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PUBG and Fortnite's argument raises the question: Can you own a genre?

A battle royale over a battle royale

Fortnite: Battle Royale storm art Epic Games
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

It’s been a busy few weeks for the burgeoning battle royale genre.

Ten days ago, industry heavyweight Epic Games announced a spin-off of its early access game Fortnite called, simply enough, Fortnite: Battle Royale. In that press release, it specifically name-dropped Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, currently the hottest title in PC gaming, as its inspiration.

“We love battle royale games like PUBG, and thought Fortnite would make a great foundation for our own version,” Epic said.

Then, just a week later, Epic took things to their logical conclusion: It announced that Fortnite: Battle Royale would be a standalone game. And, because Epic has been working on Fortnite for six (!) years already and has a lot of the infrastructure already in place, that spin-off will beat Battlegrounds to consoles.

Check and mate, they must have thought. I drink your milkshake, they may have cackled. Hard to say, really.

But the developers of Battlegrounds, South Korean developer Bluehole, aren’t going down without a fight. In a statement made today, that company’s vice president, who also happens to be the executive producer on Battlegrounds, fired a warning shot over Epic’s bow.

“Epic Games references PUBG in the promotion of Fortnite to their community and in communications with the press,” Chang Han Kim said. “This was never discussed with us and we don’t feel that it’s right. ... The PUBG community has and continues to provide evidence of the many similarities as we contemplate further action.”

So who’s in the right here, and who is in the wrong? I’m not entirely sure. But what I do know is that neither of these companies will come out of this smelling like a rose.

Here’s why.

The battle royale genre is derivative

I’m just going to say the words now: The concept of the battle royale genre is as old as gaming itself. To propose otherwise is to be willfully ignorant of the history of gaming.

In battle royale, you put some players inside an environment and you have them duke it out. Last man standing wins. I first encountered the guts of that concept playing Armor Battle on the Intellivision, a game that came out in 1978.

That’s a bit heavy handed, though, I admit. So let me take another stab at proving this out. To do that, we have to do a little bit of digging into the recent past.

It’s no secret that Brendan “Playerunknown” Greene got his start in gaming making mods for Arma 2. And, as he told me at E3 this year, the game that inspired him to make mods was in fact itself a mod, a little game mode for Arma 2 called DayZ.

“When I was in Brazil, I was saving to get home to Ireland,” Greene said. “I had married a Brazilian, divorced a few years later and then for the following four years I was kind of just living in Brazil because who doesn’t want to live in Brazil? Doing photography, design, DJ’ing. ... I started playing the DayZ mod, discovered all of that, and then I started making the Battle Royale mod itself.”

If you look at the two mods there’s clearly a lot of shared DNA. Random weapons scattered all over the map? Check. A large group of players that have to hunt each other down visually or by sound? Check. Ramshackle Eastern European environments and busted up vehicles? Check. A mix of NATO and Russian small arms? Check and check.

These are all parts inside the box of Legos that came with every copy of Arma 2, a game that developers Bohemia Interactive made to be modded. If anybody should be pissed off at the success of battle royale as a genre, it should be the folks who made Arma 2. But I digress.

When it comes down to it, what makes the DayZ mod and the Battle Royale mod different is the speed of play. I spent entire weeks playing DayZ on the same server, with the same players, and only ever had a handful of pulse-pounding gunfights. With Battle Royale, the time between engagements was much shorter and the pace of play was much faster. It’s that lineage that’s gone into making Battlegrounds.

But it’s hardly a revolution. It’s a refinement. To assert otherwise is nonsense.

This is a bad look for everybody

Coming at this from another perspective, you’ve got to understand that Epic isn’t just a game developer anymore. They’re also the makers of one of the most flexible and important game engines around, Unreal.

Battlegrounds is built using Unreal, and that game’s success has helped them promote that line of its business. Here they are in June, just a little while after the release of Bluehole’s product, turning it into a case study on the capabilities of their platform.

There is something disingenuous about a company taking the work of one of its licensors and turning it into a spin-off for its newest, biggest franchise. No doubt, there is a team of lawyers working on behalf of Bluehole, turning over rocks to see if there’s any way to punish Epic for making its own version of Battlegrounds. If there weren’t, then why send out a press release like the one we’re looking at today?

But it was also a bad look for Brendan Greene to make the same game over again. In reality, Battlegrounds is his third attempt.

First came the Battle Royale mod and last came Battlegrounds. In between, Greene worked with Sony Interactive Entertainment, now Daybreak Game Company, to create the Battle Royale mode that shipped with the original H1Z1. At the time, it was clear that mode was the best part of that game. Since then, it’s been broken off as its own game, called H1Z1: King of the Kill and remains one of the most-played games on Steam.

But on paper, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds and H1Z1: King of the Kill are the same damn game. They have huge differences in the pace and style of play, but they operate on the same basic set of principles; many players, a shrinking map, high stakes. They are variations on a theme, and even though they were both spawned from the same creative mind, they are absolutely not the same.

No, they’re not clones. We’ve encountered those before with 2048 and Threes, with Ninja Fishing and Ridiculous Fishing. We know what it feels like to see a game that has practically been plagiarized. But you can have the same formula and still make different games. Just look at MOBAs like Dota 2 and League of Legends and, yes, the original Defense of the Ancients mod that started it all. Look at the collection of games made in the style of Dark Souls. This is not a new concept.

It’s the differences between games in a genre that grow and evolve the art of making games. Those differences are small on paper, but massive in the hands of players. And to fight and quibble and litigate over who made what first is wasting time and energy that could be put into making each of these games better and better.

I’m not here to point fingers or name names. By lashing out at Epic, Bluehole is creating a distraction. They have momentum behind them, an unprecedented surge in concurrent players that has rocketed them to the top of Steam, knocking out other games that have maintained their dominance for years.

Now is not the time to be punching down at Fortnite, even if Epic is the bigger and more experienced company. Rather, Bluehole should be focused on leaving them in the dust.

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