Avengers: Infinity War is the Shaquille O’Neal of movie releases. It’s massive.
Fortnite occupies that same rarefied air, reaching such levels of mainstream popularity that moral panic attacks about its addictiveness are already rife. This week the two meet in a mashup event called (deep breath) Infinity Gauntlet Limited Time Mashup Mode.
Beginning week one of season four, this isn’t just a striking indication of how popular Fortnite’s become – the mode came about because Infinity War directors Anthony and Joe Russo are big fans of the game – but also that it’s managed to do the impossible and assert itself as the number one battle royale game around. PUBG looked untouchable in 2017, but who’s got those moral panic attacks and Hollywood cameos now?
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The broad strokes are very similar to your common-or-garden game of Fortnite: 100 players, diminishing play zone, last person standing wins. The Avengers spin is that somewhere on the map – and I’m still not certain if the placement is entirely randomised or more probable in the new Dusty Divot at the map’s centre – but somewhere lies Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet.
Picking it up turns you into Thanos himself, instantly bestowed with a greatly augmented jump, enormous health and shield bars, a deadly melee punch and a good old-fashioned death ray. Quite a desirable power-up, then.
It also turns you into a great big target for everyone else on the map. You appear as a compass point to all players and your health and shields are visible to all. If they kill you they get to pick up the Infinity Gauntlet and become Thanos. However, when Thanos dies, a giant rainbow beacon is emitted from his corpse, alerting players across a wide radius to the fact there’s an Infinity Gauntlet up for grabs in that precise location.
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Like the old adage about spiders, chances are that when you do come across Thanos they’re just as scared of you as you are of them. Finding the gauntlet is extremely rare, and successfully killing someone wielding it and then grabbing it for yourself without being picked off by an opportunist stalker is rarer still. The upshot is this: it’s probably this player’s first time wielding the Gauntlet, and they have to learn the feel and subtlety of its controls in about four seconds before 70 chasing players crest the hill and open fire.
It’s certainly empowering to wield the Gauntlet, and possible to kill puny human players in just a couple of seconds even while you’re taking fire, but it’s also a terrifying ordeal in which you’re telling yourself not to waste this rare opportunity while an entire server’s worth of players hunt you down. That terror is magnified a thousandfold if you become Thanos with only 10 players left. You’ve got such an enormous advantage, and yet somehow you feel so vulnerable. There’s nowhere to hide. No fort can remove you from everyone’s radar, no matter how clever the placement of every panel. All there is to do is aim and kill.
Although it doesn’t mess with the formula as much as recent limited-time modes such as 50v50 (self-explanatory) and High Explosives (rocket launchers, grenade launchers and grenades only), it’s a worthwhile distraction from the daily achievement grind, and a particular treat for Avengers fans. Given Fortnite’s embarrassment of riches when it comes to player numbers in 2018, you get the sense that this wasn’t a crossover deal made by dead-eyed licensing people to draw players in, but instead a genuine effort to reward the existing community. After all, could the servers even hack many more players? Is there anyone left on Earth who hasn’t played it now, and would an irreverent Thanos event finally coax them in if so? If a Fortnite player falls alone in the forest, do they report the nearby shrubs for cheating?
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Those questions are best left for Epic’s numbers people and philosophers, but Infinity Gauntlet Limited Time Mashup Mode shows what a shrewd job the company has done in turning around the fortunes of its initially anonymous PvE zombie game, and toppling the un-topple-able PUBG in the process.
PUBG’s player counts are out in the open, and it’s still absolutely dominating the Steam stats with a million concurrents nearly every time you look at it – double the numbers of Dota 2 in second place. Fortnite’s more coy about its concurrent users, but Twitch offers some insights into the trajectories of both games. It was streaming that accelerated the success of the battle royale genre as a whole, and for a long time PUBG sat at the top of Twitch’s most watched lists. In March, however, Fortnite enjoyed more than twice PUBG’s weekly average weekly concurrent viewers: 139,000 to 63,000. That’s not directly indicative of player counts, but it certainly says a lot about where the two stand in popularity.
Could this Marvel movie mashup have happened in PUBG? Its audience is still undeniably big enough to secure such a deal, but tonally it’d be jumping the shark in the extreme to have Thanos stomping around an otherwise ultra-realistic eastern bloc power station or Miramar’s gritty prison. Fortnite, with the kind of art style you could easily interchange with Overwatch, Battleborn, Heroes of the Storm, Paladins, Team Fortress 2, Agents of Mayhem, and at least three other games that released while I was typing this, is the perfect fit for a comic book movie cameo. It’s also the perfect fit for a massive junior Twitch audience who respond to an art style that was devised for them. From the ground up, Fortnite is intended to have broader appeal than PUBG. If you didn’t know what ArmA was – what DayZ was, even, how would you make sense of its presentation style? Would its palette of greys, slightly lighter greys, and greyish greens draw you in if you were still young enough that the TV you watched was bright and colourful enough to detach retinas at the wrong TV display settings?
The other aspect of the two battle royale games’ fortunes, and it’s a fairly massive one, is consoles. Fortnite beat PUBG to the punch in delivering the battle royale gaming to a console audience, and while PUBG has left Early Access on PC, and released Xbox and mobile editions, it doesn’t seem to have turned the tide. Not even with two maps – nearly three, now.
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Thanos’ cameo in this limited time event represents just one of the ways Epic is capitalising on its broad appeal, and for the time being it seems that Fortnite: Battle Royale is guzzling down the market chicken dinner. These things don’t last forever, though: perhaps some young upstart will do the same to Fortnite that it did to PUBG; that PUBG did to H1Z1. It’s an ultra-competitive space with the biggest potential audience in gaming right now, and you can bet your last unit of in-game currency that a hundred studios are working on their own battle royale game right now.