Battle Royale Games Explained: PUBG, Fortnite, And What Could Be The Next Big Hit

With the rapid and tremendous success of Fortnite and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, other developers plan to jump into the battle royale craze to find their next big hit. Bringing together dozens of players into an intense fight to determine who’s number one, it’s steadily become one of the hottest game modes in some time–with both PUBG and Fortnite having comfortable spots on Twitch’s top streamed games. But as the sub-genre continues to make strides with online communities, with even celebrities joining in on the fun, many are wondering where the burgeoning game-mode can go from here.

In order to understand where the battle royale arms race is going next, it’s important to start back from the beginning of the trend. To break down how we got to this point–from its early days as a player mod paying homage to popular films, to the juggernaut that it is today–here’s our explainer on all thing battle royale, and what could be next for players.

What Is Battle Royale?

Battle Royale (2000) -- Takeshi Kitano explains 'BR' to the class.
Battle Royale (2000) — Takeshi Kitano explains ‘BR’ to the class.

To put it simply, battle royale is a large scale free-for-all deathmatch with the goal to be the last player alive. With only one life to live, you’ll have to find any weapon you can–crowbars and frying pans included, depending on the game–while keeping focused as you stay one step ahead of the competition. Though most games that tackle the battle royale game type have their own gimmicks, the basic framework of a match is always the same: One big map, a large pool of players, randomized gear to find, and a slowly shrinking battle arena to force combatants into more tense confrontations. While players can expect some exciting encounters that can be satisfying in their own right, those are all moot if you don’t reach the true goal. If you’re not the last one standing, then you didn’t win.

The origins and framework of the game type can be traced back to the cult-classic Japanese novel and film adaptation titled Battle Royale. Written by Koushun Takami, the story is set in a dystopian-future Japan where the government stages an annual ‘Battle Royale’ competition to keep the populace in check, while also stifling the growing unrest of the country’s youth. A group of junior-high school students are transported to an abandoned island 10km in size, outfitted with bomb collars to prevent escape, and are forced to compete in a battle to the death with whatever items they can find. In order to push for more confrontations, forbidden zones gradually spring up across the island, forcing combatants closer together.

Despite the morbid premise, Battle Royale has a hyper-stylized approach to its portrayal of violence–often coupling schooltime drama with powderkeg situations out of a Quentin Tarantino film. Many of the film’s more intense moments are a result of poor judgement, lack of equipment, or a general misplaced faith in the combatant’s abilities–which usually make up the most common player deaths in battle royale games. Though the film was successful, even finding a passionate audience in the west, another novel and film series with a similar premise known as The Hunger Games found greater popularity. At the time of its release, many fans were inspired to implement their own take on the premise in their favorite games via player mods.

How Did Battle Royale Games Get Their Start?

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PC gaming is where online multiplayer and unique game modes first found their footing, which would go on to influence countless other games–PC and console alike–in the coming years. On the surface, battle royale functions like a traditional game of multiplayer deathmatch, which found popularity within PC online multiplayer games during the ’90s. With modding for PC games eventually becoming more accessible thanks to freely available developer tools and resourceful players, online communities were able to craft different types of experiences–even in titles that you would least expect. For instance, games like Counter-Strike and League of Legends started out as fan mods for Half-Life and WarCraft III–which were popular enough to warrant a response from the core developers themselves.

In an interview with GameSpot, Brendan Greene, the creator of PUBG, stated that player mods have had an immense impact on the state of gaming.

“The five biggest games in the last twenty years have come from mods,” said Greene. “League [of Legends], CS: GO, Dota [2], they’re all from mods, and I think it’s because modding gives a freedom to take those risks and do something that people aren’t asking for, but is something you want to play. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a battle royale game that I wanted to play, and I think that freedom to create whatever you want is an advantage that modding gives people.”

Around the time of the release of The Hunger Games during the the early 2010s, Minecraft became a popular game with players of all ages for its then-unmatched creation tools and worldbuilding. Focusing on the exploration of a procedurally generated world where you can craft items, build houses, collect resources, and battle creatures that lurk around, its creator Markus ‘Notch’ Persson rapidly found success after videos and social media impressions of the game went viral. As Minecraft grew in scope, its creation tools expanded further–allowing the community to include their own unique assets and scenarios into the game. Latching onto the popularity of The Hunger Games films, an older subset of players eventually made competitive focused mods known as Hunger Games–now called Survival Games. Just like in the film, players were forced into a death-battle against others–which was a change of pace from the game’s usually mellow vibe.

Another game that also found a foothold in online multiplayer circles was a peculiar title known as DayZ, which started out as a custom mod for the tactical military shooter Arma II. DayZ creator Dean Hall wanted to make an online shooter and quasi-social experiment set within a bleak and relentless environment where resources were limited, and spontaneous alliances formed with others could fall apart at any moment. Also, there were zombies–lots of them. Eventually, DayZ was released as a standalone game, with Hall even joining the Arma devs at Bohemia Interactive soon after. As the open-world zombie shooter grew, its community began to experiment with new mods for the game. One such player in the online Arma community–going by the name PlayerUnknown–eventually released the DayZ Battle Royale mod in 2013. Not long after, other developers began to see potential in the budding popularity for the new free-for-all game mode.

H1Z1: From Zombies To Battle Royale

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As the popularity of the Arma modding scene grew to include the City Life RPG and Invasion 1944 mods, the core games also saw increased success–with many players purchasing the game just so they could experience the community creations. Upon the release of Arma 3, PlayerUnknown–real name Brendan Greene–put out another mod that advanced his concept further, known as PlayerUnknown’s Battle Royale. Soon after, he was approached by Sony Online Entertainment to work on a new title that would eventually become H1Z1. As a response to the massive success of DayZ, the developers created their own open-world zombie shooter focusing on survival against the odds. However, the developers wanted to include an official battle royale mode of Greene’s design to complement the core game. Known as King of the Kill, 100 players would compete against each other to reach the top spot. The studio not only believed it would boost its player base, but also saw it as a potential esports hit.

Unfortunately, several setbacks kept the game in early access longer than expected. In 2015, Sony sold off the Sony Online Entertainment studio, which had both H1Z1 and a new EverQuest MMO in active development. While the MMO would later be shelved, the studio–rebranded as DayBreak Game Company–continued work on its online shooter. After a year of work as an independent studio, the developers split H1Z1 into two distinct modes, Just Survive and King of the Kill, which came in response to growing players trends in-game. While the original survival game with zombies–now known as H1Z1: Just Survive–had a following, the battle royale mode became more popular, prompting a pivot from the developers. These changes, along with other adjustments to the base game, resulted in some creative differences with Brendan Greene and the team, and the modder-turned-developer decided to part ways with DayBreak.

Today, H1Z1 still has an active community, even setting up several esports events for the top players to compete for cash prizes. Now out of early access and in open-beta on PS4, H1Z1 has been showing steady growth over the years, even featuring a number of experimental modes like Auto-Royale–a vehicle focused free-for-all–that switch up traditional gameplay. However, Brendan Greene’s departure from DayBreak ended up paving the way for a game-changer in the battle royale sub-genre.

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner: The Rise Of PUBG

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After Greene left DayBreak, he was approached by producer Chang-Han Kim from South Korean developer Bluehole to collaborate on a new game centering around the battle royale experience. In keeping with the formula he created for the Arma mod, and sticking with his online community name, they started work on the game which would eventually become PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Taking on the role of creative director for his first standalone title, Greene would work extensively with Bluehole on the game–which he believed would be the truest form of battle royale he had envisioned during his time making mods.

In the original version of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a large group of players are brought to an 8x8km island known as Erangel–an abandoned Soviet Union military base–to fight it out and determine the last man standing. Players are transported to the island via cargo plane and can drop out and skydive to a spot of their choosing. Surrounding the players is an encroaching blue energy field, which gradually closed in around the island–forcing more players into conflict in the process. When the final player gets the last kill, they’re greeted with the now infamous congratulatory message, “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner.”

During the pre-launch periods, player count was estimated to have reached over 80,000 players, giving the game substantial momentum heading into its official release. With its growing fanbase, which began referring to the game as PUBG, Battlegrounds eventually launched on March 19, 2017 in early access on PC. It quickly reached the top spot of Steam’s best-sellers list, and shortly after its launch, the developers also landed a timed console exclusive deal with Microsoft for Xbox One. In September 2017, after several million copies of the game were sold, Bluehole rebranded the core development team working on the game as PUBG Corporation, with Chang-Han Kim acting as CEO.

By the end of 2017, PUBG was a massive success, with a peak player count in December reaching over 3 million active users on Steam. Battlegrounds would go on to break several records on Steam, even taking in a higher monthly revenue than both Overwatch and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive during its first month. As of March 2018, PUBG sold over 40 million copies across all platforms and even received a free-to-play mobile version. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was one of the most talked about titles of 2017–even earning Game of the Year nominations from several press outlets. During its first year, PUBG Corporation released two full maps for the game, with another map that’s smaller in scale–the 4×4 map Savage–currently in beta. Moreover, the developers are also experimenting with a more traditional deathmatch mode offering more diversity in content, while also supporting the Xbox One release–which recently hit over 5 million players.

Seeing the success PUBG had, many other developers began to shift their focus to align with the popularity of the genre–even if it meant retooling their existing games into something entirely different.

The Rebirth Of Fortnite

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Revealed in 2011, Epic Games’ Fortnite was a passion project for many of its core developers, which included Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski. As a Horde-mode zombie-shooter with a focus on base building, Fortnite was primarily about surviving against increasingly challenging waves of enemies. With co-op play in mind, the original mode–now known as Save The World–took players across several maps leveling up their characters and acquiring new loot. Though the developers were excited about its potential, the development of the game was rather troubled, with the team having issues nailing the core gameplay and mechanics. After several years of retooling and refining its gameplay systems, Fortnite was released in early access on July 25, 2017 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.

The timing of Fortnite’s launch coincided with the growing popularity of PUBG, which the developers were also playing at the time. During a GDC 2018 talk about their unorthodox approach to launching the game, Ed Zobrist–head of publishing for Epic Games–stated that they quickly wanted to come up with an alternate mode to complement Fortnite’s main campaign. By shifting Unreal Tournament’s development team to focus on Fortnite: Battle Royale, they were able to release the new game mode on September 26, 2017–two months after the base game’s early access launch. To offer the game to as many players as they could, the new mode was free-to-play, while the PVE content was only playable by purchasing the base package of the game for early access–which will eventually be available for free to all players once it leaves early access. This decision would go on to change Fortnite in a drastic way.

In Fortnite: Battle Royale, the general pace is quicker, and with a smaller map, engagements with other players are quite common. Featuring a more stylized design and aesthetic, the general feel and shooting mechanics are more arcade-like when compared to PUBG’s realistic shooting-style, in keeping with its roots in military-style action games. Instead of a cargo plane, players are brought to the island by a flying party bus, with music thumping in the background as players descend onto the island. From here, players can get into the same sorts of engagement you’d expect from battle royale games. However, the big difference between Fortnite and PUBG is the inclusion of the building mechanic.

Just like in the Save The World mode, players can break down objects in the environment for resources to build structures, such as walls and staircases. This allows players to create defensive structures to shield themselves from attacks or reach places around the map that are impossible on-foot. While you can get through much of a game without having to build, the final battles within the top 20 showcase the speed and complexity of building. A basic understanding of structure creation, and the dexterity required to keep up with others, becomes a must for survival toward the end of matches.

Though Fortnite saw a massive influx of new players during its first few months, Battle Royale hit its stride during early 2018. In many ways, Fortnite is a more accessible game when compared to its direct competitor, PUBG. Not only in terms of aesthetics and content, which feature a more stylized and cartoony art style, but also in that it’s a free-to-play game–which is in contrast to PUBG’s $29.99 price tag. Fortnite’s approach to microtransactions have also earned some praise. With the Battle Pass and V-Bucks (premium currency), you can gain access to skins and other cosmetics that don’t impact gameplay. Over the course of leveling up and unlocking new tiers, you can upgrade certain skins–giving them them new looks in the process. You’re never locked out of the core experience with Fortnite: Battle Royale. Though each season requires players to purchase a new pass to unlock the next set of challenges and unlockables, it’s never forced upon players. Epic has also been quick to address feedback concerning aspects of the game, along with adding in a plethora of new content–making the game feel like it’s in constant growth.

Currently, Fortnite: Battle Royale is one of the most popular games in the world, with many in-jokes and references invading real-life. Its mobile release also saw huge success, finding a dedicated audience of players that seek to take its style of battle royale on-the-go. Along with professional athletes performing victory dances and actions based on the game, famous rap artist Drake spent several hours playing with popular Twitch streamer N1nja, with the likes of Travis Scott and former MegaUpload owner KimDotCom joining in their game. And in another bizarre case, Epic collaborated with Marvel Entertainment to launch an Avengers: Infinity War tie-in event where players can pick up the Infinity Gauntlet and take control of Thanos himself. To say Fortnite has found new success with its pivot to battle royale would be a massive understatement. The grand majority of players in Fornite are there for the PvP mode, viewing it as the main game over the PvE mode–which is something that’s tucked away behind a (temporary) paywall.

What was once a game that struggled to piece itself together over the years, it’s now become a game that many seek to imitate. And because of the sudden and monumental success that Fortnite had with its pivot, it’s now open season on the sub-genre, with other developers attempting to find their own fortune with the concept.

The Future of Battle Royale, And The New Competition

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With the battle royale sub-genre offering players a chance to test their mettle against a large player pool, not many games can offer that same type of thrills and satisfaction when making a good run of it. But just in 2018, we’ve seen several games looking to chase the same hype surrounding the game mode, including The Darwin Project, S.O.S., Paladins: Battlegrounds, and Radical Heights–which recently saw the closing of developer Boss Key Productions. In a stranger case, the developers behind the loot-oriented action-RPG game Path of Exile included a free April Fools update featuring a new battle royale game mode, which ended up being surprise hit according to their developer blog. Though it only took a day for the creators to make, over 27,000 games were played in its first 31 hours online. Due to the surprise success, the developers are looking to implement the mode as a part of their seasonal content.

In May, Treyarch and Activision revealed the long-rumored battle royale mode for Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 titled Blackout, which aims to celebrate the history of the sub-series while offering the largest-scale combat the franchise has seen yet. Shortly after, EA and DICE revealed Battlefield V, and at E3 2018, unveiled their own plans to take on the battle royale sub-genre. The developers shared their thoughts on the growing craze, stating that it would be a good fit for the Battlefield series. Whether any of the upcoming games will see the same monumental success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds or Fortnite remains to be seen, but still, there’s definitely a drive from developers to experiment and create something a bit different with their existing games.

There’s a solid chance that battle royale will likely be a normalized game mode for many online shooters moving forward. One thing is for certain–the landscape of the battle royale sub-genre will look very different by year’s end. With so many battle royale games on the way, and with Fornite’s spot becoming more secure by the day, other developers will seek to introduce another battle royale hit to shift the paradigm once again. For PUBG’s Greene, he welcomes the coming changes and titles adopting the game type, while all adding in their own unique take on it.

“That’s what I always thought of the mode when I first invented it, in that it could be that [basic] mode eventually like capture the flag or king of the hill–it’s that type of game mode, and I think it’s flexible enough to be that,” said Greene. “It’s great to see the genre grow in the way it has. There’s [a lot of] new and interesting spins coming out, like The Darwin Project just released the Director Mode, so it’s so great to see those different takes on a very simple concept.”

For more on the future of the battle royale genre, be sure to check back with GameSpot to learn all about the newest games looking to jump into the fray.

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Author: Alessandro Fillari

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