‘PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ brings in up to 2.5 million players per day. Here’s why the multiplayer battle royale simulation is such a hit.
Bluehole Studio found moderate success with a massively multiplayer online title called TERA, released in 2012. When TERA switched to a free-to-play model in 2013, the game boasted more than one million users. As of March of this year, TERA eclipsed 25 million users worldwide. But there was a much more significant event for the independent studio that same month. Bluehole wouldn’t know it at the time, but the early-access release of their sophomore title — a very different type of game — would turn Bluehole into the hottest independent studio in the business. You probably haven’t heard of TERA, but ask anyone who even casually pays attention to video games, and they will probably nod if you mention PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG).
Development started on PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in early 2016. Roughly a year later — a remarkably quick turnaround — Bluehole decided it was time to let the world experience it. Within three days of launch, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, at $30 a copy, had raked in $11 million. The following month, the game surpassed a million copies sold. Impressively, close to 100,000 of those who owned the game could be found playing the game at any one time. Fast-forward two more months, and Battlegrounds had moved four million copies and toppled the $100 million mark for revenue. As of this writing, seven months after launch, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has sold a staggering 19.9 million copies on Steam — the largest PC game service in the world.
Even more staggering: of those millions of potential players, roughly two million are playing the game at a time on Steam’s online service. At its height, nearly 2.5 million have been active. These numbers make PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds the most played game on Steam, dwarfing other top mainstays Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive — both of which are Valve games (the studio that owns Steam).
All of this has been accomplished while the game has been in early access — a moniker that means a game is not entirely complete. Essentially, the version put out by Bluehole Studio was meant as a test run to see what still needed to be fixed before the game was dubbed finished. Yet it’s become the biggest game of 2017.
So what exactly is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, and why is it so ridiculously popular?
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is a massively multiplayer battle royale simulation. If you’ve read Koushun Takami’s controversial 1996 novel Battle Royale — or watched the 2000 adaptation — you know the basic goal. More likely, though, you’ve probably heard of Suzanne Collins’ YA trilogy The Hunger Games, which ripped the general concept of Battle Royale for a new generation of readers and viewers. In the video game world, the battle royale schtick has grown in popularity in recent years, with survival games like DayZ, H1Z1 and ARMA 3 finding a sizable audience.
Brendan Greene, the creator of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, served as a consultant on H1Z1 and quite obviously took that experience and revamped it extensively at Bluehole Studio. Greene was also inspired by the aforementioned Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds drops up to 100 players from an airplane onto an eight-by-eight quadrant island called Erangel. The map has pockets of dilapidated buildings, forestry, roads, swamps, barren areas and mountains. It is separated into four major cities and a slew of minor cities and landmarks. It’s an incredibly interesting map that cares little about geographical accuracy. The design feels like the melding of a lot of disparate environments — but all of it, players soon learn, meshes with the experience of hunting and hunkering down. Players descend from the sky over the landmass, the only map available thus far, and pull their parachute strings to float into controlled, methodical chaos.
Once a player hits the ground, their job is to be the last person or team standing (you can go into a match in teams of up to four).
Throughout the match, players are tasked with looting buildings for guns and gear, all the while being conscious of their lurking competitors. You can travel by boat, car or motorcycle in search of new gear and other players. Sometimes the plane flies back overhead and drops a cargo supply of gear, offering a risk reward of converging on a single spot (Hunger Games style). There’s a freedom at the beginning of a match that makes those early moments a pure rush. Then, as the match wanes on, the map shrinks, forcing players to converge and inevitably meet.
You have a choice to make when on the ground. You can either go after other players or hunker down as the player count dwindles. You could kill 25 competitors throughout a single match and still lose, or you could kill zero and still win. That’s the crux of PUBG. The only thing that truly matters is survival.
This straightforward premise is coupled with standard gameplay. Anyone who’s played a first-person or third-person shooter can hop into PUBG and feel at home. Yet that familiarity somehow manages to transform into a brand-new, revelatory experience.
Part of the reason PUBG has become so popular is that it makes you actually feel like the stakes are high at all times. There’s an urgency in the air to not only stay safe but to do something to up your chances of coming out on top as the herd thins. In most matches, you can stay hidden for only so long. Even if half of your competitors have been wiped out by others, if you haven’t adequately prepared by the time they inevitably start coming for you, you’ll have a hard time staying alive much longer.
If you manage to come out on top, the game congratulates you by saying the popular phrase often heard in Las Vegas, “Winner Winner Chicken Dinner.” But if you’re one of the 96 to 99 who don’t win the chicken dinner, PUBG ropes you back in for another game. It’s that rare experience where you can lose — and you very likely will almost every time — yet you continue to have fun.
Which brings us to the main reason PUBG has become one of the most popular games of the year — it caters to both competitive and casual players. In most shooters, those with the best skills and strategies prevail nearly every time. Eventually, as a game ages, the only players left are the experts.
With PUBG, being skilled at shooters certainly helps, but there’s no guarantee that the best of the best will take home the chicken dinner. That’s a testament to the design of the game. There’s a randomness to its approach, and to the path a player could take throughout a round, that varies the results time and again. You can be a novice and come out with the victory. When you lose, though, you never feel as if you wasted your time. It’s all about the ride in PUBG. That’s why over a million players are enjoying the game as I write this.