I made the deliberate decision to not play a battle royale, which seems weird looking at my gaming history. I logged thousands of hours on other popular PvP games, like Counter-Strike and League of Legends. I played fighting games. Heck, I even played DayZ a ton when it was an Arma 2 mod and later as a standalone. What everyone enjoyed the most about DayZ looked to be condensed into battle royale. But the more I saw of battle royale, the more I didn’t want to like it. And then I changed my mind.
To be truthful, I did play two rounds of Apex Legends. It was with a couple of coworkers right after work while we waited for traffic to die down. The experience I had was similar with a lot of first time players: you ran around for about 10 minutes before getting killed by the first group you ran into. The highs were incredibly high, heart pounding and all, and the lows not really that low. The promise of glory kept you trying again, the feeling of suspense pushing you through. It’s an experience that will be difficult to replicate in any other setting. I had fun, but playing the game tickled the dark, cynical corner of my brain.
Head to head competition in games, sports, or whatever have an opposing team. Part of the fun is learning about your opponent. What are their strengths? Weaknesses? Tendencies? It takes a couple of goes with them before you can develop a clear picture. This is why games in sports aren’t decided by the first goal or the first touchdown. As players, you make adjustments and try to adapt. As spectators, we see this relationship unfold between the two teams.
In the context of a single game of battle royale, you don’t have time to develop any meaningful relationship. The moment you realize success or defeat, your relationship with that opponent ends. The high variance makes for riveting gameplay (as both a player and spectator) and is the genre’s greatest charm. Just like in most competitive games, if you play for long enough, you will learn to recognize and categorize people by archetypes — aggressors, risk-takers, people that play safe. Play against the same person for long enough, and the archetype will start to whittle away, revealing the true person underneath. However, in battle royales, because you only ever fight against the same group once, your opponents will stay as archetypes and will never move beyond that. Who they are doesn’t matter, because who are they anyway — we won’t ever see them again.
This is why, as much as the game seems to be focused on it, battle royales aren’t actually about your enemies. The win condition is not having the most kills. It’s being the last man standing. It’s about surviving with limited resources in an ever-enclosing circle. If you want to win, you should avoid fighting for as long as possible. After all, the less you fight, the higher your chances are of surviving. It’s a small but important distinction that changed my mind about battle royales.
Part of me wonders though if battle royales would’ve been popular if they came out a decade ago in the 2000s. Arguably, the most popular multiplayer games then were games like World of Warcraft. They were the games where you go around forming groups with random strangers to take on challenges you couldn’t undertake alone. But society is different now. We’ve all gone to isolate ourselves into our corners of the internet. We sit in our little groups and do battle with “everybody else”, who are all a threat to our goal of being #1 (something else our society really cares about). We forget about the ever-enclosing circle of death that traps us all. And forget that we’re all just trying to survive. And forget that we all came from the same place — a flying bus in the sky.