After zipping through space, swimming under the ocean, and generally gazing up at the goliath-sized crotch of rapper Travis Scott during Fornite's latest live event, everybody was dropped back into a normal match. Gone were the pyrotechnics, the pause to combat. Guns reappeared in people's hands, kill totals back on screen. The feeling of excitement and the sense of having shared something unique abruptly ended. It was back to digital murder.
This jarring feeling is a growing pain for Fortnite, as it continues down its ever-fascinating path of evolution. It's been a long time since it was just another video game about shooting people, but it still feels a long way from where Epic would like it to be. Fortnite uses a recurring butterfly motif to signify elements of change: the end of the Travis Scott concert, for example, or plot moments in its live events, but the game still feels in its chrysalis phase.
On the surface, Fortnite's addition of a new mode without combat wasn't all that interesting. Party Royale features a shrunken down map that's part digital theme park, part tropical island hangout. There's currently no gameplay incentive to load it up, no XP to find or challenges to unlock. Its arrival in the middle of last week with no prior fanfare was a typically low-key launch for the experimental Fortnite, almost laughably so.
Then, after a few days of not really mentioning it at all, Epic simply said it would run a technical test within the mode on Friday night featuring a DJ set. The message was little more than a "turn up if you want, but no worries" tweet. (It turned out to be a live set from Diplo playing Major Lazer music - which you could then buy in the game's shop - with backing dancers and presented by Jordan Fisher.)
But even this "low-key" launch is clearly the next stage of something far bigger. Epic has been public about its desire to build Fortnite into a metaverse - a Ready Player One-style persistent place where people and brands can interact in ways beyond those currently offered anywhere else in our existing digital lives. The next big step to doing that, I think, is getting rid of those guns - making the no-combat Party Royale a significant twitch in Fortnite's evolutionary pupae.
When it's not hosting live events, you and your friends can use Party Royale however you want, with gentle nudges here and there to interact in mini-games or stare at enormous screens pumping out Fortnite music and imagery. It's very early days, but already there's the concert stadium area where Diplo appeared, and a separate open-air movie screen. There's also a pirate ship, a Mario Kart-style race track, and quiet beaches just to stand and watch the aurorae rippling through Fortnite's skies.
There are places to change your outfit, around which people are already clustering to flex their bulging wardrobe. And already, given the space and the time not rushing to kill one another, you see those little unspoken interactions between people beginning to happen. I changed into a Fishstick costume. Someone else changes into a Fishstick costume. Suddenly I'm surrounded by 10 people in Fishstick costumes and we're all playing instruments via emotes. It's the kind of interaction you see after combat is turned off for live events, now able to continue on for as long you want to hang out.
And people are hanging out. Each time I load up Fortnite, I dip into Party Royale for a little while and tour its island to see what people are up to. What better time to launch this idea, after all, even though it's clearly been part of the plan for much longer. I can see future live events and promotions taking place solely here - separated out from the game's battle royale mode completely. Cut out the combat - that barrier to entry which leaves millions of people preferring to just watch things on YouTube. Bring more people in, to swell Fortnite's audience even as it matures. It's not hard to see Party Royale being a focal ground for the game - and maybe the focal point at some point in the future.