Koushun Takami's 1999 novel Battle Royale, and later the 2000 film directed by Kinji Fukasaku bearing the same name, made the term 'Battle Royale' popular for the first time 18 years ago. The idea of a group of people being whittled down to just one survivor is nothing new, but here the concept was coined and given a core structure that really resonated; the idea of a game where the prize is your life, where you have to kill everyone you encounter if you're to emerge victorious, but take too long and the environment or your fellow contestants will snuff you out. It's as simple as it is compelling.
Since then we've seen this idea emerge time and time again, in one form or another, like when we saw The Hunger Games hit the big screen. Naturally, video games have been no exception. We've seen plenty of so-called Last Man Standing game modes before, where each round every player has but one life; Counter-Strike, for example, has done very well using this setup over the years. However, the first round of overtly Battle Royale-style games emerged via mods for Arma 2/DayZ back in 2013. Most notably there was one developed by Brendan Greene (remember the name), which itself followed on from another mod for Minecraft which landed back in 2012. While the Arma 2/DayZ mod focused around PvP encounters mixed in with the various dangers already in the world, Minecraft was more family-friendly and involved finding resources and the usual mix of... well, mining and crafting.
Fast-forward to 2015 and Ark: Survival Evolved also decided to launch its own Battle Royale mode - Survival of the Fittest - and this also takes a leaf out of the same book by taking the existing survival elements that characterise the game and adapting them for a mode where players have to kill one another to be the last person standing. H1Z1 was also released at the beginning of 2015, and eventually went on to split into two games, one of which had a Battle Royale focus that saw 150 players whittled down to one. Then there was the 16-player game The Culling which had plenty of neat ideas but lacked the scale that others boasted, and Rust, which had its very own Battle Royale mod (there was even a Battle Royale mod for Garry's Mod). Whether bespoke experiences or mods for existing survival games, the fledgeling genre was picking up pace.
Coming back to Greene, the then-modder adapted his Arma 2 mod for Arma 3 once Bohemia's military shooter threequel was released, but after that he joined the team at Daybreak working on H1Z1, acting as a consultant to continue developing the formula, this time in a more professional setting. It wasn't until his next move when things really took off, though, as he was contacted by Bluehole Studios and took his pseudonym of PlayerUnknown and developed PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds as a standalone game in the genre. And the rest is history, as it was PUBG that really struck a chord with gamers. The question is: why?
"The reason I created Battle Royale in the first place was because I found a lot of the standard shooter games quite boring, especially the competitive games," he said in an interview with PCGamesN. "They were based on small maps, everyone knew every spot on the map, there was no guesswork to it. When I created Battle Royale, what I wanted was to create a random game, where you never knew what you might find and how it was going to end. I think that's what gives it its replayability. It's a different game every time for the players. With PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds you have 18 or 19 weapons, 35 attachments, and an 8x8km map, so it can end in many, many places. I think that's what gives it its replayability. It's why people are playing Arma 3 Battle Royale to this day. It's just got that element of randomness."
An interesting aside. Greene hasn't forgotten his modding roots, and in an interview last year he admitted that he still pays for Arma 3 servers out of his own pocket, "because it's about giving back to the community."
After signing on with Bluehole back in 2016, development on PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds began in earnest, and by March 2017 the game was out in the wild, gathering momentum with amazing speed. In fact, towards the end of last year the game surpassed three million concurrent Steam players: everyone was playing it. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds had taken 2017 by storm, and it left early access in December at the peak of its popularity. In fact, according to SteamSpy stats, PUBG is now outselling even the mighty Minecraft.
After PUBG launched in early access and immediately garnered attention, many games came out to rival it, while existing indie efforts became more popular because of it. Last Man Standing launched just after PUBG on Steam, although it didn't resonate with audiences in quite the same way due to factors like poor optimisation and cheating. Unturned (which released before PUBG) was another game that introduced its own Battle Royale mode, still with the same shrinking zone and emphasis on scavenging for supplies. GTA Online even got in on the action with vehicle-based Motor Wars, requiring players to drop in and find the best vehicles to decimate the opposition before they got taken out themselves.