Nobody knows what the metaverse is. The term, which has become one of the most popular fundraising slang used in boardrooms across the country, is notoriously enigmatic. Can the metaverse be defined as the social space where gamers reside? A multiverse divided into different properties and ruled by ruthless capital laws? Another extension of the questionable NFT gambit? Ask a million game developers and you’ll probably get a million different answers. It could be argued that we’ve lived in the Metaverse for decades – after all, I spent much of my youth roaming around World of Warcraft outside of the Ironforge auction house. One could also argue that the Metaverse is a distant dream that can only be realized through yearning futuristic technology; we all transport into a digital utopia with the Star Trek holodeck. Perhaps it’s better and more honest to think of the metaverse as something studios create on the fly, rather than a concrete ideal we aspire to. On that note, Fortnite should be considered the torchbearer for this strange new frontier.
I’m a career Fortnite skeptic. When the game’s Battle Royale mode surfaced on September 26, 2017, just two months after the launch of the core Save the World mode, I was happy to write off Epic’s latest venture as a tense, desperate attempt from the boisterous PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds to benefit boom. Months later, when Fortnite had left all of its competitors firmly in the dust, I still viewed the game as a quirky, short-lived fad; a flavor of the month that’s sure to be overwhelmed by the influx of world-conquering Infinity Ward and Respawn renditions of the genre that are sure to come. That’s actually true – Warzone and Apex Legends are both massive hits – and Epic has countered those onslaughts by… adding a batch of inter-fiction skins to their video game. Surely that wouldn’t work. Fortnite was a glorified mod that got lucky; It parachuted in in the absolute heyday of the incandescent battle royale revolution, and the ability to take control of, say, Thanos certainly wouldn’t keep it from being forgotten again. When Tim Sweeney started calling Fortnite a lesser game and more of a decentralized social experienceI thought Epic had officially lost the storyline. How the hell will someone go unhook in a video game where the main interaction with your fellow players is through the barrel of a gun?
Fortnite is a game. But please ask this question again in 12 months.
— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) December 26, 2019
Years later, I’m ready to give up my anti-Fortnite prejudice. Epic has doubled and tripled in the belief that their product can transcend all established limitations of a video game – and move into a self-proclaimed metaverse – and I think there’s officially no denying that they’ve done it. Alex Perry from Mashable, has a good summary of the many ways Fortnite has achieved escape speed with all of its eccentric gameplay experiments. A round of battle royale still has winners and losers, yes, but Fortnite also lets you “explore the sprawling map and do quests to unlock more goofy skins and accessories,” he writes. “You can go ‘fishing’. You can hop in a car with a working radio station and just splash through the countryside, or do the same in a boat in one of the map’s vast lakes.”
All of this, of course, is filtered through a frankly amazing catalog of bespoke pop culture costumes, allowing for true Ready Player One-style wish-granting. Thanos, introduced in 2018, was just the tip of the iceberg. Now anyone in the vastness of Fortnite can transform into John Cena, Spider-Gwen, or Demogorgon to name a few. The skins that officially won me over? Introducing the cast of Dragon Ball Z. Watching as Goku chased a Kamehameha across the map – and secured Victory Royale – I realized this was exactly the kind of video game fantasy I dreamed of as a 12-year-old . Fortnite just keeps getting bigger and weirder, and that’s all I really want from what the metaverse is supposed to be.
There’s an ever-present negative aura whenever game studios start summoning the metaverse. We’ve already seen outright revolts from Ubisoft fans and Square Enix fans alike when the bosses of those two companies started making overtures to a crypto-heavy transreal future. It’s pretty easy to diagnose where this negativity is coming from; The bulk of most Metaverse pitches depend on massive NFT integrations, despite the fact that no one has proven with certainty that gamers are interested in auctioning off, say, a weapon skin encoded on the blockchain. Some of the model’s biggest proponents, like Facebook, have proven to be such unreliable actors in our private and public life, and now we shall forget their call and live in their worlds? Do you buy and sell digital material under their watchful eye? You are not wrong if you are suspicious. I am also.
“There is a fear that the [crypto] Influence will deplete good design principles and create an environment where video game experiences are increasingly tempered by financial thresholds, creating a negative experience for consumers,” I wrote in a story about the Metaverse for Vox earlier this year. “Until now, publishers have not been able to allay these fears.”
I think that’s what makes Fortnite such an outlier and players seem so much more optimistic about its metaversal potential. Yes, obviously Epic is a for-profit company and the skins sold at Fortnite all come at a price. But these assets aren’t screwed up in any sinister blockchain membership scheme, and as such, we don’t feel like we’re being sold a bag full of goods. You don’t buy the Goku skin because you believe that giving it to a potential buyer for a godsend of sweet, sweet Ethereum will someday be a good investment. No, you simply buy the Goku skin with it be Goku. That’s the same priority in the evolving Fortnite metaverse; All of the choices Epic makes with the game seem to stem from a loose, lively, playful joy. This is not a metaverse masquerading as a Ponzi scheme or a work-for-hire scheme; They come to Fortnite to have fun, and with the variety of ways Epic continues to expand the possibilities in a multiplayer match – from Ariana Grande concerts to the Infinity Gauntlet – the Metaverse suddenly seems like something to be about worth looking forward to.
Now that Fortnite has convinced me, do I have a better understanding of what the metaverse is supposed to be? No not true. At its core, Fortnite remains a battle royale game, and no fancy minigames or crossover events are going to change that any time soon. But perhaps the vagueness can work to Epic’s advantage; Perhaps they will be the company that sets player expectations for any publisher that welcomes players into their own metaverse. I can’t judge the scientific intricacies of the concept, but I can say with confidence that the metaverse should be a vector for gigantic laughter fits. It should feel like anything is possible. It should enable us to use our as Dr. Blow up Strange’s friend in disguise while we’re dressed as John Cena ourselves. If we’re all enjoying ourselves like this, maybe Epic is right. We will all be enmeshed in the metaverse one day without ever realizing it.
Luke Winkie is a freelance writer for IGN.
https://www.ign.com/articles/how-fortnite-is-the-antidote-to-metaverse-skepticism How Fortnite is the antidote to Metaverse skepticism