PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, popularly shortened to "PUBG," was arguably the biggest surprise and success of 2017. As PUBG enters 2018 with 3 million concurrent players, an official 1.0 launch version, and a console release on the Xbox One, all eyes are on whether or not PUBG can maintain its momentum into the new year. With a gaggle of imitators salivating at a shot at dethroning PUBG, 2018 will be the year to see whether or not the game has what it takes to demonstrate true staying power.
There was a brief moment after The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild came out last year that I thought the term "emergent gameplay" (that is, gameplay that appears organically as a result of mechanical interaction rather than design) was going to be the big buzzword of 2017. Then PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds smashed past 2 million concurrent players and suddenly battle royale games were all that anyone could talk about.
Brendan "PlayerUnknown" Greene's meteoric success not only put him on the map, but also the South Korean video game company that hired Greene to bring to life his battle royale vision in the first place. The incredible popularity of PUBG also signaled to video game companies everywhere that battle royale was a genre with an incredible potential for players and streamers.
Epic Games was the first high-profile company to jump on the battle royale bandwagon by releasing Fortnite Battle Royale, a spin-off of its lukewarm survival crafting game, Fortnite. While Bluehole issued a statement expressing hesitation about the game seeing as Epic owns the Unreal engine in which PUBG runs on, the free-to-play Fortnite Battle Royale has also proved to be a massive hit—suggesting that players might not be all too picky about where they get their battle royale fix.
Therein lies the challenges for PUBG in the coming year. Massively successful games like Grand Theft Auto Online have already flirted with the battle royale genre, but 2018 will no doubt be the year that imitators come out in full force. Whether they will do so by undercutting PUBG in price and availability like Fortnite, or tack the mode onto existing properties (also like Fortnite), PUBG will be fending off a deluge of other battle royale games. Some will be no doubt worse, but it's also not hard to imagine a few being better. PUBG, as it is, is still plagued by server issues, cheaters, and a general feeling of incompleteness despite officially launching a 1.0 version.
So while news of server improvements and new maps are enough to keep fans excited and PUBG in the regular news cycle, one wonders if Greene and company can maintain the game's momentum moving forward.
That's probably why PUBG Corp. and Greene are also looking towards esports to give PUBG further staying power. By successfully creating a new esport, PUBG could keep itself relevant by being the exclusive home to the best and most competitive battle royale players, making all other battle royale copies irrelevant. If all the best players only play PUBG for big cash prizes, why bother with the rest?
However, PUBG as an esport is still a dubious prospect. There's an awkwardness and chaotic element to PUBG that makes the game entertaining to watch but hard to see in a professional light. Esports are structured and designed to highlight a player's individual prowess. PUBG's random elements can sometimes overshadow any individual skill a player might have.
That isn't to say that PUBG isn't compelling in its own right or even poorly designed. Greene, for all of his talks about wanting stronger IP protection for a genre influenced by existing fictional media, seems to understand his playerbase and genre in a way that other companies seem to only vaguely understand. As a hardcore military buff, Greene lives and breathes battle royale and similar military shooter games. Any later battle royale game that doesn't have a Greene-like figure to evangelize their battle royale game will come off as a hungry cash-grab.
That's part of the appeal of PUBG as opposed to others in the genre that we have seen so far. PUBG is a hardcore game with byzantine design and complications, but there's a confidence in its core system, a belief in its vision, and a dedication to the craft that cuts through any cynicism one might have for PUBG. Even if Greene didn't invent the battle royale genre, PUBG can claim popularizing it.
As the field becomes more and more crowded with battle royale games from potentially bigger companies, we'll see whether PUBG is the rare achievement that managed to launch a genre with its best game. Or maybe PUBG is just an ur-game that will go down as paving the way for an even better battle royale experience.