After writing my last post on Fortnite, I played over a dozen more games and now I have a somewhat more nuanced opinion about it. To respond a little bit to Jeromai’s comment, I think I get it now. Kind of. At least I have some understanding of the appeal of the battle royale genre in general and Fortnite in particular. Two major things clicked into place, which I’ll detail below.
Being a jaded old bitter gamer, though, I had to power through three to five “meh whatever” games before I started to feel any compulsion to play more. Being a plain old old gamer with no desire to spend 24/7 practicing, I’m also pretty sure I’ve already plateaued after less than a week, and now I have nowhere to go but into frustrated, “I’m just not good enough to play this” territory.
But there’s still something compelling about the experience.
Some of it is what I mentioned before: The game throws everything in the book at you to make you want to play another game. Daily challenges, levels, tiers, ranks, etc. If you play again you can get this nifty cosmetic reward! If you play again you can go from Tier 3 to Tier 4! If you play a few more times you can place higher on this ranked list of complete strangers you’ve never heard of! All you have to do is play again. And again. And again. You can only go up on these lists, never down. Unless you don’t play at all, so you better play more to keep up!
I’m a jaded gamer that has seen it all a hundred times (in 1997, I was one of the people writing the programs to calculate Quake match statistics from console logs), but even I fall for this stuff. After all, I can’t let that dastardly “Nawalator1211” rank higher than me!
But it’s more than just that. There is some innovative minute-to-minute gameplay in Fortnite too. At least it’s new to me.
I never would have guessed this, but the building component is a huge factor in Fortnite. It did not take me very long to notice that most players were not simply picking up weapons and fighting it out in boring old Quake-style deathmatches like the good old days, learning the complexities of the map and using it to their advantage. Many players build the map around them as they go.
The experienced players tend to use the building features to construct fortifications on the fly in the places they need them, more-or-less ignoring the terrain and existing buildings. Why run to cover when you can build a defensive wall right where you’re standing? They build ramps to reach the tops of buildings and bluffs, instead of running around to find a natural passage. They duel other players not by shooting horizontally at each other around corners, but by building higher and higher fortifications to try to get above their opponent and shoot down on them. It’s a fascinating thing to watch (spectating, that is-it’s very disorienting and confusing to play against these people, which one assumes is the whole point). It makes combat in Fortnite very unique. (It’s the first time I’ve seen it, at least.)
When folks need to stop and drink a potion or use a bandage out in a field (a process that takes a long time), they will build walls around themselves to protect against distant snipers. Snipers will build tall defensible nest towers in the middle of open fields to hit people miles away, leaving no way for approaching enemies to reach them. Players low on health might cocoon themselves inside a cube of strong, reinforced walls to force opponents to break through before the bitter end. When players are running across a field and take sudden damage, they don’t jump and jig and run away to hide behind a tree (or return fire), they instantly build a wall between themselves and the shooter. It’s ingrained into their playing style as much as circle strafing or mouselook. It appears to be an unconscious, reflexive action to build all over the place.
I feel like the focus on building might be a big reason the game is so popular with younger folks. Fortnite looks like a game that is a perfect mix of Minecraft and Call of Duty. (Not that I’ve ever really played Minecraft but that’s what I imagine it’s like, and I think of Minecraft as the game all the current 20-somethings first played online.)
On the negative side, the focus on building is probably the main reason I doubt I’ll play Fortnite much beyond a brief infatuation period. It’s really interesting to watch but not as fun to participate in. At least not without tons and tons of practice to get comfortable with it. (And practicing Fortnite is not super easy, since it’s all on-the-job training-you don’t get to practice fighting until you run into the one guy who kills you at the end of the game.) Right now, I just get horribly confused by my opponents disappearing behind magically-appearing walls and ramps. (Having a cataract in one eye probably isn’t helping here either.)
Beyond my physical limitations and old age reflexes, there’s also a certain chaos to it that I find distasteful. (The same reason I find the chaotic role-less group-play in GW2 and to some extent ESO unappealing.) You can’t always control the structures that appear when you start building rapid-fire with casual mouse flicks, so in the heat of battle the buildings take on random shapes and features that don’t make any sense to look at. It’s a bit like splashing paint on a canvas by heaving a bucket of paint. The superior Fortnite players will be able to see and process and even embrace the randomness of it. They use it like a smoke-screen to confuse their enemies.
Personally I prefer “winning” through superior planning and execution. I don’t feel like I’ve achieved anything when I’m just lucky to survive a random whirlwind of activity.
UPDATE: I made a quick video demonstrating the “buildy-fighty” combat style in Fortnite.
The most amazing feature of Fortnite to me so far is the replay system. I discovered it after my third game, buried in the Career menu. (I think it’s a recent addition to the game, I’m not sure.)
It’s an absolute joy to use. I have so much more fun watching replays of my games than playing my games. As soon as I get killed I eagerly run to the replay so I can watch what happened from a hundred different angles, flying the drone camera around in sweeping cinematic circles and following other people to study how they played.
I would have killed for a system like this back in my Quake days. We had to use a tool called FAQProxy to record “demos” of our matches from just our own first-person viewpoint. (The tool literally recorded the network traffic to the game client and played it back later.) In my CTF clan we had several people in a match record their game, and afterward we would trade demo files and watch each other’s viewpoint to learn more about how we won or lost. We also had one or more spectators watching to record matches from a third-person perspective. (Later of course this became an invaluable tool to detect aim bots.) We used to love to watch demo files from other teams, always trying to learn some new strategies we hadn’t thought of before. We used a tool called FAQProxy, because NetQuake didn’t even have built-in demo recording back then.
To digress a little bit, because I can always use more views, here is a video I made a while back cutting together several such Quake demos from one of our first matches. This was back in the day when voiceovers were non-existent because team communication was via. “say_team” macros.
And now a brief aside to berate Epic’s developers: The Infinity War Fortnite update on Tuesday broke all of my saved replays from the weekend and I can’t play them anymore, presumably because of changes to the file format or internal structure. I hope this is not a precedent because playing with replays is pretty much 95% of the my motivation for launching Fortnite now, and I can’t say I would enjoy having all my replays disappear with every game patch.
One last thing I didn’t even notice until I was writing this, and I had to double-check to make sure I was right: There’s no global chat. If you turn off voice like I do, there’s no communication with other players at all. There’s no emotes, no taunts, no tea-bagging, no nothing. I have seen exactly zero toxic behavior (unless you
could count people killing me all the time), which is absolutely unheard of on the Internet. (Occasionally there are some dubious names, though.)
There’s a spot down there where there should be a global chat, though. Maybe it’s only disabled temporarily.
On Battle Royale
My experience of the battle royale formula in Fortnite is somewhat lukewarm. I can certainly understand why it’s more fun to watch than a standard deathmatch. Getting non-gamers to watch games has always been a tough nut to crack, since the 90s. (I have always been baffled that Team Capture-The-Flag never took off as a spectator gaming sport: It’s such an obvious viewer-friendly format to me.)
But playing battle royale-particularly as a novice-is a bit stressful and uncomfortable, and most of the time, to be honest, just plain dull. I’m talking about the Solo battle royale here. I imagine it’s a completely different, much more enjoyable game if playing with friends, because there would be less pressure on any one individual, and also there would be someone to chat with during the 90% of the game when you’re not doing anything.
Here’s how a typical solo Fortnite game goes for me: I drop into the zone. I find a weapon. I spend the vast majority of the next 10 to 15 minutes wandering around the huge map by myself, staying out of sight or running and jumping in random patterns to try not to be an easy target for snipers ("Serpentine Babou!"). If I’m lucky I stumble over a player or two along the way who are as much newbies as I am and manage a kill (or “elimination” as they call it, perhaps to fool the kiddos into thinking that all those guns in the game are perfectly safe and harmless). Eventually my game ends when I have no choice but to engage a player far more experienced than me. So far I’ve averaged placing in the 20-30 range (out of 90-something players), with 6th being my best result so far.
At first I found battle royale quite nerve-wracking because you just never know when someone might pop out of the bushes and start shooting at you, and I was never sure what to do. There’s so much waiting for something to happen that the anticipation gets a little overwhelming. But after several more games it got more boring than stressful-it turned into the classic warfare description: Long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror. By far the best tactic I’ve found, as a novice player, is to just avoid towns and people for as long as possible, which will almost always get you into the top 25 in a game. If you try to actively hide you can even make it into the top 10 (the slowly shrinking storm will eventually force you into fighting other players, or die in your hiding spot). It’s just not a particularly engaging strategy as you are mostly doing nothing.
The more skilled players tend to jump off the bus and converge on towns right from the start, where abundant weapons can be found and high-energy scrums knock out a third of the players in just a few minutes. I haven’t read any tips or guides on Fortnite, but I imagine that’s the veteran strategy: Fight over the good stuff early so you’ll be out of the game quickly if you’re going to lose, and if you don’t die immediately you’ll have the resources to make a run for winning the game. I tend to lurk around the outskirts and wilderness areas where you have to scrounge for weapons from shacks and cabins, trying to watch and learn.
Other Miscellaneous Notes
At first I was very puzzled about Fortnite’s matchmaking system which cheerfully throws rank newbies and grizzled veterans into the same games. I thought the entire purpose of these new-fangled matchmaking and ranking systems in modern times was to group players of similar skill-levels together. But then I read an article on Gamerant about player backlash to skill-based matchmaking systems, particularly a system proposed for Fortnite. Apparently, skilled players don’t like playing against other skilled players, and would rather rack up the easy kills against rank amateurs for the sake of their egos and stream viewers. It’s an understandable position, it’s just surprising that anyone would admit that in public.
One other thing that confuses me: I read that Fortnite allows cross-play between console players and PC players. This doesn’t make sense to me considering that there’s an “auto-aim” option available for players using controller. I personally have witnessed some pretty amazing shots already which make me scratch my head a bit. One sniper hit me from a mile away without even pointing at me, and the tracer line clearly landed far behind me. The hit boxes must be enormous, or the game calculates hits differently from what it shows on the screen.