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Playerunknown's Battlegrounds did everything wrong. And doing so, it won.
This small article is born from a discussion I had with a friend of mine this week. He was writing a review on Playersunknown’s Battlegrounds (from now on, PUBG) and he ended up talking about the evolution of the genre and its triumph over every other competitor. The article was good but it did not enter in detail about, what I think, it is a greatly important and interesting question: Why PUBG? Why not any of the other dozens of battle royal games we were plagued in the last years?
PUBG is clearly a winner in this competition. It sold more than 8 million copies on Steam only, and I can see the trend going with the future release on consoles. The problem, in my opinion, is that, on paper, there is nothing in PUBG implementation that seems “right”. Nevertheless, it won.
Machiavelli once said that success is 50% luck. That’s definitely true for PUBG. But the other 50% must be researched in the PUBG qualities. Analyzing them, despite the massive “errors”, it is very important for any game designer.
What PUBG did wrong
Looking at PUBG with a pure technical eye, I cannot help noticing several bad aspects of PUG.
First, the name. PUBG is the stupidest name I ever heard. There is nothing I feel right in the name. It is not evocative, it is quite long, it is probably hard to spell right for non-English speakers.
Second, the technical aspect: programming, code, graphic, sounds. My impression is that, from technical point of view, PUBG is not bad, but it is not great either. It has a noticeable number of bugs (I know it is an early access, but for me, this is not an excuse). Animations are bad. Even for animation, I am sure they will get better over time, but I must consider how they are now, because now is when the game is gaining a lot of traction. Similarly, graphic is “meh”. It is sub standard, given that is built on the Unreal Engine 4. Everything is static, nothing is really breakable but some windows and fences. Lightning is average and bland and the soviet post-apocalyptic setting is definitely unoriginal. Netcode is good (because it is mostly engine built-in) but sometimes it got desync. In the end, it is not a disaster and works nice. It is clearly what I expect from an early early-access title. But it cannot be the reason of PUBG success.
Finally, gameplay contents. In my opinion, 4/5 of the in-game items are garbage and many other are not balanced. They are in-game for no purpose but adding noise or making some throwaway fun moment (like the infamous Frying Pan). Melee weapons are probably fun in the first 20 seconds, but they are practically useless. All that handguns? Useless after the first 2 minutes. There is no problem with the items per se. But, because the game provides at the starting locations tons of better items, anything less than an assault rifle with a 2x scope becomes quickly a disadvantage. In practice, the game cycle is “spawn – run run – search for a M16 – survive for 28 minutes”. You can completely ignore all the other gameplay elements that on paper should add alternative playing approaches.
And that’s why PUBG nailed it
Interestingly, I think that accidentally implementing only a couple of viable strategies, is the main reason that make PUBG better than any previous competitors. There is nothing more in the game that your assault rifle and the environment. The authors failed in providing gameplay space to tons of elements and, doing so, they nailed it. Let me explain better.
Look at the earlier competitors. For instance, DayZ King of the Hill is extremely slow-paced if compared to PUBG. It is so, because the authors of the game balanced the game for different weapons by slowing down the progression. The idea is that, if the game forces you to stay with low-level weapons for more time, they become more useful (at least for a noticeable amount of time).
Another competitor is The Culling. Even this game is sensibly slower than PUBG. The Culling is clearly a more complex and refined game. However, the introduced crafting as a way to upgrade your weapons. And they balanced the game around that. You spawn in a crate and you get a rock. Then, you play 2 minutes with a rock and with another rock you craft, a knife. You stay another 2 minutes with a stone knife and then you craft… a spear. On the paper, crafting your own tool for surviving is cool. It provides the real experience of being dropped on an island with no weapon and survive. But reality is boring and, as a result, this crafting cycle is boring. Especially after they kill you and you have to start over. On PUBG instead, you land on the island and you can easily find an assault rifle. By dying, you are not losing much (but the match, of course…).
Another advantage of PUBG over The Culling crafting system is fairness. Randomness is still a big factor in PUBG. But in its abundance of good weapons, it is fair. Everybody gets a relatively good weapon in the early game. After the first chaotic minutes, everything that matter is player skill.
The crafting system of The Culling, instead, make things very unfair and frustrating for the unlucky player. No amount of skill can save you when you are stuck with a spear and you face an enemy with a grenade launcher.
Finally, the fact that the buildup phase of PUBG is so quick has another very important consequence: it makes the game audience-friendly. People can watch action every time. If there is no action, there is mid-game suspense. PUBG cut off the slow non-action-paced early game.
And, in fact, PUBG is consistently a top streamed game on Twitch, with peaks of 400k viewers. Every day.
In conclusion, PUBG cuts to the bone the battle royal genre. This is the big selling point of PUBG. Even if many of the extra elements of the game failed to deliver and got ignored by the player base, the game holds because the core works. And works better without the fat.
PUBG is here to remember game designer that less is more. Many times, we put a lot of features in a game trying to produce our idea of the game, but int the vast majority of cases, gameplay space is completely independent from feature space. Sometime, the best way to expand gameplay space is to remove features. PUBG shows us, intentionally or by chance, that if you are able to catch the core essence of fun in a game genre, you can be more successful than all the other feature-rich competitors.