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Fortnite, PUBG, and Battle Royale

The Video Game Pop Culture Phenomenon of 2018


Last updated 7/4/2018 at 8:50am | View PDF

Fortnite, PUBG, and Battle Royale

Fortnite is, without a doubt, the top video game phenomenon of 2018. It currently boasts 45 million active players, with a high of 3.4 million concurrent users, according to game developer Epic Games. Fortnite is a video game version of a "Battle Royale," which most people are familiar with from The Hunger Games.books and movies. The basic principle of the game is "last man standing," whereby a group of players are put into a confined space (in Fortnite, an island), and the last person to survive the melee wins. The English term melee (disorganized close combat in battles fought at abnormally close range with little central control) dates back to the 16th century. The term melee itself is a derivative of 12th century french term meslee, or "brawl, confused fight, mixture, blend." The concept that the word embodies is much older, dating back to the time of Bread and Circuses in ancient Rome (or before), where such combat was used for entertainment.

Fortnite: Battle Royale represents a recent cultural confluence, inspired and supported by a number of books, movies, and video games, especially those from the last twenty years. It arguably started with the publication of the novel Battle Royale in 1999 by Japanese author Koushun Takami. This may have gone under the radar, were it not produced into a 2000 film of the same name. The book and film are gruesome, as middle school children are forced to fight to the death by the Japanese government. Suzanne Collins then published The Hunger Games in 2008, which largely followed the same formula: a dystopian future, an oppressive government, dream imagery, and of course the last "tribute" standing wins.

Perhaps inspired by these books, but more likely inspired by his grueling service in the New Zealand Army, Dean Hall created a mod for the ultra-realistic combat simulation-game Arma 2 in 2009 called DayZ, in which players had to survive in a zombie infestation on a small island. It was popular, both because of the unique gameplay, but also because it was unapologetically difficult, with the expectation that you will, eventually, die, and success is measured by how long you survive. Some two years later, in 2011, the building/survival game Minecraft was released, a cultural phenomenon in its own right. At this point the stage was set, and a number of things happened in 2012 that set things into motion. First, The Hunger Games movie was released. Second, and quickly after the movie was released, a mod of Minecraft called "Minecraft Hunger Games" was released (I remember my daughter proudly showing me this at the time). Also in 2012, Brendon Greene (aka PlayerUnknown) created his own DayZ mod: Battle Royale. While this was popular, to play it you needed to purchase Arma 2 and its expansion, and then install a number of mods. This was for PC players only, yet it nonetheless developed a significant hardcore following. Over the next few years Greene continued to polish the game, and in 2017 he released PlayerUnknown's: Battlegrounds (or PUBG) for WIndows, xBox One, iOS and Android. By April, 2018, PUBG boasted an average 1.1 million concurrent players, with a peak of 2.5 million. Greene was asked to share his thoughts at the March 2018 Game Developers Conference about Epic Games copying the Battle Royale mode into their game Fortnite (which originally did not have his mode). He was diplomatic, stating that "It's great that the battle royale space is expanding and Fortnite is getting the battle royale game mode in the hands of a lot more people."

Fortnite itself, a free-to-play game, took in $126 million in February alone (mostly from optional microtransactions), surpassing PUBG's $103 million. In March, Fortnite took in $223 million, and the numbers look to be growing. Arguably, one of the major contributors to its success is that it can be accessed on just about every platform available (WIndows, xBox One, PS4, iOS, MacOS), as well as the ability, if you choose, to play against players on different platforms. The game is so popular that the livestreamer Ninja is now generating $500,000 a month playing the game. When he paired up to play with Canadian rapper, singer, and songwriter Drake on March 15, 2018, they set a new record for live Twitch viewers at 628,000. And if that wasn't enough, Epic Games has partnered with Chinese tech giant Tencent to release the game in China (no date set).

And as with every pop culture phenomenon, there will certainly be problems. Mobile phone batteries are forever on their last legs, teachers are constantly battling their students trying to sneak in games during school hours (many schools have banned Fortnite altogether), and parents have another in a seemingly endless parade of digital distractions for their children. Workplaces are even reporting that they are experiencing decreased productivity, although numbers to support this claim are elusive. None of these problems are particularly new, it is more the size of the phenomenon that makes this significant. Problems or not, it appears that the Battle Royale genre is here to stay.

Finally, if you have not yet played any of the Battle Royale video games, and this inspires you to give it a try, I have four words for you: "Welcome to the Thunderdome."

Dr. Anthony Betrus, The Game Connoisseur

Professor of Educational Technology, SUNY Potsdam


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