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PUBG’s genius is that you set your own win condition

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What does it mean to win a game you’re going to lose?

A screenshot of a sniper wearing a ghillie suit in Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds Bluehole

“What’s important to me is that I ruined someone else’s night,” a buddy said to me after we both died during a round of Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. That was my goal as well.

I wasn’t trolling or trying to make someone feel bad, but we did split a group of players down the middle and remove their chances to win the round by killing a few and doing damage to the rest. We died in the process, but who cares? We felt good about the attempt. We “won.” The other players didn’t perceive any malice outside of the natural result that comes when you play a game you know you’re going to lose.

Or at least put it this way: You know it’s very unlikely you’re going to win. You get to decide whether or not you did well during each round, and that can be based on any number of factors. I’ve spent the past few nights parachuting to areas where the gunfights would likely hit me quickly and with ferocity.

My own skills with a firearm aren’t great in PUBG, and that’s the skill I was trying to practice. I know how to skulk around and forage for guns and equipment.

What I wanted to hone was my ability hit a moving target or maneuver around the other players without being seen or heard until I put myself into a situation in which I had the advantage. I died early, but I also fired more shots in a two-day period than I had in the previous two weeks. I became better at gunplay, which was how I “won” those rounds.

Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor just wrote a great explanation of why PUBG is so much fun for non-competitive players, and it’s worth reading in full. It inspired this piece, in fact.

“If you play a round and you get a couple of kills along the way and then make it to the top 10 left alive, that's pretty awesome,” Gaynor wrote. “Or if you're the first person to die because somebody got a Jeep early and ramped it over a hill and landed on top of you while you were trying to run to find your first gun, that's a hilarious story to take with you, and you can roll up a new round quickly and give it another go. And if you DO manage to get that sweet, sweet Chicken Dinner, well, that's freaking amazing, that's a rush, and nice work, maybe you'll get it again sometime — but winning is the exception, and losing can be fun, and anything in between is an adventure ...”

It’s a clever design trick, even if it may not have been the original intent of the game mode. By making sure every player knows, in their heart, that they’re going to lose, they can decide on the fly what it means to win.

When I’m not inviting battle by jumping into heavily occupied territory, I only feel like I’ve lost when I don’t make it into the top 50. A game in which I survive into the top 15 is amazing. I’ve never “won” by the actual rules of the game, but I always feel like I’ve gotten slightly better. Since losing is baked into the premise of each round — unless you’re very good or very lucky — there is no disappointment when a win is taken from you.

And you can always blame bad luck, especially if you’re a new player. You can get lucky and find a good weapon early in the game. You can get unlucky and get spotted walking between buildings and get killed before you know what hit you. Skill will always beat luck on a long enough timeline, but with 100 players in each round it’s always easy to say there’s little you can do about deaths that feel random. It’s not frustrating, it’s part of the experience. Luck is never really removed from the experience, you just learn how to stack the odds dramatically in your favor as you learn the map and get better at your basic survival skills.

But it doesn’t matter, because you get to determine what it means to win. And that can change on a round-per-round basis. “It's a game about failing, and about that promise of failure giving you permission to just have a good time,” Gaynor wrote. So define success however you want, and feel free to shift the goalposts. No one will know but you, and you’ll be too busy having fun to care.