I’ve been very critical of games like PUBG and Fortnite: Battle Royale, not to be confused with regular old Fortnite, which everyone seems to have forgotten. Not as much here on my blog but definitely on Twitter. The concept has always looked and sounded terrible to me from the very beginning. It’s the reason I have never loaded up Fortnite: Battle Royale, even though it’s free on multiple platforms I own, and though I’ve been asked several times, I’ve never even considered buying PUBG. But I will admit that no matter how much you watch or read about a game, you can’t say you’ve truly experienced it until you’ve actually tried it. So with that thinking in mind, I finally tried a battle royale game.
As a part of my real job, I often have to try certain games to assess their potential marketing value. This weekend, for the first time in my career, a battle royale game came up. And as a professional, even though I had/have no interest in this genre, I still agreed to download and play one of these games through the lens of marketing.
I was tasked with trying an early access game called Fear the Wolves. This is a standard PUBG style battle royale game set in the same world as “The Zone” from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games. I played it. Took it seriously and genuinely tried to get into it. Even managed to get a kill and find several different types of gear. But I still don’t get it. I don’t understand why people enjoy these games.
Let me be clear. I’m not saying there was anything wrong with this particular game. It worked fine for what it is. The graphics weren’t anything to write home about, but the PUBG graphics were trash when it was first made available in early access as well, so that’s not the issue. The controls worked fine. I experienced a few small glitches, but that’s true for so many betas I’ve played at both indie and AAA level, so again that’s not the issue. I just don’t understand the appeal of these types of games.
This was my experience. Wait for more than I would normally wait for any game, but admittedly not the most I have waited for a multiplayer match in some past games. Then wait through a two to three minute countdown after I’ve already waited for matchmaking to end. This was unacceptable. But I understood why it was necessary. No one sits and waits for that matchmaking because it takes too long. So you tab out and screw around on Twitter while you’re waiting. But then because everyone is tabbed out they have to make a long countdown to give everyone time to tab back in. Then go through this really long helicopter sequence and pretend like where I choose to deploy is actually going to matter in the grand scheme of things. I will note that the controls menu said you can direct your parachute descent but this didn’t really work for me in the game so that was one glitch that actually did irritate me a lot. Hit the ground and then sprint to the nearest building only to find the same crappy pistols over and over again. Not once did I find a gun better than pistol. Found multiple types of pistols, but never any firearms better than pistol. Found an axe as well, which I of course never got to use because I never got close enough to anyone with it, since they had guns. Spend a bunch of time stressed out waiting in buildings hoping to ambush someone, only to have that stupid enclosing death fog (it’s actually called an “adrenaline infection” in this particular game) show up, forcing me to give up my post and run inward. But now that I’m running inward I’ve lost my element of surprise. Then I see someone and try to run up and kill them, again with my pistol, and even though I shoot them a bunch of times first they don’t die and eventually they kill me, often with a better gun. That was the whole experience over and over again.
Why is this fun for people? Even when I did get a kill, it was still not that gratifying in the grand scheme of things because I never got close to actually winning the matches. I spent more of my time in loading screens and then waiting around or looking for more crappy pistols than I did engaged in combat. It’s one thing when it’s a real stealth game like Metal Gear Solid 3 and you’re going out of your way to sneak up on people. But being in a huge map devoid of people only to then get killed in fairly boring encounters isn’t nearly as entertaining or gratifying as a real stealth game.
This is where the “git gud” crowd will chime in, but I honestly don’t think that applies here. Even if I was surviving longer, it would still be pretty boring, because victory is much easier to achieve by avoiding combat altogether rather than actually trying to engage people. So even if I was amazing, playing logically with the goal of winning would still be mostly waiting around and then eventually dying and having nothing to show for my better placement. It’s really a zero sum scenario where it’s fun to win and otherwise pretty boring or way too stressful but not in a fun way. It’s fun to play a PVP match like Destiny or COD, both games I genuinely hate, because it’s active, exciting, and consequential without being long winded and pointless when you finally do get killed. You can keep playing. You can make up for your death. You can go for revenge. Even though I don’t particularly like PVP games, and especially not those crappy FPS games I mentioned, I can still appreciate why they’re popular. But I have no idea why people enjoy these battle royale games. And I really don’t get how people can watch other people play them. That sounds unbearably boring. And I’m not even comparing them to story based games, which are by far superior both in development effort and gameplay experience.
Someone please explain it to me. If you grew up playing games in a pre-battle royale context, how do you enjoy these types of games? How are you not bored 90% of the time while playing them? I get that kids today have been groomed to play these games. So much of game development has been building to these sorts of hollow experiences in the last five to ten years. The move away from single player games, always online requirements, and microtransactions have all culminated in the battle royale concept. But kids aren’t even the biggest gaming market today. I don’t get how gamers who grew up in or before my era can play these types of games past casual level. If you grew up with Mario, Final Fantasy, Uncharted, and God of War how does this type of gamplay experience appeal to you? It’s not just single player games though. Look at the multiplayer stuff we’ve come from. Mario Kart, Goldeneye, World of Warcraft, and Halo to name a few. I don’t even like all those games, but I’d play them over these battle royale games any day of the week. Even the half and half stuff like Dark Souls, The Division, and GTA Online are way more gratifying for all players than these battle royale experiences. How does one actually enjoy playing a game where only 1 of 100 people can win while everyone is putting in the same amount of time and effort? How does one call an experience where you spend more time in lobbies than actually playing enjoyable? I simply don’t understand the appeal.
Some games got close to the sweet spot. Things like Sea of Thieves and updated No Man’s Sky are starting to get there. The Division, for all its faults, got very close as well. There’s even some merit to Destiny. But these battle royale games have gone too far. They took the concept of rogue likes, the size of RPGs, the mechanics of PVP FPS, and the scale of MMOs and squished them all together in a lazy smattering of tolerable graphics. They squeezed out all the good parts and left the skeleton of each genre. I like the concept of 100 people roaming Skyrim with the ability to rob and kill each other. But the story would still need to be there along with respawning and the ability to retain at least some of your valuables. Battle royale comes off like the Star Wars: Battlefront II of MMOs. All the heart has been pulled out to focus on pure gameplay mechanics, ultimately leaving a disappointing experience. But clearly I’m missing something because it’s currently the most popular genre both for concurrent players and stream views. What exactly am I missing? Because I just don’t see it.