I love Battle Royale games. They might be my favourite genre of shooter. Something about the tension of knowing that, at the end of the day, each game comes down to a winner-takes-all battle turns every match into an epic. It turns every moment into a thriller.
What makes it so good is that your first chicken dinner is just as good as your last. Outside of those scumwads who hack, your favourite method of success is just as viable as any other. Winning a Victory Royale by hiding in a bush is as awesome as scoring a 20 bomb or doing it with a pair of Kali sticks.
Battle Royale games are the ultimate form of playing the fucking objective. Any action you make on your path to success, assuming it involves you working your way towards a win, is playing the objective. There’s no getting mad at teammates who won’t get on the fucking point or who sit back all day in too-powerful vehicles doing nothing, because the only way to play in BRs is on the objective.
And let’s face it, despite what everyone on your Overwatch team seems to think, playing the fucking objective is the best way to play any game.
Because Battle Royale as a mode was such a revolution, it spawned oodles of imitators. For a while there, every game started including a Battle Royale mode. Battlefield V had a short-lived mode called Firestorm that I loved — when I could get a game. Counter-Strike has a battle royale mode in Danger Zone. Counter-Strike. And they weren’t even the most ridiculous in the mix there, because Civilization VI brought the world Red Death, a Civ based BR mode.
There have been all manner of Battle Royale modes added to all manner of games, and I’d say I’ve done my best to play them all. Most recently I’ve been playing Divot Derby in PGA 2K21, which I have enjoyed a great deal. There’s just one problem — it’s not a Battle Royale.
I know what you’re thinking — ahh prescriptivism. That desperate den of definitive dickery. And fair enough, but hear me out — I only say this because there’s already a mode that Divot Derby belongs to, and it existed for literally decades before PUBG gave Epic an idea of what to do with Fortnite Save the World. It’s called Last Man Standing, and it too is generally great.
It’s not a significant difference, really, but it is an important one. Too many times, I’ve been lured in with the promise of a Battle Royale only to find out I’m instead playing a Last Man Standing game. I’m still having fun, but there are a few things absent that I miss dearly.
Take Divot Derby, because it’s a fantastic example of the key differences. In PGA 2K21’s new mode, the aim is to be the fastest golfer. Not the best golfer, not the tallest golfer — the fastest. Starting with 20 players, the game whittles away at your numbers until there’s only one golfer standing — the winner. After hole one, there are only 17 left. After hole two, only 14. At the sharp end of the stick, it’s just you and another golfer, racing to sink a putt first — or suffer a fate worse than death… losing a game against someone who is sitting in the same discord channel as you.
So what is it missing that makes it a Battle Royale?
Well this might surprise you but it’s not the “battle” part. I don’t think combat is a necessary element in a Battle Royale, perse. I don’t think a bloodline with a direct and clear lineage back to divinity is necessary either, to be honest.
And to make matters worse, I do think a core element of Last Man Standing as a game mode is a necessity. What you play has to end with one person/team left alive, counted as the victor. That’s the first core element of any Battle Royale — the winner takes it all and the losers are standing small.
Still, there are some specific elements that I think are required for a game to qualify (in my mind) as a Battle Royale. And key among them is — Loot.
The Battle Royale genre as we currently understand it was born as a mod inspired by DayZ. It kicked off its days as an Arma 2 mod, just as DayZ did, and just as DayZ struggled against the boundaries inherent to the Arma engine, so too did Battle Royale. You’d spawn in to a server alongside 99 people who were all constantly talking, all of them complaining about the game not yet starting, and then before you knew it you’d be in the game world, just waiting to die to a slightly off-kilter rock, or a set of stairs you descended a little too quickly.
The original intention was to speed up the gameplay loop of DayZ — provided your gameplay loop in DayZ involved spawning, looting and then shooting. Which it shouldn’t have, but that’s neither here nor there. Battle Royale took that loop and squished it down into a short 30 minute experience. You’d spawn into the world along with all those idiots from the voice server, you’d grab some gear just as you might in DayZ, and you’d go and try to kill em all — or die trying.
Because BR games begin with you having very little, Loot is a critical element to how you progress in-game. The better your progression, the better your path to victory — to the point where, in some games, with the right loot you’re almost guaranteed the win.
Thanks to loot Battle Royales work the same way Roguelites do. As you play through both, you’re slowly learning what is worth acquiring, what to avoid and how to use the gear you’ve found to the best of your ability. You wind up thinking — if I can just get that perfect weapon combo, that exact relic, the right armour… maybe this time I can make it to the end. And, just as it is in Roguelites, there’s a real appetising quality about Battle Royales — that desire to have ‘just one more game’ oozes from every pore.
I know people who are more interested in looting than they are in shooting when it comes to Battle Royales. People who will run headlong into danger for the mere whiff of their favourite gun. That’s because loot allows players to compartmentalise success and failure. It’s a huge part of why Battle Royales are so successful. Even if you didn’t get the chicky-dee, if you managed to get a couple of good kills or find a great gun or pull off a risky revive, you’ll wind up still feeling a sense of accomplishment.
That said, I think some games do loot better than others. My current favourite BR, Call of Duty Warzone, has a loadouts system that I have disagreed with since the mode launched. For a nominal fee you can bring in a customised version of all your favourite gear, usually before the first circle has even closed. It’s lead to no end of problems — every season sees Warzone bogged down by whatever overpowered weapon is currently dominating the meta — but it evidently accomplishes its key task, which is to get people to play Black Ops Cold War, and so it stays in the game.
Ironically, when it’s available, I find myself sticking to the Resurgence game mode in Warzone, where the population density is so high that spending 20 seconds buying and acquiring a loadout is almost always untenable.
The final piece of the puzzle is the ever-restricting play area. Every Battle Royale, in my opinion, requires an ever shrinking area of contest.
The circle is the innovation that makes Battle Royales work. It’s what forces players into conflict. However you believe the Battle Royale genre was born — I know there is a very strong case for Minecraft, and of course there is the seminal classic Beat Takeshi film of the same name — a restricted field of combat remains a constant.
In DayZ, loot was what lured players into contact. The ever-changing set of needs — water, food, shelter, meds — forced players to move around the map, and the fact that loot clustered in certain locations created natural hotspots of conflict.
But it was a passive incentive, and there were no guarantees that someone would actually show up at a location. Actually, depending on how you were playing, a hotspot being empty might have actually been a boon.
That’s not the case in Battle Royale games. As the circle shrinks, players are forced to move around. Even if they’re not, they’re forced to re-evaluate their play area. If the circle closes with you in the centre, it requires different considerations to it closing with you on the edge.
This leads to what might be my favourite thing about Battle Royales — positioning is king. A team with superior positioning will win more games than teams with superior mechanical skill in about every competitive game you’ve ever played — that’s why coaches exist — and the circle creates a situation where positioning is always different.
Back in the day when I’d play in Counter-Strike clan wars, I spent oodles of time crunching numbers on where players could be at what time to determine superior avenues of attack. When you got a frag on a player in Quake 3, great players would send their rockets at the locations their opponent would be post respawn, denying them weapons and altering the balance of the next 50/50 fight.
In Battle Royales, positioning changes constantly because the circle changes position constantly. And that means that while strategy remains important, tactics play a very large role as well.
That is not to discount the role that tactics play in high level counter-strike or arena shooters, of course. But with Battle Royales, each end-game takes place over a different arena. Your path to victory changes not just based on the gear you’ve gotten and the fights you’ve taken and won, but on the literal path before you. I find it incredibly satisfying, and I believe it is a critical element of what makes Battle Royales tick.
Those are the three things required for someone trying to make a BR, in my opinion, and if any are missing, the game suffers. You feel its absence, even if the game is still fun. PGA 2K21’s Divot Derby is a hilariously fun game mode, but it doesn’t have the staying power of a BR because it lacks loot, it lacks the circle — if you know TPC Sawgrass, you know what you’re in for already. Of course, you could argue that Divot Derby being called a BR was just a bit of SEO fuckery — and you’re probably right — but it sent me down this rabbit hole all the same.
So next time you see a game described as a Battle Royale, think about three things. Is it a last man standing game mode? Does it also contain a loot phase? And is there an ever-constricting play area? As long as it has all three of these, you’re in BR country baby.