The Brains Behind the Battle Royale Craze

Investigating the design elements behind the virality and mass-popularity of the Battle Royale game genre

Jake Pelusi
Feb 26 · 10 min read
Credit: Epic Games

Popular culture has been exposed to video games now more than ever, with the current most popular genre of game, “Battle Royale”, leading the charge; catching the attention of both avid video game players and observers of the mass media alike.

Whether you’re an angry mother who thinks that Fortnite is transforming their kid into some vile spawn of Satan, or just a Titanfall fan who’s playing Apex Legends until Titanfall 3 finally drops, we all have a vague (at least) understanding of what the Battle Royale format consists of. And this is no accident.
So today, let’s go over the reasons I believe that this genre of game has become so dominant in the gaming industry recently.

A is for: Accessibility

Credit: EA

Battle Royale games are simple. Easy to explain, easy to understand, easy to learn, and most importantly, easy to play; hence why so many young kids flock to this game format; it’s like bees and honey.

However, these games (especially PUBG and Apex Legends) tend to also incorporate more complex layers of gameplay functions over the top of the otherwise basic gameplay, thus adding an ever-growing skill ceiling to entertain fast-learning players. For example, Fortnite could easily be explained as: “you drop, you find weapons and you try to be the last one alive,” — but then you add the building mechanics and the weapon-rich areas of the map — two of many minute-yet-detailed game mechanics that allow eager players to experiment and learn the best ways to dominate other players.

This makes Battle Royale games incredibly accessible for both seasoned video game players and those who have barely ever picked up a controller (or keyboard). The way I see it is that this is essentially the most effective way to appease and pander to the lowest common denominator because at the end of the day these games want as many active players as possible.

If you have any doubts about just how popular this genre is right now, just have a look at all the games that are incorporating “Battle Royale” gamemodes into their otherwise completely-unrelated games.

Okay, so we get it; the Battle Royale format is welcoming to an extensively large scale of different types of people — but surely these game aren’t the first to do this. What about PAC-MAN?! I mean, you just eat and run from ghosts! PAC-MAN is also super difficult too, so surely it caters to all players, whether they’re casual or hardcore, right?

While this is a good point, no.
No other game genre has ever been this accessible, and here’s why.

First of all, we need to understand that the success of Battle Royale is a product of our time. In other words, the success of these games is not entirely the result of the developers’ work, but also how accepting the world is to this type of game right now.

Here’s what I mean: if this game genre was invented back in the early 2000s it would likely succeed to a far lesser extent than it has today. Why? Because only a mere fraction of the people who have access to a computer today would have had access back then. Even a couple years ago there would be fewer people who have a computer for playing video games! So many more kids have a computer these days than there were kids who regularly visited an arcade back when PAC-MAN was at peak popularity.

Also, not only are kids playing video games nowadays but so are the adults who have grown up playing video games! At this point in time, I truly believe that there has never been easier access to a computer (or console) and there have never been so many people alive of whom video games have touched their lives.

Basically, what I’m probably taking far too long to try and explain is that lots of people have the tools, drive, and interest necessary to download and play games these days.

This isn’t the only reason though, ‘cuz who’s to say someone couldn’t just go and play another game? Why are the Battle Royale games so dominant? Why not any other game?

As much as it pains me to admit, I believe that the popularity of the Battle Royale format is entirely the doing of none other than Epic Games and their “Battle Royale” game: Fortnite.

B is for: Boosting off of Fortnite’s success

Now, the thing you need to understand about Fortnite’s success is that it did not become popular simply because it was just the first Battle Royale game, because it wasn’t. PUBG was released 4 months prior to Fortnite’s Battle Royale gamemode was dropped, and if all it took was to be the first of these games released, then PUBG should be far more mainstream than it really is (not to mention that PUBG technically wasn’t even the first of its kind, as the DayZ ARMA II mod and Hunger Games Minecraft mods were heavy inspirations for Battle Royale and share many similarities with the genre).

See, the reason I believe Fortnite was (and still is) such a hit is because of a bunch of small moving parts that bundled up to form a strong foundation for the game.

Credit: Epic Games

Firstly, much like how Battle Royale games are made accessible enough to pander to the lowest common denominator, so too is Fortnite’s art style.
It’s no lie that the cartoony and colourful art style used by Fortnite is (at least partly) used to appear more inviting to a younger audience. A stark, dusty, realistic shooter like PUBG or CS:GO is far less likely to grab young audiences’ attention compared to the bright and flashy art offered in Fortnite. This art style, while being inclusive to younger players, does not exclude older players, because much like how in graphic design bright colours are used in logos (famously the bright red and yellow colours used in the McDonald’s logo) to grab people’s attention, so too do the bright colours in Fortnite.

Credit: Digital Trends

Another major contributing factor to Fortnite’s wide-spread success is how easy it is to run, which again adds to its insane accessibility. 8 GB of RAM and an outdated graphics card will easily run Fortnite. I mean, you can even play it on your phone! Additionally, making the online aspect of the game cross-platform friendly is a genius move. By allowing entire groups of friends to play a single game, you not only enhance their drive to play (and compete with their friends), but it also enhances the actual sheer number of friend groups who will cooperatively play the game. There are so many game titles that I or a friend of mine have wanted to get to play together on, but the console-to-computer gap kept us from ever actually buying the game because one person would have a console and the other would not (for example). Allowing the game to run with low computer specs and including a cross-platform feature are two very simple ways to get more active players, even if it tampers with the game balancing a little (i.e. mouse and keyboard are objectively better for shooters than controllers are).

And finally, celebrity endorsement. When fans of the game exclaim “C’mon dude, everyone’s playing Fortnite!” it’s really hard to argue with them. From Drake to popular YouTubers, it really did feel like everyone was playing Fortnite at one stage. And when a large portion of a game’s target audience is made up of a young, impressionable audience, celebrities (and Internet celebrities) playing that given game will draw in so many new players. Just think of how many people Drake “inspired” to download Fortnite, and if you doubt there’d be many… then I’m gonna have to quickly remind you that Ninja’s stream where he played with Drake still holds the record for the most concurrent viewers in a single-channel Twitch stream.

Okay, so we’ve established that Fortnite’s success wasn’t a fluke based on it being the first of its kind, and because of this massive success, I believe this spilled over into “similar” games to Fortnite (a.k.a. other Battle Royale games). It’s clear that a large handful of former Fortnite players have transitioned into the newly released Apex Legends (at the time of writing this), thus proving that a similar game to Fortnite is exactly what many people are looking for once they’ve grown bored of Fortnite. We didn’t see any other new games that have come out recently start breaking all these records; not for Anthem; not for Far Cry New Dawn; not for Jump Force. No. Apex Legends was the hit game of the month. And what do you know? It’s a Battle Royale.

In other words, the large-scale success of Battle Royale games as a whole is partly because of the large-scale success of Fortnite. Whether you like that or not, it’s hard to dispute that Fortnite made Battle Royale games mainstream.

C is for: Crazily addictive

Game: PUBG

The final factor that lead to the booming popularity of Battle Royale games is their ability to become easily addicted to them.

If you read my “Easy to Play. Hard to Master” article than you may remember when I emphasised that games with “no real ends” would continue to be extensively popular in the future. Well, I believe that Battle Royale games are one of these types of games, which is the main reason I believe it can become so addictive to people. If you want to read my explanation of what games with no real endings are then feel free to have a look at this article.

There are no final bosses. There are no credits roll, no story, no conclusion. These are competitive online games, and so as long as the player-base's interest is kept, there is no limit to the amount of content these games can offer their players.

These games substitute an ending with another reason to play. Whether you’re constantly grinding to come first place, trying out new strategies, playing with new people, finding new ways to push the game engine to its limits or just trying to unlock a rare item without spending money, there’s really no point in which the game says: “good job, you win!”

It’s a constant, never-ending cycle of recyclable content. And it’s great! So long as you play in moderation, it’s fantastic to play a game that keeps on giving!

Game: Apex Legends

But this is the main reason I can think of that these games are so addictive. And the main reason I believe they’re more addictive than other online competitive genres is simply because of how badly players want to be the last one standing, and how easy it is to lose a game, quickly return to the title screen and say: “Okay, just one more game…”

Just look at this BBC writer (whom I assume does not otherwise play games) and her experience playing Fortnite for two weeks. In summary, she found herself developing a sort of addiction, despite (I would assume) only initially playing the game for the purpose of writing an article for her job!

Side note: This is a really interesting article and I recommend giving it a read if you’re interested. She discusses both sides of the issue of video game addiction and doesn’t just jump on the “video games are bad for you” bandwagon.

And you can’t blame her for enjoying her time playing the game, I mean, Battle Royale games are exciting! You start the game by literally skydiving, then you get to immediately go wherever you’d like to go anywhere on the map! Then you get to look around for weapons to use (just like some twisted Easter egg hunt) and then proceed to shoot people, and who doesn’t love a good old fashion shoot-em game. Not to mention that each player only has one life, so you can’t really afford to make many mistakes because there’s no respawning!

This leaves you with a game with no real end and an incredibly fast-paced, action-packed timeline of fun and exciting gameplay. No wonder it’s so addictive.

D is for: Done!

Game: Apex Legends

To summarise and conclude, I believe the reasons behind the mainstream virality of Battle Royale games is due to the genre’s large accessibility to a large audience of potential players, because the genre was further popularised by Fortnite’s individual success, because of how addictive the gameplay format is and because these games have no real tangible endings to them.

And with no real ending to these games, the only thing left to do after finishing a game is to roll up your sleeves, crack your knuckles, and hop straight back into another. All that’s left after that is to ask:

Where we dropping, guys?

Game: Realm Royale — Credit: Hi-Rez Studios

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Jake Pelusi

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Welcome to my modest corner of the Internet. I’m just a nerd who likes talking about video games, ludology, game design, esports, writing and world building.

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Let’s talk video games.

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