After Bloodhunt, where are the Battle Royale games going?


I have a friend who is a big Call of Duty: Warzone player, at least on the face of it. Of course he is technically accumulating hours on the “time played” counter, but what it Actually plays more than anything else is Rebirth Island. This is a specific and distinct mode in Warzone, where you have a much smaller map which results in more frequent combat encounters, and also provides the option to auto-spawn if at least one of your teammates is still alive . It’s kind of like a…team deathmatch, if you can imagine such a thing. I asked other friends, and while the vast majority of them dropped out of Warzone months ago, those who didn’t are also playing Rebirth Island, avoiding the bigger maps and finite lives for something more effectively violent. They have essentially come full circle in the online multiplayer gaming spectrum.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodhunt made me reflect on the current state of Battle Royale, sinking its fangs into my thoughts and refusing to let go. Because it’s a gothic vampire game with complex lore and themes, about running around a large map and shooting people all at the same time, for some reason the play area shrinks around you. Fun, sure, but it seems like the franchise’s unique identity Vampire: The Masquerade is trying to stick to the standard Battle Royale genre model halfway, rather than building something new based on its strengths and his ideas. A chance for experimentation has been missed, at least in part, and that’s a shame. Meanwhile, turn your eyes to the industry at large, and it looks like we’re now at this weird transition point where long-established battle royales are figuring out where to go next.

look down on things

warzone season 4

(Image credit: Activision)

Let’s do a check in. The information we have to work with indicates Warzone has seen a pretty significant drop in player count recently. Apex Legends hasn’t really taken the plan anywhere new, maintaining a cautious waiting pattern so as not to risk misstepping – an understandable, if reserved, approach. If anything, Fortnite’s biggest innovation in recent memory was to amputate one of his own mechanics for the purpose of greater appeal.

None of them really scream progress, is not it? It looks like it’s going to have to come from other games in the genre. But the problem is that other hopefuls trying to break into the big battle royale club meet with mixed success at best, even if they try something new. Fall Guys started off beautifully but has since plummeted, Naraka Bladepoint didn’t even have that initial peak, and Bloodhunt – a game i like – hasn’t convinced me that he has the stamina to push on. Even Fallout 76 tried a battle royale, but it hosted so few players that Bethesda turn it off quietly soon after.

Obviously, battle royale as a concept isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but this claim plays both ways – it really doesn’t seem to be going, well, everywhere. Ever since PUBG: Battlegrounds popularized the genre in 2017, we haven’t seen any real changes or advancements in what people expect from its last-person skill. Almost all of these games – certainly the biggest ones – are shooters where you drop freely across a large map, pick up gear, and shoot people as the combat arena tightens around you. It’s a very specific format for an idea that’s actually as broad as “a lot of people competing”. How long before people get tired of this model? On a smaller scale, it might have already started.

fortnite

(Image credit: Epic)

“New maps may not be interesting, new weapons may be unbalanced… but dare to keep things as they are and risk players getting bored and lost.”

Part of the problem is that publishers seem wary of how they handle updates and changes, eager to avoid tinkering too much with the games-as-a-service model the industry has embraced. Service games are designed to evolve over time, to keep players engaged – because the obvious downside of a subscription is that it can be canceled if a paying customer loses interest. More battle passes bought, more cosmetic skins sold, more loot boxes unboxed. And battle royale games are everything games as a service now, forcing this constant evolution lest they risk dying on the vine. In turn, publishers want them to be profitable for years to come – but that takes years of work and attention.

The other big factor is that the market for this genre has become fiercely competitive. A good unique selling point is needed (hence why PUBG feels almost overshadowed by the Fortnite/Apex/Warzone holy trinity, despite their preemption), but you also need to promise regular twists or risk becoming the yesterday’s news. This is where the tough choices come in. Shaking up a big online game is a huge task, and just adding new stuff isn’t a guaranteed path to success. New maps may not be interesting, new weapons may be unbalanced, events may be overrated, or new mechanics may be broken. But dare to keep things as they are and risk players getting bored and lost.

So where are we going?

Screenshot from Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodhunt

(Image credit: Sharkmob)

“The ability of small battle royale games to rise to the top may hinge on what has always been key for small games – providing a unique experience that the big names aren’t.”

Looking to the future, I suspect we’ll see three different strategies, the most obvious being more big-name franchises releasing BR spin-off games. It worked for Call of Duty with Warzone, that somehow worked for Tetris with the excellent Tetris 99, and come to think of it, it worked for Fortnite itself, a game that started out as a co-op zombie survival experience called Save the World that might otherwise have flown under the radar.

Expect to see more big names heading to BR specifically in the future, leveraging a franchise’s goodwill as a booster. Halo went after it, Rocket League just did something similar, and for me other plausible contenders include: Gears of War, Star Wars Battlefront, Overwatch, another attempt at Battlefield (even despite failings from Firestorm), Borderlands, any other Bethesda property, or even Nintendo with something leaning towards Splatoon or Metroid. The more established the franchise, the less likely the game is to risk unique gameplay, relying instead on brand recognition.

I think we’ll also see the big, established names lean more into what they’re doing now, with weird gadgets that build on the core experience rather than fundamentally change it. For example: removing building mechanics, adding Godzilla, introducing new weapons, items, and locations, but completely leaving core gameplay alone unless players actively request it. It’s a dangerous move – you’re essentially delaying stagnation with a series of flashy distractions, until one fails to entertain – but it’s the only option for them at this point.

That’s why Bloodhunt made me think about all this. It’s cute and fun and splashy in all the right ways, but I’m afraid it’s not unique enough to last in an industry where everyone does that precisely because it’s clearly trying to do what everyone already done. It’s the old contradiction of the entertainment industry – trying to stand out, while being like everyone else.

PUBG: Battlegrounds

(Image credit: PUBG Corp)

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether small battle royale games can reach the next level may hinge on what has always been key for small games – the ability to provide a unique experience that the bigger names aren’t. God knows what the next trend will be. Maybe starship combat, maybe more powerful superhero gadgets, maybe more use of NPC enemies like Hunt: Showdown, or maybe a Cooking Mama battle royale called Too Many. Cooks? Taking shooting completely off the table might be a good place to start, rethinking things from the ground up.

When we look at the big gaming trends that came before – survival crafting, neighborhood-liberating sandbox games, etc. – those things still exist, they’re just not as global as they once were. I think the reality is that once the dust settles in about five years, there will only be a few big battle royale games in the public eye (probably Fortnite and a few other longtime contenders), with genre dwindles as oversaturation takes its toll and New Big Thing, whoever it is, steps forward to replace him.

If battle royale games want to prevent that, if they want to survive the ever-changing nature of video game trends, they have to start being resourceful and willing to try new things. Otherwise, they risk the circle closing in on them for good.


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