The battle royale gold rush is over

Fortnite
(Image credit: Future)

What a difference a year makes! This time last year, E3 2018 was all about battle royale. EA put battle royale in Battlefield 5. Activision put battle royale in Black Ops 4 instead of a campaign—that's how hot it was. Each press conference trailer for a standalone BR game showed off a different gimmick: Fear the Wolves went to Chernobyl, Rapture Rejects was 2D and based on a webcomic. Mavericks: Proving Grounds made regular BR modes look puny with 1,000-player matches.

E3 2019 was a different story. The only battle royale announced at the show this year wasn't even a standalone game, but a mode: Fallout 76's Nuclear Winter. You could possibly throw in the announcement of multiplayer platformer Fall Guys, which doesn't quite fit the battle royale mold though it does feature 100 players competing to be the last one standing. That was it for E3 this year.

It's a strong indication that the battle royale gold rush is over, or it's at least dying down. Not in terms of the massive popularity of existing games like Fortnite, PUBG, and Apex Legends, but in terms of new games and the number of developers and publishers willing to blindly rush into the genre. The surprising thing is how much faster the BR craze faded than the post-LoL MOBA craze. Developers might be realizing that battle royale's simple hook—drop 100 players on a map and draw a shrinking circle around them—isn't quite so easy to nail after all. And a lot of those lessons are evident in the BR games shown at 2018's E3.

(Image credit: Activision)

Fear the Wolves felt extremely promising to me when I first played it. It's Stalker meets BR with a ton atmosphere, some novel systems, PvE, and a tense standoff situation at the end of the match. But it simply never got off the ground. Rapture Rejects is still in Early Access (and plans to stay there until 2020) and went from an average of 1,000 concurrent players in its first month to fewer than 100 in its second month.

Realm Royale, the Paladins spin-off, came out of the gate red hot but also bled players quickly—though it's been gaining more in recent months as it's been updated and overhauled. And even when a BR mode is well received, as in the case of COD Blackout and Battlefield 5: Firestorm, it's not a guarantee it'll drive sales for the base game or retain players and Twitch viewers for more than a short while.

If you create a BR game that stands out enough to become a smash hit, you haven't crossed the finish line but the starting line.

There's also the hard truth that Fortnite turned battle royale into a live service genre. It's not enough to add a new map twice a year or some new guns every few months—battle royale developers are expected to churn out season passes, cosmetics, rewards, modes, weapons, events, and more at an unrealistic pace. This expectation for a constant supply of updates turns even success stories like Apex Legends into something of a cautionary tale—it's free, it's universally adored, it drew millions of players in its first few months, but it's also criticized for not adding new content quickly enough.

If you create a BR game that stands out enough to become a smash hit, you haven't crossed the finish line but the starting line. It's just the beginning of a long and difficult race to stay relevant.

(Image credit: EA)

And there are plenty of recent BR games that didn't even make it across that starting line. When Lawbreakers didn't catch on, Boss Key Productions quickly threw together Radical Heights, a free-to-play BR. Though it was actually a pretty decent game (I thought), it didn't save the company, which closed a month later. Meanwhile, I haven't heard a peep about CS:GO's weird BR mode Danger Zone since it arrived (not that CS:GO or Valve are any danger of going anywhere). The makers of Islands of Nyne, which was in development before PUBG was even announced, finally ceased development on the game and closed their studio late last year—they simply weren't making enough money to continue.

What once looked like a fairly simple formula is starting to show its real complexity. That doesn't mean there aren't still a bunch of battle royale games and modes in development and release. Mordhau launched with a fun BR mode, and Ring of Elysium is still drawing thousands of daily players almost a year after launch. Planetside Arena is still being developed by Daybreak (makers of the original BR blockbuster, H1Z1) but it was pushed back from a January release to March and then—following the surprise release and massive success of Apex Legends in February—moved to sometime this summer. Mavericks: Proving Grounds is looking at a November public beta for its 1,000 player BR mode. Mage-based BR Spellbreak is in closed alpha (and it's so cool it makes me wish it wasn't a BR game).

So there are many more BR games to come, and the genre is still a massive one with lots of games fighting for a piece of it. But if E3 is any indication, developers and publishers are being much more cautious about diving headlong into battle royale than they were a year ago.