Call of Duty: Warzone is going to be the last of its kind. No, not the last Call of Duty game – we can expect plenty more of them for as long as the earth keeps spinning. Nor am I talking about free to play battle royales, as I'm pretty sure one will be announced by the time you get to the end of this sentence. I'm talking about the type of all-conquering, zeitgeist battle royales that dominate your time, your timeline, and everybody's attention. Warzone may be one of the biggest games in the world right now, but it also feels like one of the last games where everyone you know will be discussing where to drop.
Highway to the Warzone
There's no doubt that Warzone has staked a claim on a lot of people's hard drives. 50 million people have played the game in its first month, a figure that puts it on par with how many people have played Apex Legends, which also hit that milestone in a similar timeframe. Both also had a quicker growth than Fortnite, which took 16 weeks to hit 45 million players (although, it has easily gone on to surpass that figure). Clearly those are impressive numbers. But does it feel like Warzone has matched Apex Legends launch popularity?
When Apex Legends launched February 2019, it was as close to a genuine surprise as you can get in games. Here was a brand new battle royale from one of the industry's most respected shooter studios, Respawn Entertainment, that was free-to-play. There was no marketing campaign running for months in advance, just a simple launch that let the game sell itself.
And what a sell it was, a fantastic refinement of the genre that tweaked and added concepts that made other battle royals feel unwieldy by comparison. Respawn Beacons that let you rescue teammates after they had made friends with the wrong end of a gun, character abilities that let you adapt to new playstyles within the game, and the ping system that allowed you to communicate with team mates without having to encounter 17 new slurs the second you switch on your headset.
If PUBG, the forefather of the battle royale, is essentially a horror game – where you are both hunter and hunted – then Apex Legends was its Aliens, a slicker follow-up that amps up the action without sacrificing any of the tension. I guess Fortnite is DIY SOS in this metaphor, in that it's incredibly popular and has a lot of emergency building.
The call of the royale
Anyway, back to Warzone, which shares a fair few similarities with Apex's launch. It too was a surprise release (although that surprise was somewhat diminished by a tidal wave of leaks), it brought in refinements that freshened up the last person standing action, such as the contracts you can pick up mid-mission and the last chance saloon of the Gulag. Oh, and it was also free-to-play. While we're only a month and a half from Warzone's launch, the fact that it's also raced to 50 million players is a clear sign that it is very, very popular.
But, I can't help but feel it hasn't quite caught the zeitgeist in the way Apex or Fortnite has. This isn't an entirely baseless claim, as Google Trends can give us a small inkling into how popular a keyword is in comparison to other key terms. As you can see from this admittedly crude search, Apex's popularity peaked between the 10-16 February 2019, with a popularity score (I'm sorry, it's how Google measures it) of 28. Meanwhile, Warzone's peak from the 8 - 21 March 2020 was 15.
To be fair, it's maintained that peak for longer, and has only started to taper off slightly, whereas Apex Legends dropped off at a quicker rate. However, this trend can also be seen on TwitchTracker, where Apex Legends peak viewers of 674,070 from near it's launch also tops Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's peak viewers 521,404. While essentially both games are incredibly popular, it already looks like the appetite for new battle royales coming out is starting to wane.
A royale problem?
Obviously, a lot of this is just providing circumstantial evidence for a gut feeling that Warzone hasn't grabbed the limelight in the way Apex did and Fortnite still does. Last year, it felt like every time I logged onto Twitter, Apex Legends plays, memes, and discourse was everyone. There's been a bit of that for cultural discussion for Warzone, but not to the same degree.
Maybe it's down to timing. After all, Apex came out at a time where its competition was Crackdown 3 and Anthem. Let's be charitable and say they aren't quite as stern a test for attention as Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Doom Eternal have proven to be. Apex dropped at a time where it could capture people's attention and they didn't need to spend money on it, pretty much finding the perfect moment for success. Still, with more people at home than ever, Warzone has also found itself a decent time to be available in.
Which is why I can't help but feel this looks like we've reached a point of diminishing cultural interest in battle royales. A look on Twitch now shows that Valorant, Riot's Overwatch meets CS:GO shooter is currently the flavour of the month there, while the recent Party Royale mode in Fortnite shows that even Epic is starting to move in different directions with its battle royale shooter.
Why is that exactly? Perhaps it's because the freshness of the concept was always going to be difficult to maintain. No matter what tweaks and innovations a developer is able to bring to the genre, every game still boils down to being the last player standing – the adrenaline rush of managing that feat is never quite the same the second time around. It's also difficult to see what niche is left to fill within the battle royale genre. PUBG is the OG, Fortnite the family-friendly juggernaut, Apex Legends has mirrored Titanfall with it's small but dedicated playerbase, and now Call of Duty has managed to transfer its frantic and heightened realism to battle royale.
Whatever comes next not only needs to offer something these don't, but capture our attention long enough to cement itself as a genuine competitor in the space. With more and more games vying for said attention, it's hard to see anything managing to pull it off. This isn't to say that we won't see moderately successful battle royales, but it feels like we've reached battle royale's half-life, the moment it stops being the biggest thing in games as other ideas start to bubble to the surface. Warzone might just be the last juggernaut to drop.