At the start of the year, one of the biggest questions in gaming was undoubtedly: “Who is going to win the battle of the royales between Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds?” After a brief period of parity, we now have our winner.

Over the last few months Fortnite has been attracting 40 million players and generating $300 million in revenue each month — overtaking PUBG for both income and player count across every platform. Conversely, PUBG has struggled to roll out content, fixes, and updates quickly enough, which has seen player numbers fall by 50 percent since January.

However, with both games featuring core gameplay so similar that the lawyers got called in to spot the difference, how did things go so right for Fortnite?  The answer lies firmly in how both games approached monetization, with Epic’s free-to-play stance and content-driven monetization strategy proving to be the difference.

How it works

Looking at the monetization strategies of both games, it’s clear that PUBG has been far too cautious in its use of microtransactions in a bid to maintain a harmonious player experience. However, it’s a gamble that in my opinion has badly backfired.

With PUBG operating a fairly traditional pricing structure — an initial $30 cost — and approach to monetization, players have no other incentive or opportunity to monetize aside from a very minor loot box mechanic. This approach may have worked in a Fortnite-free world but while Fortnite players are treated to a constant carousel of new in-game content, PUBG players have been left feeling like they’re missing out.

In contrast, Fortnite is free-to-play and instead makes its money from its enormous in-game store where players can buy a weird and wonderful range of cosmetic items.

Fortnite also feels very fair. “V-bucks” are the sole in-game currency and can be used to purchase Battle Passes and items from the in-game store. Players make a single real money transaction and can purchase multiple items before being faced with the option to monetize again. The purchase process is smooth, transparent and feels good. If a player feels good about their purchase they are much more likely to spend again.

Every player begins each season as a nonpayer with two character progression tracks ahead of them, one silver (F2P) and one gold (paid). Silver players earn rewards once every few tiers, and gold players earn a variety of rewards at every single progression point. This means that, as players earn their way to tier 100 through kills and challenges, they are constantly reminded of what leveling up means for members of either track. Choosing to purchase a Battle Pass at $9.50 puts players instantly onto the gold track and gifts them all the items that they would have earned so far as a paying player from Day 1.

This system is ingenious because the desire to monetize only gets stronger and the decision easier with every level surpassed — a F2P player at tier 10 will receive more items instantly upon buying a Battle Pass than one at tier 5. Players unwilling to do the legwork can shell out roughly $1.50 per tier or $28 for a Battle Bundle that grants them all of the forthcoming season’s items immediately. Shortcut “pay-to-win” mechanics like these are usually hugely unpopular among gamers because they give spenders unfair advantage, but all the items available for purchase in Fortnite are entirely cosmetic. Paying players aren’t indestructible kill machines alienating the wider player base, they’re the most effective in-game ads you’ve ever seen. Could you honestly watch a leprechaun zoom by on a missile without wanting to splash out on the same flash gear?

Expectation vs. excitement

The mood among PUBG players is turning sour online as the game’s development team struggle to fix bugs and release updates quickly enough for their fans. The game’s once impressive rating is slowly declining due to increasingly negative reviews, and its Steam page is littered with complaints. In the players’ eyes, their initial purchase and subsequent playtime is what earns them new content. Any of PUBG Corporation’s attempts to monetize their players further are met by furious outcry but, unfortunately, 80 hours and 1,000 kills don’t pay the bills. The game’s developers are under immense pressure to provide content that rivals the output of Epic Games — they just have to do it with a fraction of the personnel and budget.

Over in the Fortnite camp, there’s none of the that grumbling reluctance — the loudest voices online around Fortnite belong to players either climbing the walls in anticipation of the next Battle Pass or those giddy in a postrelease haze of opportunity. Three Battle Passes cost more than a PUBG licence and there’s a new one every 2-3 months, with sales increasing exponentially each time.

Conclusion

While monetization mechanics are rarely entirely original these days, success really boils down to how well these mechanics are adapted and implemented into your game.

For example, the battle pass in Fortnite is heavily influenced from MOBA F2P juggernaut Dota 2, a game which is also teeming with content, while featuring other interesting monetization mechanics such as “Plus Rewards” (a recurring subscription based VIP type system) and Battle Cup tickets (a weekly buy-in competition).

Ultimately, PC/Console led games are learning the same lesson the mobile F2P games already know well; that monetization must be a core part of the game experience and not tacked on later. This principle has been at the heart of the massive increase in collection based games, starting with Clash Royale and including other top titles like Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes and Marvel Contest of Champions. While these games use gacha elements, similar to PUBG, they were the first part of the game developed, not the last, and hence feel natural and well polished.

Fortnite’s lead over PUBG illustrates how a well crafted monetization model makes players crave content while the wrong one can leave them feeling that they’re owed it.

By establishing the reciprocal player-publisher relationship from the start and revolutionizing the established F2P model, Epic Games has managed to keep their players happy and eager to spend hard currency. The beauty is you that don’t have to monetize in Fortnite but you just really, really want to, which truly is F2P perfection.

Mark Robinson is CEO of deep data analytics and real-time player marketing platform DeltaDNA, based in San Francisco and Edinburgh.