In 1999, Game Designer Cliff Bleszinski, better known as Cliffy B., and Epic Games released Unreal Tournament. It was a revolutionary first-person multiplayer arena shooter that started a whole new genre, one that’s still popular to this day. Less than a decade later and he was producing Gears of War. This was a new brand of third-person shooter in which the player had methodically clear levels by gluing themselves to cover, picking their targets, and firing at the right moment. It (and Naughty Dog’s Uncharted) changed the third person shooter forever.
Now in April 2018, Bleszinski’s new company, Boss Key Productions, is producing Radical Heights, a game that’s pegged as a knock-off of popular battle royale games PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite. PUBG as its known created the genre, and Fortnite perfected it, but both have become the hottest names in gaming. Many imitators are now trying to compete for a piece of that pie, some of whom PUBG developer Blue Hole Games have hit with lawsuits.
It’s strange to think such a legendary and trailblazing developer like Bleszinski would abandon his roots in favor of chasing trends. This isn’t the first time it’s happened though. Just a week before announcing Radical Heights, Boss Key announced they were giving up on their first game, LawBreakers, an online “hero” shooter that also had echoes of another popular game of the time, Overwatch. At the time, Lawbreakers was criticized for being too similar to Blizzard’s seminal shooter.
How fair are these comparisons? It’s hard to say, though both games are straining at the effort to appear different. LawBreakers borrows only the hero mold of Overwatch, and it’s an online multiplayer shooter. There’s less of an emphasis on individual character skills, and a mode called “Blitzball” which is more akin to Rocket League.
The differences are less obvious with Radical Heights, now in “X-TREME Early Access” as its marketing proudly declares. Visually the game is almost identical to Fortnite, complete with distinct characters and a cartoony art style. The only difference is a thin layer of 80’s nostalgia painted over some locations. There’s a unique mechanic of vending machines, with each player having to collect money to buy better weapons rather than finding them on the ground. Other than that though, it’s still the typical “1 vs. 99,” “last person standing is the winner” gameplay you’d expect from its forbearers.
The game’s timing exacerbates this. Radical Heights debuted mere days after Boss Key announced they were ceasing development of LawBreakers. It’s hard not to view this as anything other than a rush to capitalize on the battle royale hype before the bubble burst.
Boss Key Productions haven’t been the only ones to make such a move over the years, not even the most cynical. EA’s reboot of Medal Honor turned the franchise into yet another modern military shooter during the height of Call of Duty. As good as the Tomb Raider reboot has been, it’s hard to look past its Uncharted inspirations. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are intertwined by fate – they were born together, died together, reborn together with Guitar Hero Live and Rock Band 4, then died together again.
All creative industries suffer from “follow the leader syndrome,” but with the video game industry it almost feels baked in to its D.N.A. Video games don’t suffer from one or two market followers like films, they go through cycles. Now it’s battle royale, yesterday it was the hero based arena multiplayer shooter, the day before that it was massive open worlds. Go back before that and you’ll see a never-ending stream of 2D platformers, mascot-led 3D platformers, and the aforementioned modern military shooter.
The days of video games being limited by technology are nearing an end, but they’re still limited either by a lack of creativity or shareholders. If the latter is true, that’s odd, considering you need only look at the competition to see that trying to ape what’s popular rarely works. The Medal of Honor reboot was a flop, Battlefield always lagged behind Call of Duty until it rebooted itself within a World War I setting, and most of us can name a dozen 3D mascot platformers that died on the vine.
Why is it that video games are so susceptible to such creative bankruptcy? It could be that they’re so much more expensive to produce than any other form of media. With video games, even the simplest things like in-game objects or physics are created from scratch, or bought from third-party game engines that power them. Bugs are an issue unique to the games industry and need ample time to squash. And while modern technology is at its apex, there are still limitations to what you can achieve, and how you can achieve it.
But this line of thought feels like an excuse, more than anything. Earlier this month, Grand Theft Auto V became the highest grossing single media title of all time, earning a reported $6 billion. Meanwhile, the Call of Duty franchise is worth around $15 billion, and Blizzard grossed $2.43 billion in 2016 thanks to Overwatch and the continued success of World of Warcraft. What do these properties have in common? They’re innovators. Some created their genre, others perfected it, but they’re all the leaders in their particular area, not one of the many knock-offs.
“Video games are a much better business than [movie] studios,” market analyst Evan Wingren told Esquire. “Games, in general, have the enviable position that their content is interactive, which allows them to make data-driven insights and adjust games and business models that benefits players and the company.”
Radical Heights is the latest in a procession of video games that are market followers, not leaders. It could be a good video game someday, maybe even better than those it seeks to emulate, assuming Boss Key doesn’t drop it too in favor of the next fad.
The biggest problem games like Radical Heights face is that they’re trying to compete in an increasingly bloated genre. People already have two great battle royale games, why do they need another? Boss Key’s game isn’t even the third such game, it’s lagging behind H1Z1, Paladins: Battlegrounds, and Hunt: Showdown to name a few. Bleszinski’s game isn’t just competing against the current crop of games, but any future ones. Patches and updates to pre-existing games is nothing new. Blizzard could easily add a battle royale mode to Overwatch, Activision to Call of Duty: WWII, Ubisoft to Far Cry 5.
That’s not a problem unique to Radical Heights. The more companies try to follow the leader and churn out more of what’s popular, the less likely each subsequent game is to succeed. 3D platformers, point and click adventure games, modern military first-person shooters – these didn’t die by accident. Too many games were chasing those trends, and it dried the market up.
The same is happening to the battle royale genre, and it too will fall to the next fad. Hopefully, one day companies like Boss Key will look at what’s successful though, and become a leader of their own trend.
- Josh Griffiths