From PUBG’s rough military edge to the sleek action of Apex Legends, it seems there’s a battle royale for everyone now. What goes into making a great battle royale game? A few of us sat down to talk about what we want from our virtual bloodsports.
Cecilia D’Anastasio, Senior Reporter: Battle Royale fans are like cursed ghosts, moving from game to game looking for a place to lie. I know that, as I’ve bounced from PUBG to Fortnite to Call of Duty: Blackout to Apex and whatever else, I’m chasing something. I don’t always know what. Novelty? Gunfeel? Pace?
To start, I’d love to hear Riley’s thought process behind leaving his first BR game for the next one.
Heather Alexandra, Staff Writer: At least until there’s another Marshmello concert in Fornite, that is.
Riley MacLeod, Editor-at-Large: I was actually playing Fortnite just before joining this conversation, so I wouldn’t say I’ve *left* it. That said, a lot more of my friends are playing Apex Legends than play Fortnite, so that’s been really fun. Prior to getting put on the Fortnite beat, my friends all played PUBG. One friend in particular played it a ton, and as she moved from Overwatch to PUBG, the only way we could really hang out was me joining her to ask “What gun is this?” incessantly, and then making silly moves and getting us killed.
So I’m excited about Apex because my friends are playing it, as well as it being a genuinely awesome game. Apex has also made me forget fall damage is a thing, which I was just rudely reminded of in Fortnite.
D’Anastasio: I’m Confused – what was your first BR game and why did you leave it? I thought it was PUBG and not Fortnite.
MacLeod: Well, I guess it would technically be PUBG, yeah. I never actually liked PUBG – I have no patience for sorting out different guns and ammo and attachments. Fortnite made all that a lot simpler, and even though I’ve yet to quite get the hang of building, it feels easier to just jump in and play. Apex does a good job streamlining that stuff too, without going too far down the Fortnite rabbit hole.
D’Anastasio: I started with PUBG, and really liked it for a hot second until I realized that what I liked more than its gameplay was just hanging out with my friends who live far away and getting into shit. When more BR games came out, that’s when I realised it was okay to have preferences.
I know somebody here is still on the PUBG tip...
Alexandra: That would be me! I don’t play as much as I used to, but I still love PUBG. Fortnite and Apex are “simpler” insofar as eliminating busy work, but for me I think that brings a lot of texture to the game. When I think about, for instance, what it’s like to drop into a map on Apex compared to PUBG, it’s super different. Apex takes care of a lot of things for you, but PUBG is very involved. You need to know the best way to pick up an item, to quickly put your attachments on, and then deal with enemies. Losing that degree of convolution means things are accessible, but there’s a different cadence. PUBG is slow. You trudge through its maps and systems. For me, that makes things deliberate in a way that I really like.
D’Anastasio: That’s a factor I never thought about: control.
Alexandra: It sounds like battle royale is fulfilling a lot of different needs for each of us: social space, tactile experience, and other stuff too.
D’Anastasio: Apex is totally on the extreme end of “user-friendliness” in a way PUBG was not. Like, if you pick up a scope or whatever, Apex is just gonna equip it to a gun. You don’t have to crouch in a corner fearing for your life and hoping nobody headshots you from a town over. I didn’t realise how much I wanted that until I had that, you know?
MacLeod: I did.
Alexandra: It’s extremely good and really brings in a lot of new players who might have felt intimidated, but I still really like how long the middle of a PUBG match feels.
MacLeod: Yeah, I’ve definitely found in Apex that I die either immediately or in the late game. There’s not a ton of middle.
D’Anastasio: I hate how long PUBG’s mid-game is! I love that Apex feels faster, but also, I hit the endgame more often than not. Other people tell me that its “pace” is all off.
Can someone just tell me what the hell “pace” even refers to? It feels like a math equation. Map size - how many people + speed of the storm’s movement...
Alexandra: Duration between engagements, length of loot period, how long between moving to new locations. Stuff like that. When you do, what you do. And yeah, map size is a big part of that and something that affects what people like. PUBG has large maps with one exception, so you spend a lot more time navigating. If you’ve broken your teeth on that, shifting to something like Apex can be really jarring.
MacLeod: Yeah, map size seems to play a big part, as well as how a game deals with its landmarks. I’m still getting the hang of where it’s best to land in Apex, which is complicated by the hot zone. I usually try to land in less popular spots in battle royale games, which can lead to a longer mid-game but can also leave me less prepared for the end, since the good loot can be scooped up.
D’Anastasio: Is that something could make you leave one BR game and pick up another one?
MacLeod: I’d say the community for sure. I usually don’t play Fortnite with voice, but so far my forays into Apex voice have been OK. I really like playing BR games with other people, but I don’t want to have someone demanding I “get good” or screaming lord-knows-what in my ear. And that also extends to how people behave in match lobbies and in the communities surrounding the game. I don’t want to play something that feels unwelcoming or like there’s no time for me to get my footing.
Alexandra: I think a battle royale needs to surprise me for it to work. That can mean a lot of different things. It could mean watching Kevin the Cube move in Fornite. It would mean finally getting a snow map in PUBG. It’ll definitely be whenever Apex releases new hero characters. One of the big things for battle royale matches is that things change and shift. The circle closes in. I think a BR game needs to do that as well, whether through content or building some type of narrative.
MacLeod: Characters is an interesting point. I’m not too charmed by Apex’s characters the way I am with, say, Overwatch. A lot of the Fortnite lore goes over my head, but I love piecing it together and being part of it, and that’s definitely drawn me toward the game beyond the gameplay.
D’Anastasio: Maybe I’m not playing it enough, but Call of Duty’s Blackout still surprises me and honestly, the stuff that surprises me is just part of the simple base game. I love the zombies, the weird toy cars that surveil you, the whole train zone where you can fight in cars. . . because the mechanics are so good and clean (especially the vaulting and climbing), I feel like there’s a ton of possibility that’s less obvious.
Alexandra: Cleanliness is a tricky thing. I actually miss how messy PUBG and even to an extent Fortnite were when first defining themselves. Battle royale is a really gritty concept, so I’m the weirdo who likes a little jank from time to time.
D’Anastasio: I do not understand!!! But I respect it.
Alexandra: Well, I mean, Apex proves me wrong in this case. It’s as immaculate as Blackout.
D’Anastasio: NO! Sorry. I totally disagree.
Alexandra: Oh hell yeah. Let’s do this.
MacLeod: I haven’t played Blackout, but Apex is shiny.
Alexandra: I guess “feel” is another important thing.
D’Anastasio: I love how heavy and substantial I feel in Blackout, even though I can just vault through any glass window and scale portions of buildings. I love how there are different repercussions for shooting different guns. And how even, like, sliding down a hill feels nice, but not, like, slippery. Apex goes a little too far in the “cartoony” zone when it comes to how it feels. Like, an exaggerated version of what I want. Sure, I can scale everything and slide down mudslides and am light as a feather, but, I don’t know, it’s a little. . . plastic.
I will give you this: Fuck fall damage.
Alexandra: I’ll just say that I think Titanfall and therefore Apex has some of the best-feeling movement in a game since Counter-Strike and Half-Life. As much as I just said I like jank and while I follow you on weightiness, I’m totally down with anyone who says they like Apex because it feels like something they actually want to play.
MacLeod: I don’t like fall damage, but accidentally tumbling off my own building and dying in Fortnite is always good for a laugh. And I think Fortnite’s floatiness and janky gunfeel matches its cartoony aesthetic. It makes things feel a little dire, I guess.
Something that drove me off PUBG and made me nervous about Apex is that gritty shooty aspect – I think Heather said this in her PUBG review, but a lot of BRs can have a kind of gun fetish that I struggle to get on board with, despite being a fan of shooters. I want to have fun adventures and come out with cool stories, not necessarily dive into the nitty-gritty of weapons.
Alexandra: Right. It’s that line between just knowing you need a strong shotgun and telling a guy you prefer guns that use 5.56 because they fly straighter.
D’Anastasio: I feel that 10/10, Riley. I hate guns. The “gunfeel” is something I never, ever understood until I moved from Fortnite onto Blackout and was like, “Ohhhhhhh..... so this is what they talk about.” So maybe I feel that 9/10. Or 6/10.
Somehow, it’s keeping me on Blackout...
MacLeod: Maybe I sound like Heather, but I like Fortnite’s “jank” in that regard. In The Darwin Project, an early access BR I love, shootouts are floaty and imprecise, and it lends them this air of ridiculous fun that lends some slapstick that helps the game feel friendly. I like that, though I can see how it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
Alexandra: Mood and tone matter. Some people want the gritty shit, but if you’re treating a BR like a social space it’s probably better to not have to always wade in that. I think a lot about how, good and ill, Fortnite’s commitment to being expressive through emotes and skins allow players to participate in this genre but also use the space for other things.
MacLeod: Fortnite has been struggling with that, as the community clamors for a competitive mode. It can be a tough line to walk.
Alexandra: Competitive battle royale is a nut that no one’s cracked though. Either with ranked play or esports.
D’Anastasio: None of us said “esports” in our determinations of what about a BR is important to us. After that one guy won a PUBG tournament by standing in the storm and chugging health items, I was like, nah, I’m good.
MacLeod: Battle royale esports just seems so hard to pull off. I’ve never watched a really engaging and fun BR esport, I don’t think.
Alexandra: Because it’s not a good set-up for an esport! Apex might change that somewhat by pulling in the hero shooter angle that invigorated Overwatch but there’s so much situational randomness that unless you’re steeped in the genre, it might as well be indistinguishable from a deathmatch.
D’Anastasio: Yeah. I’d rather watch someone fun stream any Battle Royale game than a super, super high-level player. And, that said, I still think Fortnite is the most fun game to watch on Twitch. Me and, like, two million ten-year-olds.
Alexandra: They can create some really intense moments, and those moments can be enhanced if you’re invested in the player. That’s true for all games that you watch, but battle royale is just.... gosh, it’s a real lizard-brain rush.
MacLeod: I think Fortnite’s spectator option has really made me stick with it more than other BRs. I *love* being able to watch someone leapfrog their way to success with things they stole from my corpse. I get really supportive of them! And Apex’s respawn mechanic is a bit the same, to me – it gives me an incentive to stick around and helps me feel attached to a team or round.
And of course Darwin Project goes all-out with that with its show director, who can watch everyone and change things as the match goes on.
D’Anastasio: I feel like I have a handle on this now. Heather likes a horror-game pace, a little unpredictability or human-ness to the feel and surprise. Riley likes spontaneity, a good community and fun in-game events. I enjoy clean mechanics, gunfeel (apparently) and ridiculous maps. If any devs are listening – please make us this game so we can all move onto the next fad!
MacLeod: Please make us a game, haha. What’s cool about all the new battle royales, even as they threaten to consume us all, is that we can all have “our game,” though!
Alexandra: Until they all get dropped into an island....