Fortnite claims that their item shop is “cosmetic only.” But is it really pay-to-win?

19:00, 22 May 2020

Fortnite prides itself on inclusivity. Epic Games has made this clear on many occasions. In one blog post, they directly stated, “the mission of Fortnite is to bring players of all skill levels together to have a fun experience where anyone can win.”

For that mission to be possible, the game must be fair. Everyone should have the same chance to win. Fortnite has done a good job of making that goal reality — for the most part. In other games, players receive upgrades and in-game advantages based on experience and time played. Take Call of Duty and Warzone for example. Brand new players can only choose from a few of the weapons/perks and do not have access to the Create-A-Class system. Meanwhile, advanced players can build an ideal setup fit for their playstyle and loaded with attachments and equipment unavailable to new players. Other games take this even farther. Star Wars: Battlefront 2 for example, infamously rewarded players that spent money on microtransactions with better weapons and gear. This kind of system is commonly referred to as “pay-to-win”.

One of the appeals to Fortnite is its lack of a pay-to-win system. A brand new player is on the exact same playing field as a player with 10,000 games played. There is no discrepancy in weapon power or health pool based on time played or money invested. The winner is decided by strategy and skill, not by the size of their wallet.

However, there is one place in the Fortnite universe where this “anyone can win” mission comes into question. That place is the Fortnite item shop.

On the surface, the item shop is an innocent addition to the game. Fortnite is a free-to-play game. To monetize the game, a cosmetic only item shop was added. Here, players can purchase character skins, pickaxes, gliders, emotes and more.

Upon entering the item shop, players are greeted with a note stating, “these items are cosmetic only and grant no competitive advantage.” Throughout Fortnite’s history, this statement has — for the most part — held true. However, on more than one occasion there have been items released that bring the “cosmetic only” claim into question. Let’s take a look at some of Fortnite’s notorious pay-to-win cosmetics.
 

Flippin’ Sexy Emote

Flippin’ Sexy was one of the first cosmetics released into the game that had players questioning its pay-to-win nature. The emote has the player perform a backflip and then lie down on their side. Not only does this completely alter the player’s hitbox, but it also allows them to hide in some unsuspecting places — such as a bathtub. After watching a few clips of this emote in action, one may deduce that it does actually offer a competitive advantage, albeit a minor one.

The Flippin’ Sexy emote can be used in this fashion still today. Epic Games decided the emote offered an insignificant advantage at best. The same can not be said for many of the other items on this list.
 

Plastic Patroller and Toy Trooper

Fortnite Pay to Win
Image via Reddit u/CamiCam95

In an ode to the old army figures we used to play with as children, Fortnite released the Plastic Patroller and Toy Trooper skins. The resemblance turned out to be too true to life. In an effort to create a perfect replica, Epic Games effectively introduced a pay-to-win skin. The army green coated skin allowed players an unprecedented level of camouflage. The skin appeared invisible while hiding in the plentiful foliage around the map.

Epic Games quickly put a stop to the pay-to-win advantage. They introduced mud smears, wear and tear and a brighter outline to the skin in the next patch. Additionally, Epic Games provided a free refund token for players who may have purchased the skin based on its previous appearance.
 

Star Wand and AC/DC Pickaxes

Players discovered quite the unusual glitch following a routine Fortnite patch. The Star Wand and AC/DC pickaxes were inflicting enhanced damage on players and buildings/materials. The Star Wand, in particular, was able to two-shot players, dealing 56 damage a hit compared to the standard 20. This meant that players wielding either of these two pickaxes held a massive competitive advantage.

In typical Fortnite fashion, Epic Games was quick to respond. Within a day, they had removed both pickaxes from the game until they could implement a fix.
 

Deep Dab Emote

Prior to the Deep Dab, Fortnite had released a few different emotes that provided questionable competitive advantages. The Deep Dab was the first one to actually draw action from Epic Games.

Following its release, players began using the Deep Dab emote to dodge shots and surprise enemy players. Players could slide under a window for example, and pop up on the other side unnoticed. An action like this is impossible under normal circumstances.

Fortnite players took to Twitter and the FortniteBR subreddit to voice their complaints about the Deep Dab’s pay-to-win nature. As a result, the emote received a nerf, but only after the release of videos demonstrating the exploit became public. The nerf added a delay following the use of the emote where players could not shoot. Unlike in the case of the army toy skins, disgruntled players were not offered a refund.
 

Dragacorn Glider (Deadpool Glider)

The Dragacorn Glider has been a hot topic in the competitive community. While spectating pro scrims, Cash Cups and FNCS matches, it became apparent that the majority of players were all running this Deadpool themed glider. Why would pro players all be using this colourful and obtrusive glider?

Well, the answer is that it was providing a competitive advantage. When deployed, the Dragacorn glider flips and contorts the player model, making the user extremely difficult to shoot out of the air. On top of that, the player surfs above the glider rather than hanging from below as seen with traditional gliders. One famous clip shows Fortnite star, Scoped, specifically ignoring players with this glider and targeting those without it.

After much debate within the community, Epic Games took a stance. They removed the glider from competitive play while they work on a fix. However, the glider is still available in casual modes. Despite Epic Games essentially admitting the glider is pay-to-win, they are still allowing players to use it in the normal playlists. This decision by Epic Games brings into question their mission and the claim that item shop items give no competitive advantage.
 

Riot Control Baton

In the same week as the Dragacorn glider controversy, another pay-to-win item made an appearance. Multiple pro players discovered that when wielding this pickaxe, the user's footsteps were made silent to enemy players. As one would suspect, this is an enormous unfair advantage. EU Fortnite superstar, Dmitri ‘Mitr0’ Van de Vrie, used the Riot Control Baton and placed 1st in a Cash Cup the same day this exploit became public.

Mitr0 was not shy about it either. Following his victory, he tweeted out, “imagine not buying a pay to win pickaxe.”

Epic Games swiftly removed the pickaxe from the game. This time, in all playlists. No action was taken against Mitr0 or the other abusers — nor were their Cash Cup results disqualified.

Despite claiming that the item shop is “cosmetic only”, Fortnite developers have been less than careful in introducing cosmetics with questionable competitive advantages. Sometimes the advantage was the result of an oversight or a bug. Other times, the advantage was built into the item and only addressed after heavy abuse from the playerbase. Regardless, Epic Games has been quick to confront and hotfix the issue.

In the end, Fortnite has a history of walking the line between items being “cosmetic only” and offering significant in-game advantages. An archive of incidents such as these does little to support their mission of “a fun experience where anyone can win.” Epic Games has done its best to briskly address each issue, but at times, the Fortnite item shop has certainly offered competitive advantages to players willing to spend the money.

 

Images via Epic Games and Reddit u/CamiCam95

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