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July 05, 2018

What are 'battle royale' games?

Competitive games like 'Fortnite' and 'PUBG' have become huge

Video game trends come and go, but never fail to dazzle and delight along the way—the building-blocks concept of “Minecraft,” the augmented reality of “Pokemon Go” and, at present, the frenzy of battle royale games like “Fortnite.” 

But to understand what “Fortnite” is, one must first ask: What is “battle royale” and how did it take over video games? 

Curious, we reached out to Frank Lee, professor of digital media in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design at Drexel University.

What is the concept of a battle royale game?

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In a “battle royale” video game, players fight each other to be the last person standing. The simplest way for people to think of it is to view it as a video game version of the movie “The Hunger Games.” However, the term “battle royale” and the actual inspiration for the game genre comes from the Japanese movie of the same name that came out in 2000. 

The game starts with up to 100 players who are dropped into a confined area, like an island. Players start empty-handed, so they must quickly explore and forage for weapons and other useful items. The core of the game is player versus player, and the winner is the last person standing. In order to accelerate encounters between players, and prevent everyone from simply hiding out, a “death” wall that completely surrounds the play area starts closing in as the game is played, forcing players to continually move toward each other in an ever-shrinking area. 

When The Hunger Games, the book, first came out, people couldn’t help but note the parallel between it and “Battle Royale,” which preceded it by 10 years. However, Suzanne Collins has always insisted that she was unfamiliar with “Battle Royale”—the book or the movie. 

What was the first popular game to introduce this concept?

The game that introduced the current concept of battle royale and made it popular is a game called “Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds,” usually referred to as “PUBG.” The game was first available on Steam’s early access in March 2017 for PCs and was officially released in December 2017 for PCs and Xbox One. Although it was immensely popular when it first came out and is still very widely played now, the current king of the battle royale game is “Fortnite.”

However, “Fortnite” didn’t start as a battle royale game, right?

The initial game, called “Fortnite: Save the World,” by Epic Games, was released for early access in July 2017. The original “Fortnite” was a cooperative player versus environment game, where a small team of players work together against enemies in the game. However, many people at Epic were fans of PUBG and they decided to release “Fortnite Battle Royale” as a standalone game in September 2017. After its release, “Fortnite” quickly became the dominant battle royale game and because of the immense popularity of “Fortnite Battle Royale,” the original co-op game simply became an afterthought. So, when people now talk about “Fortnite,” they are talking about “Fortnite Battle Royale” and not the original game.

There are a couple interesting differences between PUBG and “Fortnite.” First, PUBG is played from a first-person shooter perspective, whereas “Fortnite” is played from a third-person-shooter perspective. Second, artistically, PUBG aims for realistic representations of the world in the game, including people and weapons, whereas “Fortnite” aims for much more cartoon-like representations of the world. And finally, an interesting gameplay addition in “Fortnite” is the ability to gather resources from the environment to build structures such as ramps and buildings, not unlike “Minecraft.”

As a side note, given the similarity between PUBG and “Fortnite,” and the acknowledgment from “Fortnite” developers on their admiration for PUBG and it being an inspiration for “Fortnite,” the makers of PUBG have recently filed a lawsuit against Epic Games. I believe this is currently ongoing.


• “Battle royale” means there are as many as 100 players thrown into an arena; the last one standing wins.

• “Fortnite” is the popular example of this gaming trend, though “PUBG” was the first—of late—to adopt this concept. 

• “Battle Royale” and “The Hunger Games” are comparable concepts in pop culture. 

• More than 125 million people are registered to play “Fortnite.” 

“Fortnite” feels like the new “Minecraft” with how quickly it became popular. How did it take off so quickly? What’s the allure?

It is free to play, fair to play, and easy to play. I think that’s the heart of it. 

You can download the game on any device—consoles, PC and phones—and just start playing without paying a dime. Also, unlike some free-to-play games, the microtransactions in the game have no bearing on one’s ability to play the game or advance in the game. All the microtransactions are for completely superficial things to personalize your avatar. And, it’s an easy game to understand and play. Start with 100 people and be the last person standing. 

What’s the data about how many people are playing, money being made, etc.?

According to Epic, “Fortnite” has grown to 125 million registered players. There were more than 40 million players logging in to play every month. The game made $318 million in revenue in May, compared with $125 million in February. In addition, Epic has recently committed to providing $100 million to fund a prize pool for “Fortnite” competitions during 2018-19.

Will we see more free-to-play games in the future because of this?

In the short-term, it is the “it” game of the moment. It was a surprise hit and a lot of thought, as well as healthy luck, went into its current success. We will certainly see more games like this, simply because it’s what’s popular right now. So, instead of a multiplayer mode in “Call of Duty,” we will get a battle royale mode. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if more and more games release this mode as their multiplayer mode. The danger, however, is oversaturation. In the long-term, the battle royale genre will be here to stay, but whether it will be some future version of “Fortnite” or from a completely different company, who knows?

I don’t think it will affect the game industry that much, but where I think it may be transformational is with e-sports. “Fortnite” events like the one recently at E3, as well as one before that in Las Vegas, certainly points to the game’s potent potential as a spectator e-sport. For many e-sport games, it’s hard for the audience to follow the game if one isn’t familiar with it. But the sheer simple premise of battle royale is perfectly tailored for spectator sports. If battle royale can break out as an e-sports from just geeks watching to a broader audience watching, that would be transformational.

Is the advent of games like these influencing design or teaching at Drexel lately?

The short answer is no. What Drexel seeks to teach are the fundamentals of game design and design thinking. Making great games aren’t genre-dependent. While we can learn interesting design elements from battle royale games, we can also learn interesting design elements from first-person shooters, role-playing games and arcade games. In focusing on the fundamentals of game design and design thinking, my hope is that a Drexel game design students will not be the ones simply following the trends, but the ones actually creating new trends in the industry.