Fortnite just pulled off an incredible marketing scam

The End

Fortnite, a children’s game about stealing dance moves, building towers and competitive murder, just single-handedly pulled the biggest marketing scam I’ve ever seen.

Since launching in 2017, the game has redefined the entertainment landscape.

Fortnite is big. Like, beating football and Netflix big. Like, probably making Disney sweat big. 

Huge numbers of people play Fortnite.
Even more people watch people play Fortnite.
Even more people watch people watching people play Fortnite. 

Take a look:

In two years, the game has completely redefined what meteoric growth looks like for media companies – and it’s showing no signs of slowing down.

But then on October 13th, Epic (the game’s developer) just…switched everything off.

During peak play time.
On a national US holiday.
With no sign of return. 

And people love them more than ever.

Orchestrating the end of the world

Epic didn’t exactly disconnect their entire user base to no fanfare. In fact, the fanfare was deafening

The developer preceded the switch off with a pretty spectacular narrative set piece called “The End”. Over six million people tuned in to watch the entire island – the level they’d spent the last two years playing in – disappear into a cataclysmic black hole.

(That they rolled out this experience for millions of concurrent players – seemingly without a hiccup – is a feat of infrastructure design we’ll have to gush over another time.)

And then…nothing. Players were kicked out of their sessions. The menu screen, website, Instagram and Twitter feeds were all replaced by a quietly humming black hole for days.

No warning. No explanation. No apology.

The community went nuts. Excitement, praise, outrage, speculation. 

All around a narrative event for a game with no story, no character progression and only cosmetic permanence between games.

You see, for all its success, Fortnite Battle Royale is pretty simple.

Each game, you and 99 other players parachute onto the same island to spend around 30 minutes gathering weapons, building defences and slaughtering each other within an ever-shrinking arena.

That’s it. Over and over again.

But in that narrative vacuum, Epic has created a new kind of storytelling – and with it (believe it or not) a staggeringly brave new approach to downtime.

The greatest trick that Epic ever pulled

Like any game (or software product) with a vibrant community, Fortnite receives periodic updates – new content, fixes, optimizations and so on. 

What the rest of the software world might call versions, Fortnite (and other online games) call seasons – effectively three month patch cycles.

From season 3 onward, Epic preceded each new update with in-game events – cinematic glimpses at some wider narrative, completely incidental to the gather-build-destroy core gameplay loop.

So season 3 closed with rocks falling from the sky, which led to season 4 opening with a huge meteor crash, leaving a crater that became a rocket launch pad at the release of season 5.

It’s ingenious sleight-of-hand – a series of half-connected ooh-ahh firework displays to distract users from the natural cycle of server maintenance.

But the end of season 10 was different. 

Epic weren’t just tweaking the level this time. They were launching a whole new map. One that probably required a complete overhaul of their underlying server infrastructure to support new features (and get optimized for even more growth). 

But rather than warn players, ask them for patience, or even tell them how long things were going to take, the biggest game in the world stared down its audience and said exactly nothing for almost two days. 

Why the scam works

So. 

How did the most popular video game, TV show and sporting franchise today enforce days of unannounced downtime on hundreds of millions of customers during one of their busiest periods of the year, and get people to say “thank you for what was, in effect, server maintenance?

And most importantly, what can tech marketers take away from this? 

They earned the right to take risks and be playful.

Epic set a precedent with previous patch rollouts. So when the sky ripped open, player expectations were already set – something new and exciting was just around the corner. 

And by season 10, Epic had garnered enough goodwill with their audience that they could try something big, scary and differentiated, by playing with the experience of the release process itself. Which brings us to…

They wrangled value from inconvenience

Downtime for any software application is a pain in the butt. But Epic made a game out of it – not just with big flashy cinematics, but by flipping the traditional PR playbook on its head. Giving players less information about the impending update actually stimulated anticipation far beyond what any “Please bear with us, BIG update coming!” tweet could have achieved. 

They understood their audience better than anyone could have predicted and crafted something surprising and delightful that made service interruption feel inclusive and fun. And in doing so…  

They took complete ownership of the narrative.

The coverage around “The End” event has been enormous – way bigger than Epic could have hoped for with a traditional announcement. 

“Fortnite gets a new update” would get the usual smattering of games coverage. 
“Fortnite servers experience unexpected downtime” would have probably made it to some tech sites. 
But “Fortnite disappears and no-one knows when it’ll be back” was irresistible – even to mainstream national news outlets.

And now, with the servers back up, and the Chapter 2 update live, they’re still covering it

The whole event has been executed flawlessly, and marketers everywhere should be paying attention. It’s an astounding case study in how to make the weakest parts of your customer experience work the hardest for you.  

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