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First Impressions Analysis - PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds

PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is a sensation, sweeping the internet and taking over Twitch. This blog examines some of the reasons your friends can't stop talking about it!

I finally started playing PUBG to see what all the buzz was about. I have a personal bias against what I call "sociopathy simulators" like Rust and Day-Z and similar things, so it took me awhile to be interested in it. (Nothing against people who do like those games, they just aren't my thing.)

As expected the new player experience is dying horribly and quickly, but it's not as bad as I feared it might be. As in World of Tanks, you get to go to your next match as soon as you're "out" – you don’t have to spend any time dead if you don’t want to.  You can also spectate people you queued with if they’re still alive, which means you always have something to do.

The game naturally goes through phases which match narrative structure, creating a compelling "story" each time you play the game:

-Exposition: All players start on a plane and decide when to bail out of it based on where on the map they think they might find supplies.  All players then search the map for goods strewn about, getting in small skirmishes or conflicts but generally trying to avoid telegraphing their position too much to the world at large.  You're constantly weighing whether to risk going to a high-density area because the risk of confrontation is very real.

-Rising Action: The "Circle" starts contracting.  For those unfamiliar with the game, you are on an island.  The Circle is a decreasing area on that island in which you can continue to exist.  Every second you're outside the circle, you take damage (which gets more significant as time goes on).  During the Rising Action, players simultaneously are sprinting towards the legal play area, while looking for other players doing the same thing to attack them or hide from them.  You can't really attack anyone while you're not in the safe zone - doing so is almost certain death due to shooting while running being a bad idea, and running being totally necessary to survive.

-Climax: The circle becomes a small enough area that you can see all walls of it.  Usually no more than 20 players make it to this stage (out of 100), and often quite a few fewer (12 in my most recent game).  Players try and use whatever little cover and terrain is in the selected area to outfox other players in a final standoff

The phases of the game matching narrative structure so closely I found interesting, and is probably a reason why all your friends can't stop talking about this game. Each session of the game organically creates a compelling story that people want to share.

There are some other mechanics that I think work to make it compelling in the same vein as League of Legends.  Foremost, you go from Zero to Hero every single game, just like in League.  While there's no gold you're buying things with, the core idea of a 20 to 40 minute play session which allows a player to go from weak and no equipment to fully decked out in their choice of equipment is a proven compelling loop.

The key to delivering on this fantasy is that being "decked out" does not mean you have solutions to all problems the game can pose to you.  Instead, it means that you have very good answers to a limited subset of the game's problems. For instance, if I have a great scope on my AR but I need to tackle someone holed up in a shed with a shotgun, my endgame equipment does little to help me.  If I fail due to picking the wrong gear for the situation, I am then forced to re-evaluate the strategic decisions I made, which makes me want to play again to test my new assumptions.

Another mechanic that the two games share, which is related, is resource scarcity where both your own team and enemy teams are competing for the resources. Maybe there's just something compelling about bitching at your friends to give you this lane tax, or give you this 2x scope.  I don't really get that, but the fact that both wildly viral games have limited resources that you have to do group-problem-solving to allocate as a team probably means that mechanic is part of their success.

That's all the thoughts I really have on PUBG so far.  Having played it only in 4-man groups, I had a lot more fun than I thought I would, but maybe not enough to overcome my disdain for the genre to make me play solo.

Author's Note: This blog was written with one evening's worth of playtime in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.  I've since played about 30 hours of the game, and will try to write a follow up post in the future with more design analysis.

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