Editorial: Could Fortnite Become the Next Second Life? A First Look at Fortnite Party Royale

Watching the sun rise on Party Royale Island in Fortnite

I am not a gamer. The only possible exception to this ironclad rule are puzzle games, such as Cyan’s Myst, Riven, and Obduction, and the truly wonderful Eastshade).

I’m simply not that interested in most shoot-em-up, combat-and-killing-focused games and MMOs (although I did get as far as level 20 in Lord of the Rings Online, only because I am such a Lord of the Rings fan).

To give you one example, I succumbed to peer pressure when No Man’s Sky released a VR-compatible update, and I bought the game. I think I played No Man’s Sky a grand total of three hours, maximum, and that was in desktop mode! Since then, it has been quietly gathering dust in a corner of my hard drive.

So I came to Fortnite as a clueless newbie with pretty much zero previous computer game experience.

I have written about the phenomenally successful battle royale game of Fortnite several times on my blog already. I blogged about Marshmello’s concert in Fortnite back in February 2019, and in November of that year, I even went so far as to actually download and install Fortnite on my computer, just so I could visit, explore, and report on the groundbreaking decision by the Royal Canadian Legion (Canada’s military veterans’ association) to create a custom-built Remembrance Island within Fortnite to celebrate Remembrance Day on November 11th (which I blogged about here and here). I thought it was such a cool way to reach out to an audience that the Legion probably would have otherwise had difficulty connecting with (namely, children and teenagers).

Remembrance Island in Fortnite (November 2019)

I then promptly uninstalled the game and pretty much forgot about it.

Oh, and I also reported on Tim Sweeney’s SIGGRAPH talk in July of 2019, in which the founder and CEO of Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, mused about the future of the metaverse. At that time, I wrote:

I must confess that…I am rather skeptical that Fortnite, as it is right now, would form a useful model for the future metaverse. Games are designed to be focused more on linear play-through and set objectives, while virtual worlds are meant to be more open-ended and less goal-oriented in nature (although you can certainly have games within virtual worlds). As well, you can have thriving social communities in MMOs like World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online, so there is a somewhat fuzzy boundary between games and virtual worlds.

Well, today I am going to eat those words.

I have decided to start covering Fortnite on this blog. Why? Well, it’s because of something new in Fortnite, called Party Royale: an open-ended, non-combat extension of the game.

Image taken from the Fortnite Party Royale website

Marshall Honorof of the blog Tom’s Guide writes:

Party Royale went live in Fortnite on April 29th, 2020 as part of the game’s most recent update. The mode has no weapons and no crafting — the two hallmarks, one would think, of the Fortnite experience. Instead, an in-game message invites players to “hang out with friends, play games, perfect your skydive and more.” Also noteworthy: Unlike normal Fortnite games, Party Royale mode is not limited to 100 players.

Here’s the slickly-produced official trailer for Fortnite Battle Royale:

On May 8th, 2020, Fortnite held its first big event in Party Royale, dubbed the Fortnite Party Royale Premiere: an epic concert featuring not just one, but three top-tier, internationally-known DJs: Deadmau5, Steve Aoki and Dillon Francis. I’ll be writing more about that in another blogpost later, but if (like me) you missed all the fuss, here’s a replay of the one-hour event:

And you can bet that Epic Games has been busily signing deals with the representatives of various big-name musical performers for future concerts to be held in Fortnite Party Royale. They’re only just getting started.

And their reach (over 250 million Fortnite players as of March 2019) means that they have a huge potential audience for those future concerts, 85% of whom are aged 18 to 34—a highly-desired advertising target market that makes corporations salivate, and which is significantly younger than the userbase of more established virtual worlds like Second Life:

Fortnite user statistics (source)

So, it’s time to firmly put Fortnite on my radar.

I am adding Fortnite Party Royale to my List of Non-Combat, Open-World Exploration/Puzzle/Life Simulation Games, instead of my much longer Comprehensive List of Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds, because it seems to fit in bettter among the games on the first list. However, you could argue that Fortnite Battle Royale is the first tentative step for Epic Games to expand Fornite from just a game to a full-blown, open-ended virtual world like Second Life.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. Forbes reporter Paul Tassi is convinced that Fortnite will indeed become the next Second Life. In a recent artcle titled ‘Fortnite’ Party Royale Will Become ‘Second Life’ On Its Way To Being The Metaverse, he writes:

Last night I attended yet another concert in Fortnite’s Party Royale mode, the combat-free zone where everyone just hangs out and doesn’t kill each other. It’s a small island and an early experiment, and yet as I witnessed live sets performed by Dillon Francis, Steve Aoki and deadmau5, all world-famous DJs, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was yet again witnessing something pretty significant and incredible.

I’ve talked a lot about the Metaverse with Fortnite, the grand virtual world that may end up replacing the internet someday, and in fiction, often appears in immersive VR form, and is full of brands and companies vying for their place among users. And you can definitely feel a significant step in that direction from Fortnite, especially last night as I, controlling X-Men’s Psylocke as my Avatar, danced with John Wick and Harley Quinn and dozens of other player avatars during the hour-long show.

When I posted the clips online, many of my followers remarked that this looked like Second Life, and honestly, while the Metaverse is still ages away in its “true” form, it does feel like Fortnite is gearing up to start with something more akin to Second Life or PlayStation Home instead.

Fishing rod in hand, scanning the seashore

Paul continues:

Second Life operates as a virtual world where players are not killing each other, but rather building homes, trading goods and services with each other, and attending events (Second Life was doing concerts a decade before Fortnite).

Now, it seems like Fortnite is on that path, but in a more attractive package. These days screenshots of Second Life unintentionally make it look like some sort of porn sim (though plenty of naughty stuff can and does happen in Second Life), while Fortnite’s Pixar-like animation and brand deals with Marvel, DC, Star Wars and more are combining different intellectual properties in one place in a way that no other game has before in a better-looking world.

Fortnite has pretty much all the pieces it needs for its own version of Second Life. With Party Royale, it has a combat-free hub where you can’t destroy anything and you just hang out playing minigames and attending events. With Fortnite Creative, you have an infinite hub of user-generated content that could be used to populate expansions to that initial world.

Combine those two together, and what do you have? Really, all the building blocks you need for a virtual world in the Unreal engine. How long until Epic starts letting players build their own houses in an expanding Party Royale zone? How long until creators can sell their custom works to other players, creating an in-game economy? My guess for both, not long.

Fortnite already has its own in-world currency, V-bucks
Shopping (and a fashion market!) are already an established part of Fortnite

Second Life had better be looking over their shoulder. A new competitor has appeared in the race. And they have deep pockets: Epic Games made a profit of $3 billion over 2018 (source). Fortnite has the potential to steamroller over Second Life, particularly as SL’s significantly older user base begins to decline. And you can bet the youngsters are flocking to Fortnite and other games in droves. While Second Life still has its relatively small but intensely passionate fan base, it is widely seen as outdated, faintly quaint technology among the general public (remember this recent article in The Atlantic magazine?). That’s why Linden Lab embarked on the ultimately disastrous Sansar project in the first place; they knew that Second Life could only be extended so far, and they could see that the writing was on the wall.

Marshall Honorof of Tom’s Guide (link up top) summarizes the potential impact of Fortnite Battle Royale quite nicely:

What’s interesting about Party Royale mode is not necessarily the feature itself, but that Fortnite is beginning to establish itself as a digital alternative to the “third place”: a location where people feel at home that isn’t their house, or their office. For a lot of people, this is often a bar, or a gym, or a coffee shop — places where it’s basically impossible to go right now. Party Royale could encourage people to mingle digitally in the long run, or it could just be a stopgap until things get back to normal in the physical world. We’ll know for sure in (hopefully) a few months.

Hang gliding over Party Royale Island in Fortnite

The line between what is a virtual world and what is a game has always been a somewhat blurry one. For example, virtual worlds such as Second Life have always been home to games, for example, But the launch of Party Royale in Fortnite is the clearest signal yet that the game companies want to move into the open-ended virtual worlds market, too. The game companies might not actually refer to them as “virtual worlds”, but that is essentially what they are.

So, last night, I went and reinstalled Fortnite on my personal computer. Things are about to get very, very interesting, and I want to be there when it happens! And expect expanded coverage of Fortnite Party Royale on this blog in the future.

Setting foot in a brand new, open-ended virtual world

Editorial: Gamification, Second Life, and Sansar

Jim: You playing that game again?

Dwight: Second Life is not a game. It is a multi-user virtual environment. It doesn’t have points or scores. It doesn’t have winners or losers. 

Jim: Oh, it has losers.

The Office

This well-known clip from the American TV sitcom The Office perfectly illustrates a long-running debate about Second Life: Is it a game or not?

The issue is raising its head again after yesterday’s Sansar Product Meetup, where Linden Lab staff announced several new, game-like features would be added to Sansar, such as XP (experience points), a Nexus, a Codex, and a Prime Portal. Is Linden Lab trying to turn Sansar into a game?

Some users welcome these changes, and others are adamantly opposed to the gamification of Sansar. On the official Sansar user Discord yesterday, after the Product Meetup, several users on both sides weighed in with opinions (this is just an anonymized sample):

A: Well, I see a big problem though. The hub will be slower than the Atlas, which is just an UI [user interface]. There is a new UI, which lists recently visited places. It’s as fast as the Atlas. People will be very likely to just use the history to quick travel, not everyone, but many. And these people are then far less likely to even be aware of new experiences. They’ll mostly stick to the experiences they already visited before…

B: Been to NeosVR Nexus like… place , massive , massive wall of places to go, tools for adding your world, but frankly/honestly after 20 minutes of hoping, so to speak, it was a place you had to go, to go somewhere else, from the place you were. I am hoping it turns out to be more than that. Anxious to understand the vision behind it.

C : I just wanted to throw my two cents in. I absolutely love the idea of the way exploration and questing will work going forward. I was on the fence about jumping back into Sansar and this pushed me over. This is definately the way things need to go to grow interest in the platform. Bravo!

D: What I’m wondering, is how the Lab can give us the same Atlas, when it is not a UI element. How can it be a UI element, when it is specific to the Nexus experience. No UI in Sansar is specific to an experience. So, this means, the Atlas is not a UI element, and is a clickable element. Now think about how bad it will be to navigate thru the Atlas by clicking buttons.

E: I’m a bit upset right now… I imagine LL talking with potential business partners. They want to meet in Sansar to get the feel of it. They create an account, and they are thrown into a tutorial experience with stupid quests to complete . Blank stare. Questioning look. “it will take only 30 seconds”, says Greeter Linden. If I were the would-be partner, I think I’d walk away at that point.

And I myself have concerns about people spawning in the New Nexus as opposed to their private home space, as I have written in an update to my blogpost yesterday.

Let’s provide a bit of history to give some context to this topic. Most SL users probably don’t remember that the earliest version of Second Life had many game-like features. Wagner James Au of the blog New World Notes, who has been writing about Linden Lab and Second Life since its very earliest days, noted in a tweet today:

Second Life had a ranking system and leaderboard up until about 2005, and the company considered The Sims Online to be a direct competitor. The “It’s not a game” messaging was concocted by Linden Lab’s marketing department to (unsuccessfully) sell it as an enterprise platform.

In a blogpost he wrote yesterday, Wagner also commented on the upcoming changes to Sansar:

Smart additions to Linden Lab’s new social VR world, which is starting to see some traction, at least during special live music events from artists on the Monstercat label. Adding an XP system should do much to encourage returning users and more deeply engaged users.

From a corporate perspective, this also represents a major reversal for Linden Lab: Since roughly 2005-2006, the company’s marketing department and executive leadership positioned itself as not making games (even though virtual worlds are themselves a game genre) and pushed the messaging “Second Life is not a game!” so much that many veteran users still accept the statement to be true. (And not market positioning that’s become harder and harder to justify). Since then, the company has resisted adding game systems to Second Life  — or rather, re-adding them, as they existed at launch — and it’s a key reason why Second Life has failed to grow its userbase. But with Sansar still not anywhere near to getting viral growth, it’s past time to junk that marketing strategy.

And I do find myself somewhat in agreement with what Wagner has said here. In particular, the old business-as-usual way of marketing Sansar, which relied heavily on tactics which might have worked for Second Life a decade ago, has has lackluster results so far. Ebbe Altberg and his team are to be commended for thinking outside the box and trying out new things in order to entice new users—and to keep them coming back. As Ebbe himself said on the Discord, in response to the many users questioning the direction Linden Lab is taking with these new features:

Retention retention retention people.

So, we shall see exactly how all this works when the latest update to the Sansar client software arrives, hopefully for next week. Keep your fingers crossed!

No Man’s Sky Now Supports VR

Of course, the big news today (unless you are living under a rock or in a cave somewhere) is that No Man’s Sky, a fantasy science-fiction game set in an infinite, procedurally-generated universe, has issued a major update that, for the first time, supports players in VR headsets (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Valve Index). It’s all gamers are talking about today on places like the No Man’s Sky subReddit.

Now, I must confess that I’m really not that much of a gamer, although I did manage to get to level 20 in Lord of the Rings Online (mainly because I was a such a Tolkien fan). But the lure of exploring an infinite, seamless universe in VR was just too much. So I bit the bullet and bought the game (it is on sale on Steam for 50% off until August 21st).

Wish me luck! I am off to milk some aliens and explore new worlds…

Cyan Launches Crowdfunding Campaign for Firmament, a New VR-Capable Open-World Exploration and Puzzle Game

As I wrote about earlier, I have decided to branch out a little bit from my usual coverage of multi-user, social VR platforms and virtual worlds, and I’m going to start to look at some non-combat, open-world exploration and puzzle games such as Eastshade, which really caught my attention recently with its beautiful scenery and refreshing, non-combat-focused gameplay.

Of course, the first truly popular and successful game of this nature was Myst, first released by Cyan in 1993, which became the best-selling PC game of all time until it was eclipsed by The Sims in 2002 (source: Wikipedia). Cyan has an impeccable pedigree when to comes to building and releasing these type of games. It’s a niche market which they basically created from scratch with their evocative, mind-bending puzzle games that were so different from all the first-person shooters out there. Their games have attracted quite a following over the past 25 years!

Well, guess what? Today, Cyan launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise the necessary funds to create a brand new, open-world exploration/puzzle game, called Firmament. It’s being designed from the ground up to support users in VR headsets (Oculus Rift and HTC Vive), as well as Windows desktop users. Here’s their promotional video:

Cyan’s desire is to raise US$1,285,000 in only 31 days, a very ambitious goal! But if any company has the talent to pull this off, it is Cyan. I truly enjoying playing Myst, Riven and the other games in the Myst series back in the day, and I have also worked my way through their previous VR-capable puzzle game, Obduction, in 2017, which was extremely challenging and rewarding to play! So signing up for this Kickstarter is almost a no-brainer for me.

Here’s an earlier teaser trailer issued last March, which gives a bit more of the backstory:

This is an All-or-Nothing Kickstarter, meaning that Cyan has to meet their fundraising target in order to collect all the money. If they fail, everybody keeps their original pledged amounts. But I don’t think Cyan will fail. It’s actually been quite entertaining to watch as the live update of the total number of backers and the total dollar amount pledged inch their way up over the course of the day:

Raising the first 15% of your goal in less than 24 hours is a truly remarkable and enviable achievement! At this rate, they will reach their goal in a week!

So, if like me, you have fond memories of playing Myst and Riven, you might want to consider making a financial pledge to support this project. There are various levels of support, ranging from a small contribution of US$7.00 towards keeping the development team in coffee and donuts, all the way up to the highest-level full-blown prize package for a US$5,000 pledge:

You’ll join us for the 20th anniversary of Mysterium, the fan-based Myst-Con held at our headquarters in Spokane this year. Spend a day (Thursday, August 2nd) at Cyan with the team as an honorary Cyantist. Tour the studio, get a look behind the scenes, ask questions of the team, then join Rand [Miller, Cyan’s CEO] for an exclusive private group dinner! This package includes dinner, airfare (up to $800), and four nights’ lodging. We’ll also add your likeness to the game (but we can’t tell you where)!

Here’s a link to their Kickstarter where you can get all the details.

Firmament art by Joe Perez of Cyan, Inc.