You’ve probably heard about how a comet hit the Fortnite map by now. There’s a reason so many people were transfixed by this cosmic encounter: developer Epic made it feel like an event, worthy of wonder in the same way a real-world solar eclipse would be. In an age of instant social media updates, constant leaks and revelatory datamines, managing to delight players in unexpected ways is laudable.
Nearly every triple-A game released nowadays has special occasions and timed updates, of course. The games-as-service model demands a constant dripfeed of new content and updates, which developers dutifully deliver on an ongoing basis. Most games update on a schedule, or tell players ahead of time when they can expect something new. Even vaguer companies like Nintendo at least tell players about how many updates or DLC their games will receive. Sometimes these updates contain surprises that players enjoy, but I’d liken it to getting a birthday present from a friend at a party. You might not know what’s in the package, and you might appreciate whatever it contains, but the fact the present exists and is being given to you at all isn’t really that out of the ordinary.
Fortnite demolishes that paradigm through unpredictability. Yes, there are week-to-week updates, and some additions are announced ahead of time, if not detailed through long patch notes, but Epic still refreshes the game on their own schedule. I wake up every day wondering if there’s going to be a surprise addition that day, something people don’t know about yet. I’ve never felt that in a game before, never truly believed that “anything” could happen on an ongoing basis. Fortnite feels alive in a way that few other games do. More than that, Fortnite feels reactive: some of the additions are things that players talk about or ask for, whether that’s a silly in-joke or a much-needed fix. There is no push and pull between what players want, what players need, and what players deserve. Epic seemingly makes time for it all, and Fortnite feels like a more personal game because of it.
All of this came together wonderfully with the entirety of the last Fortnite season. Weeks into the season, on March 30th, something appeared in the sky: A small, shimmering light. Its appearance immediately sparked conversation, but at the time, I remember feeling some doubt. Does it actually mean something, I asked myself. Is Epic just sprucing up the skybox? Am I imagining things?
The next day, that same orb grew bigger, seemed to bob in the distance. There was no doubt. It was a thing, a real thing. Epic put it there for a reason.
This is when players looked back on the entirety of the Battle Pass and realized: hey, Epic might have been hinting at this all along. Everything they’ve released up until now—the unlocks, the costumes—seem to be space-themed. The combination of astronauts, dinosaur eggs, and explosions made it seem like Epic was telling people that a cataclysm on the scale of dinosaur extinction was coming. The comet would hit, and it would potentially wipe something out. But where? When? How?
As the days went on, Epic continued to ramp things up. One day, you could hear the comet flying toward the island. Another day, more falling stars could be seen across the map. Then, unexpectedly, the TVs started sending out emergency broadcasts that contained secret messages. And then the comets started to actually hit and destroy parts of the map. Throughout it all, players continued to make theories about what was going on and what it meant. Epic would not confirm or deny any of it. They just watched as players theorized in a frenzy for weeks.
There was no public roadmap for any of this. You knew something was coming, but that was about it. Logging in became an adventure for nearly a month. That’s a long time to keep up momentum for an ARG-like event. Dangerous, even: with that much build-up, it would be very easy for the devs to flub the landing with something disappointing. Could anything match a month’s worth of hype?
Somehow, they did it. Everyone knew when the comet was going to hit—Epic eventually announced it—but the specifics were still surprising. The comet didn’t hit Tilted Towers, like everyone thought. Instead, it hit and transformed Dusty Depot. You could see the crater from the sky before you even landed. Beyond looking different, things work differently now, too. The point of impact is full of crystals that players can ingest to play around in low gravity. Better yet, the transformation is island-wide. It isn’t just one crater, but rather a number of them all throughout the map. Some locales were tweaked in smaller ways than Dusty Divot, while entirely new underground areas appeared as well. Beyond the theatrics, Fortnite’s big update had things like sprays, which players had begged for, new upgradeable skins that you couldn’t just buy, and a bevy of small quality of life features. The update was a perfect mix of mystery and utility.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about all of this is that it is a very “you had to be there” moment for gaming. If you didn’t catch the build-up, if you didn’t come along for the ride, that’s it. The map is different now. The game is different now. It’s not really something that Epic can pull off again, but they don’t have to. We’re on a grand new mystery now, we have a new season to decipher and unravel. The only question is, where will Fortnite go next?