early stage, Fortnite was an action building game that combined the crafting of Minecraft with co-operative ‘horde’ modes made popular by games such as Gears of War.

Originally scheduled for launch in 2014, the team at Epic decided to delay the game’s release due to what Zobrist characterized an “indifferent” response from players. “The game was a mish-mash of genres that made it difficult to explain in a short pitchy statement,” he said.

At this time the team decided to switch an early access model, one that is familiar on PC but rare on console platforms. Consumers could buy a pre-release version of Fortnite and offer their criticism and insight for the development team to consider.

The early access mode was not principally intended to generate income, but rather to increase the quality of player feedback. “We wanted invested players who would give valuable feedback,” Zobrist explained.

As the game approached completion, the team at Epic also decided to condense the usual pre-launch marketing into a much shorter period of time – revealing footage of Fortnite’s gameplay just seven weeks prior to the game’s launch.

Epic partnered with YouTube streamers, offering players who downloaded the game via a particular stream a special item specific to the streamer. “From a user standpoint, it just wasn’t meaningful to release information about the game a long distance before release,” said Zobrist.

While the game’s launch sales exceeded expectations, Fortnite’s ensuing success is principally due to the addition of a battle royale mode, which draws clear inspiration from the popular PC game, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, albeit with a clutch of unique additions, such as crafting.

At the time of the original game’s launch, Epic’s Unreal Tournament team moved across to provide support in developing what was originally intended to be a PvP game nested within the PvE mode.

At some point during this 8-week process, Epic decided to break the battle royale mode out into a separate mode, one that could be accessed freely by any player, regardless of whether or not they had purchased the original game.

Fortnite Battle Royale launched on on September 25th last year. Three weeks after its addition, when the game was “starting to get some traction,” as Zobrist put it, a team at Epic created a short trailer for internal use that showed clips of various Twitch streamers playing battle royale mode, laughing on camera.

This video, Zobrist said, changed the way in which the studio viewed Fortnite, and led to a more playful tone in the marketing videos. “The brand pivoted,” said Zobrist.

By December, more than 40 million people had played the game.

“We are an engineering-driven culture,” said Zobrist. That informed the company’s approach to marketing the game. “We went back to basics: communicating the key benefits of the game and providing clear calls to action.

"As long as you focus on those elements, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a huge budget,” he said.

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