In 2021, Facebook’s parent company got a new name and a new purpose. “I hope over time we are seen as an inverted company,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the time. He later called the metaverse “the successor to the mobile Internet” and noted that the concept would be so big that it would be too much for one company, covering an entire sector, to take on.
That hasn’t happened yet. Even Meta employees barely use the company’s flagship Metaverse app, Horizon worldsand in recent years, Zuckerberg’s definition of the metaverse seems to have shifted from a Ready Player One-style virtual world to a world that combines the real and the virtual, as new buzzwords such as AI have taken root. Either way, this vision of the Internet hasn’t taken hold exactly as Zuckerberg planned — at least not from Meta. But the metaverse business seems to be taking off Fortnite.
Yesterday, Disney invested $1.5 billion in Epic Games, aiming to create what it describes as an “expansive and open games and entertainment universe” connected to Fortnite. This is the result of a major restructuring Fortnite earlier this year, in which it shifted from a popular online shooter to a series of interconnected experiences ranging from a Lego survival game to a Rock band-style music festival. (This new era did indeed begin Fortnite fashion, with a big virtual concert.)
Disney previously made its own efforts in space. In 2022, the company tasked director Mike White to lead its metaverse efforts, with former CEO Bob Chapek touting “the so-called metaverse,” which I believe is the next great storytelling frontier. A year later, the Metaverse division was eliminated as part of a wave of mass layoffs.
So what’s the difference? Why hasn’t a huge entertainment conglomerate and a huge social network managed to crack the metaverse, but a crazy game where a banana can fight Ariana Grande? The answer is that it’s a crazy game. Meta and Disney (and every other company chasing the metaverse trend) started with the desire to create a new vision of the Internet, an all-encompassing virtual world that could serve as a place to play and work. But they didn’t give people a reason to want to exist in that space. Fortniteon the other hand, started as something millions of people really wanted to do – play a fun game with characters they know and love – and built its virtual world ambitions on top of that.
“We are not fighting a trend,” Epic CEO Saxs Persson told me last year. “We’re just trying to broaden something that we already see today Fortnite. That’s all we’re doing: doubling down on the things we know are successful today.”
FortniteThe company’s evolution has been slow and steady since its launch. It actually started as a survival game before the Battle Royale mode took off. Since then, Epic has tried many things Fortnite more of a place than a game. There have been virtual concerts, millions spent on esports, art galleries, violence-free hangouts and more. But at the heart of it has always been an ever-changing and consistently popular video game. In fact, Fortnite‘s latest reinvention was preceded by the throwback event Fortnite O.G, which was designed to lure lapsed players back. Without the game, the rest doesn’t work.
Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing, even for Epic. Not all of these bets worked. Party Royale is a wasteland and its competitive side Fortnite has largely become an afterthought. And like many tech companies, Epic led the way after a pandemic-related business boom. Last year the company laid off 16 percent of its workforce, with CEO Tim Sweeney saying in a statement: “We’ve spent far more money than we’re making, investing in the next evolution of Epic and growing Fortnite as a metaverse-inspired ecosystem for creators.”
Currently, Fortnite does not exactly match the science fiction vision of a virtual world. Logging into the game is more like browsing the YouTube homepage than breaking into the Matrix. But the beginnings of that interconnectedness are here, with elements like your avatar and XP carrying over between experiences. If you like being Peely the banana, you can be him while driving a car, playing the guitar or attending a comedy show.
Perhaps the Disney universe, whenever it launches, will be the next step toward that more unified virtual space — one that actually looks more like the metaverse tech execs have been hyping for so long.