How Epic Games keeps Fortnite online for millions of players

Fortnite is an online phenomenon. The battle royale game, where 100 players are dropped into an arena and the last person standing wins, has amassed 125 million players within 12 months of its launch. At any one time, millions people are playing the game.

Fortnite has grown more than 100 times in the last nine months alone,” Chris Dyl, director of platform from the title’s publisher Epic Games said at the end of July. That takes some serious web infrastructure chops. Downtime, whether caused by surges in player numbers or attempted cyberattacks, can drive players away and stop them from making in-game purchases.

Fortnite is created using Epic’s development engine Unreal, which allows creators to design and code games without starting from nothing. Battle royale competitor PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) also uses the Unreal engine as do hundreds of other titles.

On February 3, Fortnite had its most successful weekend. According to Epic – which hasn’t released more up-to-date figures – there were 3.2 million players online at the same time. The figure ballooned from a peak of 60,000 users which Epic recorded after the July 2017 launch.

“If you have a viral hit on day two you could have ten, one hundred, or a million times more players than you had on day one,” says Ian Massingham, a technical evangelist at Amazon Web Services (AWS). Since launch, Fortnite has been reliant on AWS for staying online. The Amazon division – one of the company’s most profitable – is responsible for hosting websites such as Netflix, Reddit and Airbnb.

Each month Epic deals with two petabytes of data (223,000 DVDs, if the disks are 4.7GB each). This requires a huge amount of server space. Massingham says Fortnite uses AWS’ elasticity to provide more capacity when users spike in numbers. These spikes can be huge. “We have almost ten times difference in games server workloads between high peak and low peak in any particular region,” Epic’s Dyl said in July.

Around the world, AWS has a series of availability zones that are designed to deliver web services that don’t lag. And if one zone fails, another can step in. Fortnite is run on servers in 24 of the 55 availability zones that exist.

But this doesn’t mean that things don’t go wrong. There were six outages of the game when it hit 3.4 million users in February. At the time Epic said it had hit some technical limits in one of the regions it operates and the game went down. Also, if Amazon’s systems suffer from problems Fortnite and other services relying on its tech go down. The major 2016 Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) cyberattack – launched by Minecraft-playing college students running a scam – impacted AWS’ systems.

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In the past, games such as Far Cry 5 and Ghost Recon Wildlands have been the victims of DDoS attacks that have stopped players from getting online. One alleged hacker took to Twitter in April 2018 to claim they had conducted a DDoS attack against Fortnite’s servers but this was never confirmed and the Twitter account no longer exists.

“DDoS attacks pose a massive risk to online games,” says Ben Albon, the lead operations engineer at British games developer Jagex, which creates Runescape. “MMORPGs are much less resilient to outages than other online services like websites and video streaming. When you and your friends are in the middle of a boss fight that you spent hours preparing for, then 30 seconds of disruption can easily be enough to ruin your entire evening.”

There are also issues of lags in game footage that have to be contended with. Lag and latency impacts on all massive online multiplayer games. Massingham adds that in recent years the types of games people play have become more standardised. Previously, the US, Europe and Asia would have had vastly different tastes in games but now they are more global. Jo Twist, the CEO of Ukie, the UK’s games trade body says it is critical to gaming’s success that data is able to freely flow across international borders and the broadband structure is in place to allow people to play at high speeds.

This is more complicated when 100 players are all attempting to move around, walk, shoot and die in the same game zone. “In delivering those multiplayer elements I need infrastructure running in the cloud that enables me to share to state with other players,” Massingham says. “This means that when I shoot my gun in the game you can see a zombine fall down in your copy of the client.”

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YouTuber Battle(non)sense has performed technical tests comparing PUBG and Fortnite. He says Fortnite shows players technical details about their connections whereas its competitor doesn’t. In one update to PUBG its creators changed settings so people play with others who have similar ping rates. Put simply: if your internet connection is slow you’ll be playing against other people with weaker connections. Battle(non)sense also says the servers for both the battle royal games send out more information when there are less than 50 players left from the starting 100.

More than a year after its initial release, Epic Games has just launched Fortnite on Android. The beta was exclusively made available to Samsung customers but will soon expand to handsets from other manufacturers. This means the massively popular game will have the chance to find a new audience. And when it does, keeping it online will get harder.