In PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) 100 players leap from a plane as it flies over one of two maps — Erangel or Miramar — and when they land their only objective is to be the last person standing. They can do it solo, with a friend or in a group of four, but however they choose to play, they enter the game with nothing but the clothes on their back.
Over the next 35ish minutes they will need to find gear — guns, armour, backpacks, meds — and either do battle with (or avoid) other players. The whole time, a blue circle of electric death threatens to close in on them, shocking them to death and bringing about an ignoble end to their tale. If they avoid that fate and defeat all other players, they earn the greatest prize of all — a screen with their name in all caps, and the words ‘WINNER WINNER, CHICKEN DINNER’. Lower, the same screen says the server will close in 59 seconds.
Everyone’s stated reasons for playing PUBG (“Pub-Gee” as it’s known by fans) are different, but they inevitably boil down to one thing — stories. People play PUBG because each time you queue for a game, whether you win or lose, it tells you a different story. You’re the protagonist, and there are 99 other antagonists out there in the world — except in their story, you’re the big bad.
When my crew pulls up to a complex south of Pochinki — a favourite location of mine, with two good houses and a warehouse — that area is ours. We own it, even before we arrive. And so when we clash with the current occupants of the complex, we are mighty liberators doing our best to oust some squatting scoundrels so we can set up camp. Anyone who visits afterwards is a ruthless invader, who we must repel at all costs. That’s just our side of the story, however — for those already present, we are the invaders. For those arriving later, we’re the squatters.
Each game of PUBG is filled with these incidents, each one packed full of their own narratives. You remember the broader strokes, sure, but it’s the details that make each incident so rewarding. The weapons you had, the people you face-off against, the circumstances leading up to and after that give each encounter its own rich feeling.
The reason this works is because there’s a decent chunk of randomness at play in PUBG. The plane’s path over the play space, the loot you find in a house and the circle’s position over the map — all of this is randomised. Yet, what PUBG does so well is lean on these odds in ways that make it manageable.
Some historical context for PUBG performance on Steam, compared to all other non-Valve games: pic.twitter.com/qiOQ5Q5DqX
— Steam Spy (@Steam_Spy) September 5, 2017
Priorities In Order
At a macro level PUBG is just priority management. Everything you do is defined by a self-determined set of priorities, and the randomness causes those priorities to change. When you land you want to loot ASAP — but that changes depending on the circumstances. If you landed in Pochinki alone, you want to find the best gear you can acquire before you have to leave. If someone landed in a house near you, you want to find a weapon sooner rather than later. If they landed at the same house, finding a weapon is such a high priority that it overwhelms looting anything else.
This priority management cascades down as you play it, impacting every element of the experience, and it works so well because everything about PUBG is fine tuned with this in mind. The circle is mostly random, sure, but there is logic to it. Loot spawns in set positions in each building, but certain types of loot are more likely to appear in some locations. Car spawns favour some areas more than others, forcing you to make a tough decision about when you should leave an area if you have a long way to travel without one. These all collide, forcing you to analyse your options on a moment by moment basis to create a path to victory.
Then you need to factor in the idea that 96-99 other players are also forging their own path to victory. There’s a pervasive idea that randomness is too ingrained in the fabric of how PUBG works to make it truly rewarding, but the way the game leans on the odds means this isn’t true. I finished the final Early Access season with a win percentage of 20%, which would be utterly impossible if randomness was the determining factor. What PUBG delivers instead is chaos, carefully designed to create as much conflict as possible.
That’s not to say you can’t lose because of bad luck. Landing next to someone who scores a shotgun right off the bat is bad luck — although in that scenario you chose to roll the dice and lost. If you went to a different house when you saw them, things might have been different.
And like most competitive games, the decisions you made up until that point have to be considered. The randomness is manageable, right from the moment you decide how far from the plane’s path to land.
It happened! PUBG just had more concurrent users than Dota 2 on Steam! pic.twitter.com/Ljw3kO2hcT
— Steam Spy (@Steam_Spy) August 27, 2017
That’s what PUBG does so right, and why it’s captured the imagination of millions of players. It’s something DayZ did — the Arma 2 mod that in a lot of ways is responsible for PUBG — but on a much grander scale. DayZ had you play the game for sometimes hours at a time without seeing anyone. But the stories told about it were only ever those recalling encounters with others. I had an encounter with a brand new player in DayZ where I robbed them, stealing a can opener, and I will remember it forever. I can’t remember the circumstances leading up to that encounter at all — although I do know I’d been playing for 80 uneventful minutes up until that point.
PUBG takes that DayZ experience and expertly condenses it into a 35 minute long game. The change in pace costs PUBG a few things that made DayZ special. The social aspect is gone. There’s no point enquiring whether there is anyone ‘friendly’ in PUBG the way you might ask about certain locations in DayZ, because it’s safe to assume everyone is not friendly.
But the upside is significant. Conflict is so constant in PUBG that you’re rarely caught by surprise when it occurs. That doesn’t mean you can’t be ambushed — rather, where death might come instantaneously and anonymously in DayZ, the contained nature of PUBG means you can watch a killcam (once your squad dies) and you can dive deeper with the robust replay system.
Think of it like horror movies. In DayZ, death could strike at any time and when it does, it’s a jump scare. In PUBG, the terror is ever present, but thanks to pacing you’re able to anticipate its arrival — giving the game an adrenaline-pumping sense of dread.
— PLAYERUNKNOWN (@PLAYERUNKNOWN) December 21, 2017
Is ‘PUBG’ Good?
New additions like the Replay system, the Killcam, the map Miramar ensure that PUBG at 1.0 is a massive improvement over when it first launched. This final version is now more stable and better optimised. It very rarely dips below 100 fps on high end rigs now, with everything on Ultra or High (except for Textures on Medium, to spot people easier). The netcode is still probably the jankiest part of the game, but even that gets better as each round continues. Quite simply, there’s very little to complain about now.
Sure, the animations aren’t as smooth as what you’ll see in Call of Duty, and they’re a far cry from the creamery goodness of Battlefield 1‘s transitional animations. There’s a level of AAA polish missing here that might be a dealbreaker for some, but to anyone who’s actually experienced the magic of PUBG, none of that really matters. Graphics exist only to serve gameplay — reversing that concept leads to the sort of vapid nonsense seen in Star Wars Battlefront 2‘s multiplayer.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is one of the most compelling video game experiences to come out in years. That its stood out in a year filled with some of the best games ever is a testament to how brilliant it really is. It’s the sort of game I talk about in excited, quick bursts with friends, the kind I think about when I’m not playing it. I hear planes fly overhead in real life and internally suppress the need to look for an airdrop. I’ve got chicken dinner fever baby and I’m sure after a few rounds, you will too.