via Rock, Paper, Shotgun.
Itís been ages since Epic last took up PC gamingís banner and affixed some sort of completely bonkers weapon to it. Instead, the Unreal creator has been off duct-taping chainsaws to other platforms while we spill warm tears onto screenshots of Jazz The Jackrabbit. But no more. Epic recently announced that Fortnite Ė at least, for the time being Ė will be leading on PC and debuting Unreal Engine 4 to boot. So I had a massive chat with producer Tanya Jessen about that, during which we discussed Minecraft comparisons, the not-so-obvious benefits of Unreal Engine 4, Fortniteís cartoony art style, online aspects, and why Epic never really left the PC behind. Itís all after the break.
RPS: When was Fortnite first conceived? Because Iím just going to put it out there: on paper it sounds a lot like Minecraft, but it seems like youíre taking the sandbox-y elements and shaping them into more of an actual game. So how much of it was inspired by Notchís world-dominating world-building opus?
Jessen: Fortnite was a game thatís existed in many forms and many ideas around the studio for a little while now Ė kind of as a result of people thinking about where the future of game development was heading. How are things changing?
I know at the time, one of the things I was thinking a lot about was, how do we get people with different personality types all playing together? Somebody, for example, who loves role-playing games being able to play with somebody who loves shooters. And thereís been lots of games that have tried this in the past and havenít really succeeded, and so I was spending a lot of time thinking about that. I know Cliff [Bleszinski] was thinking a lot about more dynamic worlds, how to employ crafting and building within this dynamic gameplay, but yet have the action more integrated with it.
And that all started to culminate at a time when we were doing our game jam here at Epic. I donít know if you heard about it, we talked about that a little bit with Infinity Blade Dungeons. Our game jam was the place where Infinity Blade Dungeons was born. And when we pitched this idea of Fortnite, the company said, ďHey, why donít you come up with a pitch and work on some prototypes?Ē That was shortly after the game jam.
That was about nine months ago or so. But the ideas themselves have been around in lots of different forms for a pretty long time. It was just good timing, because we were sitting down as a company and prototyping out what some of those ideas could be. That, combined with the idea of what it was like when you were a kid Ė building a fort out in the middle of the woods or in your living room, all the things you had to do to scavenge for items around or protect your fort, or have fort battles with your friends Ė thatís really what became the core of the idea for Fortnite.
RPS: But ideas donít form in a vacuum. So is there a direct influence from Minecraft? Iím just wondering, more so than ďOh my god, itís clearly a clone of Minecraft.Ē Because obviously, itís not.
Jessen: I mean, to be quite frank, thereís a lot of influences from a lot of different games in Fortnite. Like I was saying a little bit earlier, a number of the people on the team have a solid MMO and RPG type of background. Thereís definitely some element of that in there, as well as our pedigree from making Horde and more scripted and raid-based enemy gameplay and cooperative gameplay. So thereís elements from all over the place. Weíre combining them and refocusing them in a way thatís never really been seen before.
RPS: Thatís just sort of a thing, too, that Iíve noticed is kind of an Epic hallmark: youíre really good at taking a mechanic that may have already existed, for instance something like the cover mechanic employed in Gears of War, and polishing it into something that really shines. I mean, Gearsí active reload system is so simple, yet utterly brilliant. Is that also whatís happening here? Youíre taking these elements and saying, ďHow can we wring the most fun possible out of them?Ē
Jessen: Itís kind of more likeÖ Weíre a studio full of people that love to play the games we make. And it sounds kind of selfish, but weíre all gamers, and we all want to make the games that we want to play. So the result of what you see us putting out is often times exactly that.
In terms of our focus for the game Ė with the moment-to-moment in regards to combat, scavenging, and building Ė we want to be just ridiculously fun, no matter how much time youíre spending in the game. So everything weíre doing gameplay-wise is to support that. Thatís why with building, itís really easy and really fast so long as you have the skills and the resources to frame out what kind of structure that you want to build. But the deeper element of it is determining what kind of strategy you want to employ against the enemies when youíre defending your base, or even just to make your fort look cool.
So making that fun at a basic level is what weíre focusing on. With scavenging, itís the same thing, where moment-to-moment itís going to be fun, just that constant feeling of loot. What are you going to do with the items you got? What are the trade-offs youíre making as a player? But deep in the sense that itís all based on how much youíre willing to explore the world and discover the environment around you, because our worlds are totally dynamic. Or all of your friendsí worlds that you would want to visit and find stuff in.
RPS: How open is the building system? Iíve noticed in screenshots, there are blueprints. Are you building off those? Can I also go totally freeform and mash parts together to see what works?
Jessen: Itís based on discoveries. You unlock the ability to build lots of different building types. We donít even know the total number that weíll be shipping with day one, because we just continue to add to it. But for example, youíve got a few basic items, structural items, floors, walls, stairs, roofs, ceilings. And all of those have a different type of blueprint, so you can decide if you want to place walls with doors, walls with windows only, window and a door, half-length floors, floors with railings, etc depending on your strategy and what youíre trying to accomplish. The curve of the stairs, how you want to structure that. It goes pretty deep. [chuckles] And that all gets multiplied by the resource types that you can use to build those objects or upgrade those objects.
RPS: How does the structure of the game work? You were saying that I can be in my world or I can visit a friendís world. Is it one persistent world that Iím in, or are there sets of levels? How does Fortnite form a game around all of this?
Jessen: Thatís something weíre still really iterating on and weíre really deep in design, because we have a whole bunch of different options. The idea is that you can have multiple worlds that are public or private, they can be single-player or cooperative, and you can leave those open. In other words, you can be away from your PC, and they can be running. Or you can turn them off. Itís up to you. But each of those environments will be dynamic and totally unique worlds. But in terms of the progression itselfÖ Not ready to talk too much about that stuff. We have so many different things weíre doing where weíre iterating to find the most fun right now.
RPS: This is Epicís first Unreal 4 game, and that caused a big stir during Comic-Con weekend. It looks really nice, and the art style is very vibrant, but itís not like some of those trailers youíve released where itís something people can look at and say, ďOh my god, this is the most gorgeous thing Iíve ever seen.Ē So why did you decide to debut Unreal 4 with this, especially because, well, wouldnít it be possible to create a game like this Ė maybe not quite as graphically intensive Ė and have it on current-generation consoles as well?
Jessen: Thereís three or four major reasons. We had actually started prototyping the game on UE3, and the reason we decided to move to UE4 is because of the dynamic nature of the game. The tools in UE4 are completely changing, to the point where it gives a lot more control to designers and artists, to just create interactive objects in the world. That, for us, for Fortnite, that was a really great move, to be able to use the next version of Kismet. Itís called Blueprint.
For example, our skybox is built entirely in a Blueprint, and thatís the day-night cycle. All the programmers had to do was expose, you know, what time was it relevant to gameplay, and now the artists can go make all of these objects that are relevant to the time of day. So after a certain time, all the streetlights will turn on wherever youíre at. The clocks in the world tell the actual in-game time. Things like that, in the past, would have to be programmed by a coder. Now theyíre all set up by our artists. Everything from how many different shaders in the colors of the sky that change depending on the night, that all now can be iterated and made awesome by the artists.
It puts so much power into our content game, wihch was huge for us. And the same with all of our enemy variants. We can set those up in Blueprint and then be able to give the power to the designers to create as many different types of enemies as they would want, based on an initial Blueprint. Thatís been really good for the project as a whole. And then on top of that, because Fortnite has so many different systems and itís really focused on fun gameplay, it allows the engine team to iterate much faster on all of the systems that are changing for Unreal Engine 4. We can get them in and try them out and that means itís going to be a better product for licensees and everyone else who uses the engine in the future.
We know what UE4 can do [graphically]. Weíve obviously shown you what UE4 can do, and so the benefit of being able to iterate quickly and take advantage of that workflow stuff for Fortnite on UE4 was, by far, for us, such a good decision. Itís pretty much why we moved forward on that.
And also just from an accessibility standpoint, we wanted to make sure that UE4 was really accessible to people who own PCs today, that theyíll be able to run a UE4 game. So Fortnite was a great opportunity for us to push for that as well.
RPS: I think the official line after all the smoke cleared at Comic-Con was that youíre PC-only for now, with the possibility of it coming out on other platforms later on down the line. Even so, a lot of major triple-A developers would still be hesitant about launching PC-exclusive in this day and age. Do you feel like itís back as a viable triple-A platform?
Jessen: Well, I donít think that ever went away for us. We made games as the opportunity arose. But in particular, with Fortnite, because of its super-dynamic nature and the fact that we see this as a living project, the only platform for us that made sense was PC, and especially with turning around that quick iteration time with UE4 and all of that. It was absolutely the way to go. Itís offering us the flexibility to add things on the fly. As people are having fun with certain weapons or enemies, being able to add more of that and keep the experience really fun and fresh for people is awesome. And right now you canít really do that so easily on consoles.
But like I said, [PC] never went away. Innovation has always been happening in the PC space. Iíve been a PC gamer my whole life, since I was like 12. Thatís what got me into the games industry: my love for Unreal and Duke Nukem 3D and all of that. I donít know if itís really a shift so much as that the flexibility of platform is something thatís been absolutely awesome, that people are now starting to take more advantage of. Maybe itís just the fact that with the tools now, itís getting easier to put out games on the PC.
Thereís always been millions upon millions of people playing games on the PC. Maybe itís the fact that things are moving more towards digital distribution, and thatís helped a lot. Because that was never an option, with bandwidth constraints and all that in the past. That certainly does allow you to be able to make updates more frequently and not have to worry about it being a pain in the butt to download all the time [chuckles].
RPS: That sounds a lot like, at least in theory, a free-to-play game, where itís continuously updating and people can pick and choose the way that they have their experience. Is that what youíre aiming for?
Jessen: Havenít really discussed it yet. Weíre doing a lot of research to figure outhow we want to release it, but we want a lot of people playing this game, and we think itís the perfect kind of game that youíre going to want to play with all your friends. So weíll just have to wait and see. Thatís for the business guys. [laughter]
RPS: Because youíre on the PC Ė exclusively, for now Ė that obviously raises the question of piracy. Thatís a big thing thatís kept developers and publishers off it in recent years. Do you have any sort of concrete plans to combat that?
Jessen: Thatís not really a place, I guess, that I should talk, because once again, thatís more of a business question. Something for Mark, Mark can talk about piracy. [laughs] Weíre not concerned about that right now with what weíre doing on Fortnite.
RPS: Given the opportunity, though, would you consider using a constant connection requirement, like what Diablo, SimCity, or some of Ubisoftís games have done? I mean, obviously, minimizing piracyís only one potential reason for that Ė with the others, at least, on paper, pertaining more to convenience.
Jessen: Itís dependent more on gameplay for us, because Fortnite is a game thatís being developed as a co-op experience primarily. Thatís our number one focus. This is the game that youíre going to want to play with your friends and itís most fun with your friends. So whatever we decide to do there is going to be more relevant to whatís the most fun experience you can have with your friends [than piracy]. But I canít really nail that down today.
RPS: Itís certainly gotten a lot of discussion lately, though Ė with some developers even going so far as to call it the future. Meanwhile, the downside for players is that thereís no true single-player at that point. Youíre always connected to servers. Are you still hoping to have a truly single-player experience in Fortnite as well?
Jessen: Yeah, absolutely. Single-player is going to be super fun. Like I said, weíre building it to be a co-op experience, but [co-op] wonít be required in any shape or form. In particular, weíve got this personality we call the Ďlone wolfí Ė the type of person who likes to jump in and play with their friends, but not necessarily all the time. Or they like to play primarily by themselves. We are definitely making sure that Fortnite will be fun for that type of person too.
One thing weíve learned from our experiences is that if you donít design for co-op from the very beginning and make it a pillar of your project, then the game systems themselves donít tend to feel solid in the co-op experience. So thatís how weíre developing the game from the outset.
RPS: So whenever that Lone Wolf type of player plays the game, will they be required to be connected to the Internet, or will they be able to just boot up wherever and play?
Jessen: Thatís something that we donít know yet. Itís going to be dependent on the gameplay. And itís also dependent on the platform and the method of getting updates and stuff like that. Canít necessarily say that today for sure, one way or the other.
RPS: Is out-of-the-box Ė or whatever the digital equivalent of a box is Ė mod support in the cards?
Jessen: As a studio, especially with UDK, with PC games weíve always tended to support the mod community. I just canít necessarily announce anything like exactly what that is today. But I can assure you that weíre thinking a lot about it and the best way that we can implement that with Fortnite Ė so that itís not just players putting stuff out there. Itís more incorporated into the game itself.
RPS: Initially, Fortnite wasnít quite as cartoony, right? I think Cliff said during Comic-Con that early versions drew on stuff like The Walking Dead. Whyíd you decide to move away from Epicís now-signature grimdarkness?
Jessen: Well, for us, there were two big reasons. One, because we consider this a living project, we want this to be a game that people are constantly coming back to and playing with their friends. We wanted the world to be just beautiful and awesome to be in at all times, and be able to give the world a lot more personality and flexibility in terms of doing lots of fun and crazy things in the space. One of the videos I showed was of some of our enemies and our weapons. We didnít necessarily want to be held back by any super-serious horror fiction, things like that. We really wanted to make a more lighthearted game.
And second, that offered a great opportunity for our artists to stretch their fingers out. Iíd say stretch their legs, but itís more their fingersÖ [laughter] Playing around with a completely different look, totally stylized Ė this was very much a product that people wanted to make. It was pitched from the team. We said, ďHey, letís do something a little bit different and totally fresh for us.Ē Thatís been a really nice departure for those guys, to riff on a completely different look and art style. Theyíve been getting a kick out of it.
Even our containers [really mattered] Ė because everything in the game is like a treasure chest. Everything you see can be scavenged or searched through, and you have to make decisions like are you going to take everything? Are you going to leave some things? Do these things respawn? Are you going to destroy the item itself? Itís pretty deep, but we wanted all of those objects to look really cool and fit within the Fortnite world, so that even just likeÖ You could be in a building with nothing in it except for stuff, and you get a story of the fact that it was lived in Ė the people that were there. And that it fits perfectly within the world. That kind of narrative development, even just from the props and stuff, has been really fun for the team.
RPS: Ooooo, that sounds kind of like Bethesda-era Fallout. Is that what youíre shooting for Ė that sort of subtle environmental storytelling?
Jessen: Because the worlds are dynamic, this has been the fun challenge for us Ė to be able to have that narrative, but also have dynamically created spaces. You canít necessarily make that one-to-one, because weíre not scripting it. Weíre not creating that experience for you. Youíre creating that for yourself, which is what makes it that sandbox experience, you know? But it is definitely a focus in terms of the look and feel, and as a whole, on a big-picture level. Room to room, because itís dynamically created, itís not quite the same as, Iíd say, a Fallout necessarily. But it is a big focus, to make it feel really unique and setting the tone of the world.
RPS: I read that I can upgrade my main weapon throughout the course of the game. ButÖ can I put a chainsaw on it?
Jessen: [chuckles] So basically, the way that our weapons work is that they have gameplay modifiers, and thatís what they were talking about. Weíre not going to go into any more detail there, but Iím certain that youíll see some very interesting things [knowing laughter] once we do announce more of that stuff.
RPS: Thank you for your time.
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Fortnite's Jessen talks Minecraft, PC gaming, UE4
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