As Fortnite: Battle Royale finds unprecedented success, AAA developers weigh the option of entering the genre. But can they compete?
At this point, calling Fortnite Battle Royale a phenomenon seems like an understatement. What started as Epic Games’ free-to-play answer to the success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has transcended video game culture and made it into the mainstream zeitgeist. The game garnered national attention after rapper Drake and Twitch star Ninja streamed the game together with over 635,000 concurrent viewers tuning in to the collaboration.
The has experienced explosive growth since launching in September 2017. Now, players can experience the thrill of battling against 99 opponents on nearly every available platform, from PC to iOS. According to SuperData Research, the game pulled in $223 million in revenue across all platforms in March alone!
The game has had an impact beyond just the national conversation, to the point where other studios and publishers have felt an impact due to the game’s popularity. Publishing giant Activision Blizzard said during an earnings call last week that games like Fortnite have negatively affected their games in the short-term. “We have seen some near-term impact from Battle Royale,” the company’s management said during the Q&A.
A Battle Royale of Battle Royales
As with any monolithic success, every company wants a piece of the pie, or to at least explore the option. Some games have added or are planning to add a similar mode to their titles, such as Paladins, Dying Light, and Battlerite. Most recently, Cliff Bleszinski’s studio Boss Key Productions launched the 80s-inspired battle royale game, Radical Heights. While the game added some unique elements to the proven formula, it has still failed to capture much of an audience.
Now, AAA developers will get their crack at tapping into the potential of the battle royale genre. As we approach E3 in June, we are sure to see more battle royale modes coming to established franchises. Two of the biggest first-person shooter’s on the market are at least exploring the idea of including a battle royale mode in their games — Battlefield V and Call of Duty Black Ops IIII. But the question remains; can even big budget AAA studios slow the momentum Fortnite has created? And if so, how would they even go about it?
All About Perception
There’s always something a bit disconcerting when you see developers jump on a trend post-explosive success. Call it riding the coattails or jumping on the bandwagon, but without a real differentiating hook, these moves will always come across a bit soulless. Radical Heights launched to a general sense of apathy, as many saw it as a cash grab on the heels of Fortnite and PUBG before even seeing the game in action.
For publishers like EA and Activision, fans harbor an even larger amount of distrust on matters of passionate development versus money-grubbing smoke screens. Launching a AAA-developed battle royale mode in any existing megaton franchise will be met with the amplified stigma that the publisher is simply trying to cash in on a new fad. It’s simply unavoidable.
In its earliest days, Fortnite faced this uphill battle. When Epic first announced the free-to-play mode, many — including the developers of PUBG — saw it as simply a replication of Bluehole’s model. Of course, a quick glance at the gameplay side-by-side proves that idea untrue. Sure, at its core the two titles share gameplay elements, but Fortnite‘s cartoonish art-style and additional building mechanics set it apart from the more grounded experience in PUBG.
If Call of Duty, Battlefield, or any other AAA franchise wants fans to see their battle royale as more than just a copy-and-paste of the current offerings, they will have to separate themselves from the competition like Fortnite did. There are two general ways that a AAA-developed battle royale can set itself apart from existing battle royale games: within their existing universe and through gameplay.
Leveraging the Universe
Part of what makes Fortnite and PUBG so addictive is the simple and relatively quick gameplay loop. Jump into a game, fight for your life, rinse and repeat. It feeds off the “just one more match” feeling that made previous team-based shooters so popular. However, at the end of the day, the bulk of what you can accomplish within the game stays on the battlefield. You can win currency to purchase in-game items, but as far as progression is concerned, that’s the end.
A game like The Division or Destiny could really do some unique things with a battle royale mode if they linked them back to their other game modes. Shared world shooters draw their audience in through the never-ending grind for better gear, and a battle royale mode can add a distinct way to gain exclusive loot.
Say The Division added a battle royale mode to its multiplayer arsenal. A hundred agents scour the dark zones of Manhattan for weapons, attachments, and gear. At the end of the round, the person or team that survives gets to extract everything on them to use in all of the other modes. This kind of gameplay hook raises the stakes of each match by providing a meta-goal within the game. Pairing this mechanic with special events that put high-level gear exclusively in air drops or special, hidden crates in the game can create even more meaningful moments and intense fights.
Creating Unique Mechanics
Fortnite has frenetic building mechanics. PUBG has detail-oriented military shooter mechanics. Any title that hopes to compete against these two juggernauts, AAA or not, must find something unique to distinguish themselves within their matches.
For instance, Call of Duty could leverage their longstanding kill-streak reward system to add a differentiating mechanic to their battle royale efforts. In squad play, the kill-streak counter could take into account the entire squad’s performance collectively. After five kills, the squad could have access to a UAV. Five more, and the squad can call in an airdrop to resupply ammo or have the chance at better gear. They could also use the airdrop as bait for an ambush. All-in-all the addition could create a more aggressive playstyle than the sometimes excessive camping gameplay of the two leaders in the genre.
Dying Light’s announced battle royale mode, Bad Blood, is set to release later this year, and it leverages existing mechanics in its established universe to differentiate itself from the competition. Instead of a 100 player free-for-all, Dying Light instead pits six players against one another and blends the PvP with PvE elements. Players not only have to fight one another but also hostile zombies that infest the area.
These are the moves developers will have to make to avoid that “been there, done that” feeling with upcoming battle royale modes. The thing about oversaturation, however, is that there’s always room for a good game in a crowded genre. Titles that simply recycle the same old same old will likely face intense scrutiny from gaming fans. But titles that attempt to innovate in the genre have a chance to cash in on one of the most unreal phenomena the industry has ever seen.