Is Fortnite Bridging the Gap Between Mobile and Mainstream Gaming?
It’s no secret that the ubiquity of smartphones has rendered mobile gaming one of the fastest growing forms of media on the planet. In addition to accounting for almost half of all global gaming revenue last year (at a whopping $80 billion), mobile gaming constitutes some of the most successful apps available, making up over 80% of all app revenue from Apple’s iOS App and Google Play stores in 2017. Make no mistake: this is a seismic shift in the way video games are perceived and played in society at large, especially when one considers that mobile games are primarily played by women. And yet, despite their immense popularity, mobile games have long been an afterthought in the gaming community, largely due to their perception as “apps” first and foremost and games second. However, with the market for mobile games soaring skyward, it’s evident the rest of the industry is slowly starting to understand and appreciate its cellular cousin – particularly when examined through the lens provided by games like Fortnite.
Before digging into that, though, it’s worthwhile to examine the rise of mobile gaming a little more closely. Just as somebody living in the year 2003 would probably laugh at you if you told them that almost everybody in 2018 has a smartphone in their pocket, so too would a gamer of that era have laughed off any portends of the rise of mobile gaming. The rapid growth and expansion of the smartphone market has, more than any other factor, contributed to mobile gaming’s success, ensuring that the device from which these games are played would always be more prevalent and more accessible than any gaming console or PC. The key is the shifting idea of what it means to game: rather than being an isolated activity restricted to a single room, smartphones allowed gaming to fit neatly into the doldrums of everyday life (note how the article linked to above identifies the bathroom and the bed as two main areas of play). The secret to mobile gaming’s success is its function as a time-passer, an ultra-brief respite of relaxation in the midst of another day.
But what of the games themselves? Do mobile games deserve their reputation as lesser products? Well, kind of. The reality is that in comparison to mainstream video games, most mobile games are designed by fewer people, under tighter time restrictions, with less money, which can increase the likelihood of a flawed final product. That type of production also means that more games are finished faster, leading to an oversaturated market that’s constantly reacting to and imitating its most successful titles (more on that later). Although the hardware capabilities of smartphones ensure that a wide variety of games from a wide range of genres can function smoothly (from action/adventure RPG’s to racing games), the most popular titles tend to be simple, formulaic strategy games. For example, Candy Crush Saga, one of the most well-known mobile games, utilizes a “three to match” structure popularized by the classic game Tetris, released nearly thirty years ago.
But Candy Crush Saga’s success is also predicated on its “free-to-play” pricing strategy, which allows players to enjoy much of the game’s content before encountering paywalls and additional content hidden behind micro-transactions. Although this model had already been exercised by a handful of PC titles throughout the early 00’s, it found new legs within the rise of smartphones and casual mobile gaming: in 2011, the revenue of free-to-play games in Apple’s iOS App store overtook that of normally-priced games. The success of the model has only increased since then, as some of the most popular PC titles (like League of Legends and Dota 2) use free-to-play structures. In this way, we can see how the massive popularity of mobile games elevates and augments its interconnected relationship to mainstream gaming – and nowhere is this trend most evident than in the recent phenomenon surrounding Fortnite.
The title, developed by Epic Games, is a third-person online shooter with two modes of play: Save the World, which features mission-based co-op play for four players, and Battle Royale, a large-scale battle mode that has up to one hundred players duking it out until only one remains. Although the former achieved relative success upon its release, it is the unprecedented popularity of the latter that skyrocketed Fortnite from mere gaming craze to a global phenomenon. The fast-paced action, colourful world and avatars, breathless multiplayer strategizing and mix of offensive and defensive tactics combined with the epic battle royale format to create a perfect storm of popularity. In June of 2018, Epic announced that they had achieved over 125 million players in less than a year, many of them women, and from a variety of age groups. It’s a level and breadth of consumption matched only by…well, mobile games. But we can we better understand that similarity by better understanding the context surrounding Fornite, both prior to and after its meteoric rise.
As many have pointed out, the ascension of Fortnite: Battle Royale came on the heels of that of PUBG Corp’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a game that utilized a similar battle royale structure with a more realistic aesthetic. As one of the best-selling video games ever, PUBG achieved its own sizeable level of popularity and acclaim, and yet was never quite able to achieve the crossover success that Fortnite did. There are many factors involved in this disparity, but for the purposes of this article what’s fascinating is how the relationship between Fortnite and PUBG echoes the market of mobile gaming, where multiple titles with very similar gameplay structures can have wildly varying degrees of reach and popularity. An example of this within mobile gaming is Game of War: Fire Age and Clash of Clans, two MMO strategy games that share many gameplay features and functions, as well as their medieval settings and “__ of __” titles, clearly meant to evoke the television series Game of Thrones and the novels from which it is based. The main difference between these games lies in their aesthetic, with the former offering more realistic branding (and Kate Upton-featuring commercials) and the latter adopting a cartoonish, colourful look – but both have been able to generate massive amounts of revenue due to their free-to-play structures.
Ultimately, that is the link that binds all of these games together, mobile or mainstream. With Fornite already available on iOS and due to be released on Android later this year, the game has already bridged the gap between these two worlds of gaming, but how will its influence extend into the future? Free-to-play games have been around in mainstream gaming for years, and are commonly much-maligned by traditional gamers. What Fortnite demonstrates, though, is that there is a whole generation of gamers whose only experiences with games are free-to-play – and that knowledge may embolden many a developer. What’s certain is that mobile games and the mainstream games that take after them are here to stay, as are their multitudinous demographics, and it’ll only become more difficult to see any sort of gap between the two at all.