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GamesBeat has done these kinds of comparisons with multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBAs) and digital card games. This time, we’re looking at Battlegrounds and King of the Kill because they are among the most popular releases on PC right now. On a recent weekend, more than 340,000 players were playing developer Bluehole’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds at the same time, according to data-tracking site Steamspy. The peak concurrent players for King of the Kill on that same weekend was 150,000. That puts those games ahead of just about anything on Steam aside from Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, which are from Valve, the company that runs Steam.
These games are popular, but what exactly are they? Well, they are last-player-standing shooters. This a genre that’s all about ensuring you are the final survivor in a fight to the death with dozens of other people. Typically, these drop you on an island or a similar map with up to 200 other people (player count varies with each game), and then it is a mad scramble to collect weapons, armor, and resources to maximize your chances of coming out of any gunfight alive. To keep people from camping in one place, these games often corral players in safe zones that get smaller and smaller over time until a handful of people are fighting in a space the size of a couple of houses.
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If this sounds familiar, it’s probably because you read or watched Battle Royale, a Japanese book and film about a group of students who are stuck on an island and are forced to kill each other until only one person is left. The Hunger Games books and films built on that concept and brought it into the mainstream in the United States. All the games in the last-player-standing genre tinker with the Battle Royale/Hunger Games formula in one way or another.
Beneath that surface, though, these games are about skill and luck. Individual fights or team battles will require you to hone your precision with a mouse, but all the moments between are just as much about chance. You never know if the next house you loot or person you kill will have your favorite weapon or a rare sniper rifle. You don’t know if the way you’re heading into the circle will have 15 people that spot you immediately or no one at all.
That element of chance makes players want to gamble and keep going even when the odds are against them. That also creates a “just one more match” loop that is a difficult to break out of.
Now that we understand the genre, let’s look more closely at the games themselves:
Launched: March 2017 (Early Access)
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is the reigning champ of the last-player-standing space, and that makes sense because it is the first standalone release from the person who helped establish this game mode in the first place, Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene. Along with developer Bluehole, Greene released PUBG (as many call it) earlier this year. PlayerUnknown had worked on the Battlegrounds mod that spun off from the zombie Arma mod DayZ. Greene then went to Daybreak Games where he helped that publisher build its own Battlegrounds mode for H1Z1 called King of the Kill.
After all of that experience, Battlegrounds is the purest expression of the last-player-standing genre yet, and that has attracted a massive audience. I’ve even called it the most important shooter since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare due to its broad appeal.
PUBG is popular, both in general as well as relative to the rest of the games in this comparison, for a few reasons. It has an understandable and straightforward order of operations. You can watch or play a single match, and you’ll instantly pick up the basics. In each match, you’re supposed to drop from the plane, look for gear, find out where the safe zone is, and move to get set up in the safe zone to give yourself the best chance of getting the drop on someone else.
Other games have many of those elements, but PUBG is more streamlined. But this doesn’t mean you can ditch good tactics — you still need to play smart.
The key thing to PUBG is that it frees up players to put all of their thoughts into processing and planning their actions. For example, planes drop care packages filled with powerful weapons and armor. They draw a lot of attention, so you have a ton of options about how to handle them when one falls near you. If you want to take your chances, you can rush after it and hope you get to it before anyone else (or while everyone else is playing conservatively). You could get set up with eyes on the package and then take out anyone who approaches it. In that case, you’d get the airdrop gear and anything the player was carrying. You could also run away from it or use the sound of the plane to cover the noise from your car engine as you drive off to another point deeper in the safe zone.
The point is that these are the decisions that you are always considering in PUBG instead of thinking about crafting and “should I go look for the right stones to build this bow-and-arrow.”
Streamlining is really about limiting what players can do so that they have time to think tactically. Another example is how your inventory works. You can only carry one helmet, which is not the case in something like King of the Kill. This means you can’t just rush into a fight, take a headshot, and then pop on the next helmet in your bag.
The result of those limitations is a plodding, deliberate game where you have to think through your actions. You can play aggressively, but that works best when you do so in short bursts in situations where your opponent might expect you to try to hide in a bathroom.
And that’s why PUBG is the best of the bunch. The other games in this space either bog you down with distractions that take you out of tactical thinking, or they are nonstop action with no time to consider your actions.
PUBG is taut. Thanks to the evershrinking safe zones, matches will never take much longer than 30 minutes. And having that hard limit, along with the ebb and flow of the matches, frees you up to take chances and experiment with each match. That makes each round unique and keeps you coming back.
Why it still sucks
PUBG is still in the Steam Early Access portal for unfinished games. Bluehole is promising to finish it this year, but for now, it is buggy and janky.
It crashes. It sometimes fails to reload your weapon even when it’s empty. And the spectator mode is often useless. It’s also missing basic functionality — a small fence could cause your death because mantling isn’t in PUBG yet.
Even when you can’t stop playing the game, it’s not uncommon to come away cursing it as a broken turd. That said, I’m always ready to come back to see what’s improved after the weekly updates and the big monthly patches.