The history of the battle royale genre isn't a long one. While the nascent parts of the experience have existed ever since players first started killing one another online, it's really only in the past six years that the genre has coalesced into something specific, with distinct parts that define whether a game does or doesn't fit into the specific pigeonhole.
Fortnite and PUBG might be the names connected to the massive online shooters now, but it wasn't always that way. In fact, the genre started out thanks to a number of strange confluences in the pop-culture zeitgeist. And the coming together of those ideas wasn't the preserve of companies and focus groups - a good deal of the battle royale genre stems from its players. It's those ideas, and those players, we need to trace to understand the behemoth that's barreling through the App Store at the moment.
Minecraft and The Hunger Games
Back in 2012 the world was a slightly different place. Minecraft, while still enormous, wasn't the merchandise-creating monster it has now become. It was a place for experimentation, where players didn't just build magnificent architectural and artistic creations, they built new kinds of gaming experiences too.
Into that heady buzz of creativity and freedom came The Hunger Games, the second piece of the battle royale juggernaut. Around the world the first film in the franchise scooped up almost $700 million. And its core premise, while nothing new, was ripe for exploitation in the videogame arena.
If you don't know what that premise was, let me explain. A group of contestants from deprived areas of a dystopian future are dropped onto an island. There's a cache of weapons in the centre of it, and the contestants need to kill each other. The last person standing is crowned the winner.
The first rumblings of the genre we now recognise started in Minecraft shortly after the release of the film. A mod, known at first as Hunger Games, then changed to Survival Games, was created. It saw players dropped into a map, with item chests in front of them. They had to grab what they could, kill each other, and try to survive the longest.
The third, and perhaps the most integral piece of the puzzle, came in the shape of YouTube. A number of popular video creators picked up on the mod, and unsurprisingly its popularity blossomed. From there, other games started to adapt to the influential new style. One of the first was a mod of a mod, showing yet again the role that players had in the creation of the battle royale genre.
DayZ was a mod for Arma2, all about trying to survive in an open world that's filled with zombies. One mod though narrowed down the scope of the game, focusing instead on the PvP aspect of DayZ. It wasn't about trying to live as long as you could in an undead-infested waste, it was now about trying to take down fellow players and be the last person standing. The mod's name? Battle Royale.
It was based more on the Japanese film of the same name than The Hunger Games, and it added a new component to the burgeoning genre. Instead of collecting weapons from a pre-determined central hub, here they were scattered at random around the map. The man behind the mod was Brendan Greene, but you might know him by his online handle – PlayerUnknown.
When DayZ became a standalone title, Greene took his vision of the battle royale to Arma3, then became a consultant on the King of the Hill game mode for similar zombie-survival game, H1Z1. After that, PlayerUnknown moved over to Bluehole, where he was given the creative freedom to finally pursue his vision of the genre - PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds was born.
PUBG, as it came to be known, might not have been the first battle royale game, but it became a byword for the genre. Released in early access in 2017, it broke records left, right, and centre. By the end of the year it had sold more than 20 million units, and it shattered the record for most concurrent players.
Other games adopted similar mutliplayer modes, pitting large numbers of players against one another in a battle to the death. Smaller scale games sought to capture some of what made PUBG so enthralling, but many fell by the wayside to cries of “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner”.
Oddly enough though, it was in China where the mobile additions to the genre started to gain popularity. Odd, because the government of China had warned its citizens against playing the game, since its violent nature was apparently against the ideals of the ruling socialist party.
That hasn't stopped an outpouring of “chicken-eating games”, so called because of the message received by the eventual winner of a game of PUBG. These hacks and clones though, while they might sound like they're sticking to the mod-based ideals of the genre's origin, are far more of an industry.
According to The Magpie Digest, the hacking teams that have created the clones of PUBG in China form a sophisticated network of developers, working tirelessly to make sure that the knock-off versions are every bit as nuanced as the games that they're copying.
Which brings us up to the present. What was once a small mod in a game that wasn't designed to handle it, has become an enormous global brand - a billion dollar industry that sees the limited release of a game like Fortnite smashing its way onto the top of the App Store charts in a matter of hours.
While the days of DayZ might seem like something from a dim-and-distant past, PUBG and its ilk are a uniquely modern phenomena. Built by a community, shared by new media, and popularised with an almost unique kind of virality. How many of you have started quoting PUBG's famous catchphrase in the last few months? And by that same token, how much advertising lead to the game's almost obscene popularity?
The battle royale genre might not be the most original, it might not be the most polished, and it might be beset on all sides from an influx of well-made and well-researched clones, but it's hard to shake the feeling that we're seeing the teenage growth spurt of a cottage-industry-come-good. Whether that's going to last, or whether some new idea will creep up behind PUBG and steal its thunder, remains to be seen.
Right now though, the world is gorging itself on a feast of chicken dinners. And with PUBG and Fortnite both making their way steadily to mobile, pretty soon you're going to be able to take that hearty meal with you wherever you go.