The running narrative of the battle royale genre has been fascinating. It went from relative obscurity to explosive with the advent of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, which went on to dominate headlines for months and months with progressive, record-breaking player counts. Then Fortnite went for it, and things got weird and messy for a few weeks as PUBG fans seemed mostly confused about why it existed, and PUBG Corp acted like it was going to sure somebody over it. But that never happened, and Fortnite’s battle royale mode landed like a nuclear bomb. With the power and resources of Epic Games behind it, the game won multiple footraces, and garnered a distinct appeal of its own.
Now, we’ve learned that at least on mobile, Fortnite is eating PUBG’s lunch. But how could that happen, when PUBG has such a power of its own? Surely the race would be closer than it currently appears? I think a few key factors are at play, factors which make the current lead make plenty of sense.
First, the obvious. Fortnite’s battle royale variant is free. The barrier of entry is nothing. And being free pairs great with being next. PUBG built the genre hype to stupendous levels, then Fortnite was able to ride the wave and pick up everyone who didn’t have a gaming PC or even $30 to spare on something that wasn’t a sure bet. This expands the potential audience in what may have been unexpected ways to those so tuned in to the gaming community – younger people. The headlines about middle and high-school kids shutting down school networks playing Fortnite on mobile are fueled by kids being able to jump in on the fad at no expense. That’s huge.
Second, Fortnite won the race to alternate platforms. PUBG sat as a PC exclusive for several years in Internet time. Meanwhile, Fortnite was already on consoles in its original PvE form, and the battle royale gimmick just came as a free, standalone update. The game was on consoles while PUBG as an Xbox One joint was still just an E3 announcement. Then, Fortnite beat PUBG to mobile. Even if it was only a matter of days, any lead at all is a big deal. But then, Fortnite and PUBG duking it out on mobile exposed one of the biggest differences between the two games, and the biggest weakness PUBG has in terms of revenue.
Yes, I’m talking about microtransactions. Now, PUBG doesn’t necessarily need them as much, with the $30 entry fee. But as a game of its type, it kinda needs additional revenue generation in 2018. So, PUBG uses loot boxes. Loot boxes you have to pay to unlock. Loot boxes are not the favorite children of the gaming industry, and while PUBG fans are certainly willing to drop some dollars on them, just as many never will out of revulsion.
Meanwhile, Fortnite doesn’t do that. Fortnite does a couple things. One, it has its season thing going on. New season, new ten-dollar charge. Participating in a season doesn’t require the purchase, but it does expand the number of awards earned through normal play. Two, Fortnite straight-up sells its goodies, rotating through daily and featured items players can purchase without random drop rates. Also, Fortnite is all Epic Account-based, so everything you earn appears regardless of what platform you play on.
So, after each game’s respective first week on mobile, it came out that PUBG only earned a fifth of what Fortnite earned. A fifth; that’s wild. That shouldn’t happen, based on the ridiculous amount of hype for each game. But Fortnite just does a few things just differently enough, that form the perfect set of circumstances that make players pony up the cash more. Its lower price, more tangible rewards, and multiplatform appeal are all factors that give Fortnite the money-generating advantage. That doesn’t say, of course, that Fortnite is a better game than PUBG. Those arguments are still plenty viable. But it’s going to be tough for PUBG if it wants to make that fraction a little less ugly.