While it was in the middle of 2017 that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds exploded on the scene popularizing the niche sub-genre that was the battle royale game. True an Arma 2 mod, Ark Survival of the Fittest and H1Z1 King of the Kill all preceded PUBG. It was this game that offered the purest and at the time most refined battle royale experience. PUBG was the game that catapulted the sub-genre from relative obscurity to being the mainstream darling of the industry. PUBG was the king of the mountain, being the top game on Twitch barring a week with big releases. A PUBG streamer, Dr DisRespect was even named trending gamer at the 2017 Game Awards.
Of course, as history has shown when a game explodes in a genre others rise to dethrone it, some being clones, others attempting their own take on the genre. PUBG had met its match in Epic Games’ own Fortnite. Initially released as an early access PvE game, Epic released Fortnite: Battle Royale as a free to play standalone game in late 2017. By the end of March 2018, Fortnite was consistently the most viewed game on Twitch and became the most viewed game on YouTube. As things stand now there is no sign that the Fortnite train is slowing down.
PUBG Corporation and their parent Bluehole seem to have taken a rather unique approach to other games merely existing. In this year Bluehole has filed lawsuits against the developer NetEase for their game Rules of Survival as well as Epic for Fortnite. Claiming copyright infringement. The unusual thing here is that there really isn’t much to copy. Set legal precedent states that gameplay mechanics or the gameplay premise cannot be copyrighted, only specific characters, art or story elements. Now in their lawsuit against NetEase they’re claiming that assets were stolen, pointing to guns, buildings and a can of energy drink in their briefing. The thing is that most of if not all of the assets that Bluehole is claiming were purchased from the Unreal asset store, in other words, Bluehole are claiming ownership of things that NetEase may have also bought from the same asset store.
In their lawsuit against Epic, they’re practically claiming wholesale theft, which even if that is the case there is legal precedent for this too. In 1981 Atari sued Amusement World for copying their arcade hit Asteroids. The judge ruled that even though Amusement world copied Asteroids when they made Meteor!, they had not copied anything that could be protected under patent law. Now here the key difference between Asteroids and Meteor! was that Meteor! played faster and was in color while Asteroids was in black and white. There are far more differences between PUBG and Fortnite, such as the art style, gunplay and the building mechanic not being present in PUBG. So while the lawsuit may have been filed in South Korea where I don’t believe such a precedent has been set, it is unlikely that it will work out in Bluehole’s favor.
Which of course brings us to the rest of copycats, most of which are just lazy asset flips not worth noting. However, there are two exceptions Paladins and Call of Duty, both of which have announced battle royale modes. There is also the defunct Bosskey and the game Radical Heights, but really that was just a desperate cash grab and last-ditch failed attempt to save their studio. Paladins was launched by Hi-Rez in late 2016 during the hero shooter craze kicked off by Overwatch. Once again chasing trends Hi-Rez announced Paladins Battlegrounds a battle royale spin-off of Paladins in early 2018. Finally, on May 17th, 2018 Activision revealed Call of Duty Black Ops 4 which will have their take on the battle royale formula called Blackout.
Honestly, all of this is drawing parallels to past trends, in 2008 you couldn’t get through a month without some gaming website talking about which game would be the ‘WoW killer’, it seemed like MMOs were being announced regularly and each one became another skull added to the throne upon which WoW sits. There are other popular MMOs today, but all of them are popular for having their own take on the MMO formula. We saw this again with the MOBA genre after the explosion of popularity of League of Legends, even EA tried their hand at publishing a MOBA with Dawngate. We saw this yet again a few years ago with hero shooters. Blizzard announced Overwatch, the internet exploded. Suddenly CoD had their take on the concept with Specialists Mode. Bethesda announced then quietly canceled BattleCry and we saw the failure to launch that was Battleborn.
After the most recent move by Epic Games, I only see more studios and publishers throwing their hat into the ring. Epic Games announced a $100 million dollar prize pool for the competitive Fortnite season, this amount is larger than every e-sports prize pool from 2017 combined. The issue here is that most developers are run by people from other industries, they don’t understand gaming they only see a trend and chase the trend. It had been rumored that Battlefield V would have a battle royale game and while it will not have one at this time, DICE has also not ruled out making one in the future. That level of money will undoubtedly drive the greediest and scummiest of the industry to churn out a battle royale mode the same way it seemed like almost every high profile game during the last console generation had tacked on multiplayer or an online component.
Once again proving that they missed the point, WoW, LoL and PUBG all became popular by being different. By offering people something that they didn’t already have they were able to carve out their own successes in an industry becoming more and more bogged down by corporatism. If the triple-A publishers want success in the battle royale genre they need to not do what they did with modern military shooters, horror games, music games or open-world action games. Just let your staff come up with a concept that represents their take on the formula so we don’t wind up with more cynical attempts to cash in on a trend.