Before Fortnite Battle Royale became the 40-million-plus players, live-streamed-by-Drake phenomenon it is today, Epic Games treated the competitive mode and its original with a more serious-minded tone.
But a certain player benchmark, and a realization of the excitement players had while playing Fortnite, caused a huge tonal shift in how Epic marketed its Battle Royale mode, and the game as a whole.
Speaking at GDC in a panel titled “Fortnite: An Unconventional Launch,” Ed Zobrist, head of publishing at Epic Games for Fortnite, Spyjinx, and Fortnite: Battle Royale touched on the surprising aspects of both the original and Battle Royale launches of Fortnite.
For Battle Royale, the identity of Fortnite clicked around the time it hit the 20-million player mark. The “Thank you” video actually began as an internal company meeting video. But its light-hearted, fun tone offered a stark contrast to the more serious, competitive-minded tone of previous marketing, though original Fortnite marketing did always include notes of levity.
“This was the turning point for where we started to really find our voice for the Battle Royale brand,” Zobrist said.
“[This trailer] has this feeling, sense of sheer joy, a playful aspect to what was going on…as opposed to being really focused on the core,” he continued.
When Battle Royale launched, after a short, two-month development cycle that began largely when Fortnite’s Save the World PvE mode debuted on July 25, 2017, Epic believed it “need[ed] to be more hardcore” in presenting its competitive mode.
But the realization of streamers showing such joy in their gameplay “started to shift the way we presented the game to the players.”
And it was certainly a shift from the six or so years of lead-up to Fortnite’s launch after its announcement in 2011. Fortnite finally debuted to the public in 2017 in paid, early access rather than in its intended finished, free-to-play state, which is still on the way. And that’s because Epic Games knew the game hadn’t achieved its full potential yet.
“We knew we weren’t quite ready. [Fortnite] still needed tuning, features that needed to go into it,” Zobrist said.
Zobrist explained Epic knew Fortnite was a game that would evolve and change over time, and that they wanted this idea conveyed to players.
And Epic had a lot to convey to players in a short amount of time, despite that long development period.
That’s because, as Zobrist put it, Fortnite took a much more accelerated timeline for launch. Rather than a CGI announcement trailer 12-18 months out, as Zobrist surmised many major releases have, Fortnite debuted a gameplay trailer with release date just seven weeks ahead of launch. (The game’s CGI trailer came only three weeks before launch.)
That announcement seven weeks ahead came days before E3 began, as Zobrist and the Fortnite team endeavored to avoid the “tornado” of E3 announcements, particularly as they worried the years-long development time may have led to an indifference on the part of players.
“[We knew we] have a lot of ground we need to recover because of that indifferent perception, a lot of baggage,” Zobrist explained.
Of course, Fortnite has overcome that baggage, in terms of its player base — after amassing 500,000 digital preorders, Fortnite launched and steadily gained millions of players in the months following. And with a Pro-Am E3 competition, a jump to Fortnite on mobile, and more updates to come, Fortnite has found its voice, and very much looks to continue finding more players.
Jonathon Dornbush is an Associate Editor for IGN. Find him on Twitter @jmdornbush.