When Travis Scott performed a virtual concert inside the battle royale game Fortnite in April 2020, it drew 12.3 million concurrent players at its peak — the largest in-game gathering in Fortnite history. But despite this pull, “music has always been a little bit of a one-off” for us, says Nate Nanzer, vp of partnerships for Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite.
“We’ve done a concert here, and then a year-and-a-half later there’s another one. We haven’t had a persistent space to celebrate music before.”
This changed Saturday (Dec. 8), as the company rolled out Fortnite Festival, a music-focused game made in collaboration with Harmonix, the developer behind titles like Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Players can create a band with friends — or forge ahead solo — and perform hits on a variety of virtual instruments.
“For almost 30 years now, we have been trying to invent new ways for people to experience music through gameplay,” says Alex Rigopolous, co-founder and studio lead of Harmonix. “We never had an opportunity to do that on anything like the insane scale that Fortnite offers.”
Epic Games previously dabbled in music by purchasing the platform Bandcamp in 2022, but the partnership proved short-lived. In September, Epic announced that it was laying off 16% of its staff and that the licensing company Songtradr was acquiring Bandcamp in September. (Layoffs hit Bandcamp as well.)
“While Fortnite is starting to grow again, the growth is driven primarily by creator content with significant revenue sharing, and this is a lower margin business than we had when Fornite Battle Royale took off,” Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney wrote in an email to staff.
Fortnite is known for unbridled mayhem: Up to 100 players fight to death on an island, with the goal of being the last one standing. Rigopolous believes the game’s new music component may attract new users who steered clear in the past.
“Not everyone on Earth is interested in a battle royale game,” he says. In contrast, “basically everyone on Earth loves music.”
Fortnite Festival players will initially be able to drum, strum, or sing along with more than 30 songs, including the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” the Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” and Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” Players form a team, pick their track of choice, and choose an instrument — in addition to the usual suspects like guitar and percussion, they can select vocals, bass, keytar, and more. Once they’re transported to the stage to perform, game play may remind some users of Guitar Hero, with brightly lit notes zipping towards the user indicating what button they’re supposed to press on their keyboard or console.
Epic Games’ goal is eventually to have “hundreds” of songs available to play in Fortnite Festival, according to Nanzer.
“There will be a rotation of songs that anyone can play for free,” he explains. “If there’s a song you really like and want to be able to play whenever you want, you can go buy that song” to retain access to it. Nanzer says “music rights holders will share in the revenue from sales of music in the game.”
These tracks — “Blinding Lights,” “Mr. Brightside,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” — are already massive, billion-stream hits. “Most of the music in the game is going to be huge hit music, household names,” Rigopolous acknowledges. But the hope, in time, is to introduce music from “lesser known artists who are cool and people should hear.”
“We have lots of pitches already from our label partners,” Nanzer adds. “We really want this to become a real opportunity for [the music industry] to reach this audience in a way that they’ve never been able to reach them before.”