It’s a simple premise.
100 players jump out of an aircraft, heading for an island. The island is deserted, but its many buildings and structures are littered with weapons. Players scramble to arm themselves -- and then fight to the death, battling to be the last player standing.
That’s the basic structure of all battle royale games, 2018’s hottest gaming genre. Popularised by PUBG, it was taken to a new level by the incredible success of Fortnite, which transcended its gaming roots to become a cultural phenomenon.
But battle royale’s origins date back much further than PUBG’s debut in 2017. In fact, they date all the way back to, well, Battle Royale -- a Japanese film released in 2000.
Battle Royale, the film, featured a group of teenagers marooned on an island, forced to fight to the death until only one remains. Based on a novel, the film proved controversial and critically successful, attracting a cult following.
If it all sounds a bit familiar, it might remind you of another popular book and film: The Hunger Games. The central competition in the series -- the Hunger Games themselves -- also involve children scavenging for weapons and fighting to the death, trying to be the last person standing.
Admittedly, last person standing -- or survival -- is hardly a new idea in multiplayer gaming. Plenty of games have tried similar modes, whether to replicate the successful films or just as a concept in itself. But none of them really took off. The current success of battle royale games can be traced to one man.
Brendan Greene wasn’t a master programmer or game designer. He was a regular gamer, known by the username PlayerUnknown, with a deep curiosity of how his favorite games worked -- and an admiration for a certain Japanese film.
He was particularly interested in the game DayZ, a zombie mod for the game Arma 2 that put players in a large island, filled with limited supplies and plenty of zombies. Players had to scavenge for weapons and items to try and stay alive -- but the real magic of the game came when you met another player. In an anarchic world where every piece of ammo or food is precious, will they shoot you for your supplies? Or will they let you pass unharmed, saving their bullets for the zombie horde?
Greene was inspired enough to dive into the game’s code to try and figure out how it worked. And after some tinkering, he released a mod of his own, one which laid the groundwork for battle royale.
The mod was enough of a success to get Greene noticed by professional game developers. After a meeting with a South Korean studio, Bluehole, Greene moved to Seoul to build a battle royale game from scratch.
DEFINING BATTLE ROYALE
The resulting game, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (or PUBG), was an enormous success -- and set the template for plenty of games to follow.
Instead of players spawning at random points on the map, Greene’s team decided that players should begin in a plane. Flying a randomly set route over the island, players choose where to jump out -- giving them an element of choice and strategy, while still mixing things up enough that players can’t stick to the same plan over and over again.
Players then roam throughout the island -- the first one, Erangel, was based on Eastern European landscapes -- looking for weapons, looking for cover, and looking for other players to kill.
To ensure that players wouldn’t just pick a hiding spot and stay there forever, and to make sure players actually ran into each other across such a huge map, PUBG also introduced the playzone -- better known as the circle. As the game progresses, as players die, a circle appears on the map. Players have to get inside the circle before the time expires, or they’ll slowly die. The circle continues to shrink the longer the game goes on, ending with the last two players virtually face to face... until one kills the other, of course.
And when a winner emerges? They’re rewarded with a phrase now famous in gaming: Winner winner chicken dinner.
THE STUDENT BECOMES THE MASTER
Released on early access at the start of 2017, PUBG was an enormous success, selling a million copies in just 16 days. But even that would pale in comparison to the game that came next.
Fortnite actually wasn’t a battle royale game at all. It was a moderately successful survival game, before developer Epic released a standalone battle royale mode for free. It surpassed PUBG and became the biggest game in the world, spawning a craze that went far beyond gaming. It became so big that French footballer Antoine Griezemann celebrated his goal in the 2018 World Cup Final with a dance from Fortnite.
It’s worth noting that Fortnite is pretty different from PUBG. It has a cartoon-like look, in sharp contrast to the realistic military feel of PUBG. Its weapons are similarly playful, its dances sillier, and the game much faster-paced.
Most of all, shooting is only half the battle in Fortnite. It also allows players to build structures, allowing them to quickly throw up walls to protect from gunfire, or ramps to climb out of the way of enemies.
GAME OF CLONES
Fortnite’s originality wasn’t matched by other PUBG clones -- most of them coming from China.
NetEase was the first to jump on the bandwagon, quickly releasing a mobile battle royale game just months after PUBG made its PC debut. Games like Knives Out became hugely successful, attracting over 100 million players.
They weren’t alone. Tencent followed suit with Glorious Mission. Even Xiaomi, the smartphone maker, had their own battle royale game.
Eventually, PUBG itself made it to smartphones, thanks to Tencent. They actually developed three versions of PUBG Mobile: One for international gamers, and two (virtually identical versions) for China.
Notably, the realistic PUBG style of battle royale seems more popular in China than Fortnite’s flavor. But that might change as other games and genres join the battle royale revolution -- whether a different style of game, like the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-esque Swordsman X, or even a different genre like the MOBA Honor of Kings.
By the end of 2018, battle royale is firmly established as gaming’s hottest trend. Fortnite and PUBG are being joined by plenty of others, including from heavyweight franchises like Call of Duty and Battlefield.
When you’re in the middle of a boom, you can’t tell when it will end. But we know where this one started: With a gamer named PlayerUnknown.