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The history of Battle Royale: From mod to worldwide phenomenon

From PUBG to Apex Legends, this is how battle royale happened

In PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite, 100 people drop onto an island to scavenge for weapons and equipment. Those elements define the battle royale genre along with one other — the 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 the genre major news through 2017 as it sold more than 50 million copies combined on Xbox and PC as of June 2018. The free-to-play PUBG Mobile has put up even more impressive numbers, bringing the total player count for the various platformers to more than 400 million.

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 Steam’s Early Access section. Developer Daybreak Studios launched a full release with new content and a free-to-play business model, as well as partnerships with Facebook and Caesars Entertainment in Las Vegas to further develop the game as an esport. Recently, it even changed its name to Z1 Battle Royale.

Simon Darveau, creative director of the battle royale game The Darwin Project, said the success stories of Fortnite and 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 developers because it 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 last-player-standing rule set is an easy thing to add to any game. Other elements like open, explorable maps and random weapon spawns aren’t difficult 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 games 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 was born largely from multiplayer mods in open-world survival games. It quickly became a trending game type among PC players that reached the height of its powers just a few years ago. Games like DayZ, Z1, and Rust dropped players into hostile territory infested with enemies such as zombies and other players, forcing 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 to 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 or two people might team up and become friends. There’s also the possibility that they 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 fuck, why are games only about physical and mechanical skill, like dexterity, reflexes, timing, precision?'”

We think of battle royale primarily as a type 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 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 into together. Brendan Greene, the creator of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, built similar mods for games like DayZ and Arma III.

“I loved the interactions that we had,” Greene said. “You’d come across another group ord 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 A.I. (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 crystallize many aspects of battle royale as a game type, including the name. He named his survival shooter mods after Battle Royale, the Japanese cult classic movie, where a group of high school students is forced to fight to the death until only one survives.

Greene also created an official mod for zombie survival game Z1, and its popularity led to developer Daybreak creating its own battle royale mode for the game. Before long, Z1 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 titlePlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, 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. This is largely due to its free-to-play model, but also because of its unique spin on the form. Using 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 can use to construct their own fortifications.

Freedom through competition

What makes battle royale appealing to so many players? For Greene and Darveau, the genre’s extension into the freedom of survival games, matched with just enough structure to drive matches forward, created an experience that players couldn’t find in existing shooters or more niche survival games.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Review
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“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.”

Anthony Castoro, general manager of Z1, said the stakes of battle royale also help 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.

“This idea of permadeath gives you the high stakes feeling without the sort of long-term investment.”

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 take advantage of another major trend in gaming, which is the rise of online streaming and game viewership. Battle royale games are eminently watchable, as the pacing of a battle royale match is not just a barrage of constant action. Players interact with each other relatively infrequently, raising the tension levels as they 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, Z1, 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,” Eric Williamson, Fortnite design lead, 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 was almost a million people, and that’s just one option for watching gaming content. Another media giant, YouTube, has seen videos for games such as Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto V garner tens of billions of views.

If Darveau is right 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 word: 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 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 and makes streaming a part of the gameplay. Using a proprietary technology platform that works with a Twitch overlay, the game tracks and relays how people watching the game react — through voting with reaction emojis — to the ones playing it. Votes from 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. It can also 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 and change 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 as its played.

“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, and some of them are from acclaimed franchises with built-in fan bases. In October 2018, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 launched its own battle royale mode, Blackout. Bringing the well-known Call of Duty shooting mechanics and polish to the PUBG formula, it effectively demonstrated something the early battle royale developers know all too well, which is that stagnation will lead to irrelevance.

“There is still a lot of room for improvement on the concept, and in finding ways to capitalize on the ideas.”

The game isn’t available on mobile devices, which gives PUBG a continued niche for realism-driven battle royale games, but the field is nevertheless getting crowded. Battlefield V introduced its own battle royale mode, Firestorm, bringing environmental destruction and vehicular combat to the formula, but it’s unclear if it will be able to reignite interest in the troubled shooter.

Respawn Entertainment, developers of the Titanfall franchise, also surprised players by announcing and simultaneously releasing its own battle royale spinoff, Apex Legends. Since its launch in early February, the game has attracted more than 50 million players thanks to its unique approach to respawning and re-deployment not seen in other battle royale games. It’s such a monumental release that Respawn isn’t even working on a third main Titanfall game at the moment.

Even games that aren’t explicitly known as shooters are taking pointers from the battle royale space. Red Dead Online launched its beta a month after Red Dead Redemption 2 released. In addition to more standard competitive and cooperative modes, it also managed to sneak in a mode called Make it Count. It isn’t explicitly referred to as a battle royale mode but it features some of its mechanics. In it, 16 or 32 players battle to the death as a circle shrinks onto their position. When new titles are announced, “will it have a battle royale mode?” becomes one of the most common questions, and it almost seems odd for games not to include it.

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 was 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 link into ramping up its existing spectator experience and eSports scene — two areas the company is also looking to support down the line.

2018 PUBG Invitational in Berlin
When we originally spoke to Brandon Greene he told us one of the moments he hoped to see for the game was a stadium full of fans watching 100 players compete and he wanted to witness the first player walking off the center stage after being eliminated. Three months after the original publish date of this article, Greene got his wish when PUBG held its first world championship, the 2018 PGI Global Invitational. PUBG/Twitter
PUBG held its first world championship

“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,” Greene 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 Z1 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 inside cars.

The push towards eSports and streaming is what will elevate Battle Royale beyond just a fad.

The more long-term approach for Z1 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 Z1 and battle royale as a way to blaze a new path for esports.”

While a flood of battle royale games seems to already be taking place, it’s actually the push toward esports and investment in streaming that will elevate the genre beyond just a fad. Developers are already going beyond just designing fun multiplayer games, they’re also trying 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 the 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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Phil Hornshaw
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Phil Hornshaw is an author, freelance writer and journalist living in Los Angeles. He is the co-author of The Space Hero's…
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