Dan Olson's Fortnite Video Discussion

I watched this video and felt the need to stare into the middle distance for a bit and now feel the need to post it somewhere:

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Dan Olson pulls you out of your positive fantasy world with cruel reality yet again!

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I saw this video yesterday and, while it is definitely a sobering look at the psychological tricks undermining Fortnite and games of its ilk, there was something bugging me that I’m having a difficult time coming to grips with.

The general idea seems to be that Epic’s system is designed to get people who play the game a lot to continuously spend small amounts of money and that that’s… bad? I don’t know, to me it just seems weird that he played a game for hours a day without ever paying and he’s upset that he is denied some of the bells and whistles.

Don’t get me wrong, some of it, like obscuring the true cost of purchases through V-bucks and limiting the viewable store items is definitely sleazy. On the other hand, trying to get a few bucks out of most of your players strikes me as far less ethically dubious than targeting whales. As popular as Fortnite is, I don’t think I’ve seen any “Player buys $1000s of V-bucks on their parents’ credit cards” stories. Most people wouldn’t consider a subscription model unethical, but that’s basically what the Battle Pass is, and it’s both optional and lets you earn credit towards the next one.

Full disclosure: I’ve played a total of two rounds of Fortnite, so maybe I’m missing something particularly dirty about it. But I’ve also seen how some mobile games work - the “microtransactions” in the FF15 city builder go like this: $5 (once), $25 (once), $100 (every other purchase until the end of time), and if you ever stop buying shields, paid players can literally raid your game and take your units. By comparison, Fortnite seems practically charitable.

Maybe the answer is that there is no ethical F2P model, but surely it opens the door to people who couldn’t afford to play at all otherwise.

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The problem isn’t that Epic wants to make money, it’s that they’re doing it in a really gross way when they don’t actually have to. They aren’t employing the psychological tricks to get people to spend any money at all, they’re doing it to get people to spend more money than they want to (or were planning to).

Like, what if the items in the shop were just always available? Then they’re not taking advantage of FOMO and enticing people who might otherwise have passed on something. Or what if the pricing of items in the skins incremented sensibly so they have nice even equivalents to real money purchases (so pricing things at 500, 1000, 1500 V-Bucks instead of weird stuff like 800, 1200, etc).

It’s absolutely possible for a company to run a free-to-play game with the same monetization schemes as Fortnite it’s just that Epic is making a choice to do so in the sleaziest way they can.

Also to this point, I just googled “fortnite spending parents credit card” and found a few dozen stories about it actually happening and just as many stories warning parents on how to avoid it. So it isn’t that it isn’t happening, it just doesn’t really seem to get picked up by gaming media sites anymore (if I had to guess, it’s because well kinda just assume it’s still happening because stories like that have been around much longer than Fortnite has been).

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Emphasis on this part. I think that’s what he’s digging into in the video.
The problem he’s pointing out in the video isn’t even that people are paying $6 for an emote, it’s that most people aren’t aware of how they’re being persuaded into buying a $6 emote.
If you think it’s worth it, go right ahead. But buying something because “Well I already have 200 VBucks leftover from the last time I bought some… so it’s like I’m only spending $4!” is kinda manipulative.

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It’s certainly manipulative but I’m not sure it’s predatory in the same way as a lot of free-to-play titles. For example, a lot of games tighten the screws only after you’ve sunk tens of hours into them, requiring you pay in order to maintain your pace of progress or success. Conversely in Fortnite if you play enough to complete a Battle Pass you actually gain more V-bucks than it cost to buy – 950 to purchase, 1300 to be earned – which is a pretty good deal if you’re time-rich and cash-poor.

I’m not trying to paint Epic’s sales techniques as benign by any means, just not sure it’s any more sinister than commonplace tactics such as displaying the snacks near the checkouts or multi-buy offers of questionable value. Their brand of sleaze may be unethical but it’s also pretty unremarkable. (In fact given the low bar within games, I actually think it’s one of the more generous free-to-play models.)

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That’s fair.
But while it’s not remarkable, it’s more of a household name than most mobile games, which I think is what makes it worth discussing/critiquing. Even really popular and well known mobile games (candy crush and what not) don’t seem to have the same level of cultural notoriety because fortnite let’s you invest more than just your attention (the game itself is more than just a skinner box-esque thing).

(There’s also probably an argument to be made that everything fortnite does is just normal marketing stuff and what that implies about marketing as whole, but that’s probably outside the scope of this).

As someone who just about managed to avoid a career in marketing, Yup, pretty much, althought I would argue that by owning the property themselves they are far more laser focused on improving their RoI, and being an entirely digital product, presumably they have much easier access to metrics to tell what is/isn’t working than most marketing firms

He’s not wrong that these are underhanded means of obfuscating the true value of in-game goods, but I don’t entirely buy the doom-and-gloom perspective he’s framing here because you can read sinister implications of systems into a lot of online service games.

MMOs since even the days of EverQuest create manipulative social pressure via how raid content outright requires creating a commitment to your group in order to have a change at completing them.

Burgeoning free-to-play games like Dota 2 and TF2 implemented loot box systems with extraordinarily low drop rates for items potentially worth hundreds of dollars on the secondhand markets, effectively creating a virtual gambling system.

Digital CCGs like Hearthstone and Artifact gate access to the means of succeeding at higher play levels via blind card packs. Daniel Friedman wrote a piece on Polygon this week breaking down how staying current on Hearthstone requires regularly spending hundreds of dollars per year for the new starter packs.

I know it’s a poor excuse to say “well everything’s bad and manipulative so that makes it okay”, but Fortnite’s battle pass system is so comparatively tame from a macro-level perspective. You pay in some $40 a year for access to digital scavenger hunts, play a few hundred hours (which the game makes very clear is the time investment required to complete them) of a game you presumably already enjoy, and if you choose to drop out for a season or two, you miss out on some virtual skins and dances. You can hyper-fixate on manipulative tactics around the margins, but that doesn’t change the fact that the system just isn’t very expensive to buy into compared to contemporaries.

Also, I don’t actually enjoy the gameplay of Fortnite BR very much, but there’s a heavy implication here of “very few people play Fortnite because they genuinely enjoy doing it” that’s just…super reductive and presumptuous on the part of the author that implies an idea of, if they don’t really enjoy the game, that other people probably don’t either.

This gets at another aspect of the video that didn’t sit right with me. He tries to emphasize that it’s a mediocre shooter - but still sneaks his Victory Royale screen in there. He paints it as more self-expression engine than game, but every time he stops to emote and “talk” he gets killed almost immediately. Which, admittedly, is a pretty good bit, but kind of undermines his point. There’s some ludonarrative dissonance, if I may blatantly misuse a phrase.

I like Dan’s videos a lot, but they are relentlessly negative, and I think his insistence that everything about Fortnite is bad hurts this video overall. It makes me wonder what he’s leaving out, i.e. the ability to earn enough V-bucks to pay for the next Battle Pass.

Thank you for doing the research I should have done myself before posting, but after looking it up, I can understand why these stories didn’t make the general gaming press. There’s a few stories getting written up in a bunch of places (including one that’s actually about FIFA) and a lot of typical reactionary fearmongering sensationalism.

Huge caveat here: I do not play Fortnite.

I agree that Dan can be overly negative and I do think that here he kind of muddled together two points that definitely intersect, but in a way that made the overall argument weaker.

I think his critique of the monetization of Fortnite was premised on how it intersected with Epic/Tencent’s plans to turn Fortnite into a ‘forever game’ or perhaps a ‘forever experience’. it’s not just a great vehicle for monetization of gameplay, because obviously it’s by no means the first game to use these tricks.

Instead, the model Epic/Tencent have in mind is of Fortnite as a pop-cultural hub on top of the day to day gameplay, capable of acting as a great advertising and promotional vehicle. And so Dan’s critique of how much Epic turns the screws on the free-to-play stuff is coming from this perspective of how it interleaves with the social and cultural events, compounding those pressures in a way that say PUBG or Apex doesn’t.

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The idea that he argues, and has also argued in regards to Overwatch, is that even though these cosmetic items don’t have any impact on gameplay, the platform is being built with a large focus on visual self-expression through acquired in-game cosmetics. Which I agree with, the argument of “it doesn’t matter because it’s cosmetic” is an overly ludic perspective that undervalues how much online self-expression means to people on any platform.

But also, the fact that this argument is equally applicable to Overwatch, which most people would argue has very solid gamefeel and a much cleaner skill ramp-up than Fortnite, makes bringing up the competitive side of the platform all the more irrelevant to the broader arguments being made about exploitative reward structures.

It reads as an author venting about the game mechanics regardless of if it would serve to reinforce their greater point, which has some fraught implications of “it’s slightly more okay for a game to be exploitative if the gamefeel is good”.

I realize this is a really minor thing to fixate on for a game I don’t even really enjoy playing, but among critical spheres there’s a noticeable tendency to write off Fortnite’s build-battling as Bad Gameplay because it’s not conventional to what we’re used to in most competitive shooters.

Oh yeah, I think you’re right there, the rant aboutthe mechanics isn’t particularly fleshed out and has this definite air of just dunking on the game because he also happens not to like the gameplay

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I posted this somewhere else, but I’m gonna post it here.

I hate this video. And it wasn’t because it’s critical of a game I really enjoy, it’s actually talking about issues this game has an I totally agree with. We should totally be talking about how Fortnite daily store works and how it can be manipulative. We should also analyze how it’s also being used as a platform for cross promotion (Samsung, Marsh Mello, Wreck-It Ralph, Avengers).

But when Dan goes “but you’re not here for a history lesson placing Fortnite into an appropriate cultural context, you’re here for sick Fortnite plays.” Then we cut to a montage and at that point, I checked out. I’ve seen these jokes before from other leftist game critics and their audiences. It’s frustrating and alienating to me. Because I want to have these discussions, but I would rather it not have the part where we make fun of the people who do engage with the game in a positive way while also recognizing it’s issues.

Also just gonna put this here, In another conversation that I had, it’s amazing how little research Dan put into this. Kinda frustrating that Dan didn’t even look at the attempts Epic made to create a matchmaking/ranking system. They’ve only been working on it since October. But hey, I’m just gonna play the Team Rumble Limited Time mode over and over again and call that research.

And honestly, matchmaking for Battle Royale games are hard. Apex still drops me into games with people who are way more experienced than I am. Even games with a ranking system in place, like Realm Royale, will still match high skilled players against new players. It’s a problem that people are still trying to figure out.

so like nice research there pal. Very thorough.

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Fair criticism, but I think part of that was that this was an April Fool’s video.
I think the idea was to do something dumb and silly up front and then “Let’s actually talk about this while we’re here.”

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I don’t think mocking people is silly. Like I said, the overall negative attitude and just how he approached it has been done already by almost every other leftist gaming critic. It’s just tiring to see it again and I’m just fed up with it.

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