It’s been a year of experimentation for PUBG. Over the course of 2020, the genre-defining battle royale game received new, smaller maps and tightly focused gameplay modes. December 16th will see the debut of PUBG’s 10th season, which introduces new AI enemies in a dense, 32-player map called “Haven.” Looking ahead, though, PUBG’s new creative director Dave Curd says this process of testing ideas has helped the team find what makes the game distinct among the sea of battle royale games it inspired.
“[In] 2020, we made a lot of small maps, mainly because we’re trying to find the range of what’s acceptable,” he tells The Verge. “Now that we’ve had this year of development, my feeling is those big, long stretches of downtime, punctuated with exciting gunfights, that I think has the most unique PUBG flavor. I think that’s what we do best that our competitors don’t.”
Curd has been in the role for the last few months, serving as PUBG’s first creative director since creator Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene stepped down last year to start a new project. Curd has worked on the game for three years, starting out as an artist before heading up the relatively new PUBG studio in Madison, Wisconsin. Prior to that, he served as art director at Call of Duty developer Raven Software. He says that, as part of his new role, he thinks a lot about the long-term life of PUBG — and that process involves defining what exactly the game is.
“We’re always curious what’s beyond the blue circle,” he says. “We don’t see the game of PUBG as a giant team death match with a shrinking circle. We see it as a survival experience. If you think about PUBG, we’ve got really deep, interesting gunplay, and I think that’s contributed to our staying power. But if you analyze a match of PUBG, a very small percentage of your time is actually spent shooting. Most of the time you’re in survival phase.”
“The game has a really steep learning curve.”
One of the challenges has been figuring out how to make that phase more interesting, particularly for new players. One of the goal’s of the new season 10 map is to create more interactions for players outside of fighting each other. The new AI soldiers, for instance, guard valuable gear, forcing players to make a decision about whether it’s worth the risk to engage. Similarly, the new tactical parachute is meant to make traversing the dense, more vertical map a more fun experience.
“You think about a new user who joins PUBG today. They download it, they boot it up: the players they’re encountering are very challenging to compete with,” Curd explains. “All of the players that have been here for years have amazing recoil control, they really understand how to follow the circle, and they’re just amazing veterans. So if you’re a new user, I think it’s really difficult. The game has a really steep learning curve. So we’re playing with this in season 10 by giving more adventures to get into and more ways to get out of trouble.”
The goal is that these new experiences will make players stick around and dig deeper into the main survival experience. Similarly, the PUBG team has also been experimenting with storytelling — there’s even a lore website — in an attempt to find more ways to lure people in.
It’s a very tricky balancing act, trying to grow a popular game with a dedicated player base. It’s especially challenging now as the battle royale genre is arguably as popular as its ever been, with games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Call of Duty: Warzone all enjoying healthy player bases. Some of those titles have introduced bots and experimented with easier modes in an attempt to make the experience more approachable for new players — Fortnite’s last few years have been largely defined by developer Epic’s attempts to balance casual and competitive play, often with mixed results.
But Curd says that the PUBG team is using a different philosophy. “That’s something that’s been on my mind,” he says. “Not making the game easier, or even friendlier, but just making it more interesting.”
Season 10 of PUBG launches December 16th on PC, followed by a console version on the 17th.