Fortnite Built the Metaverse On-Ramp

Keith

August 13, 2021

Mapping the Metaverse VI

It is a mile-high structure of moving two- and three-dimensional images, interlocked in space and time. It's got everything in it. Leni Riefenstahl films. The sculptures of Michelangelo and the fictional inventions of Da Vinci made real. World War II dogfights zooming in and out of the middle, veering out over the crowd, shooting and burning and exploding. Scenes from a thousand classic films, flowing and merging together into a single vast complicated story. — Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

In the novel of the same name, "Snow Crash" is a concoction that's equal parts drug and malware. It staggers the senses and exposes victims to Asherah, an alien germ that's been conveniently compiled to machine code. The bug lodges deep in the brain's speech centers, where it renders the host vulnerable to invasive ideas.

When administered to a plugged-in Metaverse user, Snow Crash grants total dominion over the mind. At the story's climax, the would-be leader of a viral religion tries to hijack minds over the airwaves at a concert held in the Metaverse. If not for the heroes' intervention, thousands of unwitting attendees would have been pulled into the thrall of an egomaniacal super-genius via their neural interfaces.

The scene does for perception what Jaws did for oceans. That someone could use spectacle to cause mass indoctrination is a scary—and increasingly plausible—idea. After all, millions of people already watch concerts in Fortnite.

The Main Event

Over the years, popularity with the fans has made Live Events a Fortnite mainstay. Every new Season's narrative is punctuated with grand-scale happenings—not just to goose player engagement at critical junctures, but to give players an important role in furthering the game's ongoing story.

Who could forget the rubbery, lightning-spewing CUBE (Kevin, to his friends) issued forth from the mysterious Sky Rift Event? Forum wars are still fought about the outcome of the Unvaulting Event, a fourth-wall breaking quest that permitted fans to restore the retired—and mercilessly OP—Drum Gun into Battle Royale combat.

The biggest Live Events are fraught with cataclysmic peril. Players witness dramatic swan songs from cartoon heroes, and deploy arsenals of lethal gadgetry in the defense of our delicate planet. If something's not trying to kick a whole through the cosmos, there's an alien artifact clawing its way up from a distant pole to push your shit in. They're a real sight to behold.

Every Fortnite story is sodden with leaky cosmos. In a way, it's a nice mental primer for what the Metaverse will do to our way of life; smart money is on the eventual collision between Fortnite and just about everything else. As Epic Games continues to reposition Fortnite as a social square, they're letting the headliners do some earth-shaking of their own.

If Your Friends Don't Dance...

Think of the last concert you attended. You didn't just watch; you felt the bass tones pulverize the air, sipped a foamy beer, shook your body. Maybe you locked lips with a stranger, or threw up at the merch table. However you party, it's the interaction with the stimulus that makes it better than iTunes. Concerts in Fortnite invite you to enjoy them in a similar way, albeit with more freefall.

The first-ever Fortnite concert Live Event was held way back in February 2019. You probably heard how electronic DJ Marshmello recorded a live set in motion capture. Before starting the show, his adorable Stay-Puft avatar took the stage to thank everyone in attendance for making music history. It would be a silly thing to say, if 10.7 million people hadn't promptly shown up to dance.

Concerts have since become a lifetime engagement in Party Royale. The mode introduced a whole in-game island for massive musical experiences—something of a departure from the mass-extinction of other Fortnite Live Events.  The island plays host to electro-music festivals and album release parties by the likes of Weezer.

Millions of fans are checking their guns at the door to hang out at the latest shindig in Party Royale. It's far too late to dismiss it as just another "shooting game."  For better or for worse, Fortnite is where the eyes are.

Video Saved the Radio Star

In May of 2020, Fortnite collaborated with Travis Scott to produce "Astronomical," an interactive live performance that welcomed 12.3 million Fortnite players on the first of its three days. During the nine minute event, the rapper's giant avatar swayed to tunes from his real-life counterpart, zipped open the fabric of creation, and submerged users in a reeling, Technicolor reality where the ocean floor met outer space. Pretty good time, if you ask me.

Fortnite concerts attract audiences orders of magnitude above stadium headcounts. These ain't rookie numbers, and the rest of the music industry has taken note.

A month after "Astronomical" rent apart the cosmos, Fortnite hosted DeadMau5, Steve Aoki, and Dillon Francis on the same digital stage. Users equipped specially-designed Paint Launchers to douse each other in purple and orange goo while a veritable Megazord of talent put on a real face-melter. It wasn't long before Diplo and Major Lazer mainstaged another rager, with a release party for Diplo Presents: Thomas Wesley soon to follow. Back in April, Bruno Mars choreographed a dance set to his new single, "Leave the Door Open," exclusively for use as an in-game emote.

No shade to Uncle Brunz, but Epic Games already blew the door right off. Party Royale is a wild force of nature. These interactive panoplies have redefined all notion of a "bringer show" at interstellar scale. As in-game appearances become a permanent part of the tour circuit, Fortnite is conducting a masterclass in the kind of reality-blending experiences that will take us to the Metaverse.

No "Why" in "Team"

Fortnite's mashups are so complex they're baffling. In the trailer for the fragfest's Season 6, Lara Croft surveys a primeval landscape with Aloy from Horizon: Zero Dawn. There they encounter the likes of Master Chief, an army of denuded T-800 Terminators, some very killable James Cameron-era Xenomorphs, and Ryu from Street Fighter. Football star Neymar, Jr arrived later, just to keep things nice and logical.

Crossovers have a long, bizarre history in video games, but the sheer complexity of Fortnite mix-and-matches has never been accomplished. Players rub elbows with superheroes, all-stars, and a pantheon of characters from games and films. You find yourself panting just to describe it. Only superfans could keep tabs on all the main story timelines and interspersed Live Events.

How about the time Fortnite's frag-tag team blew up Galactus, famed eater of planets? Or the downright literary moment where the Reaper, Fortnite's John Wick stand-in, crossed swords with the man himself? Not to mention how nice it was of Rick and Morty to provide Superman outside counsel on that recent alien invasion.

Why are entertainment brands so excited to join Fortnite's cast of cartoon killers?

Fortnite Builds Character

Epic Games has created marketing touchpoints that could only exist in the Metaverse. By integrating partner properties into every aspect of the game, Fortnite's developers have opened new cross-promotion channels in both narrative and marketplace contexts. Now that lending out cherished characters promises returns, even traditionally insular IPs like Star Wars have jumped galaxies.

In December 2019, a digitized J.J. Abrams joined fans in Fortnite to reveal a never-before-seen teaser clip from the forthcoming film, The Rise of Skywalker. The event featured an aerial dogfight starring the Millennium Falcon, corny jokes, and a cryptic cackle that got a shoutout in the movie's iconic opening crawl. A later Season featured the eponymous antihero of The Mandalorian, with a tie-in promo offering free Disney+ access with purchases made in Fortnite.

Even if you can't pick Salacious Crumb out of a lineup, you've got to admit: fears of brand dilution have gone passé. Thanks to Fortnite's ubiquity, kingmaker companies are embracing a spirit of free creative exchange that will ensure the Metaverse has something for everyone—and there's plenty of incentive to get with the program.

Fortnite meet-ups are proving to be an ideal way to enrich and embellish intellectual properties. No other platform has built such immense cultural cache in the 18-24 youth demographic. These star-studded crossovers continuously attract legions of new players, allowing Epic Games and their partner brands to reach previously unexplored audiences.

With estimated player counts expected to climb past 350 million this year, Fortnite has effectively become its own form of media. That kind of exposure brings everyone out to play.

That makes for sixty million people who can be on the Street any given time. Add in another sixty million or so who can't really afford it but go there anyway, by using public machines, or machines owned by their school or their employer, and at any given time the Street is occupied by twice the population of New York City. That's why the damn place is so overdeveloped. Put in a sign or a building on the Street and the hundred million richest, hippest, best-connected people on earth will see it every day of their lives. — Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

On-Ramp Rushing

Product marketers constantly refine their "on-ramp" experience—the set of tactics used to overcome the reluctance people naturally feel before they'll commit to buying. If you want to convince people that a product is necessary or safe or 99% fat-free, a big part of the job is done through implicit means like novelty. Hence the legacy of the detergent jingle or the absurdist commercial.

For cultural products, there's a similar phenomenon. We all experience an initial resistance to new ideas until, suddenly, we all sort of "get it."

Fortnite perfected the Metaverse on-ramp. After going from an unsung PvE game to a successful shooter, the game has evolved into an all-encompassing social destination. It's reached a critical mass where Epic Games can comfortably borrow any creative property on Earth to enrich the narrative, or pluck any product from the real world to add greater verisimilitude to its own.

What Epic Games has done to synergize movies, music, sports, and all other forms of entertainment will set the tone for every other company that's interested in building the Metaverse. In a sense, Fortnite's appeal has provoked a total embrace of narrative compatibility. Team-ups make things more flux, less precious, and somehow greater.

Fortnite is driving an ethos of brand synergy that transcends media and industry, and entertainment giants aren't the only ones who see the opportunity. Iconic brands are pouring real-world products into Fortnite any way they can. Nike teamed up to introduce two Air Jordan character skins. The NFL has licensed team uniforms, players, and the NFL Rumble Limited-Time Mode in a bid to capture youth interest.

Tim Sweeney says these inclusions will overcome the ad nauseum of traditional display ads. Instead of "putting some unwanted piece of content" in front of players, Fortnite offers less obstructive, fun ways to engage with product placements.

With every new brand partnership, it becomes more likely that a future Season may entice first-time players. Add that appeal to the sideshow zaniness of its seasonal mashups, massive Party Royale events, and a supercharged Creative Mode, and it's easy to see why so many people have already dipped a toe into the Metaverse.

Transmedia Dominus

Like we've said about memes before, the power of unfamiliar ideas derives from how readily they can infect belief systems. Once you've crossed the threshold into the Metaverse, you'll "get it." If you play Fortnite, you've been to the other side. You just don't know it yet.

If someone from the future had described Fortnite to you a decade ago, would you believe them? Any true thing you could say about it simply didn't exist before:

  • It's a free-to-play battle royale game with a hundred players per server.
  • You can play with friends across any device, including phones and PCs.
  • It's a universe filled with colossal music acts, swag from real-world brands, and ample chances to see Darth Vader kick Lance Armstrong in the head.

Logging into Fortnite is like coming home to find every Gilligan's Island celebrity guest has gotten drunk, dug up the carpet, and finally goaded the roster of Secret Wars into wrassling last season's NBA up-and-comers. You don't need to understand it to be amused. Whatever the hell is happening in there, sometimes you just gotta look. The novelty is so strong you'd be hard-pressed to find a gamer on any console, desktop, or mobile platform who hasn't at least tried it. Fortnite rivals Instant Ubik for word-of-mouth. And that's all by design.

This is the age of transmedia. We're witnessing a cultivated chaos that will prime the pump for our eventual liftoff. Seeing familiar characters juxtaposed with implausible partners underscores the madcap creativity, inclusion, and irreverence to tradition that will typify the Metaverse.

When it comes, the Metaverse will inherit the Internet's mashup-culture mantle, and become a proving ground for its great ideals. And Salad will be your passport to it all.

What Makes a Salad

Games like Fortnite and Roblox are challenging assumptions about both video games and our very digital interactions. They have shown us how to leap into the Metaverse from anywhere, at any time, and take all our most treasured things with us.

As the devices of our world meet the Metaverse, we hope Salad will become a gateway to its many destinations. We might even buy your ticket to the show.

It's not enough to make the experiences or the creative tools available; someone has got to provide a meaningful engine to get the people off-world. Our mission is to power the ascent by teaching the world to computeshare. Your PC may never zap you there, but it is a valuable conduit to the electric humanity at work within it. When everyone can make meaningful income from their hardware, we can all interact with the Metaverse.