Analysis: the Fortnite series has leaned on game mechanics and game effects to build its massive base of 200 million players

By Derek Laffan, Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Technology and Design

Fortnite is the online "battle royale" survival game concept that almost all of us have heard about. On the one hand, the game series has so far racked up a whopping 200 million player base. On the other hand, the game has also sparked various forms of controversy since its release, ranging from the problematic (a 9-year-old girl was admitted to rehabilitation for Fortnite addiction) to the bizarre (Fortnite has been blamed for a spike in divorce rates).

So what’s all the fuss about? There are many ways to answer this question, but two perspectives offer explanatory evidence-based insight into the popularity and impact this game series has on the gamer-base: the game mechanics and the game effects.

Game mechanics

Game mechanics can refer to the methods that game designers use in order to make the game work. The Fortnite series uses "sandbox" mechanics where players can change elements of the virtual world to suit their preferences, such as building structures and battling other players when it suits them. Sandbox games can also be similar to many open world games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 or The Witcher 3 in relation to the autonomous features that these games provide, such as the feeling of freedom to explore vast lands, though the main aim of Fortnite is to accumulate "kills" and acquire weapons and loots. 

From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, Irish Independent and Sunday Independent Technology Editor Adrian Weckler on the success of Fortnite

While downloading and playing Fortnite is mostly free (some Fortnite Campaign Packs cost €74.99 on the game's website), the game series has arguably mastered the use of the controversial "loot box" gambling mechanic. Loot boxes are sometimes put into videogames by designers to add to the thrill, excitement and the chance of getting something good in a gaming world.

Loot boxes usually cost players real money and can present themselves at random times throughout the game tempting players to pay just to see what you get. The loot box mechanic has received particular criticism from gambling and addiction expert Professor Mark Griffiths, who argues that loot boxes are a form of gambling as the "prizes" that are "won" are typically not worth the price that is paid for them.

From RTÉ 1's  Claire Byrne Live, a discussion on how addictive Fortnite is for young people

Fortnite’s developers Epic Games have recently decided to reform the loot box mechanic by making the loot box llamas ‘see through’, which means that players can see inside the loot box before opting to buy. This reform comes after a backlash against loot box use in videogames generally, with countries such as Belgium calling loot boxes an official form of gambling.

Game effects

How Fortnite is designed is one thing, but how we feel after playing Fortnite is another. Fortnite engages players to actively play the game for relatively long periods of time, and this engagement can positively influence our moods and behaviours.

Fortnite engages players by allowing them to play in different contexts such as: solo play, multiplayer with players present, and massively multiplayer online. A 2016 study by Dr. Linda Kaye, a senior lecturer and researcher in Cyberpsychology at Edge Hill University in England, investigated the role of group flow in co-operative gaming contexts, such as those that can be found in Fortnite. She found that the extent of experiencing a flow state (a positive state whereby an activity is so engaging that all else becomes oblivious) in hardcore gamers could be determined by positive behaviours such as effective group communication, knowledge of each other’s skill and effective team working.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Philip Boucher-Hayes finds out what makes Fortnite so compelling

Often, these engaging aspects of gameplay get blamed for underpinning ovideogame addiction. Videogame addiction is one of the most controversial topics in video game psychology research at present which is mostly due to the 2018 World Health Organisation (WHO) classification of "gaming disorder’. However, many professional clinicians, researchers and scholars have been sceptical of the classification due to the very limited amount of research that exists in order to support it.

Though the Fortnite game series involves a wide spectrum of gameplay experiences, it can be argued that the "battle royale" genre has been shaken up and evolved by the mechanics and effects of Fortnite. Potential rivals should look to the success of Fortnite but, as things currently stand, Fortnite isn’t likely to be swayed anytime soon, especially with such a fast-growing gamer-base and multiple games in the series,.

Derek Laffan is a researcher in cyberpsychology at Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Technology and Design (IADT). He also teaches social psychology to transition year students at the Centre for Talented Youth Ireland in Dublin City University. Laffan’s research on videogames in positive psychological interventions has been published in Computers in Human Behaviour.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ