A few weeks ago, Shroud – a competitive Counter-Striker-turned-electrifying Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds streamer – found himself, as you so often do, between the blue and a hard place. With the deadly boundary of the Battle Royale game’s infamous shockfield crawling closer to him, and only 20 players to go, he darted from cover to cover, looking for a respite from its ever-tightening grasp. Soon, he found it: one of the island’s cavernous warehouses near the Mylta power plant, though probably bereft of its vital loot, enjoyed the advantage of position dead in the center of the fresh circle.
“I’m gonna see how it works out,” he said. “There could already be someone here.” As the words escaped his lips, he turned the corner, and found another gunner lying face-down, primed for an ambush. A clatter of suppressed fire rang out, like marbles rattling in a jar – the telltale love cry of PUBG’s take on the familiar UMP sub-machine gun, a favourite of the camper class – and just like that, the pro was flat on his back, dead as a spent shell. Better luck next time.
As you might expect, in that moment Shroud seemed equal parts disappointed and amused. “Well, shouldn’t have gone in,” he said, laughing. It’s the easy refrain of someone who has already played half-a-dozen games that day, and will play quite a few more. His chat was less forgiving. “That guy is playing the game to its fullest potential,” said one. “Prone and everything.” “Stupid NA players,” another chimed in. Maybe they were just a bit peeved that their action-hero star fell so ignominiously before the climax – after all, some of Shroud’s highlights wouldn’t be out of place in the combined oeuvre of the Two Johns, Wick and McClane – but, if the word of the community is anything to go by, it’s clear that there’s something here besides a simple tactical mistake.
As the most evident example of the yet-nascent Battle Royale style, PUBG – willingly or unwillingly – has assumed the mantle of the genre itself, and along with it the familiar, chaotic struggle to give exact definition to its formless mass of mechanics. Even considering its Early Access tag, the PUBG subreddit hosts a considerable amount of debate for a game of its visibility, with hordes of backseat developers delivering new ideas by the truckload, from distinct ammo types to localised loot-spawn. But a clear contradiction runs through the heart of all these discussions – while persistently trawling for a scrap is a great way to gain those all-important Twitch followers, in a shooter where you triumph by outlasting all-comers, it’s not at all clear that seek-and-destroy is always a dominant strategy.
This strife typically flares up the most when well-meaning veterans, animated by the same magnanimity as the FAQ-writers of old, write up tip-sheets for wet-eared newbies under the label of a “guide” or “PSA”. Since these self-described experts typically give advice that favours their individual playstyle, the comment threads beneath the text itself typically devolve into the usual caustic back-and-forth that marks so many online conversations, with valid points scored by both sides – depending on your perspective, of course. Perhaps the best example is the thread that inspired this article, where a guide-writer tells would-be guide readers to ignore all apparent guides…only to deliver one himself in the following lines. “Learn how to fight,” they say. “If you never fight early on or never play aggressive, you will rely solely on RNG circle luck to win you games.” (The irony did not escape the top commenter: “Real PSA for new players. Don’t listen to PSAs.”)
Is there a “right” or “wrong” way to play PUBG? When questioned about this core debate, redditors offered a constellation of opinions, many of them cordial. “The best guide is learning from your mistakes,” says “_Diablo_Pablo.” “Actual practice will teach you more than reading a guide.” For “I3igTimer,” the divide is a fundamental part of PUBG’s unique appeal. “The beauty of PUBG (and the thing I think makes it so popular) is that there is no ‘right’ way to play,” they say. “From the most competitive gamer to the most casual, there is room for everyone. The more mechanically-skilled players tend to be aggressive. Others play passive. In many other shooters, there’s a ‘best’ way to play, because kills are the most important. In PUBG, your life is the only thing that matters.” Again and again, no matter the speaker’s position, the same creed echoes: play the way you want to play.
Of course, not everyone is so benevolent. In particular, hyper-combative streamers like MrGrimmmz, Shroud and Summit have been known to express their frustration with the so-called “bathroom campers,” decrying their existence as a tangible failure of design. In a widely-circulated clip from a few months ago, Summit blames the behaviour of the blue boundary itself for promoting passive play. “The whole point of the circle is to make fights happen, at the same time, the circle stops fights from happening, because if you stop, the circle kills you,” he says. “…There’s more RNG right now in this game than tactical skill.”
Though I’m hardly a maestro of the M16, Summit’s description certainly squares with my dozens of hours with PUBG. It’s especially apparent when I’m running around with my motley crew of half-wits in the game’s four-player Squad mode – too often, we find ourselves engaged in a pulse-pounding firefight with an enemy squad, only to be overtaken by the passionless crawl of the fatal line, reducing us to shrivelled corpses in seconds. In such scenarios, the only sane course of action is to charge forth towards the safe zone, blindly and swiftly – but you must expose yourself to your enemy’s line of fire to get there. To put it succinctly, choosing between slow-but-certain attrition or a quick barrage of lead from your equally-moribund foes isn’t exactly a compelling choice.
Grimmmz largely agrees. “I’m not a fan of somebody sitting in a house for 10 minutes not doing anything, but I accept it. It’s a legitimate strategy, but it’s too powerful. It doesn’t matter if you have a thousand hours of game time, you can easily fall victim to somebody with 10 hours sitting behind a tree, or in a bathroom.” From his perspective, it’s up to developer Bluehole to properly balance this core aspect of the experience. Until then, however, everyone ought to take things with a little more levity. “You shouldn’t have people telling campers to kill themselves. That’s obvious, right?”
There’s little doubt that some fiddling on Bluehole’s part would help blunt some of the edge off these conversations that continue to ripple through the community. Dynamic loot locations might coax the campers off the cold, cozy tile of the bathroom floor, and a more measured pace for the death-circle might prevent the sort of doomed gunfights that so rile the community.
Still, as fans of the game often say, much of the thrill of PUBG comes down to the throw of the dice, the lay of the loot – the wrath or grace of the Random Number Goddess. For better or worse, that’s the simple math behind the magic of PUBG. And if it gets the people going – fills the seats in the big house, night after night – changing up the program might not be such a great idea. When you have a problem, you have something to talk about, to ponder, to bide away the endless hours. And when you finally solve it, what do you have left? I’m not entirely sure, but I can take a guess: a hell of a lot of “chicken dinner” jokes, and not much else.