How the latest video game craze mixes up the fundamentals of game design and human psychology to make itself compelling
Almost every video game is designed to make you want to play it. Fortnite, though, is especially good at keeping people coming back, week after week, match after match. This “stickiness”, as game designers call it, is not down to some revolutionary new game design factor. Instead, Fornite has improved and repackaged ideas, creating an effective evolutionary step rather than a leap.
While improving shooting skills and chasing a Victory Royale is satisfying, what keeps Fortnite players engaged second-to-second is loot, the items and weapons that can be found all around the map. The random nature of these item-drops, in quality and location, leads to what is known in psychology as a variable-ratio schedule. A weapon or item that could bestow a significant advantage might always be right around the corner. The hope of finding something desirable paired with occasional reward is exciting to humans: you’ve probably experienced this from shopping sales, or fishing.
Fortnite, however, is unlike most games in that the player’s loot is lost at the end of every match. The game’s designers don’t need to stretch out the content by offering rewards at longer intervals. Instead, Fortnite players get the excitement of receiving a great weapon or item in every single match.
Because finding equipment has a big impact on a player’s success, bad players can get lucky and find weapons that give them an advantage, and great players occasionally die quickly because they had bad luck finding loot. This reduces the gap between high- and low-skill players, making the game less punishing and more difficult to dominate – and more compelling, as players bargain with aggrieved partners or irritated parents to play again.
This compulsion to replay derives from a primal feedback cycle. Humans instinctively attempt to find order in chaos. Fortnite players must build a mental model of the game’s overlapping mechanics, developing heuristic shortcuts. When our ancestors didn’t find buffalo, they might have concluded that drought had pushed them to water holes farther north; when those buffalo were then found at the northern water hole, the reward circuits in hunters’ brains were satisfied. Heuristics are tested and refined in games, and when one is strengthened through a positive outcome the player feels happy. This is as true for Fortnite players as for buffalo hunters.
However, when a heuristic fails and the player’s character dies, they experience cognitive dissonance between what they thought was going to happen and what actually happened. For a Fortnite player, this may be because they were hit by a sniper in what they thought was a secret hiding spot.
It is imperative to reconcile this disconnect. If you stop playing Fortnite after a failure, you’re cutting the feedback cycle at cognitive dissonance, rather than the reward of heuristic strengthening. That makes quitting it hard to do.
These principles apply during every play session. But what keeps people coming back for weeks on end is another powerful human desire: to signal social status. Every Fortnite match has an audience of 100 players to impress. You can play or pay for “skins”, visual customisations that apply to either a player’s avatar or their weapon, making your character look like a samurai or turning your pickaxe into a balloon sculpture. Socially, skins work much in the same way as a Louis Vuitton handbag does at signalling success, because highly desirable skins require intensive play (and real-world money) to obtain.
Like fashion companies, Fortnite limits the availability of skins to a season. When a new one begins – season six starts soon – a new set of skins are released, and players must race to get the good stuff before the season ends and the rewards are lost. This provides a powerful reason for players to come back to Fortnite. Through the second-to-second motivation that comes from acquiring alluring loot and the match-to-match satisfaction of heuristic building we can understand how the game has built and maintained such an avid fanbase.
While Fortnite doesn’t do anything entirely new, its remixed collection of existing game mechanics does make it feel fresh and interesting. But its novelty will surely fade, just as the Pac-Man craze of the early 1980s fizzled out and Lara Croft’s popularity faded with the 90s. Fortnite isn’t some magical new kind of addictive video-game design, but it does take an incremental step in the evolution of how players and games interact.