Massively Overthinking: Is battle royale a fad?
This week in Massively Overthinking, I want to talk about something out on the fringes of our genre: battle royale games. We’ve been watching BR take off, first with H1Z1, then the explosion of PUBG last summer and fall, and now Fortnite has taken the crown, becoming even more popular and raking in even more money, at least on console and potentially overall. And yet less than a year ago, we were embracing Fortnite as a PvE building game – see how blazingly fast Epic pivoted to catch this trend? I remember when PUBG started to plateau in the west even as it continued it climb in China, and I wondered then whether anything could ever dethrone it – and I have to say, I didn’t think it would be Fortnite.
So let’s talk about battle royale. Is it bleeding an online subgenre – MMOs, shooters, MOBAs, or survival sandboxes, or is it just something everyone’s tacked on top of existing gameplay? How will mobile keep up? And most importantly, is it a fad that’s destined to eventually fade away, or is it here to stay?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think battle royales are at least bleeding the survival sandboxes. People who liked the free building games largely had Minecraft, Trove, and Landmark (RIP). H1Z1 in its original form looked like a good addition but I feel that’s already gone, and PvE only Rust felt, well, pointless. ARK was the only thing that felt like it was working, and it’s done well enough for itself, but I feel like it was also getting the PvE folks since OMG, collect all the dinosaurs and raise them as your own Pokemon! The PvP folks who crave combat, however, always felt like they wanted something more lobby based. Something they could burn down as fast as they spawned. It’s why I understand the appeal, even as someone who often prefers building with others. And that’s why survival games (including the upcoming Rend) are making me a bit more nervous about the health of the current survival market.
Mobile will easily keep up. Already because of work, I’m glued to my phone. Kids are getting them earlier and earlier. Remember when you were a little kid and you had non-mobile phone toys or fake steering wheels? For those who aren’t dealing with kids, there are cell phone and computer pad toys for babies now. Mobile games often feel more like time killers, but they’re effective at it, and their graphics are getting deeper, as are the curves. It kind of sucks, because the multiplayer aspect of them is largely asynchronous, but that’s another Overthinking article altogether. Mobile will be fine though since they developers are getting better at simplifying mechanics for people who normally aren’t gamers or don’t have the gaming time they used to.
I do think battle royales are a current fad, but I wouldn’t say they’d totally disappear. Remember when everyone was making kart racers for their mascots? Mario Kart’s still going strong (I hate admitting it, but 8 Deluxe is actually the best entry since the Gamecub’s Double Dash), but it feels like indies are more into them. I have a feeling battle royale will be the same. The fad will die, but someone will still try to make one in the future. Maybe Blizzard, starting with a Heroes of the Storm survival map? Pitchforks down, I’m mostly joking!
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I don’t think they’re a fad personally – like Andrew, I think that they’re definitely having their moment in the sun, but I don’t think they’ll ever vanish entirely the way a fad would. Instead, I think they’re a niche bubble that’s just blown up.
Now, I say niche, and you’re probably thinking I’m crazy because of how utterly massive PUBG and Fortnite are, but the thing is that the genre is basically just those two games – the competitors just aren’t having any impact yet, and I suspect that they never will. I think that the genre will shake out the same way MOBAs did, which is to say that there are three really big MOBAs and very few other serious contenders – and the people who play those games are fans of those games, not of the genre per se (in other words: Some people follow franchises, while some people follow the sport). So similarly, I think of BRs as not so much about a new subgenre that’s in a growth phase but about a couple of popular games that are trending in the likewise overwhelmingly popular medium of choice: Twitch. Which isn’t to disparage them.
So while their current popularity will be faddish, I don’t really see a very basic game format that every school kid knows dying. But since I’m not particularly interested in it, I’m much more curious about where the cycle goes next. (And only partly because I have long since given up trying to correct battle royale to the more grammatically correct battle royal. I can’t win that war.)
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I haven’t given battle royale a lot of thought because it’s not a gameplay type that appeals to me to either play or watch. But I think its appeal lies in its quick entry into action, the time pressure of everyone’s eventual demise, and the frantic scramble that gets blood pumping and audiences entertained. This is not a game mode that cultivates thoughtful strategy and patience. It’s about moving quickly, making rapid decisions, and scrambling to be the last survivor of a ship that’s sinking.
Obviously, the formula is a success, and while H1Z1 should probably get the credit for pioneering it, Fortnite and PUBG have created versions and established brands that are a lot stronger and are more mainstream. Everyone’s trying to copy it because it’s the Hot Thing and, all things considered, it’s a pretty simple PvP mode with a neat twist attached. It’s not hard to mold a game into that mode as long as there is some sort of PvP component, and so the copycats are coming out of the woodwork.
I’m not entirely sure if this is a bubble waiting to pop or a balloon that will suffer a hundred small leaks, but we will get over our fascination for this mode eventually. It probably has more staying power than a mere fad, since people have been playing this for a couple of years now and don’t seem to be becoming disinterested, but battle royale is also light on substance and that’s not going to carry it over the long haul. Already we’re seeing battle royale-style games trying to add some more depth or other crazy twists to shore up this weakness, but at the end of the day, it’s more flash than substance. And that’s not going to establish it as deeply as, say, a MOBA.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I think the popularity of battle royale will definitely diminish; it is the newest fad and the novelty will wear off. That said, it’s still a style of gameplay that some really like so I don’t feel that it will disappear. Now, as to the question of, is it stealing from other genres? At times, sure. It may suck a chunk of time and players away from other games in spurts, but folks will always return to other genres when they want what those offer. Personally, I think that because there aren’t really worlds out there that offer a large multitude of experiences, players go to individual titles basically ala cart for specific experiences. Battle royale is just one option in a large buffet of gaming offerings that will be partaken of whenever players have an itch for that type of play.
Patron Archebius: I confess – I’ve played PUBG more than anything else in 2018. But, seeing as how that still only amounts to about 30 hours (it’s been a busy year!), I’m not quite a guru of the genre yet.
I don’t think that battle royale is bleeding other online games. Most people I play with still have those other games as their “main,” but whether they come from shooters or from MOBAs, they’re here because it offers them something that their normal game does not – for MOBA players, a great randomized encounter without any real meta to worry about; for shooter fans, a more tense and tactical adventure. And mobile is mobile – I still haven’t met anyone who has moved from PC/console to mobile, or vice versa. They fill different needs.
My main question with the rise of these genres – battle royale, MOBAs, sandboxes – is not whether the trend will fade or evolve or stay right where it is, but what these games are doing that MMOs can learn from. MMOs have been stagnant for a long time. And these games are proving, time and time again, that people like playing together. People like building together. People like doing all the things that MMOs should be really, really good at, things that MMOs helped create and popularize. But people are turning to other genres, repeatedly, and in ever-increasing numbers, to fulfill their online needs.
I don’t think it’s any mystery why Destiny (the first one, I mean) managed to be successful. It wasn’t the questing. It wasn’t the number of classes or variety of character faces. It certainly wasn’t the worldbuilding, either. It was the quick ramp-up time, the variety of tough and evolving team activities, the roster of things to pursue – but above all, it was accessible, it was easy to accomplish something, and it didn’t feel like you had to sink a ton of time to get into the game. If MMOs are going to continue to thrive and survive, they need to take a good look at what games like PUBG and Fortnite offer, and start thinking about how they can incorporate that into their strengths.