It was striking because, while it's sold some 20 million copies and arguably created a whole new genre, it's also still technically in Early Access. It lacks key features like climbing and vaulting; it's notably buggy, and it currently only has one map. Its unfinished state was obvious during the PUBG Invitational earlier this year, which saw one player killed by a bug.
So what gives? How can a game that's not even in full release get a Game of the Year nomination?
This question has kicked off a fierce debate on Twitter, Reddit, and even USgamer's own Slack channel. Caty is very much behind PUBG getting a GOTY nomination, arguing that once a game can be purchased by the public, it's fair game. I believe the opposite: If a game isn't at the point where a reputable site will review it, then it shouldn't get a GOTY nomination. Full stop.
I actually explored the question earlier this year in one of our Starting Screen columns. While I acknowledged that it's very much part of the zeitgeist in 2017, I also wrote:
But I'm still hesitant to come right out and say it should be in the running for Game of the Year (and not just because I still think Breath of the Wild is still tops for 2017). Things can change a lot in Early Access. Sure, it's massive now, but there's every chance that something will go wrong. Maybe everyone will hate the new maps. Maybe someone will figure out how to break the game. Maybe it will prove to be a fad and we'll all look back and go, "Remember when we thought PUBG was Game of the Year? What a joke." Heck, maybe PlayerUnknown himself will just say, "I've decided to abandon development of Battlegrounds. Sorry." It wouldn't be the first time.
A lot of you agreed with me. One of you asked, "Can an unfinished game, with only a single map and barely any other content to speak of, which nevertheless has Gamble Box microtransactions... and which is, in the end, little more than a reskin of games that have already been made (Ark: Survival Evolved and, to a lesser extent, DayZ), still win Game of the Year? Sure. Why not. Let's encourage this model even further. Let's go all-in, full-steam-ahead towards Peak Cynical Avarice."
Another one of you wrote, "I think it merits end of year discussion when we reflect on what 2017 gave us, but it isn't in its final form. Sure, things are more fluid now for a lot of games, but I still want to hear that a game is done. Fluidity is fine, but when last year two multiplayer games vied for the top spot most places: Overwatch and Rocket League, and they were done. Yeah they've been updated, there's more content, characters, modes, etc. But I like a sense of finality to at least the core experience you're paying for."
Most of the counterarguments hit one of the following points:
- Games are always evolving, so the distinction between Early Access and full release is now meaningless.
- PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is one of the biggest games of the year and it's stupid to ignore it in the GOTY converseation.
- If you can buy it, then it should be eligible for Game of the Year.
The only difference between PUBG and many other games released this year is that the developers openly admit that the game is not finished.— Fandel Mulkey (@funnydale) November 14, 2017
I'll certainly agree that our understanding of the traditional review has changed. One of the most frustrating things I face on an annual basis is the fact that sports games are constantly evolving, making launch reviews outdated very quickly. The best I can do is continue to cover updates and the community throughout the year, periodically updating readers on the state of the game.
That said, I do still think there's a line between Early Access and full release. And I do think that we should keep it in mind when we decide which games to laud with end-of-the-year honors.
The Troubled History of Early Access
One reason for this is that Early Access has had a rather fraught history to this point. I went in-depth on the state of Early Access back in 2015, when its reputation was arguably at its absolute nadir. At that time, we were only a year removed from the release of Earth: Year 2066—an "Early Access" release that was so buggy as to be virtually unplayable—and the sudden cancellation of Spacebase DF-9, which made big promises but ultimately went unfinished.
In that article, I laid out five rules for during Early Access right. One of those rules was that developers should always have a clear roadmap to completion.
As obvious as this seems, having a clear plan has tripped up certain games and left fans feeling used. Even relatively successful games like Starbound and DayZ have taken their share of heat for staying in Early Access for what many people feel has been an excessively long time. That's the bargain that is struck when entering Early Access. As Jan Wagner told me on Axe of the Blood God, having 6000 backers also means having 6000 publishers, and they don't like to be kept waiting."
"More broadly, players like know that there's a clear way forward for the project. When the development team goes quiet, or content updates become less frequent, alarm bells tend to be triggered. Ultimately, development needs to be as transparent as possible, which can be taxing on a small team, but is necessary to keep everyone from wondering if they've inadvertently backed the next The Stomping Land.
In other words, there is such a thing as being "complete." There is such a thing as keeping your promises. PUBG has not yet arrived at that point. Why should we be considering it for Game of the Year?
In that same article, I asked Jeremy Parish to lay out our official Early Access review policy. Jeremy wrote that at the end of the day, Early Access is still a beta. You simply can't review a beta. He added:
It's a blurry line these days, we realize. Final retail releases usually aren't truly final these days—even outside of extreme cases like Halo: The Master Chief Collection or Assassin's Creed Unity, great games continue to receive downloadable content and balance-tweaking patches for months after release, some of which have a profound impact on the game experience. As such, we're constantly evaluating our review process... but our goal is to make criteria for review eligibility more constrictive, not less. If anything, the similarity of Early Access games to many "complete" releases simply reinforces the need to take more time with all of our reviews.
This argument is one reason why I opted not to nominate PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds for Game of the Year when I handed in my VGA ballot.
Another is that I think we should consider Game of the Year to be the best game of 2017. I see a lot of people arguing that PUBG has to be considered because it sold 20 million copies. Well, by that metric, Call of Duty and FIFA should be in the conversation as well. Superhero films should always take home top honors from the Oscars. Frankly, sales don't hold a lot of water for me.
As for its individual merits as a game, PUBG is definitely fresh and unique, but as I mentioned before, it's still very buggy and missing many key features. Why are we even considering a game that's essentially in alpha for Game of the Year?
Things could be changing pretty soon. A proper 1.0 update will be on test servers tonight, bringing a host of new features. A new map will be out next month. Once all of this happens, we will give it a proper review, and then we may consider it for Game of the Year.
But as of right now, I strongly disagree with the notion that there's no difference between Early Access and full release. There's a reason that Early Access games don't get reviews. And based on the format's troubled history, I'd like to keep it that way.