Here's Mighty Goat, one of the many struggling streamers uploading reams of candy-coated Fortnite: Battle Royale videos to the internet every day. His library is manicured with startling efficiency—a legion of jump-pad highlights, cross-country snipes, and garish guides informing elementary school kids how to acquire the latest skins. But last month, in the middle of all that, he tried something different. "Look, I know everyone and their mother plays Battle Royale right now, but we're gonna play the new—well I guess it's not new—but it's new to me, Save The World," he says. "It's like the campaign version of Fortnite. I've never played it. I've never even seen videos on it."
It's both funny and tragic to watch a career SEO miner play through the version of Fortnite Epic spent six years developing—the soul of what this game was long before Drake, Travis Scott, and JuJu Smith-Schuster showed up. My favorites are the comments that dot Mighty Goat's videos; they're full of surly disciples excoriating him every time he says "This reminds me of Fortnite!" as he tours the Save The World infrastructure. "This is Fortnite," they hiss. "Battle Royale is not Fortnite."
They are correct, of course. Fortnite is a game about PvE base-building, and killing zombies, and watching cutscenes, and grinding for color-coded epics and legendaries in high-level zones. A quick anecdote: years ago I went to a Comic-Con panel where Cliff Bleszinski, who was still with Epic at that time, unveiled Fortnite as a dream project—a sort-of proto-Destiny, with the whip-smart construction mechanics of Minecraft plugged in. The company did eventually bring that dream to life—Fortnite finally hit Early Access last summer, with its scope graciously intact.
But you can't stand in the way of history, and when Epic tossed in a Battle Royale module cribbed directly from the insanely popular PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds a few months later, the world was never the same again. Fortnite: Battle Royale is a legitimate phenomenon: it's wrested control of the Twitch leaderboard from the biggest games in the world and brought everyone from Roseanne Barr to Karlsruher SC into the fold. I'm glad Epic finally found a big success after parting ways with Gears of War, but I can't help but empathize with those who fell in love with Fortnite and have since had to watch it be totally, utterly eclipsed by the Battle Royale mode.
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"When I first started playing Fortnite I didn't know a lot about it," says Peter, 34, originally from Ireland and now living in Canada. "In fact, I thought it was some sort of Overwatch clone. As soon as I started playing I could tell this was not your normal multiplayer game and I struggled to put the game down. I lost days and weeks in the game but I loved every second. As time went by I would put aside a little bit of money every week which I would spend on Vbucks. Over the 6 months or so since I have long finished all my quest missions yet I still play the game almost every day. The game mechanics keep me coming back, pure and simply."
I met Peter through the Fortnite subreddit, which is still called r/Fortnite, and is served with a tongue-clucking disclaimer in the FAQ that if you're looking for the Battle Royale forum, you will need to point your browser in the direction of r/FortniteBR. This wasn't my first time soliciting the tenor of a game's community through Reddit, but when I made my post, saying I was a journalist looking to interview some vanilla Fortnite superfans about the state of their nation, the intensity of the response surprised me. I'm generalizing, but it certainly felt like those who responded were desperate to say their piece on a game they're passionate about before it was too late. My inbox filled up in a way it rarely does. It must feel strange to see Fortnite on top of the world and still feel left out in the cold.
Last summer there was no shortage of optimism in the Fortnite scene. The game was doing solid numbers, and earning pleasant meditations from the thoughtful corners of the enthusiast press. However, after the Battle Royale module was airdropped in, the mood quickly turned apocalyptic. Ground zero, says Peter, was last October, after Epic released a Halloween update infested with blatant, game-breaking bugs. "Lag spikes, inventories disappearing," he explains. "[The mood] was on par with the saltiness of the Destiny subreddit three to four weeks after Destiny 2 came out."
Games get messy patches all the time, and those gripes generally run their course after the publishers offer a mea culpa and some free stuff. But this was different. As Fortnite fans felt increasingly alienated, Epic was getting candid about the status of its MOBA Paragon. After resources were cannibalized from that project to help facilitate the exponential growth of Battle Royale, community coordinator Edgar Diaz admitted that Paragon, in its current state, was unsustainable. A few weeks later, the game was cancelled, and fans of PvE Fortnite started to get nervous. "Things did not look good," remembers Peter. "When Paragon died the Fortnite community started to freak out."
He added a lot of the doomsday theories have died down more recently. Last month a liaison from Epic reassured the Save the World subreddit that the company will continue to support Fortnite's original vision, and there have been recent additions, such as the hoverboard which completely revolutionized in-game mobility, that have been received warmly. Peter also notes that the dialogue between the developers and the community has unquestionably improved: "They have given us future roadmaps, a known bugs list and they hold AMA threads for questions about possible future features," he explains. "They just seem to be more willing to socialize, whether it be an update, a patch or even a bug affecting players. They need to continue this to keep faith with the fans."
Still, there are moments where Epic can't seem to get out of its own way. Over the course of reporting this story, Save The World hit another unfathomably ill-conceived speed bump in the form of patch 3.2, which released to the servers on March 8th. 3.2 re-rolled the stats on a number of weapons, including the armaments that were sitting in players' inventories.
Obviously Fortnite is in early access, and Epic has every right to tweak the nuts and bolts as they see fit, but this change was surreptitiously launched onto the servers with no warning or disclosure, which is always a great way to brew up an entirely avoidable disaster. In one of the funniest and most poignant posts on the subreddit, a Battle Royale lifer authored an olive branch in solidarity, stating, "I know y'all hate us at FortniteBR, but for this one, everyone is with you." There's nothing like the brotherhood of gamer outrage.
"[We] had already spent time and experience leveling [these weapons] up," says self-described Fortnite superfan Brandon. "The few times [Epic] has earned a little good will from the community such as hoverboards, they have followed it up with something like this reroll issue. For me, they have pretty much lost any good faith that I had left in them. They keep saying 'we can and will do better,' when it comes to communication, and then they do things like not release the patch notes until the patch is going live."
Unlike Peter, Brandon predicts a darker forecast for vanilla Fortnite. "I don't think people are buying Llamas, [the Save The World lootbox equivalent,] so it probably sees little financial return compared to the six year investment Epic has already made," he says. "Once Saves The World goes free-to-play, [which is scheduled for sometime before the end of the year,] it would be that much easier to sever it if Battle Royale is still a hit."
Despite the mishaps and negative speculation, it's clear that Epic is trying to keep people happy. The company declined to comment for this story, but the base game is still seeing routine marketing and promotion. It also sold more than 500,000 copies in pre-orders and the first few days in release, a healthy start for a game still in an early access release (and, notably, without being on Steam). It may never be Epic's primary focus again, but neither does it seem in immediate danger of disappearing.
For now, Fortnite is still called Fortnite, damn it. Peter dreams of an equilibrium where Save The World and Battle Royale exist within the same template as something like Call of Duty and Call of Duty Zombies. "When you think of it that way both modes actually complement each other," he says. "So Battle Royale and Saves The World fans should really support each other, not put each other down. They are on the same team."
One thing is clear: Epic is in uncharted territory. It's a blessing that they have a hit on their hands the size of Fortnite: Battle Royale, and it's a curse that all this publicity and ubiquity had to come at the expense of a game that was already beloved, if not stratospherically successful. Something has to give eventually. Until then, the Save The World community will deal with the uncertainty.