With PUBG’s impact impossible to ignore, is 2018 set to be the year of the royale rumble?
One of the great certainties of the game industry is that breakthrough hits beget unapologetic copycats pretty quickly. In 2017 we witnessed the rapid rise of the battle royale, so one might reasonably expect to be packed tightly against the back wall of one’s living room by a deluge of them this year – after all, PUBG Corporation sold over 20 million copies during early access alone, and there’s not a developer or publisher on the planet that would say no to those numbers. But Battlegrounds is an outsider hit that didn’t come from the industry’s established players. There’s no intro cutscene, not a line of dialogue, and no collectables. It doesn’t look, or play, like the games big studios make. It’s a sort of punk rock, three-mechanicsand-the-truth incarnation. So exactly how can the industry establishment cash in on this new genre’s exploding popularity? Perhaps more to the point, can it do so without the threat of legal action?
The latter became a salient point when Epic – which, lest we forget, makes Unreal, the engine on which PUBG runs – released Fortnite: Battle Royale. It was a spinoff from a game that had been gestating for six years only to be eclipsed by Brendan Greene’s title upon release, and it drew inspiration from the latter so much that it name-checked it explicitly in press releases. A week after Fortnite: Battle Royale launched, it became a standalone game, and a free download. Since Epic already had the base game shipped to consoles, it managed to beat the game that inspired it to those platforms when the Battle Royale update went live. Battlegrounds’ creators weren’t ready to take the ‘sincerest form of flattery’ stance: “After listening to the growing feedback from our community and reviewing the gameplay for ourselves,” producer Chang Han Kim said in a statement, “we are concerned that Fortnite may be replicating the experience for which PUBG is known... The PUBG community has and continues to provide evidence of the many similarities as we contemplate further action.”
The nature of that action has yet to come to light, if indeed it was taken, but it raises an old question about what might reasonably be considered a genre convention – and thus fair game for widespread implementation – and what constitutes plagiarism. Early indications suggest that it’ll be trickier for rival developers to borrow liberally from the trailblazers and look their audience in the eye, since the ‘genre conventions’ are so specific. Surely there’s another way to begin these games than by parachuting from a plane – or airborne ‘battle bus’, as Fortnite would have it – for example?
But that’s only one factor in determining the anticipated onslaught of new battle-royale games. The larger is how other developers might choose to go about it. PUBG had the luxury of entering the market without any expectations, nor shareholders to please, nor any existing fanbase to annoy. Studios under the banners of platform holders and major publishers such as EA, Activision, or Ubisoft would not have those luxuries. But will they take the plunge anyway?
Based on 2017’s crop of major game announcements: no. At least not via the usual channels. Last year’s conferences showed the influence of PUBG across the industry, but it did so via indie titles, unproven studios, struggling F2P games that were probably more inspired by Fortnite’s makeover than PUBG itself, and the odd big-name side-mode, such as GTA Online’s strippeddown Motor Wars. That aside, the big players have stayed largely silent until now.
For the time being, the only viable option for established companies is that of updates to existing IPs. Dying Light: Bad Blood, Paladins: Battlegrounds, and of course Fortnite: Battle Royale are able to lay claim to some of that essential ‘throwaway mod’ appeal at the heart of the genre by positioning themselves as fun diversions from the main attraction. Plus they have the advantage of a ready-baked community. Hey – they’re just having fun with a new update, no big deal. Why not give it a try? It’s the same principle as political astroturfing, effectively, but judging by Epic’s success in gaining an audience for Fortnite, it works.
To Epic’s credit, the on-the-fly crafting and construction mechanics Fortnite offers do make for some meaningful changes to the PUBG blueprint, and thanks to its millions-strong player base those additions have quickly been osmosed into the battleroyale genre. And that makes it easier for others to follow suit without appearing uninspired or cynical: as the genre’s palette expands, development becomes a question of which elements to include, which to reject, and which are in need of a new slant. If everyone’s been humming the right cosmic frequency during the dev cycle, the end result comes out looking distinct, and publishers have some USPs to enthuse about under the hot conference floor lights.
The genre’s already established itself, then, but perhaps we shouldn’t expect the tsunami of me-too titles in 2018 and beyond that prior industry form has taught us to. Still, everyone will be watching The Darwin Project, SOS, Islands Of Nyne and the like very closely in the coming months to see if they can pull players away from PUBG. Just as streamers helped drive PUBG’s success, so they will ultimately decide whether the games inspired by it find an audience. One popular Fortnite streamer said it all recently: “If you’re trying to make it on Twitch, my advice would be to jump on any new BR game the second it drops.”
Early indications suggest that it’ll be trickier for rival developers to borrow liberally from the trailblazers