The tactics and tension of Playerunknown's Battlegrounds
Twenty minute stand-offs, vehicular carnage, and acts of extreme bravery and (more often) cowardice. Playerunknown's Battlegrounds [official site] has been one of the most-played games on Steam since its Early Access launch, and RPS are no strangers to its violent delights. Adam and Graham have been playing together for weeks now, and they sat down to discuss tactics, tales and what they want from the game as development continues.
Graham: Here is a thought I keep having: I love Playerunknown's Battlegrounds, but it's not a very nuanced game, is it? I've become so used to multiplayer games that are elaborate mechanical houses of cards (I'm bad at analogies today), with classes and multiple modes and interacting character abilities and the sense that everything is so very carefully balanced alongside everything else.
By comparison, Battlegrounds is a spartan throwback to an earlier era. Big map, lots of players, there are some guns about, have at it. I think it's re-calibrated my critical brain somewhat, because suddenly those other elaborate games appear needlessly ornate.
Adam: I barely play any multiplayer games, especially not first-person shooters, so maybe I’m coming at this from a very different angle. It’s all about people, which seems like an obvious thing to say, but it’s important. If I play a competitive shooter, the person at the other end of every gun becomes this abstract thing - they are their skill level, or threat level. In Battlegrounds, people are these nervous, or frighteningly confident, little bundles of potential anxiety or glory.
I think the spartan design allows for that. It has just enough stuff, in the form of the map, the items, the weapons and the vehicles, to allow for all these exciting encounters, but nothing is too complex to distract from the basic mechanical flourish, which is the shrinking safe area and the need to think about relocating all the time. It’s a constant pressure in the back of my mind when I’m playing - how am I going to get from here to there, without getting killed.
Does it make sense to you that I think of it as being very much like the parts of DayZ I enjoyed, but compressed in terms of both TIME AND SPACE?
Graham: Definitely! It does a great job at taking certain parts of the DayZ experience and making it repeatable and predictable. That's really what I was getting at when I wrote that Plunkbat was easy in certain ways a couple weeks ago; it lets you control aspects of your own experience in ways that other games don't. And I loved DayZ, and I loved it in part for the boredom it inspired, but it's nice to have a game doing something similar where I know it'll be over in 30 minutes and I know that I won't walk around for six hours while absolutely nothing happens. The only thing I miss from DayZ is the outright ambiguity of whether another player is friendly or is going to shoot you on sight - though to be honest, given how the community has changed, I've come to miss that experience in DayZ, too.
The shrinking circles are another example of Battlegrounds' relative simplicity, though. The bombing areas? Randomly selected. The shrinking circle? Randomly selected. If this were a Blizzard or a Valve game, their positions would be controlled by some unseen AI director selecting geographic locations based on population density and the 'drama quotient' of each player and on and on. I don't know if this should really matter when the outcome isn't affected, but it makes me like Plunkbat more.
Adam: I’m not sure if it’s the random nature of those things or just the thousands of permutations that having so many players in one place causes, but I love how Plunkbat forces me to improvise.
We’ve played together quite a bit and we tend to play a certain way: mostly non-confrontational, big fans of getting some wheels so we can dart around the map. When I play solo, I’m much more inclined to find a good hiding place and ambush people as they pass. That involves reading the map - trying to find a place that’s easy to secure but also likely to become a thoroughfare as people head to the next safe area - and it involves a bit of patience.
I’m going to tell the story of my favourite match though, because I think it shows how weird the apparently simple design can become, and how it can create odd situations out of the basic social framework of wanting to survive on a map full of people who want to kill you. I think that’s where the nuance creeps in.
Each round begins with players choosing when to jump out of the plane that’s passing over the island - again, there’s a random element, this time with the plane’s trajectory and starting point. Clusters of people tend to jump near buildings that have a stronger chance of containing good weapons and armour, but other people avoid those areas precisely because of the density of drops there. Bait draws people in and people are dangerous.
I’m a coward so I avoid those areas. In this one match, I aimed for a couple of farm buildings, out on their own at the edge of a huge field. And, horror of horrors, as I came in to land, I saw somebody else right below me. This person was either going to kill me or be killed by me. He hit the floor and ran into one of the buildings, so I ran into the other, found a pistol and then moved upstairs for security.
I wasn’t even half-way up the stairs before a shotgun blast crunched into the wall next to me, taking a chunk of my health bar out. I swivelled and returned fire, but backed up the stairs and ended up in a little attic room. There was a door between the stairs and the room, so I closed that and I waited. Watched the door, gun pointed at it and waited. And then I checked the map and we were right in the middle of the safe zone.
The entire match went by with me staring at that door and hearing occasional footsteps outside the door. We were both too scared to be the one who opened the door and as the safe zone shrank, we stayed pretty much in the middle of it, in this weird stand-off.
And that was it. We were among the last five people alive when suddenly there were shots outside the door and then it burst open and I was shot a million times. And my nemesis was already dead. Someone else had just come into the building and wiped us out.
How is that an enjoyable half hour? NOTHING HAPPENED. But it was absolutely amazing and unlike any other bat I’ve ever plunked.
Graham: That does sound absolutely amazing. And you're right, there is nuance in the experience if not the design.
I too am a coward and I play the same solo as we do in duo. I dive late and avoid other players at any cost. I use vehicles whenever possible, because although they're loud and draw attention, they also make for a fast getaway and you're hard to kill while inside one. Even using the same strategy each time I play though, I have a different experience each time.
Partly that is the design of the map. It's set in that same rusting eastern European nonplace that now acts as a flare for survival games, signalling the kind of game for anyone looking at screenshots. But the experience you have is radically different whether you spend time near its rivers, or atop its hills and mountains, or hiding behind the trees of its dense forests, or in the abandoned buildings of its cities and towns and farms. It's huge, too, but I've played it enough now to know my way around it, and different areas of a distinct feel and different affordances in terms of tactics.
My favourite part is the steep hill on the south side of the eastern bridge which connects the island with the military base to the mainland. It's steep enough that it's a real struggle to drive up, even, and there are buildings up there to scavenge that normally have some decent equipment. Get up there with an assault rifle and a decent scope and you can sometimes wait out an entire game, watching people fighting below you over the chokepoint of the bridge, or you can fire down on the people far below from relative safety.
You'll likely have to move before the end of the round - I've never seen a circle close down upon that area for the final moments - but I love that feeling of being unseen among other players. It captures a little, even, of the feeling you get when you 'invade' other people's singleplayer games in Watch Dogs or (I assume) Dark Souls.
Adam: That ties into one of my least favourite things and maybe this is down to bad luck, but I rarely see anyone before I’m either shooting them or they’re shooting me. The gunshot is usually my cue to look for the person shooting at me, or I spot them and either hide quickly or close in for the kill. I’m horrendously unlucky when it comes to finding scopes, so that’s definitely part of it, but even though I love how tight and compressed everything feels, I wish there were a little more space to breathe, and to observe and track people.
The closest I had to a non-violent encounter was in Solo again. The safe zone was across the bridge, on the other island to the south, and I had a buggy. I drove to the bridge and saw a car just ahead and the driver clearly had the same idea I had - get across quickly before all hell breaks loose.
And then that bastard car rammed me into the side of the bridge and before I could get moving again, someone ran out from behind some ruined vehicles nearby and shot me dead. The car was off in the distance, probably not even aware he’d been an accessory to murder.
I wish I had more stories like that, where an encounter hasn’t been BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG and then relief or death.
Graham: I agree. I often see players without them seeing me, but I'm often killed by someone I never had the chance to see. Even if I survive the initial barrage of gunfire, there's no indicator on the UI to work out from which side I was hit. I understand why that is - hidey-holes are precious, and perhaps they shouldn't be lost the second you fire your weapon - but it can be frustrating. It definitely feels like the game is balanced around 2/3/4-player, where being shot leaves you injured and prone but a teammate can resuscitate you.
We've both talked about being cowards, but I'm always surprised by how gung-ho everyone else seems to be. Maybe it's confirmation bias - logically I never see the people who are cowards like me, because they just watch me go by and hide - but a lot of players just run straight towards me upon first sight. I'd be tempted to try to reduce that frequency somehow, to compel players to be more cautious rather than rushing in safe in the knowledge that even if they die they can queue and get back in another game within seconds.
But no. Probably I wouldn't change anything. I think I love Plunkbat more than any multiplayer shooter I've played in years. You say you don't play many; do you feel similarly to me about Plunkbat or is this just a casual fling for you?
Adam: Oh no, I’m ready to move in with Plunkbat. We’re already picking out a rug for the front room.
It’s the perfect mix of a strong fundamental design backed up by solid, speedy match-making and just enough weird human interaction to keep me coming back every day. The one thing I would definitely change is the red zone though. It’s a random area where explosions happen, presumably forcing people to get a move on or avoid it as they travel. I’d like to see more done with that, because at the moment it feels like a tiny extension of what the Safe Zone concept is already doing. And I find it quite dull aesthetically.
My idea was to smash a bit of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. into proceedings, because that’s a good idea most of the time. Instead of an explosive red zone, a smattering of different anomalies that affect the environment in different ways. Some of them could even be beneficial perhaps, so there’s risk/reward involved rather than just STAY OUT OF THIS BAD PLACE.
More wrinkles in the design, basically. Like the cargo planes that drop supplies. That’s fun. You can ignore them completely, but they’re like stones thrown into the pond, sending out ripples and making all the things hiding in the deep pop their heads up for a second wondering how to react.
It’s my favourite multiplayer game in years though. I wasn’t sure I’d get the appeal when everyone suddenly seemed to be playing it, but I’m really excited to see what happens next. And to play it as soon as we finish up here.
Graham: Let's say we're done now and go play.
They did not win.