Leading up to spending some time with Fortnite ahead of its official early access launch on July 25th, I had the chance to sit down and talk with three members of the team behind the game: Donald Mustard, the worldwide creative director of Epic Games, Darren Sugg, the game’s creative director, and Zak Phelps, executive producer on Fortnite. Get a deeper look into the behind-the-scenes development of the game below, and when you’re done—if you already haven’t—check out my hands-on preview of Fortnite.
EGM: So as you were joking, this is not the first time we’ve seen Fortnite, nor is it the first time I’ve seen Fortnite. I’ve played it a few times. I was trying to remember how many times I’ve played it, and I’m not even sure at this point.
Donald Mustard: Probably two or three.
EGM: At least two.
Mustard: Yeah. That sounds about right.
EGM: And so, when I watched your presentation, I kind of felt like this looks pretty similar. I was trying to see the things that I could point out were different. The first one, and I could be completely wrong, is I think the characters are different than what they were before.
Darren Sugg: They are.
Mustard: They’re totally different.
Sugg: Totally different.
EGM: Yes, I though it was a different set of characters previously. But other than that, I was having trouble figuring out what was different, so my first question is: What is different? What has happened with this game since I played it last time?
Mustard: That’s a great question.
Sugg: Let’s see. I’m gonna have trouble remembering everything to different between two years ago.
Mustard: Let’s start with one of the biggest ones: what you played two years ago was more of a survival mode. And we love that mode. We love the idea–
EGM: I loved it.
Mustard: We love the core concept of build, defend. Well, harvest, build, defend. Right? That is like the core of the game. But then, on top of that, we were like—and this literally probably started two years ago—was, “No, let’s put an entire, like, RPG meta game on top of it.” It’s all the crafting. It’s all the looting. It’s all these deeper RPG mechanics.
Sugg: Yeah, I think the biggest difference from two years ago, is that we’ve fully converted over to a card system. Basically, everything in the game is a collectible card, everything from the schematics, all the weapon types, traps—they’re all leviable. They all have evolution mechanics, like you expect in a sort of Pokémon game. You can level them up to 10, and then you evolve them, and put them onto a whole other progression level, where they get more properties. There’s a lot of RPG depths that just didn’t exist two years ago, basically. We were like, “What’s the overall meta of this game structure gonna be?” And I think before, we had a super simplified class tree, I think probably when you guys played, so now, all those things are just Hero cards like you see in sort of a MOBA, where it’s like, “Oh, this character comes with these abilities and I level them up and they fulfill this role.”
I think that’s one of the major gameplay system pieces, and all the things around it, so now there’s a compendium of every card in the game exists there so players can say, “Hey, I want that,” or “I like this gun.” There was none of that in the original game. We’ve got—well, what else do we have? We have-
Mustard: Skill tree.
Sugg: Yeah, the skill tree is massively different from back then, too. Now, it’s like—I don’t know. How many nodes like 300?
Sugg: 300, yeah. Now there’s like a 300-node skill tree, so it’s pretty deep. There’s beginning, advanced, and they continue to grow up from there. I think that another feature that we put in, definitely from the last time, is the outpost. We had people who were saying, “Hey, I want to be able to have my building space that doesn’t go away, where I can go and sort of fulfill my nesting instinct and challenge myself by fighting waves of creatures all in an area that I sort of more or less control.” And so we added the outpost feature, and that basically is an area where the player comes, brings resources, builds, and then they run wave-based combat. The more successful they are, the more area of the map that they unlock, and that feature didn’t even exist back then.
But almost from the very beginning—from now five years ago, from my timeline—it was something that we always wanted. It was just technically more complicated at the beginning, so we went through the evolutionary steps to sort of have a persistent base, where people can then go and upgrade. I was trying to think what else—I mean, there’s tons of stuff.
Mustard: Yeah, they essentially took the game from probably a 20 to 40 hour experience to a 300-plus hour experience.
Sugg: Yeah, we added tons of new mission types. We have ones with like mine carts that deliver ammunition to a giant cannon, and like, the players build this rail system. There’s a ton more mission types than there were to begin with. There wasn’t a quest system, actually, before—there was no narration. Now we have a multiplayer quest system you can go through, and there’s a whole narrative that’s fully voiced, which feels more like a typical RPG experience on top of all the gameplay that we had before.
Mustard: Yeah, we’ve always loved the core. Now there’s just meat on the bones, and it’s polished up enough that it’s ready.
Sugg: I’m trying to think what else. Defenders, they weren’t there, and now we have them.
Mustard: I mean, saving all the people, just like, kind of the core–
Sugg: Saving all the people, like there were no NPC’s in the game world two years ago.
EGM: I remember that.
Sugg: Yeah, that’s all new. So now one of the major components of the game is rescuing the people—there’s lots of refugees out there that you kind of have to go out and rescue. They have a bunch of different plights that you have to go save them from, and then on top of that, some of those survivors can become Defenders, and those Defenders are NPCs that can help you defend your fort. And you can deploy them on missions, you can set them up, or you can use them in the outpost and they defend your base in addition to you while you’re on your rounds. It’s just more stuff. We found that players were like, “Hey, people really like pets, go figure.” So we’re like well, we have a game about saving people, so why don’t we just give people guns and then you can level them up and make them part of your–
Mustard: So Fortnite, make people into pets and give them guns.
Sugg: Yeah, right? Well, it’s the same thing-
Mustard: Please don’t say that’s what the game’s about. [laughs]
Sugg: In the end, Pokémon is merely capturing wild animals and then forcing them to fight in gladiatorial combat, so I mean.
EGM If you can’t keep yourself alive, you become a pet.
Mustard: That’s right. [laughs]
Sugg: I mean, people like the ability to sort of adopt things, and so there you go, it’s no different here.
Donald Mustard: Okay.
EGM: So was it a mathematical kind of thought of there’s not enough content in here for 2017, or was it more just when you guys looked at the game, it’s like, “We just want this to be more”?
Sugg: I don’t know. Actually, it’s kind of funny, because we just had a lot of people that wanted to tell more of a narrative in the Fortnite experience. There’s a ton of guys on our team that were like waiting and waiting and waiting, and we were in the two-years-ago version, and were like, “No, we really just want to establish what the core of the game is, and get all the mechanics really solid, and building system.” And then basically around that timeframe, we had an idea like, great, we know we need to build a meta—That’s the stuff we start talking about. Then our content team is like, great, now we can tell the story of the IP of what Fortnite is.
And so, at that moment, we started building it. And since previously we had spent time on systemic development, we knew that we could amplify all this stuff by simply interweaving a story at the same time. So it wasn’t quite—it wasn’t just math, it was literally a passion for people who were like, “This world is really cool and we want to spend more time in it.” So yeah—I’m talking too much.
Mustard: No, it’s great.
EGM: Okay, so we started saying that it used to be just kind of a survival idea of like building and surviving. Is that still there, though, if I liked that from what I played previously?
Sugg: So, the core DNA of what you played before is definitely still in the game. You still need to harvest materials, craft guns, craft weapons, and basically level up, get tougher, and get more schematics. All of that is definitely still in the game, and basically the same thing is true of where we drifted in terms of the IP has remained fairly consistent. Back then, we had sort of the idea of hopeful survival. We didn’t want the player starving to death and worrying about freezing to death, and if they don’t wear a coat, they’ll die.
EGM: I like that, though.
Sugg: Yeah, but there’s a ton of great games like that on the market.
EGM: You say that in the future you might add more modes, so personally I would love to see that.
Sugg: So actually, it’s funny that you bring that up. There’s a design for many things in the infinite Fortnite. There are designs about how we could go about doing it. But, we just always wanted to stay with the idea that Fortnite is sort of a hopeful game. We always ask questions, even internally, like, “What happens if they could bring back all the people?” Like, they could have a big hoorah moment, which is a little bit different that the Walking Dead style game where it’s like, “No, once Johnny gets bit, he is done,” right? So we kind of still maintain that side of it, because we want people to play 100 hours in the game world, and one of the downsides of having a world that’s very repressive—
Mustard: It’s too bleak.
Sugg: It becomes too bleak, and like, “I don’t want to live in that world.” But Fortnite is sort of colorful and fun, but still heroic. We always talk about mixing the idea of the heroism of the Avengers with the sort of survivalist genre.
EGM: I completely understand the idea of getting to the point where you want this to be more than it was before, and that you wanted to build onto it, tell more stories and things like that. But were there pieces that weren’t working? Were there things where you were like, “This just isn’t going the right way?”
Sugg: Definitely. Absolutely. One of the interesting things that we had to really work through early on in development is probably—again, 20 months back—where we had to decide, “Did we want to make a full-on MMO style of Fortnite,” which meant 50,000 pieces of gear. Do you have an avatar that you create and then assemble? And the skill-tree that you saw two years ago was sort of the structure of that. And that was a lot of my background, in that style, but we very well could’ve gone down that road, but for various reasons—though iteration and through the type of scope of the game we wanted to build—we sort of backed away from that, and changed that whole system into the unified skill-tree system we have right now. So yeah, there are definitely pieces we’ve learned from. We’ll be like, “Yeah. We could go down this road, but let’s not.” And then we make a right turn and find our way through, so that’s one of them.
Zak Phelps: I think the other thing was that, early on, two years ago when we had the game setup, each player owned their own area of the game. So one of the big changes that we made, and what we found, is that players had a hard time playing together, because when you join my world you didn’t come with anything. You didn’t have anything in my world. You would just drop in and I’d have to drop resources and other things for you.
So one of the things that we really thought deep and hard about was, is that we really wanted the game to be great for players to play with others, with their friends or with other people. And so at that point, one of the biggest shifts that we made was to shift it to a shared world where everybody’s participating the same world. They have their inventory all the time, and so it’s easy for them to go and play with their friends. So that was a big shift, and that’s part of what pulled us into the RPG experience that we pulled together, along with everything around it. There’s a lot of work in making that shift, but ultimately the players now love it. Right now we’re getting good feedback.
Mustard: What I think is interesting about this, this isn’t actually atypical game development. What’s kind of atypical with Fortnite is that you’ve known about it for so long, right? But this is making games, right? Like if you had played a version of Spyjinx from 6 months ago or a year ago or a year and a half ago, and the version of it today or any of our other games, you’d be like, “Oh my goodness. It’s such a different game.” Because, as you iterate, and as you really try to find the fun and find the audience, you evolve. You evolve from the core idea.
To me, what’s so beautiful about Fortnite is that that core idea that excited us so much still rings through today, right? That core is the beating heart, is the same, but now it’s just surrounded by all these other great systems, and all this learning, and it feels like a fully fleshed-out game.
EGM: So you say that, but let’s say from my perspective, if I’m a regular fan, I see the reveal of Fortnite and I see what it looks like and the style you showed, and then I play a few years later and I’m like, “Well, this kind of feels a bit different than what it was before and it looks a little bit different.” And then I see your re-reveal, and it’s like, “This looks a little different and feel a little different than what I thought before.” For you guys making it internally, you know all these things and you know how it’s going, but how do you feel about what the fans from the outside are seeing and feeling? Because we are only seeing these pieces and it is easy, sometimes, to think, “Wow. This game is in trouble, because it just goes away for a long time, and then comes back and it’s kind of different, then goes away for a long time, and then comes back and it’s different.”
Mustard: So that is a good question as well. I think we’re entering this interesting vector of time in games. Fortnite‘s an interesting case study, and I think we’re going to see this a lot more. Right now, we’ve got a few thousand very early closed-alpha players that are playing the game, and have not just had to momentarily see that evolution that you see, but live through it. Live through it like, “Man, I was playing a totally different game a year ago. And then they wipe my account, and then they give you this whole other game, and I’m living through that.”
And we won’t wipe accounts anymore, but come July 25th we’re going to have millions of people playing the game, right? And then a few months later, we’ll have tens of millions of people playing the game. But I promise you, our intent is that the game, three years from now, will feel very different than the game you get on July 25th, because we’re going to continue to work on it and evolve it in front of everybody, right? And not just because that’s what we want to do, but because we know that’s what our audience wants as well. And man, that is the challenge of being a game designer nowadays.
It’s not like you can just be like, “I made Pac-Man and I put it in a box and I hope you like it,” or, “I made Shadow Complex and put it in a box and I hope you like it.” Now it’s, “No, no. Let’s try and build a framework that, over time, with our community, we can evolve.” And that’s where it’s interesting, because our intent is to actually let go a little bit of our authorship. If the community is like, “No, no. We really want to wear coats and freeze to death,” then we’ll be like, “Okay. We will give you that and we’ll play it together and we’ll see how that works out.”
Sugg: If they think it’s fun, I’m sure we’ll make it.
Mustard: But the challenge with that also is to say, as creatives, we still have to be good Gods of the world, right, and help shape it in a way that doesn’t alienate the audience. So, this is the challenge of game design in this decade, and none of us of have it all figured out yet. Our hope is to make a game that’s great, that people love, and then evolve it with them in a way that doesn’t alienate the people that made it great with us. That’s the challenge.