Fortnite needs no introduction. According to some estimates, it has generated an estimated $2.4bn across all platforms in 2018. It has trusted the top grossing spot on iOS since it came out – and its success was so big Epic ended up bypassing the Google Play Store to release the game on Android (and save the platform fee). Fortnite’s success redefined the way the market evaluated the long-term potential of the main publishers in the industry, and it seems like everybody is now scrambling to release their own Battle Royale game.
Fortnite is a free to play game that now can be played on pretty much any platform imaginable. The fact that the game is free to play clearly lowers the barrier of entry for millions of installs. But the driving aspect behind the game’s success is not that it’s free-to-play. To put it differently, being free-to-play is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the levels of success we are seeing. There have been other cross-platform games before that didn’t even get close to the same levels of success. The main reasons for Fortnite’s success seem to reside in what the game is and how it monetizes.
Fortnite’s success is clearly due to the gameplay and the innovations it brings to the Battle Royale genre. But not only. Fortnite’s monetization is also very elaborate and well thought out. The Battle Pass structures in a unique way the monetization and acquisition of exclusive content – and even if your game is not a Battle Royale game, the Battle Pass model is a great way to monetize exclusivity via engagement. With the Battle Pass model, the more you play the more unique and exclusive rewards you unlock. The Battle pass monetizes by providing an exclusive layer of rewards for engaged customers. And that’s a monetization format that works for any game: the best customers are usually also the most engaged players. It’s always the same group of users that engages with a game the most and that monetizes the most. With the Battle Pass, engagement reinforces monetization – and monetization reinforces engagement. And that’s precisely why the Battle Pass is a model than can apply to any game: it’s a great way for any game to monetize and provide value to its biggest fans.
Epic’s implementation of the Battle Pass is also a great example of adapting the monetization format and structure to your audience. Monetization formats are not a one-size-fits-all feature. Gacha will appeal more to a hardcore audience interested in acquiring high performance content. Direct purchase will probably appeal more to a mid-core audience interested in acquiring something specific (for example, a sniper or a car). Consumables or energy are for more casual players, etc. The above examples are not meant as an exhaustive breakdown of all available monetization formats. They are meant to illustrate the fact that different types of monetization are going to be a good fit for different types of audiences. And the Battle Pass feels like a particularly great way to monetize Fortnite’s audience. More than other games that emphasize and value competition and performance, Fortnite shares something with games like Minecraft or Roblox. Fortnite is not so much about extrinsic achievement (win rate, k/d ratio, accuracy, etc.) – it also encourages gratuitous play and simple fun. Building and goofing around are as part of the game as shooting opponents and finishing first. And that’s the type of game that makes monetizing off engagement – and not just functional items – particularly in sync with its identity and the type of players it attracts. In that sense, the Battle pass is a great monetization format for any game – but even more so for a game like Fortnite. That’s because it ties monetization and engagement – and Fortnite more than other games is a game that promotes and encourages pure engagement (rather than performance).
In Fortnite, there is nothing players can buy to provide them with a competitive advantage. The items customers walk away with are all cosmetic. But the Battle Pass is selling much more than that: cosmetic items are the output of the Battle Pass. The desire to structure play and provide a sense of meaning and progression is a great driver of spending in Fortnite. There are no intrinsic goals and meta sense of progression in Fortnite. The Battle Pass provides a series of challenges that help players structure the way they play. One of the main values provided by the Battle Pass is that it provides a sense of structure and purpose to players – in a game that otherwise features very few objectives, goals and extrinsic criteria of success. In Fortnite there are no goals beyond the match being played. The additional challenges that come with the Battle Pass provide players with goals that go beyond any single match and provides pace and structure to play throughout the season.
So, in Fortnite Epic really found the perfect combo: an original and engaging game, a great monetization format, and a perfect monetization-audience fit.
What makes Fortnite special?
There are many things about the game that make it appealing for a large variety of players. From the perspective of understanding its huge commercial success, 3 key things seem to stand out:
- What makes Battle Royale games engaging
- Building and gratuitous play in Fortnite
Although you shoot your opponents, Battle Royale games are something else (more) than shooters. In Fortnite most of the time played is not being engaged in combat (unless you launch with the pack and get killed in your first exchange). Players are launched into a large map full of hostile opponents and must survive – the game is won when only one player remains.
Players don’t launch with a weapon. They must explore the terrain and scavenge the land to find the weapons they will need. And players need to hope they’ll be lucky enough to get one of the better weapons. The shrinking map ensures camping is not a long-term option and all matches eventually come to an end. In Fortnite, you are forced to continuously be on the move with limited resources. And you’re always scanning your surroundings to make sure you don’t get ambushed (and see if there is an opponent you can attack). What that means in terms of experience is that the game is about much more than shooting. There is an element of discovery, of navigating an unknown and hostile territory, of tracking an opponent who might have left some traces – while also never knowing when you’ll come across someone. And you might be doing all that with a really sub-par weapon to defend yourself (or no weapon at all). There is something tragic (in the most classical sense there is) to being dropped somewhere on the map of an unknown territory and fighting to survive against all odds. And that’s what really makes Battle Royale something unique, very different from an FPS game on console/PC – or a sniper/shooter game on mobile. And building is really what sets Fortnite apart from the rest: it’s part of Fortnite’s unique identity.
Building and gratuitous play in Fortnite
In Fortnite building is key to a winning strategy: you put walls to avoid incoming damage, you build large structures to get a better vantage point, you build a small fortress inside which you hide, you place traps in structures, etc. But more importantly here, building is key to creating a unique user experience. Building provides users more agency in making sure no two games are the same. It adds a crucial aspect of unscripted play which provides players with the tools to create their own story. There are multiple ways to get from the drop point to the eye of the storm. Players can glide or walk through the terrain. Or players can build their own path, go up otherwise inaccessible mountains, or fortify and prepare their base. The island is not a passive environment. It’s the canvas for user-generated content. Building also provides traces that will allow other players to see you were there. All this makes Fortnite about much more than being the last wo/man standing. It’s almost like creating a new story every time you play.
This focus on building and user-generated content creates a new experience – an experience that differs from the traditional models that only emphasize performance, achievements and competition. Ultimately, Fortnite is a game highly conducive to a gratuitous style of play. A bit like Minecraft or Roblox – the game wants to provide enough freedom and agency for users to make each game unique. Games are not scripted in the traditional sense. There is no one right way to play. Fortnite is appealing in large part because it allows everybody to play it the way they want to: drop with the pack in at the start and jump into the heat of combat. Look for more isolated drop spaces, keep quiet and stay alive while staying away from direct confrontation as much as possible. It’s not just about winning a game – it’s also about how you win it. It’s actually probably more about how you play it than whether or not you win.
I’m not even sure winning matches is linked to performance – in the traditional sense of performing well in head-to-head confrontation. Only Epic knows what the average number of kills of a battle winner is, and how it compares to other players. What is the average time before launch of players winning the battle royale? In other words, are winners those who jump with the pack as soon as the game starts and kill a bunch of enemies – or are they mostly the players who jump last and don’t run head first into confrontation? Does the performance of the winning player differ much from the performance of players in the top 10? What percent of players die per minute since launch (and what proportion of players shot down early haven’t even picked up a gun)? How many players are really in it for the win?
Fortnite is fun and crazy and silly. It’s not about being the best as much as providing users with an emotionally charged forum to create their own adventure. The way the game is structured, the functionalities it supports makes it very much in line with the “user-generated” paradigm of games. It’s about having fun and creating something original – not about winning. Playing a game of Fortnite is like creating a story: from the location you drop in, the weapons you collect to the path you take and the structures you build – and the traces left by others you come across – no two games feel the same. Every game you play is like a new story of epic survival you create. All that with funny costumes and crazy functionalities: hide in a bush, attach yourself to balloons to fly up in the sky, search for a treasure, etc.
There is something else that is very telling of this “non-performance” paradigm. Standard competitive games emphasize the players’ failures and successes. They are all about outcomes, not about processes. Player performance is constantly being evaluated from the perspective of winning, defeating an opponent or getting killed. And quantifying performance – in any way at all – implies distinguishing good from bad play. Is your win ratio above 50%? what is your accuracy? Is your k/d above or below 1. In traditional shooters, the k/d ratio is what matters the most to be considered a good player. And of course, you need to track the amount of deaths to calculate a k/d ratio.
Very few things in Fortnite provide a player with something that could be interpreted as an evaluation if his or her performance. Failures are not tracked and recorded. For example, you can’t find anywhere any mention of your total number of deaths. Only positive accomplishments are tracked. Fortnite does not make the game about performance. Then again, in a game that pits 100 players against each other and where there can be only one winner, focusing on accomplishments too much is bound to alienate a large portion of your userbase.
Seasons, not meta
There is no energy system in Fortnite: players can play as much as they want for free. In parallel, there are no “performance enhancing” items or consumables. In Fortnite you cannot purchase anything that can make you better at anything in the game (better in combat, better at building, faster or more silent at walking).
All that means players can play as much as they want, but they are always playing the same game – there is no tangible progression for users. Every game plays the same way: gameplay and performance are the same after the first game and after the 100th game (hopefully you’ll have gotten more skilled in the process). You play with the same weapons throughout. Players don’t upgrade their weapons as they play. They don’t unlock any new weapons or items with a different functionality.
There is no meta so to speak in Fortnite. There is no progression or improvement that carries over from one game to the next. Stated differently, there is nothing beyond the match being played that provides players with a sense of purpose or progression. Players can play as much as they want unimpeded, but they are always playing the same game and there is no sense of extrinsic improvement or progression.
“Seasons” is the closest thing to a meta in Fortnite. Seasons are a time limited thematic associated with some changes in map layout. For 10 weeks, those changes are in the map. And each season has a new set of cosmetic items and a Battle Pass that tracks player progression and unlocks that content. Players accumulate Battle points by leveling up and completing challenges. Every 10 Battle Points, users go up a tier in the Battle Pass. And users can gain items when they attain certain tiers. Players go up in tier during a season – their tier resets at the season end and they start over again.
There are 2 layers to the Battle Pass. The free layer everybody gets. For this layer, only some tiers are associated to rewards – and there are not more rewards after tier 62 (in season 8). Alternatively, players can spend 950 V-Bucks (approximately $9.50 worth of in-game currency) to gain access to the “premium” side of the Battle Pass. When players buy the Battle Pass, they go up in tier in the same way. And every Tier provides players with exclusive rewards. The Premium Battle Pass provides additional rewards – that has been discussed much. But at least as important, the premium Battle Pass provides users with additional challenges. Those challenges provide players with more opportunities to gain Battle stars and gain additional tiers. They also provide players with more extrinsic goals to achieve and challenges to complete.
The Season/Battle Pass combo, as well as the 2-layer Battle Pass – free and premium – is where Fortnite’s monetization shines.
Monetization and the Battle Pass: getting rewards
There is only one currency in Fortnite: V-Bucks. V-Bucks are scarce – you can’t realistically grind V-Bucks to purchase anything. The game makes it very clear from the start that if you want to get something in the store, you’ll need to spend money in the game. In addition, the lowest price for the default IAP bundle is $9.99 (there is a one-time bundle at $4.99). In Fortnite, items are exclusive, and you can’t get away with spending little to get them. Fortnite does really well at monetizing exclusivity and scarcity. It puts players in front of a clear choice: spend or don’t get it.
There are 2 big categories of purchases in the game. Players can directly buy cosmetic items, or players can spend V-Bucks on the Battle Pass. The game features numerous skins and cosmetic items. In fact, there are many more skins, dances, loading screens or audio than there are weapons. Compared to all the cosmetic items, there are much fewer weapons (and they feel much more generic). The contents of the store vary greatly. Prices range between 200 and 2000 V-bucks.
There is no data publicly available. But it feels like the bulk of the game’s monetization is tied to the Battle Pass. It feels like most customers monetize in one way or another on the Battle Pass. And my guess would also be that a majority of the V-Bucks spent by customers in the game is spent on acquiring the Battle Pass and buying extra levels.
There are 2 different ways to monetize the Battle Pass. The first one is acquiring it. Players can spend 950 V-Bucks to get the Battle Pass. Another way to monetize is to directly purchase Battle Tiers. Players can purchase Battle Tiers individually for 150 V-Bucks. There are also various discounts for purchasing Tiers in Bulk – or for purchasing a Battle Pass and Tier bundle.
There is a sense of missed opportunity in the way extra tiers are monetized. First each Battle Tier is priced the same: 150 V-Bucks. Presumably, not all tiers have the same value for players. Second, there is no time constraint or pressure for players to purchase those tiers: it’s the same price on the first day of the season or the last day of the season (when players realize they’re running out of time and won’t be able to grind their way to the desired tier). Looking at when in the season players buy tiers the most or what tiers are purchased the most would provide direct insights into what has the most value for users and how to best optimize the pricing structure. It’s probably too late (or too complicated) for Fortnite to pivot on those points now. But any other game wanting to follow the Battle Pass model could probably improve on that level.
When players purchase the Battle Pass, they are unlocking the premium reward path. As players go up in tiers, they get the associated rewards. There are less rewards in the free path, they are more spread out (some tiers don’t have any associated reward), and there are no more rewards after tier 62. On the other hand, players purchasing the Battle Pass get rewards at every tier, they get rewards up to tier 100, and they get better rewards. There are no skins in the free Battle Pass – those skins are exclusively for paying users. The most ostensible – and fun and desirable – item in the game is only available for paying users.
The great thing about the Battle Pass is that players always get the same value, regardless of when they purchase it: whether it’s on the first day or the last day of a season. By “get the same value”, I mean that a player’s engagement is rewarded exactly the same way regardless of when the Battle Pass is purchased. The Battle Pass tracks progression and engagement – and each tier has an associated reward. Players don’t miss out on anything if they purchase the Battle Pass later. The benefits of playing during the season accumulate and players get the same amount of benefits whenever they purchase it, there is never any loss in value.
The Battle Pass is by design a way to monetize engagement. The more engaged a player, the more rewards s/he gets. In addition to a free level of rewards everybody gets, paying provides players with exclusive rewards. Engagement is still rewarded in the same way. It’s just better rewarded. As players play during a season and go up in tiers in their Battle Pass, they can see what they have acquired for free. And they can also see what they potentially have waiting for them if they purchase the Battle Pass and collect all the exclusive rewards they have virtually unlocked by playing.
There is a very interesting comparison with Clash Royale here. Both Fortnite and Clash Royale let players play as much as they want. And both Fortnite and Clash Royale tie in engagement and rewards. And players can spend to get more rewards for a same level of engagement. But there is a key difference in which Fortnite stands out. In Clash Royale, players will spend to free up a chest slot to continue getting rewards as they play. In Fortnite, the premium Battle Pass will provide players with exclusive rewards they can only get by purchasing the Battle Pass. There is no other acquisition path.
The key difference here is exclusivity. More specifically, Fortnite rewards paying users by providing them with something exclusive and unique they can only get by paying. In Clash Royale, when a player spends to free up a chest slot – and continue receiving a chest for his or her next victory – s/he is getting more of the same. The player is speeding up his or her reward schedule. The player is getting more of what s/he would get anyways without paying – only faster.
Paying users in Clash Royale are getting more of the same – they are getting more chests than non-paying users. But it’s more of the same. Paying users in Clash Royale are getting larger quantities of cards – and more chances at getting the rare card they want. But there is nothing exclusive that distinguishes what a payer and a non-payer have. It’s only a matter of quantity. In Fortnite, players are walking away with something qualitatively different. There are some things your engagement gets you when you don’t pay. And there are some exclusive items that same engagement gets you when you pay. Paying users are getting something they couldn’t get without spending. And that exclusivity makes the purchase all the more rewarding in Fortnite. The Battle Pass provides players getting it something they couldn’t get without it. It associates spending and exclusivity. The Battle Pass monetizes by tying in engagement with exclusive rewards.
Monetization and the Battle Pass: challenges and providing purpose and progression
When players purchase the Battle Pass, they can unlock exclusive rewards they otherwise could not get. But they are also getting something more intangible, but as important. By default, Fortnite does not provide users with any goal to work towards, it does not provide players with any specific objective. The Premium Battle Pass provides more challenges: More weekly challenges, and challenges only players with the premium Battle Pass get.
These challenges have a functional purpose. They provide players with more potential Battle Points to accumulate. More Battle Points means more tiers to complete, and more tiers means more rewards. But those challenges also provide players with a sense of purpose and progression. They structure the way the players play throughout the season.
As you play the game, you can feel things lack direction and purpose when there are no more challenges to complete. Playing becomes a bit more repetitive and a bit less gratifying. The challenges provide guidance and goals for players that go beyond each single match. If the Battle Pass links monetization to engagement, challenges specify what form that engagement takes. It can require players to visit specific locations on the map – location they otherwise would have no reason to visit – to get eliminations with certain weapons or accumulate different types of damage.
To a certain extent, Fortnite’s monetization is not primarily cosmetic. Don’t get me wrong. The items being sold in the shop and the rewards in the Battle Pass are all purely cosmetic. But the motivation behind the monetization, the emotion being catered is not just vanity. It’s a desire to structure and track/measure progress.
The Premium Battle Pass provides more weekly challenges. It also provides unique challenges of its own. In season 8, the more weekly challenges players complete, the more discovery challenges they unlock. There are (very rudimentary) challenges to unlock variations of the skins players receive with the premium Battle Pass. The weekly cycle provides players with a sense of completion and achievement the game doesn’t offer in itself. And the importance of challenges is strongly felt when players completed all challenges for a week and are left waiting for the next weekly challenges to unlock.
That could be confirmed by looking at engagement patterns relative to the challenges available. How does engagement compare while there are weekly challenges to be completed and once they are completed? It seems reasonable to expect a peak in engagement of players with a premium Battle Pass when new weekly challenges are released. An easy way to assess the impact of the challenges on players would be to compare engagement in players before and after they’ve completed all their weekly challenges.
The advantage with the Battle Pass and challenge system is that you can add as many layers as you want – you could for example imagine a second tier Battle Pass players could unlock only once they’ve reached tier 100 (an extra incentive to speed up completing the Battle Pass, and a second level of exclusivity). The Battle Pass links engagement and content acquisition, and challenges are a way to spice up the form taken by player engagement – so basically there doesn’t need to be any end to that. Epic has sold special packs that feature “season agnostic” challenges. That feels like an endless source of opportunities for any game that wants to follow the Battle Pass format.
Monetizing engagement and increasing the value of your biggest fans
The Battle Pass and seasons are a great structure to monetize content in a time limited way – while at the same time capitalizing on user engagement. This is great because engagement and monetization are linked. But not in any causal way: being engaged doesn’t cause someone to spend. Just like spending doesn’t cause someone to be engaged. Finding a game very appealing, being a big fan, is the same force that drives players to be at the same time very engaged with a game and to spend a lot. The Battle Pass is a way to make spending and engagement rewarding at the same time. And finding a way to make spending rewarding – and the more you engage, the more rewarded you are – is great for any game. It creates a virtuous cycle: it gives players who love the game an additional reason to keep playing the game, and the more they play it the more they are rewarded (and the more they love the game).
We shouldn’t think of the Battle Pass as creating more customers or generating more engagement. It’s a great model to identify and maximize the value you can get from your biggest fans – those who play the most and spend the most. And every game generates fans (obviously, some more than others). Linking engagement and monetization in a rewarding way is something that every game can benefit from.
In Fortnite all items are cosmetic – this appeals well to engaged players who are more interested in gratuitous fun play than traditional performance-based games. But the fact that the Battle Pass only provides cosmetic items is much more due to the type of game Fortnite is. That’s much more because of Fortnite’s identity and the audience it draws in – it’s not a defining aspect of what a Battle Pass is and how games can monetize engagement. The Battle Pass format tracks and rewards progress. But those rewards could equally be functional and performance-based. What matters in the Battle Pass is that rewards depend on engagement, and that those rewards are exclusive and always virtually available for players. Those rewards should be as desirable as possible. Maybe in Fortnite the most desirable reward does not provide a competitive advantage. Other games – especially games that feature a heavier PvE component – could probably benefit from giving users different types of rewards.