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PUBG has dominated 2017, here’s how it happened

How an early access game went from an unknown quantity to game-of-the-year candidate

Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds features molotov cocktails and destructible doors, making camper’s lives miserable.
PUBG Corp.
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

This year has seen explosive growth in the so-called “battle royale” space and no game has been more prominent — or more popular — than Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds.

What do I mean by popular? I’m writing this story on a Friday afternoon and more than a million people are playing online (according to Steamcharts). In August, Battlegrounds kicked Dota 2 out of the top spot on Steam, a position that Valve’s MOBA had held for years. It’s unlikely to surrender the spot anytime soon.

Battlegrounds isn’t just popular. It’s also very, very good. Critics in the game industry, including here at Polygon, are actively considering this unfinished, early access title for game of the year.

So how did we get here? And what should you expect in 2018?

According to Steamspy, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds has more than doubled the number of copies sold since August. Read more about how they collect their data here.

Would you kindly

Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is a last-man-standing multiplayer arena shooter. It blends elements of traditional survival games like DayZ with the fast-paced action and leaderboard of something like Counter-Strike. Around 100 players parachute onto the eight-square kilometer map, scavenge for supplies and fight to the death. The last one alive gets a “chicken dinner” filled with in-game currency. That is to say they get the pride of being #1 and a few virtual coins.

This isn’t a new game type. The battle royale genre has been around since roughly 2013. In fact, you could say that Brendan “Playerunknown” Greene is the one who invented it.

In June of 2016, I got an email from Greene about a new game he was working on. I was familiar with his Battle Royale mods for Arma 2 and Arma 3, and the work that he’d done consulting on 2015’s H1Z1 to help create its Battle Royale mode (which eventually became H1Z1: King of the Kill, before turning back into H1Z1 again).

Greene’s pitch: He was making the same kind of game, for a third time, but better.

For Game of the Year 2017, Polygon will be counting down our top 10 each weekday, beginning on Dec. 4. On Dec. 18, we'll reveal our favorite 50 of 2017. And throughout the month, we'll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays (like this one right here) and other surprises. We hope you’ll join us!

I took the call, but I frankly wasn’t impressed. I filed the notes away and went on with my life, holding onto them until the game’s early access launch day on March 23, 2017.

As the game prepared for that launch, I kept an eye on it. Publisher Bluehole threw up a few servers early, and gave some of the best players of multiplayer survival games on Twitch access ahead of time. In the weeks and days leading up to the public release, I watched most of popular streamers in the survival shooter space migrate, almost en masse, over to that game exclusively.

The day after its launch, on March 24, Battlegrounds was the third-most-watched game on Twitch.

Driven by that dedicated, core group of streamers and their fans, the game took off. Less than one month later it had sold over one million copies, handily beating the pace set by by DayZ in 2013. Sitting across the table from Greene at this year’s E3, the man looked absolutely exhausted.

“I expected us to have some success,” he said, shrugging sheepishly. “I had confidence in my game mode, but three million in three months? ... I’m just happy it’s stable and people can play it. That’s the main thing.”

Six months later, Battlegrounds cleared one million concurrent players on Steam.

Since then, the game has sold more than 20 million copies. And next week the game launches on Xbox One’s Xbox Game Preview program, thanks to an exclusive deal announced with Microsoft.

But it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses.

The sweat of his brow

So far this year, it feels like Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds has stepped on every single landmine in the game industry.

First came the harassment.

After banning one of the game’s most popular streamers for team killing, which is specifically banned in the rules, a streamer known as Dr Disrespect threatened physical violence. Greene responded with a thoughtful response. “Consider that your words,” he wrote, “however flippant they may be [because they] could have unintended effects on those reading them.” The feud with the mustachio’d medical professional was brief, and has since subsided.

There was also much ado about loot crates, which Bluehole made available in advance of its inaugural Gamescom invitational tournament. To earn them, players had to gather enough points in-game, but to open them required a special key — available for $2.50 a piece — that had to be purchased from an online portal.

Fans weren’t happy about it, prompting Greene himself to apologize.

“I must admit that our messaging wasn’t very clear,” Greene said, “so I extend my sincere apologies for the confusion caused. ... I’ve learned a lot, and we’ll try to communicate better moving forward.”

A woman in a purple miniskirt and wearing an Israeli gas mask stands ready to club someone to death with a cast iron skillet.
The first loot crates that required a real-money transaction in Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds featured outfits based on its inspiration, the Japanese film called Battle Royale released in 2000.

Finally, the studio experienced major growing pains as it transitioned the game into China.

Battlegrounds began taking off in China in the fall, only to be met with a “review bomb” on Steam. Players in China were having their gameplay interrupted, both with low server pings and with mysterious ads for Chinese virtual private network (VPN) services.

Conspiracy theories ran wild on Reddit and other places around the internet, but the fact of the matter is that in order to actually do business in China outside companies are required to take a Chinese-owned company as a partner. The bidding war had clearly begun behind the scenes, with rumors of investment from megacorp Tencent.

In September, Bluehole announced that it would spin off Battlegrounds into its own company called PUBG Corporation. The announcement also came with confirmation that Tencent was looking for an equity stake. It makes sense that Tencent would want a piece of the pie, since they already have a taste for Western-style games. Among its holdings is a significant investment in Activision Blizzard and Epic Games, as well as European developer and publisher Paradox.

But when the deal with Tencent was finally announced on Nov. 22, it sounded pretty strange. In addition to localizing the content, a statement translated by Reuters said it would be changed to better align with “socialist core values, Chinese traditional culture and moral rules.”

What exactly that means neither PUBG Corp. nor Tencent have made entirely clear, other than to say that the game would be coming to mobile — in China — next year.

Multiple timelines

Going forward, Greene and his team of developers have a lot on their plate. Problem one is a growing field of competitors.

While Battlegrounds basically lapped H1Z1 (a game that is still going strong by the way), there are plenty of competitors nipping at its heels. Take previously mentioned Epic Games. The developer that makes the Unreal 4 engine — the same engine that Battlegrounds is built on, mind you — has come out with their own version of a battle royale game. Called Fortnite: Battle Royale, it’s already beaten Battlegrounds to consoles, not to mention the fact that it’s also overtaken the game on Twitch.

Meanwhile, the PC version of the Battlegrounds is still in early access, and its full release has been delayed into 2018. But that’s because a lot more is going into the game than was initially conceived.

The game’s developers have already successfully added a dedicated first-person mode, but they’ve also promised a 3D replay mode so you can watch a match from any angle after it’s over. There are two new maps on the horizon, one of which has already partially leaked and will be previewed next week during Geoff Keighley’s Game Awards. There’s also a dynamic vaulting and climbing system, one that clearly still requires some work. And don’t forget the development of the mobile and the PC adaptations for China, and what amounts to the parallel development of the game on Xbox One.

Nevertheless, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is an absolute blast and deserving of all the attention and the praise. It’s just up to players to understand that it’s still a work in progress.

As our Ben Kuchera put it, “the fact that it isn’t ‘finished’ is a selling point, not a limitation.”

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