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Fortnite is beating PUBG in a battle royale. Here's why

Commentary: When Epic's battle royale-style game launched, PUBG purists called it a rip-off. Copycat or not, Fortnite has since done (almost) everything right to keep players coming.

And so it begins.
Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds brought battle royale games into the mainstream, but in just a few months, Fortnite has taken over. It's passed PUBG's player count. It's the most-watched game on Twitch, doubling PUBG's viewership. At the beginning of 2018, search interest for Fortnite skyrocketed and hasn't fallen back since. And now, it's made the leap from PCs and consoles to iPhones.

For those who don't know Fortnite's tumultuous seven-year history, it was initially just a PVE shooter letting four players build constructs and blow up zombies. But when the developers at Epic decided to release a free battle royale game mode to get more players on board, PUBG's developer, Bluehole, voiced concerns about whether Fortnite is nothing more than a brazen rip-off.

Fortnite's cartoonish art style and building mechanics were certainly different, but many PUBG players were still fuming.

Either way, the public has spoken, and Fortnite is now leading a genre that's taking the gaming industry by storm. Both are still wildly successful, but a few key features have launched Fortnite past being a mere success and into becoming a phenomenon.

Once on the ground, search for weapons and other gear.

Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

It's free

You simply can't beat zero cost to entry. Even as a PUBG megafan, you'd still download a free game to check it out. PUBG currently costs $29.99, which is good for a top-tier game, but can't compete with something that's absolutely free. This is certainly the single biggest reason for why Fortnite is getting downloaded, but it's not the only one.

It's on PC, consoles and mobile (right now!)

You could originally play Fortnite on PC, Xbox One and PS4. PUBG currently only works on PC and Xbox One, and the Xbox version, while serviceable, still needs a lot of work.

It's also important to note that in a recent update, Epic Games announced (and delivered) a 60fps upgrade to Fortnite's graphics, and it doesn't even require the more high-powered PS4 Pro or Xbox One consoles; it's an enormous improvement on just the base models of those consoles, and it looks damn good.

Epic opened registration for iOS users to get a complete version of the game -- the same version on consoles and PC -- and starting March 15, a select batch of registrants were able to get immediate access to the title. Stay tuned for our first impressions of Fortnite on iOS. It's not yet available for Android, but Epic says that's coming in the next few months. 

As the storm closes in, keep moving, but watch out for enemies.

Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

The high-energy, high-output development team

Aside from being free, this might be the most important ingredient in Fortnite's popularity. Nearly every week there is something new, whether it's a new area added to the map, seasonal events with new ways to find loot, or new items and guns to get people excited to play.

I can think of weapon additions over the last several weeks like the silenced pistol, the silenced submachine gun, the hand cannon, a minigun and -- the latest -- a hunting rifle. Every one of these additions means you head into a game hoping to get one of the new guns. It's simply a great way to keep players interested and waiting for the next new thing that keeps the game exciting.

Epic is constantly streamlining and working on Fortnite. In addition to all the towns and areas we had before, Epic added Junk Junction, Haunted Hills, Snobby Shores, Shifty Shafts, Tilting Towers and -- most recently -- Lucky Landings, a celebration of Chinese New Year with a village full of Asian-themed architecture and decorations. That's not to mention countless smaller unnamed landing areas that weren't there before like the broken-down motel, a sporting facility with a soccer field and other clumps of buildings that give you tons of new places to loot.

See this environment? So nice, so inviting.

Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

A couple of weeks ago Epic hyped the imminent release of jet packs, but at the last minute switched in the hunting rifle. To be fair, I don't know how jet packs in the game might work or if they'll be too over-powered, but does that really matter to the average gamer? I mean, THEY'RE JET PACKS. OF COURSE I WANT ONE. This is how you keep players coming back for more.

In-app purchases, done right

As a free game, Epic has to make its money somewhere and it does so through in-app purchases. There is no option to buy your way to a "Victory Royale," thankfully, but you can buy tons of cool-looking outfits for your character along with ornately designed gliders for when you come in for a landing and more dance moves than you can shake a pick at. Not only that, but each of the outfits, emotes, pickax variations and dance moves are all really high-quality. You can abstain from buying anything at all, of course, because none of it will give you any sort of advantage in the game. Full disclosure: I just spent real money this past weekend to get a totally useless dance move because it looks amazing. In other words, selling cosmetic items works.

In this way, the company is sticking to the honorable system of making money strictly through cosmetic items instead of much-hated pay-to-win schemes. As I said a long time ago, this is how you do free-to-play.

This rainbow jet stream lets you land with style.

Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

Fortnite's just more accessible

Part of the reason why fans like PUBG is its realism. It's darker and grittier and looks much more true-to-life than Fortnite. But that's also a reason some pass on it -- PUBG is much more intimidating. 

Fortnite's whimsical art style is reminiscent of Team Fortress 2 or Overwatch. When you start the game for the first time, you're greeted with brightly colored landscapes, cartoonish characters and guns that have that hand-drawn look. It's friendlier and sucks you into the gameplay without being too scary. In PUBG, your mindset might be, "How long will I survive this time?" In Fortnite it's, "Wow, this looks like it's going to be fun!"

In both games, hiding in a bush is always a valid tactic.

Screenshot by Jason Parker/CNET

But... they're still both great games

In the end, both Fortnite and PUBG have their own pros and cons. Nobody would blame you for favoring one over the other. To its advantage, PUBG has two maps to Fortnite's one, and each of those is quite a lot bigger than Fortnite's offering. There are also more weapons and weapon mods in PUBG, letting you customize your character way more than you can in Fortnite. In these ways, PUBG appears to be the more serious offering, and I can see why people defend it. 

But if you want to know why the cuter, sillier game is winning the war in the big battle royale showdown, you need only watch as the Fortnite updates keep rolling in. There's always a new weapon to try and a new place to land, giving you more reasons to keep coming back. 

And don't forget the dance moves that -- while totally useless in the game -- you'll pay to have simply because they look amazing.

First published March 13, 10:56 a.m. PT

Update March 15, 3:08 p.m.: Adds update on Fortnite's iOS version.