Game of the Year season isn’t just about highlighting our favorite works. It also means reflecting on the year that’s been — looking back at all the things we can learn from going forward. Yes, usually that means picking out our faves (and/or problematic faves) and cherry picking their best features for analysis. We certainly want to see more games with incredible updates and great characters, for example.
But some things? Some things just make us sad. 2018 was no stranger to big disappointments (not just in games). And it’s always disappointing to watch people who just won’t learn from their mistakes.
The games industry (or at least many of the people at the top of it) love a good bandwagon. Every couple of years, some different trend becomes the focal point of every publisher’s gaze — the kind of stare with dollar signs instead of pupils. Once it was MMOs. Then MOBAs came along. Online passes sure were a thing, too, huh? Oh, and loot boxes seem… at least somewhat on the way out now. Right?
Well, one more thing hasn’t slowed down just quite yet: battle royale games. They’re everywhere. And it makes some semblance of sense. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was a smashing idea that needed (some might say still needs) a lot of polish. There was a window for some enterprising company to step in and offer a more well-crafted product with some of the same ideas.
That company was Epic Games. The studios’ latest project — turning the cooperative base-building game, Fortnite, into a battle royale — seemed like a shoehorned cash grab at the time. It turned out to be a very smart, shoehorned cash grab, at the very least. The game is astronomically popular, especially with younger players. That’s thanks in part to the ungodly speed at which Epic iterated, updated, and ported its shooter to every system under the sun.
And that probably should have been the end of it! But no; everyone needed a bite at the apple. Now the App Store and Steam are full to burst with rushed clones of the core concept. Usually, there’s some kind of thin gimmick to make each new battle royale game stand out. Other flagging games have also shoehorned the mode into their existing frameworks, to admittedly less success than Fortnite, too. It’s inescapable.
Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with making a game like another game. From Software’s Dark Souls basically spawned a new sub-genre of action game. Why aren’t PUBG and its predecessors considered in the same way?
The difference is time. Battle royale games, like an increasing number of AAA games in general, want you to play them forever. That way you’ll keep buying cosmetics, battle passes, subscription fees, and the like. But each person only has so much time for “hobby-grade” games. And so the market settles around one or two favorites. World of Warcraft still dominates the massively multiplayer space. Dota 2 and League of Legends took over PC MOBAs. There are outliers, but they’re just that: outliers. And big publishers like EA don’t continue to back outliers (see Dawngate, Warhammer Online, or any number of dead games as examples).
So it’s sad to see so many games that will likely be — or have already become — unsuccessful while chasing that dragon. Developers’ livelihoods get swept up in and tied to that pursuit. The games industry already has a habit of chewing its employees up and spitting them out. Doing so for the sake of a gamble that the higher-ups should already know won’t work? Putting all the risk on those workers that they can just lay off and maybe re-hire for a the next fad down the line? It’s distressing.
That’s why our Most Agonizing Trend of 2018 is ill-conceived battle royale games. Really, though, we’re picking the crushing cycle of this industry in general. It’s time to move beyond learning from the past (we’ve already done plenty of that) and start supporting the people who act on it. Something like, oh, I dunno, more game developer unions might help. Just a thought!
And in case you wanted some examples of this trend, here are a few battle royale games released or announced just this year. Some of them have already closed down!
- Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 – Blackout
- Darwin Project
- Totally Accurate Battlegrounds
- Realm Royale (a Paladins spin-off)
- Battlerite Royale
- Battlefield 5: Firestorm (battle royale mode coming 2019)
- Red Dead Redemption 2: Make it Count
- Ring of Elysium
- The Culling 2
- The Culling Origins
- Dying Light: Bad Blood
- Rules of Survival
- Islands of Nyne
- Rapture Rejects
- Knives Out
- Gareena Free Fire
- Radical Heights
- Last Tide
- Fear the Wolves
- Fractured Lands
- Cuisine Royale
- Survival Games
- Mavericks: Proving Grounds
- Counter-Strike: Global Offensive – Danger Zone