We live in the age of the unfinished game. Early access, Steam Direct, and an endless stream of alphas and betas and sneak peek demos have become an integral part of the gaming landscape.
The key to navigating these choppy waters, showcasing a game still in development, is deciding how much you allow input from live testers to influence the shape of your game and mold your final product.
It's a challenge Darren Sugg and his team at Epic Games have been wrestling with for years now, shepherding the co-op sandbox action title Fortnite through a long closed testing process and into its current early access incarnation, which launched on July 25th.
How to describe the game? "I'd sum up Fortnite's DNA as what would happen if you cross Epic Games' third-person shooter know-how with a speedy building system and just a splash of survival," says Sugg, who serves as creative director.
He and his team have struggled struggled with retaining the core elements that define his vision for the game while still allowing it to be fluid enough to become the best final product possible.
"We went back to the drawing board and reimagined Fortnite as a persistent world."
"It's been in development a long while," Sugg says, "and quite a bit has changed! One pretty massive change is how we handle world ownership. Two years ago, ownership was more traditional -- one player had the world and all your inventory was stored in that save."
"It meant that if you entered that world after your friend had spent 20 hours in it, you'd start with nothing, and that didn't feel good. So we went back to the drawing board and reimagined Fortnite as a persistent world."
Though a lot of the peripheral mechanics warped and changed throughout development, the central tenets remained the same, and drew on some of the core experience that defined Epic as a company.
"We decided to nudge players by using things like the badge system, which you earn for better rewards, to give them some signposts on how long they should spend doing various activities."
"Crafting and building always aligned pretty well in our mind -- it's the urge to create," says Sugg. "So after we decided to go with some of the mechanics that we understood from our Horde Mode experience, we knew the fusion would be powerful if we could get the mixture right."
With those basic gameplay pillars in mind, the question became how to balance them against each other, how to steer players to spend time with both without becoming completely engrossed in one or the other.
"It's something we've been interested in for awhile because it seems to vary wildly from user to user," Sugg told me.
"We did design Fortnite as a toolkit and intended players to choose the mix of heroes, traps, guns, and buildings they wanted to use. However, we decided to nudge players by using things like the badge system, which you earn for better rewards, to give them some signposts on how long they should spend doing various activities."
"We considered making a true MMO gear system, but in the end we realized we didn't have the budget to do it at the scale we wanted — that would be roughly 55,000 pieces of gear."
In the current build of the game, players are incentivized to prepare their defenses in a given amount of time (often two in-game days, or a certain number of real-world minutes).
If they hit those milestones, they're rewarded with additional loot at the end of the mission, though there's no penalty for spending more time harvesting and building. Sugg says these systems are some of the things they're looking at most closely as the game gets out to a larger audience.
"Economy and rewards will be in perpetual iteration for a while," he notes. "I think there was a point in time when we considered making a true MMO gear system, but in the end we realized we didn't have the budget to do it at the scale we wanted — that would be roughly 55,000 pieces of gear. So we backed out of that. I still bet if we had about 25 more team members, we could have done it."
Fortnite is an excellent example of a beta release done right, a game that feels robust and feature complete even as it's regularly being reshaped and iterated.
"We want to add more story based missions beyond the 60-hour mark," Sugg says, "and the UI/UX of our menus and onboarding system is going to take a lot of work to get right. We're at about .25 of the way to the eventual 1.0 there."
Fortnite epitomizes the "living game" formula we see with increasing frequency these days. "I think the biggest thing I’d like people to take away from Fortnite is that we are an online game and we will be updating the game based on user feedback, as well as that the game will always have new content in the pipe," says Sugg.