Nowadays, when a new shooter is announced or comes out there’s one question that consistently pops up: is it going to have battle royale? It’s one that’s asked both seriously and in jest ever since the sub-genre’s popularity exploded just a few years back. The fascination with large-scale multiplayer, where only one player or team per match is left standing, took off like never before when PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds hit Steam early access in March 2017. And while there were battle royale games that came before it and, of course, many that came afterward, PUBG is undoubtedly the force that thrust battle royale into the mainstream.
PUBG’s creator, Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene, had a history of making mods for existing games, namely the military sim series ARMA. His creation of an ARMA 2 mod DayZ: Battle Royale (a mod for a mod, if you will) seeded the first step for the sub-genre. He was then brought on as a consultant with Sony Online Entertainment (now Daybreak Games) for the creation of H1Z1’s battle royale mode. In 2016, this battle royale mode split from the survival-based version of the game and became a standalone product known as H1Z1: King of the Kill.
At the time, H1Z1 had built a dedicated player-base because of the unique thrill of having one life per match, the unpredictable variables like randomized loot and safe zones, and the intrinsic reward of besting 100+ other players. However, there was always a sense of refinement that was missing from renditions of battle royale at the time, even H1Z1. Their nature as mods really showed, whether it was because of some janky mechanics, relatively low production values, or bare overall structure.
That’s not to say PUBG didn’t carry some of that baggage when it came on the scene. But when Greene collaborated with Korean developer Bluehole to bring PUBG to early access on PC in 2017, it was readily apparent that it was breaking the barriers to entry that held battle royale back from a larger audience. The game made a slew of mechanics relatively accessible, allowing newcomers to quickly understand the premise and what needed to be done to survive in a match. Drop from a plane with 99 other players, gear up at key locations on the map, adapt to the map’s ever-changing safe zones, and win those nerve-racking firefights with what you can scavenge.
While there were battle royale games that came before it and, of course, many that came afterward, PUBG is undoubtedly the force that thrust battle royale into the mainstream.
PUBG’s roster of weapons also had a lot to do with its lasting appeal, thanks to their distinct characteristics of damage, range, and recoil, but the attachments system added an extra layer of tactical depth. Firefights carried an unmatched level of intensity because you truly had to understand how your weapons worked and earn your kills with proper positioning and precise aim. Combine that with tools like smoke grenades and the on-the-fly tactics of using your surroundings for cover, and it’s almost as if you had to play mind games with your enemies. Thus, coming out on top would feel like its own reward. Chicken dinners were never this tasty.
PUBG even sustained popularity with only one map through most of its early access period, which is a testament to how varied the map was and the unpredictable nature of safe zones. Previous battle royales were made up of fairly barren battlefields, so with PUBG’s map featuring dense city centers, varied terrain, and expansive hotspots for action, it set the bar higher for such an important aspect of the game. Thus, no two matches would play out the same and emergent situations kept PUBG feeling fresh match after match.
It was the right game at the right time, and the first fully-realized version of battle royale in video game form. PUBG leaned heavily into its military sim roots in a way that made its action play more like a tactical shooter, but struck a balance between hardcore and approachable mechanics. And although it wasn’t without its share of technical issues, it didn’t bear the weight of a mod’s jankiness. When critics were able to have a definitive word on the game when it fully launched with a 1.0 release, it was showered with praise.
To echo the sentiments from my own review of PUBG for GameSpot, I wrote, “It’s not the first of its kind, and despite glaring flaws, PUBG emerges as the most accessible, mechanically refined battle royale game to date.” I capped it off by saying, “Every player has unique stories of their most memorable matches, and even after hundreds of hours, PUBG continues to inspire rousing tales of victory and defeat.”00:14 / 06:10
Polygon’s Chris Plante awarded PUBG a 10/10 score (Polygon no longer does scored reviews), and stated, “Battlegrounds is the refinement of a new language of play, but what may earn it a spot in the video game canon is that conceptual efficiency,” and briefly described PUBG as “imperfectly perfect.” And after hours of on-air deliberation, our colleagues at Giant Bomb named PUBG their game of the year for 2017. Even in a year of amazing, genre-defining games like The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, Persona 5, Nier Automata, Super Mario Odyssey, and Divinity: Original Sin II, PUBG most certainly stood out in its own right and set in motion something larger than itself.
According to Steamcharts.com, PUBG exceeded 1.5 million peak concurrent players in September 2017, breaking the previous record set by Dota 2 in March 2016 with 1.3 million players. PUBG continued its meteoric rise and hit a peak of 3.2 million concurrent players in January 2018, nearly three-times that of Dota 2’s highest player count. Needless to say, others took note of PUBG’s increasingly wild popularity.
Sure, it hasn’t been very long since PUBG busted onto the scene, but battle royale essentially went viral because of it.
A little game called Fortnite is a household name and a cultural phenomenon today due to its adoption of the battle royale game mode. Fortnite was initially a wave-based shooter with construction mechanics akin to a survival game (now called “Save The World”), but the team at Epic Games clearly kept a close eye on PUBG. Game director Donald Mustard stated that Epic loved battle royale games, including PUBG, and a separate team at Epic quite literally spun the battle royale mode for Fortnite in a span of two months. In September 2017, Fortnite: Battle Royale hit early access as free-to-play for PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4, and soon became its own beast.
How do you even begin to describe Fortnite’s position in games? For starters, the highest concurrent player count Epic has recorded during a non-event day was 7.6 million in February 2019. The game has partnered with Marvel for a limited time Avengers-themed event where players could embody Thanos. It has official NFL-themed jerseys as skins, and just recently incorporated the Jordan brand. And 10.7 million people hopped onto Fortnite for Marshmello’s live in-game concert. Fortnite’s massive success also provided the leverage for Epic Games to open its own digital storefront for PC games. There’s a whole lot more to unpack, like its impact on streamers and esports, but this is all to say that battle royale has been an extremely powerful thing for games, and PUBG led the way.
Fortnite was just the beginning for the battle royale games that followed in PUBG’s footsteps. The biggest first-person shooter franchise in the history of games, Call of Duty, did its own take on the concept with Blackout mode in Black Ops 4, which launched back in October 2018. Electronic Arts and DICE took notice as well, and brought battle royale to their long-running large-scale FPS series with Battlefield V–although it didn’t launch with Firestorm, the mode came as a free update in March 2019. Publisher EA would sort of double-dip when the team at Respawn Entertainment, known for its critically acclaimed Titanfall series, came out with Apex Legends in February 2019.
Apex Legends set itself apart by merging elements of hero shooters, like Overwatch, with the core traditions of a battle royale game. However, smart tweaks to the formula such as the intuitive ping system and the incorporation of respawning teammates kept the genre’s premise fresh. Apex Legends simplified the necessary mechanics for a seamless experience as well, like the automation of looting better items and equipping better attachments. In a way, it makes PUBG look ancient, but Apex’s great success is nonetheless rooted in the foundation PUBG set.
Sure, it hasn’t been very long since PUBG busted onto the scene, but battle royale essentially went viral because of it. While others have bested it from a gameplay perspective and in current relevance, it’s still going strong. Even at the time of publication of this article, PUBG is the third-most played game on Steam with a peak of 680,000 concurrent players, just behind Valve’s own CSGO and Dota 2. PUBG may not have the same popularity it did only a year and a half ago, but it didn’t have to maintain that peak for it to have influenced such a large part of the gaming industry–an influence that we’re still witnessing evolve.
So, what’s the next big game to do battle royale? Tetris?! Oh, wait…
For a look at the rest of our features in this series, head over to our Most Influential Games Of The 21st Century hub.