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The best days of the battle royale are behind us

The best days of the battle royale are behind us

This week in Protocol Gaming, your weekly guide to the business of video games: Backlash against Ubisoft's new battle royale signals a turning point for the genre, another twist in the Epic v. Apple case, and fallout from Twitch's massive data breach.

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The Big Story

Battle royale's halcyon days are over

Just a couple of years ago, a new game in the then-burgeoning battle royale genre invited a healthy amount of both skepticism and curiosity. Could this really be a Fortnite killer? Is it fun enough to draw players away from Apex Legends or break allegiances to PUBG? At the very least, these games were worth a try, because most of them are free.

We don't talk about battle royale games the same way anymore. In fact, when Ubisoft announced last week its newest entry in the Tom Clancy series, Ghost Recon Frontline, fans were outraged, feeling betrayed by the publisher and characterizing Frontline as a shameless, free-to-play cash grab. It's a sign the genre, which exploded onto the scene in 2017 and brought radical changes to the once-rigid shooter, may be going out of style.

Frontline is Ubisoft's second crack at a battle royale. The French publisher has tried before to break into the genre with last year's Hyper Scape, a futuristic take with some neat twists that nonetheless fell flat quickly after launch. Now, Ubisoft is trying again, but this time using the established Ghost Recon brand.

  • Ubisoft hyped a new entry in its Tom Clancy franchise, leading some fans to speculate it may be a new Splinter Cell title or a return to form for the often meandering Ghost Recon series, which has had eight entries in the last decade. That made the battle royale reveal sting for some fans, especially given the stale state of Hyper Scape.
  • Frontline cribs many of the existing features from games like Escape from Tarkov and Call of Duty: Warzone, but with derivative-seeming combat. Fans downvoted the trailer instantly, and the Ghost Recon subreddit is in open revolt against the game.
  • In many ways, Ubisoft is trying to replicate the success of both Rainbow Six and Assassin's Creed, both longtime series that have enjoyed reinventions in recent years. Like EA, which is investing in mobile and free-to-play, Ubisoft also wants to turn many of its big brands into live service games that can be sustained for years after release.

It's no mystery why battle royale took over the industry. When PUBG arrived in 2017, it was nothing short of a revelation. The shrinking circle, 100-player lobbies and often crude gameplay created a gritty, survivalist experience that made normal shooters feel antiquated.

  • The genre took off partly because it gives people ample freedom to play their own way as they battle to be the last one standing. With one life per round, every encounter carries weight, and victories are few and far between.
  • The tense, unique gameplay made battle royale an instant sensation on Twitch, helping mint a new era of streamers. It's also been a financial boon, with the most successful titles earning billions every year.
  • The framework allows for experimentation. Fortnite introduced a cartoony aesthetic and structure building, while Apex Legends infused class-based elements and unique gunplay. Many of these games now relentlessly copy each other, resulting in better experiences for everyone.

Much of the juice in battle royale has been squeezed out. Most players only have room for one or two battle royale games in their lives. There's also been little in the way of innovation around the formula since Call of Duty: Warzone released last year.

  • Epic earned a staggering $9 billion in just two years of Fortnite, but since 2019, the game's revenues have been on the decline. The company is now actively turning Fortnite into something more than a battle royale, with a social space for concerts and big metaverse ambitions.
  • What innovation is happening in battle royale is mostly taking place on smartphones, where the genre has found new and lucrative audiences in mobile-centric marketplaces like Asia and South America. Now, the biggest game makers are focused on porting their battle royale hits to smaller screens.

The misfire with Frontline's reveal is partly about a company failing to read the room. Tom Clancy diehards love strategy, stealth and depth, and they're not your typical first-person shooter fans. Seeing the Ghost Recon series turned into a free-to-play vehicle is providing the expected recipe for disaster.

But the larger issue is the battle royale genre and how much new life can be breathed into it almost five years later. It's not going away anytime soon; like the MOBA or tactical shooter, battle royale will be a fixture in the industry for years to come. But without serious investment in rethinking the entire structure of the genre, it's hard to imagine any game not falling into the same trap as Frontline.

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Overheard

  • "There were a lot of articles written, people saying things like, 'Amazon knows how to build everything but games, why can't they build games?' It takes a few before you find a hit, or several, but they didn't lose their resolve." ―Amazon CEO Andy Jassy reflected on last month's successful launch of New World, the company's new online multiplayer game, when addressing the crowd at a GeekWire event last week. Jassy also said games have the potential to become the company's largest entertainment division.
  • "I would also like to see a world where the games that we make at PlayStation can be enjoyed by many tens of millions of people. Perhaps hundreds of millions of people. Right now success with the current console model, a really great PlayStation hit you're talking 10 or 20 million people being able to play that game." ―PlayStation boss Jim Ryan opened up about his ambitions for Sony's growing library of original game series in an interview with Gamesindustry.biz, noting that the company hopes to one day reach the scope of cultural reach and popularity that its music and movie businesses enjoy.

Lootbox

  • On Protocol: Twitch disclosed a massive data breach last week that included, among other sensitive data, payouts to the platform's top live streamers stretching back to 2019. The leak now threatens the fragile social dynamics between creators and their fans and may strain Twitch's relationship with talent going forward.
  • Epic eyes media expansion for Fortnite. Epic is looking into spinning up an entertainment division to explore media beyond gaming following key hires from Lucasfilm, The Information reported yesterday. An early idea in the works is a Fortnite movie.
  • EA throws players a cross-gen bone. The standard digital edition of upcoming shooter Battlefield 2042 will now include cross-gen access, so players who purchase the game for PS4 or Xbox One can upgrade for free without shelling out for more expensive special editions. It's a rare gesture of goodwill from a major publisher.
  • Another dev reduces the workweek. Eidos-Montréal, the Square Enix-owned studio behind Deus Ex and the new Guardians of the Galaxy adaptation, said last week it's adopting a four-day workweek. It makes the Canadian company arguably the most high-profile developer to prioritize shorter work hours amid a broader reckoning around industry working conditions.
  • Diablo IV gets a new director. Joe Shely, a longtime Blizzard employee who's worked on Diablo III and World of Warcraft, is now overseeing the newest Diablo iteration, VentureBeat reported. Former game director Luis Barriga and lead designer Jesse McCree left Blizzard this past summer following widespread complaints of a sexist and discriminatory workplace culture.
  • Niantic makes its third acquisition of the year. The Pokémon Go maker last week announced its acquisition of Hoss, a company specializing in API services. Niantic intends to use Hoss to amplify its augmented-reality developer toolset Lightship, Gamesindustry.biz reported.
  • On Protocol: Apple said late Friday it's filing an appeal in the Epic Fortnite case. The company is also seeking to stay the judge's decision forcing Apple to let developers link to alternative payment systems, citing "unintended downstream consequences for consumers and the platform as a whole."
  • FIFA may not be FIFA in the future. EA snuck a peculiar bit of news at the end of its FIFA 22 launch press release revealing that it may rename the soccer game franchise, as part of its naming rights negotiations with the international nonprofit. EA says the FIFA branding is separate from its team and player licensing deals.
  • Rockstar cashes in on its classics. The venerated open-world developer is releasing its iconic trilogy of PlayStation 2 Grand Theft Auto games as a combined collection with minor graphics and gameplay updates, Polygon reported last week. One snag: Individual versions of the games will be removed from all storefronts some time this week, ahead of the launch.

Look out for

The metaverse copyright nightmare is around the corner

The hot new trend on kid-friendly gaming platform and self-proclaimed proto-metaverse Roblox is a series of "Squid Game" knockoffs. The most popular of these rip off different versions of the dystopian Netflix's shows disturbingly lethal playground challenges, as reported by Polygon.

It's a fascinating experiment in pushing the boundaries of copyright. Are these games, adopted from a TV show that itself draws on real-life Korean children's games, running afoul of the law or creating a transformative new experience? Clearly, using the name "Squid Game" is a trademark violation. But the growing popularity of these types of knockoffs — Roblox is rife with non-licensed Pokémon and anime games that often fly under the radar — foreshadows the thorny copyright landscape for all kinds of media when the inevitable metaverse does materialize.

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