Somewhere across Erangel’s 64 square kilometres of towns, villages, hills, rivers and sea, 100 players are running, looting, driving and shooting each other. With every one of them having an average of well over half a square kilometre to themselves, it might sound like playing PUBG is a lonely experience, but in practice it’s anything but. The opening minutes are always intense, demanding strategy and planning. It’s all down to a clever piece of design that relates to how you’re being delivered to this Battle Royale:
THE MECHANIC: Cargo plane
Every match of PUBG begins with every player sitting on a C-130 aircraft flying across the island on a random bearing. 40 or so minutes in the future all but one of them will be dead, but the ride is a few moments of strange camaraderie, of garbled voice comms and flames projecting out of the plane’s fuselage, caused by players who’ve set themselves on fire in the lobby.
Soon they start jumping out. Spin the view so it’s looking backwards and you’ll see clouds of bodies flying from the rear until they’re lost to distance. It looks simultaneously fantastically ridiculous and intimidating: what can your chances of coming first possibly be amongst so many others?
When you pick your moment to leave, you’ll immediately find yourself in freefall. You can aim for landmarks by steering around, dive to gain speed, pop your chute early, or leave it to automatically open at a lower altitude. Either way, it’ll take at least a minute between you jumping out and finally reaching the ground, when it’s time to run for a building and hope there’s something good to equip inside, something that’ll prepare you for the coming battles.
There’s a lot that makes PUBG special to play, but it’s the design of this opening sequence that sets everything working so consistently well. Consider the random course the plane takes. It might cross the island from west to east, or from north to south. Or it might turn the whole thing over, crossing from south-east to north-west, twisting your mental map around. The hothead players who tend to jump out immediately, looking for fights, get their deathmatches somewhere new every match. For the rest of us, the map’s geography is gently remixed. Everything is always right in its usual place, but somehow in a slightly different order. For everyone, the plane’s route makes the island feel just a little fresh each time.
Now consider the freefall sequence. It doesn’t let you glide for miles, but gives you a good deal of choice over where to start searching for the weapons and equipment that’ll give you a fighting chance. As you play, you’ll start to recognise buildings and learn tactics for hiding and fighting in them, making the ground below a patchwork of safety and danger.
Not that the island’s buildings were specifically designed for how they appear in the air. The aim was instead for semi-realism within play-friendly bounds such as ensuring you never have to run for more than 300 or 400 metres between shelter. “As long as it’s realistic on the ground, from above it’s going to look OK,” Playerunknown, otherwise known as Brendan Greene, tells me.
What also guides your choice over where you land is getting to see other players as you fall. They’re particularly visible at low altitude when everyone is parachuting, often causing last-minute changes in destination as you avoid having to encounter others, or take chances on getting the jump on someone who hasn’t realised they have company.
A lot of these features were in the Battle Royale mods and games Greene made before PUBG. But they weren’t in the original DayZ Battle Royale, which started with each player spawning around a central loot cache, setting up an immediate rush for gear before everyone disperses. They instead evolved from his Arma 3 Battle Royale, which originally launched with each player spawning randomly in the air across the map and parachuting down.
“It was to create an air game,” says Greene, who sees the battle royale genre as a series of discrete minigames within a larger one - the looting game, the deathmatch, and the spawning game. “You get to choose when to pull your chute, if you want to glide for ages or to dive. There’s that kind of decision-making process in the air that you can learn to become better at the game.”
Later, once he’d figured out how to script it, he added a cargo plane which would drop players at random points during its flight. It was about adding a little realism: an explanation for how players arrive on the map and avoiding them being arbitrarily distributed across it, as well as a chance to add a little panache. “I always wanted the start of the game to feel like a cinematic experience,” he says. The Arma 3 mod therefore brings in widescreen cinema bars, a grain effect and titles. “It was to get you hyped for the game.”
In Arma 3 BR players don’t get to choose when they jump out, but the parachute lets them glide a lot further than it does in PUBG. “You can stay in the air for almost 20 minutes if you want,” Greene says. As a result, Arma 3 BR’s air game has more flexibility and choice than PUBG, with players scattering widely.
Greene likes the effect this has on the pacing of the game. “When I played DayZ I liked going into empty servers,” he says. “Especially when you’re losing, you don’t want to bump into people, you want to get good gear and then bump into people. It’s a bit cheeky but that’s how I want to play the game, and it’s the same with Battle Royale. If you want to you shouldn’t have to encounter action in that first ten minutes, and that slower starting game allows people to loot. I like that pacing. It’s about winning, so the fighting should happening towards the end. With that slower looting phase you see a lot more action mid- and late-game as you get smaller circles, 20 or 30 people left, which is an insane experience because you’re hearing gunfights all around you.”
He’s a little unclear with me why parachuting distance is reduced in PUBG, though he says a lot of work has gone into balancing it, work that’s still ongoing. “The parachute system is still a work in progress,” he says. “We still haven’t figured out or finalised the way people land and stuff like that, but originally we were sitting down and figuring out how fast it would take the slowest player and fastest player to reach the ground.” But I suspect PUBG’s natural focusing of players makes matches a little more intense and appealing for the genre’s vastly growing audience - a creative choice that’s clearly working - while also allowing more experienced players to still be able to get far away.
What surprises me, however, is that the course the plane takes at the start of the match doesn’t relate in any way to the game’s other systems, such as the distribution of loot or where the circle will focus on. “No, they’re completely separate systems!” Greene says, laughing. “The red zone isn’t affected by where players are, the blue zone doesn’t finish when there are less players. I hear many conspiracy theories about stuff in the game and most of them are not true! It’s crazy what people think.”
Yet, in play, everything relates to that initial jump and fall. You’re always thinking about where you’ll be starting in relation to the circle, and how to find houses that no one has looted yet. That they’re not mechanically linked is an example of how elegantly PUBG’s systems work, naturalistically managing pacing and intensity while giving players choice over how they’ll manage their scramble for survival against all odds.