By Luke Bull

It’s counter-intuitive, but there’s money in giving away your product for free. Just ask the tech marketing geniuses behind this year’s biggest online game, Fortnite.

Epic Games didn’t just create a comic-book-style online fight to the death. They created a market where there wasn’t one before, where players will splash out real cash on virtual clothes – with spending heading for £1 billion.

And they’ve done it by word of mouth and pester power – two of the oldest marketing tricks in the book. Those fans become eager brand ambassadors, spreading word of their stunning successes and near misses in playgrounds around the land.

That has fuelled the rise of Fortnite. From a standing start in June last year, it has amassed 125 million players worldwide, mostly hooked on its free Battle Royale game mode.

Basically, 100 player avatars appear on an island and fight until there’s only one remaining. It’s cartoonishly bright, and there’s no blood and guts – dead players just disappear, even when you blast them with an assault rifle or hit them with a “boogie bomb”.

Oh, and it’s a bit like that other massive gaming sensation, Minecraft, as players can build their own fortresses. So that’s shooting and building, two of the things young gamers love to do most, in one game.

It’s meant to be for gamers aged 12 and over but it has attracted younger children, with some primary schools raising the now traditional concerns about its effect on pupils’ attention.

Word of mouth

Playground gossip fuelled Fortnite’s success, as its playability spread by word of mouth. Parents were pestered: “Can I get it, Dad? It’s free.”

And sure enough, it is free. Download it, start it up, find yourself a lobby and wait for a game to begin. Do it again as soon as you’re killed (which happens to me very quickly).

You can even hook up with pals so you fight in the same battle – and chat to them over your headset while sneaking up behind them with your shotgun as they have some other sucker in the sights of their sniper rifle.

That’s when you’ll spot how similar your enemies look to you … and that’s when the tech marketing masterplan kicks in. Outfits are uniform. There is very little to distinguish players except sex or skin colour. There’s not even a choice of those – you get what you’re given.

Now, your modern young person is taught from an early age to be a confident individual. But how can you be an individual if a quarter of the players look exactly like you?

Well, you could put in the hours, get good and level up to get new “skins”, which change the way you look. Or you could get mum and dad to buy you some V-Bucks with their debit card and spend them on a new avatar.

Then, with your junior brand ambassador cap back on, you can tell your pals in the playground all about your avatar’s new gear the next morning.

By the way, you’ll also need those V-Bucks to buy your way into the next “season” of the game, with its new weapons and outfits – and by then you’re hooked, probably still craving your first win, and loving the fact you can chat with your pals while you fight each other for survival.

It’s a step on from the way we get a smartphone free when we sign up for a new calls, texts and data package. The software is the service, and that’s free, but if you really want to make the game your own, you have to personalise it with purchases.

The in-app purchase model has been used for free games before – think about the ones in games like Farmville and Candy Crush – but it’s the sheer scale of the rewards raked in by Fortnite that make it stand out.

Those purchases accounted for £222 million in April alone. Despite being given away free, it will have brought in the best part of £1 billion for its creators, Epic Games, by the end of this month.

And that’s in the face of a direct competitor, the paid-for title Player Unknown Battle Grounds, which offers a less cartoony, grittier version of the same gaming experience for a one-off price.

Spawning businesses

Even that helps with marketing – like Pepsi and Coke, you’re either Fortnite or PUBG. Rival fans troll each other on social media, doing free promotional work for their favourite game.

Now, Fortnite bestrides the console market – you can play it on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch or a gaming PC – and launched on tablet and smartphone in March. It has had more than 30 million downloads on Apple products.

It has spawned a whole welter of other businesses, from the gaming professionals earning money streaming their battles on Twitch, to the coaches charging up to £30 an hour to help “noobs git gud” – that’s help new players get good, in non-gamer speak.

Big business has also seen a knock-on effect, with one maker of gaming headphones seeing sales more than double on the strength of Fortnite’s social experience.

It’s a great example of how the digital economy has real-world impacts, how packaging old ideas in new ways revitalises them, how you can accumulate if you speculate, and of how the greatest brand ambassadors are the people who love it.

For all tech marketing does to convert desire into cold hard cash, it’s the passion of Fortnite’s fans that has made it a success.

We are PR and marketing specialists – with our fingers firmly on the technology pulse. Contact us on 0800 612 9890.