Over the last few months Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, an online survival shooter in the tradition of DayZ, has taken the gaming world by storm. With more than 2 million copies sold, it’s one of the best-selling games on Steam. It’s also become a staple among YouTubers and on Twitch.
What is it about this game, about this genre, that makes it stick with players? And why, after so many me-too titles, is it still going strong?
Let’s talk it out.
Charlie Hall: At first glance, it’s pretty easy to see that these games all share a common lineage, right? This all started with a mod for Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead called DayZ. It became a full-fledged phenomenon well before it was a stand-alone game. But interest in that game has faded as the production timeline has drawn out. It’s still not even out of Early Access.
Then comes H1Z1. It shortened the game loop, reduced the amount of walking that players needed to do before they found each other and got down to business. Eventually, it dropped the pretense of being a zombie game entirely. Its spinoff, H1Z1: King of the Kill, is just an online deathmatch.
And here comes Battlegrounds, designed by a man who consulted for H1Z1 and built at a breakneck pace by a Korean team at Bluehole. And it’s this game that’s pegging the needle of people’s interest.
Why this one, and not the others that came before it?
Ben Kuchera: Well, it’s not like DayZ was a small game. A lot of these survival titles took off. But I think PUBG — as it has become known online — does a lot of smart things that make it more attractive to a broader base of players than past games in this genre.
The map itself is relatively small, so you can get a sense for where things are in a few hours. Rounds are also limited in length, so you can fit a few in if you only have a limited time to play at night. The game funnels you into an increasingly small area as each round goes on, forcing players into confrontation as the menacing blue force field — which damages you if you’re caught on the wrong side — moves inward toward the white circle that outlines the current play space.
There are no complicated rules. Your two jobs are to loot buildings for guns and gear, and then kill the other players you see. There are no NPCs, and no real story. You just have to survive for as long as possible. The ever-diminishing play area, combined with the tracker at the top right of your screen that shows how many players are left alive, gives each round a sense of urgency and pacing that a lot of other survival games lack.
Really good games make failure fun, and you can have a good time playing PUBG by just scurrying around and hiding while watching the survivor count go down before you master the, shall we say, idiosyncratic gunplay. Learning how to move, collect loot and stay out of people’s way will get you surprisingly far, but if you want to stay alive past the last 40 survivors or so, you’re going to need to learn how to fight.
Charlie, you’ve played a lot of the games that came before PUBG. What does this game do well that those mods and Early Access titles stumbled on?
Charlie: Well, that’s the funny part. The limited resources, the quirky gunplay and the shrinking map? H1Z1’s Battle Royale mode had that years ago. If anything, PUBG is a refinement of what that game is already doing super well.
I really think it comes down to two things: the fit and finish of the game, and the speed of play.
The landmass in PUBG is so much different from the landmass in DayZ or H1Z1. Both of those games come from the Arma tradition of “geotypical” landmasses — virtual places that look and feel like real spaces. Where does this river start? What is the erosion pattern? Where is its flood plain? PUBG doesn’t bother with that.
Last night I found an isolated plateau, seemingly carved from volcanic rock, sitting in the middle of a cornfield. On the western edge of the map is a flooded inland bay with half-submerged houses. It looks like they were ... just sorta built that way? Or there was a sinkhole? I dunno. On the eastern edge is a Roman temple complex; meanwhile, every sign in the game is written in Cyrillic.
But it’s very purposefully built. Throughout the whole map there are these tremendously long lines of sight, but also very clever bits of cover to allow for avenues of advance. The buildings are big enough, but not so big that you get lost inside them.
The vehicles? They work. Attachments? They work. The matchmaking? Works. Squad play? Works. The damn thing just works.
And as far as the speed of play goes, it’s all about that first airdrop. At the beginning of the game, a cargo plane flies across the map. You can jump out at any time and parachute to the ground. If you tuck your arms in, you can sail for kilometers before opening your chute.
But no matter how far you drift, that entry lines players up along a discrete axis. It doesn’t bunch them up too badly, but once you’re geared up it becomes a geometry problem.
Is the final zone parallel to the axis of the airdrop? Or is it perpendicular? And how am I going to move safely to and through the objective? It’s brilliant.
Ben: To me, the lack of logic or world-building in PUBG is one of the best parts of the game. There are no zombies to worry about, nor does anyone seem to care about whether the structures make any sense outside of the game itself.
It feels like someone made the most extensive fantasy paintball setting possible, and then sprinkled in a bunch of real guns.
PUBG could still use some optimization, and it’s not rare to find bugs — we were stuck not being able to use bandages last night, for some reason — but I feel like many of my deaths in DayZ were due to glitches and server issues instead of my play, and PUBG seems to have avoided that level of jank.
It’s funny you bring up the airdrops. That plane comes back throughout the game and drops crates of high-end gear. The friends I play with tend to avoid them like the plague. We like to setup gunfights where we control our placement as much as possible until the endgame brawl, and the Hunger Games-style scramble that happens near airdrops is a good way to get killed by players with much greater mechanical skill.
PUBG excels at letting the players figure out how they want to play, and that initial jump from the plane is a big part of it. You have to decide if you want to jump near a lot of other players and duke it out early, or begin near the edge of the map and build up a good loadout before you move inward and encounter other players. The further out you get, however, the more you have to deal with that moving barrier. I’ve died plenty of these deaths: I looted a building, only to realize at the last moment that I didn’t have the time to run to the next area, and got wiped out by the barrier.
You can fight early, you can fight late, you can hide, or you can form squads with your friends and go on the attack. The loot system is generous and consistent. The game is constantly feeding you rewards, whether it’s in finding a high-level helmet or backpack or good optics for your weapon, or simply surviving as the player count ticks down and getting points redeemable for cosmetic gear.
You always feel like you’re making progress, and every instance of enemy contact is a very big deal. There is nothing that gets my heart racing more than hearing the flat crack of gunshots from the next town over.
So I have a question, Charlie: Do you like to play solo, or do you like to team up with people when you play? I spend a lot of time in both modes, but I like playing solo because the only person I can let down in that mode is myself.
Charlie: I am blessed with a great gaming group in Shack Tactical. Twice a week I’m in massive, 80-person cooperative games online, so I’ve got my fill of that there.
Aside from hanging out with Polygon’s own Awful Squad once in a while, I usually go solo. I’ve finished in the top two twice, but never had that number-one finish, or the “chicken dinner,” as the kids say. It’s a great lunchtime game for me.
And I’m not alone. Our friends over at Waypoint play a ton of PUBG, as do several other outlets. This is the first time that I’ve seen a game in this genre really take off among journalists. And it feels less like people being thirsty. Folks are just having fun.
The game is giving out that same adrenaline rush as early DayZ did, just more frequently and more easily.
I remember hearing our own Arthur Gies and his team at Rebel FM talking about PUBG like it was some wild new thing, and I’m thinking to myself, “You guys, I’ve been messing around with this genre since 2013.” I guess, why do you think that folks in our industry have been so slow to catch wind of these games? And why is this one in particular so sticky?
Ben: If I had to break it down ...
- The game is stable enough that you rarely die because of glitches.
- Learning how to skydive into battle and loot successfully while avoiding other players is fun, even if you’re not actually doing that well.
- The game’s rounds are relatively short, and provide constant feedback about how you’re doing.
- Once you get past the early skills, there is still a lot to learn if you want to finish in the top 10 consistently.
The fun you can have as you’re learning the game — combined with the rush of looting and surviving, mixed with rules that make sure the rounds aren’t interminable — means a lot. The game isn’t welcoming, exactly, but it lights up all those pleasure centers of the brain really quickly.
After playing nightly for the past week I can see why this game is such a big deal, and I’m completely hooked. This is what I wanted out of a survival game, and I’m glad I finally picked it up.
I am also very careful about always closing the door behind me.