Fortnite Is Here to Stay. Just Ask Its Competitors.
In battle royale games like Fortnite, players skirmish in a shrinking landscape with one goal: to be the last one standing. Ambition in the genre itself is more modest, with imitators piling on in hopes of sharing in the riches.
Within the past year, established video game franchises like Call of Duty, Battlefield and Fallout have added battle royale modes, and small studios have sought to capitalize on the craze with evocative titles like Darwin Project. It is even possible to try outlasting 98 opponents in a game of Tetris.
Many companies have calculated that the genre, which began as a player’s experiment and has exploded into a cultural phenomenon, has long-term viability. Diverting resources and delaying other projects can be risky, but financial rewards beckon.
More than 50 million copies of Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, a fight-for-survival game known as PUBG, were sold in the game’s first 16 months. And Fortnite: Battle Royale, the genre’s crown jewel, generated $2.4 billion in revenue last year, according to the analysis firm SuperData Research.
Interest in Fortnite was so great that in 2018, ripple effects were felt in the sales of gaming hardware and headsets, said Mat Piscatella, a video games analyst for the NPD Group. It was even played on the talk show “Ellen,” a marker of mainstream approval.
But Mr. Piscatella noted that past gaming cornerstones like World of Warcraft and Guitar Hero eventually eroded. “Games pop up and change the landscape for a while, and then kind of settle in or fade away,” he said. “We’re into that settling phase with battle royale.”
“A genre like that is the hottest thing in the world until it’s not,” he added.
Analysts say the battle royale market has plateaued, and viewership numbers on streaming sites like Twitch are settling. The genre remains extremely popular, however, and many industry observers are optimistic about its future because it can be easily grafted onto existing properties.
When Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 was released in October, it featured a new battle royale mode. Battlefield V and Fallout 76 unveiled their spins on the genre this year, months after the base games were released.
Battle royale is most likely here to stay because it opens up shooter games to a wider audience, said Ryan McArthur, Battlefield V’s live producer at DICE, which develops the franchise. “You can play the game for five minutes and not kill anybody, and still feel rewarded,” he said.
The digital scale of battle royale was incarnated at the first Fortnite World Cup last weekend in Queens. At Arthur Ashe Stadium, the site of the United States Open, competitors battled for $30 million in prize money, the same amount awarded at soccer’s Women’s World Cup this summer.
In the stands, rapt viewers gripped plastic pickaxes as they roared over the staccato of gunfire whenever a prominent player was eliminated from a virtual battle shown on mammoth 4K LED screens.
Vivien Allen, 15, had hoped to be on the stage instead. A fan of the game since it was released in 2017, she had some success in smaller tournaments, and had earned $400 during the event’s online qualifying rounds, which attracted 40 million players, but failed to advance to the finals.
She has dabbled with other battle royale games but keeps coming back to Fortnite because of its building mechanics. “I think I’ll play Fortnite for a really long time,” she said.
Other fans are drawn to the cartoony elements of the game. “I liked how it was not a bloody shooter. I like the colorful skins,” said Chris Singer, a 12-year-old from Pequannock, N.J.
The stadium has 23,000 seats, but the tournament drew a far greater audience online: At its peak, an estimated 2.3 million people live-streamed the finals.
In the first six months of 2019, the battle royale genre made up more than 20 percent of the gaming hours watched on Twitch and YouTube, according to Newzoo, an industry research firm. Fortnite was the most watched game over all, and its main competitors, Apex Legends and PUBG, each made the top seven.
The three prominent battle royale games draw an audience by leaning on their differences — PUBG is a slow-paced military simulation, Fortnite lets players rapidly build structures, and Apex Legends characters have unique abilities — but their cores share a primal appeal.
“You get to prove that you’re the best out of 100 people. Simple as that,” said Brendan Greene, who cultivated the genre and was hired to create PUBG, which preceded Fortnite in 2017 by several months. “And there is no right way to play. It’s you using your wits and the tools that you have.”
Battle royale, in which competitors fight to the finish in a confined space, is not a new concept. Professional wrestling has showcased it for decades, and the “Hunger Games” trilogy of books followed the 2000 Japanese movie “Battle Royale.”
In video games, the genre combines visceral weaponry with the resource management of survival games like Minecraft. And it has proved popular: More than two-fifths of gamers in the United States played Fortnite, PUBG or Apex Legends in May, according to a survey by Newzoo.
“Winning was the most enjoyable thing people had experienced in games in the last decade,” said Drew McCoy, the project lead for Apex Legends, which is developed by Respawn Entertainment. “They would spend months trying to get that first PUBG win, and that was a driving factor for them to play.”
The influx of competitors has dented interest in Fortnite and PUBG. Monthly viewership on streaming platforms has fallen since last year, but has stabilized in recent months. “While the market is more mature now, we have a healthy player base and are focused on fostering it,” CH Kim, the chief executive of the PUBG Corporation, said through an interpreter, noting that it recently introduced nine regional e-sports leagues.
Player retention is crucial for stand-alone battle royale games, most of which are free to play and generate revenue by selling season passes that allow players to unlock new weapon adornments and character outfits. But in a saturated market, sustaining a player base is difficult.
Some game developers are already feeling the pressure of a competitive arena.
Maelstrom, a game that moved battle royale to the high seas, has been abandoned by players, and the website for S.O.S., another battle royale game, now hosts reviews of online slot machines. After an apathetic response to Radical Heights, a slapdash attempt of turning battle royale into a 1980s action game show, the studio Boss Key Productions shut down altogether.
Some popular shooter games are balking at adding a battle royale mode. Anticipated titles like Gears 5 and Halo Infinite will not initially include one, according to public statements by their developers.
Apex Legends soared after its release in February, surpassing Fortnite in viewership that month with the help of streamers it briefly paid to play the game. Then its innovations — the ability to resurrect dead players, and a notification system that enables nonverbal communication — were quickly copied by Fortnite. In June, Apex Legends had one-tenth of its initial audience.
The drop-off is a reminder that entering the battle royale market is both promising and perilous.
“We have to make our bets far out in advance,” Mr. McCoy said, “and we want to make sure that those bets are big and meaningful rather than just trying to throw things onto the pile.”