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How PUBG Mobile was made in four months

Tencent looks back on the game’s first couple years

Two years ago, Tencent Games launched PUBG Mobile, a 2 GB free-to-play app that ports the full experience of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds from PC and consoles to your phone.

It’s since become a $1.5 billion-dollar hit, boasting 50 million daily active users and 600 million downloads worldwide. The game’s developer, Lightspeed & Quantum Studios, has partnered with pro athletes, musicians, AMC’s The Walking Dead, Angry Birds, Capcom, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, and the Mission: Impossible franchise to help draw in new players — like the 50,000 teams that competed in PUBG Mobile esports last year.

While Tencent recently kicked off the game’s second anniversary celebration with a special event mode and other changes, Polygon spoke to several folks at Tencent, including director Rick Li, about PUBG Mobile’s whirlwind creation and ongoing development.

“We could see the growing popularity of this category in the gaming market, so the project was started with some urgency,” Li says. “The reaction from players to PUBG pushed us to develop the game quickly ... We immediately gathered the top talent in our studio to invest in this project with an all-in attitude.”

It took them four months.

“It was Mission: Impossible every day,” Li says.

Among the biggest of those challenges was getting the original game’s art and environments to load and render smoothly on a mobile device. “We needed to overcome many technical and artistic difficulties,” Li says, “including HDR real-time lighting, simulating ballistic trajectories, and so on.”

Outside of the primary PUBG Mobile team, Lightspeed & Quantum also established a dedicated team “for each difficult feature,” adapting the game first for high-end devices and then working backward to optimize for less capable models. The idea was that you’d want the game to look its very best when possible, but remain fun and smooth for players with lower-end phones.

“The technical teams received two to three years of experience in two to three months,” Li says.

Three PUBG characters strike hero poses
PUBG Mobile screenshot

If you’ve never played PUBG, it’s the game that ignited the battle royale craze seen in Fortnite, Apex Legends, Realm Royale, and Call of Duty: Warzone. A hundred players parachute down onto a small hilly island, scramble to find body armor and weapons, and fight to the death until only a single squad (or player) is left standing.

“A lot of users in China don’t have access to PC or consoles, but they still want to play games,” says Neo Liu, Tencent’s head of games publishing in North and South America. “But these days, everyone should have a smart device. So it’s a good way for us to access a big amount of users and, meanwhile, bring the best gaming experience to them. Though it’s not just about transplanting the existing gameplay.”

For one thing, you’re controlling your in-game character with a screen. “You can use a mouse and keyboard to control the character perfectly on the PC,” Liu says, “but on mobile, due to the device’s limitations, there’s a lot of optimization during your gameplay. You don’t need to manually pick up items; you don’t need to manually open doors. And a lot of the controls are simplified, but that doesn’t necessarily sacrifice the fun of the game.” Many players have adopted a variation of the popular “claw” grip that’s been used by people in the competitive shooter and fighting-game scenes for years.

Another way PUBG Mobile differs from the PC and console versions of PUBG is its regular live-ops support, which includes special timed events, variant game modes, all-new maps, and a “Royale Pass” service that lets players pay to unlock cosmetic reward items.

The Royale Pass “combines players’ competitive natures with their desire for personalization,” says Li. “Our version is very different from the PC game, and the objectives and rewards of each stage must be carefully analyzed and considered.” Li adds, “In order to meet the needs of players, we tried a lot of different plans for the Royale Pass. We did a lot of global user research and worked hard to select the best design.”

Li recalls that the team gathered feedback on the Royale Pass in San Diego during the day, in one time zone, and passed that info along to the PUBG Mobile team in Shenzhen, China (where it was still nighttime), and then the developers were able to make immediate changes to the game. A day after the Royale Pass went live, American and European players logged on to discover they were already playing an updated version of the game.

With over 25 million followers across the game’s various social media channels, Tencent is constantly monitoring the PUBG Mobile community, making sure that new adjustments and content updates are having the desired effect on the player base.

On March 15, 2018, PUBG Mobile launched in Canada with a surprise beta on Android. Li says that more than 10 times the number of anticipated users logged on to try and earn the coveted “Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner” victory screen during the testing period. PC players were surprised by the quality of the mobile port.

PUBG Mobile’s first few months drove home the importance of listening to players, tailoring the game and its marketing to specific territories, and making sure users continued to enjoy the game.

“In China, or in this global version, we know how to keep users engaged, how to get lapsed users back, and how to attract new users,” says Liu. “So there’s a lot of live-ops events going on almost all the time.”

“In order to create a fair gameplay environment for players, our security team continues to improve our anti-cheat security system,” Li explains. “From monitoring to banning, we hold a zero-tolerance policy for cheaters. Nearly ninety-five percent of cheating accounts are automatically banned by our system. Other bans are based on player reports, which helps us a lot when making a judgment on certain cases, or when deciding on the punishment to impose.”

Because of these efforts, Li says, reports of cheating have dropped by 90%.

A character points its gun
PUBG Mobile artwork

With PUBG Mobile esports continuing to grow — and a 2020 prize pool of $5 million at stake — it’s more important than ever to keep hackers off the battlefield, especially with events being moved online in the wake of the global coronavirus outbreak.

Vincent Wang, general manager of global publishing at Tencent, says Tencent’s esports ecosystem “creates opportunities for ordinary players,” adding that, for many, “PUBG Mobile is more than just a game.”

With new competitive tiers and a larger prize pool for 2020, the team at Lightspeed & Quantum is also working on new in-game functionality, such as a “dedicated esports center” to help with streaming and spectating during live events and online tournaments. (Outside the world of esports, PUBG is bolstered with social-media integration through platforms like Facebook.)

“Beginning this year, the key focus of our team is to help players establish more interesting connections via the game,” says Wang.

“A vital game must grow with the players, so our team continuously plans ahead for the next iteration’s updates and activities,” Li says. “In future updates, we’ll release new maps, gameplay modes, and even more exciting and unexpected collaborations.”

“Every moment is full of challenges, but at the same time, we’re creating happiness for players around the world,” Wang says. “Some players have met their true love through the game; some have developed closer relationships with their families. Others have realized personal dreams or become national heroes. These are the things that make us proud.”