How Fortnite Became the Most Popular Video Game on the Planet

Every once in a while, there comes along a video game that reaches such enormous levels of popularity that it transcends the games industry and becomes a cultural phenomenon in and of itself. Over the last decade a handful of games have managed it: Wii Sports, Angry Birds, Minecraft, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, and Pokemon GO are some of the first that spring to mind.

Fortnite is the latest addition to the list – the battle royale builder/shooter which is dominating Twitch and Youtube, and making waves further afield in the mainstream media. It’s set new records for concurrent viewers, and it’s been pretty much unavoidable on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This article was originally going to be a review of the game, but as I thought about it I was much more interested not in whether the game is good (spoiler: it is), but in why it’s been able to reach such enormous levels of popularity. What aspects of the game’s design, and of the world in 2018, have conspired to allow Fortnite to capture the zeitgeist as quickly and as completely as it has?

A New Genre’s Next Step

 

To start with, it’s the next step in the burgeoning battle royale genre, which has already proven compelling enough to support variations upon its key ideas and gameplay loops. This is how game genres develop: an innovative, popular game comes along, whose ideas inspire a wave of imitators and experimenters looking to expand upon the formula. PUBG is the game which laid the genre’s foundation, much as DOOM, Dark Souls or Spelunky did for the FPS, Souls-like and Rogue-like. But Fortnite is the first major player in the second wave of battle royales, and as such players and devs alike are looking to it for clues on how the genre will develop moving forwards.

Fortnite’s biggest innovation is, of course, its building mechanics. The ability to place walls, ramps and ceilings increases the pace of the game, offering a huge layer of strategy beyond simply aiming, as well as dissuading players from hiding in a bush for ten minutes. And – whether by a stroke of luck or canny design – those building mechanics have proven to be intuitive for a generation of young kids and teenagers who grew up with construction games such as Minecraft, and are now looking for something a bit more mature.

Minecraft (and imitators like Terraria) were and continue to be popular because they are essentially the digital descendants of Lego: they’re sandboxes where creativity and problem-solving can be learned through play. Fortnite, though it doesn’t offer the same level of depth in construction, taps into that same desire for creativity, and is one of the biggest reasons for its runaway success.

Image result for fortnite screenshot

Fortnite is riding the rising tide of the new media platforms on which it thrives”

 

This creative play, combined with the game’s competitive combat and elements of chance such as random loot and chests, generate stories. You’ll always remember that one time you dropped into Tilted Towers and found nothing but sticky grenades, but somehow blasted your way out alive. Or when you shot someone’s ramp out from beneath them seconds before they put down a launch pad, and cackled as they fell to their death.

It is these stories which generate another reason for Fortnite’s success: its watchability. Each 20-minute game has a narrative arc: the decision making before you drop, then the frantic looting and initial kills, the high-stakes interactions in the mid stage of the game (Is it worth attacking? Can I take them on?), and then the heart-pounding tension of the endgame, when there’s only a few players left alive.

Twitch streamers and Youtubers are successful when they are expert storytellers, playing the role of protagonist for their viewers to experience vicariously. Of course, it helps that Fortnite lends itself so well to bite-size viral content, while also being able to sustain multi-hour streams and e-sports tournaments at the same time (for my thoughts on why Fortnite will never be an e-sport, click here).

And it also helps that these platforms are themselves still growing at a very fast rate. Fortnite is riding the rising tide of all the new media platforms on which it thrives, and its success is legitimising streaming and e-sports within the mainstream media. The kind of news reports we used to see on e-sports – “people pay to watch you play videogames??” – seem further and further away each year.

“The game has the depth to sustain audiences over a long period, unlike other viral successes such as Pokemon GO”

 

The final reason for Fortnite’s success, in my opinion, is its accessibility. Not just in its intuitive building mechanics, or its bright cartoonish graphics which take after Team Fortress 2 and Overwatch. But also in its price model – being free to play on PC, console and phones reduces the barrier to entry by an enormous amount, and opens up the game’s potential audience. Low barrier to entry is the reason why a game like football is played more than, say, tobogganing: if all you need is a round object and two goals, anybody can have fun playing the game.

That’s what it all comes down to in the end: fun. Fortnite is popular because it is immensely fun to play, whether alone, in a pair, or with a group. But all of these trends within game design, and the shifting media landscape in the world at large, have contributed to the game’s meteoric rise. It isn’t just a flash in the pan, either: Fortnite has the depth to sustain audiences over a long period, unlike other viral successes such as Pokemon GO. I’m sure E3 will throw up a whole lot of announcements of new battle royale games in a couple weeks time, but at least for now it’s hard to imagine anything challenging Fortnite’s position as the biggest game on the planet.

 

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The Surface of Mercury

Here are some more poems from the collection I finished writing last summer, The Night and the Moth. I’ve been rereading all of them recently and I think they’re probably not modern or consistently high quality enough to be published, so instead I’m going to pick out some more of my favourites and post them here for anyone who’s interested. I’m currently working on another collection that I hope will be more cohesive called Pet Names for Music, in which each poem emulates the rhythm, mood and subject matter of a different album that’s been important in my life. In the meantime, here are some earlier poems about: seasons, planets, Brexit, Youtube, and having an anxiety attack. I’d love to hear any thoughts people have in the comments below.

The Surface of Mercury

Expose the cratered face of cold battery –
The weird terrain of cobbled paranoia
The shadowless plains of anhedonia
To the comet-laden sky.

Blasted at every step in silence –
Without an atmosphere to carry sound
The history of that gouged and glass-sharp ground
Can never be told.

The magma chamber is dormant.
Fireless and full of holes
With secret sheets of ice beneath the poles,
Resigned to an orbit both endless and lifeless.

A day lasts longer than a year –
The side that faces the blistering heat of the sun
Is an arid lunar desert, while the one
Opposite knows no warmth.

And all it knows for comfort
Is a blanket of airless blitzkrieg
As constellations of meteors descend
Upon the surface of Mercury.

 

Persistence

In Spring, the stem grows tall
And gathers power
In the rain.

In Fall, a beautiful thing
Does not flower
But sustain.

 

The Surface of Venus

The Romans thought they had seen
The surface of Venus in the night sky.
All they had seen was the skin.
All they had seen was the toxic orange cloud
Rocking with nine-branched Protean lightning:
They named it for their God of beauty.
When Gallileo first set eyes on Venus
And saw the cloud of dust through a telescope
He dreamed of seas and rainforests beneath.
But Venus held her mystery like a wet towel
And dared us to dream.
When we finally penetrated that dark mystery
And gazed upon the surface of Venus
There was nothing but rock.

 

Wrong Way Time

The promise of the superhuman
Circulates inside an empty room:
A body of bleach with silky skin
In a battery-acid tomb
And prosthetic lips that part to pose
A coiled up, cobra question:
Am I looking at the screen or my reflection?
COMMUNITY / ETERNITY / DEPENDENCE

The absence of a phantom limb
Craves the itch that it can never scratch
Nerves light up in halogen
Make every sense detach
And fill the lungs with septic breath
As venomous as spores:
Does the mind go blank while the sightless eyes explore?
ILLUSION / INVASION / AMPUTATION

The image pulls me out again
On a whispering riptide of streaming video
Avalanching everything
In drifts of pixel-glow
But if I turn the monitor off
And choose to hear the chime
Can I escape the flow of wrong way time?
LIKE / COMMENT / SUBSCRIBE

 

Independence

In the morning after the referendum
I walked through Bristol city centre
Making my way to work.
English flags were spilling from open windows
Like gargoyles, stately and foreboding.
But were they flying for exile
Or independence?
And should we call it freedom
This vote that leaves the nation
Isolated and divided in one fell swoop?
And now that unspoken histories of class and race
Have bubbled to the surface
How can we regroup?
How can we reconcile the anger and the difference between

Those who voted remain, but want to leave
A legacy of unity that’s bound
Like winding threads in a weave

And those who voted leave, but want to remain
An island of ignorant, bordered bliss
Like a child’s birthday party in the rain?

Anxiety Attack

Start
My eyes are inside
Out whats the matter with
Me were you whispering
Saw you were whispering
Break
My fingers scratch and
Shake don’t look at me
Saw you were looking
Can’t stop itching
Break
Can only hear my
Fear it shakes like
Bass it bursts and
Splits my eardrums
Break
I’m staring into
Space and I can’t see past my
Thoughts and I’m trying hard to
Breath but it just keeps
Going and I can’t stop
Twitching and you all keep
Talking I can hear you
Talking I can hear you
Break
My mind just isn’t
Right don’t feel
Safe can we
Leave I’m sorry
Break
Just need to be a
Lone
My mind feels like a
Stone
And it sinks beneath the waves

Break

FILM REVIEW: Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977)

Pipes, holes, void, semen, pus, heat, shadow, mud, erasers. These are just a few of the ingredients fermenting inside David Lynch’s brilliant and disgusting surrealist masterpiece Eraserhead. Where to start with a review for this film? A technical breakdown of its qualities and flaws doesn’t really seem appropriate SO instead let’s go on a brief and bloody journey through some of the things that make this movie so intriguing.

Contrasts…Eraserhead is full of beautiful hazy soft focus and lighting but its images are harsh and industrial. It demands repeated viewings to be fully understood but actively repulses the viewer away from watching it.

Broken bodies…perpetual disgust at the oozing squishy and soft nature of everything INSIDE like all the doors opening and closing and all the pipes and orifices that we enter through and emerge out of with the camera. I wonder if Lynch is trying to make a point about how technology distances us from our bodies?

Daring imagery…all the Lynchian themes are here even at this early stage: sex, fear, dreams. The neighbours face emerging from darkness. Jack Nance silhouetted against a cloud of dust or maybe stars. The lady in the radiator singing adorably while limpid foetuses rain down on her head. All sublime.

Religious tones…the mother is Mary, the baby (if we can call it that) is wrapped up in blankets like some kind of twisted nativity…the dog puppies suckling their mother at Mary’s parents house…

Classic surrealism…the influence of someone like Bunuel is very evident here, before the Lynch style developed and absorbed swathes of genre like noir and crime and mystery. And I get shades of Samuel Beckett, particularly Endgame, from the minimal and claustrophobic atmosphere, too…

Eraserhead is Lynch in his foetal state: everything that has made his movies so wonderful and twisted and unique over the last forty years is clearly on show in this debut, as fresh and sticky as a newly born baby. Second only to Mulholland Drive in concept and ambition, I think this is Lynch’s most poetic and most ambiguous film, and one that deserves to be endlessly dissected. I’m equal parts excited and terrified to return to it.

9.7/10

FILM REVIEW: Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick, 1964)

The blackest of black comedies conducted with the straightest of faces, Dr Strangelove is a bizarre and surreal movie very much unlike anything else I’ve seen from Kubrick. There are the same meticulously crafted shots and the same visual attention to detail, but nowhere else was he as viciously funny as he was here.

Sharp as a knife point in its satire of the testosterone-fuelled political war machine, Dr Strangelove takes the bleakest imaginable subject matter and spins from it an elaborate web of absurdist idiocy. There are countless moments of comedy gold here, from the overly polite telephone conversations between the President and the drunk Russian ambassador to the bumbling misunderstandings of RAF commander Peter Mandrake.

This film is proof that comedy can be as sharply critical as any multi-hour tear jerker (Schindler’s List et al), and can make that criticism deliciously fun at the same time. Peter Sellers’ performance as the completely ineffectual president of the United States (alongside his dubious and only half-heard communication with the Russians) also strikes an increasingly relevant note in the era of Trump.

8.8/10

FILM REVIEW: Kiki’s Delivery Service (Miyazaki, 1989)

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a heartwarming coming of age tale that sets itself apart through an imaginative and vividly realized setting, as well as the high level of visual and narrative detail which quickly became the Ghibli standard. Where else in the world of cinema would the role of the protagonist’s mentor be filled by a magical, crow-whispering hippie artist who lives in a cabin in the woods? In the mind of Hayao Miyazaki, that’s where.

Few others could have dreamed up the magical realist Eastern European setting that serves as the backdrop for Kiki’s Delivery Service, either. This is a world of cobbled pavements, bikes, bakeries and clock towers that could resemble anything from Prague to Amsterdam, and it’s brought to life by its contrasting against the light, playful fantasy our teen witch protagonist embodies at every turn.

The characters and writing are a joy throughout, but there are definitely some moments where the plot of Kiki’s Delivery Service begins to meander as it shows us Kiki’s day to day working life. Part of me finds that really appealing, though: this is a movie that doesn’t overly romanticise adulthood, and isn’t afraid to represent it as occasionally full of just as much responsibility and routine as freedom and adventure.

The one real criticism I have for this movie is that the ‘coming of age revelation’ which Ursula delivers Kiki towards the films end felt a little bit unearned from a plot point of view. Still, the sentiment itself and the scene in which it was delivered were warm, cosy and thoroughly lovely. All of which are adjectives I would use to describe Kiki’s Delivery Service as a whole.

8.5/10

ALBUM REVIEW: J Cole – KOD (2018)

“Truthfully, J Cole is vanilla ice cream.”

Hip-hop has always had an obsession with rankings. Call it a symptom of competitive masculinity, or of a genre born in poor urban areas that has found itself rising to complete cultural dominance in 2018. Rappers have always gone to great lengths to tell you why they are the number one, or top five, or top ten, and the idea of the ‘king of the game’ is one that has always sparked a great deal of conversation.

I think part of the reason for J Cole’s mysterious popularity is the way he has co-opted this conversation, and through sheer quantity of self-mythology has placed himself at the top of the pile, at least in the eyes of his fans. On Cole’s breakout 2014 Forest Hills Drive, he repeatedly spouted a bizzare rap hierarchy in which he was a god and everyone below him only a king – as if he had ascended to a higher power level in Dragon Ball Z.

But, truthfully, J Cole is vanilla ice cream. He makes relatable, middle of the road rap music that is well produced and appeals to a wide audience, but really lacks any kind of personality or character. If he has one defining trait, it’s his awkwardness – the eye-rolling bars about folding clothes and taxes, where Cole reaches for something deep and introspective but misses the mark completely. Sometimes that awkardness is endearing, like on Forest Hills‘ ‘Wet Dreamz’, but most of the time it’s just clunky.

And so proves to be the case for KOD, an album which isn’t likely to change Cole’s reputation as something of a critical punching bag. It kicks off with a desperately cringey intro, in which a woman’s breathy voiceover tries to set up the albums themes of addiction, telling us that “life can bring much pain…”. It’s ridiculous, and has more than a little whiff of To Pimp a Butterfly to it.

Unfortunately, Cole can’t even come close to Kendrick’s ability to put a conceptual record together. KOD purports to be about addiction, and was released on 4/20 with a particularly psychedelic cover, but in reality only a handful of tracks address the topic. ‘Photograph’ is about having the hots for somebody on Instagram, ‘The Cut Off’ is about fake friends, and ‘BRACKETS’ is about…uh…taxes.

The production is solid, again taking cues from Kendrick with some spacious, modern jazz-rap. And a handful of tracks here contain some sticky if slightly obnoxious hooks, like ‘ATM’ and ‘Kevin’s Heart’. But ultimately what puts me off KOD is the cringe-worthy bars and awkward flows: how Cole rhymes ‘diploma’ with ‘all over’, or how he ends ‘FRIENDS’ by suggesting meditation as an alternative to drug use, probably for the sole reason that it rhymes with ‘medication’.

Nothing about KOD is offensive, really. It has a few good tunes, and Cole’s technical abilities are stronger than most rappers at his level of popularity. But that’s the problem with vanilla ice cream: the fact that it’s inoffensive is exactly the reason I never want to eat it. Now excuse me while I go and enjoy some of Ben & Kenny’s Haagen Baarz.

5.9/10

 

FILM REVIEW: Ponyo (Miyazaki, 2008)

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a gorgeous elemental fable more explicitly aimed at children than some other Ghibli movies. The animation in this movie is absolutely breathtaking, particularly the underwater scenes where each frame is full of hundreds of colourful flowing fish and lights. I would say this is a close third behind Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away in terms of beautiful visuals, but the pencil-drawn backgrounds really make this film stand out among the Ghibli catalogue.

The scene in which Ponyo escapes her father and rides a tidal wave of colossal golden fish just had my jaw on the floor: this is surely the stuff animators wet dreams are made of. The scope of Miyazaki’s endlessly generous imagination never fails to amaze me, and it’s in full force throughout Ponyo.

The story here is a touching family drama with some splashes of the mystical/supernatural, and is most effective when it keeps its feet on the ground. If I have one slight complaint about this movie, it’s that the epic scope of the ending (‘save the world, restore harmony to nature’) feels a bit forced, and the environmental moral of the story a bit simplistic when compared to classics like Mononoke or Totoro. Oh, and the English voice actress for human Ponyo is pretty annoying. As always, watch in Japanese if you can.

Even despite a couple of minor flaws, Ponyo is a spellbinding watch. I find it hard to believe that this is supposed to be one of Miyazaki’s least acclaimed films, if I’m honest. I keep expecting to find at least one dud in the man’s catalogue as I explore it, but I’m starting to think he might just really be that consistent. Ponyo is a more than worthy addition.

8.4/10