Unless a person has been living under a rock, there is a good chance they have heard of Fortnite by Epic Games. The game has exploded in popularity and is emerging to the forefront of esports gaming, with a massive following of players of all ages and an ever-present place in pop-culture. Yet despite its massive popularity, the Battle Royal version of the game is completely Free-To-Play. So how the heck is it on track to earn $3.5 billion this year?
How Free-To-Play Models Work in Gaming
While the game is free, meaning literally anyone can download it right now to play on their PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, and recently, an ever-increasing number of Smartphones, players can spend money on premium currency known as V-Bucks. Named after the fictional character in the game’s lore, Dr. Vinderman, V-Bucks allow players to purchase items that are purely cosmetic.
Cosmetic items are most typically themed outfits worn by the player avatars, as well as Emotes, decorative Weapon Wraps, Gliders, and Pick Axes. Not one of these items offer any competitive advantage over another. This is how Epic Games makes its money, not by selling access to Fortnite or to any item that provides a competitive advantage, but by giving players an optimal experience and then allowing them to pay money to uniquely personalize their characters.
As the game exploded in popularity, well-known Twitch streamers such as Ninja and Tfue could be seen dominating their opponents while wearing the newest skins in-game. Thousand of viewers take in these exploits, wanting to emulate the best of the best, both in tactics and appearance.
On average, a single skin may cost between $20-30 dollars if one is paying outright to purchase the premium currency, which seems like quite a bit of money for a virtual outfit, but there are two other ways of acquiring this currency as well. Simply playing the game awards V-Bucks at a slower pace, while players of the complimentary Fortnite: Save the World earn it at a faster rate.
More importantly, Epic Games offers its players something called a “Season Pass” for about $10. This provides numerous cosmetic items tied to a central theme over a period of two to three months, and is great value for the money, relatively speaking. These are the principle ways that Epic Games brings in revenue.
Free-To-Play vs. the Traditional AAA Gaming Industry
Older players of video games grew up in a different market with regards to how a product was sold and experienced. In decades past, some of the larger studios like Square Enix would devote large amounts of resources to the development of a game, for example, Final Fantasy VII for the Sony PlayStation, released January 31, 1997 in North America.
A game like that would have a one-time purchase price of $60-80, and it would have come with all of its content in one package. Today, the market has shifted considerably. Players demand more for their consumer dollars, both because there are seemingly countless video game options to choose from, and because the purchasing-power of the middle class has dropped.
People do still purchase Triple AAA games at these prices, but they are significantly more careful and demand a product worth the money. The problems arise when companies over promise, and drastically under deliver. Anthem, we’re all looking right at you.
For this reason, studios known for dropping games with high-production values and a single price point are starting to dabble in the realm of selling cosmetic items in-game. Feelings and opinions on this practice are usually far more critical. Fortnite is free, so supporting the developer with a cosmetic purchase feels downright good from time to time. Plunking down $70 today for Mortal Kombat 11, only to see that one can further spend hundreds at the in-game store to unlock outfits for characters? That is a sure-fire way to anger loyal consumers.
Into the Pits of Despair –Pay-To-Win Mechanics and Addictive Loot Boxes
If we wish to further understand why Fortnite has become the juggernaut that it is today, rooted in treating its players well and listening to its community, it is necessary to look at the conceptual opposite, which is the vile garbage of the video game world: Pay-to-Win mechanics and addictive loot boxes.
Pay-To-Win is, as its name implies, a mechanic that offers an observable, quantitative advantage to the player who spends more real money in a game relative to someone who spends less, or who spends nothing. For example, Marvel Strike Force, released in 2018 as a “free” game that is anything but free, and which generated $150 million in profit.
To advance in that game, a player needs a versatile roster of heroes to engage in both the endgame content, known as Raids, and to compete against each other in Player-vs-Player matches, known as PVP. How does one better their team? Simply log in at specific times each day to use the energy points provided to play certain missions. If you want an edge, you can use premium currency for more energy, allowing you to run more missions.
Don’t want to run missions? Say no more! For about $8 you can buy a “Premium Orb” to improve your character. Even worse, the upgrade is completely random, meaning that you may or may not power up the hero you need. So, why not buy more Premium Orbs? The more you buy, the better chances you have at acquiring the characters you need!
Does this sound ridiculous, because it should. These styles of Loot Boxes employ what is termed a Gacha system, named after a monetization system in Japan of acquiring small toys, also at random.
These Loot Boxes have recently been under intense scrutiny, both by the gaming community that is simply tiring of their inclusion in games, and by governments who recognize the inherent danger in allowing companies to essentially manipulate children and young people with the same tactics used to encourage gambling. US Republican senator Josh Hawley has pushed hard to prohibit such Pay-To-Win mechanics from games in the country, while Belgium has outlawed them already, resulting in even Nintendo having to pull one of its more popular mobile titles, Fire Emblem Heroes, from the entire country.
Fortnite – Sure It's Popular, But It Also Provides A Good Example
For all the flak that Fortnite catches for having an obnoxiously obsessed young fanbase that do weird dances in public, and for generally being very successful, we have to recognize what it has done right.
Offering a quality product for free, not selling competitive advantages to the highest bidder, and engaging with its community? These are the marks of not only a good game, but a forward-thinking developer with a strong future. If we follow the money, the proof is clear. Consumers vote with their wallets, and overwhelmingly affirm that Fortnite has earned their respect, and their cash.