Screenshot from Fortnite, the biggest game in the world

Talking Fortnite future, fame and cross-play with Epic Games

© Epic Games

Fortnite can only get bigger and better, so we chat to Epic Games design lead, Eric Williamson, about the potential for the future, and how it feels to be in the middle of it all.

Though it may seem otherwise, Fortnite’s success didn’t happen overnight. When the game launched into early access in 2017, it came after years of development, with only a few people shown the game pre-release. It did OK, receiving a decent critical response, with most saying it needed work, and accepting it was indeed an “early access” product.

Then Battle Royale happened, and it was, and remains, free. Slowly but surely, Fortnite became the biggest game in the world, with streamers like Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins dominating Twitch stats with his skills, and people now desperate for any nugget of information about the game, and where it’s heading. We had a chat with Eric Williamson, the design lead on Fortnite: Battle Royale, who started by telling us about where Battle Royale came from, and how long it took to make.

“PvP for Fortnite has been a thing for a while during its development,” Williamson says. “Before I even started on the projected, there were some prototypes and things that were playtested. The promise of action building married with some sort of competitive mode was definitely there, but the team decided to focus on the PvE stuff ultimately.”

So Battle Royale was always an idea, it seems? “After July, when Fortnite shipped in paid Early Access, was when it came up again”, Williamson explains. “We started to think about how much fun it would be to take the unique action building mechanics and put them into a Battle Royale mode in the style of Fortnite. So in early July, the project was kicked off, and then in September, we released it for players. It was definitely a tight turn around, but having the awesome base that was all of the work the team had done over the years helped tremendously.”

One thing we can’t help thinking is how much money Epic could have made if they’d just charged for Battle Royale. “Well, it’s kind of hard to say, right?”, Williamson muses, “I mean, would as many people have been willing to play had it not been free?” It’s hard to say, indeed.

But it’s not hard to say how big Fortnite is right now. You can’t mention the game in front of a group of kids without them going nuts. Emotes in game (such as the floss) have become real world celebrations on soccer pitches. “Yeah, it’s been a crazy few months,” Williamson admits. “The first time we saw the victory celebrations referencing Fortnite was pretty surreal. We’re really proud of the game and are just glad people are connecting with it. Even my next door neighbour sees me wearing a Battle Royale shirt or something, and wants to stop to talk about Fortnite. That’s pretty cool!”

The latest innovation Epic have made is bringing Battle Royale to mobile devices. This isn’t a port: this is the full game on iPhone (Android is coming later) with touch controls. This itself is a point of interest, because if controller support can come (via bluetooth controllers or something like a GameVice) it could be a genuine game changer. It’s happening, then, but not right away, says Williamson: “Initially, we won’t have Bluetooth controller support. It’s an issue of fairness – we want to ensure that all players are on an equal playing field, and bluetooth controllers can give a competitive advantage. Once we have those issues sorted out we will support controllers in the future.”

Another thing that Fortnite is being rightly praised for, is its inclusiveness. This is a cross-play game, and currently the only people who can’t play together are PS4 and Xbox One users. Well, also Switch players, because the game isn’t there yet. ‘Yet’ being the operative word here: “I’m a fan of the Switch, but we’re focused on the platforms we’ve announced”. He remains tight lipped, so we can only hope Nintendo get onto Epic and ask them to make it happen.

Going back to the mobile version, then, how does the cross-play work for iOS users? “We feel pretty strongly about letting players get into a game with their friends, no matter which platform they’re on,” says Williamson, “For Fortnite, cross-play is completely opt in. You can party up with friends on other platforms and jump into a game.”

This cross-play works incredibly well, too. We’ve tested it playing on PC while our friends are on Xbox One, but that in itself brings up an issue, and Williamson is reading our minds: “We also understand that there could be an advantage for someone who is using a keyboard and a mouse when playing against someone using a controller, for example. So when a PC player teams up with a player who is on PS4, Xbox One, or mobile device, all players are put into a PC pool. If a PS4 or Xbox One player teams up with a mobile player, they’ll all play in a PC game. There should never be a situation where a keyboard/mouse player is running around with 99 other console players or 99 other mobile players, it just doesn’t work like that with our game. That isn’t to say there aren’t some very skilled controller players, but we want those players to have some choice.”

So, players who get into the top ten in solo matches then scream about lag or aimbots are blaming the wrong people. It’s not a cheater’s fault if you’re playing solo on console. “We’re pretty vigilant about this stuff and take it incredibly seriously,” says Williamson. “If we identify a cheater, either through using our own tools or by receiving a report from a player, we’ll take action. Cheaters ruin the game for everyone. In the case of console cheating, it’s a bit more difficult to do due to the nature of those more closed and controlled systems, but it’s the same thing as on any other platforms: cheaters will get banned.”

When a game gets as big as Fortnite has, it can be hard to retain control, but Epic have been doing a great job. Fortnite evolves and changes constantly, too, with one of the changes being the removal of the SMG. “We’re always iterating on our weapons based on own internal data and just listening to players,” explains Williamson. “That could mean a tweak to how it works, looks, or even sounds. In the case where maybe a weapon isn’t being used a lot – maybe it’s underpowered or just isn’t working as we intended or hoped it would – we might remove it from the available items, and cycle something else in. It may come back, but only after we make some changes to make it more viable for players.”

So we may not have seen the last of the SMG, after all. Something that strikes us about the game is that due to the colourful, cartoon-like aesthetic, it can veer away from the realistic shooters out there, and indulge in the daft. It seems Williamson agrees: “Yeah, the tone and vibe of the game gives us a pretty long leash on some of the crazy stuff we can do and experiment with. This has evolved a bit since we first shipped last September, and we’re getting more comfortable with embracing the fun. It actually has a lot to do with our players and what they’ve gravitated towards.”

Speaking of crazy stuff, rocket riding is now a thing, and is exactly what it sounds like: you can ride a rocket. “That wasn’t intentional at all, but once people discovered the bug and were having such a fun time with it, we did the work to make it work officially,” Williamson says. “The Bush is another example of us just having fun with the game and our players. We had the bushes in the game and players would be hiding in them, which is totally a legitimate strategy if that’s how you want to play. It started off as a bit of a joke: ‘What if you could turn into a bush and move around?’ It’s pretty ridiculous, but it works because it’s fun. With 99 other players in the game, there’s a fairly high chance you’re going to get eliminated and not get that Victory Royale. Making sure you’re smiling when you’re playing, win or lose, is our goal.”

The future is something we were keen to ask Williamson about. Other games in the genre have done things differently, adding new maps, for example. Is this something Epic are looking to do? Williamson has an answer for us, there: “A second map isn’t off the table, but it’s not something we’re focused on right now. We had a pretty big map update earlier this year that added a bunch of new points of interest and changed up the game in a pretty big way. And then more recently, we added Lucky Landing, another new POI.“

What about vehicles? We’ve seen things being tested in the Saves the World mode like jet-boots, so will we see that kind of thing appear in Battle Royale one day? “The small map and the pace of the game is such that we don’t necessarily think we need traditional vehicles,” he says, but that doesn’t sound like a no. He continues, “When we think about them, we really have to consider whether or not they’ll add something to the game. We don’t want to do it just to check it off on a list of game features. They’d have to bring something unique to the table.”

One thing’s for sure, Fortnite continues to evolve at a crazy pace. This is a game breaking records, with more people jumping on than ever, so how on earth do you develop a game in early access that’s under such intense scrutiny? “Early on in the development, to get the core of the game stood up, we were fairly limited. We had an explicit rule – no saying “What if”; we were really focused on the base of the Battle Royale experience,” Williamson explains. “As we’ve iterated and starting adding stuff, that’s definitely let us breathe a lot, and we’ve just been having a lot of fun dreaming up new, cool things for players to do. Because of the tone of the game, there are few limits to what we can do. Again, if it’s fun, we’ll try it. We want to keep surprising and delighting the players, and we’re having a great time coming up with new ideas all of the time.”

We’re having a lot of fun, too, Eric, and we’ll continue to pay very close attention to this behemoth of a game, all while fighting for that Victory Royale, of course.