A few days ago, my 11-year-old son sent me a What’sApp message: “Look what I made—it took ages.” There was a video attached, and when I (with some trepidation) hit play, I saw a character from the video game Fortnite running over a series of flashing tiles, each of which played a different musical note. As the avatar progressed along the pathway, it became clear the tiles were playing the EDM track “Alone” by Marshmello. My son constructed this masterpiece using the Fortnite Creative mode, and frankly, if you can find a better all-purpose metaphor for where childhood, pop music, gaming, social media, and imagination intersect in 2019, I want to see it.
Fortnite Creative mode is a digital construction kit—available for free when you download Fortnite Battle Royale—that gives users a little island of their own on which to build teeny Fortnite cities. When you enter the mode (through a shiny in-game portal that makes you feel like you’re walking into Narnia), your avatar appears on an empty landscape, one that is yours to do with as you will. Open your inventory and you discover hundreds of items to populate your kingdom. There are recognizable Fortnite buildings—arctic labs, castle fortresses, cafes—that you can just drag and drop straight onto the map. Or you can choose one of the themed bundles of walls, floors, and ceiling parts, which then arrive on your map in neat rows and piles like the parts of an unassembled Ikea wardrobe. Your architectural marvel is ready for construction.
“Letting them mess with a game they’re already fluent with is a great way to show that the game doesn’t just ‘exist.’ It’s made up of all these little things they’re able to touch and change.”
It feels intuitive, mostly because making levels in Creative mode is just like playing Fornite, a game that has more than 200 million users. You view and navigate the world via your gaming avatar and all the items are accessed through the regular in-game menu system. If you’re lazy, you can just lob buildings onto the landscape—and on top of each other—like grenades, leaving the system to mesh them together into M.C. Escher-esque cities. It is ridiculously compelling.
Creative mode isn’t just a fun building toy; it allows players to add basic game rules to their island, including timers and player spawn points, and then to invite in friends. This isn’t just messing about; Creative mode allows you to become a game designer, creating your own battle royale tournaments. After a few hours with the toolset, you learn how to place objects in relation to each other so they offer challenging jumps and handy hiding places; how to create choke points, where players are funneled into one place, encouraging shoot outs; and how to give the player a sense of flow—that nebulous design concept concerning the interplay of friction and freedom that underpins the very best level designs from Super Mario Bros. to Assassin’s Creed.
“Fortnite Creative mode has the potential to introduce many young people to the idea of game design,” says Nina Freeman, a designer at the independent games company Fullbright. “Letting them mess with a game they’re already fluent with is a great way to show that the game doesn’t just ‘exist.’ It’s made up of all these little things they’re able to touch and change. This realization may not be super obvious at first—a lot of people aren’t really aware of the labor that goes into making the things they play.”
This is an element mentioned by Mare Sheppard of Metanet Software, the company behind the brilliant platform games N+ and N++, which both came with map editors. “Level design, especially in a simpler genre like platformers, can seem quite easy,” she says. “But when you’re actually faced with it for the first time, you begin to understand that it’s a complex craft requiring a lot of experience and practice. There are a ton of nuances to the interactions between levels and the objects and enemies that fill them. Layering even very simple elements can have profoundly complicated results.”
Of course, Fortnite is far from the first game to offer a built-in level design mode—such options have been around since the early 1980s. The formative Apple II platformer Lode Runner allowed players to make their own levels. After it came Pinball Construction Kit, the real-time strategy game Starcraft, the skateboarding sim Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, as well as more recent hits, such as LittleBigPlanet and Super Mario Maker. What all these intuitive modes showed was that opening up a creative tool to a large “amateur” audience invites completely unexpected and often subversive results, as a developer never really knows how players will use the tools it provides.
“This is all about putting the tools in the hands of people that might not otherwise get the opportunity.”
“We were surprised—people made all kinds of crazy stuff,” says Mark Healey, co-founder of Media Molecule, the studio behind LittleBigPlanet. “The first thing I remember really standing out was when someone made a working calculator. That was when the penny dropped. We often talked internally about the democratization of digital creation. This is all about putting the tools in the hands of people that might not otherwise get the opportunity.”
Every week, Fortnite developer Epic Games selects a handful of interesting, well-crafted maps and makes them available to the full player base to try out. I’ve played challenging snow levels where players have to jump between icy platforms as they ascend craggy cliff faces; I’ve played the fiendish Death Run courses designed by top YouTuber Cizzors, which challenge you to run as fast as possible through deadly American Ninja Warrior-style assault courses; I’ve played multiple intriguing escape rooms. It’s clear that the creators of these maps have learned the foundations of 3D-level design, yet they’re also different enough from the industry to run with weird and transgressive ideas.
Head over to the dedicated Fortnite Creative subreddit and you’ll find an entire community of creators and collaborators working on everything from music videos to hoverboard skate parks. Like the game’s famous dances, Creative mode produces content that slots perfectly into our social media-powered, meme-obsessed remix culture. The stuff you make in Fortnite can be recorded, edited, and shared as a TikTok video to make a perfect loop of digital creation, consumption, and redistribution.
Even if you never show anyone what you make, there is still something liberating about a favorite game with an easy-to-use editor. It changes your relationship with the product and accentuates the idea that a game is an ongoing conversation between the designer and the player. When I asked on Twitter for favorite examples of in-game editors, I received almost 500 replies, many from professional game designers who started out using these games. By exploring a map editor, you begin to understand why key decisions are made and why certain features are so common—and you get a glimpse of the minds of the creators you admire. It’s like seeing a band live and singing along.
Through streaming channels and YouTube videos, playing video games—long the most solitary of acts—is becoming ever more performative. Most of my son’s friends now have YouTube channels filled with videos of them playing games and commenting, just like their heroes, Ninja and PewDiePie. Creative modes are going to become an important part of this new interplay between game-makers and game-buyers, creators, and consumers. A forthcoming title from Media Molecule, entitled Dreams, is a hugely ambitious, highly versatile creative tool that will let PlayStation owners make their own games, movies, and albums. The concept is both incredibly modern and yet also nostalgic.
“I was a Commodore 64 fanatic in the ’80s and I was always a bit disappointed when consoles took over from home computers,” says Healey. “It was great to see the technology leap, but what happened to the keyboards and built-in languages? How was one supposed to make stuff for these new machines? The game industry grew out of bedroom coders making stuff on early computers, and I hope Dreams will rekindle some of that magical time.”
For now, we have the Fortnite Creative mode, with its hundreds of millions of potential users all with different ideas about what creativity is—whether it’s about making an incredible explorable city or a little Marshmello video that only a dad will see.