I’m a consistent player of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. I’ve been playing for an entire year at this point, and while the game has fallen a bit in popularity over the past couple months, I have remained diligent and true, paying attention to the game’s developments and promises. A week ago the developers, PUBG Corp, released a roadmap of the future of the game. A new, smaller map is coming, joining Murder Island and Miramar, our two current options. Graphical upgrades are incoming, as are complete overhauls to animations and the parachuting system. It’s a lot of good news, but it leaves me a little worried, because I don’t know if PUBG has any sense of what it wants to be.
In contemporary game design, there is a lot of talk about “pillars.” These are just what they sound like: these are the ideas and concepts that hold up the entire structure of a game. Designers can make these as generic or specific as they want. Paradox Interactive, for example, has a set of pillars to help understand what makes one of their games different from other games in the strategy genre. Another example, perhaps just as illuminating, are the original pillars for Diablo III. In these cases, design pillars are about creating a boundary between a specific game and all of the other games in the world. What makes this thing unique? What makes players wants to engage with this thing instead of all of those other things?
I can’t suss out what those pillars might be for PUBG at this point. Without access to any kind of design document, I can tell you what makes a Paradox game unique from games from another publisher; I can tell you what makes Diablo III unique from other 3rd person action RPGs. When it was released, PUBG had the benefit of being “that battle royale game where 100 people fight it out.” Although it was coming on the heels of H1Z1’s success in that genre, PUBG felt like the first thing built from the ground up with the battle royale idea in mind. There were big, open spaces. The gunplay had a sharp tactical feeling. It was fast and lethal.
Now, a year later and with the next year loaded and ready to go, those don’t feel all that new or unique. They don’t feel like specific design decisions. Instead, they feel like things that the PUBG team stumbled on in their combination of H1Z1, ARMA and other videogames in the wide field of shooters.
To some degree, drawing a line between “stumbled upon” and “designed” is arbitrary. There is not a single line of code that has been put into the game that someone did not think about and implement. Every single thing there has been created to be that way. But I increasingly feel that PUBG’s massive success is just as much about what it allows for as it is about what is happening in the game. I can have a good time with friends while playing this game because it is, generally, right in the middle of the road as far as games are concerned. It is a (mostly) fair game where a little bit of tactical play and a small amount of work on your shooting skills will go very far in making you better at the game. While there are some weapon stats that are worth knowing, it is generally just pick-up-and-play. No fuss, no muss.
The road map for the next year, though, suggests that there are pillars in the game’s design that are going to be actively making the game more muss-y. In a bid to appease hardcore simulationists, there are plans to implement augmentations to the way that the game handles sound. You will be able to hear a vehicle’s suspension, and players will make different sounds depending on what they’re wearing. There are also plans to implement a bullet penetration system that will allow projectiles to fly through thinner parts of the target’s body and into the softer, meatier parts. This simulationist impulse surely makes sense for some games, but it seems like a pure nightmare to me. Nothing seems worse than a purposeful destruction of the vague flattening effect that a hand or a leg blocking a headshot has between me and a pro player. I’ve played hundreds of hours of this game, and I think this would be detrimental to my experience. So who is it for?
The same goes for the push into esports. Dante Douglas tackled this in a piece titled “What Makes PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds So Great Would Make It a Terrible Esports Game” here at Paste, and while I think I fundamentally disagree with his argument, I can’t help but admit that the push into esports is definitely having a general negative impact on the broader ongoing design of the game. Some of the most interesting parts of PUBG come from the interactions of its various systems and, frankly, how glitchy and weird they are. I’m not advocating for broken games, but I am fine with motorcycles flying through windows or a climbing animation catching the wrong angle and vaulting me up onto a roof if it means that the devs are pushing new, more interesting systems in the game. However, that’s literally the opposite of what an esport needs. Esports need normalization, standardization and predictability. They also need rules that are designed for interaction, which is why the circles in competitive PUBG already work differently than they do in the game that the public is playing.
Whatever, right? There will just be an implicit split between esports players and “pubbie” players. And yet the road map also includes wider access to custom games and a promise of mod support. It introduces novelty, yes, but it also splits the player base. It splits it both formally in terms of the games that they want to play, but it also splits it culturally into enfranchised players with the “best” mods (whether they are aesthetic or UI based or what have you) and people who are just digging into the game for the first time. As far as I can tell, there’s no benefit except for the 10% of players who find that to be compelling, and I think there’s probably a significant overlap between those people and the simulationists mentioned above.
The grand unifying effect of being in this together, something that has defined this first year of the game, is being designed out of it in several ways. And it leaves me confused about who this game is meant to serve. I’ll still be playing PUBG, to be clear, but without a clearer understanding of what the game is and what separates it from its competitors, it appears that a game that was leading the pack is going to start trailing behind it.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.