There’s a massive appetite for nostalgia in entertainment right now, and one of gaming’s cultural juggernauts wants to cash in.

Fortnite maker Epic Games announced Friday that the game’s next season would return to its original map from the multiplayer shooter’s very earliest days. Epic teased the return “back to Chapter 1” on its X account, but hinted that some more modern in-game mobility perks like sprinting would stick around even as the game turns the clock back come November 3. From the “Ws” in the replies, Fortnite’s community sounds very on board with the news.

Epic’s re-launch of Chapter 1 comes with more fanfare than your average Fortnite season. Ninja, aka Tyler Blevins, one of the first streaming superstars and still among the most popular, promoted the new content by showcasing a giant replica of one of the game’s iconic Durr Burgers in his backyard. Other classic Fortnite streaming stars got the same treatment.

For the uninitiated, Fortnite is a battle royale-style third-person shooter where 100 players swarm a massive but shrinking virtual island with the goal of being the last man standing. In the process they generally engage in myriad well-animated virtual antics as the game has become wackier and more elaborate over time, all while dressed in custom skins you earn by playing or purchase in Epic’s lucrative virtual swag shop.

In its heyday, Fortnite was about as ubiquitous and popular as a game can be. Streaming gameplay routinely drew hundreds of thousands of viewers on Twitch, where a cottage industry of pro Fortnite players emerged, all laser-focused on Epic’s polished battle royale. Epic keeps its metrics under wraps, but back in 2020 the game had more registered players than the population of the United States.

Epic’s hit game has both imported and exported popular culture since its launch in 2017. Like other live service online games, Fortnite releases new content every three-ish months, refreshing the destinations scattered across its cartoony island locale, changing the rules of physics and generally adding additional mayhem, often in the form of weapons.

Those seasons are punctuated by flashy concerts and pop culture tie-ins, like a psychedelic Ariana Grande show, an in-game lightsaber fight with Darth Vader or the appearance of Dragon Ball Z’s Goku as an in-game skin. The massive online shop for skins and other character customizations betrays Epic’s loftier aspirations of building an interconnected virtual online world — a kind of metaverse, if you will.

In Fortnite, the map is everything. A bad map can ruin a chapter and players often wax nostalgic about in-game locales — usually alliterative hotspots with names like Tilted Towers or Loot Lake. Without a clear glimpse into what Fortnite’s player base looks like these days, it’s tough to know why Epic would decide to go retro and bring the game back to an older save state.

In 2023, Fortnite is far from dead. The game is still very popular, even if it’s not clear exactly how popular. But if Fortnite was once lightning in a bottle, between other free-to-play rivals like Apex Legends, Call of Duty: Warzone and others, that bottle is a lot more crowded these days.

Nostalgia sells in 2023

Epic’s decision to turn back the clock might seem small to anyone who hasn’t dropped in off the Battle Bus, but it’s an interesting reflection of the state of gaming right now. Games — and gamers’ tastes — are increasingly following the wider entertainment trend of digging up familiar stories and repackaging them.

Game developers seemed to believe for a time that cutting-edge graphics and hyper-realism were what consumers really wanted, but gamers’ appetites have trended toward retro visuals, nostalgia and familiar game worlds more and more. That lower bar for visual fidelity also opens the doors for inventive indie games that don’t rely on big budgets to shine, but the world’s biggest game developers are riding the wave too.

This year’s hit new Zelda game Tears of the Kingdom literally built a new game on top of the old one and remains a strong contender for Game of the Year. Competition is stiff though, more so now that Nintendo just casually dropped Super Mario Bros. Wonder, the first two-dimensional side-scrolling Mario game in more than a decade — another portal to the past given its departure from a long string of recent 3D Super Mario titles.

Square Enix was so confident in its remake of the 1997 Japanese roleplaying mega-hit Final Fantasy VII that the reimagined version of the game comprises three standalone full-length games, each spaced a few years apart.

World of Warcraft paved the way

Fortnite’s experiment to bring players back into the fold by relaunching an original version of the game will be interesting to watch, but it isn’t a first. World of Warcraft, the fantasy roleplaying game once synonymous with online gaming, did something similar just a few years ago. Blizzard Entertainment, which developed the massively multiplayer online game (MMO), launched World of Warcraft Classic back in 2019, even as a modern version of the game remained online and playable.

Elizabeth Harper, editorial director of the longtime dedicated World of Warcraft news site Blizzard Watch, told TechCrunch that Blizzard actually reluctantly launched the old-school version of its game in response to demands from its own community.

“Before WoW Classic originally launched, third parties were already running their own versions of ‘classic’ servers,” Harper said. “Game mechanics and class balance were extremely different then, and there was a lot of nostalgia for the community that existed back in the day.”

While Fortnite players, like WoW players, have a ton of nostalgia for the older version of the game, its maps were comparably simple and difficult to traverse. For players accustomed to gaming’s modern quality of life improvements, old games can feel sparse and clunky if not reimagined outright.

“WoW Classic has been a runaway success, and fans can’t get enough of re-releases of classic content, devouring each expansion and raid tier as they’re rolled out. However, the WoW Classic team’s philosophy has evolved since it was released: [Blizzard] initially was very serious about releasing the game without any changes, but these days the team feels that some changes need to be made,” Harper said.

“I’m not an expert in Fortnite, but a smart game developer will pay close attention to the features that spark that nostalgic joy and keep those in the forefront, while considering retaining modern conveniences that players appreciate.”

Epic hasn’t shown its full hand for the new-old version of its own game, but it does sound like some of Fortnite’s quality of life improvements will be sticking around, including sprinting and “mantling,” a parkour-like move that lets players climb over obstacles. In recent years, Epic has sprinkled all sorts of zany mobility options onto its map, letting players fall through the sky, pilot biplanes or (our personal preference) roll in a giant hamster ball to get around faster.

“With MMOs, it’s easier than ever for gaming experiences to be lost completely to time. New versions overwrite old versions, making original games inaccessible,” Harper said.

“World of Warcraft will be 19 years old in November, and practically every feature and zone the game launched with has been remade in the years since…. It’s a ship of Theseus.”

Much like the revolutions of a giant oversized hamster hurtling down from Fortnite’s rave cave, gaming’s nostalgia cycles are speeding up, with relaunches and remakes coming on quick. World of Warcraft Classic recreated a 15-year-old version of the game, but Fortnite’s own blast from the past seeks to capture the magic of a relatively very recently bygone era.

“Nostalgia sells, but it only sells because there’s demand. Gamers want to go back and revisit their favorite games as they originally were, and I think developers who re-release games are developers who pay attention to their communities,” Harper said.

“Sure, there’s a cynical side to this: game companies are in it to make money. But if we didn’t love these classic games, they wouldn’t be nearly as popular as they are.”

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