How Fortnite supports 350 million users on AWS

By John Payne from Computecoin

Fortnite is perhaps the world’s most popular metaverse platform

With 350 million registered accounts in May 2020, the free-to-play battle royale game simply must have access to a reliable and heavy-duty pipeline of computing power. Epic Games chose AWS, a third-party cloud service, to deliver Fortnite to players around the world and host live concerts for millions. The journey hasn’t been all smooth sailing, though — lag remains an issue and huge virtual concerts are only possible through a technique called sharding.

Fortnite, in the unlikely event you’re not already familiar with it, is a massively popular, online player-versus-player game made by Epic Games. The battle royale game pits 100 players against each other on an island whose playable area shrinks over the course of the game. This intensifies competition between players to be the last one standing — the skilled fighter who earns the accolade “Victory Royale.” Players can collect materials with which to construct defensive walls and other structures, or to build towers and platforms that give them an offensive edge.

Fortnite is free to play, but players commonly make in-game purchases to buy upgrades for their characters, like outfits and hang gliders. In fact, although Fortnite is ostensibly free, in 2019, the average Fortnite player in the U.S. spent 82 US dollars in the game on downloadable content (DLC), like skins.​​

Players can purchase DLC, like skins, using V-Bucks, Fortnite’s in-game currency.

Fortnite has flourished; the game became a cultural emblem practically overnight. By June 2018, less than one year after the game’s release, Fortnite had amassed 125 million players and been downloaded 78 million times. By May 2020, 350 million people could be counted as Fortnite players. Fortnite is a burgeoning testament to the appeal of metaverse experiences, particularly among gamers from the younger, digitally native generation (18- to 24-year-olds represent over 60 percent of Fortnite players).

Epic delivers Fortnite to its teeming community of players “nearly entirely” through AWS, specifically the cloud service’s “worldwide game-server fleet, backend services, databases, websites, and analytics pipeline and processing systems.”

Fortnite is powered by AWS

AWS enables Epic to handle huge surges in usage during peak times, when usage can exceed 10 times that of non-peak periods. Moreover, by relying on AWS, Fortnite has the wherewithal to handle events to which the game’s hundreds of million users have all been invited.

Fortnite usage can surge by more than 1,000% during peak times.

Chris Dyl, Director of Platform at Epic Games, emphasized the importance of scalability at the AWS Summit in New York in July 2018: “AWS’s scalability,” Dyl said, “has been instrumental in keeping pace with our rocketing player populations.” Dyl expressed that Epic decided to “go all-in” with AWS because the service could render Fortnite capable of delivering a “quality gaming experience” to an enormous volume of players from every corner the globe — and synchronously, at that. For example, in 2020, Fortnite hosted a concert by rapper Travis Scott, which was attended by more than 12 million people, albeit in clusters of 50 or so players, called shards. Thus, the concert was simultaneously broadcast to audiences in each shard, allowing them to witness the spectacle as one. Nevertheless, Epic was not able to actually gather the concert’s 12 million viewers in one virtual space, all at once. The most players fit “on a continuous single shard” was 30,000, a miraculous feat pulled off by the engineers behind Dual Universe, a sandbox game. Indeed, cramming 12 million users on one shard represents a quantum leap from doing the same with 30,000, one that would doubtless require many times more computing power.

Raw computing power aside, Epic also leverages AWS’s “analytics, machine learning, and containers” to enhance players’ experiences on Fortnite and to better maintain the company’s infrastructure. Additionally, developers on Epic’s Unreal engine can also use AWS to run their own games.

Fortnite may be built on Amazon’s behemoth cloud service, but the game is not impervious to issues, especially lag and server outages. In early 2020, many Fortnite players found themselves confined to the liminal space of the game’s loading screen, effectively barred from entering the Fortnite Battle Royale. Players complained about stuttering, latency, lost frames, and other lag problems on an Nvidia forum in 2019. Two years earlier, in 2017, Fortnite’s inaugural year, Epic Games tweeted about a recent outage: “Epic Games servers run off of AWS, so when they go down, we go down.” (2017) A 2020 drive led by Fortnite players based in Africa to convince Epic to establish local servers in the continent was unsuccessful; AWS lacked support for Elastic Kubernetes Service in Africa, which, it seemed, is necessary for Fortnite’s servers. Finally, in response to April 2021 outages, Epic announced it was planning on “future-proofing” the game against server malfunctions by monitoring Fortnite’s status with AWS’ Config tool.

Metaverse platforms with audiences as enormous as Fortnite’s need all the computing power they can get. Major third-party cloud services like AWS may serve the needs of firms with deep pockets like Epic Games, but could still leave more to be desired if and when Fortnite usage increases by another hundred million, and particularly in the era of gigantic virtual concerts and other live experiences.