Why Fortnite's monetisation is easy to copy but its success hard to replicate
Columnist Jon Jordan on the tangible value of intangible items
If you have issues with the idea some people spend a lot of tangible money buying intangible digital items in games, look away now, because a new supercharged way of separating players from their cash is taking over.
Following the incredible success of Fortnite on mobile and console, the Battle Pass system - a much better version of the existing VIP system - is now the hottest monetisation trend in free-to-play games, and everyone is trying out their own version.
A case in point is battle royale competitor PUBG Mobile. A massive hit in terms of audience size, but previously struggling in terms of making money, the addition of its Royale Pass resulted in a four-fold jump in revenue overnight.
Of course, the success of Fortnite on mobile is already well established. It's generated over $100 million on iOS since its March 2018 release and around $300 million on all platforms during June alone.
But what's really clever about the Battle Pass system is the way it plays with human psychology in terms of time-dependence, loss aversion and, most importantly, social standing.A simple plan
The main criticism of F2P games is they encourage so-called "pay-to-win" game mechanics. Often times this isn't the case, but it seems true because, well, why would any right thinking person spend money in a game if it didn't give them some sort of an advantage?
And, even in the case of purely cosmetic monetisation as with Loot Boxes, much anger is directed at the inherent randomness in terms how much you have to spend to gain the specific rewards you want.
Fortnite destroys these arguments entirely because it's clear spending money doesn't make you perform any better. The main rewards you get are cosmetic character skins, special in-game items, emotes, loading screens etc, although you do get XP boosts, which speeds you and one friend’s levelling up, and more in-game currency.
Omega - the pinnacle item of Season 4
It's also very clear how you gain access to these items; either through completing gameplay challenges or spending money. There’s no gacha here.
In both respects then, Fortnite's monetisation offers clarity in terms of its value-for-money.Pay-to-look-cool
But what's really clever about Fortnite is that in order to gain access to the best rewards, you have to spend some money.
Everyone can gain some rewards by playing through challenges via the Free Pass, but these rewards are so limited as to be laughable, which is what all of your friends will be doing if you don't buy a Premium Battle Pass.
This costs around $10/£15 using the in-game V-Bucks currency, which seems reasonable, and this is why Fortnite has the highest payment conversion rate of any F2P game. The reason is it's not really a F2P game. It's a subscription-based game with additional IAPs.
Of course, buying a Premium Battle Pass is only the start. With 100 tiers between you and the ultimate prize - in Season 4 it's the Omega outfit - that's an awful lot of gameplay to collect the required Battle Stars. Still, you can spend more V-Bucks to unlock these tiers (around $1/£1.50 per tier or 25 in a bundle), which is lucky because if you fail challenges through gameplay, you'll have to start them again.
Throw into the mix the time-limited nature of each set of rewards - Season 4 is due to end on 12 July, which is when the next 'subscription payment' for Season 5 will be due - and you have the basis of a supercharged money-making machine.Real-world value
Yet, while this monetisation system is perfectly designed in an abstract sense, it only works in this case because Fortnite is a massively successful game that's the talk of playgrounds from Aberdeen to Zanzibar.
It's now the social currency of tween and teenaged peer pressure, which means playing the game in the Omega outfit (whether gained through gameplay or cold, hard, V-Bucks) makes you about as cool as you can be, at least until 12 July.
And that's the rub for all other games looking to introduce a Battle Pass-style system. The nuts-and-bolts of the ladder players have to climb to gain access to time-dependent, limited-edition items is easy to copy.
Ensuring those items have a value outside of the game world is much, much harder, however. The difference is looking cool in a game full of players you don't know and will never 'meet'again and the looks you get walking into your classroom the day after you've fully upgraded your Omega skin.
As ever then, if you want your intangible items to have value, you need to have some sort of real-world feedback loop. Good luck at competing with Fortnite over that one.If this column has given you food for thought, share your comments below and bookmark Jon Jordan's page for more of the same next Monday. Remember to also check out words of wisdom and mirth from experienced games journalists Susan Arendt and Harry Slater each week.