Fortnite players who happened to boot up the game this afternoon were treated to a cataclysmic showdown between a giant robot and a terrifyingly large monster. The result was a kaiju-inspired battle reminiscent of Pacific Rim and with clear nods to Voltron and other mecha cartoons and anime. It was exhilarating to watch live, even though I watched it on my iPhone screen, rather than the PlayStation 4 I typically play on.
The event has been weeks in the making, with developer Epic Games performing its now-standard trickle of hints and subtle reveals that helped curious players piece together the puzzle. There was the monster eye hidden in the frozen ice of the game’s Polar Peak location, the owner of which broke free and began swimming around the island. By the time the robot was being constructed within the map’s once-active but now-dormant volcano, it became quite clear to players what Epic was planning: a world-shaking showdown between the two titanic beings.
The battle started at a distance, with the robot firing missiles at its foe before closing the gap with a tackle that sent both flying across the map. Players who had been watching the build up to the event were able to buy one of two emotes, a pro-monster and a pro-robot one, while Epic also designed an in-game skin of the pink, cat-themed robot. This time around, Epic gave everyone an unlimited-use jetpack to catch the action from whatever angle they liked. Weapons were disabled, so trolls couldn’t spoil the fun for other players.
Once the battle became a close-quarters bout, the monster ripped off the robot’s arm and seemed on the verge of winning. But drawing source from some element of the island’s power — we’ve seen it before with the rocket that created a massive rift in the sky and past events that have transported players to another realm — the robot drew out a sword buried beneath the ground. (It was coyly hidden beneath the statue in Neo Tilted, with the statue itself forming the hilt of the blade.)
The robot put it through the monster’s skull, and then blasted off into the sky, leaving behind the skeleton of the creature with the sword stuck through it. It’s now a fixture of the map in all game modes.
Epic now has a storied history of holding increasingly sophisticated live events, starting with the rocket launch that took place in June of last year and continuing with subtle map changes and creative experiments in collective action that let players affect have direct effects on the world. Since the rocket launch, there’s been a live concert featuring the electronic artist Marshmellow, and a massive in-game Fortnite poll that effectively let players decide which popular item would get revived from retirement in the vault, which was followed up by a volcanic eruption.
What used to be a season-ending affair that would kick off a new three-month season has turned into a constant flow of big and small changes that take place almost every week, which typically culminate in a massive gathering like the one we watched today. Epic has also moved on from having events singularly focused on one object or action, like a rocket launch, and is now pulling off substantial changes to the map in the midst of active play, so players experiencing a live event can find themselves parachuting back down onto a completely changed environment, no update required. We saw that today as the monster’s skeleton and the robot’s sword became a part of the map that you can now fly over and fight on.
It’s a mind-blowing technical achievement that continues to keep Epic and Fortnite at the cutting edge of online multiplayer gaming experiences. And it’s still relatively unclear what Epic’s ultimate goal is here. These live events are great world-building affairs that make its battle royale game much more than a kill-or-be-killed contest; it has a rich world and deepening lore that’s built just as much by Epic as it by Fortnite’s fanbase.
But the sheer technical sophistication on display in these events leads me to believe there is a lot more Epic has planned, not just for Fortnite but also future games that build technology using the company’s Unreal developer tools. It’s not hard to imagine the amazing experiences a massively multiplayer online game could offer with this type of backend infrastructure, and the types of gameplay enabled when simulated, immersive worlds at the scale of Fortnite’s island can be changed and manipulated in real time without requiring you stop the software and install an update.
With the advent of cloud gaming on the horizon, it’s an exciting time to see where this time of fusion of in-game storytelling with live see-it-once events could yield in just a few years time. And, of course, Fortnite helping build that future, one mecha-monster battle at a time.