December 07, 2023

Happy Thursday.

I'm in Los Angeles for The Game Awards and to conduct some interviews that I'm eager to share with you in next week's newsletters.

Today's edition: 1,596 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Fortnite goes big(ger)

Lego Fortnite. Image: Via Epic Games

Fortnite is back. And so is that word "metaverse," now that Epic Games can show it is actually building one by expanding Fortnite this week into a platform containing three major new internally developed games.

Why it matters: "Metaverse" isn't the buzzword it used to be, but if a metaverse is indeed an interconnected virtual space where people's avatars can do a wide variety of things, Epic's version is now here.

  • Axios previewed the expanded Fortnite this week at a showcase in New York City.

Driving the news: From today to Saturday, Epic is rolling out three games to supplement Fortnite's long-popular 100-player Battle Royale shooting mode and the more recent Creative Mode, which focuses on user-made experiences.

  • The new games are all free to play, accessed when players load Fortnite, and tied to the same "locker" of outfits, emote animations and other virtual items unlocked or purchased by Fortnite users.

Lego Fortnite is a Minecraft-style survival and building game made for one to eight players to venture through collaboratively.

  • Players can snap virtual Lego bricks together to make campfires, upgradeable towns full of village recruits, and even, in the manner of Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, contraptions with added wheels, buoyant balloons and engines.
  • Epic has created Lego versions of more than 1,000 existing costumes from Fortnite Battle Royale and will let users who have them in one mode use them in both.

Rocket Racing is a wild, drive-on-the-walls-if-you-want arcade racing game developed by Psyonix, the makers of the popular soccer-with-cars Rocket League. Epic bought the studio in 2019.

  • Some of the players' cars from Rocket League will also be drivable in Rocket Racing.

Fortnite Festival is a multiplayer music game developed by Harmonix, the makers of the popular Rock Band games from the 2000s. Epic bought the studio in 2021.

Between the lines: The games arrive at a pivotal time for Epic, which laid off 900 workers in September, as CEO Tim Sweeney acknowledged the company had over-expanded.

  • The three games weren't planned for simultaneous release but began lining up when one was running late, Epic's head of Fortnite's ecosystem, Saxs Persson, told Axios.
  • That enabled Epic to create a moment establishing Fortnite as a convergence point for its developers, customers and potential partners.

What they're saying: "The goal is absolutely to organically have the best teams in the world in different genres develop games inside Fortnite," Persson said.

  • The three games run on the same code-base and will eventually include tools for user-made creations.
  • The introduction of new games as a creativity prompt for its players is key, Wagner James Au, author of "Making a Metaverse That Matters," tells Axios. "This should help nudge the user base beyond the core Battle Royale combat mode, and encourage their user community to build more diverse experiences through the platform's robust creation tools. In other words, evolve Fortnite into the full-fledged Metaverse that Tim Sweeney has dreamed about for decades."

Be smart: Epic set up the games' launch with November's phenomenally successful "OG" event in Fortnite Battle Royale, as the company reverted the game's map to how it looked five years ago and then evolved it through several iconic phases to get to the present.

  • The throwback mini-season drew 100 million players for the month, including 44.7 million users in one day.
  • Epic wants to do OG again in 2024. "It's just a matter of how and when, and how do we make it so it's not just the same," Persson said.

2. Mario is missing

Super Mario as seen in Super Mario Galaxy. Screenshot: Nintendo

Fortnite's frequent additions of characters from competing companies —from Disney/Marvel's Spider-Man to PlayStation's Kratos and Microsoft's Master Chief — still doesn't include Nintendo characters, but not for lack of effort on Epic's part.

  • When asked how hard Epic has tried to woo Nintendo, Persson told Axios, "I don't know what the word for, like, making diamonds is."

Why it matters: The integration of characters from across the entertainment world has been one of Epic's most successful expressions of its metaverse vision.

  • And it's been a way for players to run around in the same game as figures as disparate as Indiana Jones, Goku and soccer star Neymar.
  • Nintendo, maker of Mario, Zelda and Donkey Kong, would arguably be Epic's biggest crossover.

What they're saying: "Nintendo has their strategy and we have our strategy, and we hope at some point" to use their characters, Perrson said, because "our players would love it."

Between the lines: Persson does not expect the character crossovers in Fortnite to slow down and believes the recent addition of age ratings to the game "allows us to think about IP we would never think about before" for future crossovers.

3. GTA VI in 2025

GTA VI promotional art. Image: Rockstar Games

Rockstar revealed its first trailer of what is now officially called Grand Theft Auto VI on Monday evening, about 15 hours earlier than planned.

Details: As expected, the game will be set in and around Vice City, Rockstar's satirical take on Miami.

  • GTA VI appears to be something of a criminal love story, with the first trailer focusing on Lucia, an apparent protagonist of the game, who holds up a liquor store with her romantic partner.
  • The biggest piece of news: A promise of a 2025 release, for Xbox Series consoles and PlayStation 5.
  • The trailer had been slated for a 9am ET reveal Tuesday, but a leak on Monday sent Rockstar scrambling to publish it for real within 40 minutes.

Between the lines: Lucia will be the first playable female lead in a Grand Theft Auto game since the series exploded in popularity with 2001's GTA III.

State of play: The trailer, which includes numerous echoes of 2011's first trailer for GTA V, has been a massive hit, racking up more than 121 million views.

The intrigue: Rockstar made no mention of releasing the game on PC, a platform that didn't get GTA V for more than a year after its console release.

  • Rockstar also didn't hint at the future of GTA Online, the massively successful online game launched as an extension of GTA V and is set on that game's virtual landmass. Rockstar has regularly (and lucratively) expanded GTA Online for a decade, and is likely to use GTA VI as a platform for a new online experience.

Go deeper: Every Miami landmark in Grand Theft Auto VI

4. Need to know

☹️ More layoff news from three companies: Embracer-owned New World Interactive (Insider Gaming) announced "restructuring" after a shuttered project, "small-scale organizational changes" were set at EA-owned racing studio Codemasters (IGN), and 50% of League of Geeks' team was laid off in part due to "the unprecedented withdrawal of funding opportunities across the industry" (PC Gamer).

🎮 Bungie's top lawyer, Don McGowan, who led the company's unusually aggressive and largely successful legal battles against harassers and cheat-makers, is no longer at the studio, with IGN reporting he was laid off.

  • IGN's report details low morale at the Destiny-maker and worker fears that owner Sony is poised to exert more control of the once-independent game maker.

😲 Netflix is making a video game tied to "Squid Game," The Verge reports.

🤔 Rapper Asianae's song that sampled Nintendo's Super Mario theme is no longer available online. A music video featuring the rapper dressed as Mario garnered press attention in late October but has since been set private. The artist didn't reply to a request for comment.

5. The week ahead

Expect a quiet stretch in terms of game releases and events in the week following tonight's The Game Awards, and thus a truncated calendar here.

Sunday, Dec. 10

Thursday Dec. 14

Friday, Dec. 15

6. I played ... A Highland Song

A Highland Song. Screenshot; Inkle/Axios

Inkle, a studio that specializes in games nestled with branching narratives, has ensnared me with A Highland Song (5 hours played on Switch, also available on PC), a game about finding your way across dozens of peaks in the Scottish Highlands.

  • More accurately, it's a quiet game about getting lost. You control protagonist Moira McKinnon as she runs away from home to meet her uncle at his lighthouse, somewhere out toward the hilly horizon.
  • You collect torn maps that hint at the location of paths that will get Moira from one peak to the next. There's some pressure to hurry, while also ensuring Moira doesn't get too cold, wet or tired.

Like Inkle's magnificent 80 Days, A Highland Song is designed to be played multiple times, to see how the story plays out as you try paths, all the while learning more about Moira's family and the peaks that separate them.

7. More of your games of 2023

I asked readers what their favorite games of 2023 have been. Here are another two.

  • Void Stranger — "It's obvious that so much work, thought and love went into that game and yet I haven't seen it mentioned almost anywhere," says reader Francisco. (Note from Stephen: I hear you. I got unexpectedly wrapped up in this strange block-pushing game in September, played it for eight hours and believe I've just begun discovering its secrets.)
  • Lies of P — "One of the few games to match FromSoftware titles and bring some new and interesting ideas to the table. Yes, it's similar to Bloodborne (no bad thing) and very challenging, but with a sequel confirmed, it looks like the puppets hit a home run," says reader Michael.

Got a favorite that hasn't been mentioned yet? Send in your picks with an email reply to this newsletter.

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🐦 Find me on Twitter or Threads, @stephentotilo.

Thank you to Meg Morrone for editing and Kathie Bozanich for copy editing this newsletter.

Quick three-day trip = no jet lag, right?