The DNA of... Fortnite
  • Will Freeman

The DNA of... Fortnite


We love retro games here at Antstream Arcade, but we love new games too. We thought it might be a good idea to take a look at some of the hottest new games around, and trace back their DNA to discover their influences, inspirations and secret histories. We’re starting out this week with Fortnite – if you enjoy the article, please check out our Facebook page or join our mailing list to get more great content!


Fortnite exploded onto screens late last year, and you don’t need to look very to come across stories of its great rivalry with PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.


Both exploded in popularity at around the same time, each has millions of players, and the pair seems to have debuted a new genre: the 'battle royale' shooter.


What's truly fascinating about the phenomenon of Fortnite, isn't the potential influence of its closest opponent though. For all the talk of the battle royale being an entirely new genre, Fortnite's DNA stretches far back beyond the launch of PUBG. And when you start to pick that apart, you can begin to understand why Epic Games' creation is quite so captivating. Let's break down the genre's constituent parts, and get to the very core of what makes Fortnite the sensation it is…


As a Fortnite: Battle Royale match plays out, the 'safe area' of the game shrinks, pushing players to the centre of the island setting. It's a clever way to keep battles from becoming protracted hide and seek sessions. And it's a concept that long predates Epic's effort here. You might even have experienced it in the iconic Bomberman series, which debuted in 1983. Players dash about an arena striving to annihilate each other with well-placed explosives, and in many of the Bomberman titles a 'sudden death' mode is triggered as time passes. The result? Blocks rain down from the sky, filling the playing area from the outside inwards, pushing surviving combatants ever closer together. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?


Here we should also give a shout to a film. The controversial 2000 Japanese dystopian thriller Battle Royale didn't just lend its title to the genre; it shaped the gameplay foundations of its namesake. In the film, students are dropped onto an island to fight to the death. Areas are at different times declared 'danger zones'. Stay in a danger zone, and your explosive neck collar will explode. Nasty – albeit influential – stuff.


And, of course, PUBG in its earliest iterations sports a shrinking playfield. But we're really not going to get bogged down in the PUBG debate. Promise.


Gliding onto the island in Fortnite: Battle Royale doesn't just provide a novel player entrance. It's the point when combatants target their ideal starting point, and have a brief chance to observe the battlefield, as rivals dash to preferred spots. And it's something we've certainly seen before. Fortnite developers Epic first explored the concept back in 1997, with RTS 7th Legion, which saw far-flung descendents of Earth return home to drop in from above and reclaim their home world. There, though, it was something of a narrative device.


Still, we've seen many shooters explore parachute drops and aerial game play; there's the Tribes games, Medal of Honor: Airborne, and Section 8 to name a few.


It’s also interesting to consider treasures like Data East's 1989 arcade game Sly Spy. A peculiar hybrid of platformer, shooter, driving game and just about every 2D game genre you can imagine, its opening level focused on an armed parachute descent. Tenuous perhaps, but it demonstrates game designers lasting obsession with the air-drop opener.


Five years later Tiny Toon Adventures: Wacky Sports Challenge got rather closer to what Fortnite offers. Deep in the SNES cartridge's guts hid a gem; a bungee jumping mini-game where players would fling themselves into a playing field packed with targets, before dashing about an arena. It's far from a battle royale game, but as Babs Bunny glides into the level with her eye on the best landing spot, it's hard not to be reminded of Fortnite.


Hurried building is foundational Fortnite: Battle Royale gameplay. And if it feels familiar, it's because that element owes a great deal to Minecraft.


Like Fortnite, Minecraft enjoyed cultural phenomenon status, vast commercial success, and millions of devoted fans. Its popularity, though, was entirely built on… well… building. Certainly, Minecraft provided the capacity to create much more ornate structures than those generally seen in the Battle Royale version of Fortnite. But both games offer a similar approach to construction on the fly, and it's hard to imagine Epic's effort would be exactly as it is without the mighty presence of Minecraft.


In truth, Fortnite: Save The World is the true survival hit from Epic. Still, plenty of those gameplay elements made it to the Battle Royale spin-off. For one, you start out with minimal resources. And you won't get far without scavenging the island's hostile environment. Where all that comes from? We're back to the 2009 open-world military simulator ARMA 2. Deliberately moddable, in 2012 it spawned DayZ, a horror game that popularised many of the conventions of the contemporary survival genre. While the DayZ mod places much more emphasis on realism than Fortnite, it did inspire a new boom in survival titles. And did we mention that the DayZ mod motivated the DayZ: Battle Royale remix that lead to PUBG?


There is, of course, a lot of shooting in the history of video games, and we could probably name check 100s of games; a hat tip to Quake and Doom feel essential. But to understand from where Fortnite really gets its gunplay mettle, we'll need to be rather more specific. Epic themselves defined the shooter for many years, so it is inevitable their own heritage is important. Indeed, in May 1998 the studio released both the first Unreal shooter, and their Unreal Engine, which developers use to create games to this very day. The popularity of Unreal Engine has shaped the shooter as we know it, with titles like Bioshock, Brothers in Arms and Borderlands all using the powerful engine.


The gunplay in Fortnite: Battle Royale, however, is fairly distinct in its dynamic. It is energetic and over-the-top. While Epic's own Bulletstorm saw the studio explore that gameplay tone back in 2011, Valve's Team Fortress series might deserve more recognition for informing Fortnite's playful spirit. Originally a Quake mod in 1996, by 2007 the series evolved into Team Fortress 2, which bears many comparisons with Fortnite: Battle Royale. Both offer eccentric, fluid gameplay flow throughout. And there's the cartoon looks, the humour and the irreverent style. Which brings us to…

Truthfully, Epic's earlier works deserve most credit for influencing the distinct character of their latest sensation. As long ago as 1994 the studio released its mischievous, gaudy platformer Jazz Jackrabbit, asserting that Epic didn't take itself too seriously. Even the Gears of War games, beneath their machismo and aggression, delight in moments of silliness. Indeed, Epic's first release in 1992 had a spirit of daft contrarianism. The curious puzzle adventure title was named ZZT so as to list it last in alphabetical listings. Revisit any of these games and you won't find humour and irreverence exactly like that in Fortnite. But you won't be able to miss that Epic is a place where light-heartedness is never far from the surface. And for once, this is one area where the overly sincere PUBG doesn’t even get a look in.


Fortnite: Battle Royale, then, has a vibrant and diverse heritage and it simply wouldn't have enjoyed the success it has without the existence of many other games that came before it.


Yes. We're including PUBG there.