How to Make Battle Royale Games Even Easier to Learn
Only a year ago I used to judge games like Fortnite, PUBG, and others mainly out of self-awareness of my mediocre skill at these games and a snobbiness about what games I considered were worthy of my time. I would ask myself, why would I play what is essentially the same mini-game over and over and over again, hundreds if not thousands of times?
Now, a year later, I’ve logged hundreds of battle royale matches, and there is no end in sight. Whether it’s my journey of getting slightly better at these games the more I’ve played or the fact that in a pandemic, where human interaction is a luxury, playing online with friends or even randoms can be fun, I’ve been converted.
My game of choice has been Apex Legends, a battle royale set in the Titanfall universe. For me, Apex hits the right mix of fun gameplay, interesting lore, and unique characters. I’ve always shied away from pure war games like Call of Duty and others, not so much out of distaste but instead out of boredom. Guns are boring. Apex mitigates this by introducing Legends with various abilities that help make the gunfights feel fresh. Generally, with some notable exceptions from time to time, these abilities aren’t so oppressive that it just becomes a matter of picking the right hero comp.
Apex is striving for that healthy mix of skill-based gunplay, tactical use of abilities, and fun experience overall. They aren’t perfect by any means. There is a lot to improve upon, but I’ve had fun playing up until this point. It’s been a great way to connect with a good friend of mine who lives in Chicago. We play almost daily. After a long day and a long year of isolation, it’s been a welcome addition to my routine.
The challenge of making a game difficult yet accessible
Every genre of gaming deals with this dynamic. That struggle is encapsulated by the old maxim of striving to make games easy to learn yet hard to master. I’d be interested in seeing a graph that roughly estimates the learning curves of various games based on a number of metrics. How long and robust the tutorial features are, how a game retains new players, how vibrant and varied is the endgame content, are there any obvious ceilings or plateaus in gameplay, and how quickly people progress through ranked play would all factor directly into how a user’s journey from beginner to master maps out.
The more skill-based a game is and the less reliant a game is on the story, the shallower the learning curve would be on average. There will be exceptions to this, but in general, the logic lines up. The more a game relies on aim, quick thinking, and reflexes, the harder it’ll be to achieve proficiency. The more time you give a gamer to think and plot and strategize, the easier it is for them to succeed. Again, that doesn’t always track, but I’d feel comfortable in saying that’s true on average.
When we consider where battle royales would sit on this graph, I would imagine the learning curve to be very gradual. In every game of the type, part of the learning experience involves dying…a lot. So much so that it might as well be a staple of the genre. Let’s call it running the gauntlet. Getting better turns into slowly grinding the number of seconds you last in a firefight, getting the first few kills, and frankly just surviving, which can all feel good to pull off after endless deaths. The moments in-between, though, can feel as frustrating and pointless as ever.
Add to this mix certain uncontrollable circumstances like enemies who consistently happen to find better loot within the first few moments of beginning the game, or just barely surviving a team fight only to get mowed down by a third party seconds later, and you have a recipe for rage and toxicity. Not an enjoyable experience, trust me.
Getting people to keep playing your game
On some level, game developers recognize the need to implement systems and mechanics that help newcomers stick with a game. Battle royales especially live and die on the number of active players they can match up, so securing a devoted audience is crucial. As most of these games are free to play, people continually engaging with your game will entice them to spend money on cosmetics and other extra premium items.
So, let’s first look at what’s available, and then I’ll make some suggestions. Most battle royales have a brief tutorial and a shooting range. Keeping the tutorial short makes sense because the basic framework of a battle royale isn’t complicated.
Be the last team standing. Pick up better and better loot. Kill people before they kill you. Easy. You did the quick tutorial. You fired a few guns. Shot down some targets, and now you’re ready to hop into the game with your buddy.
You die almost immediately. You try again. Die immediately. Again. Die immediately. Again. Die. Again. Die.
You get the point. It isn’t great. Another tool developers have used to help smooth this process is skill-based matchmaking, a controversial system of matchmaking that uses several metrics to match players based on skills so that, on average, matches will only consist of similarly skilled players facing off against each other. In theory, it makes the onboarding experience for new players a bit easier, not having to face off against professional players in your first game. For more skilled gamers, it prevents the game from feeling too easy.
It isn’t perfect. If you take a break from the game and then come back it may match you with people who are at a much higher skill level. If you’re a professional, there’s no option for you to play a relaxing game or have a chance to reliably coach newcomers to victory. For new gamers, it actually makes the feeling of having “leveled up” in my skills somewhat short-lived. I had this experience recently playing ranked, having leveled from Silver to Gold. I got to the end of Silver feeling like I could handle myself in a fight. Win a game. Get to Gold. Get dominated over and over again.
So what’s a game developer to do?
My first suggestion would be to develop more opportunities for practice. A good example is Starcraft II, a game I think most would agree is one of the most complicated games to master. Built into the game is a series of tests and challenges to face off against the computer. In each challenge, you focus on a specific aspect of gameplay that needs to be mastered in order to get good. In Starcraft, it’s things like managing your economy, controlling different types of units, countering your enemy, micro and macro controls, defending against an attack. There are specific challenges designed around each skill.
If we were to translate this into a battle royale setting, it could be challenges created around aiming while moving, utilizing the environment, taking on multiple people at once, picking the right gun, analyzing a map. The list goes on. Now, there would need to be a careful balance in not spelling everything out for the newbie. Some lessons you can only learn by doing, and some secrets would be ruined if they were spoiled. Also, some amount of losing and self-analysis will always be required for someone to get better. Nevertheless, a training system like this would be immensely beneficial in convincing people to commit to these games.
My second suggestion would be to let gamers explore the map on their own. Not only would this be great for content creation reasons like a photo mode if you wanted to add that, but it would also help new players get their bearings on the map. I’ve played hundreds of games of Apex, and I still find it hard to orient myself to my surroundings or to know precisely where to land. The gameplay is always so frenetic that it’s hard to impress on players all the ins and outs of a map. What tends to happen is I end up hitting the same areas over and over again just because of repetition and not necessarily because they are the best places to land.
My final suggestion would be to always let people spawn with some form of loadout. I know the huge battles that take place seconds after beginning the game are a draw. That doesn’t need to change. Giving players a load out would make those battles even more fun. The starting loot could be a game’s worst gun, terrible armor, or even just a small speed boost but it would remove the awful feeling of dying to RNG. It would allow players to die to more normal factors like terrible aim or positioning. Some of my most frustrating moments have been dying because I can’t find a gun after opening a half dozen loot barrels filled with other crap while being chased by an enemy.