Before Fortnite and PUBG, there was Minecraft Survival Games

Ask a dozen different people when the first battle royale emerged, and chances are, you’ll get a dozen different answers. Some will say it was DayZ: Battle Royale, others will highlight earlier deathmatch games like Dyna Blaster. A true pedant could technically point to the use of “battel royal” to describe cockfights and fistfights in 17th century England – although even here, the jury seems to be out on whether the term originates from cockfighting or fistfighting. Now that’s a chicken and egg situation.

It’s a tricky thing to pin down, as there’s plenty of debate over what constitutes a battle royale, with many of the rules overlapping with other game modes. If you take the strictest possible approach to tracing current-day popular battle royales to their roots, however, you’ll probably land at Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene’s mod for DayZ in 2013. Essentially a mod of a mod, DayZ: Battle Royale led to Daybreak’s H1Z1 and Greene’s standalone title PUBG, with the latter exploding in popularity and launching battle royales into the mainstream. Then, of course, came Fortnite: which recently celebrated reaching 350m registered players.

Yet before all of these, there was a smaller – but not insignificant – battle royale boom elsewhere. And it came in the form of the Minecraft Survival Games.

First emerging in early 2012, the Minecraft Survival Games (or “Hunger Games”) was more of a community movement than a single title. Coinciding with an increase in Minecraft’s popularity on YouTube, MSG has since been credited with helping start the Minecraft PvP server boom – and even launching entire companies. At its height, MSG pulled in thousands of players on third-party servers, and millions of views on YouTube. But perhaps most intriguing is the way the Minecraft community grappled with the challenges of designing a battle royale long before bigger studios tried their hand. Although some game balance issues were never truly resolved, the community came up with dozens of quirky solutions to the problems, with creators borrowing ideas from each other or splintering off to create wacky variations on the original MSG rules. A decentralised development process, if you will.

Subsequent battle royales may not have continued directly from MSG, yet it’s still a fascinating branch of the battle royale tree that too often gets overlooked. And to those involved in MSG, it certainly left an important legacy.

While MSG eventually evolved into a sprawling collection of game modes within the Minecraft community, the phenomenon stemmed from the work of one mapmaking team. In March 2012, the first Hunger Games film was released, planting the idea of a 24-player battle to the death in one YouTuber’s head.

“I saw [the film] early and understood that a concept like that could work in Minecraft,” Dennis Vareide told me over email. “So after a week or so with building and planning we made the first map and I released it on my YouTube channel.”

Vareide was already known for his fan-made Minecraft trailer (which was eventually used by Mojang as the official trailer), and his team of mapmakers – recruited from community forums – had grown to a healthy size by the time the Hunger Games was released. They were perfectly placed to convert the idea into a game mode, and while some early attempts created the look of a Hunger Games arena, Team Vareide constructed a fully-working map with online play in mind.

Some things were kept the same as the Hunger Games series; including the cap of 24 players, and the central Cornucopia where players would start and could find the best loot, creating a tense scramble for goodies. Team Vareide also spiced things up by dotting hidden chests, puzzles and traps around the map. The group even created a ruleset for players to follow, including limits on which blocks could be broken or placed, and how the host (basically a referee) could add more loot or enemies after the second day. For the name, the team simply switched “Hunger” with “Survival” to reflect the Survival mode in Minecraft. Little did they know, this format would lay the foundations for an entire game mode in the Minecraft community.

“When we first started playing the map ourselves for testing, I immediately understood that we were on to something – because it was really fun,” Vareide added. “I did not [know] that it would almost become its own very dedicated community within Minecraft and everything that followed with it.”

And take off it did, as Vareide’s video immediately gained traction, accumulating nearly 200,000 views in two weeks. According to Vareide, the map soon became the most-downloaded PvP map on Planet Minecraft, a key website for map downloads at the time. Perhaps more importantly, Vareide’s map became a phenomenon in the wider Minecraft YouTube community. Survival Games arrived on YouTube at an ideal time, coinciding with an algorithm change on 15th March 2012 that favoured Minecraft let’s play videos (which were long, could be produced quickly, and kept viewers returning with an ongoing narrative). By May 2015, Minecraft had taken over YouTube to the extent that 14 videos on the YouTube homepage were Minecraft-related.

Yet the mode was a hit itself, with well-known names such as Nooch and Bajan Canadian recording matches in early April 2012, while Machinima and iHasCupQuake organised a tournament later that month with YouTubers like Paul Soares Jr and SeaNanners. CaptainSparklez’s perspective alone was viewed 1.7m times in one month, and today sits at a tidy 11.5m views. The game mode’s format also meant viewers could hop between channels to view each participant’s view – making it an ideal way for viewers to find new Minecraft YouTubers.

“I knew there were going to be a lot of people looking up my perspective, because obviously I’d won the game,” Taylor “AntVenom” Harris, winner of the legendary first iHasCupQuake match, told me over Discord. “I think [my] channel had maybe 200,000 subscribers at the time, and it really rocketed the channel.”

Yet beyond establishing the game mode in the community, the early YouTube matches also exposed some of Survival Games’ inherent problems. With most of the good loot placed at the centre, and with all players starting at the same place, many would immediately battle at this hotspot – causing some unlucky players to have very short matches, or leaving those who ran away without much equipment. The main issue, however, was that nobody could find each other. Without a closing circle like in PUBG, there was no mechanism to force players into a final battle. In AntVenom’s match, the host resorted to manually spawning Ghasts to herd the final players together. By Vareide’s own admission, the map team hadn’t thought much about balance on the first maps, explaining they were “way too big” with “not enough loot”. Thankfully, Team Vareide then went on to create seven more Survival Games maps, with the second (a vast decaying city) designed to be “as epic as possible”, and the third and fourth designed with gameplay in mind, with “smaller maps, traps and creative parkour”.

The development of the Survival Games wasn’t solely down to the work of Team Vareide, as the transition from private matchmaking to publicly-hosted matchmaking brought servers into the fray. Automating the matchmaking process meant players could join games easily, rule enforcement was no longer handled by individual hosts, and matches could include more advanced features like randomised loot in chests. Those I spoke to described the early days of Survival Games matchmaking as “primitive at best”, requiring players to log into a website and copy an IP address before entering a game – but minigame servers such as MCGamer Network, founded by Chad Dunbar in April 2012, were eventually able to streamline the process.

“MCGamer originally started off with Survival Games, and SG was always its bread and butter,” MCGamer developer Ava told me. “A lot of people initially flocked to the server because we had the first fully automated Survival Games system – something that was in pretty high demand as content creators started creating hype for the new type of PvP gameplay.”

By mid-2013 MCGamer had converted to a hub system, allowing players to enter a lobby world, see the status of multiple running minigames, and join them by hitting a sign – instead of having to join through a more clunky server list. Dozens of community-made maps were accepted into official rotation, and each had the ability to shape gameplay in their own unique ways. By the time MCSG shut down earlier this year, 100 maps had been uploaded to the server. MCGamer also released a ground-up rewrite of the software powering the Survival Games in early 2013, dubbed “MCSG v2”. This was partially done to resolve “deep architectural issues with the original codebase”, Ava explained, but MCGamer also took the opportunity to make sweeping balance changes. “We entirely reworked our loot tables [and] chest tiering to make the game more exciting, and after a few minor adjustments, the change was a huge boon,” she added. “I’ve heard even from our former competitors that our new loot tables universally set the bar for SG balance for quite a long time.”

Many servers adopted a system where chests would provide different tiers of loot, creating hotspots and loot opportunities outside of the Cornucopia. Players could learn which chests provided certain items, and follow their own “chest routes” around the maps. MCGamer put its own twist on this by randomising the content in tier three chests (the highest tier) to provide a mix of RNG and preset loot for those following routes. The Hive chose to randomise most chest locations, but epic items were placed in preset locations to create hotspots. In later variations, chests would refill mid-match to solve the loot distribution issues, providing another burst of excitement and driving players back to these hotspots. By May 2014, Mineplex had introduced supply drops that dropped every night, and were announced with coordinates in the chat. Naturally, the drops promised high-level loot… if you were prepared for a fight.

On some servers, meanwhile, the problem of a mass bloodbath at the central Cornucopia was tackled with a “grace period” of 20 to 30 seconds, giving players a chance to escape before the slaughter began. This solution wasn’t popular with everyone, as some felt it eliminated the risk factor of fighting in the centre.