We take a look at the origins and appeal of this new brand of online experience.
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.
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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."
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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.
The game that's arguably caught the eye of the Battle Royale community most (if we ignore PUBG), is Epic Games' Fortnite with its Battle Royale mode, not least of all because there was plenty of controversy surrounding its release. At the time of its release, Bluehole was considering legal action against Epic Games, and the company's Chang Han Kim went as far as to say that "we are concerned that Fortnite may be replicating the experience for which PUBG is known."
Kim wasn't wrong either, despite clarifying that their dissatisfaction was with the fact they had licensed the use of Unreal Engine 4 and worked with Epic Games on PUBG. Fortnite had plenty in common with Epic's take on the formula, whether that be the dropping in from above, the shrinking area of play, a large open map, or the ability to play either alone or in squads/duos. With Battle Royale being free for all as well, it's no wonder that the game quickly amassed its own large following.
It's important to note, though, that Fortnite also did a lot to separate itself from the competition. For instance, the core of Fortnite is about building, and BR is no different, as players can build structures either to navigate around or defend themselves. Enter any game right now and it's guaranteed you'll find a big tower where people have locked themselves in towards the end of the game - it's just the done thing. There's also a slightly more accessible approach with Fortnite too, as matches last half the time and the circle of play gets smaller faster, meaning you can have more bitesize experiences that are focused on encounters within the smaller map rather than wandering the vast expanses of PUBG's maps.
Now that Fortnite and PUBG both have loyal followings, the question remains as to why the Battle Royale genre, and PUBG in particular, has taken off so well. Its success is "rooted in several factors," Twitch's Jason Maestas, senior director of partnerships in North America, told NYMag. "The fanbase was already in place [due to mods in the past, but] their team has done a phenomenal job of getting the game into the hands of many of popular Twitch content creators."
And streaming is indeed a big part of what makes these games so popular: people love to watch the action unfold. The tense moments that come from being in a last-man-standing situation and the high stakes of the genre make it perfect for edge-of-your-seat action, not to mention the usual mixture of trickshots and amazing moments that come with gaming online. That's in part why PUBG's young esports scene is growing as well, with tournaments like IEM Oakland and Gamescom Invitational already demonstrating that there is an audience to watch it played professionally as well as casually.
With more games like Paladins: Champions of the Realm getting these kinds of modes (that particular game doesn't even hide its influences, the mode is simply called 'Battlegrounds') it doesn't seem like the hype train is slowing down anytime soon, and in fact it may be a case of asking where can it go next?
We already know that esports for the genre is in its infancy, but there's no end to the possibilities of who can capitalise on the success. Might, for example, established games like Overwatch, Call of Duty, Battlefield, or even Halo adopt similar modes in the future? Given the relative ease of creating such a game type within an existing title, coupled with the popularity of the sub-genre, it'd almost be foolish for the creators of the aforementioned games not to at the very least investigate their options.
There's also the mobile space to consider. As you'd probably expect there are already a number of clones available on iOS and Android devices, and PUBG's creators are also working on a handheld version of the game because why wouldn't they? So whether it be handheld gaming, PC or console adaptations of the core concept, or the growing esports scene building around PUBG in particular, the appetite is most certainly there, and we can't imagine it's going to dissipate anytime soon. Everyone wants a slice of this extremely popular pie, and while PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds certainly looks like it's going to be the last game standing in this particular battle, just like the genre it headlines, anything can and will happen.