Battle Royale threatens a repeat of the MOBA bloodbath
With around a dozen Battle Royale titles set for release by the end of this year, developers need to be realistic about their chances of wresting market share from PUBG and Fortnite
Battle Royale, for those few who haven't seen it, is a Japanese movie from 2000, the last to be made by legendary director Kinji Fukasaku before his death in 2003. It's about a class of teenagers stranded on a remote island and given a random selection of weapons and three days to fight to the death, as lethal "danger zones" gradually encroach around them, until only a single student remains standing.
Given how easily that concept can be draped onto the framework of a video game, arguably the most extraordinary thing about the emergence and soaring success of "Battle Royale" games over the past few years is that it took almost a decade and a half to happen. The underlying concept of Battle Royale, shorn of its social commentary and its (at the time hugely controversial) teenage characters, is the fuel that drives two of the biggest online hits of recent years: PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite.
"Only a few short years ago, MOBAs went through an almost identical boom cycle"
Conveniently, that very same stripped-down concept is a pretty good metaphor for what's going to happen within the online gaming space over the next year or so as well. Just like the games themselves, and the movie, we're about to see a bloodbath in the Battle Royale space, which has become the next target for companies hoping to hop onto a major multiplayer bandwagon. A quick scan of gaming news over the past six months reveals around a dozen developers chasing after PUBG and Fortnite with broadly similar titles; it's likely that there'll be ten or more games in this space launched by the end of 2018, and it would be absolutely stunning if a single one of them came close to the existing hits.
Unevenly matched competitors in a desperate, zero-sum struggle for survival, potentially on territory that's slowly getting smaller underneath all of them? Now where have I heard that one before.
In fact, as irony-laden as this reflection of the microcosm in the macrocosm may be, there's a far better comparison that companies thinking of jumping into Battle Royale should be mulling over carefully. Only a few short years ago, MOBAs went through an almost identical boom cycle. A scrappy, relatively cheaply put together game turned into an online sensation and was rapidly picked up by a big publisher, a single major firm was able to replicate some part of that success with a more polished version of much the same thing, and then dozens of companies stepped up with their own takes, convinced that whatever minor addition they could make to the formula (licensed characters! better graphics! different setting!) was going to earn them a slice of the pie.
Not a single one of those games turned out to be a success on any notable level; even those backed by some of the world's biggest game companies struggled to make their mark. MOBAs reached saturation incredibly quickly - they remain an incredibly popular type of game, albeit eclipsed somewhat by Battle Royale titles lately, but rather than being a 'genre' in the sense of having a steady stream of games iterating around that core concept, this is really a space that has room for a couple of big hitters and very little else.
"The cost of moving to a new multiplayer game for a player already ensconced in an existing one is extremely high"
I see precisely zero reason to expect any different from the Battle Royale space, not least since this has predominantly been the case for every major multiplayer game movement over the past 20 years or so. From the MMO boom precipitated by the success of World of Warcraft through the console FPS success of Call of Duty, to MOBAs and eventually Battle Royale titles - and no doubt a handful of genre 'waves' I've missed out in between - a common factor has been that no matter how commercially gigantic those trends have been, they've never really been able to support more than a handful of huge games, squeezing out any chance of an ecosystem for smaller or medium-sized titles.
There are straightforward reasons why this happens, of course; utility calculations and costs that simply don't exist outside the multiplayer space. The cost of moving to a new game for a player already ensconced in an existing one is extremely high, since they lose their items and progress, and unless they can convince their network of friends to move with them (a pretty high effort cost in itself), they may lose much of that as well.
While there's a population of players who effortlessly hop from game to game, they're actually not terribly commercially valuable; multiplayer games often make most of their bank from long-term players who get really deeply involved in a game's ecosystem, and the flighty audience that jumps onto whatever is new for a month or so simply doesn't move the needle in revenue terms. This effect - valuable audiences being buried deep in their commitment to existing titles and largely impossible to entice away - is only rendered more prominent by the use of free-to-play systems in multiplayer games, as the sunk cost in terms of microtransactions can be extremely high for many players.
"Adding spit and polish to existing game systems isn't something existing players will care that deeply about"
In spite of the clear precedent which suggests that the Battle Royale space is largely nailed down already - and that any further growth in the genre is likely to be devoured by its existing major players - many developers are trying to chase this white rabbit already. I also have little doubt that license holders are presently being inundated with pitches for 'PUBG, but with Marvel superheroes!', or 'Fortnite, but with The Walking Dead brand!' - all of which fail to address the elephant in the room, namely that even bringing some of the biggest brands in entertainment to bear on the MOBA space achieved precisely nothing in terms of granting a competitive edge against the games that already dominated.
It's not that this temptation isn't entirely understandable. Not only is this a new and enormously profitable market, a lot of development execs probably look at something like PUBG and think, 'My team could make something much more polished and accessible than this'. They're not wrong - PUBG's rough-and-ready roots still show through clearly in the game - but they're missing the point.
Those rough-and-ready roots are actually part of the appeal to many players, and besides, this is a genre in which the crown is already firmly held. Adding spit and polish to the existing game systems isn't actually something existing players will care that deeply about - not compared to their attachment to the games they're already so deeply embedded in.
The alternative, of course, is harder - go out there and try to figure out what you can seriously change about Battle Royale to make it genuinely different and exciting for players; a change so fundamental that you actually end up making something that's not really Battle Royale at heart, but something genuinely new. Better again, figure out a new kind of multiplayer experience instead of aping the current trend at all.
Of course this sounds tough, and incredibly risky, but the past few years of MOBA titles launching and flopping like salmon trying to leap over a hopelessly high waterfall should have taught us that the idea of avoiding risk by copying successful online games is a fallacy. In the current climate, nothing is riskier than taking a derivative run at a firmly established game in a multiplayer genre.