Bluehole and Epic Games: A controversy that isn’t

Bluehole and Epic Games
A 'Sam Says' opinion piece

Bluehole and Epic Games. What a lovely mess.

Much has been made of the PR letter recently sent out by Bluehole. It appears that they have noticed the blatant similarities in gameplay between their own title, PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (PUBG) and a new Battle Royale mode coming soon to Fortnite, a survival / co-op sandbox title developed by Epic Games and People Can Fly.

To say that PUBG has been a runaway success might be the gaming understatement of the year. As of September 5th earlier this year, PUBG had sold 10 million copies on Steam. By September 16th, PUBG was the most-played game on Steam. All this while still being in Early Access on a single platform, with a timed-exclusive Xbox launch happening later this year. For comparison, Fortnite (also an early access title however, available on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) reached a million concurrent players in late August. Hardly bad numbers but certainly not what PUBG is now steadily cranking out.

So with the above in mind, it’s at first glance easy to see why Bluehole is a bit ticked. After all, the timing for Battle Royale to come to Fortnite, which was always promoted as being a pure co-op PvE title, is laughably impeccable. By quickly throwing together a free game mode explicitly designed to copy PUBG, then referring to said game at every opportunity, it looks like a blatant, shameless cash-in that allows Epic to beat Bluehole to a console release for a Battle Royale title. There’s also a certain irony to be found in how PUBG is being developed using Unreal Engine 4, a game engine developed by Epic. So, what’s the problem with Bluehole’s PR statement?

Because Epic hasn’t done anything wrong (unless, of course, there is something more nefarious that Bluehole has not shared). The fact is, copying a successful formula has been a fundamental part of game design for a very, very long time. Just take a look at Halo: Combat Evolved, a game which had the audacity to limit players to two weapons, with dedicated grenade and melee options. How many first-person shooters now follow that same two-gun system? The game’s insane success meant that even today, Halo killer is a term applied to an IP that is perceived to have more potential success (usually to its detriment but that’s another topic). Success invites imitation, which in turn invites more innovation, that’s simply how things work.

Certainly, it’s not even like the games will play the exact same way. After all, Fortnite was designed around co-op play and destroying everything in sight to gain supplies. It’s a different base gameplay formula to ‘build’ upon. Whether or not Fortnite Battle Royale will even be a success is uncertain, so dissimilar is the gameplay from PUBG.

So, it’s odd then that Bluehole feels personally threatened by Fortnite’s entrance into the Battle Royale genre. Their own PR letter contains a quote from Brendan Greene, Creative Director of PUBG. When asked in a Reddit AMA about other companies copying the formula popularized by PUBG, Greene responded “Other companies will, of course, enter the marketplace, but I would just hope they put their own spin on the game mode and not just make a carbon copy!” 

While I’m admittedly not in Bluehole’s shoes, personally I’d have left things right there. The game is an absolute, uncontested behemoth, crushing records with its sales numbers. There’s almost no reason to feel threatened, unless this success has caused a form of arrogance. Had the issue been ignored and the high road been taken, they’d have come out looking like the untouchable champions. By responding to this and implying vague notions of legal action, Bluehole is directly inviting comparisons between PUBG and Fortnite while simultaneously stooping to the level of those they consider their competition. No one has a monopoly on a genre just because they helped make it popular.

I’ve played a fair bit of Fortnite on my PS4 and I’ll be playing PUBG when it comes to Xbox later this year. Personally, I’m deriving a bit of wry humor from the overall situation. After all, Fortnite released with paid early access and fully-functional, gameplay-altering microtransactions. PUBG launched in Early Access and has fully-functional microtransactions. Instead of Epic capitalizing on another’s success and Bluehole overreacting to it, I think both would have been far more suited to simply continue developing their games. Ultimately though, the choice to react (and continue to react) rest in the hands of Bluehole. I hope they choose to take a different route soon.