From Mod To Phenomenon – A Short History Of Battle Royale

by Jon Bowman on Apr 17, 2018 at 05:00 PM

When the phrase “battle royale” is used in games, there are two titles that clearly come to mind: PUBG and Fortnite. These two games have taken the concept of the battle royale and turned it into one of the hottest genres in recent years. But how did these two games come about? Let’s take a look back and see the stories of how these games came to be and how they have changed the current landscape of video games.

Last Man Standing – The Concept Of Battle Royale

Battle royale has become a popular game mode over the last few years, but it’s far from a brand new concept. In 1999, author Koushun Takami published a novel called Battle Royale, which told the story of a group of middle school children forced to fight to the death on an island by an oppressive Japanese government. A year later, that story was adapted into a movie with the same name that has been released in over 20 different countries. The influence of that cult classic would continue to spread to the West a few years later.

From 2008 to 2010, author Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games trilogy of books that told a similar story in a far, dystopian future. This series of books went on to sell over 65 million copies in the United States alone. From 2012-2015, this series was spread out over four films starring Jennifer Lawrence as the main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. This film franchise went on to gross almost $3 billion worldwide, setting itself as one of the most successful film franchises of all time. With all of the success and influence of both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, it was only a matter of time until the battle royale concept made its way into the gaming medium.

The idea of survival in video games is not a new concept. You can see the roots of that idea as far back as 1978 with Armor Battle on Intellivision, which pitted two teams of tanks against each other until one arsenal was completely destroyed. Last man standing is a common occurrence in multiplayer games, but the aspects that set battle royale apart - like random spawn points and scattered weaponry on maps - first appeared in an unlikely place: Minecraft.

Shortly after the release of The Hunger Games in theaters, Survival Games was a mode hosted in Minecraft. Like The Hunger Games, this mode spawned players in a central area filled with weaponry. Players could choose to fight it out right away to get that gear or spread out through the map, scavenging gear from chests. The player that managed to outlast every other won the match.

In the same year that Survival Games came to Minecraft, DayZ came to Arma 2. The DayZ mod added a survival zombie element to Arma 2’s militaristic open world, but also brought in battle royale elements. Players could team up to hunt down resources needed to survive in the zombie world, but also could fight against others to claim those resources as their own. However, due to size of the map of DayZ, these player-versus-player encounters were few and far between. That is, until an unknown player started playing around with modding DayZ to replicated the concept of Battle Royale to its fullest potential. 

An Unknown Player Approaches – The DayZ Mod

Brendan Greene didn’t have aspirations to become a world-renowned game designer. He was a struggling photographer and web designer from Ireland living in Brazil after a bitter divorce. He chose the name PlayerUnknown, a fitting name for a broken-hearted stranger in a foreign land, scrimping and saving what he could just to return home. Video games were a means of escape from dark circumstances, as they are for many of us. In a few years time, PlayerUnknown would become a household name.

Uninterested by standard shooters, Greene was drawn to a mod from Arma 2 called DayZ, a game more about survival and strategy than the typical run-and-gun shooter. Even though his coding experience was minimal, Greene was fascinated to learn more about how this game that he loved ticked. “I just looked at what other people had done [with the modding tools] and begged, borrowed, and stole code,” said Greene in an H3 interview. “The community in Arma was really helpful. I created my own DayZ server for people to play on, messed with loot tables, created more weapons . . . After doing that for about six months, I decided I wanted to make a mod. I basically modded a mod.”

Greene wanted to create a game that he could enjoy playing with his friends, but also wanted to cultivate a good experience for all. There were times where he would join games on his own server, sit in a bush somewhere, just to kick people who had low bandwidth, making sure that they didn’t ruin the experience for everyone else.

With the popularity of the DayZ mod on the rise, developer Bohemia Interactive decided the time had come to make the mod into a standalone game. With a full-fledged DayZ available, the Arma 2 mod soon became a ghost town. It was at this time that Greene decided to take the mod of a mod that he had created and implement it into Arma 3.

Arma 3 To H1Z1 – Time To Get Paid

Even as the popularity of Greene’s Battle Royale grew, he wasn’t making money from it. When Greene moved his mod over to Arma 3, he finally traveled home to Ireland, but he was still broke. He registered for social welfare and used those funds to keep his Arma 3 servers running. After a few months keeping his servers afloat, Greene was approached by John Smedley of Sony Online Entertainment (now Daybreak Game Company) and offered Greene some consulting work. 

"I was watching the H1Z1 dev stream and they kept mentioning Battle Royale and I was like, "That's great, wanna throw me some money?'" said Greene in a Rolling Stone interview. "John Smedley followed me, and I got a DM at like 2 a.m. that said 'We should talk.' So the next day, I give him a call, and that Thursday they flew me out to San Diego to talk about adding Battle Royale as a game mode to H1Z1. I have a lot to thank them for because they didn't have to give me that chance. They could've just taken the idea and ran with it." That deal would allow Daybreak to create H1Z1: King of the Hill in 2015, the most popular iteration of Greene’s code. At least for the time being.

The Transition To Bluehole – BattleGrounds Is Born

Smedley’s offer wasn’t the only one Green would receive while modding Arma 3. After consulting on H1Z1, he was approached by Chang-han Kim, an executive producer for Bluehole Studios. Kim not only wanted to license Greene’s code, but he wanted him to come to Seoul, South Korea, and lead a team to develop a battle royale game. Kim shared  Greene’s love of the movie Battle Royale, a movie in which middle schoolers were forced to fight to the death that helped inspire Greene’s Battle Royale, and was a big fan of what he had seen in Arma 3 and with H1Z1.

"[Kim] outlined his idea for a Battle Royale game, which was something he always wanted to make, and he had a lot of the same ideas that I had for a standalone game. I had gotten offers from other people before, but they weren’t the same kind of vision that I had," Greene continued with Rolling Stone. "I flew out [to South Korea], met with the team and looked at their concepts, and I was convinced that this was the right place to do this ."After years of playing around with other people’s games, Greene was finally given the tools and the means to bring his vision to life and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was born.

When PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was ready for a pre-alpha stage, Greene decided to let streamers have access, despite its rough edges. As the alpha progressed, Greene continued to open the doors for streamers to tag along in the game’s development journey. “For the first alpha testing, we just opened it up to streamers and said ‘Hey, listen, go stream the game,’” Greene continued in the H3 interview. “Let’s show people this evolution. Let’s show people the birth of this game. I’ve always been very helpful towards streamers, especially with Arma 3. I would give them special servers if they asked for it. I gave 50 or 60 of them the observer tool so they could just go in and watch the end of matches. You ended up having some great joke casters out of that. I never asked for anything in return. It was more like ‘here’s my game, if you like it, go play it.’”

All that good will and word of mouth must have paid off, as PUBG’s launch was a monumental success. Greene estimated that within 16 days, PUBG had sold one million copies. Within a few months, PUBG was the game that everybody was talking about. It was soaked up on Twitch and has become the site’s most streamed game over the last year. PlayerUnknown’s vision for the battle royale game had given birth to a phenomenon. He had captured lightning in a bottle, but that lightning was about to strike twice.

Out With The Old, In With The New – Building A New Franchise

In 2011, Cliff Bleszinski and Rod Fergusson cut the cake at the Gears of War 3 wrap party with a retro lancer. The team at Epic Games had worked tirelessly over an eight-year period to create an iconic trilogy of games and easily deserved a time to celebrate. But there’s no rest for the weary, and one week after cutting that cake, Epic began brainstorming their next big passion project.

“It’s a game that spawned directly from passion. This is something that people wanted to build,” said Roger Collum, a producer on Fortnite. “We were just coming off of Gears and we wanted to do something fresh. We basically wanted to do this one idea of a building game. People want to build blanket forts and play ‘the floor is lava’ and just play in the landscape of your brain.”

 The co-op survival builder would debut as a teaser trailer at the 2011 Spike Video Game Awards, but the hype from that teaser quickly changed to concern. In 2012, Cliff Bliszenski, Rod Fergusson, and Adrian Chmielarz all left Epic Games behind. Luckily, lead designer Darren Sugg took the reigns, anchoring a team that had worked on the Horde mode for Gears with the new capabilities of Unreal Engine 4.

In July 2017, Epic released Fortnite as an early access title while they continued to work on further developing the game. A few months later, Epic announced that Fortnite would be getting a standalone game called Fortnite: Battle Royale, noting the success of PUBG and H1Z1 as inspiration to create their own version. This announcement did not sit right with Bluehole and tensions between the two studios would continue to grow.

A Cold War Brews – A Legal Threat

Shortly after Epic announced Fornite: Battle Royale, Bluehole issued a statement, calling out the similarities between PUBG and Fortnite as well as the lack of communication in Fortnite’s promotion. “We’ve had an ongoing relationship with Epic Games throughout PUBG’s development as they are the creators of UE4, the engine we licensed for the game,” Bluehole’s Chang Han Kim wrote. “After listening to the growing feedback from our community and reviewing the gameplay for ourselves, we are concerned that Fortnite may be replicating the experience for which PUBG is known. We have also noticed that Epic Games references PUBG in the promotion of Fortnite to their community and in communications with the press,” Chang Han Kim continues. “This was never discussed with us and we don’t feel that it’s right.”

Bluehole threatened to take “further action” as the similarities between the two games were brought to light, but they had to tow a fine line to determine the consequences of it. The PUBG studio also had a licensing agreement to use Epic’s UE4 engine and while filing a lawsuit may not cause the agreement to be terminated outright, it would definitely put a strain on their relationship. Also, without Epic having taken any assets or codes directly from PUBG, it would be very difficult (and expensive) to prove copyright infringement over another studio capitalizing on a budding genre’s success. Ultimately, nothing came of the legal threat, but a rivalry between these two battle royale behemoths was born.

A Friendlier Rivalry – The Current State Of The Battle Royale Landscape

These two games have reached an insane level of popularity, but there has been a changing of the guard. In the last six months, Fornite has usurped PUBG as the second most viewed game (surpassed only by League of Legends) and has become the most streamed game on Twitch. A popular streamer who claimed to make $500,000 a month streaming the game recently teamed up with celebrities such as Drake to smash the record for most views on a single stream.

Both games have made their way onto consoles and mobile devices. However, Fortnite has an edge in this department as it is also available on PlayStation 4 and allows crossplay between almost every iteration.

It’s impossible to predict the monumental success that both PUBG and Fortnite have attained to this point or to say when they will fade into the ether, but the success that both these studios have seen with this blooming genre encourages others to carve out their own path. There are indie games like Darwin Project, which adds a Hunger Games element of a map overseer to the survival formula. AAA mega-titles like the highly anticipated Read Dead Redemption 2 is rumored to include some sort of battle royale mode. Cliff Bleszinski’s latest project, Radical Heights, throws a little 80’s action movie into the Fortnite formula.  There are dozens of PUBG and Fortnite clones on just about every gaming device, like Last Man Standing, Ring of Elysium, The Culling, Unturned: Arena Mode, Rules of Survival, and so many more that are striving to find their own place in this budding genre. 

Fortnite and PUBG may not have been the first games to play with the battle royale formula, but their respective takes on it are easily the most significant. These games have skyrocketed into the stratosphere in such a short period of time. That’s one of the craziest parts about this story: it’s just beginning. These two games have given life to a brand new genre that developers will be tweaking and tinkering with for years. And we’re very excited to be along for the ride.