This week, someone blew up the most popular game on the planet.
If you haven’t heard, virtual-gaming platform Fortnite – played by 250 million people around the world – was sucked into a black hole.
Gamers watched helplessly as the universe seemingly came to an end. Distraught fans trying to sign in were presented with a blank screen. And, in an instant, its Twitter feed was stripped of all content, save a black hole image. Speculation of the game’s permanent closure spread like a meteor shower.
It was a stunt, of course. Fortunately for the fans, only its current iteration was subsumed. Fortnite’s developer, Epic Games, later released the trailer for Chapter 2 (season 11), much to the global gaming community’s relief. And obsessed gamers could lose sleep once again.
Fortnite is a global gaming leader and a billion-dollar moneymaker – arguably the most influential game of our time. While it has always culminated its chapters in dramatic style, shutting down its whole product was a big statement, not to mention a massive, expensive feat in co-ordination and planning. And it has attracted the attention of a global audience broader than its own committed fandom, with the kind of publicity most brands would kill for.
It’s a masterclass for marketers in how great storytelling can make a big impact. All good "change" stories – where a significant event disproportionately impacts the surrounding characters – focus on three basic elements: anticipation, experience and aftermath. In this case, anticipation before the event was low; the black hole came as a huge shock to most. Meanwhile, the experience was high. Players lived it – they heard alarms wailing and watched as rockets flew into cracks in the sky.
The aftermath was huge and put Fortnite Chapter 2 back on the map (so to speak), just as people were beginning to stop talking about it. Year on year, Fortnite's average players were down 37%, so it’s clear that the frenzy was dying down.
Epic recognised that Fortnite’s long-term enemy isn’t losing players to other games, it’s becoming boring. Many brands, particularly those in fast-moving categories, will suffer from the same problems.
Fortnite, from the start, set out to be different, to challenge conventional gaming narratives. This sense of rewriting the rules is something that brands don’t do enough of in advertising. It’s a saturated environment full of marketing that follows trends, rather than trying to start them.
In business, we spend a lot of time talking about "change" and marketing in particular is guilty of change hyperbole. The desire to talk about bravery far exceeds the desire to be brave. Commercial stability and short-term KPIs are what companies truly want – and change is a deviation from this.
When it comes to pushing the button to make the universe implode, there are too few campaigns that actually do it. Which means that the experience – campaign launch – fails to live up to internal hype and the aftermath is short-lived.
While there’s no singular factor to pin the blame on, perhaps the cultural desire to maintain a steady ship in uncertain times, short-term commercial drivers and the chief marketing officer's reluctance to put their head above the parapet all play a significant role.
And while every marketer worth their salt knows that data is useful and highly effective, it can also make you risk-averse. Data only reports what you seek, thus it is doubtful that Fornite blew itself up because the data said it would be a profitable way to end a chapter. The developers did it because it was unexpected, exciting and a little bit dangerous – and it worked.
Perhaps brands need to spend less time worrying about the worst that could happen and more time embracing the aftermath, allowing marketers to make mistakes, not fear change and not be shackled by short-term metrics and data. Google, for example, is great at taking us by surprise – it was the first company to let people play with its logo. Likewise KFC – rhe "Ain't no small fry" campaign showed how building a narrative arc around a risky subject can be extremely effective.
Of course, no brand sets out to be boring. But in a world where taking a risk is becoming increasingly rare, they are in danger of becoming too homogenous, of operating within a set of boundaries that are more often than not defined by what data tells us will work.
The risk to Fortnite was losing revenue from shutting down its platform, for players jumping ship to another game. But, if anything, this calculated "blip" looks to bring millions of latent players back. Apply that to potential consumers and you’ve got a strategy worth fighting for.
Natalie Barnes is group creative director at We Are Social