But not in the way that you might think
Battle Royale: the two words are on everyone’s lips right now after both Fortnite: Battle Royale and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) hit over three million concurrent players last weekend.
What is perhaps surprising about this is that neither are so-called ‘AAA’ games, and have few of the hallmarks of this year’s biggest releases.
The success of Battle Royale (which is essentially a large-scale fight to the last man in a large arena) has already been taken note of by AAA developers, with leaked information from Red Dead Redemption 2 suggesting the upcoming blockbuster will feature the game mode.
This is not uncommon. Indeed, Fortnite itself saw an opportunity to mimic PUBG to capitalise on Battle Royale-hungry Playstation 4 players. It has also been a trend in major game releases over the last decade, where one success has spawned a multitude of similar games – consider the saturation of first-person shooters that followed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.
However, deeper, more telling lessons can be taken from Fortnite and PUBG than the popularity of the game mode itself; lessons that even the biggest, most powerful developers and publishers will be taking note of.
The first is that games don’t have to do everything. This generation has seen huge titles which really have tried to conquer audiences across all fronts: multiplayer, single-player, co-operative play. Even within these broader categories, games like Call of Duty, Star Wars: Battlefront II and Destiny 2 have a huge number of game-modes.
PUBG and Fortnite have taken one, actually quite simple concept, and perfected it, building the entire experience around getting everyone involved in that one gamemode and optimising the game’s mechanics to suit that experience. And it shows.
The second lesson pertains to graphics. The graphical capabilities of the Playstation 4 and Xbox One has meant that big-budget games have focused huge amounts of their time, resources, and manpower into creating games that refuse to fall short of photorealistic, highly detailed graphical fidelity.
Consider this in contrast to PUBG, which most closely resembles the decade-old Battlefield 2, or the clean but heavily stylised aesthetics of Fortnite. These are a long shot from the likes of Assassin’s Creed or Uncharted 4 — but their audience doesn’t care. It may be, then, that cinematic graphical quality is not as much as a necessity as the likes of Ubisoft, EA and Activision consider it to be.
The third, and perhaps most important lesson, is the value that PUBG and, in particular, Fortnite put in simple, not always entirely serious, fun.
‘Fun’, of course, is a nebulous term – what I mean by this is an ambition to create simple, unadulterated enjoyment for the player without any overarching ambitions to create ‘a piece of art’, ‘an insight to the human condition’ or ‘a game of the year contender’.
How many earnest, narratively ambitious, big-budget games have we seen this generation? Uncharted, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect, Destiny, Call of Duty, Horizon Zero Dawn, Bloodborne, Dark Souls, Star Wars: Battlefront, Battlefield. This is a lengthy list and I could go on.
I’m not criticising each and every one of these games, but this shift towards games that try to deal with weighty themes in a brooding, serious manner has saturated the market with games that take themselves very seriously.
In stark contrast, PUBG has harboured no illusions of being anything other than what it is, whilst Fortnite has actively integrated a more light-hearted feel into everything from its place names (Dusty Depot, Loot Lake, Titled Towers etc.) to its game modes, like ‘Sniper Shoot-out’ and the upcoming ‘The Floor is Lava’.
The popularity of this more tongue-in-cheek light-heartedness should have been evidenced by the two games that arguably proved the biggest hits on the PS3/XBOX360 generation: Grand Theft Auto V and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim — the former of which was an unapologetically nihilistic all-action game with a wicked sense of humour, the latter a more serious narrative that gained much affection for its array of bugs, clunky dialogue and bizarre storylines.
I’m not saying that everyone wants games with one gamemode, limited graphics and no attempt at a serious plot-line — indeed, variety is preferable to anything else.
However, given that games all have limited budgets, it may be time for AAA developers to reassess the relative importance of where huge amounts of their budget is going. In other words, Fortnite and PUBG will teach publishers and developers to re-prioritise in order to get the “recurrent revenues” and “sustainable player-bases” that the two have obtained, and that AAA publishers so desperately desire.