The battle royale is a type of game where players are thrown into an arena to scavenge for weapons and fight it out to the death. Loyal to the nature of the genre, the competition for complete dominance worldwide is now down to two games — Fortnite Battle Royale and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (aka PUBG).
Fortnite is huge, with its viral dance challenge taking over TikTok and late-night talk shows. But while PUBG does not have the same grasp on pop culture, it remains the top-of-mind survival game in Asia, out-performing Fortnite in terms of the total number of active players and downloads in several countries including China, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Google trends in India, Indonesia, and the Philippines all show that most people in those countries searched for PUBG more than Fortnite in the past year. PUBG is so popular that a state in India banned it for a time to curb alleged addiction and arrested violators earlier this year.
A PUBG player is easy to spot. They clutch their phone horizontally with both hands, their heads down, and brows furrowed. In Manila, where I’m from, traffic is terrible and public transportation is unreliable, so you’ll find these players queuing up for a train or sitting in a bus stuck on the highway. I suppose the scene is similar in India and Indonesia’s big cities. Games with quick turnovers are favourites of those desperate to kill time and in these developing countries, PUBG is popular because of its accessibility and mobile-first approach.
A financial report that PUBG Corp. released to a South Korean news outlet in 2018 shows that the Asian market accounts for the majority of PUBG’s income.
South Korean company Bluehole released PUBG through video game distribution service Steam in March 2017. Priced at $30, it was initially only available for Windows PC and Xbox One. Within a year of its release, the game managed to oust DoTA 2 from its 3-year reign on the top spot of the SteamCharts for the highest number of concurrent players on PC.
Shortly after PUBG’s release, American video game company Epic Games came out with Fortnite: Battle Royale as a companion game to Fortnite: Save the World (It was later released as a standalone game). Unlike PUBG, Fortnite was immediately available for free on various platforms including PC, Mac, PS4, and Xbox One. By February 2018, Fortnite announced that it had trumped PUBG’s record of having the highest number of concurrent players. Most of these, however, came from the United States and Europe. PUBG was made available to smartphones for free that same month.
By the end of 2018, PUBG’s developers said that the mobile version alone brought in enough active players to put them on par with Fortnite’s total number of active players across all gaming platforms. While Fortnite shortly followed suit and joined its competitor on mobile, it still hasn’t beat PUBG Mobile’s total number of active players and app downloads. And this is all because of how accessible PUBG Mobile is to the Asian market.
For starters, PUBG is more inclusive in terms of gameplay style. The main distinction of Fortnite is that it allows players to gather materials to build stairs, walls, and fortresses for their battle. It adds a layer of creativity, but also complicates the game and makes for a much steeper learning curve. For the many who play battle royale games simply to kill time, PUBG’s straightforward approach is more appealing. Just move around, aim, and shoot.
Fortnite also isn’t available on Google Play, where Android users get their apps. According to StatCounter, around 90 percent of Asian smartphone users have Androids. Those who want to play Fortnite on their Android will have to go to the game’s website and download it from there.
Even those willing to do this might not be able to play because Fortnite has high system requirements and only works on an Android OS 8.0 Oreo and up. According to recent data, this effectively rules out almost half of Android users in Asia, who have phones that run on Android 7.0 Nougat or even older. After all, not everyone can buy the newest Samsung Galaxy.
In contrast, PUBG Mobile is not only readily available on both the App Store and Google Play, but also comes in a compact version called PUBG Mobile Lite, which has lower system requirements and can run on a much wider selection of mobile devices than Fortnite.
Owning a gaming console is not a top priority for most people in these developing countries, nor is it a luxury they can afford. A recent report from market intelligence firm Newzoo revealed that revenue from mobile games takes up almost 70 percent of the total revenue made from gaming in Southeast Asia, with PCs and consoles lagging behind.
This means that most gamers in the region experience video games through their phone screens. Mobile apps democratise gaming. Now, anyone with a smartphone can be a gamer. This includes a factory worker casually playing in between breaks and a 10-year-old in his bedroom who goes at it for 10 straight hours.
PUBG even made it work in China, where the government heavily controls all forms of media. The government initially refused to give PUBG a license to distribute the full game, leading to various imitations. It was eventually granted one earlier this year, after a more patriotic and noticeably less violent rebrand of PUBG called Peacekeper Elite was created, specifically for the Chinese market. Since then, it has dominated the App Store and Google Play charts and is now estimated to account for 46 percent of PUBG Mobile’s total revenue in 2019. Meanwhile, Fortnite is not officially distributed in China yet.
The short history of PUBG and Fortnite's rivalry makes clear that it’s still anyone’s game. Many factors come into play, and the pendulum can still swing in either direction, especially since developers from both sides haven’t disclosed total sales for 2019. But at least for now, when it comes to Asia's gamers who post PUBG's catchphrase “winner winner chicken dinner” all over social media, it's obvious which game is king.
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