Fortnite has been a big, dirty, unmitigated success. The brainchild of developer Brendan Greene, it started life as a modification for ARMA 2, heavily inspired by the Japanese film released in 2000, Battle Royale. The game allows players to duke it out on a massive map, as weapons are randomly spawned and generated, forcing those who play to struggle within the confines of either Erangel or Miramar until only one person is left standing, and for the more astute among our audience, you’ll realise two things: I’m actually talking about PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and trying to tell the two games is like trying to distinguish all the white people at a Coldplay concert.
Obviously, Fortnite, for its similarities to the earlier PUBG, distinguishes itself by being more cartoony and outlandish in design, and, of course, its servers are not half-dead. It, as we know, is the main competitor to the original battle royale format pioneered by Green, and if you’re feeling nasty, also the main copycat. And you can forgive one copycat; it happens in every industry imaginable, not just video games – if an opportunity is there, expect someone, somewhere to take it by releasing a similar product to ensure they get a lucrative cut. That’s business. But like the sharks they are, competitors have smelt the blood in the water and are now scrambling to get something close to a battle royale in their upcoming releases. Indie game creators who use Unity texture swaps (read: chancers and grifters) have switched their focus from Minecraft-style sandboxes to battle royale clones, and now even Call of Duty want a slice of the pie, with a PUBG-“inspired” mode announced for the next release of the venerable series. Like Devo did to the music-listening public in 1980, we’ve been given freedom of choice. This begs a question; are we running a huge risk of oversaturation? What’s the harm?
It is far from unreasonable for developers to want to follow the money. Looking back at gaming’s history, two crazes particularly stick out for their influence on me-too imitators: Tony Hawk’s and Guitar Hero. Through the mid-2000s, there was a cavalcade of corny Hawk rip-offs such as Grind Session and Aggressive Inline, and that was just skating related; the floodgates were opened for snowboarding, surfing, wakeboarding – anything that involved a silly-shaped board, developers threw money at because it was easily recouped. Even though they did themselves no favour by filling the market with unnecessary spin-offs, the proliferation of so many copycats more than likely sent Guitar Hero into an even earlier grave as well. There’s a clear and present reason why these games have no presence anymore: they were mercilessly ran into the ground not just by Activision but by opportunistic copycats, and that created an intense level of over-saturation, not dissimilar to salting soil so nothing can grow again, and the battle royale is in serious danger of an early grave with no chance of respawn.
Simply put, copying someone else when the opportunity is right means getting the maximum amount of cash for the minimum amount of effort. It’s simple physics; what goes up ultimately must come down, and while a trend is “up”, expect developers to hang onto the fins of the rocket-ship in order to make a buck. But as Irvine Welsh once wrote, that’s short-term sea followed by long-term poison. Gamers are fickle and they will get sick of the battle royale — it’s already starting to happen. Developers putting all their eggs in the battle royale basket like this will hasten an inevitable crash, and much like Neversoft and RedOctane can attest to, jobs are at stake here. When the money inevitably dries up, even those behind PUBG and Fortnite are going to have to ruin livelihoods and send people home because of the overzealousness of chancers.
Playing follow the leader can lead to a worrying sense of arrested development. Refusing to innovate makes no sense for the bottom line or on a creative basis. The only people who buy the store-brand, Great Value label of cola are people who cannot afford Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or, god love them, RC Cola. Otherwise, you buy top label because it’s within your means and you enjoy the full flavour and quality. Chasing a trend will, almost always, result in an inferior product, and at best, only generates short-term income, and a modest one at that — it doesn’t advance gaming in any way. What do you do next? Follow the next trend? Could be years before that comes along. Do you do another copycat game? Maybe, but you have zero original ideas, and you risk being openly acknowledged as a hack developer. Ultimately, if PUBG or Fortnite is already doing the formula well, why bother with any imitators, especially as Fortnite is free-to-play? Plagiarism ultimately isn’t the slacker’s path to succeeding in games, it is just a spade. Once you have one in your hands, you’ll only be compelled to dig yourself a mighty deep hole.
More worrying than that, though, this kind of blatant for-profit plagiarism presents a creativity black hole that not only stunts the progression of games as a creative medium, it entirely strips away any sense of identity and individuality a game has because it now feels like every other game available on the market. Here’s a (quite literal) game situation for you: Burnout 3 was on fire upon release in 2004, receiving a shower of 10/10s and other sterling, made-up magazine grades for its pristine quality, a large and undeniable part of that being its “Crash” mode feature, allowing you to drive your car into oncoming traffic at high-speed to create an awesome and horrific pile-up that surely would have killed dozens. Video games, seriously, what is wrong with you? Man, was it fun as hell, though. Anyway, Crash mode was like if sliced bread decided to collide with other loaves of sliced bread head-on, becoming a defining key to Criterion’s success. Now imagine Gran Turismo 4 decides to crowbar that feature in on the flimsy reasoning that it is popular, so it must be good. Actually, that’s quite hard to imagine since Gran Turismo vehicles never incurred any damage nor ever rolled over, so it would be the safest Crash mode ever, but the point still stands.
Including something like that into a stuffy and serious simulation would be a betrayal of Polyphony’s house style, like showing up to the classic car club meeting in a pimped-out Dodge Neon, blasting Lil Pump from the sound system as Lord Huffington breaks yet another monocle in shock. Just because the Battle Royale mode is hot doesn’t mean it meshes well with your existing recipe. Or, to put it another way, “everyone’s special” is just another way of saying no one is.
Ultimately, is this “lazy”, non-innovating aspect symptomatic of a “crunch time” environment that simply doesn’t allow any time to be creative? Certainly, the state of the industry today is too ephemeral and too dog-eat-dog to sit around, kick rocks, and wait for magic to happen, what with the easy access to online distribution systems like Steam and Origin – the gaming public will burn through trends even faster now, whereas Activision got a good five or six years out of extreme sports. It’s certainly true as to why it doesn’t happen as much at the upper levels of games production, which is perversely driven by numbers as opposed to creating art.
It’s just as true for the independent little guys where development, while serious to them, must be treated as a hobby due to life obligations like work, family, and children; they’re arguably just as time-poor as the put-upon desk jockey being asked by a sweetly snarling middle manager, “Hey, pal, can you stay late tonight? We really need to finish the fine detailing on Heihachi’s neck! That’s fantastic, and you’re cool to work at a normal rate? Terrific, terrific.” The rapid-fire jump onto the battle royale bandwagon is, sadly, a symptom of how evil and cynical the gaming business is. Small creators, shockingly, like to eat and be warm, and that’s why they chase trends, and big boys simply do not have time to stop due to the vicious horse-race style of game development they’ve created for themselves, in which the price of innovation is spending 2 years and $200 million on research and development. The cost is insurmountable and that’s why they chase trends. That’s why we’re getting sick of the battle royale so quickly and why we’re headed for a disaster sooner rather than later.
At the heart of this entire issue, it isn’t honestly and truly about developmental languor and complacency. The entirety of the industry’s messed up. The constant and incessant compulsion for competition, additional hours in a studio far from home, and a cloudy brain racked to find that rarified “good idea”, staying ahead of the menacingly-titled “curve” – watch out, children, the curve is coming to get you! If you don’t stay abreast of the evil curve, you’ll be fired, your family will disown you, and as you’re walking out of the courthouse, fresh from divorce proceedings, your boss will drive by in an open-topped Jaguar, with “the curve” in the passenger side seat. The industry has no humanity, and its latest act of deviation is to tell us we need mass-manufacturing of the same stuff we’ve already played to justify the praise they’ve heaped upon the battle royale; this year’s model, essentially. It’s an ouroboros system that benefits nobody. Developers are kowtowing just so can go to bed at night at a reasonable hour; otherwise, they would be walking around with their eyeballs hanging out of their sockets. What a sick reality that is. Truly, the real battle royale mode is the games industry itself.