Apex Legends has recently reached 50 million players. You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a momentous milestone, one that should be celebrated the industry over. It’s not. It’s instead indicative of an industry that has rested on its laurels for far too long; creativity and innovation has been replaced by a “Smash battle royale in case of emergency” button. Not only could this have a potentially fatal knock-on effect for single-player games, but it could even lead to more layoffs and further disruption in an already fragile entertainment environment. In short, it’s bad news — and one that needs to be rectified sooner rather than later.
Because, after all, what’s everyone talking about these days? It’s battle royales. What’s in the new Battle Pass? When’s the next season out? Have you seen the skin I just bought for my main? At the risk of sounding like an old crank, gaming once existed on waiting with bated breath for the latest big single-player release, with enough time and space dedicated to allowing big titles and interesting games to shine. Now, it’s been replaced by a murmur. Single-player games are instead relegated to minor distractions from the man-hours put into battle royales such as Fortnite and, latterly, Apex Legends.
Where have all the good games gone?
It now means single-player games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 have to react by giving you More Stuff to Do, more than you’ll ever need, because it wants to take up the time that has otherwise previously been granted to the 24/7 nature of battle royales. Single-player games, at their best, should be about handcrafted, masterful journeys. Now, some of the biggest titles are content with following the battle royale route and chucking Thing after Thing at you, with the sole purpose being to take up some of your time that, otherwise, would be given elsewhere.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, too, hardly benefitted from its move towards an all-encompassing slog in the form of a so-so RPG. Where once there was historical intrigue and world-building, there’s now a turgid grind, and it’s a direction the series doesn’t look like reversing anytime soon. It’s a little wonder that game completion rates are dropping at an alarming rate. It really is a race to the bottom, a chance to give you more and more content to consume instead of providing quality in moderation, and battle royales have become the catalyst for that.
50 million players shouldn’t be applauded. It’s too much for what is, essentially, a fraction of the effort. That’s not to discredit the work done at Respawn but, let’s be honest, it’s only going to see a sliver of what its efforts have brought in anyway.
An Apex predator
While Apex Legends is (and has thus far remained) a very interesting, competent game, it still pales in comparison to dozens upon dozens of single-player games released every year in terms of unique, compelling reasons to pick up a controller. Yet, you’re not playing those, at least not to the same extent that you settle down to play a battle royale day after day. It’s become a comfort blanket you’re not willing to shrug off. You’re playing Apex Legends. You’re playing Fortnite. You’re aiding and abetting the very downfall of the gaming industry in terms of pure quality.
It’s only going to get worse, too. EA wanted a piece of that pie. And the publishing giant got it. Publishers and developers will now see battle royales as a get-out-of-jail card and a license to print money, but the knock-on effect could be tremendous.
Smaller dev teams, less money being pumped back into the industry, and a general creative malaise thanks to the spread of live-service games could all become prominent in the next-generation of consoles, and now we’re looking at the being on the ground floor as an emerging beast, one that might never be slain, spreads its wings. And it’s a beast that could do irreparable harm to the gaming industry.
That’s because battle royales are also symptomatic of the industry’s ills. The genre has stealth-introduced a whole host of features that have now been normalized when it comes to games: Massive patches to correct fundamental mistakes; the emphasis on skins and other cosmetics as a money-maker and, of course, loot boxes. Many can find their roots in battle royales and/or live service games, and they will continue to be popularized as money is poured into them.
So, why should a publisher dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars to an auteur-lead project such as Death Stranding or a risky new IP such as Horizon Zero Dawn? Those games may not have even been greenlit in 2019, such is the prevalence of the ease on which battle royales rule the roost, with minimal legwork needing to be put in to satiate the masses.
It could make the next console generation a real low point for the industry as a whole, too. Creative bankruptcy, ironically, doesn’t look too far off, even as more money than ever is being made in gaming. Any potential new console from Sony or Microsoft will almost definitely have to have a battle royale attached at launch to be a real success. Because you don’t need to finance anything new or unique when you have the dreaded b-word to fall back on.
It’ll persist throughout that life-cycle, also, in a way that has only been hinted at thus far. The industry will collapse into a rhythm of single-player games merely (temporarily) puncturing the battle royale games’ endless flight. Honestly, it’s a little depressing.
So, I implore you: Stop hopping on a battle royale every day. Start supporting games that aren’t merely clever ways to make you part with more and more cash across months (and even years) by doing the bare minimum inside a familiar framework. It’s 2019 and what should be a Golden Age for the industry, both in terms of technology and welcoming a new, diverse generation of developers into the fold, is turning more and more into EA and Epic having the Midas touch, in effect creating an unbreakable monopoly. In short, the industry is looking more predictable and yawnsome than ever. It’s time to stop that; it’s time to stop lining the pockets of those who need it least and start putting some of our time, effort, and money into genuinely creative, awe-inspiring projects. Without them, we’ll be stuck with mainly cookie-cutter battle royales for the next generation. Nobody wants that now, do they?