The Circle Is Closing: Battle Royale

Ethan Horn
Feb 25, 2019 · 13 min read

The hottest genre in gaming has had two stealth released entries in the last month, what can we learn from looking at them side-by-side? Why is this genre so popular?

From PUBG to Apex, its only getting harder to find room in the crowded Battle Royale market.

Apex: Legends released on February 4th to a huge groundswell of buzz and player support. Tetris 99 was launched in the middle of a Nintendo Direct as a free download for users of Nintendo’s online service. While the games couldn’t seem more different, the connecting fibers of design are so bound together that taking a closer look might just teach us something about what makes each one as fun as they are, especially when it comes to games in the Battle Royale genre.

Before we dive into that, though, let’s take a brief walk down memory lane. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) released as a part of Steam’s early access program during March of 2017. Even in an early stage, underneath a mountain of technical issues, the game captured players attention. The game exploded, lodging itself firmly in the top slot on Steam and inciting a cultural zeitgeist for battle royales, the type of fervor that hadn’t been so pronounced since Minecraft and Candy Crush. The culmination of that wave of interest wasn’t around just yet, but PUBG started rising the tide.

As time went on, PUBG immediately spawned a series of games mirroring many of its high-level design decisions; players jumping from above down onto a map, a storm slowly encroaching and driving players together, and items scattered across the map which would give players advantages to combat encounters. The core tenants of a Battle Royal game were born, and just in time too as Fortnite released its Battle Royal mode on September 17th of the same year.

Fortnite managed to balance the games violence with enough whimsy to market it to all ages.

Fortnite had a slower start, but by January of 2018 it had begun earnestly carving out space for itself in the world. The aesthetic appealed to all ages, capitalizing on an underserved younger market. It was free, in stark contrast to PUBG’s $30 entrance fee. The game was on consoles, and quickly released a series of in-game “Battle Passes” which provided players with a series of rewards for completing in-game challenges. All of these iterations combined to make Fortnite the most played game of last year by a wide margin. The success led to more success, with mobile ports of the game and the largest Twitch audience for a single game following.

Meanwhile, dozens if not hundreds of battle royales were experimenting with the format on Steam and other services. Many of the games were half-baked, thrown together games without serious thought and consideration given to the actual cohesiveness of play-mechanics, aesthetic and player action that helped launch PUBG and Fortnite. Some were notable because of a unique camera angle, a previously lauded developer, or an interesting style, but none could hang with the dominant forces in the field.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode was the last battle royale to make an impact.

And now we come to 2019. It seemed like after the temporary popularity of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s battle royale mode, Blackout, there may be room for a premium form of the game mode that could see serious popularity. For the first month of this year, it actually seemed like the craze may have been settling into the same space as the explosive properties of yesteryear, it seemed like the ever-present battle royale juggernaut might be content to share the limelight.

Then February 4th came, and the cycle began anew. Apex: Legends had been rumored for a few days, a battle royale from the developer of Titanfall, but whenever it released the rise was meteoric. In a single day, it had 2.5 million downloads, by day three 10 million, and one week in the game boasted 25 million downloads and over 2 million concurrent users. To put that in perspective, Red Dead Redemption 2 has moved 23 million (physical) copies since launch. Apex has also been the first game to consistently knock Fortnite out of the top spot on Twitch, regularly doubling the number of concurrent viewers.

A stream by Ninja, a Twitch icon who led the charge in Fortnite streaming, but who has recently split playtime with Apex.

We have no such context for Tetris 99, a game that pits 99 players against each other in a combative form of the classic game. As the closest thing to a comparison, Tetris 99 appears to have close to 1,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch at the time of this writing. The game has not garnered near the public attention Apex has, but it is still capitalizing on the same trends. The fact that both of these games stealth launched indicates that developers are aware of the value surprise has on the gaming industry at the moment. Releasing a product without the spin-up time might make it more intriguing, especially when the game is free, as a zero-cost playground to explore. Perhaps even more importantly, releasing a game without a huge press cycle and multiple betas can help manage player expectations, something other games could stand to learn.

This gets us to the point of the piece, something that I think will help inform our enjoyment of battle royales and all popular forms of game design. Let’s break down the mechanical, aesthetic, and interactive differences from each game and see how they try to hook players, how they play off of the same core features as Fortnite and PUBG, and how they ultimately are creating experiences wholly unique and incredibly engaging.

Let’s begin with the biggest difference, Apex is a loot-shooter and Tetris is… well, Tetris.

Apex looks like a shooter, Tetris looks like Tetris.

Tetris is a purely mechanical game. Much like Chess, there are only so many pieces and the way in which you interact with those pieces is limited. If someone plays Tetris 99 ten games in a row they generally will get better. That may be in terms of actually fitting the pieces together, or of checking which piece will be coming next, or even learning how to do mechanical tricks such as t-spins (maneuvers in which a player spins a piece into a closed off area). All of these things have a certain ceiling, a specific point at which your ability to execute them is only augmented by the speed at which you execute them. This can still change game-to-game of course depending on how focused or dialed in you are, but your skills will progress as you play.

Apex: Legends is decidedly not Tetris, every single match you play has hundreds if not thousands of variables that shape the way you interact with the game. The basic interactions for players are movement, shooting, ability usage and general interaction (a term I’m using here for opening/closing doors, collecting loot, alerting teammates through pings, etc.). Already there are far more variables at play with the way each of these systems interacts with one another. It depends on which “Legend” (character) you select, it depends where you land on the map, it depends what gun you find, each of these variables directly impacts play interactions. As such, playing ten matches in a row may never present you with the same situation twice. You may find the assault rifle on top of a building as a support character one round, and a shotgun inside a sewer pipe as a defensive character the next. This isn’t to degrade that sort of variety, in fact, it is what drew 25 million players to the game right off the bat, but it does differ enormously from the type of battle royale experience Tetris 99 is offering.

Another huge difference between the two is team cooperation. In Apex the game is built around 3 player squads. The game actually features a number of revolutionizing elements to this end, a contextual ping system and collective flight into the match that help coordinate players more from the outset. But in Tetris 99 it is every player for themselves, there is no one to compensate for your off matches. It can be a beautiful thing to win a round in either, but as a result of this squad dynamic each game carries with it a distinct notion of how that win came about in the mind of the player, camaraderie in one and self-superiority in the other.

As players drop in they all follow a single leader, a mechanic designed to promote group play.

Respawn’s ping system really is a thing of beauty. Player information is something game designers spend a lot of time thinking about. Perfect information is the idea that, besides opposing competitor’s intentions, players have complete knowledge of the game state (items held by all users, unit location… I personally recommend Into the Breach highly as a “perfect information” game). The ping system helps elevate the ease and speed of information sharing between players, and in a game with a moderate level of information available, that is incredibly important. Tetris, on the other hand, blends its information gathering aspects into the gameplay. As pieces fall, users must use real-time seconds to turn their attention from the game board to their opponent’s boards in order to collect what information is there to gather. Both games do well in this respect, for what information there is to be gained, accessing it is made easy.

Tetris 99 does have misstep in this vein. For a game as (seemingly) simple as it is, there is a surprising amount of depth that is never telegraphed to the player. There are better explainers of this information out there, but in short to actually progress to higher positions this knowledge is essential. In effect, Tetris 99 introduces a lot of players into a game without equipping them to be good at it, relying instead on the incredible basic mechanic to hook them. Apex, alternatively, has a fairly thorough tutorial that relays the most important aspects of what distinguishes this from related entries in the genre. This on-boarding process is valuable to the overall accessibility and success of the game for apparent reasons, but it also serves to universalize components like the ping system to the entire player base.

Three of the playable “Legends”. | Respawn

The actual aesthetic of both games is almost, if not equally important, as the mechanical and dynamic systems. Apex attempts to connect with players from a wide swath of backgrounds, each of the legends has a specific and diverse origin that can be discovered outside the game. Whether the representation of these identities ends up as something worthwhile, or done shallowly to avoid criticism, is difficult to say. The result for the average player, however, is a higher chance that one of the games 8 legends is relatable. The frustrating reality is that games aren’t diverse enough.

Beyond just the characters though, the island of Apex carries its own visual style. All around are boards announcing the kill leader, as squads fly in trails of neon smoke fill the sky, and announcers alert combatants over loudspeakers of kill leader changes. The variety of locales is a little duller, with a lot of brown and green hues dominating the game, but with powers that light up the screen and differentiate fights from landscape the texture of playing outweighs a still screenshot.

The map has a number of key visual queue’s like mountain ranges and broad coloration to distinguish between one zone and the next. | Respawn

This is all compared to… Tetris. Look, I know, the aesthetic of Tetris hasn’t changed all that much since the four segmented blocks started falling, but there are some subtle things, both good and bad, going on here. On the rough side, most of the games sparse menus look flat and cheap. They scream free-to-play, with any intricacy abandoned in pursuit of efficiency. The pieces themselves lack an interesting variety of palette, which may only stick out thanks to last years Tetris Effect. Regardless, with regards to the good, the simple speeding up of the classic Tetris theme works well to ratchet up the tension as the 99 player pool shrinks past 50, and then again to an even faster pace under 10. Once players have learned the actual mechanics in the game, they are displayed and laid out well for easy access, but for newcomers, the game can look cluttered and crowded.

Yellow lines onscreen indicate where players are sending their ‘trash’, or cleared lines, from.

Match time factors into how both of these games approach the genre. Apex: Legends seems tuned to the prevailing 20 to 25-minute window. This is actually a fairly important feature of all battle royales since the circle closing pushes players together for encounters the game can end exactly when the developers design it too. On average the matches actually fall into two categories, less than 5 minutes whenever your squad loses the first series of fights and over 15 when they survive. Apex then returns players to the main screen to restart the match process of picking a hero and dropping into battle. Tetris 99 lasts at longest 10 minutes and a rematch button on the death screen. While Apex has opted for the traditional flow of the genre, Tetris (by way of its mechanics and design) can speed that cycle up dramatically. The time between Apex matches is around 2–4 minutes, while Tetris has that interlude down to 30–40 seconds.

After seeing your placement, there are no unlocks or longstanding reward system.

Player progression is another important facet to the games if you’ll remember Fortnite solidified itself ahead of PUBG thanks to a regular new progression ladder in the form of battle passes. In short, Apex is stealing the same model and Tetris has none. Well, to be fair, Tetris has an arbitrary account level that doesn’t unlock anything. This has been the one area that has distinguished the good battle royales from the great, and Apex’s developer Respawn has messaged their understanding of this. Apex actually has even more room to be successful in this than Fortnite, thanks to Legend characters as an unlockable, expandable area of the game.

To continue touching on aspects of the titles that aren’t necessarily tied to the gameplay itself, the platforms each of these games are appearing on is noteworthy. Apex released on PS4, Xbox One and PC, each system with a massive player base and stores known for marketing and sharing the highest profile games. Tetris 99 is exclusive to the Switch, it was developed by Nintendo. In fact, these games cannot directly challenge each other, but the form factors help tie in outside elements that have proved successful in games of the past. In the month since release Apex has had tie-ins with Twitch Prime’s service to provide free in-game items and a free skin with PlayStation Plus. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see more and more of these deals happening as the platform mindshare shifts from traditional titles to this. Tetris 99 gets to capitalize on the portability of the Switch, making it the first on-the-go battle royale I have been interested in seeing since Fortnite and PUBG’s mobile version in mid-2018.

There is one final area of battle royales that I haven’t touched on but that is hugely important, and that is how the last few moments of a winning round play out. The adrenaline rush, the narrative build, the heightened demands on execution, these are the building blocks of dramatic final engagement. Both games have ways to make this the best part of the experience, but much of it is inherent to the genre. When you have started from scratch, dropped into the match fresh and undeveloped, battle royales are borrowing the “from the bottom up” narrative building of roguelikes. Starting with nothing and building steadily to a winning moment creates a satisfying and complete narrative. On top of this basic idea, each game has specific buttons it pushes in elevating the moment. In Tetris, it is purely additional speed. As you finish a match the speed and music increase, lending a momentum that is absent from most moments in any given round. As for Apex, the collection of gear ensures you will be best suited to fight by the end, and ultimately feel your most powerful and most in control for the final engagement. These engagements can go one way or the other, but the intensity from facing them is where the magic lies.

Mobility is an important aspect to Apex, the developer’s last game Titanfall 2 set a new standard in first person movement.

So now, considering all of the similarities and differences between the two, how do you know which one to dump your time into? The beauty of battle royales, especially free ones, is that it is easy to figure out for yourself. Playing a match gives you almost all the information you might need about whether or not the game is for you. If you survive the first 2 minutes then the game will slowly dole out all of its surprises. But besides just jumping in, there’s another way to tell that will serve you outside of this two-game pairing.

You need to ask yourself, what kind of player am I? Am I a planner, an adapter, or an improviser? These are recognized methods in which we all approach games and play, and figuring out which you most closely align with might help you maximize your enjoyment with one game over another. The Planner is someone who likes to know what they are getting into ahead of time, they enjoy perfect information and more structured play sessions. They would probably like Tetris 99 a lot. An Improviser is someone who likes the random elements, they enjoy the dynamic elements and feeling as if each session is unique or bespoke in some way. I would definitely suggest Apex to an Improviser. The Adapter, a distinct third type, will typically find a specific style in which they play and sticks to it regardless of the game or systems they are thrown into. Of the two, Tetris seems like it would be suited to an Adapter over Apex’s need for flexibility.

But who really cares about your type? The beauty of video games is that they support all types in some way. Both Tetris 99 and Apex: Legends are interesting and provide a wealth of enjoyment for those who choose to play them. If I was forced to pick between them I honestly don’t think I could, they are so unique and have so many different things on offer even as they are bound up in the same category.

Pairings like this get me excited for what is coming in game design. Both of these games were undoubtedly influenced by the likes of Fortnite and PUBG, so what will the Apex’s and Tetris’s produce a year from now? I can’t wait to see.

Ethan Horn is a Graduate Student at Sam Houston State University, while he isn’t reading Chopin he writes about gaming culture/studies and makes a podcast with his younger brother, Trial Run.

Ethan Horn

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I’m a 22 year old grad student in Texas angling for a Master’s in Game Studies. I write regularly and seem to be getting better as I go, or at least I try to.

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