Post Script

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

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