How did this strange genre of video games grow so wildly popular and profitable?
The battle royale fever has indeed gone global, and it has long escaped the confines of computers or consoles. Pretty much anyone with a smartphone is out to eagerly take names and kick posteriors in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, more popularly known as PUBG, whenever they have some time to kill. And indeed, killing – albeit in cyberspace – is what keeps the battle royale fires going. The genre has seen a ridiculous degree of success over the last few years, and even semi-literate street urchins’ faces light up at the mention of PUBG anywhere in the vicinity. And while PUBG is perhaps the most widespread and popular among these games, there are many others which have followings that are just as rabid, and the number of such games is growing steadily.
So what’s the deal with battle royale games?
The basic survival-centric formula shared by all battle royale games is fairly simple. Scores of players (usually a hundred) are airdropped into a huge arena littered with weapons, armour and equipment waiting to be scavenged by them. Upon landing, the players use whatever gear they can find to lay waste to each other’s tiny lives, until only one player or squad is left standing to be declared the winner. If that sounds a lot like The Hunger Games to you, you are right on the dot, because both The Hunger Games and battle royale games are derivatives of the same last-killer-standing concept first introduced in Battle Royale, a 1999 dystopian novel by Japanese author Koushun Takami, which itself went on to see manga and feature film adaptations, and ended up inspiring the rise of an entire genre of books and films, to say nothing of video games, where it ended up being the namesake of the genre as a whole.
The intensity of battle royale games is further heightened by the fact that the habitable area of the arena keeps shrinking gradually (usually attributed to relevant in-universe causes such as high radiation or lethal electrical storms surrounding the arena). This prevents players from hiding away in distant or obscure corners of the map, and are forced to remain on the move to stay within the ‘safe’ area, which in turn ends up exposing them to the threats posed by the other players.
It can be argued that the last-killer-standing game mode existed partially in many arena shooter video games (such as the 1999 hit Unreal Tournament), but it wasn’t until 2012 that it became a standalone formula in the form of Minecraft: Survival Games, to be followed in 2013 by a third-party modification of another game called ARMA 2, which became immensely popular. This particular modification was created by a young developer by the name of Brendan Greene, who went on to recreate it for ARMA 3, before eventually creating his own battle royale game in 2017 – PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. The massive surge in popularity that greeted the game upon its arrival, even in its incomplete, unoptimized early-access form, was only a sign of things to come. Currently, PUBG has over 400 million players globally, across computers, consoles and smartphones. The revenue brought in by the game reached almost a billion USD in 2018 alone.
The immense surge in PUBG’s popularity did not go unnoticed, and the formula was soon picked up by a myriad of other developers. Before long, Epic Games came up with Fortnite, another battle royale game with an emphasis on building structures alongside murdering each other. While Fortnite was free to play by anyone, players were able to buy cosmetic items – such as new costumes, as well as ‘skins’ for weapons – for their in-game avatars using real money, and the staggering USD 2.4 billion revenue that the game brought in over the course of 2018 spoke for the success of the free-to-play business model, which was subsequently picked up by Electronic Arts, for their own battle royal title calle.Apex Legends, which attracted more than 50 million players and brought in over USD 90 million during the first month of its still-ongoing run.
The staggering popularity of battle royale games can partially be attributed to the vast sizes of their arenas, which allow players to utilize smart tactics when dealing with their opponents, and reap the rewards from their successes with ease. Also, while any player who manages to get their hands on some high-end gear near the beginning of the match has a better chance of survival, the random nature of the games’ gear distribution means such luck does not favour the same players every time. The games’ innate randomness appeals to the inner gambler present within every person, and the parallels of addiction are only too easy to draw, with each loss propelling players into trying again, hoping for better luck. The fact that most battle royale games are free to play also contribute significantly to their casual-friendly popularity.
But what makes battle royale games the most attractive is the bite-sized nature of their gameplay – most players are eliminated within the first 5-10 minutes of a match, leaving them free to spectate the better players in action, or to simply fire up another match, with the memory of their last defeat fading in seconds. Even a full round, all the way to victory, can often be completed in as early as 15-20 minutes, which means they are really easy to squeeze in between other tasks. In a fast-moving world, the convenience of such time-friendly gameplay cannot be overstated.
In a world where eSports is rapidly becoming the next big thing in entertainment, world-class competitive video game players can win hundreds of thousands of dollars in tournament prizes, and battle royale titles are no exception in such cases. For example, the Fortnite tournament ESL Katowice Royale’s prize pool totaled at USD 500,000. There are also skilled players such as Ninja or Shroud who live-stream their highly impressive gameplay online, which are lovingly enjoyed by millions of viewers, many of whom pay the players handsomely for their skills – sort of like a digital equivalent of tossing coins at particularly entertaining street performers.
It is difficult to say how long the flames of the battle royale genre would continue to burn, but it is safe to say that the genre is not going out of fashion anytime in the near future. And until that happens, chicken dinners are here to stay.