Why Battle Royale Games Like Fortnite Are Everywhere (It’s Not Just Money)


When Electronic Arts’ gaming showcase kicked off on Saturday in Los Angeles, one of the first games up for discussion was Battlefield V. No surprise there—the forthcoming title is part of one of the longest-running and most popular first-person shooter franchises in gaming. But in the course of showing off what was innovative about the latest iteration, the two developers on stage wound up paying fealty to emulation. “Every day, we’ll bring something new,” Oskar Gabrielson, a general manager at Swedish game studio DICE, said with a grin. “And as part of that journey, after launch you’ll get something I know a lot of you have been asking for!”

Standing next to Gabrielson, DICE’s Lars Gustavsson was all too ready to wring some drama from the announcement. “It’s…” he said.

Another beat.

“Royale!”

Adding a battle-royale game mode to Battlefield V may have come with pageantry, but it was no surprise. After Fortnite’s much-chronicled rise to cultural ubiquity over the past year, the last-man-standing challenge is officially the most popular game-within-a-game in town. While it’s nothing new—Minecraft‘s “Hunger Games” mod, widely recognized as battle royale’s first appearance, landed in 2012, and games like Day Z and H1Z1 popularized it—last year saw Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds and then Fortnite propel it to new heights.

The reasons for the rise are many. Battle royale’s emphasis on solo achievement, stripped of team tactics, makes it an easy and fascinating spectator sport, perfectly suited to watching it on Twitch streams. Fortnite isn’t just free to play—its gargantuan revenue coming from players buying costumes or subscribing to premium challenges—but it, like PUBG, can be played on mobile devices as well as on game consoles and PCs. Yet, there’s something else at play here too. Battle royale’s appeal isn’t simply about outlasting everyone else. It’s about making you feel, in a surprising way, truly alive.

Battle-royale games hew to a few core mechanics. The first is helplessness: Everyone starts the game either weak or utterly unarmed, and through either combat or foraging gets whatever they need to survive—and outduel everyone else. Most battle-royale games also use an ever-growing external threat in order to force all players into a smaller and smaller area, and ultimately into combat; in Fortnite, it’s a storm that saps your strength unless you stay within its eye. And perhaps most importantly, unlike most other multiplayer games, death in a battle-royale is final. No respite, no respawn.

Battlefield V isn’t the first major title to hitch its multiplayer wagon to the battle-royale mode in Fornite‘s wake. That honor goes to Treyarch’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, which made the announcement at the game’s “community reveal” event in mid-May. Nor is it just the big boys cashing in; at least 16 battle-royale games are slated to come out in 2018 alone, with more to come next year. The mode has even come to VR, with social game Rec Room introducing its undeniably Fortnite-like “Rec Royale” mode last week.

Studios like DICE and Treyarch have the resources to introduce new game features all the time. Identifying what people want is the crucial first step; being able to do it bigger and better is the next, more crucial one. “Those big companies need new content,” says Blaine Smith, the founder and lead game developer for Gunpowder Games, maker of upcoming naval-combat battle royale game Maelstrom. “I heard a rumor about one publisher who was planning a 400-man last man standing.”

“I heard a rumor about one publisher who was planning a 400-man last man standing.” —Blaine Smith, Gunpowder Games founder

This has happened before; the Call of Duty franchise also capitalized on another craze when it introduced “Zombies” multiplayer mode in 2008’s Call of Duty: World at War. But unlike other gaming trends, battle royale may have a substantially stronger grip on our psyche. According to Rogelio E. Cardona Rivera, who studies entertainment arts at the University of Utah, the genre taps directly into well-known psychological model Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. “Battle royale games typically combine survival, exploration, and scavenging and crafting,” he says. “Psychologically and evolutionary, we have the pure and basic foundational need.”

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In Maslow’s pyramidal framework, the two bottom levels represent basic physiological needs and safety, both of which videogames have addressed from the very beginning. You jump over the barrels, you avoid the ghosts, you stay alive. But above those come three that have traditionally been harder for games to satisfy: love, esteem, and self-actualization. Arguably, multiplayer gaming, by being both social and competitive, satisfy love and esteem (though anyone who’s had a prepubescent teammate screaming slurs in their headphones might object to the former).

Getting to the top of the pyramid, though, necessitates truly living up to your potential—and that’s what battle-royale games deliver. Not only do they support different problem-solving strategies—”there are multiple ways you can come out on top in PUBG or Fortnite,” Rivera points out—but by presenting a world in which your survival is in many ways up to you, they instill a sense of familiarity within players.

While battle royale may have been able to incorporate the entire need pyramid in some way, though, its longevity is all but assured. “Honestly, for this genre to keep going they to experiment with the social component of it,” Rivera says. “They need to continue to explore different ways to bring people together in that social place.” DICE and Treyarch might be repackaging a well-established game-mode, and a dozen or more other studios may be working on their own iterations, but those efforts will need to be more than just a reskin to capture gamers’ attention. Time will tell if these new battle royale games will be able tap into PUBG and Fortnite’s spark, but their blueprints might just contain a secret passage into the very essence of human need.

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