Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is a buggy, half-done mess. It’s horribly optimized, crashes frequently and, at present, has just one playable map. (Unless you feel like venturing onto test servers.)
And yet, earlier today, 2.9 million people were playing it at the exact same time. That’s 2 million more than the next most popular game on Steam. Nothing else comes close.
Why did this happen? Because fans of shooters, one of the most popular and competitive genres in video games, were ready for a change.
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, released in 2007, defined the last decade of shooters. Its multiplayer model (with a focus on progression, character customization and perks) was copied and integrated into just about every shooter franchise on the planet, from Halo to Battlefield to Rainbow Six.
But a decade is a long time, and the genre has been due for a sea change for a while. Enter Brendan “Playerunknown” Greene.
Starting with an Arma 2 mod, he continued to build and refine all of the elements of what would become the “battle royale” shooter genre. The culmination of his work is Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds.
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The idea is simple: 100 players parachute down onto a huge map filled with a variety of weapons. The goal is to be the last one standing at the end of the game. Early survival shooters would invariably run into the issue of campers just sitting and waiting for hours on end. Greene solved this with the introduction of a circle. This circle shrinks every few minutes, condensing the map. At first, most of the map is within the circle. After half an hour, the circle is no larger than a street corner. If you’re outside the circle, you’re dead or dying. Inside and you’re safe...ish. There are, after all, dozens of other players that you’re now closer to.
Playing PUBG is intense — or maybe “stressful” is the better word. Some folks call it meditative. It is a game of wants versus needs. You want more ammo. You want a car that gets you across the map. You want to get a special weapon from a supply drop. But you need to keep moving. You need to stay in the circle. You need to find cover. The constant time constraints require you to make dumb choices for the sake of your survival, always deciding about what merits taking a risk. Should you go into a crowded town for more weapons? Or should you hole up in a remote cabin, hoping your pistol and a frying pan will be enough to keep you alive till the end?
You might not see another person for whole minutes, but you constantly see the player count in the game dwindle.
A throwaway match can become serious business without warning as the counter ticks down. Past 50. Past 20. You’re suddenly in the top 10. You find a shotgun, but you’ve only got two shells and no armor. You see three players in a firefight and you crawl on your belly, praying they don’t notice you. The circle is closing in behind you, sure to kill you in an instant as you see the player count is down to just you and someone else. You pop up out of the grass and see your target hiding behind a tree. You toss a smoke grenade as cover and charge the tree. Rounding the trunk, you take your two remaining shotgun blasts at your opponent, who deftly sidesteps them and blasts you in the face. You, now in real life, contemplate throwing your keyboard out your window.
No other game has caused me to sweat and shake from nerves in the way that PUBG does. It’s an emotionally draining experience that has kept me up at night, hours after I logged off.
That’s just the solo experience. Playing with friends is even more sapping, as you’re screaming out orders and trying to convey just where a sniper has you pinned down from. And yet, when things are quiet and you can take a moment to shoot the shit, PUBG is the perfect way to catch up with good friends. Between call-outs of “anyone need an assault rifle grip?” that is.
This is why PUBG will set the tone for the next decade of shooters. Call of Duty created a model of artificial growth, a sense of power available to anybody who put in the hours. PUBG makes you feel weak. Victory is earned, not given. It’s frustrating, but more importantly, it’s rewarding. (Chicken dinner! Yum!)
It’s a testament to how good the game is that so many people are willing to stomach the rest of it. PUBG is, infamously, still in the process of being developed. My gaming rig, which handles everything else I can throw at it, struggles to run the game without performance hitches. The graphics frequently bug out, and I’ve been sent back to the desktop from a crash on numerous occasions.
But I still keep coming back. It’s that good.
A year or two from now, I fully anticipate every AAA shooter will have a battle royale mode. We’ve already seen Epic’s Fortnite and Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto Online take a stab at it with their own unique twists. EA and Activision will undoubtedly follow suit.
But without Playerunknown’s mods and, eventually, PUBG, we wouldn’t be here. The genre wouldn’t be forever changed. And that’s what the best games do. They lead the charge.