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Friday, June 21, 2024

The Future of 'Fortnite' Is in the Hands of Its Players

William Zachary Reed loved building elaborate castles throughout Fortnite's grassy knolls. The zany mechanics that anchored the colorful battle royale were second to none, until giant robot mecha suits spoiled his fun whenever he would jump into a match. Those suits, aptly named BRUTE, gave two players all the firepower, health, and mobility needed to melt Reed's health bar in seconds.

At that point in early 2019, it was clear that the battle royale’s game mechanics had gotten a little too zany for him, and that was long before IP crossovers gave Dragon Ball Z's Goku a shotgun and taught Marvel's Moon Knight to floss.

“I despised them,” says Reed, who goes by the name KingYoshi online. Instead of waiting for the mechs to get phased out with Fortnite's seasonal cycle, he turned to a different part of the game. “Fortnite Creative had come out not too long before that, so I just started messing around in there.”

More than three years later, Reed hardly plays the battle royale mode anymore. He spends his days refining his own creations, including a Peach's Castle from Super Mario 64 and Raccoon City's police station from Resident Evil 2—all within Fortnite Creative.

Players like Reed don't jump out of a bus and onto a mysterious island anymore. They spend dozens of hours a week prodding and tweaking different parts of their own islands in Fortnite Creative. Thousands of maps, from single-player horror adventures to rounds of hide-and-seek played in a janky version of Night City from Cyberpunk 2077, have transformed Fortnite into a marketplace of creativity that rivals Minecraft and Roblox.

Epic Games, with a bit of strategic prowess, lucked out by being one of the earliest studios to cash in on the battle royale craze. The game mode is still incredibly popular—but it's also commonplace in the game industry. Call of Duty: Warzone, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Apex Legends, and other games fill a crowded genre.

Players spend 50 percent of their time playing Fortnite within Creative, according to Epic Games. Instead of killing each other on an island, they're hosting virtual office holiday parties or trying to answer trivia questions to avoid having a truck thrown at them. Even classic games have found a new home in Creative, fueled by nostalgia.

“Naturally the first thing I thought of making was a SOCOM map,” Reed says of his first experience in Fortnite Creative. “I made it here and there, mostly in sessions after rage-quitting from a death by mech.”

SOCOM, a series of tactical shooters developed by Zipper Interactive, hasn't had an entry since 2011, so Reed thought he would relive some of his favorite moments by building his favorite map, Enowapi, within Creative. He showed it to the friends he used to play the game with and they loved it. They shared it to a SOCOM Facebook page, and that’s when things went off the rails.

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“We ended up playing pretty much every night. We never had more than four versus four for the first month or so, and slowly the word kind of spread, and I started releasing more maps and showing them off. We ended up growing to where we had a full room every night,” he says, where up to eight players would join the lobby to try out his handmade maps.

Interest was so high that Reed recreated other SOCOM maps in Creative. He also did whatever he could to mimic SOCOM's gameplay within Fortnite, ditching many of the zany mechanics that define a battle royale, which is known to have Thanos and Darth Vader zipping between buildings using Spider-Man's web-slinging powers.

Now, Reed runs a regular competitive league of SOCOM fans who play Fortnite as if they were playing a tactical shooter over 10 years old.

More than a few creators use Creative as a canvas: Coaches use it to create custom training courses for players who compete in the Fortnite Championship Series, and companies like Coca-Cola and Gilette create marketing “experiences” in the mode with the help of creatives who design for it.

"Creative, nowadays, has become what its original vision promised," says Fortnite coach Sameed Mohammed. "These creators are able to make maps that I use to build routines that train players. They've unlocked its full potential."

Dozens of creators have built an entire genre of maps that are designed to help players improve their basic Fortnite skills, no matter their skill level. Maps that help players learn to build a wall, edit a window, and fire off a shot within seconds are a dime a dozen. Most players spend more time training in Creative than they do actually playing in the competitive modes they’re training for.

"They're in it 24/7, they play it more than the real game," Mohammed says. "It's evolved into something that people do for fun."

Referencing other FPS training platforms like Aimlab and Aim Trainer, Mohammed says, "Fortnite Creative provides a complete way to train. While Aimlab does have other features that Fortnite doesn't, like statistics you can track, there is nothing more important for pro players to feel like than an extension of the game they're playing."

Creative looks nothing like it did when it originally launched in late 2018, according to some of the most dedicated creators working in the mode now.

"It's like night and day," said Team Alliance's Mackenzie Jackson. He explains that more assets and programming options have been added over the past four years. "The options before were so limiting."

Team Alliance is one of several Fortnite marketing agencies that work with companies like 100 Thieves, Sky Broadband, and others to create branded experiences within Fortnite Creative. They often charge up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for custom maps, partially due to how many players use Creative every day.

These agencies are essentially game studios themselves. They build out concept ideas, design levels, program gameplay, fill-in art, and bug test—all within a matter of weeks—so players can pretend to be delivery drivers for GrubHub while driving around in Fortnite.

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As the primary game’s collaborations and IP crossovers get more complex, companies eager to get their brands in front of players want to build deeper experiences in Fortnite. But the tools to build those experiences aren't available to those agencies just yet.

Epic Games has said that Fortnite Creative 2.0, a version of Creative with expanded tools from Unreal Engine 5, is coming sometime this year. It should let creators bring their own code into their maps, giving them far more freedom. It could lead to Creative becoming as deep of a game design tool as Unreal Engine, with a far gentler learning curve.

In an interview with Fast Company back in April, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney said that "later this year, we’re going to release the Unreal Editor for Fortnite—the full capabilities that you’ve seen in Unreal Engine opened up so that anybody can build very high-quality game content and code … and deploy it into Fortnite without having to do a deal with us—it’s open to everybody." He continued, "Our aim is to make it a first-class outlet for reaching the consumers, just like you might look at the mobile app stores and consoles and Steam as ways to reach users."

It's already clear that Creative is becoming an equal counterpart to the rest of Fortnite—especially since some Creative map launches garner more players than major game releases. Some of its creators believe that Creative will outgrow the battle royal mode sometime in the next 10 years, but others are hoping it becomes something different altogether.

“The possibilities with Creative could be endless,” Reed says. I think the ideal future of Creative would be where it basically becomes its own entity, seen as a creative platform for a wide variety of games and art. Creative is so much more than base Fortnite—it just happens to have gotten its start within Fortnite. Even if today’s not that day, one day soon it will stand alone and not necessarily be seen as a part of Fortnite, but as its own art creation platform that stands on equal ground with the game that inspired it.

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