Agroup of people drop on to a large island. For the next 20 minutes they must search buildings for useful weapons and equipment, before fighting to the death. As the match progresses, the playable area contracts, forcing the competitors closer together. The last person standing wins.
This is of course battle royale, a new type of online shooting game currently being enjoyed by over 200 million people across the globe. The craze started with PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, a modification of the zombie survival game DayZ developed by lone designer Brendan Greene. Its popularity caught the attention of Korean developer Bluehole, who employed Greene to oversee development of a full game. PUBG was launched as a beta in early 2017 and by December, it had 30 million players.
Noticing this success, Epic Games released a free battle royale version of its online co-op game Fortnite, offering a cartoony visual style and a Minecraft-style construction element. That was September 2017. The following year, the game earned $2.4bn from players’ purchases. Last October, Activision added a battle royale mode named Blackout to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, and on 4 February, Respawn Entertainment launched Apex: Legends. Within a week, it had gathered 10 million players, rocket-boosting publisher Electronic Arts’ share value.
Even though the visual styles and narrative settings of these games are very different, the four giants of the genre adhere to a strict set of conventions. The islands are scattered with towns, villages, and industrial complexes, they all have rivers and bridges and offshore isles and they’re all roughly the same shape. But what makes them so compelling? Why is a generation of kids is probably more comfortable navigating from Tilted Towers to Paradise Palms than they are from home to the shops?
Dave Curd is art director on PUBG. He’s been designing first-person shooter maps for years, and the first thing he says about the layout of battle royale landscapes is that there’s never anything accidental about the way that towns and other scenic features are dispersed. Everything is driven by a combination of design and technical considerations. “If you put cities too close together, players aren’t incentivised to leave, but put them too far apart and players get bored of the journey in between,” he says. “Also, you don’t want five or six cities crowded together or you can run into too many assets loading at once.”
“There’s a sweet spot where it’s fun and performs well for everybody, and we get there by lots of playtests and lots of analysing data in the field,” he explains. “Every map, you’ll notice the art gets a little better and the assets are a little more dispersed – we’re always learning.”
David Vonderhaar is the studio design director at Treyarch, the veteran Call of Duty developer behind the new Blackout mode. When his team set out to create a battle royale map, they initially tried to bring in their experience from traditional first-person shooters, but that proved to be a mistake. “Many of those map guidelines that worked for multiplayer needed to be rewritten or removed,” he says. “Certain things like the definition of a structure, the entrance/exit requirements need to be modified and updated … We had to spend a lot of time in early development carefully describing the variety and locations of destinations on the map, and how they related to one another.”
Battle royale maps provide a lot of liminal spaces between intense combat zones, and managing how players transition around the map – especially how they enter and exit important areas – is vital. “We wanted variety, so that assaulting or fleeing [an area] is special,” says Vonderhaar. “Topography helped achieve that. Sometimes destinations are uphill (Asylum), in the middle of a dense forest (The Hind Clearing), or require crossing flat, exposed terrain (Cargo).” In a game type where players create their own stories, arriving at a location – or evacuating it at speed – are important elements.
Some scenic elements crop up again and again, because they’re useful for creating specific player experiences, which is generally difficult in a vast open space. “One of the big challenges of designing a battle royale map is that players can approach from any direction, including landing right in the middle of it,” says Curd. “So we use areas like small islands and long bridges to create bottlenecks and chokepoints, and to intentionally encourage certain types of gameplay. In those small areas, we have a very good idea how people will interact. It’s kind of fun for players to camp a bridge, to feel smart, to feel like highwaymen.”
Another vital design element is the use of tall architectural structures such as masts and towers. Partly this is about adding verticality to the play space, which was the impetus behind Blackout’s towering construction site area, with its uncompleted skyscraper. However, it’s also about helping players to figure out where they are.
“These maps are really 90% nature and 10% manmade architecture, so the latter has to stand out, it has to break the horizon line,” says Curd. “The use of vertical architecture as navigation points is pivotal – we need to landmark so that players inherently understand where they are in relation to each other. You have to see it from 2km to know where you’re going. Tall or unique structures act as very natural markers. It means players don’t have to keep yelling, ‘He’s over there in the trees.’”
What is fascinating is how the designers of battle royale maps use subtle environmental bait to get players moving and exploring. “We use clumps of cover as little areas of safety to tempt the players,” says Curd. “Whether that’s your typical crate or barrel pile, an old flipped over truck, a long wall or a small shack, you’d be surprised how much you can influence the player with both smart loot placement and cover placement at sprintable distances. Players can do that risk-reward calculation of, ‘OK, I’m going to be exposed for a few seconds, but then I’m going to have access to five new buildings, and buildings are the prize because they have loot, but more importantly they have windows I can sight from.’”
Vondehaar concurs: “We never want the player to feel like they aren’t making progress moving across the map because there isn’t anything to get to. If you were to take a ruler a measure between any two destinations in Blackout, you’d see what we think is our sweet spot.”
Environmental storytelling is also important to holding players’ interest. Epic Games has excelled at this with Fortnite, creating its own mythology via falling meteors, mysterious hatches, intriguing posters and TV screens showing images that hint at new game features. The landscape is constantly evolving and players love to speculate on what it all means.
In a more subtle way, battle royale games rely on scenic features to hint at a sense of history. “We use low-level stuff, like adding wear and tear to objects, to suggest these places are abandoned or that the occupants left in a hurry,” says Curt. “We can also be more overt – in the Sanhok map there are training-ground locations where you’ll find hints that this might be a training facility for actual battle royale combatants. We don’t want to hit the player over the head with story, but we’re leaving clues to gently breadcrumb them along.”
All the successful battle royale titles know the importance of subtlety. Whether you’re exploring the crypts of Haunted Hills or the metallic corridors of the Hydro Dam in Apex Legends, you won’t find complex multi-level floor layouts, and you won’t find masses of furniture – all the buildings are rather square and the rooms rather empty. Partly this is to ensure players can quickly spot useful items amid purely decorative objects, but it is also about gameplay. “You want relatively simple interiors so that players can use hearing effectively,” says Curd. “They need to be able to know the other player is upstairs, they’re below, they’re just outside – if we made our structures too complex, it would be really difficult to play the game. Sound is such a big deal and our simple approach to interior design reflects that.”
As with any “live” game that’s played by thousands or millions at a time, iteration drives the design process. “We playtest rigorously,’” says Curd. “It’s literally like designing an enormous first-person shooter map. We have the same principles of design: fun drives decisions. If we try something, no matter how cool it looks, no matter what we thought we wanted, if the playtests don’t prove it out, it gets the boot.”
Iterating on the studio’s own ideas is only part of the process – a successful battle royale developer also needs to understand the variety of needs from potential players. An important element of this process is categorising them – run’n’gun fanatics, explorers, snipers – then making sure there are areas for all of them. “When you have a game that reaches as many as ours does you have to realise that they’re not all going to be your typical FPS high-conflict gamer, especially in our Asian markets,” says Curd. “We have a sizeable number of players who enjoy the survival aspect: looting, hiding, sneaking. Some players don’t even go for guns – they enjoy the tactics of hiding and outsmarting other players, and getting to the next circle.
“I am an SMG and shotgun player, so I’m always going to make sure there is something for people who like to get into close-quarters combat. But we know we have a hell of a lot of expert snipers, so we want areas with less foliage, stark terrain, so you can really see those figures against that blistering orange sun. If you go to a town and there’s a large apartment building with lots of windows, we want players to feel that stress of, ‘Is anyone watching me?’”
Curd traces the lineage of this design approach to an unexpected source. “With Dark Souls, people were excited about how it was difficult and opaque,” he says. “It proved there was an appetite for opacity in design, for not doling information out to players so directly. The battle royale genre has proven that players can tolerate really high-stress situations, really opaque choices, and not always knowing the clearest way to play.”
Studios use maps not just as interesting combinations of rural and urban locations, but for storytelling, as props to the narratives that players create as they play. Buildings are there to hide items but they’re also navigational tools; bridges provide access but also choke points to encourage shootouts. Players aren’t told any of this – they have to learn how to read and understand a battle royale environment, like a rambler picking up subtle clues from the local vegetation, from the flow of a stream, or the direction of a hedgerow. The worlds are open and free to roam through – nothing is directed. And the unpredictable interactions between these systems of freedom and direction are as much fun to watch as they are to play: a valuable asset in this era of Twitch streamers and YouTube superstars.
“Whenever you ask someone about their first victory, I guarantee you they have a little story about how they got there,” says Curd. “These games are high stakes, high danger, high challenge, and that’s super satisfying … We want to be tested. We want to be pushed.”