For around 36 hours, Fortnite — one of the most popular video games in the world — was literally a black hole.
At the end of a long-teased season finale, the mysterious rift opened in the game’s world Sunday night, sucking in players, the map, and even the menu. Gamers who logged in were treated to a view of the celestial phenomenon brimming in the distance. Mysterious numbers appeared. Music played in the background. If players entered a code, they could enjoy a simple mini-game. During the blackout, developer Epic Games’ Twitter account, Twitch stream and public relations team all went dark.
While Fortnite’s 250 million-plus players scrambled to figure out what was going on, studio Epic Games did server maintenance as it prepared to switch everything over to a new map and launch new features. This in itself is unremarkable; online games go down for hours at a time for routine maintenance all the time. What is remarkable is that Epic Games managed to disguise such a commonplace event as a big moment, simultaneously keeping players happy and generating a massive amount of press attention for a game that, while plenty popular, has certainly moved past its “phenomenon” stage.
In fact, Fortnite’s downtime was so successful that it set records as players tuned in to see what was afoot. “On October 13, Fortnite reached 1.61 [million] peak concurrent viewers on Twitch, a new all-time high for the game,” says Mat Piscatella of NPD Group, a research firm. “The previous high was 1.46 million on … the day the Nintendo Switch version of the game was announced and released.”
The game came back early Tuesday morning with a brand new map and extra features, like a fishing mechanic. But the big story, says Piscatella, is how Epic Games managed to create an Internet event that “had far further reach than just for those playing the game.” Even Lady Gaga (a known gamer) was curious what the heck was happening:
— Lady Gaga (@ladygaga) October 15, 2019
Contrast Fortnite’s big event with the recent maintenance Destiny 2 underwent ahead of its Oct. 1 soft reboot. Like Fortnite, Destiny 2 is an online shooter running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Sometimes, the servers powering it need to come down for maintenance or big changes. Ahead of the refresh, Destiny 2 creator Bungie told fans the game would be offline for 24 hours while it made the transition. When the servers relaunched, they almost immediately went right back down for emergency maintenance. When players finally found their way back online, many had to wait in a digital line for hours to play. Fans vented their frustrations on Twitter and Reddit, leading to news coverage that focused on the rocky goings.
It was just the opposite for Fortnite. Epic Games leveraged its planned downtime into a successful media event. Its strategy gave players a mystery to ponder, leading to a relaunch boosted by a strong swell of media support. Instead of complaining on social media about server downtime, they watched watching a livestream of a black hole.
The entire affair could not gave gone better for Epic. While still popular, Fortnite has been losing steam over the past few months. Gamers are fickle and their attention wanders. But unlike most high-profile games that cost about $60, Fortnite is free to download; its continued financial success depends on gamers staying active and buying stuff in the in-game store. A PR stunt like the one Epic just pulled might be just the shot in the arm Fortnite needed as competitors like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare prepare to hit store shelves. “The game has slowed a bit,” says Piscatella. “This event certainly helped reinvigorate interest. Combating player fatigue and player count decay is the battle all big service-based games fight.”