Fortnite is a monolith. The sugary third-person shooter, which first blew up at the tail end of 2017 in middle schools around the globe, remains the single most powerful pop-cultural force in the games industry. Its publisher, Epic, has spearheaded all sorts of unprecedented transmedia collaborations, stuff that seemed impossible in the PlayStation 1 and Nintendo 64 days. Ariana Grande hosted a psychedelic concert in Fortnite, as did Travis Scott a year earlier. In 2018, players could grab the Infinity Gauntlet and transform into Thanos; Epic added lightsabers in early 2020, during the Rise of Skywalker rollout. It is perhaps the only video game on the market capable of dictating its own collaborations with pop stars, mega-influencers, and multibillion-dollar media franchises, but that’s only if Epic wants to make a deal. The company can also just snatch up someone else’s idea without any licensing agreements or royalty payouts. Innersloth, the indie team behind the massive Twitch hit Among Us, just learned that the hard way.
Look, this is some outrageously niche gamer drama, but I’ll try to break it down as best as possible. Basically, Epic unveiled a new game mode in Fortnite that the company is calling “Impostors.” The premise is simple. A small handful of players are ported into a subterranean base on a desert island. Those players work together, completing menial tasks to keep everything up and running, while one or two of them are cast as surreptitious double agents who assassinate those oblivious crewmates. The moles win if they successfully wipe out the loyalists, and the crewmates win if they manage to identify and rat out the duplicitous actors in their midst.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because Among Us is effectively the exact same game. “Impostors” gratuitously pilfers Among Us’s theme, map layout, and even some of its terminology. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible to charitably interpret what Fortnite is cooking up here. It’s clear that Epic saw the incredible success of one of its prime competitors and decided to add a carbon copy of that design to its overflowing inventory.
Among Us was initially developed by exactly three people, and Innersloth remains a fully independent shop. Given the power dynamics at play, it’s no surprise that the Innersloth team made it clear over the past 24 hours that it doesn’t appreciate Epic’s snakish behavior. “It would’ve been really, really cool to collab. Just sad indie hours rn,” wrote Victoria Tran, Among Us’s community director. “Like game mechanics fine, those shouldn’t be gatekept, but at the very least even different themes or terminology makes things more interesting?”
Tran followed up in a separate tweet, noting that this incident underscored her other dispiriting experiences as a minority in the tech space, describing the feeling as “powerless” and, more saliently, “lol what’s the point anymore.”
Tran wasn’t the only one to weigh in. Amy Liu, the primary artist behind Among Us, expressed her feelings with a GIF of Tituss Burgess staring at a computer incredulously. Lead designer Marcus Bromander got to the heart of the matter when he mentioned that Innersloth didn’t patent Among Us’s ideas because he didn’t believe that kind of territorialism added up into a “healthy” games ecosystem. “Is it really that hard to put 10 percent more effort into putting your own spin on it though?” he concluded. “At the end of the day, I’m just gonna keep making the games I wanna make. Everything else is just noise.”
Bromander is orbiting an ugly truth here. Game development is an intensely derivative industry. Even Among Us itself cannot claim complete authorship over its components; it has clear ties to Werewolf, Mafia, and countless other tabletop bluffing games that have been played in dorm rooms since time immemorial. I don’t believe Epic or Innersloth would want an economy in which studios are constantly tied up in murky legal waters whenever they crib a smart innovation from a different office, but there is something especially unseemly about Fortnite’s brazenness and lack of ingenuity. “Impostors” doesn’t appear to be anything more than a straight-up hijacking. Like Tran said earlier, couldn’t they have just made a deal?
This also isn’t the first time Epic has feasted on someone else’s success. I mean, Fortnite’s “Battle Royale” mode, the flagship product that took the game beyond the stratosphere, was thrown together in the model of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds — which was the game that first introduced the general public to the battle-royale genre about six months prior. (That provoked a lawsuit.) In 2019, a swath of celebrities, TikTokers, and influencers issued legal complaints against Epic because the company was liberally copying their dance choreographies and selling them as emotes to Fortnite players.
Can you patent a dance? Should game developers be forced to pay homage to their inspirations? Those queries are only becoming more pertinent as independent creators build huge audiences without the requisite fleet of lawyers to protect them once the vultures start swarming. That infrastructure simply doesn’t exist yet, and the corporate institutions at the top of the food chain continue to capitalize on the inefficiency. After all of its recent triumphs, Epic is a company that is now worth nearly $30 billion. It will hear you out, but only on its own terms.