An Analysis Of Building In Fortnite
The following guest article is by current MIT Game Lab student Sam Van Cise and is crossposted at his site and Gamasutra.
In the wake of the meteoric rise of Fortnite, many people ask how it compares to PUBG, the extremely popular predecessor in the battle royale genre. While many will not make a claim as to which is “harder” or “more skillful”, the question is an interesting one and worth exploring. Most people defer to saying “Fortnite has building which makes it completely different” and stop the comparison there. Some will go as far to say that it changes the battle royale genre entirely, adding a completely new skill to master. Recently in his appearance on the H3 Podcast, Ninja (the Twitch super-star) has made the claim that building in Fortnite creates a higher skill gap between players, and ultimately a more “skillful game”.
I won’t attempt to answer which game is harder or more skillful, but rather I will attempt to analyze how the building mechanics play a role in Fortnite. This will only scratch the surface, as there are certainly many more things that can be learned by a more in depth analysis, so I will try to cover only general properties of the mechanic without going into extreme detail. In addition to my own observations, I interviewed three Fortnite players of different skill levels about their perspective on building in the game. I will include these at the end, and compare them to my own thoughts.
Lastly, each of these sections should be treated as observations, and are not meant to convey an opinion or form an argument.
BUILDING TO EXPLOIT 3RD PERSON PERSPECTIVE
One of the main advantages you gain when building in a firefight is the advantage you exploit from 3rd person perspective and camera angles. This is usually avoided in competitive games because it encourages defensive play, which many consider boring and unfair. However, one notable example of a competitive 3rd person game was Gears of War 4, where the overall level design made it hard to exploit camera angles to gain an advantage.
Building allows a player to give themself this advantage at any time during a firefight. Among proficient builders, this often results in a drawn out exchange of building up quickly to be the higher player. Being able to see your opponent before they see you is a huge advantage and often will let you land a shot before your opponent has time to react and even begin aiming at you. (On console this is a bigger issue, because flicking to an opponent who is above or behind you will take longer than for a player using keyboard and mouse). However, this play is not only defensive, as players can use building as an approach tool to close distance between themselves and the opposing player (this is especially advantageous when your opponent has better aim than you).
The result of this 3rd person advantage is a reduction on the importance of aiming speed. This effect is much more significant in short range combat. Winning a fight becomes much less about to be able to react to an opponent when aiming, as your first shot will usually be in their back, and you will stay in cover until you have vision of them.
One way to look at the 3rd person advantage gained from building is to say that it gives players an additional strategic tool. However, my observations lead me to believe that building happens too quickly for it to be truly strategic. High-level builders are using habits and muscle memory to build in a way that always protects themselves. Most of building skills (in the current meta) comes down to speed and maneuverability. I would compare this skill much more to the leaning/peeking mechanics other shooters (which are also in PUBG). These aren’t decisions that players generally think heavily about, and I would categorize these decisions as instinct rather than strategy.
As an aside, I would like to explain the difference between strategy and instinct, at least as I use them here. I believe a good analogy would be differences between chess and blitz chess. In normal chess, players are thinking many moves into the future, considering the options their opponents have, their own options, and weighing different outcomes. However, in blitz chess, because players have much less time to make decisions they cannot do the same amount of planning. They rely on their knowledge of previous games, the “shape” of the board, and positions which are generally strong. This type of knowledge is what I mean by instinct. It is a skill which derives itself from strategic play, but is built on experience and studying.
When viewed in this light, the building mechanics in Fortnite seem much less unique. While it isn’t a perfect comparison, building in the context of close range combat offers a very similar role to lean/peek mechanics. It gives players a tool to look around objects while minimizing their exposure, and requires a similar level of dexterous skills. When viewed in his light, the most interesting aspects of building are the way it makes itself visible to the player. For many players, it is unclear exactly to use the lean/peek mechanics effectively, because the visual differences on screen are much more subtle. On the other hand, building puts this skill in the spotlight with a large visual representation.
It’s important to reiterate that building in Fortnite is usually instinctive and internalized, as opposed to planned and weighed against other options. A strategic implementation of building in a game could be made with a core mechanic is building to gain 3rd person advantage. In this game, you would win any fight if you see your opponent before they see you. If you see each other at the same time, it could be a random death or you both die. The focus of the game would be carefully placing walls/ramps to maneuver in a way to stay in cover, and while trying to gain vision of your opponent.
Building for Cover
3rd person advantage is mostly only relevant in the context of close range fights. In a sniper battle, the quick aiming skills are emphasized, and most of the advantage is mitigated by both players always having a pretty good idea of where their opponent is and being able to see them come out of cover before firing a shot (just like in first person perspective).
In the context of a long-range battle, building is used to create instant cover wherever you are on the map. Items like the Port-a-fort, a grenade that instantly creates a 3 story fort wherever it lands, emphasize this design intent. The result of this is ultimately a reduction of importance to the landscape in regards to firefights. By always having cover available to you, it removes some of the tension of moving across the map into the safe zone. This becomes especially important when trying to understand how building affects not just combat, but the overall gameplay.
Building’s Impact on Battle Royale
As I just mentioned, the ability to build reduces the importance of the terrain navigation strategy found in other battle royale games. This drastically reduces the tension felt while moving across the map (at least once you know how to build). Removing this element of the battle royale genre seems to help one of the biggest problems facing these games as viable competitive: the end circle.
In other battle royale titles you can lose because of a “bad circle”. Essentially this comes down to the circle centering on a random location, and can give your opponent a massive advantage by allowing them to defend the circle from their previous position. The building mechanics in Fortnite largely eliminates the impact of the random circle by allowing the creation of cover, and reducing the overall impact of the terrain.
This overall reduction to the importance of terrain in combat poses interesting questions concerning level design. In other battle royale games a map has to serve both fun combat and effective looting. However, because building removes the importance of terrain navigation, it gives the designers more control by reducing the systems they need to balance in regards to loot placement (across the map on a macro scale). This could be explored further by the developers, especially with tools like supply drops to serve as a dynamic loot delivery system, and the placement of vending machines relative to different material sources.
Another interesting result of building in a battle royale game is a tracking system. Until games like The Darwin Project or the highly anticipated Mavericks become available, building in Fortnite serves as the most significant tracking system in any battle royale game. Because you can see the previously built structures of other players, you are able to see where others have been and where fights have occurred. This information gives players the option to pursue a fight or stay clear of one.
Building in Fortnite clearly offers a new mechanic to master in a shooter, and offers new and exciting ways for players to fight. As Ninja put it, building creates a huge skill gap between players. For me, this creates two conflicting feelings about the mechanic.
On one hand, building shifts the focus away from shooting, which makes the game more approachable and learnable. Beginning to play competitive shooters is challenging because most of your opponents have a many hours of experience with aiming and shooting mechanics which they have developed in other games. By moving the most important skill to an entirely new mechanic, it allows new players to “get good” with relatively low playtime, because all players are essentially starting on an even playing field. This is especially important at the beginning of the lifecycle of a game because it gives players a clear goal and a realistic chance at achieving mastery. If you started playing Fortnite seriously today, you could likely be a top player within year or less, but this would not be true of the next Counter Strike game. Another good example of this was flying in Rocket League. If you could fly in the early days of Rocket League, you would easily be one of the best players in the game (excluding SARPBC veterans).
Looking at Rocket League today might give us a hint for what is to come of Fortnite. As more and more players learned to fly, the importance of rotations and positioning returned to the forefront of player’s minds, and is what separates higher ranked teams. It seems possible that as building proficiency rises and the meta evolves, the most important factors may revert to strategies inherent to the battle royale game mode. However, if strategy plays only a minor role in the game, Fortnite may be weighed down too heavily by randomness to be competitively viable (which many people believe to be true for all battle royale games in general).
On the other hand, building inherently removes those most strategic components of the battle royale genre: rotations and positioning on a shrinking map. When I watch a high level PUBG match, I love to observe how teams position themselves in the final circles, and make predictions about who will win. This carries into the way I play PUBG, as my teammates and I discuss how we want to move around the map. This mindset and strategic play is really the core of what makes the battle royale genre unique. I don’t know if this is obvious to the current player base, as many are used to playing deathmatch games and are just looking to play “the popular shooter”.
Building is an interesting mechanic that deserves to be explored, but I think we could learn a lot about it in the context of a game modes we understand much better, like team deathmatch or capture the flag. Moreover, I don’t think building belongs in a battle royale game (at least at this time) because it removes a key part of what makes the genre interesting and unique.
As part of gathering my thoughts, I wanted to talk to other Fortnite players to hear their perception of building in the game (presented below in order of increasing experience).
Interview 1: (less than 15 hours of experience)
What do you think building adds to Fortnite?
Well there’s an increased ability of interaction with the map, and it adds ways for people to differentiate their playstyles.
I didn’t know how to use it in the beginning and now it’s useful for creating cover and making it easier to get to places of advantage
What do you mean differentiate playstyles? What playstyles have you seen/know about, or in what way can they be different?
Well, again I have to say I’m relatively inexperienced and my video game background is sparse. But there are those who choose to build for protection for long periods, those who use it to attack, those who use it to gain a position of power in a gunfight, and those who don’t use it at all. When I’ve watched streamers play, there seems to be different thoughts on how you use building, whether it is a useful tool to build up to an enemy fort (and how you do so) or if you use it to make your own to even the gunfight. Obviously there are aggressive and passive playstyles in any game, but now there’s an added layer of complexity, and a new skill to pad out that can help you in fights in the game.
(60 hours of experience)
What do you think building adds to Fortnite?
Building adds two main things to fortnite. One developed as a core mechanic for experienced players where players attempt to build over each other’s structures in order to obtain a more advantageous position.
The other is the ability to create new ways to travel across the map. Ramps and platforms let players go over obstacles such as mountains instead of going around them. This opens up options that let some players avoid engaging in fights with others as they make their way to the circle. Building can even be used to travel along the edge of the map.
Interview with sLiniss:
(200 hours of experience)
This interview was conducted while he was streaming
What do you think building adds to Fortnite?
Building is everything.
It’s like adding another dimension to the game. If street fighter is 2D, and other shooters are 3D, then this is like 3.5D. You can be not good at shooting, and a god at building, and you will win the game more times than the guy who is better at shooting. If there is no building it wouldn’t be Fortnite, because building is the game. No one would play this game if it wasn’t for building.
How did you learn to build?
I learned to build because I was getting owned so many times. My background in other competitive games drove me to want to get good, and building was the way. I just learned from watching youtube and other streamers and then practicing a lot.
Do you think building could work in fpp (first person perspective)?
*Does some shuffling around on stream to show what it might look like from FPP*
This game would not work if fpp. You wouldn’t be able to see your opponents.
*some time passes*
Building is fresh. That’s why this game is popular. That and the way everyone starts the same. We have had so many class based asymmetric games come out recently.
After coming to my own conclusions, it is interesting to read over these. The first two responses are quite similar, despite the players having such a different amount of playtime. It is very interesting to see how much YouTubers can influence and inform the player base about how the game works.
The third interview was perhaps the most interesting, because he emphasized the importance of building in the game. In regards to his 3.5D comment, I would like to propose a different model. I think Street Fighter is 2D, but most shooters are only 2.5D, in that they exist in a “slab” which begins at ground level and goes up to the highest elevation point. Most of the shooting happens in a horizontal direction, and they don’t really take advantage of vertical space. Building allows Fortnite to “approach” 3D in the same way Halo 5 does with it’s clambering mechanic, high jump, and level design. A fully “3D” combat situation would be Descent, where you have 6 degree of freedom control in zero gravity.
Additionally, the comment about building being “fresh” aligns with the point I made previously about how a new mechanic can take some of the skill out of old mechanics and invite an entirely new player group to the game.
The GIFs in the article were sourced from the following YouTube Videos, with approximate timestamps included in the link. These can be watched for more context to see how players are successfully using building in Fortnite.