Can Fortnite Change Physics Engine Without Changing Itself?

By Daniel Lipscombe on at

Some might say very little is happening in the world of Fortnite at the moment – it’s something we’ve touched on recently. Season One is dry now, with minimal content coming from Epic. However, the most recent announcement from the developer offers some hints about what may happen when Season Two finally drops. The second season of the refreshed Fortnite was due to hit platforms February 6th, which was already a delay beyond the 'usual' length of a season. Now the new season will premiere February 20th instead, meaning a wait of… a fortnight.

The main reason for this delay (and perhaps previous delays) seems to be the switch to the new Chaos physics engine. This will be a major change to the game and therefore needs plenty of testing and tweaking. But what will it actually mean for players? Epic says: "At launch, the goal is to ensure that Fortnite still feels like Fortnite. Along the way there will be some bumps, so we're starting tests with a small group of players." You don't need to be a game developer to understand that any change in a game's physics system has the potential to cause all sorts of unforseen problems: it's simply on another scale to 'normal' updates that add content and the like. When the zip-lines were removed recently, my first thought (and admittedly a complete guess) was that it probably has something to do with how they interact within the Chaos system.

The Chaos engine (no, not that one), to quote Epic themselves, is a “new high-performance physics and destruction system” and “can achieve cinematic-quality visuals in real time scenes with massive-scale levels of destruction.” Obviously that's marketing talk, but there are key words to take note of.

Take “destruction” for example: Fortnite centres on environments and building structures from wood, brick and metal, all of which can be destroyed with weapons and pick-axes. When these structures are destroyed currently, they fracture and vanish in a chunky flash. The Chaos engine could change all of that, and in fact could completely change how the materials behave. Not only could materials splinter into randomly-generated chunks, but we could see the ability to chip away at the walls, creating gaps to fire through (which would put more onus on repairing structures in the midst of battle).

Then there's “massive-scale levels of destruction”. Should a player knock down a large user-built structure, the action creates a domino effect, ranging from the destroyed piece and moving outwards. I doubt many players would label this as “massive-scale”, but it’s certainly the largest kind of destruction we would see. A new engine could change how these structures break apart but, really, it’s more likely this aspect will be used in events. Imagine the meteor hitting Dusty Depot but in the Chaos engine. Now the depot could splinter apart, casting pieces across the map creating more of a littered scene. Check out the GIF below for an idea of how this would work in action…

Perhaps we’ll see a new way to harvest materials; if each large chunk of brick which falls from a structure is active/interactive, on the ground, in real-time, what’s to say we can’t pick-axe it? Buildings will be able to crumble into actual rubble, leaving pieces of cover or obstacles for opponents to overcome.

Of course, this is all speculation until we see it in action, but the scope is huge, even if it were only utilised in the events we see at season end. Such changes would not only be monumental but a gamble on Epic’s part: other online games have implemented radical changes before and ruined the game.

The developer is aware of that, even emphasising “the goal is to ensure that Fortnite still feels like Fortnite” which, if one was sceptical (and I am), suggests the changes will be big enough to be noticed by even the most casual player.

Let’s lastly look at the phrase “cinematic-quality visuals”. That’s a big one. I and thousands of others have analysed the shift in Fortnite to becoming a platform for crossovers with cinema. We only need to look back to Christmas and the Star Wars event. The Chaos engine will enable Epic to not only do more on-screen but do it with more detail. It’s unlikely we’ll see a wild shift in the game's aesthetic, but the level of interactivity and environmental detail is sure to increase.

The latest map leak indicates something happening at Steamy Stacks: looks like it might get blown up.

This change has the potential to be a huge positive step, especially as by year-end Fortnite will be running on newer PC hardware and next-gen consoles. It raises certain questions: will a level of detail be an ‘opt in’ for players, by changing the graphical settings? Will mobile devices, aside from the newest iPad, be able to properly run the engine? Pro players will be wanting to know exactly how it will affect their games; will it reduce framerates? The knock-on effect of this change could pose a problem if Fortnite changes its minimum specs, because part of its success is that the game can run on low-end mobile hardware.

Best case scenario? Fortnite takes a step forward in player interactivity, we are able to play essentially the same game, but with more tactics and a higher level of detail. Whatever happens, it'll happen soon enough. Can Epic pull off a change on this scale? Is it less radical than players might be expecting? Is this tech purely intended to glamorise the events the game's already known for? The possibilities are manifold, and the potential is exciting indeed. I'll say this about being a Fortnite player: it's never boring.