The History of Battle Royale: From Mod to Worldwide Phenomenon

How 'Fortnite' and 'PUBG' took the Battle Royale genre to the forefront of gaming

In PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite, 100 people drop onto an island empty-handed and have to scavenge for weapons and equipment. Those elements define the Battle Royale genre, along with one other: Last person standing wins.

Battle Royale went from obscure mod to mainstream game phenomenon in less than two years. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ massive popularity made major news of the genre through 2017, having sold more than 30 million copies on PC as of February 2018. The game also launched on Xbox One last year through the Xbox Game Preview program, where it added another 3 million copies to its totals as of January 2018.

Meanwhile, Epic Games’ free-to-play take on the idea, Fortnite Battle Royale, has garnered an even larger audience. Fortnite earned a record-setting number of concurrent players in February (breaking a record set by PUBG), and broke the concurrent viewership record on Twitch in March.

Even without setting records, other games have been making waves: H1Z1, a Battle Royale title that predates both PUBG and Fortnite, recently announced the end of its long-running stint in PC game portal Steam’s in-development “Early Access” section. Developer Daybreak Studios launched a “full release” with new content and a free-to-play business model, and announced partnerships with Facebook and Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas to further develop the game as an esport.

Simon Darveau, creative director of recently launched Battle Royale game The Darwin Project, said the success stories like that of Battlegrounds (or PUBG) are going to draw many, many more imitators. Aside from the insane popularity of PUBG and Fortnite, Darveau said Battle Royale will likely appeal to developer because doesn’t really take much to create (or adapt) an existing project into something you might think of as a Battle Royale game. The signature trait of the form is its last-player-standing ruleset, an easy thing to add to any game; other usual elements, like open, explorable maps and random weapon spawns, don’t take too much to develop.

“Every single IP (intellectual property) that you know that includes competitive gameplay can have Battle Royale,” Darveau said. “And because they can, they will. And because everybody will, it’ll become saturated and it’ll be perceived like a bubble.”

To many of the developers who have already launched Battle Royale games, the last game(s) standing will be the ones that look beyond taking part in the genre’s popularity — and push the envelope for the entire video game industry.

A brief history of Battle Royale

The Battle Royale format didn’t just appear overnight in PUBG and Fortnite. The genre as we know it now was born largely from multiplayer mods, primarily in multiplayer, open-world survival games, a trending game type among PC players that reached the height of its powers just a few years ago. In games like DayZ, H1Z1, and Rust dropped players into hostile territory, places infested with enemies like zombies (as well as other players), and forced them to rely on their wits to find or make the items they needed to stay alive in those games.

Much of Battle Royale’s feel emanates from the games that played host the genre’s first iterations. When two players run into each other in these games, it’s never clear what might happen. One player might kill the other and steal their stuff; the two people might team up and become friends; or they might seemingly come to an amicable agreement, only for one player to betray the other later.

“In DayZ, I realized for the first time that you could have social experiences with a strong social psychology element in it,” Darveau said. “You could be psychologically abused in a game. …And I feel like those are the most powerful experiences, and it kind of triggered in my brain, ‘What the f—, why are games only about physical and mechanical skill, like dexterity, reflexes, timing, precision?'”

We think of Battle Royale primarily as a form of shooter, but the first of these mods was made for Minecraft. Survival Games,” a competitive take on the game modeled after the Hunger Games movies, gained popularity there, and that community spread the idea to others.

The social interactions between players in survival games inspired modders to create new, more competitive scenarios to throw players together: Brendan Greene, creator of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, created similar ideas for games like DayZ and Arma III.

“I loved the interactions that we had,” Greene said. “You’d come across another group or a clan in like a town, and there would be an interaction with them, either good or bad. And I loved that idea that you’re not dealing with AI (artificial intelligence), you’re not dealing with a predictable mechanic, you’re dealing with other people. And that’s a lot of fun, because there are some crazy and strange people out there.”

Greene’s mods helped crystalize many aspects of “Battle Royale” as a game type, including the name. He named his survival shooter mods after Battle Royale, the 2000 Japanese cult classic movie, where a group of high school students are forced to fight to the death until only one survives.

Greene also created an official mod for zombie survival game H1Z1, and its popularity led to Daybreak creating its own Battle Royale mode for the game. Before long, H1Z1 was spinning off its zombie survival mode into another game and fully focusing on Battle Royale, becoming the first game in the genre as we know it.

Meanwhile, Greene went off to create his own Battle Royale title: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which, in early 2017. Epic Games followed PUBG later in the year with Fortnite: Battle Royale, a free-to-play competitive mode built to complement its co-op zombie survival game. Over time Fortnite has found an immense following, in part because its free-to-play, but also because of its unique spin on form — Using the mechanics created for Fortnite’s original mode, now known as Fortnite: Save the World, Fortnite’s Battle Royale adds Minecraft-like building capabilities that players use to construct their own fortifications.

Freedom through competition

So what makes Battle Royale so appealing to so many players? To Greene and Darveau, the genre’s extension of the freedom of survival games, matched with just enough structure to drive matches forward, created an experience players couldn’t find in existing shooters or more niche survival games.

“I think what Battle
Royale does is because
it’s session-based, this
idea of permadeath gives you the high stakes feeling without the sort of long-term investment.”

“I think, you know, especially with Battlegrounds, there’s no right way to play it,” Greene said. “However you want to play it is up to you. It’s a challenge, you know — it’s against other people. It’s not something you can predict, it’s against another person, and I think those are the best kind of interactions.”

H1Z1 General Manager Anthony Castoro said the stakes of Battle Royale also work to set it apart from other competitive game genres. Unlike most shooters, in which players can die and then re-enter the game almost immediately, Battle Royale games incentivize survival.

The longer you stay alive, the more powerful (and invested) you become.

“For the longest time, there’s been this fascination especially with core players with permadeath,” he said, referring to the idea that players only get one life in games, and once they die, they lose all progress. “And for the most part, as a mainstream game designer, I sort of resisted that idea because the amount of investment you would make into your character and the time that you put in, that dying would be sort of this quitting event. But I think what Battle Royale does is because it’s session-based, this idea of permadeath gives you the high stakes feeling without the sort of long-term investment. … And even often if you lose, it’s either ‘I’m going to jump back in’ or ‘I’m going to break my keyboard,’ but there’s a lot of passion that’s built up in that.”

The Gladiator Effect

Battle Royale games also take advantage of a major trend in gaming in general, the rise of online streaming and game viewership. Battle Royale games are eminently watchable — The pacing a Battle Royale match is not just a barrage of constant action. Players interact with each other relatively infrequently, raising the tension levels as players go about gathering equipment, only to hear or see someone nearby — or get completely ambushed by another player they didn’t know was present.

What winning in various battle royale games looks like. In order of appearance: Fortnite, Radical Heights, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Last Man Standing, Arma 3: Battle Royale, H1Z1, and the Darwin Project.

Darveau also noted that the elimination style of Battle Royale games mirrors another popular form in media: Reality TV shows.

“Every time you press play, there’s a new experience waiting,” Fortnite Design Lead Eric Williamson told Digital Trends via email. “And even though the only way to win is to be the last one standing, it’s not just about winning. It’s about all of the fun and hilarious things that can happen along the way, and experiencing that with your friends. But if you’re able to make it to the last few minutes, the tension becomes so incredible. Battle Royale just provides such a great mix of highs and lows.”

“If you’re able to make it to the last few minutes, the tension becomes so incredible. Battle Royale just provides such a great mix of highs and lows.””

The fact that the Battle Royale genre is exciting to play and interesting to watch creates a unique situation that’s in line with trends in gaming as a whole. Streaming has become a major part of the video game landscape. In January 2018, the average viewership of streaming site Twitch, which is largely dedicated to game streams, was almost a million people – meaning at any given time, about a million people are watching people play games. That’s just one option for watching gaming content; another, YouTube, has seen videos for games such as Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto V garner tens of billions of views.

If Darveau is right, though, and the Battle Royale is due for a surge of “me too” games that will deaden its popularity (something that’s happened time and again in video games, in genres from World War II first-person shooters, to MOBAs such as Dota 2 and League of Legends, and on to open-world survival games), where is Battle Royale going in the future?

The answer is different for each game, but it can be summarized in one concept: Innovation. Many of the ideas that are springing up in Battle Royale seem like natural expansions of big ideas in gaming, and they’re likely to trickle out into the rest of the space.

Already, Battle Royale games are spinning out interesting ideas from the genre’s natural affinity for competition and spectating. Games like The Darwin Project and Outpost Games’ SOS, a multiplayer competition in which streaming is baked into the gameplay, put a twist on the Battle Royale idea by making spectating an interactive experience.

Data courtesy of Steam Charts and Twitch Tracker.

SOS emphasizes an entertaining performance, makes streaming a part of the gameplay. Using a proprietary technology platform that works with a Twitch overlay, the game tracks how people watching the game react, through voting with reaction emojis, to the people playing it. The votes of the audience mean part of winning is being entertaining; it’s possible to excel at the game purely through social engineering and the way players talk to and interact with each other.

In The Darwin Project, one player can control the Director, a flying, player-controlled TV camera that can influence the match by powering up or undercutting players. The game also can make the Director’s powers available to everyone watching The Darwin Project on Twitch, allowing them to vote on who gets targeted for what interaction, changing the game on the fly as people play it.

During a recent invitational tournament that featured a number of big-name streamers, Darveau said, he was surprised to see how the collective consciousness of the audience altered the game — not to make their favorite streamer win every time, like he expected, but to balance the game on the fly.

“The idea that the game world is a living entity that’s connected to the collective consciousness — I was under the impression that I was watching a reality show from the future,” Darveau said. “It was just great. I had shivers.”

There are many more games entering the field, though, even just in 2018. LawBreakers developer Boss Key Studios is the most recent entrant into the field, launching its free-to-play, ’80s-inspired Radical Heights just last week. Other games on the horizon include a Battle Royale take on open-world zombie game Dying Light and one in hero shooter Paladins, as well as standalone games such as Islands of Nyne, Europa, and Project X, a game whose claim to fame will be its 400-player matches, instead of 100.

Evolve or Die

Even for the games currently at the height of popularity, and especially with new entries on the horizon ready to compete, the need to evolve is ever-present. For Greene, 2018 is a year to continue to polish and improve PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. PUBG’s recently released “Event Mode” allows his team to try out new variations on the core Battlegrounds concept and get feedback on them from the player community. Greene also said improvements to things like the game’s animations are going to dovetail into amping up existing its spectator experience and eSports scene — two areas the company is also looking to support down the line.

“My dream is to have a stadium full of people watching players battle it out in the center, and watching that first person have to get up and walk off.”

“My dream is to have a stadium full of people watching players battle it out in the center, and watching that first person have to get up and walk off,” he said. “These kind of events are what I wanted to see, so when I see those I guess I’ll be happy that Battle Royale will have reached what I’ve always dreamed it could be.”

Castoro sees the future of Battle Royale as a continued honing of the relatively young concept. A bubble is probably the way to think about it, he said, but there is still a lot of room for improvement on the concept, and in finding ways to capitalize on the ideas.

To that end, Daybreak recently released a new mode for H1Z1 called “Auto-Royale” — a version of the game in which teams of players fight to be the last standing, but play the entire match from the insides of cars.

The more longview approach for H1Z1 is in the game’s life as a competitive eSport. Daybreak’s recently announced partnerships with Facebook and Caesars Entertainment are all about advancing its “pro league,” in which elite players compete in Battle Royale tournaments for cash prizes. Daybreak sees the future of Battle Royale as a spectator sport, as well as a game it wants everyone to play.

“All of our partners are very serious about a new way to do eSports and bring it to the masses,” Castoro said. “Facebook is a mass market opportunity, a mass market play. Caesars Entertainment is mass market. Las Vegas, the venue, is mass market. And all of these companies are investing in large ways in this kind of content, and they see H1Z1 and Battle Royale as a way to blaze a new path for eSports.”

So while the likelihood of a rush of Battle Royale games seems likely, it’s elements like pushes in eSports and streaming that might expand the genre beyond a passing fad. Already the games are going beyond the experience of simply playing fun multiplayer games, to leverage the personalities of the people taking part in them.

That’s where Darveau sees the video game industry at large heading, as it starts to understand its large spectator community. He expects it to become more like the sports world, taking advantage of great, entertaining players and giving others better experiences in watching and interacting with them.

“There are so many more spectators than there are players, and (streamers) are becoming very good, they’re becoming very charismatic just like sports (players),” he said. “I think the way that the industry will evolve is actually toward the idea that every single player … that creates a nice and entertaining experience, should be perceived as someone who has value and could be paid with value generated by people enjoying what he does. And I think that in 10 years, the industry will be like that.”

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