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It’s no secret that battle royale games are really big right now. Though not by any means the first game of its kind, Brendan Greene’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, aka PUBG, rocketed the genre/game mode into the gaming stratosphere. Then came Epic Games’ Fortnite, throwing its hat into the ring with its own take on the battle royale, spiking further interest. But it’s important to remember that these two titles, while both massively influential and incredibly popular among their audiences and the gaming scene as a whole, are actually not where battle royales got their start. This won’t be a comprehensive history of the genre, but rather more of a quick glance at where it came from and where it’s going.
What makes a battle royale?
If we boil down games like PUBG and Fortnite to their base mechanics (excluding Fortnite’s building mechanic), we have the following elements: gameplay revolves around PvP combat among a massive group of players; the last person or team remaining is the winner; each player has one life; game matches are held on large maps; weapons and loot are scattered around the map and the playable area of the map shrinks over time. Going by the strictest definition, the first two points would be the most crucial aspects of what constitutes a battle royale. That said, I’ll take the other points into account as well since they seem to play a role in defining the battle royale games we see today. By observing these various battle royale components and doing a bit of research, you’ll find that some of these mechanics have been around in video games for a long time.
Where has this been seen before?
Some of these elements can be seen in games even as far back as 2002, which saw the release of Battlefield 1942, the first entry in the Battlefield franchise. If we take a look at 1942’s conquest game mode, we’ll see that game matches were composed of 2 teams of 32 players and took place on expansive maps. They featured 1-life perma-death (that is, once a team was out of respawn “tickets”), with the last team standing crowned the winner. Though 1942 certainly isn’t a “perfect” representation of a modern battle royale game, it definitely mirrors the ones we have today. Conquest has been a staple game mode in every Battlefield game since so in fact the entire franchise in general has roots in the battle royale concept, even though it’s categorised more as an online multiplayer FPS.
But Battlefield wasn’t the only game to contain those base elements of battle royale. Other titles such as Command & Conquer Renegade (2002), the Call of Duty franchise (2003-infinity), Planetside (2003), Renegade X (2009), Planetside 2 (2012), Arma 3 (2013), and Insurgency (2014) all contained a little trace of battle royale in one way or another. This just demonstrates that the mechanics and concepts that make up the battle royale genre have been common gameplay tenants for the last decade or so.
In 2012, the release of the massively popular movie The Hunger Games saw an interesting development in the Minecraft community. Fans of the film decided to make their own version of the Hunger Games in Minecraft, which came to be known as the Survival Games. Much like in the film, a large number of players would start out in cages at the centre of a massive map, and once released from the cages the ultimate aim of the game was to kill other players, survive, and be the last remaining player. Weapons and supplies were located in the centre of the map where all players started and were scattered randomly across the map. You also had but one life so if you died, you were out. The Survival Games were a big hit, particularly on YouTube where it was played by the likes of CaptainSparklez and the Yogscast.
I bring up the Survival Games because, if you notice, the premise is strikingly familiar. PvP combat among a large group of players; the last person alive is crowned the winner; each player has 1 life; matches took place on a large map and maps had randomly scattered loot. Why, that’s a straight-up battle royale! And after all these years the Survival Games are still popular, being held on various Minecraft servers and enjoyed by thousands of players. It’s likely they’re especially “in” right now due to the current battle royale craze.
Also in 2012, we had the arrival of games/mods such as DayZ and MineZ. To me, these titles feel similar to battle royale games and are composed of alike elements. They are distinct in that they don’t feature matches with one clear-cut winner; allow players more than one life and have a much stronger emphasis on long-term survival by introducing food and water meters. I like to place these games in a genre I call “survival royale”.
In DayZ, the player is tasked with surviving in a massive world filled with both zombies and other players, while scavenging for various supplies around the map. There are no game “matches” either; rather, there are persistent instances of the game world held on different servers. Players have more than one life, but everything on their person is lost on death which forces them to begin anew with just the basic starting supplies. MineZ is a special Minecraft server built to emulate DayZ, while also making additions in the form of new items, types of enemies, bosses, and more. Then later on we had games like Rust (2013) and Ark: Survival Evolved (2015) come along which retain certain elements of survival royale. However, they stray further away from that concept with the introduction of resource gathering, crafting, base building, and levelling up (the latter in the case of Ark).
The makings of PUBG and the battle royale trend
Move forward to 2013 and we saw the first seeds of PUBG in the form of PUBG’S Battle Royale, an Arma 2/DayZ mod by the very same Brendan Greene behind PUBG. As an interesting aside, this means that one of the most influential battle royale games actually has roots in a survival royale game. The arrival of PUBR was perhaps one of the first big steps towards the battle royales we have today. Taking inspiration from Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale (later adapted into a film in 2000), Greene sought to create a game that emulated the intense and engaging nature of the Japanese novel/film. Greene hasn’t confirmed this but it’s speculated that the then-recent, The Hunger Games, or Minecraft’s Survival Games had an influence on the creation of PUBR as well.
2015 saw the arrival of H1Z1 and another big step towards modern battle royales. H1Z1 dipped its feet into both the battle royale and survival royale genres, having a game mode for each right from the get-go. The survival mode was similar to DayZ, but much like Rust & Ark, they featured resource gathering, crafting, and base building. Now, the funny thing about H1Z1’s battle royale mode is that Brenden Greene was actually a consultant for that part of the game. So in fact Greene had a hand in two influential titles in the battle royale genre. Then comes the slightly confusing bit when later in its development, H1Z1’s two modes are split off into separate projects. The survival mode was called H1Z1: Just Survive, and the battle mode was called H1Z1: King of the Kill. Then later the two modes were further split off into two completely separate games with another new name for each of them; H1Z1: Just Survive became simply Just Survive, and H1Z1:King of the Kill reverted back to the original title H1Z1. Over time, more studios jumped into the royale mix, and we got games such as The Culling (2016) and Ark: Survival of the Fittest (2016).
The battle royale boom
Then finally in March 2017 came the overwhelming trend towards battle royales, with the arrival of the behemoth itself, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Greene’s standalone version of what was once that Arma 2 mod. This title massively popularised the genre, bringing in a ton of vies on YouTube & Twitch. Unsurprisingly, this prompted countless studios/developers to try their hand at making a royale game to get in on the trend. Such examples include GTA Online’s Motor Wars mode (2017), surviv.io (2017, because of course there’s a .io royale game), and Paladin’s Battlegrounds mode (2018). But of course the most relevant of these titles has to be Epic Games’ Fortnite (2017), which swooped in and became most players’ new go-to iteration of battle royale instead of PUBG, as evidenced by the shift of viewership on Twitch.
How did this happen? Well, although PUBG is popular, it suffers from a number of problems, including the prevalence of hackers, bugs, server issues, optimization issues, and game crashes. The coming of Fortnite likely offered a more enticing, smoother experience to many players, prompting them to migrate over. Fortnite is free-to-play, cross platform, colorful and cartoony, generally bug-free, and also introduces resource gathering and a building mechanic which really helped to set it apart from PUBG. Building can be used for refuge to heal up, as platforms to reach higher ground, or even in the midst of combat to create cover or to out-flank the enemy. It takes skill to master but has deadly potential, and is essential to getting the hang of if you’re looking to come out on top of your battles. Fortnite continues to dominate on Twitch, currently at this very moment the most popular game with 268,474 viewers across all players streaming the game.
New contenders: where will battle royales go next?
Now the question is, which new game will be the one to topple Fortnite and usurp its throne? Similar to Fortnite’s overtaking of PUBG, it will likely have to be a game that offers a unique player experience. This could come in the form of new mechanics; a twist to the rules of the genre; a stunning aesthetic or something that changes the game mode in a way that hasn’t been seen before. We’ve certainly no shortage of new royale games. Recent releases and upcoming titles include Darwin Project, Dying Light: Bad Blood, Islands of Nyne: Battle Royale, Radical Heights, Mavericks: Proving Grounds, Battlefield 5’s battle royale mode, and countless others. According to rumour, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is forgoing a single-player campaign in favour of a battle royale mode as well, which is just speculation, but obviously that would not be surprising.
Just to highlight some of these entries, Darwin Project features a new mechanic wherein one player acts as the Show Director. As the Steam store page puts it: “The Show Director is the living bridge between the players and spectators. He/She is the host and master who controls the arena with nuclear bombs, zone closures, gravity storms, and the power of their voice”. If done right, that could make for greatly different and unpredictable gameplay experiences for the survivors, as well as a fun new role to try and master. The recently released Radical Heights comes with an 80’s art style, and the premise that you’re a contestant in a battle royale game show. Some mechanics it adds include random events that can occur during matches. Money you earn can be collected and stashed away in an ATM for use in a later match to give you an early edge. Along with some other additions, these new mechanics and this drastically different theme could help Radical Heights stand out from the crowd and turn it into something special.
PUBG and Battlefield 5
Coming full circle a little bit from Battlefield 1942, Battlefield 5 will be here this Autumn. Sometime after launch are plans to implement Battlefield 5’s very own battle royale mode, as I mentioned. Depending on how that mode is designed, it could very well oust PUBG. Both are in the “realistic” vein of battle royales, so players looking for that kind of feel and aesthetic may prefer Battlefield over PUBG.
Battlefield 5 could have the level of polish, finish, and non-bugginess that PUBG is lacking at the moment. The ability to destroy terrain in Battlefield games could also make for a great game mechanic in a royale, particularly for combat strategy. This could give it more of an edge over PUBG. Unless PUBG addresses the issues it faces, to me, it feels as though it’s on its way out the door.
Here we are
And that’s roughly where we stand today with battle royales. It has been just over a year since the release of PUBG and about six months since the release of Fortnite’s battle royale mode, and players appear to still love the genre, so perhaps it’s here to stay a while longer. Whether it sticks around for another year or another month, there’s no doubt the impact it has had on the video games industry, and even in some cases the general public (i.e. Ninja & Drake). It will definitely be interesting to see where the genre/game mode goes next. With all these new contenders cropping up, we may even see a shakeup in which game reigns as king. Almost like a battle royale between the battle royales, if you will.