There was a gaming moment in 2008 that I will never forget. The Call of Duty 4 multiplayer beta was released in the face of skepticism and doubt that the Call of Duty franchise can make the jump from World War settings to a modern day. Those doubts were washed away as soon as the players got to try COD4’s streak systems, persistent leveling mechanics, and attachment unlocks. Experiencing the systems for the first time made playing the beta an electric experience. I can recall the feeling that what I was playing was so radically different that it was going to be huge. It seemed that everyone playing the beta online was able to tell that they were playing something new and different; something that stayed with them. COD4’s feedback loop was the tipping point for the genre, and helped shape how multiplayer was thought about for almost a decade.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, out on Steam in Early Access, is the next tipping point for the industry. The multiplayer shooter places 100 players on a plane and requires the players to jump out and land on an 8X8km map, acquire weapons, armor, and health items with the goal of being the last person standing. In August, PUBG was the first game to ever dethrone League of Legends’ 3 year reign as the most watched game on Twitch. Just this past week, the game crossed a milestone of 10 million units sold since its launch in March. Two days ago, PUBG was the second game in Steam history to ever have more than 1 million concurrent users playing – a quarter million away from taking the top spot from DOTA 2. To put those numbers in perspective, the first 6 month sales for Bungie’s *Destiny *was 16 million units across two platforms. Overwatch’s first 6 months sold roughly around 18 million units across 3 platforms. Sitting at 10 million units sold, PUBG’s is currently only available on PC and is slated to have its console debut on Xbox One later this holiday. At this point, it is foregone conclusion that PUBG is poised to be gaming’s next big IP. The game’s success, though, is just a reflection of how cutting edge PUBG’s systems and feedback loops feel.
I am not hesitant in saying that PUBG is the tensest game I have ever played. My heart rate elevates. My palms get sweaty if I survive past the top 15 in a match. Winning a match is one of the biggest gaming highs, and getting second or third knowing that I was close is definitely the most heartbreaking. No matter the outcome of a match, though, I always leave wanting to play one more game. The draw that I feel is PUBG’s feedback loop of tension and release. The tension and existential dread begins from the onset and ramps up. After five minutes from the start of a match, the map requires players to move into a smaller zone of the map. Everyone outside the smaller zone are threatened by a blue electric field that shrinks in on the new safe zone; damaging players’ health if the wall passes over players who are still not in the safe zone. Once the blue circle meets the safe zone, the cycle repeats and an even smaller safe zone is redrawn.
The map mechanic constantly funnels players into new areas and forces conflict. With only one life and the knowledge that someone is near you, the tension is incredibly high. Even mundane occurrences, like coming across a building in a secluded town with an open door can fill me with anxious dread. An open door communicates that someone has been there before. In that instance, I have to weigh the possibilities that another person might still be inside. I have to consider the benefits of being in cover or the likelihood of finding loot versus the potential risk of being ambushed and murdered. I have to anticipate where others might be traveling and whether or not this building is in anyone’s path. If so, I deliberate which vantage point would best to observe them coming, or which position in the house would be best to engage the player. All those considerations are made in the pressure cooker of managing the map, my resources, and staying alive. If I do enter and someone is there and we engage in a firefight, my heart sinks to the depths of my chest. If I survive the encounter, the tension that was building is released. I get to brief moment to exhale in relief, but in the background, the tension immediately begins to rise as I consider if there is a new circle and how far I have to travel to be safe again, or if there are people nearby who heard the gunfight and are on their way to kill whoever is left. The cycle of tension and release repeats again.
It is that feedback loop that makes PUBG such a phenomenon. What makes the game’s rise even more significant is that the studio that made the game isn’t a large AAA developer. Blue Hole isn’t a mega studio backed by Activision or Tencent. Nor is the game the brainchild of a board room or focus team. Rather, it is made from a midsize team in Korea, being led by an Irish modder who wanted to make something he himself wanted to play. PUBG is a paradigm shift in its design and inception, and it demonstrates that shooters can be rewarding not because of bolted on mechanics and systems that exploit the dopamine loving parts of our brain. PUBG shows that game’s greatness can be innate.