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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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Fortnite: A Free Game Earning Billions

Fortnite is a free game. However, it has earned its developers more than $1 billion in the last year (Reynolds, 2018). You may be asking yourself how does a free game attract that much money? Compared to previous years, where games where manufactured in a pay-per-play fashion, Epic Games, Fortnite's creators have taken a different approach to the selling of this game. Fortnite has perfected the art of selling V points to users. V points are gaming currencies (Reynolds, 2018). Users use the V points to purchase upgrades, battle passes and visual upgrades (Reynolds, 2018). Players earn V points either by completing tasks or by buying the V points at 10 points for a dollar. These points offer critical advantages for the users. For example, V points could offer a potential way to purchase superior weaponry. The game is progressive and moves from lower to higher steps. It is also addictive and players regularly experience rewarding feelings (for completing tasks) and frustrations for failure. An examination of the game and its internal dynamics offered a negative critique of a self-replicating culture that rewards consumerism and short-term thinking.

One of the characteristics of player-experiences on Fortnite is the chance to become heroes and save the world (Reynolds, 2018). This, as in some of the game modes, Fortnite offers players a chance to play heroic roles. For example, some of the games include role-playing, where players act together to save the world against zombies (Reynolds, 2018). These games tend to attract a notion of doing something useful despite the reality of users engaging in time-consuming hobbies. Heroism is socially relevant, perhaps due to evolutional reasons (Franco & Zimbardo, 2006). Due to the importance of survival, the process of evolution attached significant value to people who do significant things to further the course of the human species (Franco & Zimbardo, 2006). Using the concept of heroism invites players on Fortnite to participate in activities that go beyond their current limitations. This as while playing the game, players have to collect resources such as wood, steel, and brick to build shelter, and need to drink “slurp” (which is a blue elixir which maintains them alive). In a way, these are attractive ways of connecting internal human needs to a product.

Another reference to internal human attributes is provision of multi-player constructs (Reynolds, 2018). On Fortnite, people can play against each other, form teams to collaborate with their friends and even make initial social contact (Reynolds, 2018). The social feature means that unlike traditional gaming where players played against machines, they play against friend players in Fortnite (Reynolds, 2018). Consequently, the outcomes of the game depend on social interactions. This could be a modern form of hanging out, just like Facebook,  Facetime and other social media platforms. It offers users a chance to connect with each other.  

Technology, such as gaming, could create a long-term problem of disregarding traditional social structures. For example, a 45-year-old man Michael Aliperti faced criminal charges because he threatened an 11-year-old boy who beat him on the game (Palmer, 2018). This is an illustration of the effects of inappropriate contact. While Michael Aliperti had played the game with the 11-year-old for a long time, the escalation of tension between the two was an outcome of the young boy defeating Michael Aliperti (Palmer, 2018). Here, open games invite ethical issues. If the incidence was not intentional, Fortnite has also faced accusations of stealing dance moves from artists (Rudgard, 2018).

It is also possible that the notion of heroism from games could invite actual problems (Franco & Zimbardo, 2006). According to Franco & Zimbardo (2006), a prison experiment showed that exposing innocent people to human suffering eventually increased the tolerance of violence. This suggests that with time, a frequent encounter becomes normalized. In other words, a violent game that encourages heroism could lead to the impression that a hero is a violent person (Franco & Zimbardo, 2006). Consequently, learners will eventually disregard low-level problems because they have developed a taste for grandeur. In this case, heroism on the gaming platform raises a possibility of actual long-term problems for the players.

In heroic and battle-themed games, players engage in long-term quests. These quests escalate as the player moves from a lower level to a higher level. For example, Fortnite offers players different gaming levels according to their task-completion. In one level, this gives the players a sense of achievement and motivates them into deeper engagement. These triggers some levels of Dopamine, as humans tend to obtain this organic chemical through the feeling of reward. On the other hand, it could create an addictive experience, and causes negative emotions, and reactions to the player's mind. For example, the case of Michael Aliperti, a 45 year old man threatening a young boy is a simple outcome of misplaced aggression (Palmer, 2018). Aliperti had played so much that he no longer separated the gaming experience from real life interactions, which lead him to threaten a kid with coming down to his school to shoot him with a shotgun. The ethical problem here illustrates the depth of consumerism as a social problem. Fortnite allows all users the freedom to interact with each other with no restrictions. After all, the virtual interactions are at random, and the likely that players encounter again are very slim. Yet this disregard for age differences is an outcome of mindless marketing, and for a game which is PEGI 12+, these carelessness from the developers should be unacceptable.

In addition to the problems associated with violence, Fortnite offers all players chances to purchase on-game add-ons such as personalized appearances and battle passes. These features cost V-currency units. The associated costs of these items raise an ethical issue. How does a child afford to play the game? If the child needs an add-on, they are likely to ask their parents. If the parents refuse to give the kids what they want, this also raises a danger of stealing credit cards. These is easy to happen, as credit cards are saved in every console to be used whenever the players want to purchase something.  Since Fortnite is also interactive, it creates a danger of low self-esteem for children when they interact with their peers. As kids play with their friends after school (or while skipping school), they are exposed to bullying, and a feeling of inferiority for not playing well, or not owning the best skins (clothes in the game).  Feeling inferior connects to a toxic culture of consumerism. This as these kids feel the need to buy V-points, and be good in the game for the sake of validation from their peers. Consumerism specifically invites negative feedback if a subject fails to do something that others are doing.

Fortnite's free game creates an impression of accommodating all players. After all, the approach suggests that a player has complete access to an attractive and popular game. This approach has proven highly effective on the surface because the number of gamers on Fortnite has increased. Anyways, people think, if I don't like it I just erase it. The social value of the game also contributes to its increasing popularity. However, the game does not accommodate all players. It discriminates based on expenditure. Instead, the impression of accommodations is a clever marketing strategy that overcomes initial inhibitions and gives Fortnite a foothold into the consumer's incomes.

Players spend as much as $2000 USD to buy battle kits and skins among others in the game. In addition, players pay to move to a higher season of the game (currently the game is in season 7). Without buying the necessary updates, kits and skins, a player could be stuck in one level of the gaming experience. Buying progress ultimately reduces the experience of the gaming activity. On the other hand, it offers convenient access to useful tools, especially in situations where a player has failed at a task consistently, while it also buys the validation of other players. Psychologically, this creates an impression that progress is bought rather than earned.

Think about the current society we live in today. On one hand, a prospective homeowner could buy a plot of land and construct his house himself step by step. This would ideally add up to the satisfaction to live in a house with personal emotional investment. On the other hand, a buyer could buy a fully furnished house. The outcomes of both approaches could be similar in a way, because the owners eventually own homes. On the other hand, these outcomes are misleading as emotional engagement increases the level of attachment. This would be relevant in the case that a person would be less likely to sell their house if they built it compared to if they bought it because there is a sentimental value put into the property. Here, a culture of purchasing everything tends to reduce the quality of attachments.

In the topic of attachment, financial engagements have monetary value. Time is a premium component because it is irreplaceable. Creating an impression of saving time becomes an invaluable marketing tool. Fortnite offers users an impression of saving time by offering the chance to buy V points rather than earn them, which advances players into getting what they want if they pay money. This is a form of social learning, especially for young players. This as newer generations tend to grow up thinking that saving time is worthy of spending money. However, this discredits the value of the actual impression. According to Adorno, cultural values are self-replicating (Grant, 2013). The components of gaming on Fortnite suggest that social learning increases the depth of consumerism by teaching players to value outcomes rather than processes. In prior games before people played Fortnite, people enjoyed the process of passing missions, as these where fun to do, and there was not a race happening between players to be the best.

Fortnite sells its items in a system called “rotating cosmetics” every week to players. These rotating cosmetics are limited time offers, meaning they have an expiration period (normally about 24 hours). This means that as soon as a skin or any other cosmetic product expires, the user cannot get a chance to buy it, and makes your character special, as others watch your skin, and they cannot obtain it.  The time limitations are strict, as after a deadline has passed, a player does not stand a chance of buying the cosmetics. However, the cosmetics are interchangeable like everyday clothes, and a player can easily change their appearance and look different to other players. Rotating skins are completely unnecessary. This as they do not improve the gaming experience of the player. You are not better equipped with the new skin, than the one that comes by default. Rather, they are a form of flashing, and flexing to other players that you've got the skins, invest money, and are serious about your gaming. Yet the rotating cosmetics create an impression of urgency and thus trigger players to make rushed decisions. This is looked at as a marketing strategy Scarcity, created and implemented by many businesses and marketers all over the world.

In the marketing book Brainfluence 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing, Roger Dooley underlined the importance of limited edition in attracting customers. The urgency of purchasing a limited edition, or anything about to run out of supply, is so important that art tends to inflate prices when artists die (Dooley, 2012). In addition, real estate agencies and other sellers tend to use the words “hurry while stocks last” to create an impression of urgency and thus rush decisions (Dooley, 2012). This marketing strategy blocks the thinking process and increases the chances of a rushed consumer making an important decision without consideration. Since players know that Fortnite will change the skins and their appearances after an initial offering, their knowledge forces a fast decision. Here, players make fast decisions because they feel they need to act fast. If they do not buy the skin they like which is showcased for 24 hours, they will never own it again.  In other words, Fortnite uses a tactic that blocks rational thought to its players. This is a negative criticism of popular culture, especially on consumerism. It shows that the current culture we live in today has created such a powerful connection between instant decisions and purchasing that it immediately forces impulsive decisions.

In addition to weekly changes, the price of skins for Fortnite varies according to their rarity. For example, while the uncommon green skin costs 800 V bucks ($8), the legendary gold skin costs 2000 V bucks ($20) (Kain, 2018). This shows a pattern of increasing the costs of skins with increasing rarity. In other words, in multi-player games, players see who spends the most on Fortnite. Appearances also mark out players unwilling (or unable) to spend money on Fortnite. In other words, Fortnite has a procedure for detecting and separating players according to their spending abilities. Technically, no one needs to spend money on the game (Kain, 2018). A player can simply choose to play free and they will access the same gaming platform as the rest of the players. However, without paying, a player could easily experience frustrations because of consistent failure. Therefore, the monetary separations could increase the likelihood of strong emotions. In the discussion forum, one of the gamers disclosed that his inability to control emotions almost resulted in suicide when he failed a task repeatedly (Epic Games Inc).   

Fortnite has mastered a skill of appealing to vanity. The appeal is subtle and indirect. Therefore, players could go for many months before realizing how much money they are spending. By selling colors at different prices, Fortnite creates an impression that the rarest colors have the highest costs. This is deceptive because players cold prefer the costlier color (Kain, 2018). No one wants to appear cheap. For example, if a person has a cheap car, he or she is likely to take a taxi when going to a school reunion. They do not want their friends thinking they are poor. In addition, lying about current occupations, earning potential and happiness with life are observable in most aspects of life. On social media, most people post the highlights of their day. Scanning recent posts, one would get the impression that a friend is always smartly dressed and eats in 5-star hotels. This is another outcome of a culture of consumerism. People have such a deep desire to appear on the front foot that they make expensive inconsequential decisions.

People tend to look for the best way to represent themselves to others. For example, Steve Jobs, one of the most successful CEO in the last four decades, once proclaimed the supremacy of merging arts with functionality. In other words, having a high-performance product is not enough to attract business (Lehrer, 2011). Instead, a designer must find a way to allow users to express themselves. This requires continuing engagement in new artistic forms to allow each user to customize their experiences (Lehrer, 2011). Therefore, Fortnite allows people to personalize their gaming experiences. Fortnite is not charging for the games. It is simply charging for luxury aspects of playing. For this reason, this case is an illustration of the tendency for the most irrelevant things to have the heaviest costs. A cliché saying, “the best things in life are free” appears to have relevant business meaning. Fortnite gives users free access, and yet attracts as much as $2000 from single players despite availability of full-access games for less than $100.

Suppose Fortnite offered two versions of its free game. Suppose that both versions had identical features. The difference is that while one game costs $100 for complete access to all products, the other is free but it has additional costs such as skins and weekly battle pass. Which game would attract the highest attention? Gamers would be likely to select the free version of the game. Purchasing the free version gives the impression that the gamer has complete control of the game, including autonomy of selecting their desired add-ons. In a way, this suggests that Fortnite is simply responding to popular demand. Current culture has created such a strong attachment to free items that users cannot help themselves.

Another explanation for the preference of free games over a big down payment comes from the concept of free samples. Dooley (2012) showed that offering free samples creates the impression that developers have complete confidence in the product they have developed. They are so confident that they are willing to let the product speak for its self. In this way, offering users a limited experience before the option to but could attract an increased volume of purchase. In this way, offering a free game reduces “pain of purchase” (Dooley, 2012). For example, spending $10 does not cause as much impact as a $100 purchase. This is an attractive proposition for marketing because it suggests that after overcoming the barrier of exposure, a product will generate a self-replicating brand (Grant, 2013).

According to Statista 2018, the number of Fortnite players rose from a starting point in August 2017 to an estimated 200 million registered users in November 2018 (last month). This suggests that the Fortnite marketing strategy is highly effective. It has attracted a growing number of players. The initial impression of a free gaming experience could be the primary marketing point for the game. Players simply begin to play because of the free offer. However, with time, the game began to trend. Consequently, feedback from players became a leading avenue for reaching new players. Here, a feature of popular culture is apparent. People tend to find something with a large audience appealing. For example, the popularity of comic-based film and fantasy television has increased over the past few decades from an initial dedicated audience. A culture of admiring something simply because someone else is using it emerges again. The culture of heavy consumerism is likely to sustain Fortnite's business productivity for as long as the company keeps innovating and does not fall behind new competition.

Steve Jobs and Apple Inc. offer another illustration of the value of constant change. Apple Inc. invests in changing phone models annually. The investment tends to increase the volume of sales because people gravitate towards the latest iPhone models (Lehrer, 2011). While the previous model might have better performance, the attractiveness of the new model is so strong that newer models tend to attract price increments. Why does a new product appeal to consumers? Sometimes, an older product has a higher appeal. For example, older cars have a constant marketing value in some demographics. While this disputes the theme of change, it is merely an illustration of the importance of “limited editions”. The appeal of something new could explain the demand for the weekly skin changes and other visual aspects of the game.

Fortnite is an intriguing cultural study. The game has reached a critical point because it is “cool”. This means that the game is trending. Its social relevance is likely to increase the levels of player engagement in the game in the intermediary and sustain the involvement with future innovations. Fortnite creates the impression that effective marketing tactics essentially remove the viability of ethical considerations (allowing a man to threaten a young boy) and bypass existing inhibitions of spending money. This could create long-term problems because it threatens to not only waste time, but also reward unproductive behavior. Fortnite's success in business is therefore a negative critique of a culture of consumerism. The culture exposes people to powerful and unethical marketing strategies.

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