Horror movies rarely scare me. They used to, but it’s been awhile since a scary movie has given me that feeling of creeping terror that made me squirm or jump out of my seat. But a new video game mode, “Battle Royale” in “Fortnite,” had me legitimately screaming.
The concept is simple: 100 players are dropped onto an island. Once on the ground, they have to scavenge for weapons and supplies and try not to die. There’s also a slowly-shrinking circle that funnels everyone together and adds even more paranoia to the fray.
If this sounds like a rip-off, it’s because it is. “Battle Royale” took its concept from “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (“PUBG”) which was inspired by “The Hunger Games” and Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel “Battle Royale.”
I haven’t experienced something as nerve-wracking and engaging in video games (or any medium) like I have in “Battle Royale” in a long time. The core survival element, the singular goal of not dying, is so deeply ingrained in the game that anything that could lead to death—the slightest sound, a distant blur on the horizon—becomes cause for alarm. I was playing with my cousin last week, and after he was surprise-shotgunned after opening a door to a house, I’m not ashamed to say I let out a high-pitched scream.
I’ve been really interested in exploring what makes this game-mode so compelling. What’s particularly fascinating is that the visual aspects of “Battle Royale” are completely in conflict with the most engaging parts of the game—the characters and world are cartoony and exaggerated, but the gameplay feels real and tense. It’s incredible that despite this aesthetic tension, the game is still able to affect me in such a dramatic way. It feels real, even though it’s obviously not. Against all odds, I become heavily invested in this silly cartoon world.
The question remains: is “Battle Royale” a rip-off of “PUBG?” I would argue that video games “steal” ideas from each other all the time. Fifteen years ago, pretty much all games labeled first-person shooters as “Doom Clones” because gamers thought that they copied the mechanics from 1993’s “DOOM.” Maybe they did, but I don’t think that was necessarily a violation of copyright law.
But we wouldn’t say today that every game that features shooting from a first-person perspective as a mechanic is ripping off “DOOM,” so why would we say that about “Battle Royale?” “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” popularized the mode (and, I’d say, is better), but does that mean that they’re entitled to a monopoly on the genre?
After all, their names are different, the art direction dramatically distinct and “Battle Royale” lets you build structures and craft items, which isn’t an option in “PUBG.” But are these differences enough to warrant distinctness, or are they merely superficial?
On Steam, the widely-used PC platform, “PUBG” recently surpassed longtime stalwarts “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” and “Dota 2” to become the most played game on the platform. I think it’s pretty obvious that “Fortnite” is trying to follow the money by making a mode that mimics “PUBG”—but is this necessarily wrong?
The real reason I’m playing “Battle Royale” right now and not “PUBG” is because of platform and price of entry. I don’t have a gaming computer, I have an Xbox, and “Battle Royale” is free-to-play, not $40. It doesn’t matter that “PUBG” is coming to Xbox by the end of the year, because right now there is an underserved market, and “Battle Royale” took advantage of it. “Battle Royale” isn’t the better product, but it’s available and it’s free—and that’s really all that matters.
As for whether “PUBG” owns exclusive license to this “Hunger Games” style model, I think courts would decide in favor of “Battle Royale.” In 2016, a federal court issued a summary judgment in the case of DaVinci Editrice v. Ziko Games, LLC, about whether or not a Chinese company copied game mechanics for the card game “Bang!”. The court found that the Copyright Act states that, “In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle or discovery,” and that there had been no copyright infringement.
What might this mean for “Fortnite” and “PUBG?” I think that as this genre explodes, we’re going to see a lot more “PUBG” clones. But that’s because it’s a genre, instead of just a specific game. This means that one developer can’t hold a monopoly on making one style of game, just like how iD, the makers of “DOOM,” couldn’t keep everyone else from making first-person shooters.
If you want to experience the heart-racing, pulse-pounding intensity of the “Battle Royale” genre, you can download “Fortnite: Battle Royale” for free on PC, Xbox One and Playstation 4. Or you can buy “PUBG” (or wait months for it to come to console). This is a new game genre with the potential to create really exciting experiences and I look forward to seeing other developers continue to innovate the idea and make even more intense experiences.