The First Time I Played Fortnite Battle Royale

1,846 words.

Fortnite was in the news last week. The real news, that is, not just the MMO news. Both The New York Times and The Guardian mentioned it.

But I’m not here to talk about those articles. They just reminded me of those heady days when I played Fortnite Battle Royale myself. Heady day, I mean. Because I only played for one day. One match, in fact, on that one day.* It didn’t click with me.

Now you might think I’m about to launch into a big speech about how kids today just don’t understand anything about anything. Twitter certainly seemed to think I was going to.

I didn’t realize that critiquing Fortnite is perceived as bashing millennials and their life choices. But that’s not really my intention here. I just wanted to explore why it didn’t do much for me. Mainly because it’s something to write about, and I haven’t written on this topic before. After you kids have been blogging a while, you’ll realize that finding ways not to repeat yourself in blogging is the biggest challenge of it. You kids just don’t understand!

Believe it or not, I completely understand why Fortnite is popular. It’s fun: Check. It’s bright and colorful: Check. It’s fast and responsive: Check. It’s got a sense of humor: Check. Everyone’s friends are playing it: Check. It’s free: Huge Double Check. Success in the game requires not that you master a challenging new skill, but only that you keep playing over and over again: Check.

Boom! Dissing everyone’s favorite game! I might get some backlash on that last point, but I’m just talking about the “average” players here. The ones in the big part of the bell curve, who undoubtedly make up the vast majority of the Fortnite player base. “Master” players, the ones who actually win the games, the “dedicated esports tournament” players, clearly master whatever skills they use to win-and I would guess they also make up less than 1% of the population.

But let’s get real here: No game is going to become a massive viral mainstream hit if it requires everyone to master “hardmode” skill sets before they can experience any success. Nobody is writing about Dark Souls tournaments in the The New York Times or The Guardian, for example. Mainstream hits are made by creating situations where everyone can walk into their very first game and feel like they are awesome, and better than everyone else around them. And also by creating a feeling where if you play just one more time, you might do better than last time, because you might (randomly) get That Awesome Thing.

But I digress. I didn’t really want to dissect the mechanics of the game (I only played once after all). I just wanted to tell you my experience.

One day back on a cold day in February, I decided to play Fortnite. (I actually don’t know the exact temperature, but it’s been a cold winter here, so it’s a solid assumption.) It was an easy decision to make. Fortnite is free. Everyone is talking about it. It was a relatively painless download and install process, other than installing yet another branded launcher system.

Incidentally, you can also download Epic’s Unreal Game Engine with the same launcher system. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a launcher allow you to get both the game and the engine that made the game.

And Paragon is still there even though you can't get it anymore.

I had never played a Battle Royale game before. I had never even watched a Battle Royale stream before. Oh, I’d seen all the clips of hilarious H1Z1 bugs, so I sort of got the gist of what a “battle royale” was. It’s not exactly a hard concept to figure out: X number of players enter an arena and proceed to kill each other until only one player is left standing. It’s pretty similar to free-for-all Quake deathmatch (and Doom deathmatch before it) except you stay dead when you get killed. What’s not to get?

So after tinkering with my keybinds and settings, I started a match. There are actually three different match modes: Solo, Duo, and Squad. In “Solo” mode, of course, you enter the battle royale by yourself and try to kill everyone you see (or hide from everyone you see, depending on your preferred tactics). In “Duo” mode, presumably, you enter with a friend. I imagine you win the game as a team, and don’t have to betray your partner at the end of the game. In “Squad” mode, you enter the game with a group of random strangers (or friends I guess?) and try to kill all the other teams. (Duo and Squad mode sound more like a Counterstrike-style elimination game, as opposed to the Quake-style deathmatch.) The default appears to be “Squad” mode.

There is also a Custom Matchmaking button but I don't know what it does.

I chose Solo mode because I don’t have any gaming friends and I’ve learned from years of experience in the 90s never to rely on random Internet strangers in a team game. (I mean, unless you enjoy getting mad at your teammates, which is something that I think a surprising number of people actually do like.)

I had no idea what to expect from my first Fortnite match. You start in a pre-game mode where you can practice running and jumping and building while everyone else connects to the game, which takes about 10 seconds. Then the game starts for real. The real match begins in a “bus” that flies over the island map. You jump out of the bus when you feel the time is right, perhaps applying hardcore strategy and tactics to your decision-making process, or just randomly hitting the spacebar whenever, which is what I did. Presumably, because there’s a time limit, the game will kick you out of the bus if you wait too long. You can kind of see when and where other people jump out, but it’s pretty easy to separate yourself from the others.

I parachuted into the bright green and blue map with my trusty mining pick. I ran around by myself. I busted up some trees and bushes and got resources I never used. I found a shack with three grenades in it. I heard gunshots all around me. I found an empty house with a blue car outside. Then I ran into someone with a pistol. I threw my three grenades at him and missed, because they bounced way past him since he wisely decided to charge at me. Then I charged at him and tried to smash him in the face with my mining pick. Then he shot me. I think he was shocked someone would actually try to kill him with a mining pick. What else was I going to do? Run away so he could shoot me in the back? Sadly, just like axes were not effective in Quake free-for-all, the mining pick is not an effective weapon against pistol-users in Fortnite.

I ended the game in 33rd place. It took less than five minutes. I logged out and felt no desire to play again.

It’s not that I thought I did badly or that it was a bad game. In fact it’s a perfectly adequate game. It’s fast and responsive. The graphics are bright and colorful. It had a very Team Fortress 2 aesthetic to it (it appears to use the exact same font as TF2, actually). I did not experience any bugs. It was very straightforward to understand how to play and how to succeed.

But I felt nothing while I was playing. I laughed at the absurdity of trying to kill someone with a mining pick, but that was the emotional peak for me. I felt no tension. I felt no excitement. I felt no satisfaction. I felt no amazement. I felt no mystery. It was … well it just felt like I had played this game before. A million times before, in fact. I’ve played fast and responsive games before. I’ve played bright and colorful games before. I’ve played resource-gathering and building games before. I’ve played shooter games before. I’ve played melee games before. I’ve thrown hand grenades at people before. I’ve tried to kill people carrying ranged weapons with a melee weapon before. I’ve played games with a ticking clock before. I’ve run around maps looking for things before. I’ve even parachute-dropped in games before (I can’t remember where, but I’m sure I have).

The individual components in the game felt very familiar to me. In fact, it felt very much like Fortnite took components of every game I’ve ever played, dropped them into a sack, shook them up, and poured them out into some kind of super-mashup game.

But you only played one match! How can you possibly know anything about the global cultural phenomenon that is Fortnite just from one match!

I agree that I don’t know or understand anything about the phenomenon of Fortnite. Who knows what goes on in the minds of humans? But I feel like I got a pretty good sense of the gameplay loop and what the game developer expects from its players after that one match: They expect you to just keep playing over and over again, whether you win, lose, or draw. The important thing is: Keep playing. Forget about that last match, because there’s a new match waiting just around the corner for you, where anything could happen, just seconds away. You might find something really cool and rank higher next time!

I liken Fortnite to fast food. It’s cheap and easy to get, and it’s greasy and salty and sugary and delicious. Unfortunately for us older folks, it also comes with a ton of unpleasant side effects.

Will I ever play Fortnite again? Probably. It’s free, you know. And I like fast food sometimes. It’s still installed on my PC. I’ve thought many times I should try it again to see if my first impression changes. It’s “Season 4” now instead of “Season 3.” (Whatever that means.) It might be a totally different game! (It’s still beta I think, so it might literally be different.) Writing this post really makes me want to try it again actually, since I’m kind of bored with every other game anyway.

* Since I wrote this post, I’ve played nine more Fortnite games (and counting?). Much of what I wrote still stands but one observation felt like a game-changer to me: I discovered the replay system. I will probably write a followup post about that and some additional impressions, particularly about the tight integration of building into the combat, which I would pinpoint as the one thing that makes Fortnite different as a game.

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