Hundreds of games aspire to the level of success in the online gaming scene enjoyed by League of Legends, CS:GO, Hearthstone, and other similarly huge titles. These games had the backing of huge studios like Blizzard and Valve which started big and kept growing, with the hype train never stopping for long. Hundreds of games over the years have tried to replicate even a fraction of this success. Some, like Rocket League, were able to exceed expectations by delivering an incredibly polished version of a simple-yet-satisfying idea. Others, like Cliff Bleszinski’s LawBreakers, did not fare so well, failing to draw or hold the attention of the gaming public after huge initial hype. At this point, it seems like the truly big hits can only come from names big enough to assure the polished, smooth gameplay we’ve come to expect from the big titles. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise that the latest big hit, enjoying the sort of success Cliffy B dreams about, is a bug-ridden, unstable mess born from the brain of an ex-DayZ modder. What’s more, it hasn’t technically been released yet. I am, of course, talking of none other than PUBG, or to give it its full (and somewhat awkward) name, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.
PUBG has a rather compelling concept; it’s a Battle Royale inspired, Hunger Games style king-of-the-hill game, where 100 players are dropped onto a huge island and must scavenge for guns, ammo, and equipment while the safe zone on the map steadily shrinks, forcing players into combat with each other until only one remains. It’s certainly fun, and enough people think so that it’s managed to break Dota 2’s all-time record of concurrent players on Steam (1.29 million); no small feat for a game that claims to still be in its alpha. Impressive though this success is, PUBG seems to have been completely unprepared for it, and has made a few missteps along the way.
The first thing to consider is that it is what’s known as an “early-access” game. That is, it’s technically pre-beta, but still available for purchase. This puts PUBG in a weird position. On the one hand, the game is clearly good enough on its own merits to have sold millions of copies. On the other, players are paying for the privilege of being alpha-testers on a game which, to be generous, has a long way to go. In other words, the game is seriously bug-ridden. The launcher barely works, is slow, and needs a dedicated button to reload it when it breaks; which it regularly does. Visual and gameplay bugs abound and the servers are not too stable either, being regularly down for hours at a time.
All of this is fine; the game admits to being unfinished. The problem comes when it feels like developer Bluehole is focused less on fixing the product they’ve already sold, and more on quickly raking in more cash. Some moves seem tone-deaf at best, such as when a Chinese VPN was advertised in the launcher, aimed primarily at players suffering from the notoriously poor Chinese servers, prompting widespread backlash. Other poorly received moves include the addition of gambling-like microtransactions into the game; granted, for cosmetic items only. But on the other hand, the random nature of the crates you can buy necessitate a lot of purchases to ensure getting a desired set of cosmetic items. Though Bluehole are within their rights to try and grab a slice of the lucrative microtransactions pie, it didn’t come off all too well to players; especially considering that Brendan Greene, the PlayerUnknown himself, had promised the community that microtransactions would be kept out of the game until the full release. Furthermore, there are tales of exclusivity deals with Xbox, suggesting that deals to port to consoles have been reached even though the game is at times barely playable on PC.
So, where does the game go from here? Ostensibly, a full release is still coming by the end of 2017, but with the game in the state it is, it’s hard to imagine everything being brought up to standard by then. But it might be problematic if it hasn’t. The game is addictive and fundamentally fun, and is big as a result, but a multiplayer game like this lives or dies on its community and the goodwill of its players, and it’s hard to imagine the community still being satisfied if the same bugs are still impacting the experience in a few months, or if the launcher is still awful, or if Bluehole continues to uphold its poor image by making greedy moves.
Accidental successes are no new thing in gaming – Valve and Blizzard themselves started out as underdogs fighting for their share of the market. League of Legends developer Riot Games, now one of the most sought-after places to work in the games industry, started as a ragtag group of developers who’d released one ugly, barely functioning game. But Riot had the luxury of their game, player-base, and studio growing steadily side-by-side over many years. PUBG, however, has not, and is going to need to adapt quickly to the demands of running a large, consistent service if it wants to continue reaping the rewards of its success. They have a better shot than most teams could ever dream of; now let’s see what they do with it.