Movie Sleuth Gaming: The Rise of the Battle Royale or What the Hell is PUBG and Why Does Everyone Love It?

Maintaining over one million concurrent players for a full week, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG, as it’s known in the gaming community, has accomplished a feat unmatched on the Steam platform. If you’ve never played or seen the title played, head on over to and take a look at one of the dozens of streams of live gameplay entertaining thousands of gamers. You might, however, be somewhat puzzled by what you’re seeing – why has this seemingly generic looking shooter sunk its teeth so deeply into PC gamer’s attention spans? It’s impossible to know for certain, but a look at the evolution of the “battle royale” genre is very illustrative.

Inspired by films and novels like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, games in this genre share a few key attributes: first, a last-man-standing ruleset, with no player respawns of any kind, second, a scavenging mechanic that adds an element of random chance to each battle, and third, a game element that reduces player choice over time and forces combat. PUBG is just the latest in a line of titles that have explored some or all of these elements overt the past several years. 

The genre got its start with open world multiplayer survival titles like the ARMA 2 mod, Day Z, and naked man rock throwing simulator, Rust. These titles encouraged careful movement and combat, as death would result in potentially losing hours of accumulated supplies and weaponry, giving self-preservation a level of importance unseen in round-based elimination games like Counter-Strike or the Call of Duty series’ “Search and Destroy” game mode. Herein lies the most easily demonstrable appeal of these genres – giving such meaningful consequences to death makes every gunfight (or battle with improvised weaponry, like cast-iron skillets or hockey sticks, another genre staple) downright adrenaline pumping. The sudden crack and whiz of a bullet that nearly ended your character’s precious life will often make even the most hardened shooter veteran physically leap in their desk chair. Like any good horror film, it’s the quiet, tense moments before the gore that make the gore shocking and exciting – inundate the viewer and they’ll be desensitized and apathetic. Striking that balance is the secret.

The balance, one might argue, is skewed too far in the direction of the mundane in open-world survival titles like Day Z. With such an emphasis on survival and accumulation of rare weapons of great destructive power or tools of frustration-taming convenience (like Day Z’s ever-valuable can opener), players are often given the choice of seeking out the excitement of player-versus-player combat and being disappointed when wonky game mechanics or an unfortunate lag spike (or, occasionally, simply being outplayed) causes a maddening death and concomitant loss of hours and hours of progress or preserving their character’s life as long as possible, an endeavor that can get old quickly. Penalizing the player so severely for seeking out fun is enough to put off many gamers. Sure, a few may love the punishment, but simply compare PUBG’s player count to Day Z’s and perhaps the difference is clear.

On the other hand, battle royale titles manage to capture the excitement and weight of permanent death, while forcing players to fight more often than open-world survival titles, without devolving into the grenade spamming frag-fests of Battlefield and the like. Every kill feels earned – and the huge maps give the distinct feeling of being both the hunter and the hunted, where good instincts can be just as important as precise aim. By implementing a pseudo-time limit that forces players into an ever-shrinking playable map area, the pace of a game accelerates to an exciting crescendo that leads to some undeniably memorable moments.

The incredible thing about PUBG’s success is that it’s nowhere near perfect, or given its designation as “Early Access,” complete. And yet, the gun mechanics and map design are good enough that it doesn’t quite matter. Getting killed by nonsensical physics, like a flipped motorcycle that decides to do a barrel roll, despite the player not double-tapping the Z button, is experience-ruining in games like Day Z, but in PUBG a player can bury his head in hands, take a deep breath, and be back into another match in less than three minutes. No need to spend an hour searching abandoned neighborhoods to find that a decent weapon, battle royales get the player back into the fun in a hurry. 

So then, what’s next? Can PUBG continue to improve its core mechanics and make savvy decisions to keep its player-base happy and engaged, or will a big budget studio push out a flashy, polished, Triple-A battle royale title that will snatch PUBG’s throne? Either is very possible. One can’t discount the power of a massive advertising campaign or the name recognition of a proven franchise or a well-respected developer. But perhaps history provides the best source of prediction – recall that competitive shooter juggernaut, and previous Steam action-title supreme, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, began its life over a decade ago as a humble Half-Life mod. Maybe PUBG will ride its indie success to an enduring dynasty as the first well-executed, popularly received battle royale title, with later releases that modernize the experience to match improved technology, but maintain the classic elements that drove its first iteration to stratospheric success. Gamers can be fickle and unpredictable, and this success story is far from finished – stay tuned.

-Patrick B. McDonald