Battle Royale: “It could even be a boat!”

Whether you prefer Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), Fortnite or Realm Royale — “Battle Royale” is a huge gaming phenomenon. We basically learn about record-breaking player numbers and revenues on a daily basis. What is it about the genre that seems to magically attract millions of players?

The Surprise Bag Concept

First of all, the “Hunger Games” format is an original and novel ruleset. That’s such a rarity in the realm of video games that this fact alone can partially serve to explain the success. On top of that though, the core game is super easy to grasp: 100 players on an island, last one standing wins. On the other hand, we can already spot a few conceptual oddities right there.

Good games are typically designed to deliver a specific kind of experience. Be it single-player games leading the player through a clever chain of interactive challenges (Deus Ex, The Witness), or multiplayer games making use of matchmaking algorithms to put their participants up against equally skilled opponents, thus maximizing the density of interesting decisions for all involved (League of Legends, Gwent).

Battle Royale though? Not so much. Of course there are tense, intellectually enriching matches, but definitely not consistently so. Some of them end within 5–10 seconds in some chaotic skirmish. In others you’ll not meet a single human opponent for 15 minutes (which, funnily enough, is often even rewarded in the form of a “top 10 finish”). No surprise the genre also doesn’t seem to work particularly well as an esport.

But wait, isn’t this fascination based on wildly varying results reminiscent of another “hot topic” in today’s gaming landscape?

The Ultimate Lootbox

That’s right, Dr. Skinner strikes again. The unpredictable nature of every Battle Royale match can easily be viewed as a form of lootbox. Sometimes you get a “legendary item” in the form of an exciting match from start to finish. But then after tht you also draw a few blanks: anticlimactic rounds of going through the motions without any real value. Then you pull the “New Game” lever once more, because next time it’ll surely be great again!

By the way, this also works amazingly well for spectating purposes. Battle Royale games have been a big deal on Twitch for a long time now. Just like the players themselves, the audience can also never be sure what they’ll be getting and when interesting situations might potentially arise. It’s indeed “variable ratio reinforcement”.

Now combine this lootbox-ish nature of the genre with random item drops in every match (whether you’re looking at item stacks in PUBG or actual wooden boxes in Fortnite), and the immense addiction potential of Battle Royale games should not seem all that surprising anymore. Players hunt for looboxes inside a giant lootbox. Welcome to dopamine wonderland!

It’s fine. Or is it?

Now, while actual lootboxes attract more and more criticism these days, Battle Royale as a genre doesn’t. And rightfully so. We’re talking about full-fledged gameplay systems that do have interactive merit (at times more than many other games). On top of that the lootbox structure is more a side effect of the design than a goal in itself. That alone makes it way less devious than all the gambling mechanisms typically found in modern video games.

But intention aside, could games of the genre potentially still convey worrying messages? Without trying to demonize Battle Royale specifically, the subtext of games should, at the very least, be considered more often — especially if we want to see them stand as equals next to other art forms. For a start, here are a few example questions:

  • Do players of these games become more susceptible to or accepting of a form of “fun” that’s more based on addiciton mechanisms rather than depth and enrichment?
  • Do these games send questionable signals about what makes for “good design” by not caring all that much about at times extreme inconsistency?
  • If players would usually consider a matchmaking algorithm that throws veterans and newbies together dubious at best, why not in this case? Could it be because they subconsciously understand the nature of the thing they put so many hours into very well, and therefore fear such a change might make that particular kind of experience worse?

And one more for the road: What kind of world view are we promoting by creating such a giant hype around these blunt dog-eat-dog systems?

Good thing it’s all just a game. Right?!