Fortnite may not be the success Epic Games planned for, but it’s a success the game-engine creator and developer has embraced.
As of this month, more than 40 million people have downloaded Fortnite. That’s up from the 30 million announced in December. The game also peaked at more than 2 million people playing at the same time, recently. While Epic declined to say how that splits between platforms and game modes (Fortnite has both the paid Save The World version and free Battle Royale mode), it’s still impressive growth. And the company isn’t simply basking in those numbers, they continue to chase what players are asking for to build out and transform the game.
Fortnite was conceived as a zombie survival game of sorts, asking players to spend part of the game hunting for resources and building up a home base and the other part defending that base from an onslaught. But once they added the Battle Royale mode, a second team was split off to support it. Now the two teams work independently. The Battle Royale team focus on what Eric Williamson, lead systems designer for the mode, says is “listening to the player base, continuing to iterate on the core game and releasing new content.”
“Since we launched Battle Royale at the end of September last year, to hear people say we’re basically one of the biggest, if not the biggest Battle Royale games in the western world in terms of numbers of player is amazing,” he tells Glixel. “We’re really excited about the number of players and how much they like the game.”
On Thursday, Battle Royale gets a major overhaul, one of the largest since the game’s launch, that will rework the look of much of the map, add biomes, build out two major play areas and tweak some of the bones of the game.
Williamson calls the changes quality of life improvements; they’re the sort of things a player may not overtly notice, but will certainly appreciate.
One of those changes will change how the game streams visuals into the world as you play. This means instead of loading out the entire world, even the bits you can’t see, in the same level of fidelity from your hard drive, the game will focus on detailing what’s around you and what you can see. This won’t impact what things look like in the distance. Instead, it will be about the things you could never see but still existing far from where you’re playing. By doing this, Williamson says, it will increase the performance of the game and provide more memory to the console versions of the game and those playing on lower-end computers. All of this adds up to more cosmetic and gameplay improvements. “It frees us up to do more things,” he says.
While that may not be very noticeable to most players, the biggest change coming to the map will be, the addition of two new cities of sorts.
“When we initially shipped the map, we were happy, but we knew there were areas we wanted to improve on,” says Sidney Rauchberger, lead level designer for the game. “Thinks like increasing the density of the points of interest we have on the western points of the map. But one of the biggest, most requested things was adding a city.”
So the update brings with it a city and what the team is calling a play area. Tilted Towers will be just southeast of Loot Lake, in an area that once was rolling hills and space. It nicely fills that gap now between the lake and Greasy Grove. Instead of plopping down a small complex of buildings and calling it a town, the team decided to build something that would provide a new sort of play to the game. “We didn’t want to just add more stuff to the map,” Rauchberger says, “we wanted to make sure it also added new elements.”
In the case of Tilted Tower, that new element is verticality. The area is packed with lots of inside building and close-quarters play, Rauchberger says.
The other major addition is an area called Shifty Shafts, located to the west and a bit south of Greasy Grove. This area is a series of mines, bringing a much larger element of underground, tight corridor play to the game. “It’s tight corridors, scary, dark, corner-to-corner play,” Rauchbeger says.
Alongside those two new major additions, comes a complete overhaul of the entire map. The biggest element of that is breaking the map down into four biomes, says David Spalinski, lead level designer. “ We wanted to refresh the existing areas and bring more identity to the square footage of sections of the map,” he says. Where once the entire map was essentially in a grass biome, it is now broken up into grass, farmland, mountain and swamp biomes. “We wanted to accomplish bringing a little more visual difference, identity to where you are, variety and theme to various areas,” Spalinski says. “So you can identify if you’re in the mountains now on the west of the map.” In the new map, the mountains run along the west, the farmland along the north, the marshes in the south-east and the grass in much of the center.
After those major additions and changes to the map, the team went back through the entire thing to give what Spalinski calls a once over to the entire thing. “We wanted to improve aspects of gameplay based on player feedback. So we changed a few things up, here and there to keep people on their toes and reacted to balance feedback to make the map feel fresh.”
That includes a variety of changes from the extremely minor - like tweaking the flow through a shop because of the way a door opens - to more obvious things - like adding ammo to sections, more treasure chests or better ways to build. “We’re constantly scouring Reddit and online forums to see what are the major or minor adjustments we can make,” Spalinski says.
The Philosophy of Battle Royale
While the Battle Royale development team is constantly caring for the game, its modes and map, one thing they’re not doing, at least yet, is working on a second map. In many ways, the teams focus on building out and finessing the current map speaks to the general philosophy the team has for Fortnite Battle Royale in general. “We look at the map as a canvas on which players can express themselves,” Spalinski says. “We want to facilitate certain types of gameplay, but in a way, we want to be neutral. That requires constant reaction in ways that aren’t facilitating too much or controlling too much.”
While one day the team may add a new map, it won’t be until they feel they’ve finished with this one. “We think there is more we can do to make the existing map better,” Spalinski says. “So we’re much more focused on player built content, finding ways to let players express creativity. We’re almost always playing catch-up to support that creativity.”
Racuhberger adds, “We’re still open to the idea of making a new map, but there is a value in understanding the best version of this map. This next update is going to significantly update the map, but then we’re going to look at it and see where it goes. We want to maximize expression.”
This live, player-focused approach to game design is what powers the most current iteration of Epic Games as a whole. Perhaps, that’s most obvious in the studio’s ever-evolving MOBA, Paragon, which has completely reinvented itself multiple times, but Fortnite and it’s sudden success with a mode it didn’t launch with, is a close second. And instead of locking into the current success of Fortnite Battle Royale, the team continues to innovate and elevate the game’s play.
One of the most experimental elements of Battle Royale is what the game calls timed modes. These are essentially modes inside a mode. In the eyes of Epic Games, Battle Royale is simply one of two major modes found in Fortnite. But inside Battle Royale, that team is constantly playing around with other modes. They have in the past included things like a 50 versus 50 mode that divided the players into two massive teams and an explosive mode that gave everyone only weapons that fired explosives. These modes tend to only run for a bit, with the team quietly watching behind the scenes to see what they learn from the player's experiences.
“There are a few goals with limited time modes,” lead systems designer Williamson says. “We kind of think of them as palate cleansers, to keep things exciting, fun, fresh. But it doesn’t stick around forever because we want our players to enjoy our primary experience, which is the core game mode. These new modes also give us an opportunity to explore different things and try out new ideas. To test things we wouldn’t test otherwise in the core game. We are getting plenty of data for the core game.”
The team considers the limited time mode the fourth of Battle Royale’s modes. The other three are the solo mode, the duo mode, and the squad mode. Duo was conceived as essentially an online version of couch co-op, a chance for two buddies to get together and quickly play a match with one another. Squad is meant to be more aligned with the typical team versus teams mode of many shooters.
While types of play are experimented with in the game’s limited time modes, the Battle Royale team are also constantly working on new sorts of weapons, and because the game is designed around a cartoonish aesthetic, they feel they create some pretty unusual weapons. Most recently, for instance, the team created a disco grenade which leads to people dancing themselves to death, stylishly. “The disco grenade is a good example of how far we can push things,” Williamson says. “The requirement a weapon needs to be included is for it to be fun and good for gameplay.”
The team is also not adverse to players finding unusual ways to use weapons. Where some developers would see a bug needing a fix, the Battle Royale team may decide it just makes the game better. For instance, when players realized that they could ride a fired rocket across the map, all while shooting at enemies, the team decided not to fix the issue. “We had no idea that was coming,” Williamson says. “The first time we saw it we were like, ‘Oh crap.’ Then we watched it, and we saw that there was a real risk for the reward, and we thought, ‘That’s pretty neat.’”
While the unexpected rocket riding adds a vehicle of sorts to the game, and the recent introduction of a launch pad does that as well, in general, the team doesn’t see a need to add vehicles to the game. “We talked a bunch about vehicles and pros and cons,” Williamson says. “But we don’t have a need to add vehicles to get around the map because our travel times allow you to get mostly wherever you want to go. When we discuss vehicles, we talk about trying things with unique functionality and make it not just about going from point A to point B. That’s the extent of it.”
The team also has no plans to allow players to choose which of the characters they spawn as. Instead, they’re focused on allowing players to customize the clothes of their players if they want to express their individuality. “I don’t think there are any plans to upend that,” Spalinski says.
The one thing none of the three would talk about is how that 40 million player count splits between the obviously popular Battle Royale mode and the game’s Save the World mode. Nor would they discuss if Battle Royale players are spending money to purchase that other mode. TThough the two teams do work together.
"We're seeing a lot of crossover in development," Williamson says. "Things in Save the World that works really well in Battle Royale and things in Battle Royale that work in Save the World. As a result the whole product benefits."