Battlelands Royale: Contender Or Pretender?
Fortnite. PLAYERUNKNOWN’S: BATTLEGROUNDS. Rules of Survival. If you haven’t heard of these games, you’ve probably been living under a rock for the last year. These titles have taken a Battle Royale genre that just two years ago was comprised of a couple Arma III mods and turned it into nothing short of a worldwide phenomenon. With combined revenue for the category ballooning into the billions for 2018, it’s no surprise that everyone and their mom is trying to hop on the Battle Royale train.
Following in the footsteps of MOBAs, Battle Royale games are getting their start on mobile with ports that attempt to bring a full PC experience to the phone. So far, this strategy has been wildly successful, with NetEase’s Knives Out and Rules of Survival garnering over 180 million downloads between them. Earlier this year, category-leader Fortnite released a direct port of their PC game on iOS, which is now pulling in millions of dollars per day just on mobile. The fact that none of these games are mobile-friendly raises the question of whether a variation of the genre can even compete -- or whether the definition of mobile-friendly is not as important as it once was.
Still, games such as MOBA Legends are proof that you can make a legitimate business out of building a fast-paced, touch-focused version of a popular PC genre (in that case, the source is League of Legends). This is where the first truly “mobile” contender in the Battle Royale genre enters the ring: Futureplay’s Battlelands Royale. The game has a simple premise that sounds pitch-perfect for Battle Royale players: “Parachute, loot, shoot and survive!”
But is Battlelands an actual contender to the throne currently held by Fortnite and PUBG: Mobile, or is it simply a pretender that will get crushed by the might of its competition? In this deconstruction, I’ll break down how Battle Royale games work and how Battlelands attempts to modify the core of the experience for mobile. Then, I’ll go over what works, what doesn’t, and break down Battlelands’ release to see what its chances are of keeping up with the big boys.
Last Man Standing
In case you’re not familiar with the Battle Royale genre, here’s a quick overview.
In Battle Royale games, all players start off-map, and choose a place on the map to land at. Once on the ground, they try to loot gear and weapons while taking out their opponents. At set intervals, a damaging cloud will descend in from the edges of the map, causing the safe, playable area to shrink. Players have to make their way towards the safe area marked on their map while avoiding danger, then start the process over again. Each player has only one life, so over time the number of players left slowly whittles down until all but one player has been eliminated, and the last man standing is crowned the victor.
While this may seem like an extremely simple concept, there is actually a massive amount of strategy and tactics associated with being the winner in any given match. For starters, the top Battle Royale games pit 100 players against each other at a time on a massive map, so there is some steep competition from the start. On top of this, there is a wide array of randomly scattered weapons and gear for players to mix and match, with stronger options available the longer the game goes on. All of these elements combine to create a fantastic and deep PvP experience that offers essentially infinite replayability.
Battlelands closely follows this Battle Royale core in its game design. Players start by tapping where they want to land and parachutes in. From there, they can pick up guns by standing over them, fire at their enemies to try and kill them off, or hide in the grass patches spread out across the map. The safe area of the map rapidly closes in, forcing players out of the shadows and into firefights until only one player remains. In order to fit this normally 40+ minute experience down into a bite-sized 5 minute chunk, Futureplay made these tweaks to the tried and true formula:
1. Fewer Players
Matches in Battlelands have 32 total players, compared to the 100 players found in most traditional Battle Royale games. Because there are a lot less bodies on the map, the games don’t last nearly as long. Furthermore, matchmaking times are lightning fast due to needing such a small number of players, so getting back into a match after death is painless.
2. Simplified Landing
Once the player enters matchmaking, they are able to select the location where they want to land. As the match starts, they are immediately dropped in and have just a few seconds of parachuting time to adjust their position and see where other players near them are going to land. Instead of potentially spending a few minutes dropping down onto the map as you might see in a traditional Battle Royale game, Battlelands accomplishes this section of the game in mere seconds.
3. Top-Down Perspective
Battlelands ditches the 3rd-person camera found in most Battle Royale games for an isometric, top-down view of the action. This view is much simpler to get used to and makes the game almost trivial to pick up and play, which is vital for retaining players on mobile.
4. Non-Stop Action
The safe area on the map starts shrinking nearly from the moment the combatants hit the ground. Each time it stops, players have only about 20-30 seconds to try and make their next fight or flight decision before the danger zone begins proceeding in again. Traditional Battle Royale games generally give players multiple minutes at each step to play around with, leading to a very slow pace that can make matches take upwards of 40 minutes to complete. This is not the case in Battlelands, as fights near the danger zone edge happen early and often, leading to quick and bloody matches.
In addition, because you cannot carry health packs around like many other Battle Royale games -- you can only heal by standing on a health or shield drop to consume it immediately -- the tensions stays high as the match progresses. Battlelands further encourages aggressive play by dropping shields to be picked up when kills are scored, meaning that players who push to end the game sooner are often rewarded for their efforts.
5. No Frills
Battlelands has all the core components of traditional Battle Royale games, but none of the frills that can extend games out. For example, the building mechanics of Fortnite or the vehicles and driving of PUBG. In Battlelands, you just load in, fight to survive, then get quickly back into a new match. Without these complex additional mechanics, Battlelands is simple to pick and play, letting the player feel in control from the get-go.
Fast And Furious Survival
Battlelands has one clear goal: Take the core components of traditional Battle Royale games, and pack them into a 5-minute experience. In this regard, the game certainly succeeds -- it both looks and plays like a light, fast-paced Battle Royale game. With only a couple dozen hours of Fortnite under my belt, I was able to jump in and instantly understand pretty much every single mechanic the game has to offer, despite the lack of any real tutorial or practice. The guns, the random drops, the supply packages with rare weapons… at first glance, it feels like this game has it all!
The first few games especially were very compelling as I started to get the hang of the controls and scored my first kill. While the controls are simple, the way that you have to learn to aim and lead your attacks based on the positioning of your opponents adds some interesting depth to the gameplay. Another element that you can start to master is that though the actual gear drops are random, the positioning of the drops is not. After my first several matches, I started to select parachute locations where I knew there would be a few drops so I could start off the match much stronger than my opponents and start hunting for weak stragglers who couldn’t get their hands on a gun.
The first few matches are where I believe Battlelands really shines. Every match that I played introduced a new weapon or area of the map to explore, which kept it fresh and exciting. As I got better and better finishes in my games, going from 29th (almost last) up to the top ten, I really felt like I was learning and having tense endings that made me want to smash the play button again. And without any ads or energy mechanics in the way, I could play for hours if I wanted to without paying a cent. Unfortunately, it was at this point that the cracks in Battlelands’ armor started to show, revealing some critical weaknesses in its design.
There are quite a few pain points in the metagame elements in Battlelands. For example, I had to play (and die horribly in) eight matches just to hit the second rank in the game’s main progression system, its Battle Pass. The rewards it gave me were really pathetic, which led me to open up the Battle Pass view to see when I would be getting something cool. The results were disheartening at best, with the free tier being virtually empty and taking a massive number of games to get through the meager rewards. Even scrolling through all the possible unlocks, there was nothing really cool or exciting that made me want to farm for it.
But surely the progression system is just icing on the cake -- in cosmetic-only monetization systems, the core game is what gets players to keep playing and eventually pay. It’s no surprise then that for Battlelands the most fundamental problems lie in the battles that players participate in. In order for the game to retain effectively, players need to feel consistently challenged by a deep and competitive PvP experience. Here are the key factors I believe are holding back Battlelands from delivering this experience with their core game.
1. Not Enough Guns
At the core of every successful Battle Royale game is a diverse set of weapons and power-ups that can be used to engage against other players. It is the many micro-decisions players make throughout the course of the match that gives it so much depth, and without varied tools to play with, matches begin to all feel the same. In Battlelands, there are six total guns. You read that right, 6! Even worse, two of those six can only be found in the special packages that drop about halfway through the match, so there are really four core weapons players can use.
This causes an important breakdown in the gameplay, due to the number of possible interactions being painfully small. I would bet it’s common for players to have engaged with every weapon in the game after just a dozen or so matches, compared to games like Fortnite where you can play over a hundred matches and still be discovering new guns. The lack of a diverse arsenal makes the game feel stale, and a stale game is one that people have no interest in returning to, a factor that certainly hurts Battlelands.
2. Lack Of Decision-Making
As mentioned previously, one of the main decision points the player must make as matches unfold is whether to fight with the gear they’ve got or scavenge for something better. In Battlelands, unfortunately, after the first few seconds of each match this choice is virtually non-existent. It’s pretty easy to find the weapon you want as you’ve got a one-in-four chance, and after you’ve grabbed it, you’re pretty much set for the rest of the match.
By comparison, in many PUBG matches a major focus is hunting down the components to build the ultimate weapon of destruction, pushing players to make tough decisions about when to fight and when to hide. Because in Battlelands you can only hold one gun at a time, and you hardly ever run out of ammo, decisions often feel pre-made, making it feel too simple to be played for more than a handful of matches.
3. Breathless Pacing
One of the major reasons that the Battle Royale genre rose to prominence is because of its impeccable pacing, which provides steadily increasing tension as the match gets closer to finishing. The long breaks between the safe zone shrinking gives players a chance to catch their breath before they dive back into the intense action. In Battlelands, however, there are essentially no breaks, as players are constantly pushed inward in an attempt to end the match as quickly as possible.
In the same vein as the concerns discussed previously, this leads to matches feeling very similar and makes the game feel like it lacks strategy. Instead of a tense chess match where each decision feels like it can be the difference between life or death, it’s more of an all-out brawl decided by luck as much as skill.
An Uphill Battle
Battlelands soft-launched in March of 2018, likely to impressive metrics considering its relatively short 4-month soft launch window. Though I don’t have access to exact numbers, I would estimate it to have very strong (50% or more) Day-1 retention, which probably holds through the first few days as players explore what the game has to offer. Though the Day-7 and Day-30 retention were probably weak due to an alarming lack of content, Battlelands was released worldwide at the end of June 2018. It was able to pull in a very respectable number of downloads, having accrued almost seven million in its first two months of worldwide release, and receiving a favorable review score of 4.5 stars on iOS and Android.
With this solid start, one might assume that Battlelands was well on its way to breaking into the ring of top-tier Battle Royale games on mobile. However, its grossing charts tell a different and more troubling story. Despite all those downloads and positive reviews, BattleLands Royale was able to earn just $450K across both iOS and Android. With its virality fading and no ad revenue to supplement the lack of in app purchases, it appears that the problems discussed above may be tanking long-term retention and risk leaving the game dead in the water.
So what went wrong for Futureplay, and is there anything they can do to try and fix it? Given the incredibly strong base presented in the current game, it feels like there is a good chance of recovery, but it will likely require some major updates. Here are some of the big steps I think could be taken to try and put Battlelands on the road to recovery.
More Ways To Play
The few ways that Battlelands offers to play are great, which probably leads to healthy early retention numbers. However, it’s pretty likely that players are rapidly exhausting those and want some more gameplay content to sink their teeth into. The top priority should be new guns, as each gun added to the game will have an exponential improvement to the experience. Whether it’s new weapons, gun upgrades, or another new feature, this represents the best way to add more depth to the gameplay.
Other than that, there are a lot of compelling ways to get more out of the content that has already been made. For example, adding quests to the game can provide an additional challenge without having to change the in-game experience at all. Tasks like “Get five Sniper Rifle kills” add more spice to the matches by changing the way players approach their battles. Furthermore, if the quests refresh on a cooldown, it adds an appointment mechanic, something sorely missing in the current design of the game.
Double-Down On Social
One of the major strengths of many games in the Battle Royale genre is how much they encourage virality via sharing and social interactions. Although Battlelands does have a team mode where you can play with a friend, that is where the social aspects of the game end. I believe that Futureplay could borrow some key mechanics from their peers, as well as innovate in this area to improve long-term retention by helping to build a community within their game.
There are some basics that Battlelands is missing -- features like leaderboards and chat. While these may seem trivial, they are important underpinnings to making the game feel alive and competitive. Other features related to playing with friends, such as XP boosters and invite bonuses, are simple to implement and have been proven elsewhere to help build long-term relationships inside the game.
Furthermore, because Battlelands has invested so much in making their matches short and sweet, I think they should try to leverage that with their social features. For example, allow players to bet on who they think will win after dying and let them cheer them on with emotes while spectating. Maximizing the amount of fun players can have in a short session is one of the greatest potential strengths of Battlelands but they’ll have to get creative to do so.
Crank Up The Content Treadmill
As discussed previously, the base of Battlelands shows a lot of promise, but in the area of unlockable rewards it is painfully lacking. There is essentially no feeling of progress, both because it is actually super difficult to earn XP and because earning XP feels pointless. Relying on Battle Pass for virtually all of your monetization is tough, but it can work if you give players long-term goals to reach so that they retain long enough to invest.
The first thing that I believe needs to happen in Battlelands is to add in more rewards to the Battle Pass, both in the free and premium tier. Though this may lower the ceiling of how much a player can pay, it should increase the floor and take advantage of the very strong early-day retention Battlelands has earned. On top of this, features such as achievements and weekly challenges can provide players with a feeling of accomplishment from match to match, as even when they lose they are making progress towards their next reward. It will take time to build up a good base of rewards for players, but eventually, Futureplay should be able to break through and be able to provide great value for both veteran players and newcomers.
Down But Not Out
When Battlelands hit the market there were legitimate questions being asked around whether this was the future of the Battle Royale genre on mobile. It has the look and feel of its peers, all packed into a neat package that is a blast to pick up and play. However, Battlelands has some crucial weaknesses that are proving it’s not quite ready to hang with the kings of Battle Royale.
Fortunately for Futureplay, I believe the most difficult task -- building a fun and functional 32-player Battle Royale game -- has already been completed. For a company that so far has produced only idle-clicker games, and got from concept to soft-launch in six months, this is a product with a lot of potential. With some intelligent updates there is still a chance for Battlelands to turn their fortunes around and go from pretender to contender.