When you’ve made made nearly half a billion dollars in six months, you can throw some weight around.
That helps explain why developer Bluehole, Inc., the South Korean game company behind the breakout hit video game “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (“PUBG”), issued a bizarre press release on September 22 accusing another prominent game development company of copying their game.
“We are concerned that ‘Fortnite’ may be replicating the experience for which ‘PUBG’ is known,” Chang Han Kim, Bluehole vice president and executive producer, said in a press release.
Kim’s claiming that Epic Games’ “Fortnite” is copying “PUBG” – a wild claim unto itself, made even wilder by the fact that Bluehole has an ongoing business relationship with Epic Games. The very technology powering “PUBG” is made by Epic Games, which puts the two companies in a very weird place. But Kim wasn’t done:
“The ‘PUBG’ community has and continues to provide evidence of the many similarities as we contemplate further action,” he wrote.
So, what in the world is going on? There’s a lot to unpack.
First, what is “PUBG”?
You’re jammed in a crappy plane with 100 other people, flying above an abandoned ex-Soviet island. You can jump whenever you want, knowing that as you plummet to the ground, 99 other people are plotting your imminent death. Of course, you’re plotting theirs as well, just as soon as you can get your hands on a weapon.
Thankfully, though the island is uninhabited aside from you and the enemy players, its abandoned buildings – houses, hospitals, gas stations, etc. – are packed with P9s, AKs, and plenty of body armor.
As you scramble to put together a small arsenal and supplies for survival, you’re also contending with the other 99 people doing the same thing. Sometimes those folks want to fight. Sometimes they’re unarmed and just as terrified of you as you are of them.
Every interaction with another player in “PUBG” is a gamble, which is why it’s so excellent.
“PUBG” is a breakout hit — the hottest game of 2017 by far.
The game isn’t even officially out yet – it’s in so-called “Early Access,” which means it’s a work-in-progress that you can buy and play right now – but it’s already sold over 13 million copies. At $30, Bluehole has made nearly $400 million on “Battlegrounds” in just over six months.
Crazier still, it’s only available on PC currently; an Xbox One version is in the works, expected later this year, with other game consoles expected to get the game later on.
To be more clear: Bluehole has sold over 13 million copies of a game that isn’t finished with development, that’s only available on a single platform. That’s far from normal in the world of video games, even for blockbuster franchises like “Call of Duty” and “Grand Theft Auto.”
So, what is “Fortnite”?
“Fortnite” is a third-person shooter that’s focused on survival gameplay. You, or you and a group of friends, take on hordes of enemies from the tentative safety of a fort you’ve crafted. It’s available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, and Mac.
There’s a cartoony art style to “Fortnite,” which tonally fits in alongside the game’s goofy dialog; there’s a playful tone about everything in “Fortnite,” which is starkly different from the dreary, dire tone of “PUBG.” Moreover, the core of “Fortnite” is very different from “PUBG” – it’s essentially a “tower defense” game.
In “Fortnite,” like other tower-defense games, you’re defending an immobile thing from waves of enemies. You have a period of time before the attack begins, when you’re able to set up defenses (turrets, traps, walls, etc.). Once you trigger the battle, you must defend whatever that aforementioned thing is from being attacked. If you survive those waves, you’ve succeeded.
This isn’t the stuff that Bluehole takes issue with.
How does Epic Games fit into all of this?
Epic Games is a massive heavyweight in the video game industry, based out of North Carolina.
This is the company behind classic game franchises like “Unreal Tournament” and “Gears of War.” More importantly, nowadays, Epic Games is the company behind the Unreal Engine – a foundational software suite that powers dozens of games. The company remains privately owned, but Chinese investment company Tencent owns around 40%.
Awkwardly, Unreal Engine 4 powers “PUBG” – meaning Bluehole pays royalties to Epic Games – as well as “Fortnite.”
What about Bluehole?
Regardless of the runaway success of “PUBG,” Bluehole was already a successful company. The game “Tera,” for instance, continues to be a popular online game – it’s just far more popular in South Korea than it is in North America, so you’ve likely never heard of it.
Thanks to the Early Access launch of “PUBG” on March 23 and its subsequent success, Bluehole has grown significantly in 2017:
– It’s hired dozens of staffers to support the ongoing development of “PUBG”
– It’s working with a third-party studio in Spain to create an Xbox One version of the game
– It’s even spinning “PUBG” into its own subsidiary company. The new company within Bluehole is named “PUBG Corp.,” and it’s focused specifically on the growth of “PUBG.” (The parent company, Bluehole Inc., has a reported valuation of $4.6 billion.)
All of which is to say one crucial thing: Bluehole is nowhere near as large as Epic Games, nor does it have as storied a history, but it’s far from a fledgling little indie – especially now that “PUBG” is a bona fide hit.
So, what’s the beef?
In September, Epic introduced a new mode to “Fortnite.” That new mode was called “Fortnite Battle Royale.”
This is when problems began.
“We love Battle Royale games like ‘PUBG’ and thought ‘Fortnite’ would make a great foundation for our own version,” the September 12 Epic Games blog post announcing the new game mode says.
Indeed, the new “Battle Royale” mode in “Fortnite” approximates many of the aspects of “PUBG” that people love:
– It’s a 100-player mode on a massive island.
– You drop down from the air at the opening, introducing a tactical aspect to simply joining the match.
– Only one person is crowned winner at the end.
But Epic Games said from the start that the mode was a nod to “PUBG,” right? Bluehole actually says that’s part of the problem.
“Epic Games references ‘PUBG’ in the promotion of ‘Fortnite’ to their community and in communications with the press,” Kim said in the press release from late September. “This was never discussed with us and we don’t feel that it’s right.”
How different are the games?
There are, of course, some major differences between the games.
“Fortnite” is a third-person shooter, for one, whereas “PUBG” is a mixed first-person/third-person shooter. The guns in “PUBG” are far more realistic, whereas the guns in “Fortnite” are goofy and lighthearted. These may sound like pedantic little differences, but the games feel fundamentally different because of this stuff – despite the fact that they’re both shooters.
There’s also a building aspect to “Fortnite” that “PUBG” doesn’t have – you literally construct buildings on-the-fly. In “PUBG,” you take cover in abandoned buildings. The structures cannot be destroyed.
These aren’t small differences, and I’m only just scratching the surface here in terms of contrasting the two games.
That said, the structure of “Fortnite Battle Royale” mode is a direct copy of “PUBG.”
Three facts in favor of “Fortnite”: The details of its game mode aren’t identical to “PUBG”; the two games play very differently; and “PUBG” isn’t the first game to attempt the “King of the Hill” multiplayer concept.
While we’re at it, let’s go all the way crazy and point out that video games as a medium are iterative. “Call of Duty” exists because “Halo” came before it; “Halo” exists because “Doom” came before it. What makes this situation particularly awkward is the relationship between Bluehole and Epic, and the timing of the mode being added.
“PUBG” arrived in Early Access in March, and exploded in popularity almost immediately. Since the game isn’t out yet on consoles, “Fortnite” adding a mode that is essentially a copy of “PUBG” could be perceived as a hostile move – a rush to beat “PUBG” to consoles.
Moreover, the company behind that move is a partner. It was expected that other game studios would create their own versions of the “Battle Royale” concept, but the speed at which it was done here and the way it was handled are the biggest sticking points in terms of public perception.
It’s not a great look for Epic Games, to say the least.
Things get even weirder: Who owns the concept of a “Battle Royale”?
If you’re into dope films, you might’ve seen the Japanese cult classic “Battle Royale.” The movie came out in 2000, and has gone on to “inspire” many subsequent works.
Perhaps this description sounds familiar? In “Battle Royale,” dozens of Japanese high-school students are placed on an island by their totalitarian government, given random weapons, and forced to kill one another until one person remains. That person is crowned the winner. May the odds be ever in their favor.
The film’s premise also provides the basic structure for the “Battle Royale” genre of games. And in “PUBG,” a number of vanity items paying “homage” to the film are available for sale (like the one seen above). If Bluehole isn’t paying a licensing fee for those items, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the film’s license holder being similarly upset.
A representative declined to comment when asked if Bluehole pays a licensing fee.
Maybe nothing! It’s entirely possible this was little more than a public-relations move and nothing else. But then again, it’s not every day that a multi-million dollar company issues a public statement essentially calling out another company.
The headline of the actual press release speaks to this possibility: “Bluehole Inc. – Creators of ‘PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ – Responds to Community Concern Surrounding ‘Fortnite’s’ Battle Royale Mode.”
This supposes that there are thousands of “PUBG” fans clamoring for Bluehole to respond to a perceived transgression. The text of the press release further supposes that Bluehole is “siding” with its fans:
“After listening to the growing feedback from our community and reviewing the gameplay for ourselves,” Kim is quoted as saying, “we are concerned that ‘Fortnite’ may be replicating the experience for which ‘PUBG’ is known.” It conjures an image of video game detectives at Bluehole, poring over gameplay footage with a massive magnifying glass, taking notes on legal pads.
The press release did include a vague reference to “further action,” but Bluehole declined to comment in further detail. It’s reasonable to deduce that could include legal action, but we simply don’t know at this juncture.
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