For the past month, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has taken Steam by storm. The unusually-titled multiplayer shooter earned a whopping $11 million dollars during its first weekend on Early Access and has already sold over one million copies. It sits comfortably among the most-watched games on Twitch, next to streaming staples Hearthstone, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and League of Legends. The reason for this oddly named game’s sudden, meteoric success is simple: it’s really, really good.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds does what many games like it struggle to do: make large-scale, competitive multiplayer survival gaming exciting and accessible. The premise is straightforward. Up to 100 players parachute out of an airplane onto a huge island, where they must immediately arm themselves with any weapons they can scavenge from its abandoned towns, factories, and military bases. Over the course of each match, the size of the battlefield rapidly shrinks, as does its pool of survivors as players begin taking each other out. This imposes an increasingly player-dense playground for shoot-outs. By the end of each game, the last player standing or the last team standing wins.
Few of the ideas in Battlegrounds are new. A handful of survival games and mods have explored similar concepts: The Culling, Hungercraft, H1Z1: King of the Kill, and of course, the Arma 2 mod DayZ: Battle Royale, developed by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds creator Brendan Greene, aka PlayerUnknown. The core gameplay isn’t new or even innovative, but when condensed down into something more polished than what’s on the market and easily consumable for new players, you do end up with something great.
Forces a steady stream of thrilling encounters with other players.
So much of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ success is owed to its refusal to waste the player’s time. Barring a brief free-for-all period as all 100 participants load in, players are afforded very little room to mess around. Failing to find a weapon in the opening minutes is often a death sentence. A deadly shrinking force field consistently compels players into the center of the play arena. Frequent airstrikes, marked with red on the map, encourage even more player movement. It’s a brisk pace that forces a steady stream of increasingly thrilling encounters with other players without totally sacrificing the moments of terrifying solitude that make games like this great. In a way, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds feels like it’s taken a very specific part of DayZ and condensed it down into its purest form, which makes sense given its origins in DayZ: Battle Royale.
Another online, open-world survival game, the zombie-themed DayZ (both the original mod and standalone) was made popular thanks to its focus on unpredictable and intense emergent experiences. DayZ lacks an ultimate goal, so encounters with other players in its Soviet-inspired setting can end a multitude of ways: mutual fear and awkward fleeing, nerve-racking long-distance stand-offs, extended games of apocalyptic cat-and-mouse… you name it.
It’s DayZ at a faster pace, and with much higher stakes.
But because of its aimless nature, DayZ can also be slow, boring, and empty. A single session is often filled with long, weighty periods of absolutely nothing. As someone who enjoys the tension that can come with this approach — lying prone on a hill overlooking a town for 10 minutes, waiting for any sign of movement, slowly starving to death — I don’t think its pacing is a bad thing. Some of my favorite gaming memories are deeply rooted in the terror created by DayZ’s dreadfully sluggish pace and potentially traitorous social interactions. But it certainly isn’t as accessible to a wide audience in the same way a Battle Royale-style deathmatch is.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds solves that problem by creating just enough space between encounters to avoid diluting their intensity, without letting those periods dominate the experience. You’re always on the go, but you also always have a purpose: setting mini goals, meeting small milestones, and overcoming hurdles that become deadlier and deadlier in nature. It’s DayZ at a faster pace, and with much higher stakes. It forces you to be more observant. You learn how to check for traces of other players at a mere glance: open doors; a weapon on the floor, but no ammo; a fallen player’s loot crate. Or something more obvious: movement in a window or the sound of a distant vehicle.
Already feels like a fully-realized game.
There are also so many little things that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds does that make it a smooth experience, even in Early Access. You can move while checking your map and inventory. Looting items off the floor is as easy as right-clicking or a quick click-and-drag. It retains the clunky feel of a military sim, but does away with useless functions that would clutter up the experience. It feels balanced and relatively bug-free. It also takes mere minutes to get back into a game. Getting eliminated from a match sometimes happens faster than you can even realize, but it’s never a chore to get back in. The survival genre has become synonymous with Early Access and all the rough edges that come with it, but at launch Battlegrounds already feels like a fully-realized game.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds could certainly be more polished, but as it stands, there’s no wonder this intense online survival shooter has taken off so quickly. In a genre dominated by buggy, rigid sims or explosive shoot ‘em ups, the thrill of simply outliving 99 other players on one life alone is hard to pass up.
Chloi Rad is an Associate Editor for IGN. Follow her on Twitter at @_chloi.