If you’re one of the two or three people left in Missoula who don’t know what Fortnite is, I wrote this just for you.

Fortnite is a global phenomenon, an online game with almost 50 million people who play it. If you have kids under 18 and over 8 years in the house, they have almost certainly played it, even if they haven’t told you they have.   As I write this, there is a 20-minute wait just to get in to play the game. How old is Fortnite? Less than one year old. Such is the pace of change in the internet era.

David Firth
David Firth

Let me describe it to you so you can get a bit of a feel for it.  You download the game package for free, and then install it on your PC, Xbox, PlayStation, Nintendo Switch or smartphone.  The fact that it is free and on so many platforms is a major part of the amazing success of the game.

Once you start up the game, you get dropped into a character that is randomly selected from a short list of four or so.  Typically, I am a pretty buff female army-type it seems. Each game has 100 people playing, and it is last-person standing wins.  You can join the game either as just one of that 100, or as part of a squad of up to four friends.

And this is really part of the genius of the game – you can play with your friends online.  It is this squad-mode that makes the game just a whole lot more fun. And it makes it so much more accessible. I played my first 20 or so games with my son as the two-person squad leader. He told me what he was doing, where to go, what to pick up, which keys to use when I forgot.  Having a guide made all the difference in the world.

You start the game off on a flying school bus.  It sounds like a party is going on. This is again another part of the genius of Fortnite – it is not that serious.  The bus is flying over a pretty decent sized island that has maybe around 20 or so different areas in it, like a farm, a shopping mall and such.  You can jump off the bus when you want, and then parachute down to the ground.

Once on the ground you look around for guns to attack others or defend yourself from attackers with, and things to build things to either protect yourself, or to climb obstacles or build watchtowers with. The variety here is enormous, but there are some very basic themes which makes it much less complex if you are just starting out.  Again, part of the genius of the game is this simple-to-start but as complex as you want when you get good.

If this was it, then the game could take ages to complete given the ultimate goal is to be the last one standing out of the 100 who start.  You could just hide. The designers of Fortnite made this impossible, however. Every 2 or 3 minutes, a storm starts and to survive you have to be inside the eye of the storm (I know, that seems backwards to real storms and was very confusing originally when my son described it to me).

Basically, what it means is that every few minutes there is a smaller and smaller part of the map where you can stay alive at all. Hiding out is not an option. The map shows you where you can be to stay alive, so you have to keep track and usually keep moving to that part of the map. In this way, the Fortnite designers made sure that they pack whoever is still left alive out of the 100 starters in to a smaller and smaller area as the game progresses.  They essentially made sure that the game ends in a certain amount of time, around 8 minutes. Again, a genius idea.

Better yet, when you get killed you are given the option to watch the gameplay of the person who committed the deed.  In this way you can learn tactics from someone who is presumably better than you. It takes a lot of the frustration out of an early death and allows you to keep getting better.

One final twist to the game: you can make your character dance.  Not what you’d expect in a fight-to-the-death game, but some of these dance moves have achieved cult-like status and are talking points for kids at school the next day.  Again, brilliant design by the Fortnite folks, as if your friends are talking about something at school you’re highly likely to want to see what all the fuss is about that evening at home on your computer.

So, this is a free to download and free to play game with 50 million people using incredibly high-end online computer servers to make it all happen.  The Fortnite designers seem to be very good indeed, and seem to be coming up with new things to keep you entertained and engaged every day. How is this all possible?  Simple: in-game purchases.

This is world we now live in.  Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine wrote a book in 2009 on how a price of $0.00 is how things are going to be sold in the digital world.  As he put it, “this is the best form on marketing. You can try out the product for zero cost, and if you really like it you will pay for the upgrades.”

In Fortnite, those upgrades are mainly “skins,” which is pretty much what it sounds like – they are basically digital clothes that you can purchase to make your character look cool. It also means you don’t get your character randomly assigned to you anymore and instead get to keep your character. Most interestingly, these skins don’t make your character any stronger, quicker, sharper, or more likely to survive. They are truly cosmetic, much like having a cool backpack or the latest Nike shoes for school.

How much money can this possible bring in for Fortnite you might wonder?  Well, $126 million in March and $296 million in April. It is likely this has only gone up each month since.  That means through July 1st, just in 2018 this free-to-play game has made Fortnite at least $1.1 billion.  Yes, over a billion dollars has been spent on cosmetic enhancements for digital characters in an online game.

I have spent $0.00, and will continue to play for free.  Not that it is important, but I actually finished one round, on my own without my son as the 2-troup leader, in 2ndplace.  I happened to parachute in at the start of the game to very close to where the final storm center ended up being 8 minutes later.  That meant I did not have to move much at all during the game. I did find a really powerful gun very early on, and I hid out in a shack as the storm center moved in and then in again.  Only in the last 10 seconds of the game was I forced out of the shack and I was able to use that gun to put me in second place.

Had I been smart I would have screen-shot my victory and posted it on every social media outlet available so all my friends could marvel at my amazing Fortnite skills.  Perhaps I will register for one of the eSports gaming events to see if I can make it to part of the $100 million prize money Fortnite is putting up just this year.

David Firth is a professor of management information systems in the College of Business at the University of Montana and a faculty fellow with Advanced Technology Group in Missoula.