Last year, Fortnite developer Epic Games launched a big partnership with high fashion house Balenciaga. In addition to a collection of skins decked out in Balenciaga gear available to purchase, Epic also promoted a Balenciaga-themed zone players could visit. It looked like a virtual city square dropped into Fortnite, but at the heart was a recreation of a Balenciaga retail store.
It’s an impressive world, and feels almost like something plucked from the Fortnite battle royale island. But it was actually made by just three creators who are full-time Fortnite Creative experts that have formed their own company to build in-game worlds for brands.
“I don’t think my parents would ever think that would be a thing.”
“The fact that I can build games now with a team of almost 10, and we all do it for a living, I think that’s pretty impressive,” Kasper Weber, a Fortnite creator, said in an interview with The Verge. “I don’t think my parents would ever think that would be a thing.”
Weber is a co-founder and CEO of the company Beyond Creative. “Beyond builds unique experiences within Fortnite,” the company says on its website. “We bring our clients’ ideas to life using the powerful Fortnite Creative platform.” The company lists an impressive selection of clients including Verizon, the NFL, Nvidia, AMD, and even Chipotle.
Beyond Creative isn’t the only company doing this kind of work. I talked with three other groups of people working in full-time remote teams making branded Fortnite Creative worlds. TeamUnite is responsible for an entire in-Fortnite RPG based on the movie The Northman. Alliance Studios has worked on Grubhub and Tomb Raider-themed worlds, among others. Zen Creative worked with other creators on a recent concert starring Brazilian rapper Emicida, which took place in a series of shifting virtual locales.
The Fortnite Creative maps aren’t just impressive outlets of virtual world-building, though; making them has proven to be very lucrative for the businesses I talked to. According to Simon Bell, co-owner and art director at Alliance Studios, a contract can range from “four to six figures” depending on the scope of the work. And he estimated that projects can last from anywhere from two weeks to six months, depending on what the team needs to do. “It’s definitely a very successful avenue for us,” said Mackenzie Jackson, Alliance Studios co-owner and creative director.
Creators can probably command such large contracts in part because players are increasingly playing Fortnite Creative maps. According to Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, “about half of Fortnite play time by users is now in content created by others, and half is in Epic content,” he said in an interview with Fast Company. Epic Games declined to be interviewed for this article.
But the Creative makers also rely on income from Epic’s Support-A-Creator program. With this program, qualified groups or individuals get a “Creator Code” that people can enter in the Fortnite item shop. Any purchases made while that code is active support the group or individual the code represents. (Creator Codes can also be used in Rocket League store and the Epic Games Store.)
For the Fortnite groups I talked to, the Creator Codes can be an inefficient way to get revenue, since they have to find ways to convince people to enter the code. In some maps I’ve played, though, there’s a prompt right at the beginning that lets you use the code with just a couple button presses. But creators don’t get much of the share of what’s purchased. In Fortnite, creators earn 5 percent of the value of in-game purchases made using their Creator Code, Epic says on its website.
In an FAQ, Epic spells out a couple examples of how the payouts might work — and explicitly cautions creators to “expect modest results”:
WILL THIS PROGRAM MAKE CREATORS RICH?
Please expect modest results. The amount you earn scales with the number of players who choose to support you. A Fortnite example: If your in-game supporters spend 50,000 V-Bucks in-game, then you would earn $25 USD. An Epic Games Store example: if your supporters purchase $100 of games, you’ll earn $5 (at the base Epic-funded rate).
And to be able to take money out of the system, you have to have earned $100 in a 12-month period.
Brand deals, so far, seem to be a more effective way to build a business for the creators I talked to. “I would say brand deals are more of a sustainable thing at the moment,” said R-leeo Maoate, a director at Zen Creative. “Sometimes we do have gaps where we don’t get as [many people playing our maps], which leads to less revenue. So we try not to rely on Support-A-Creator. We rely more on brand deals.”
Some teams talked to me about how they wished they had more monetization options. Right now, the Support-A-Creator code is the only in-Fortnite way for creators to make money, but competitors like Roblox and Meta let creators monetize things like custom virtual items.
Maoate also talked about how where your experience shows up within Fortnite can make a difference. “You have to be [on] the main front page discovery page in order to make somewhat of an income,” he said.
It seems we’re still in the early days
Despite it being several years old, it seems we’re still in early days with Fortnite Creative. The mode was released in December 2018, but Epic updates it on a frequent basis to add major new tools and features. For example, Johnny Lohe, one of the co-founders of Alliance, told me about how Epic had recently added the ability to modulate water levels. And many of the groups I interviewed discussed a major expected upgrade they referred to as “Creative 2.0.”
Epic shared a brief preview of the improved tools in its 2020 year in review video for Unreal Engine. “These are the same tools that our developers use to put the game itself together,” said Epic’s Zak Parrish in the video. “Our goal is to give you the same kind of power, the same toolset, that we use to bring Fortnite to you season after season.” Epic also demoed a scripting language that creators could use to customize their Creative experiences even more granularly.
The tools might arrive soon, Sweeney said to Fast Company. “Later this year, we’re going to release the Unreal Editor for Fortnite — the full capabilities that you’ve seen [in Unreal Engine] opened up so that anybody can build very high-quality game content and code ... and deploy it into Fortnite without having to do a deal with us — it’s open to everybody.”
And there are hints that Epic might introduce more monetization tools as well, also based on comments from Sweeney. In response to a series of tweets in April, discussing Fortnite’s 5 percent kickback to creators, Sweeney tweeted: “Epic is working on Fortnite creator economy version 2 and 3 already. Expect some big changes throughout the year.”
He followed up with a short tweet suggesting that Epic has bigger ambitions. “It’s a longer road to the open metaverse,” he said. “Next few steps will be nice but aren’t the holy grail.”