‘Fortnite’ Is Bringing FOMO To Video Games
Were you there when the rocket launched, buzzing around the sky and causing weird cracks that turned into rifts people could jump through? Were you there when the giant purple cube we called Kevin glooped its way around the island before exploding and taking us all into what felt like The Matrix?
Were you there for the Marshmello concert? Or the weird earthquakes that led to a volcano appearing and a pirate ship arriving on the island’s shores?
This isn’t Lost. This is Fortnite. And what this game has been up to is bigger than just a few fun and wacky real-time events people can join in on. Fortnite is bringing FOMO to videogames, and it’s changing what it means to play.
It might not seem like much for a game to throw special events. Games are always trying things to keep us coming back, adding new features and new content to keep their game installed and get us to check back in now and then.
But if you really think about what games typically do, they don’t do ‘one-off’ like Fortnite does. Games add new things that stick around permanently, or they add seasonal events that you can always catch next year if you miss it. It’s expensive to build big new things into video games, so game publishers want to be able to use all that costly content more than once so they can get plenty of value from the effort.
But that’s not what Fortnite is up to. It’s creating story-style moments in a game that has no story. A magical island where weird things happen now and then. And if no one was playing the game at the moment it happened, it would have happened anyway.
Of course, the game has been going ballistic and has tens of millions of players eager to know that at precisely 11.00pm on a Tuesday a Secret Thing is going to happen and everyone in the game at that moment will see the Secret Thing. So millions queue up, get into games, and many die while wanting to see it happen – the game is callous enough to let players miss out (most of the time) even if they turned up. You still have to survive the game to participate. The world doesn’t actually care about you. It’s not stopping for anything or anyone. It’s still Battle Royale.
These are liminal experiences, unrepeated moments that those present feel were created just for them.
But through what is now a year of gaming dominance, there have been a handful of key real-time game moments that players continue to talk about. The rocket launch. The purple cube. The snow storm. The concert. And every one of these moments has been so highly produced and perfectly polished to deliver something more than anyone expected. You feel rewarded for making the effort. The thing you imagined the event would be turns out to be an underestimation of how cool the event turns out to be. So everyone is even more excited about the next one. Rinse. Repeat.
These events are becoming bonding rituals for the Fortnite community. The stories of shared moments that those who arrived later can only learn from others, or from videos captured on streams. These are liminal experiences, unrepeated moments that those present feel were created just for them, and they emerge feeling different about their relationship with the game and those who were sharing the moment with them. It deepens bonds, in this case to the game and the memories created in the virtual space.
World of Warcraft once created similar experiences, some on purpose, others by accident. Way back in its earliest days, an accidental blood plague was spread from a dungeon into capital cities. A quirk of code meant character pets were the infection source that laid waste to the entire city population. The problem was fixed soon enough, but more than a decade later, people still talk about the Corrupted Blood incident. Were you there?
Some years ago I spoke to some of the lead developers on World of Warcraft about why they don’t do these moments anymore. I was told that, while those moments were cool for the people who were there, anyone who missed out wasn’t happy. So they refocused on better annual event cycles.
But in the years since, social media and high-quality game capture have emerged. So now, yes, we can still miss out, but there’s also a second life to these moments because they become shareable, and often viral. Some get the pleasure of ‘being there’, and others still get to see how cool the moment was. And maybe get that itch to watch a little more closely and not miss out the next time something cool is about to happen.
Some have dismissed how cool, or how important, moments like the recent Marshmello concert that brought over 10 million people together in real-time to watch a ten-minute gig in Fortnite. It’s not the first time, they say. Concerts have happened in Second Life and Minecraft that have let people share a real virtual moment.
But what Fortnite has done is brought a new level of scale and polish to the idea. The Marshmello concert was bigger than anything that came before, and led directly to massive jumps in the artist’s social popularity. In the week that followed, Marshmello saw 100M new YouTube views and gained over one million new Instagram followers. It spilled out of the game, showing that the Fortnite community didn’t just participate, they took what they discovered and let it change parts of their wider outlook.
Fortnite isn’t just a game. It’s a cultural phenom. It loves dipping its feet into wider culture. The dances, of course. And the NFL tie-ins. And remember when Thanos stopped by? Were you there?
It can be annoying to miss out on fun things. But for those who care, it’s a lot more fun when things exist you can actually miss out on. The buzz of that shared special moment is so much more than a game experience. It’s a kind of cultural communion.
But it’s OK if you don’t really get it. You had to be there.
Image credit: Steam XO via Flickr Under Public Domain Mark 1.0