From Pixar to Face Hoodies: Epic Games Talks Fortnite

In spite of the four years since retiring his long-standing nickname in an effort to “grow up a bit,” Cliff Bleszinski, design director for Gears of War developers Epic Games, is still a child at heart. You can tell by the way he sheepishly smirks at the little throwaway quips he interjects as other people speak or by the way he still has a PR-killing lack of a refined brain-mouth filter. Or perhaps you can also tell by how he has hundreds of people file into a conference room to wear fast food worker hats while Motown blares over the speakers.

In a late panel on the Friday night of PAX, Bleszinski, producer Tanya Jessen, art lead Pete Ellis, community manager Will Kinsler, and programmer Cody Haskell were led by G4 host Jessica Chobot through an hour-long discussion of Epic’s upcoming game Fortnite. I came into it with a mild curiosity and some nigh imperceptible chunk of interest, but I walked away with a great sense of urgency to invent time travel and play Fortnite immediately.

While other panels were streamed live out to the Internet, this one was not one of them. This afforded the group a bit more candor than if say the rest of the human population was watching via TwitchTV, which resulted in the crowd being given a fairly open look at the development and roadmap of the game.

This includes the genesis of the project, too. Looking at it now, the present day Fortnite would be almost unrecognizable compared to its progenitive incarnation. The first stab at the game was much darker, much more akin to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It was intended to be an incredibly bleak and all around depressing world full of drab colors and an interminable rolling fog. It was, by all counts, an absolute downer.

Bleszinski, however, pointed out that this wouldn’t work. For them, this was a world that people would (hopefully) be spending dozens—maybe even hundreds—of hours in, creating forts and fighting trolls. “We don’t want people to walk away and slit their wrists,” he said.

So instead they went bright, headed towards the opposite end of the spectrum, towards what Bleszinski calls a “Pixar style.” It is a crucial shift in tone to where people don’t have to feel overwhelmed simply by existing. Characters are cartoonish, animations are exaggerated, and everything looks like they were spit out from every Saturday morning of my mid-90s childhood.

And perhaps a foil to the Bleszinski arc, this bubbly veneer betrays the more grownup core. While he puts on a mature face to hide his childish tendencies (though it sometimes appears those tendencies have rubbed off on his peers), Fortnite has thrown on this facade to mask something more sinister. And by “something,” I mean “face hoodies,” or at least that’s what Bleszinski calls them.

The general fodder enemy is called a Husk. While not technically zombies (Bleszinski would only go so far as to say “they’ve had the soul sucked out of them”), Husks are still just as terrifying. Once up close, you’ll notice their emaciated torso, ribs sticking out past the spine-tight skin and hips protruding and shifting with every awful, tortured shamble. Their former faces have been pulled back through the mouth and over their skulls, sockets empty as the hellish glow blooms from their eyes.

It is, in a word, gross.

And it’s not like they get any cuter. Leg bones are shooting out from the leg skin into pointed stilts, dragging along in a way that makes you hear the bone-on-pavement scrape you wish you could get out of you mind. Even the little troublemaking Trolls are just as unpleasant, and they’re basically little laughing (albeit maniacally) balls of, well, something. Darkness, I guess?

Every enemy, though, has a very specific purpose. From the Trolls to the Husks to the bigger and badder creepy crawlies (we saw a couple; please don’t make me relive it), they all exist to counter something or somethings that you can do or make. If you build walls, they will be knocked down. If you perch up in the sky, you will be dragged back down. If you hide in the darkest recesses of the map, you’ll find that you can no longer trust the shadows. Fortnite will never make you feel safe.

That’s not to say, however, that you will be constantly under the pressures to play Fortnite in any particular way. In fact, a point was hammered home by Bleszinski and Jessen that they want you to “play it your way,” a mantra that inevitably makes me think of Burger King and now, unfortunately, zombies. If you just want to kill bad guys, you can do that, but if you just want to build, you can do that, too. In fact, if you just want to be the gatherer to everyone else’s hunter, that is a totally viable way to play as well.

You can take your axe or sledgehammer or what-have-you and just smash everything to bits. Chop down trees, break down brick walls, or dismantle any structure you see and you’ll gather up materials. This allows you to build up your fort. The process is a bit like Minecraft in that collect-and-build sort of way, but whereas Minecraft is wholly additive, Fortnite operates under a subtractive pipeline. You’ll use blueprints to sort out how you’ll use your stuffs, so if you want to build a wall, you select the blueprint, pick a location, and build.

However, you can break down the blueprint into discrete grid blocks and remove parts you don’t want. If you have a wall and you want to add a door, simply remove that block and put in a door. If you want to build a staircase, throw up two walls and remove a diagonal half and place a plank running up. It’s a dynamic system to build whatever you want out of a basic set of elements, and it totally adapts to whatever it is you’re doing. If you chop out a new corner, it will automatically round itself. It’s a level of automation that makes the subtractive process just as customizable as the additive one. The last not-to-be-released trailer actually ends with what appears to be a 20-story castle.

And the “play it your way” mentality extends to the meat of the direct control gameplay, too. Fortnite operates mostly like a third-person shooter what with running and jumping and assorted, uh, weaponing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to kill everything in the face with a gun. Over the course of several prototyping videos, we’re shown the evolution of the crossbow weapon and how it fits into multiple play styles.

First and most obviously you can just shoot a bolt into a Husk’s head. Simple enough. But that is extensible into firing triple bolts or even explosive bolts for extra fun. But then again, if you feel like setting traps, you can do that, too. Electrified bolts can be shot into walls or into the ground and triggered by the proximity of enemies. If you want to avoid harming enemies altogether, though, you are also afforded that chance by way of the tightrope bolt. You can shoot it into pretty much anything and a tightrope will form between you and your target. You can then hop onto it and traverse to places you previously couldn’t reach.

And that evolution is pretty indicative of the entire game right now. Fortnite is currently on schedule for a release schedule of Eventually, so many things are still up in the air. Only recently (in terms of game development, anyways) was everything switched to Unreal Engine 4 where everything is allowed a greater level of fidelity and complexity. All of the advanced graphical treats are in there but so are the design tools. Level designers are given such an incredible level of freedom that one was able to cook up the fire hydrant launcher with just the in-engine toolset.

But the level of persistence, for example, is still undetermined. Bleszinski pondered with the crowd whether they would reach Minecraft levels of permanence with read/write permissions on forts or if things would get wiped nightly (fortnightly?), but he also said, “I’d like to hang onto my fort for at least a little bit.”

Modding is also undetermined at this point and is an absolutely solid “maybe.” As is whether or not there will be an open beta (there’s already a confirmed closed beta), just like whether or not there will be dedicated servers. So much, in fact, has yet to be nailed down by Epic that it’s hard to believe that there’s still a game under there. Not only that, but a game that truly interests me.

The ability to customize forts to such a minute degree and how the tightrope and various player-launching objects will add verticality to the game and the secretly sinister design are all things that I wasn’t expecting. I figured Fortnite was a quick experiment of sorts to test the waters for non-Gears games from Epic, but I now know they are wholly dedicated to this project. It will, admittedly, be a much smaller game lacking the $60 price tag and the $100 million marketing budget, but it is also not supposed to be a single, monolithic title. Jessen called it a “living project” while Bleszinski preferred to call it a “slow, tantric release” (okay, maybe he isn’t so grown up).

The point being that Fortnite is a lot of different things, and while one of those things is not done, it’s also not stale or rote or boring. And Bleszinski may have outgrown his CliffyB britches, but he, just like Fortnite, is not done. He is also not stale or rote or boring. Fortnite may be more representative of the new Bleszinski than the overwrought machismo of Gears of War or the blood marathon of Bulletstorm. It’s subtle and complex and altogether intriguing under a festival of colors and shenanigans.

And I hope it stays that way. Look for Fortnite on (at least) PC sometime in 2013. Maybe?

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