Just yesterday a new survival shooter dropped on Steam’s Early Access platform. Called Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, the title has staked its claim as one of the best-selling and most-played games on Steam. It’s also proving to be incredibly popular with streamers and their viewers. Right now it’s the third most-watched game on Twitch.
The game has an unusual history. It began life as a mod called Battle Royale for the Arma series of hardcore infantry combat simulators. Later its designer, Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene, did consulting work for Daybreak Games. His efforts helped bring to life another, extremely popular survival shooter called H1Z1: King of the Kill.
The premise of Battlegrounds is simple. Dozens of players parachute onto a deserted island with nothing but the clothes on their back. They have to gear up with scavenged arms and equipment, and then survive a brutal gunfight to be the last man standing. For the uninitiated, King of the Kill and Battlegrounds look like they could almost be the exact same game.
So why are so many people flocking to PlayerUnknown’s version of this genre?
To find out, we reached out to Chris “Sacriel42” Ball. He’s one of today’s best partnered Twitch streamers and a specialist in the survival shooter genre. He began streaming full time in 2012 with a series of amazing runs in another title with a similar background, a game called DayZ. He’s been playing Battlegrounds for weeks, and took time to respond to Polygon today in the middle of a planned 14-hour livestream of the game.
“I've always loved how PlayerUnknown finds a wonderful balance between skill, action, stealth and luck. In the past he was only able to craft his work by using other people’s engines such as Arma 3 and the original H1Z1. Unfortunately, this led to very slow development times and inconsistent progression because he wasn't in charge, he was simply the visionary. Now he’s working on his own fully-fledged project he is able to take complete control.”
Ball has been providing feedback about Battlegrounds on his channel for weeks now, and has participated in several of its long beta weekends. He tells us that the progress of the game, and its stability at launch, has been exemplary. Now that it’s live, with more and more players flowing into it, the metagame is starting to blossom.
“H1Z1: King of the Kill, has suffered from a stale meta for many years,” Ball said. “Very little progression was made for several years, only a handful of weapons were available and there were glaring engine bugs which held the gameplay back a lot. Straight out of the gate Battlegrounds appears to have captured the gunplay of Arma 2 and H1Z1 while eliminating the majority of the bugs which hold back the genre.
“Everything that happens in Battlegrounds happens for a reason. There are very, very rarely any instances where a bug or bad game design cause you to lose a round. I think many players find this very refreshing.”
I’m no stranger to the genre myself, so I played a few rounds last night. I finished second both times. As the game goes on, the circle of space where players are allowed to be gets smaller and smaller. Outside the circle, players automatically take damage and quickly die. Inside, heavily-armed combatants blast the hell out of each other.
I finished second both times by ... well, by hiding. It was mostly because of the hiding.
Ball says he plays the game a little differently.
“In my experience the game is as fast as you want it to be,” he said. “If you want to drop with 20 other people on the airstrip and deathmatch it up for five minutes, then you can. If you want to fly off into the distance and loot the edges of the map on your own, you can. What matters is that the final circle is always incredibly tense and no matter how badly your loot progress is at the start of the game, a single bullet can change everything.”
Ball says that he’s not receiving any compensation for playing the game, other than the free Steam key that got him into the beta. Last night his squadmate, who goes by the Twitch handle “summit1g,” was the most-watched Battlegrounds player on Twitch with more than 30,000 following along. Ball’s own channel was closer to 4,000, and with a game as exciting as Battlegrounds he’s confident he can get that number much higher.
“Battlegrounds fills that need perfectly,” Ball said, “and will be my main game for the foreseeable future, so long as the devs keep doing the quick updates for bug/balance fixes and great communication.”