A quiet revolution has been taking place online for the last few months.
In December 2018, Epic Games, makers of the mammoth gaming hit Fortnite, rolled out an extension that introduced an entirely new kind of gameplay.
‘Creative mode’ (“Mode”) was initially limited to users with a Season 7 Battle Pass, but soon opened to everyone. While Fortnite is an online multiplayer shooting game with a few construction elements, the Mode is a construction game with added shooting elements.
The difference sounds small but it’s important. Players in the Mode are given private islands on which they can work with other players to build their own structures. They can move objects around, including ground tiles, and put up buildings and walls. They can then invite up to fifteen other people to come over and play. The best designs can be accessed from the main game itself.
By the end of March, Creative mode had attracted some 100 million players.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s pretty close to what Mojang did with Minecraft. That sandbox video game was sold to Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014. If you’re older still you can probably remember Second Life, a 3D virtual world that’s still around sixteen years after its launch.
What each of these games have in common is that they’re more creative than most video games. Parents worried at the sight of their children sitting in front of a screen and blasting zombies — or their friends — will feel more relieved at the sight of them working with their classmates to build a kind of giant online Lego project.
That’s how things are built in the real world: people envision a goal, then form a team to assign tasks, and persevere until together they’ve made it happen.
Players of Fortnite Creative are said to have already built versions of Star Wars’s Millennium Falcon and Westeros’s Castle Black.
Second Life has eighties clubs and a complete reconstruction of downtown Dublin. Those are real works of engineering that require planning and discipline and patience.
Where these worlds differ though is in the degree of gamification. Second Life floundered because it didn’t offer players the opportunity to do much more than create an avatar and talk to other avatars.
Visiting a virtual eighties club might be fun if you like the music but it’s a weak facsimile of the real life interactions you can find in a real nightclub. The reconstruction of downtown Dublin is remarkable. But the real Dublin itself is even better (and you can walk around a version of it on Google Maps).
The platform is still open but it now has fewer than a million users. Minecraft is still going strong too but its future now appears to be the porting of the game’s blocky style to traditional gaming and storylines.
Fortnite Creative stands out by not just giving players the tools to build what they can envision but also giving them something to do in those virtual constructions: they can play hide-and-seek and shoot each other. The new mode combines a proven game format with creativity.
That added engineering challenge should certainly put worried parents at rest. But it also has lessons for businesses operating in cyberspace. First, online environments work best when they bring features and benefits that could only exist in digital space. (For Fortnite, a first-person shooter). And second, even highly successful online environments can be beaten by smart engineers working with their real world friends to build something even better.