If ever there were any doubt that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is one of the biggest hits of the year, some new numbers last night confirmed it. The breakout shooter reached number 4 in Steam’s ranking of most concurrent players ever, its figure of 382,561 beating out Grand Theft Auto V and coming in behind Fallout 4. At one point Battlegrounds was also the most-watched game on Twitch, too; a lot of people are playing and watching this game.
Not bad for a game that hasn’t even officially been released yet. And Battlegrounds didn’t go about this the easy way. It saddled itself with an unwieldy name, forcing most players to refer to it as the even less penetrable PUBG (rhymes with sub-G). It also came out in Steam’s Early Access program for games that are still in development, with all the instability that implies. To call the game visually unappealing would be kind, despite the fairly hefty system requirements, and even players on powerful hardware are likely to run into major bugs.
How on earth did it get so popular, then? Well, all you need to do is hook up your LED-ridden mechanical keyboard and multi-button gaming mouse to find out. I almost never play online shooters, let alone online shooters as ugly and seemingly hardcore as PUBG, and I’m not really into watching livestreams either. But it only takes one round to understand why this game is so special.
PUBG is one of the most elegantly designed shooters ever created. Here’s how it works: up to a hundred unarmed players parachute down into a vast map. They find weapons, armor, and vehicles. As time passes, the safe play area shrinks, forcing players into the same region of the map. The last person alive wins.
That’s pretty much it. And yes, you may have noticed that “it” is pretty much the movie Battle Royale in video game form. In fact, PUBG's namesake creator Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene cut his teeth developing similar mods for games like ARMA 2 and 3. PUBG, however, is built entirely around this structure, and it’s this purity and focus that makes it so accessible. The game’s balance is a lot less forgiving than Halo or Call of Duty, but it’s not quite as harshly realistic as ARMA.
What this means is that basically anyone can jump in and have a meaningful experience. Everyone starts in the same vulnerable situation, and every kill is significant. Winning — or being the last person standing — is immensely difficult, but since the scoring system is so simple it’s always tempting to try to improve your ranking next time. And PUBG isn’t shy about including elements of luck; even the most skilled player might find themselves landing in an area oddly bereft of weaponry beyond a frying pan and getting rifled in the back.
Every time I’ve managed to be one of the last ten players remaining has been among the most intense gaming experiences of my life. Everything you do becomes a small but profound decision. Do you wait inside that room and stay safe for now, but risk having to blow your own cover when the play area gets smaller? Do you attack that other player now, or hope she doesn’t notice you and wanders into a more compromised position down the line? Do you draw attention to yourself by using a loud vehicle to cover more ground, or can you make it to the safe zone in time while keeping quiet?
PUBG has none of the trappings of online shooters that I’ve found so off-putting for the past decade. There’s no way to reliably game the map, no requirement to put up with usually offensive voice chat, no oppressive metagame that requires you to spend every waking hour playing if you have any hope of catching up. Each game rarely lasts more than half an hour, and even that’s only if you’re playing very well. Anyone with a basic grasp of shooters can have fun with PUBG.
That said, the game is clearly unfinished. You may find yourself cursing the netcode when you die due to lag. The visuals are distinctly unpretty, even if you’re not one of the many players that turns down everything except draw distance for competitive reasons. Jumping over knee-high obstacles is weirdly difficult. And you need a beefy Windows PC right now, despite the unimpressive results.
But PUBG is coming to consoles sometime this year, with a launch first on Xbox One, and by that point it should be a more robust, widely palatable game. Microsoft already demonstrated the ability to vault over fences and cars, which will make a huge difference. Even in its current state, however, and even considering that 2017 has been one of the best ever years for video games, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is already one of the best games of the year. It’s janky, unattractive, and thematically unappealing, sure. But it’s also kind of my perfect game.
If you're curious to find out more, The Verge will be facing off against a team from Polygon later today and streaming the battle live. Stay tuned for more info.