A typical round of H1Z1 is one familiar to any game in the battle royale genre: you drop onto a large plain of land, you loot some shit, you shoot some strangers, and then you grab a vehicle of sorts and hightail it out of there. There's a circle closing in—for H1Z1 it's a puke green fog—and it's best to get to the center of wherever's in the clear as soon as possible. H1Z1 was one of the first games to popularize the genre, long before the likes of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) and Fortnite Battle Royale were on the scene. And H1Z1's latest development will make it the most accessible it's ever been.
After going free-to-play in March just after leaving Steam Early Access, H1Z1 will be launching on PlayStation 4 later this month. It's not a straight port for the console though; with it comes a variety of huge changes for the game. In some ways, the PS4 iteration is hardly recognizable at all.
The team at Daybreak Games asked themselves a simple question when work got started on the PS4 port of H1Z1: how do you make H1Z1 feel as good as possible for console? The answer, unlike other console ports of battle royale titles, came in simplifying the game down to its bare essentials and scrapping some of its systems entirely.
"[With] inventory management we were just like, it just doesn't feel good to muck your way through this on a controller [where] you're clicking 100 times to do something," Lead Systems and Combat Designer Tony Morton tells me as I play through test matches of the PS4 version of the game. "So it was like, how do we do the most we can with the least amount of clicks. There were some things like inventory and crafting and salvaging where we just needed to pull it, because it's not adding anything to the game in terms of how it feels to go through all those steps on a controller."
Inventory management for the genre is almost always clunkier on consoles, because there's no input equivalent to hitting 'tab' and dragging a mouse across the screen. In Fortnite Battle Royale, switching to building is easy with the tap of the button, but then players have to scroll through their building options. On PC, mapping building to miscellaneous keys or buttons on the mouse makes the management easy with literally just a click, rather than two or even three clicks as on a controller. For PUBG's Xbox One edition, pulling up inventory suffers from the same problem: it's a nuisance on a controller. Daybreak were aware of these issues, and tackled the best possible solution: getting rid of these sorts of problems entirely.
The simplified system works well. All around the map, different tiers of air drops fall down with different ranges of items to make up for the time players might spend crafting makeshift tools to get them out of a pinch. In an especially rare yellow-hued air drop, one might find the light machine gun, the MK 46—a new entry for the game overall. Elsewhere, players might uncover the new Marauder weapon, or the KH43, or the Scout rifle with a 3X scope, or the semi-auto Combat Shotgun, or the CNQ-09, a silenced SMG. The new console-specific weapons are integral to making H1Z1 on PS4 not only feel fresh, but to add more variables to matches too.
"H1Z1 on PC revolves around the AR15 and the AK 47. Those are kind of your two workhorses of the mode but we couldn't do multi-level airdrops with just the two guns," says Morton. "So we got to go back to the drawing board, create a couple new weapons, allow them to have different characteristics enough to make people want to chase, and that pushes the conflict throughout the match."
The matches I'm playing are at a far smaller scale than the typical 150-player range of H1Z1. It's 16 people in these rounds, with the circle already enclosed on a certain area for the demo. Somehow, I emerged victorious in most of my matches—at least according to Morton, which went to my head a little bit. I even got a little bit cocky and used a very slow to reload crossbow with an explosive arrow to cap off a match. I won that round too.
Aside from the occasional expected demo-build glitch, the matches went smoothly. The default controller layout is more intuitive than the average PC-centric game port. Driving wasn't a chore as it is in basically every PC game (thanks analog sticks). Shooting felt more akin to any other third-person shooter than the pointed precision of what you'd find on any PC game, even with H1Z1. On PS4 Pro, the game will run at a steady 60 frames-per-second. When you gun someone down, their belongings spread out in a perfect circle with plenty of space between each item, for ease of sifting through and picking up only the essentials. The game's also been tweaked on a mechanical level with that element too, hosting faster bullets and lower bullet drop.
With the ease of everything, I obviously never found myself spending five minutes hiding in a closet while sifting through my inventory. In H1Z1 on PS4, you have four slots for guns (as backpacks unlock more space), the D-Pad for med kits and bandages, a bumper button for grenades, and that's basically it. It's streamlined in a way other battle royale ports on consoles frankly aren't. H1Z1 effectively solved the problem other console battle royale games haven't really considered: making the game tangibly familiar for console players.
To get the console shooter "feeling" right, the team looked to games like Call of Duty and Battlefield for research. Call of Duty, Morton tells me, was observed for match lengths, while Battlefield was the subject of research for player expectations of weapon mechanics. "Typically on console the length of multiplayer matches is quite a bit shorter than what's on PC," says Morton. "Even if you take a look at other games, like Battlefield's a decent example where the matches in Battlefield on console are a bit shorter, but if you go play Battlefield on PC sometimes those matches go on for 45 minutes to an hour. It's, you know, night and day difference. And so looking at things like that were just good examples and inspirations for us to base a lot of our findings off of, and then use that data to make some decisions."
As for the future of the port, Morton notes that while there currently aren't any firm plans to bring over limited time events to H1Z1 on PS4, that it's not out of the question. Even on PC with the newer Auto Royale mode, an ongoing beta wherein players stuck within vehicles race around the map and collect loot while leaning out of cars to shoot at other teams, there's potential for it to venture to consoles too. Though, it'd have to see some big changes too.
"Again, one of the things with Auto Royale is a lot of it is inventory management," says Morton. He's right. In Auto Royale matches, players roll through the familiar map with players racing over loot and scrambling to drag certain items from their findings into their personal inventories. As per the "auto" in the name, they're trapped within their cars, peering out of windows only to fire upon other players and crates with loot. "So for us to go into the endeavor to streamline that stuff as well, it just takes a lot of time. But it's definitely something that we'd like to see, especially because vehicles on a controller, they're enjoyable. Because on a keyboard it's WASD, you're 100 percent turning or not, where with the controller you have a little bit more control."
As for bringing a bit more of the console flavor to PC, like the new weapons, Daybreak doesn't believe that's impossible to bring over either. And that's the central key to managing an ongoing game, Daybreak has learned over time—listening to the community's wishes, forever and always. It's in the company's DNA, from its history with MMOs and other games-as-a-service types. Even in the face of recent unfortunate layoffs suffered at Daybreak in the effort of "realigning [its] workforce to better position [its] company for the future" (according to a statement provided), H1Z1's had a busy year. The game has shifted from Early Access to 1.0, from paid to free-to-play (a "decently easy" transition thanks to cosmetics, I'm told), and it's all led to where it's barrelling towards now: venturing beyond PC, to a new audience with a lighter attention span. Attention spans with no patience for inventories and crafting in the midst of a hundred-plus player battle royale.
H1Z1 hits open beta on May 22 on PS4. In the meantime, the game is free-to-play on Steam for PC.