With Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), then Fortnite and countless other variations and imitations, including the new arrival, Apex Legends, the Battle Royale genre has dominated the gaming scene over the last two years and may continue to do so for some time yet.
The basic format is straightforward: Around a hundred players or so drop onto a map and fight to the death, using whatever weapons they can find. A force field progressively constricts the playing space to force players ever closer together, until only one player (or one team) remains.
Each game has its own idiosyncrasies. Fortnite, for example, allows players to build towers or other structures for both defensive and offensive purposes. And Apex Legends allows you to pick from a range of characters with special abilities. The central gameplay dynamics, however, tend to be remarkably consistent across the genre — and tend to follow the conventions popularised by PUBG in particular.
Nearly all these games, for example, rely heavily on encouraging players to do a great deal of looting; raiding houses and supply crates to collect together vast arsenals of weaponry, ranging from knives or pistols to heavy machine guns and rocket launchers.
You can understand why the games tend to follow a fairly standard set of gameplay conventions. The creators naturally try to mimic many of the features of the most popular games in the genre, in a bid to try to cash in on whatever it was that made those games popular. Furthermore, they don’t want to upset players coming from other Battle Royale games, who might become disorientated — and perhaps annoyed — if accepted conventions aren’t abided by.
It’s a pity, though, that most developers have decided to so rigidly follow these conventions, instead of thinking afresh about how the most interesting gameplay dynamics can be achieved.
I should make it clear that I do really like the fundamental nature of the Battle Royale concept. I particularly love the idea of a game that wraps everything up, with death or glory, in a nice, tight 40 minutes or less. I like a challenge, but I’m not a ‘serious gamer’ and I don’t want to commit myself to a game whose main story takes 50 hours or more to reach a conclusion. Battle Royale is just great for those of us who like their gaming in small, manageable chunks.
On the other hand, there are some Battle Royale conventions that I don’t like. And I definitely think there is plenty of room for developers to evolve more sophisticated, more thought-provoking, more satisfying additions to the genre.
And perhaps the thing I most dislike about Battle Royale games is this huge emphasis they usually place on looting around for weapons and other kit, at the expense of more thoughtful strategy options.
Let’s face it; in a lot of games, a huge chunk of the actual gameplay basically involves just searching from room to room and manically opening box after box and crate after crate in a somewhat tedious search for kit, more kit and yet more kit. And frankly, repeatedly searching rooms and opening boxes and then searching some more rooms and opening yet more boxes, is an essentially rather dull and mindless thing to be doing.
And yes, I know a lot of people initially get rather excited by the idea of opening boxes, just like when they were opening their Christmas presents as a child:
“Wow! Another loot box! What could it be? What could it be?”
And yes, sometimes it’s a rare, exotic weapon which you might have some sort of justification for getting mildly excited about, but it’s usually just a pistol when you’ve already got a submachine gun or it’s ammo for a gun you don’t have and don’t especially want.
Surely there must be far better ways of engaging people than just lazily dangling in front of them yet another looting opportunity in a seemingly endless series of looting opportunities?
Well, here’s an idea, for example: Perhaps looting wouldn’t dominate so much, if people couldn’t carry so much stuff so easily.
Battle Royale games are generally supposed to have some degree of realism. They’re not abstract games. They’re imagining an unlikely but potentially real situation. They have people who can walk and run rather like real people, terrain which mimics real terrain and guns which behave rather like real guns.
Of course not everything in the game has to be realistic. Sometimes realism would hurt the gameplay, but sometimes it would considerably enhance it and I think this is one example of that.
At the moment, almost all of the games in the genre use a very unrealistic and inflexible carry system. You can carry up to your maximum capacity, with no cost to your mobility whatsoever.
In my book, however, no-one should be able to run around the map, jumping around like a grasshopper, while carrying a heavy machine gun, a rifle, a submachine gun, a pistol and several box-loads of ammo, without getting seriously fatigued, very quickly, in the process.
If people can do that sort of thing without any consequences in terms of fatigue, then you’re missing out on an opportunity to induce a wider range of potentially successful tactics and strategies.
Battle Royale games, therefore, should develop much more realistic fatigue mechanics, not simply for the sake of realism, but because it improves gameplay.
Having an all-out arms race to get the most and best equipment
is an essentially dull and unimaginative activity. It’s fundamentally much more interesting to have to consider capability trade-offs and to be picking a path best suited to a specific strategy, rather than going for an all-out race to an extreme. More firepower is good, but if it compromises mobility and concealment, that may be a price not worth paying.
As in real life, you should be able to carry a fairly heavy load of equipment, but you should not be able to run about like a roadrunner on heat at the same time. The more equipment you have, the slower you should move and the more quickly you should get tired. Someone carrying a large machine gun and two large ammo boxes and wearing full body armour should only be able to move at about a quarter of the speed of someone carrying only a pistol and wearing nothing but a string bikini. And they shouldn’t be able to jump more than a few inches off the ground or scramble up steep rock faces.
Fatigue mechanisms should be sufficient in themselves to generate much more sophisticated gameplay, but there are many additional possibilities.
Suppose, for example, that in addition to the players, the battle map also has a population of computer-controlled civilians? There’s no automatic way to tell who is a civilian and who is a player — and if you kill or injure a civilian, even accidentally, you’re disqualified and your game comes to an abrupt end. This then opens possibilities for a new concealment strategy; of blending in amongst the civilian population.
Civilians, however, won’t carry weapons, so openly carrying a heavy machine gun or rocket launcher will make you an extremely conspicuous target for all the other players. Being seen with heavy weaponry might also attract the attention of civilian law enforcement, who might arrest you and put you out of the game.
Instead, it might be a better strategy to carry only a small pistol under your jacket or dress, or you might get away with carrying a submachine gun in a briefcase. Carrying a machine gun in a cello case might be too obvious, but perhaps you can just put it in the boot of a car.
Such a scenario is another way to induce more sophisticated gameplay, in which the most successful strategy could be one that carefully balances competing concerns. Yes, you want firepower, but the advantages of that extra firepower may be offset by losing your ability to blend in with the civilian population and by the increased danger of accidentally injuring civilians with rockets or with stray bullets from a machine gun.
You could still go with the heavy weaponry if you wish, but even in the final showdown, your rocket launcher may be of little use to you if your intended target is standing right next to a civilian.
And there are many other possibilities I would like to see developers explore. When it comes to Battle Royale, I think we can do much better than filling most games with a dull and rather brainless search for ever more weaponry.
Battle Royale can be significantly improved through the use of gameplay systems that involve carefully considered trade-offs between divergent capabilities. These trade-offs make for better, more interesting gameplay, more thoughtful strategies and a generally more cerebral and more rewarding experience.