What this early access survival game needs is a shorter burst PVE mode, not to chase the 'PUBG' gold rush.
All images courtesy of Epic Games
I've got a hypothetical situation for you, just for fun.
Let's say you've made a colorful, cooperative multiplayer game. Say that game strives for a cheerful, encouraging tone; unironically lighthearted in spite of its machine guns and zombie hordes and whatnot. Say that game is also fundamentally structured to promote creative alternatives to one-on-one combat with enemies, and that its key activities revolve around defending and protecting people and sites in the world. Sounds good so far, right?
Say you want to add a new mode to that game. How does a player-versus-player Battle Royale deathmatch sound?
I'm talking about Fortnite's recently released game mode, of course, and I should tell you that my interest in this game isn't just academic. I've played at least a round or two of Fortnite nearly every day since its early access launch in late July, and while there isn't an hour count anywhere in the game or the launcher, I'd estimate I've put something like 60 hours into it.
This makes me a bit of an anomaly among my fellow members of the games press, frankly. For most of them, particularly those I'm closest to, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds has dominated much of that exact window, fulfilling that exact same round-or-two-a-day space. While they've been pursuing their chicken dinners, I've been building up my Storm Shields and amassing a tidy little pile of loot instead.
Key word there: Instead.
If I wanted to be playing Battlegrounds during that time, I've had ample opportunity. But in spite of its dense work-in-progress user interface (and the weirdness surrounding Epic launching an "Early Access" game that can already be bought on disk with little indication given as to its unfinished nature) I really love Fortnite. During E3 I wrote about how promising the game seemed based on the constructive/protective focus of its trailer, and for the most part the game has delivered on that trailer's promise.
With rare exceptions, a round of Fortnite tends to be a pretty positive experience. Coming up with clever builds with teammates on the fly is a really good feeling, as is flaunting the zombie-trapping efficacy of a design I'm particularly proud of. I like perfecting my home forts into impenetrable castles with looming jet black parapets, and building gunmetal pyramids around shield amplifiers situated nearby. It's fun, and I almost always wrap up a match feeling a bit better than I did when I started.
There aren't a lot of multiplayer games that do this for me. More competitive play has come to dominate, and even games that facilitate teamwork still often do so within a larger framework of people trying to screw each other over constantly. I play these games infrequently because I tend to affect me in the exact opposite way that Fortnite does; even if I do well, I will still probably leave feeling a bit worse than when I started. It's a case of fight-or-flight versus tend-and-befriend, and while most games are catering to the former it's been nice to find just a bit of the latter in Fortnite.
There are plenty of holes to plug in Fortnite, but you will never convince me that this is one of them. Although the UI has undergone a bit of work it's still guilty of making a convoluted upgrade system even harder for new players to parse. It's also easy to hit a plateau while playing solo that stops just short of feeling like a paywall, but still sucks a lot of the joy out of continued levelling. Then there's the question of match variety. There's a lot of variety in what players are doing in the different match types and variety in the maps they play on, but very little variety in terms of length and intensity.
The announcement of Fortnite's Battle Royale actually came on the heels of another new (albeit temporary) mode, Survive the Storm. As the name implies these matches are largely about endurance and can last over four hours. This, in a game that's starving for the kind of quick get-in-get-out that keeps games like Overwatch as part of many people's regular gaming rotations. Your choices in Fortnite are pretty much long, longer, or longest.
The lack of a coffee-break length mode is the number one reason I can feel myself starting to lose interest, in spite of how much I may have left to see. The average round of Fortnite encourages exploration and preparation. There are very few circumstances where players are deliberately rushed, and that's an appealing thing—especially when you're just getting used to the many maps and objectives. That's less appealing when you're at the daily check-in stage of playing, though.
Quick matches are possible, but unless you're playing with a group of friends who are all on the same page as you it feels downright rude to hurry other players along.
In a broader sense, Fortnite has a consumability problem. Its convoluted UI, its match lengths, the inability to craft weapons or traps or even simply manage inventory from outside of those matches. As much as it encourages these daily check-ins with bonuses and daily quests, it makes every check-in a chore. A minor ordeal. I don't want a 30-60 minute commitment every day. I just want to pop in, scratch that itch, and pop out again.
But while Survive the Storm may emblematic of one of Fortnite's larger shortcomings, Battle Royale feels outright misguided.
In theory there's an intriguing seed in it— Battlegrounds, but with spike-traps and slapdash shelters built in the centre of otherwise coverless fields. A battle royale with a little bite-sized Rust amuse-bouche on the side. I'm not going to pretend there's nothing to that idea, because there absolutely is.
In practice it's all a lot less elegant, though. Gathering enough resources to make anything of merit is a loud and time-consuming process. In the matches I played there was nothing less appealing than making a huge racket with my face to a wall and my back to whoever might feel inclined to shoot it. It's all risk and little reward, the exact opposite of what makes resource gathering feel worthwhile in PVE.
There's also very little point in building anything until the very end because the ever-shrinking circle will typically force you to leave your base (and your expended materials) behind. Once the circle's tight enough for those shelters to really count anyone who's got their building tools selected rather than their killing ones is a pretty easy elimination. As a result most of the players I saw just treat this like Battlegrounds, but occasionally throw up a wall when they're getting shot at. That's novel, I guess, but it's a far cry from what should be the most promising thing here.
The cherry on top of it all is that characters are randomly assigned and lack all of the abilities they have in other modes, and until the standalone free-to-play version goes live there's no squad mode whatsoever. While the main game shuffles players together into ad hoc parties at every opportunity, PVP is currently solo or bust—and by bust I mean they will ban your fort-building ass for trying to make any friends.
Fortnite's Battle Royale mode runs counter to everything that makes this such a fun and different game in the first place. And, outside of being free, I'm not convinced it's adding enough to the world of 100-player elimination shooters to make up for it. I'll put it this way: When my friends who own both Battlegrounds and Fortnite are in the mood for some deathmatch, I have no illusions about which of the two they'll load up. I'm similarly unconvinced that players who get lured to Fortnite's free Battle Royale are going to leave with an appreciation of what the rest of the game is about.
Above all else it's worrying to see a game I enjoy lose sight of its best features (even before its full release) for the sake of being early to the inevitable rush of PUBG copycats. Fortnite's been a PVE oasis for me at a time when competitive PVP dominates. I hope I can still say that a year from now.