In 2021, Facebook’s parent business will have a new identity and a new goal. “Over time, I hope we are seen as a metaverse company,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg stated at the time. He later dubbed the metaverse “the successor to the mobile internet” and stated that the concept will be too large for any single company to tackle, covering an entire industry.
That has not happened yet. Even Meta employees rarely use the company’s flagship metaverse app, Horizon Worlds, and Zuckerberg’s definition of the metaverse appears to have shifted over the last few years, from a Ready Player One-style virtual world to one that blends the real and the virtual as new buzzwords like AI have taken hold. In any case, Zuckerberg’s vision of the internet hasn’t yet come to fruition—at least not from Meta. However, the metaverse business appears to be prospering in Fortnite.
Yesterday, Disney invested $1.5 billion in Epic Games with the intention of building a “expansive and open games and entertainment universe” linked to Fortnite. This follows a dramatic restructure for Fortnite earlier this year, when it transitioned from a popular online shooter to a collection of connected activities ranging from a Lego survival game to a Rock Band-inspired music festival. (This new age began, in typical Fortnite form, with a massive virtual concert.)
Disney had previously made its own efforts in the field. In 2022, the business appointed executive Mike White to oversee its metaverse operations, with previous CEO Bob Chapek praising “the so-called metaverse, which I believe is the next great storytelling frontier.” A year later, the metaverse division was shut down as part of a wave of huge layoffs.
So, what is the difference? Why hasn’t a major entertainment corporation or a massive social network cracked the metaverse, yet a silly game in which a banana can fight Ariana Grande has? The response is that, well, it’s a silly game. Meta and Disney (like with every other firm chasing the metaverse trend) began with a desire to build a new vision of the internet, an all-encompassing virtual world that could be used for both play and work. However, they failed to provide people with a compelling cause to exist in that place. Fortnite, on the other hand, started off as something millions of people wanted to do: play a fun game with characters they knew and loved, and then expanded into a virtual world.”We’re not fighting a trend,” Epic Executive Vice President Saxs Persson told me last year. “We’re just trying to broaden what we already see in Fortnite. That’s all we’re doing: doubling down on what we know works now.”
Fortnite’s evolution has been modest and steady since its inception. Prior to its battle royale feature, it was mostly a survival game. Since then, Epic has tried a variety of approaches to make Fortnite more of a destination than a game. There have been virtual concerts, millions of dollars invested in esports, art galleries, violence-free hangout zones, and other initiatives. But at the heart of it all has always been a constantly evolving and wildly successful video game. In fact, Fortnite’s most recent reinvention was preceded by Fortnite OG, a throwback event aimed to entice lapsed gamers to return. The rest of the system fails without the game.
Of all, even Epic has had some bumps in the road. Not all of the bets were successful. Party royale is a wasteland, and Fortnite’s competitive side has mostly become an afterthought. Epic, like many other computer businesses, got ahead of itself following an economic boom caused by the pandemic. Last year, the firm lay off 16% of its personnel, with CEO Tim Sweeney stating, “We’ve been spending way more money than we earn, investing in Epic’s next evolution and growing Fortnite as a metaverse-inspired ecosystem for creators.”
At the moment, Fortnite does not really meet the sci-fi notion of a virtual world. Logging into the game resembles viewing the YouTube homepage rather than jacking into the matrix. However, the beginnings of that connection exist, with components such as your avatar and XP continuing over between games. If you enjoy being Peely the banana, you can be him while racing automobiles, playing guitar, or attending a comedy act.
Perhaps, when it does open, the Disney universe will be the next step toward a more cohesive virtual space — one that resembles the metaverse that tech executives have been promoting for so long.