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PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds: Failure as Fun

Why I Love: Fullbright co-founder Steve Gaynor shares what he sees in Bluehole's smash hit survival shooter

Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This installment was contributed by Steve Gaynor, co-founder of The Fullbright Company, the studio behind Gone Home and Tacoma.

I am driving in a buggy and I intend to flip it. My friend is on the back, perched in the baby seat, and I am telling them that this buggy is going to flip. I hit the lip of the ditch while boosting full speed, I turn sharply as we hit the edge, and we are spinning, upside down, flying through the air. Maybe we roll and come back up on wheels, keep driving, into the zone; maybe we touch down with wheels in the air, buggy on its back like a stranded tortoise, we ditch the screwed vehicle and now our challenge is to make it to the zone on foot. Or maybe someone was scoping in on us from a nearby tower, sees us ruin our ride for no reason, and snipes us both as we scramble for cover. Who cares? We are laughing and shouting, this is PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, and whatever the outcome, we had a good time.

Cover image for YouTube video

If you know of PUBG, you probably know: it is an outgrowth of a multiplayer shooter mod based on the rules of the movie Battle Royale; each round is 100 players parachuting onto an island and fighting it out until only one survives; and it is a massive hit on Steam, having gained over 8 million players in the months since it entered Early Access, much of that momentum due to its highly shareable, streamable nature. It is janky, it is fiddly, and it is a great game.

On its face, PUBG's design is extremely inaccessible. Encounters are highly lethal, meaning that especially early in their careers, players can experience matches as long droughts of quietude ending with sudden, inexplicable death. The player's inputs are highly granular and not immediately clear: multiple movement postures exist between proning, crouching, sprinting, crouch-sprinting, slow walking, leaning, aiming from the hip vs. tightened aiming from the hip vs. aim down sights (along with holding your breath while aiming down sights) and all of these in either first- or third-person; multiple ammo types, multiple healing types with different durations and effects, various attachments that only snap to certain kinds of guns; armor with durability, vehicles that require gas tank management to keep running, hotkeys for switching seats in a car or the firing mode on a rifle...

The list goes on, and none of it is tutorialized during play. But don't worry, your friends will tell you how it works, or you can watch one of hundreds of YouTube videos on the subject, so that's covered. Oh, right, and because the premise of the game is "100 people parachute onto the island and only one survives," you are effectively guaranteed to lose, practically every round. In fact, after dozens of hours of play, I've still never won.

"Winning is the exception, and losing can be fun, and anything in between is an adventure"

But that last point, I think, is at the heart of PUBG's success as a design. I'm not much of a competitive gamer. I don't generally get excited about match-based play, or wining a round of a fast-paced shooter or complex MOBA. For me, I tend to appreciate the mechanics or the design of these games in the abstract, but the drive to be at the top of the leaderboard for a round of CS:GO or Call of Duty or to climb to A Rank in Street Fighter competitive matches just isn't there. I'm not the worst at these games, but I'm never going to approach the pro brackets either, or even maintain a respectable K/D ratio. But the central idea behind PUBG is that you ARE going to lose. Almost no one is going to win in a 100-person match-there's 99 losers, and only one winner.

And that's OK. In fact, that's better than OK-- it's the whole idea. If you play a round and you get a couple of kills along the way and then make it to the top 10 left alive, that's pretty awesome. Or if you're the first person to die because somebody got a Jeep early and ramped it over a hill and landed on top of you while you were trying to run to find your first gun, that's a hilarious story to take with you, and you can roll up a new round quickly and give it another go. And if you DO manage to get that sweet, sweet Chicken Dinner, well, that's freaking amazing, that's a rush, and nice work, maybe you'll get it again sometime-but winning is the exception, and losing can be fun, and anything in between is an adventure, which sets PUBG apart entirely--and in a meaningful way--from almost any other competitive multiplayer game I've encountered.

It's a design that's deeply rooted in a complex set of internally consistent rules that lead to the kinds of emergent moments we love to share, in a high-stakes context where death can come quickly if you're not careful, lending weight to your decisions and encouraging thoughtfulness and recklessness in equal measure. And, almost always, it's a game about failing, and about that promise of failure giving you permission to just have a good time. If you don't win this round, there's always the next one, and there are stories to be told. So get in that buggy, hit that ramp, and fly.

(Editor's note: The author wishes it to be known that since the original writing of this piece, he has in fact won a round and partaken of the victor's customary chicken dinner.)

Upcoming Why I Love columns:

  • Tuesday, September 12 - System Shock 3's Warren Spector on Suikoden
  • Tuesday, September 26 - Overcooked's Phil Duncan on Storage Inc.
  • Tuesday, October 10 - Dizzy creators The Oliver Twins on the BBC Micro
  • Tuesday, October 24 - Yooka-Laylee's Gavin Price on Super Mario Kart

Developers interested in contributing their own Why I Love column are encouraged to reach out to us at news@gamesindustry.biz.