You’ve probably been hearing a lot about “Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds” recently. Perhaps you’ve seen highlights like this killer ghillie suit ambush (emphasis on the bush) doing the rounds on the internet.
Maybe you’ve even played the heart-rate-spiking, 100-player free-for-all yourself. But if you’re not a hardcore PC shooter fan, Battlegrounds’ sudden rise to the top of sales and viewing charts might seem like it came out of nowhere. Look a little deeper and you’ll find a concept that culls from the last two decades of pop culture, the last few years of game design, and the last million or so years of primal survival instincts to create an all-or-nothing battle arena; the kind of place where rushing after a stranger and delivering a leaping punch to the back of their skull, or stealing a car and going for a hit-and-run death ride, can be just as rewarding as lurking on a balcony with a high-powered rifle.
Battle Royale (2000)
The battle royale genre started with, well, Battle Royale: a controversial Japanese novel-turned-film written by Koushun Takami, in which a dystopian government strands a junior high school class on an island. The classmates are given a random assortment of weapons and forced (under threat of exploding collars) to kill each other until only one is left standing. It’s all televised as a horrifying spectacle to keep the populace scared and divided. The concept is ghastly but immediately relatable – after all, who doesn’t want to be the last one standing when things go to hell? If this all sounds a bit like another popular book-turned-movie series you may be more familiar with, you’re not wrong. We’ll get to that in a bit.
DayZ mod (2012)
Bohemia Interactive’s ArmA series was largely the domain of virtual military recreationists until the DayZ mod arrived. Creator Dean “Rocket” Hall took that grounded military simulation, added zombies and mundane survival concerns like thirst, and set players against one another on an island with few resources and no laws. Let me rephrase that – technically speaking, DayZ doesn’t set players against one another. There aren’t any built-in objectives other than “live as long as possible”. But many folks end up shooting at each other anyway because people are like that. If you’re careful you could keep playing the same character for weeks or months at a time, though you’re always one permadeath away from losing everything. That’s also the case in Battlegrounds, but at least a full round only lasts around a half hour.
The Hunger Games (2012)
Built around the same basic dystopian murder-TV premise as Battle Royale, The Hunger Games has less ultraviolence and more uplifting messages about youth and revolution (FYI, author Suzanne Collins says she wasn’t aware of Battle Royale until after she finished writing The Hunger Games). The trilogy of books became a quadrilogy of films starting in 2012 and helped introduce the battle royale concept to the world. While the titular Hunger Games seem like a distinctly unpleasant thing to be involved with in real-life, they turned out to make for pretty fun video games.
Minecraft Hunger Games (~2012)
The kids like Hunger Games. The kids like Minecraft. It didn’t take long for the two to come together, first via honor-system rules applied to standard multiplayer servers and later via specially made mods that added built-in player count trackers and survival conditions. While Minecraft’s creative possibilities allowed for some unique survival strategies, the fighty bits were never all that strong to begin with. But if you were to, say, build a battle royale mod on top of a dedicated battle simulator…
ArmA 3’s Battle Royale mod (2014)
Enter an Irish photographer named Brendan Greene, better (un)known as Playerunknown. Greene explained to Glixel that he was dissatisfied by the big-budget multiplayer games he was into at the time – their high-speed, low-stakes conflicts were too predictable for his tastes. So he opened up ArmA 3 and started poking at the code. The Battle Royale mod he eventually arrived at combines the expansive open-world possibilities of DayZ with the danger and urgency of a sadistic game show. It became a huge hit among ArmA devotees and beyond, eventually attracting attention from professional developers like Daybreak Games.
H1Z1: King of the Kill (2016)
Daybreak Games (formerly known as Sony Online Entertainment) noticed the success of Greene’s Battle Royale mod and figured it would be a good fit for its own survival-focused shooter, H1Z1. Daybreak offered Greene a consultant position on a standalone, battle-royale-focused offshoot called H1Z1: King of the Kill. With Greene’s help, it became a hit and rapidly eclipsed H1Z1: Just Survive, its DayZ-inspired counterpart. King of the Kill’s success solidified battle royale as a shooter subgenre in its own right, but Greene wanted to keep refining the concept. South Korean developer Bluehole did too, and off to Seoul he went.
Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (2017)
Previously known for creating MMORPGs like Tera and Devilian, Bluehole recruited Greene to serve as creative director on a new project: a game built specifically to realize the battle royale concept. No more retrofitting old systems to support the unique demands of a 100-player, last-man-standing free-for-all staged across a massive semi-rural arena. Battlegrounds’ impressive selection of weapons and weapon attachments is evidence of its simulationist roots, but this game is clearly trying to be more accessible than its mod ancestor: the inventory system is simplified, vehicles are easy to control, and (cosmetic) progression arrives regularly via loot chests.
Battlegrounds hit Steam Early Access in March and Bluehole plans to release it on Xbox One and PS4 as well once it’s further along. The game has already sold more than 2 million copies and become one of Twitch’s most-watched titles. If any battle royale game is going to break beyond hardcore shooter fans and into the masses of people who watched The Hunger Games and wondered how they’d do if they were called up as Tribute, it looks like it will be this one.
Hopefully Koushun Takami – who hasn’t published anything since the original Battle Royale – is giving himself a little pat on the back, wherever he is now. Or at least he isn’t recoiling in horror at the fact that his subversive, dystopian horror novel inspired a popular new form of interactive entertainment.