Fortnite, published by Epic Games, can be a bit confusing to outside observers. Partially because it features giant banana people slapping together rickety, wooden towers and sniping opponents from three time zones away and then dancing about it. But also because for a free game Fortnite makes an awful lot of money. According to one analysis by Techcrunch, Epic Games made $3 billion in profit by the end of 2018 and much of that is attributed to this free-to-play behemoth. How?
The answer is, of course, the game’s Battle Pass. Instead of selling the whole game or relying on oft-despised mechanics like loot boxes, Fortnite lets players purchase a limited time Battle Pass for about $10 or your local equivalent. As they play matches –win or lose– these players level up their Battle Pass and thus earn progress towards unlocking various rewards. These prizes include skins, avatars, visual effects, and other cosmetics that have no impact on gameplay but make players look cool. Leveling up a pass takes between 75 and 150 hours. Or you can give Epic some more money and unlock great chunks of the rewards at once.
Given how lucrative the Battle Pass is, it may not surprise you to hear that there’s some subtle and effective tricks of psychology behind how it’s structured and how it’s presented. Let’s review just three of them.
The Principle of Progress
In their 2011 book, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, psychologists Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer had hundreds of from different companies complete over 12,000 daily diaries about how their workdays were going. The short version of their results is that employees were the most excited about and engaged with their work on days when they felt that they were making some progress –any progress– towards meaningful work. Those were the days when they were most motivated to keep plugging away.
This is in line with decades of other research on goal setting and motivation showing that simply feeling that you’re making measurable progress towards a distant goal motivates people to persist and keep trying. If you never get specific feedback about your progress, you’re likely to stall out or adopt another goal.
Like many video games, Fortnite has been engineered to give specific, useful, and motivating feedback about progress towards goals. You can see exactly how close you are to unlocking each Battle Pass tier and what you will get when you close that gap. Players also get in-game notifications when they complete or make progress towards goals and challenges, which go a long way towards rewards. Also, critically, some amount of meaningful progress happens every match no matter where you place. Sure, you get more Battle Pass progress if you win, but even losses earn you some progress. And that’s motivating.
Sticking with the concept of progress, there’s often a related psychological phenomenon at work in the Battle Pass. Ever gotten one of those consumer loyalty cards or apps that promise that if you buy six sandwiches (or whatever) you’ll get the seventh free? And ever notice how they “get you started” with one free stamp or 10,000 “Burrito Bucks”? And you think, “Well, I’m part way towards that reward, I guess I’ll come back for lunch tomorrow,” right?
This is something called the “endowed progress effect.” We tend to want to complete goals that we feel we’ve made progress towards, and clever companies capitalize on this by endowing us with some free progress right off the bat. Video games do this all the time, too. It’s not uncommon for Fortnite players to accidentally start progress towards challenges they didn’t even know existed. Open a treasure chest you stumbled upon, for example, and you might be notified that you have now “Searched 1 of 4 Treasure Chests” and that finding the other three will net you significant Battle Pass progress. Well, you’re 25% of the way there, right? Might as well keep playing until you’re done.
We tend to desire things more when we feel they’re dwindling or unavailable. This is a maxim of social and consumer psychology that shows up in studies on scarcity and related topics like psychological reactance where we want something if we think it’s going to be taken away from us. It’s the power behind things like “going out of business” sales and the old realtor trick of telling potential home buyers that they have another family also thinking about making an offer on this property. What’s more, companies often manufacture scarcity by artificially constricting supplies or putting end dates on offers.
Fortnite does this through its Seasons system. These limited time seasons provide clean breaks where the developers can start and end special community events or themes, but by tying Battle Passes to seasons it also creates scarcity. Epic lets you retroactively claim any rewards if you buy the pass late in the season based on everything you’ve done since the season started, but rewards can only be claimed (or bought) while a Battle Pass is active. And they end when the season ends –to be replaced, of course, by a new Battle Pass.
These are only a few examples of psychology at play with Fortnite’s Battle Pass. And maybe it doesn’t matter to you and you find enough value in the game and the pass that you’re fine with spending the money. In fact, I hope that’s the case since it’s then a win for everyone. But I could go on and name even more psychological effects at work. And maybe I will in a future article! If you’d like a follow-up to this article with more, share this one and let me know.