Friday, February 8, 2019

The success of Fortnite, or: Into the Metaverse

While I know that video games are Big Business, I know relatively little about them. It seems that a relatively new game, Fortnite, released in 2017, has been ridiculously successful. Some excerpts from a recent article by Matthew Ball. The opening paragraph:
In 2018, there was a lot to read about Fortnite, and even more to learn from it. And to point, “the game” is indeed the future of entertainment (as well as the greatest threat to today’s media giants). But probably not in the way you think. Fortnite’s real opportunity is much bigger and more significant than the ways the game is notable today. In fact, most of the existing narratives around Fortnite success are overhyped – even if they’re critical to its long-term evolution.
Concerning its popularity:
The fourth major thread is Fortnite’s obsessive popularity. In November 2018, the game crossed 200MM registered accounts (though active users are unknown), up from 125MM five months earlier. To this end, Fortnite likely represents the largest persistent media event in human history. As of today, the game has likely had more than six consecutive months with at least one million concurrent active users – all of whom are participating in a largely shared and consistent experience that spanned multiple “seasons”, storylines, and events (contrast this to Candy Crush, in which gameplay is isolated and unique to the player). To point, season six’s live finale, which took place on November 4, 2018 at precisely 1:00p.m. Eastern Time and involved the explosion of a metaphysical cube that began to emerge in season four, saw 5MM+ active players watching live and close to 4MM other passive or non-player viewers watching via Twitch and YouTube.

These achievements are significant. And unprecedented. But they’re not entirely unexpected. Esports as a category has been ascendant for years – with Twitch regularly ranking among the top 30 TV channels in the United States in terms of hours watched.
But will it last? Ball notes that popular games constantly reinvent themselves. Young as it is, Fortnite has proven particularly good at this:
But over the past year, Fortnite has shown an ability to rebundle much of the gaming industry at large. Today, for example, Fortnite’s single map includes multiple terrain types (snow, ice, desert, forest, plains, etc.), each of which is typically a distinct map in shooting games. The game also routinely adds limited time modes, such as riffs on capture-the-flag, the ability to become The Avengers: Infinity War’s Thanos, and disco domination (in which you win points by dancing on disco floors spread across the map). There are also recurring evolutions related to the game’s seasonal narratives. During season six, which spanned Halloween, the map was overrun with zombie-like creatures generated by purple monoliths spun-off from season five. Every few weeks, Fortnite also adds (or removes) new interaction models (you can race go-karts and do vehicle-based assault, engage in airborne dogfights, use balloons and gliders to float across the map and engage in aerial assault, etc.) In addition, players benefit from individual challenges that earn experience points, awards and apparel – for example, asking a player to race across the map to visit various areas without getting killed. In addition, each of these changes benefit from rapid, data-based iteration. The Fortnite team is able to closely monitor how any change is adopted, its impact on total play time, game duration, performance, and so on. All to make sure it “works” – or alternatively, to keep the game from ever feeling “static” or “solved”. [...] While there will always be a new game format or hit game, Fortnite is uniquely capable of becoming that game, or expanding into it (and it’s worth highlighting that Epic’s Unreal business depends on its ability to build/support all types of gameplay).
Fortnite has become a combination village square and office water cooler:
Still, Fortnite’s most significant achievement may be the role it has come to play in the lives of millions. For these players, Fortnite has become a daily social square – a digital mall or virtual afterschool meetup that spans neighborhoods, cities, countries and continents. This role is powered by Fortnite’s free availability, robust voice chat, cross-platform functionality, and collaborative gameplay. Accordingly, examples abound of kids, adults and families simply hanging out or catching up on Fortnite while they play. Studies find that Fortnite’s players spend one to one and a half hours per day in the game, versus thirty minutes for active Snapchat or Instagram users. Fortnite wasn’t designed to be a Second Life-style experience, or even a digital “third place“; it became one organically. What’s more, it is drastically out-monetizing dedicated social squares such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram – even combined.

Put another way, Fortnite has yet to prove its ability to endure over time. But it has shown its ability to evolve, to become other games, and most importantly, to be a social square. Fortnite isn’t IP in the traditional sense. But it is a platform. And accordingly, the gameplay is less important than the engagement, and this engagement is a springboard for Epic Games’ broader ambitions. And to this end, we need to consider Epic well beyond just Fortnite.
And that takes us about half way through the article, which goes on to assess future prospects.

Into the Metaverse:
In its fullest form, the Metaverse experience would span most, if not all virtual words, be foundational to real-world AR experiences and interactions, and would serve as an equivalent “digital” reality where all “physical” humans would simultaneously co-exist. It is an evolution of the Internet. [...]

“If you look at why people are paid to do things, it’s because they’re creating a good or delivering a service that’s valuable to somebody,” Sweeney told Venturebeat in 2017. “There’s just as much potential for that in these virtual environments as there is in the real world. If, by playing a game or doing something in a virtual world, you’re making someone else’s life better, then you can be paid for that.”

To this end, a crucial difference between a vibrant game, including Fortnite, and the Metaverse is that the latter “should not simply be a means for the developer to suck money out of the users. It should be a bi-directional thing where users participate. Some pay, some sell, some buy, and there’s a real economy….in which everybody can be rewarded for participating in many different ways”, to further quote Sweeney (A semblance of this has existed for more than twenty years in so-called “Gold Farming”, where players, often employed by a larger company and typically in lower-income countries, would spend a work-day collecting digital resources for sale inside or outside of a game).

To Sweeney, the Metaverse represents the “next version” of the Internet – a matter of when, not if. [...] The impending possibility (and broader inevitability) of the Metaverse is separate from whether Epic can, should or will pursue it. But it’s clear that Sweeney wants to build an open Metaverse before someone else builds a closed one. Many are trying.

Sweeney speaks of the Metaverse in terms of its capabilities to connect humans in new ways.

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