The Memo: The Fortnite Fortune: How the game got in trouble for its 'misleading' marketing practices

Group 723.png

The Fortnite Fortune: How the game got in trouble for its 'misleading' marketing practices

Chelsey Stanborough - 20 May 2024

Since its release back in 2017, Fortnite (created by Epic Games) has risen in popularity, offering players the chance to battle royale 99 other players to be the last man standing. Despite having no specific target audience, Fortnite quickly became appealing to a younger audience due to its cartoon appearance and accessibility, as it’s free to play across a variety of platforms. 

So, how does the game make money? Microtransactions are used for cosmetic purchases such as outfits, weapons and accessories, and Battle Passes, which rotate every season with new characters and cosmetics. These purchases are made using in-game currency, which is purchased with real life moneyAt the time of writing, one British pound equals 143.06 V-Bucks (Fortnite’s in-game currency). 

However, in the Netherlands, there has been an uproar over the game’s marketing tactics, specifically regarding its young audience. The game uses countdown timers with phrases such as ‘get it now’ or ‘buy it now’ for exclusive products that can be purchased in-game. The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) identified these methods as “illegal aggressive commercial practice under all circumstances.” The ACM also claimed that these methods are misleading as, despite the time constraints presented, the items don't become unavailable once the time runs out. So, for the sake of children’s safety, the ACM has argued that that these methods should be removed. The result means that, from May 2024, players under the age of 18 will not be able to see or purchase items that are in the games shop for under 48 hours. 

We have seen concerns over purchase methods in previous cases over the years from the Netherlands and Belgium. Both countries have banned the use of loot boxes, a randomly selected item purchased in-game using real money or credits. For example, back in 2018, the Belgium Gaming Commission investigated four games with these types of purchases: FIFA 18;Counter-Strike: Global Offensive; Overwatch; and Star Wars Battlefront IIthe only one found not to be in violation of the law. Publishers who fail to comply will receive a fine of €800,000 and up to five years in prison, with this doubling if the breach affects young children. Since the introduction of the law, games such as Diablo Immortal and Fortnite must navigate the path of in-game purchases whilst trying to keep vulnerable players safe from purchase pressure. 

Here in the UK, the government considered regulating loot boxes in line with the Gambling Act 2005but, against the advice of academics, ultimately decided against formalising it. Instead, the government wanted to restrict purchasing to adults only, meaning a child would need approval from a parent or guardian. However, even with growing debates around the relationship between such purchases and gambling, we are still seeing a rise in new games that appeal to children while advertising microtransactions to enhance gameplay. In correlation with this, the worry of parents, carers and industry experts continue amidst calls for the UK to hold gaming companies criminally responsible for children’s online experiences, just as Belgium and the Netherlands have done.