Why PUBG is Fresh

PUBG (PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds) is without a doubt the breakout PC game of 2017. Even though it’s just in early access and offers only one map (and plenty of bugs / missing features), it has established itself firmly in the world of competitive online multiplayer games.

As a relatively late adopter of the game, I’ve put in 60 hours in the game in the last 3-4 weeks, and feel I’ve had enough exposure (and luckily half a dozen Chicken Dinners) to put down some rough thoughts on why the game feels so fresh and is doing so well.

I’ll start by admitting I’ve not played the earlier Battle Royale style games (the ARMA / H1Z1 mods, or titles like The Culling), so I lack insight on what PUBG does better. Having said that, the base “Battle Royale” gameplay can be seen as an addictive mix of Roguelike single game progression and a tactical PVP shooter.

The Roguelike elements:

  • Randomized flight path = a different starting game state per run
  • Randomized loot = varied progression per run
  • Punishing perma-death for a single run = high emotional intensity (even if actual gameplay is slow)
  • 100-player PVP, general expected outcome for any run is “you lost” = very high emotional spikes when you do get the chicken dinner; not a lot of grief when you lose, in addition to the desire for “one more turn”

The tactical shooter elements:

  • Map is fixed = strategy and mastery via learning the map
  • Weapons variety + huge map with varied landscape= mastery curve of different weapons in varied combat scenarios (close quarters, open fields, hills etc.)
  • 2 / 4-player squads mode + revive mechanic = teamwork / coordination mastery

I also want to talk specifically about the game’s pacing:

  • The game has strong emotional intensity (you could die at any moment in 1 sec), but given the map’s size the mid game pacing is usually very slow (if you survived any hectic early-game chaos, which is the player’s choice)
  • This slow pacing is not boring in either solo or group modes, as in solo it plays on the player’s feeling of isolation, while in group mode it creates an opportunity for players to chat. This is actually fairly key for the game’s social experience (a team looting together and swapping gear is a good bonding experience), and helps with the game’s learning curve for new players (who are most likely introduced by friends)
  • The pacing downtime is also ideal for streaming as it gives streamers plenty of moments to interact with their viewers, which is a core part of the streaming experience
  • And ultimately, this pacing is very much at the player’s discretion – the player can choose for an exciting early-game by jumping into a high traffic spot, and can be on the offensive during mid-game hunting for kills as opposed to camping. And furthermore, PUBG side-steps the entire experience of “garbage time” in an online PVP game (e.g. a one-sided stomp in LoL or Overwatch, which you still have to play out), as the game is over when you die and you can immediately jump back into the matchmaking queue

Additionally, some thoughts on 3rd person vs. 1st person perspective:

  • While I understand high-skill competitive players’ complaints about 3rd-person being unfair (campers gain information without putting themselves at risk), it also makes the game feel much more accessible to new players (as a viewer on twitch summarized, it lowers the skill-ceiling while raising the skill-floor)
  • The devs are introducing 1st-person servers, which is an “easy” experiment to try (and shows they are listening to their audience), but this could be high risk in terms of fragmenting the game’s identity. What I mean by this is PUBG in its current form is not an esports title, and it doesn’t have to be – WWE is not sports but is entertaining, popular and commercially successful. If the devs start focusing on making the game more balanced for competitive play, it may hurt some of the organic fun that makes it fresh in the first place
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