After months of people asking me to try a battle royale on my daily livestream, I had a chance to try Apex Legends. After about three hours of play, I found myself back in the same position I had before I started — just not getting into Battle Royale design.
After finishing a match somehow on the second place squad, I had a realization about the problem with this form of game design. Despite developers claiming they’re creating the future of multiplayer games, they’re all really just chasing the same example of lackluster game design.
As always, if you have somehow missed the Battle Royale craze this past year, then here’s a quick catch up. A large number of players (usually above 50) are put on the same set map with no weapons or equipment. Basic gear is randomly spawned around the map, with higher quality in more specific areas. Every few minutes, the map itself shrinks in a random direction — forcing players to converge in smaller and smaller environments until there is only one person left standing.
From H1Z1, to Apex Legends, and to all the future Battle Royale games in the works, the genre has taken off in a big way. We are also seeing many traditional multiplayer shooters adding in a Battle Royale mode as another option — such as Battlefield 5 and Call of Duty. Before I talk about my problems with the design, let’s discuss why this has gotten so popular.
Battle Royale is one of those games that just quickly snuck up on everyone in the mainstream market despite titles like PUBG and H1Z1. From a design standpoint, it is less intensive compared to other shooters on the market. When you play a game like Overwatch or COD, you are having small, but very intense matches.
With a Battle Royale game, a match can be over quickly, but usually will take longer to play out. There are peaks and valleys when it comes to the pacing of a Battle Royale shooter that you don’t see in traditional shooters. The beginning of a match tends to be very slow (depending on your landing point), as you try to get the basic resources and equipment you need to keep going.
While the map is indeed fixed, by randomly deciding what part of the map to focus on changes the basic play of a match. There are just enough random elements at play to keep the game from becoming stale, while still having a set pace to each match.
The problem I have with battle royale design is that it’s reminding me of rogue-like design, but not in a good way.
Over the years we have seen many rogue-like titles released of varying qualities, and the one key area that distinguishes the good from the bad is variance. A game with high amounts of variance can provide different experiences on each play; preventing the game from becoming repetitive.
Titles that fail to create variance end up not providing enough random or procedural elements to make each play feel unique. In an earlier post I talked about the issues of Zelda-rogues and just moving around hard-coded points of interest. The problem is that no matter how random the map is, the player is still doing the same things.
The more elements in a rogue-like that are fixed, the greater the chance of developing a set strategy that works every time. Even if there are randomized elements, if they don’t go far enough in terms of changing the play, then those patterns can form. Good rogue-likes provide multiple ways of winning and avoid having just one best option.
What I just described are elements that designers tend to slip up on when it comes to rogue-like gameplay, but the same could be said of the Battle Royale genre. With that said, I’m sure some of you are wondering: how would I design a Battle Royale game?
The thesis for this post is that the Battle Royale genre works because it emulates aspects of rogue-like design to provide plays that are just random enough to keep players invested. However, it doesn’t go far enough in my opinion to push that rogue-like play.
The first thing I would do is to do more with the map itself and make it either randomized or procedural. Even if the players are approaching the gamespace in a different direction, it still doesn’t change important areas or points of interest on the map. This way, we have double randomization going on in terms of the space: the map itself and how the ring condenses. We could go one step further and have randomized events that could happen, but that may take the RNG too far in that case.
In terms of gear, I would like to see either procedurally generated gear, or having such a large pool of items that it’s not possible that everything can spawn in a single game. The problem that I see is that there is always gear that is considered top-tier, and whoever gets it first will have a good chance of dominating.
Players should not just focus on the #1 weapon each play. By diversifying the pool, it keeps everyone on their toes and provides more options when you get to the end part of each match.
For me, there are two areas of Apex Legends that I did like compared to other Battle Royale games: The squad-based gameplay and the champions. I’m not versed enough in Battle Royale Meta to comment on the popularity of single vs. squad matches, but I do think squad should always be a legitimate mode in a Battle Royale title.
That also plays into the idea of champions. Having unique characters with their own spins on the gameplay does a lot to keep things repetitive. While Apex Legends does this, I don’t think they go far enough with this concept. I would like to see a Battle Royale game that allows for some aspect of customization — either having champions go the MOBA route of being uniquely different or going the Team Fortress 2 route of having sidegrade equipment.
Again, the key aspect here is to introduce more randomization to the experience. This can also be tied to the squad gameplay of having people making the same kind of decisions and synergies that we see in the MOBA space.
The Battle Royale genre is not even close to leaving the popular zeitgeist, and I know we have many more games coming in 2019. If developers continue to solely chase after Fortnite or PUBG, I feel we will be looking at another MMO-styled crash.
There is still plenty of room to create your own takes on the Battle Royal formula. So with that said — How would you design the perfect Battle Royale Game?