The other night I was playing PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) with a squad of friends. We parachuted onto the familiar desert of Miramar on the outskirts of the city Los Leones by some warehouses, overcame a single other squad, and continued on our way towards the white circle that would save us from the blue wall of death. Then we noticed something only ten or so minutes into the match: with only the first circle having shrunk, there were already only 39 players left. That's not much at all for a 100-player match, considering there are eight instances of the circle shrinking with the last only being the lack of a circle at all.
If you've played PUBG within the last month or so, you may have noticed this has become a trend. Within minutes, 40 or more players die almost instantly, seemingly dropping onto known "hot" places on the map. If it's Miramar, they drop on Hacienda, Pecado, or Los Leones. If it's Erangel, they drop on School, Military Base, or Pochinki. It doesn't matter which hot spot they fall upon, because the outcome is always the same: pure chaos.
This practice is sometimes called "hot dropping," where players purposefully drop from the starting airplane onto popular spots that are known to generate top tier guns and other loot. After the hot spots pop off in the first few minutes, the rest of the match unfolds like clockwork. You stealth and loot around for ages, and by the time the circle changes for the first or second time, there's only 30 or so people left alive. Considering the size of the first few circles, this makes matches feel like they last an eternity, going dozens of minutes without even hearing a gunshot in the distance. In the past, around this part of a match anywhere from 60 to 80 players would remain alive.
This is a problem. Casual players know it. Twitch streamers know it. Diehard fans who populate forums and the game's subreddit know it. To some extent, this has always been an aspect of the game's meta, only the problem now is it's amplified with sometimes half the players popping off in populated spots in the early goings of a match. The rest of the match suffers as a result. The element of surprise that made PUBG a success in the first place—whether in spotting a player and lucking out with a 4X scope or in being the victim of a shotgun blast behind a door—is now dwindling away. Winning a game is a far simpler task than it's ever been before, because there are less players around to see it the whole match through; there's only wooden coffins signifying where they once stood in a match's opening moments.
There can be a lot of reasons for this big meta shift. One of the prevailing theories is it's players finagling their own ranked mode: dropping in a greatly populated space with a solid rate of loot drops, and seeing who can come out of the hectic encounter on top. Early in PUBG's lifespan, hot dropping was still a popular way to play, but it was usually relegated to players who knew they were good enough to take on others as soon as their feet touched the ground. Hot dropping, for me and others I know, is also a solid way to practice the game's many guns and learn how to shoot in intense situations, as there is still no offline practice mode for trying out guns (especially now that guns have been stripped from starting lobbies of matches). The problem now is that hot dropping commonly accounts for nearly half of a match's players.
And so, the widespread trend of hot dropping has expanded to a larger scope than before, with dozens of players taking the risk, hoping for a chance of loot and racked up kills. Some drop for the challenge and the risk, others do it just to goof off and shoot some guns. Regardless of their aim, it's the quickest way to attain solid loot, even if they come at a gamble of even living to see it through. Some players wish this could be amended with less "hot" spots overall, balancing out areas for all players.
Others, like popular Twitch streamer Dr. Disrespect, even once mused about a version of PUBG without RNG, or Random Number Generator, meaning the likelihood of loot dropping. As an example, this would make certain houses and other spots guaranteed specific guns and other loot, no longer with a rolling percentage of the likelihood of finding it there. Cloud9 streamer Shroud, in this particular stream and in others, has voiced opposition to discarding PUBG's random elements. While this conversation wasn't in direct response to the sluggish mid game, it would account for tilting the current issue of hot dropping.
Meanwhile others, like professional PUBG player BreaK, have even proposed implementing an official ranked mode into the game. "Nobody takes the game seriously," BreaK frustratingly explained recently on a stream, showcasing the hot spots on Miramar. "If there was a ranked mode, not a lot of people would drop on Pecado, and now there'd still be 60 players alive." For this first circle, his player count was already down to 35 players.
But PUBG already has a ranked mode, sorta. The game's base matchmaking itself is determined by players' ranks, albeit lightly. It's not as loose as, say, Splatoon's (which merely throws any player together in its casual Turf War mode), but the issue players have found is that it doesn't go beyond that base matchmaking at all. This leads to situations like the current meta, of people making their own ranked mode by hot dropping every match. Or as BreaK sees it, people not taking the game as seriously as others, and ruining the mid-game for everyone else by recklessly dying within the first ten minutes.
Over a week ago, this conversation hit a boiling point on the PUBG subreddit, a community that has voiced ire about the game since its 1.0 launch. Players suggested a few other ways, other than an official ranked mode server, to help sway the mass hot dropping tendency. Suggestions ranged from mild, like reducing BP (the points earned via kills and survival) earned for the first circle, to big shifts, like reducing each map's size.
But I wonder if it's feasible to fix whatsoever, considering the millions that play PUBG, far more than its humble beginnings. (Even with its slowed momentum, PUBG remains the most played game on Steam with concurrent players by a wide margin.) Balancing loot across different areas would help, but it would also take away the risk and reward of dropping in slightly busier areas. Making the mid game denser with loot would fix the sometimes-lull of moving quietly from place to place with no action, but it would also fundamentally change something else that's integral to PUBG: the element of surprise.
With more players crawling around at all times, matches would be chaotic almost non-stop, with no lulls and impromptu shootouts taking players out of their comfort zones. Early in PUBG's life span, the quieter mid game was nowhere near as contentious, because in all likelihood, you were bound to happen upon another player or four on your journey across the forested Erangel map. With the increase of hot dropping, that mid section is unfortunately quieter and uneventful until the final stretch. The biggest problem that PUBG continues to have is one that can't really be fixed: too many people play it, and the serious-minded players are feeling the worst repercussions of it. Y'know, like boring mid games because of hot dropping.
This particular cumbersome trend isn't the only thing dragging PUBG down since its 1.0 launch in December. The past month has seen more and more players abandoning the game, according to Bloomberg tech reporter Yuji Nakamura. Cheating, even as PUBG Corp. allegedly banned millions of cheaters, is still a common occurrence, with players even vowing to primarily play first-person servers because encountering cheaters is less likely than their third-person counterparts. Even with sometimes 60 percent of players dying in the first circle shrinkage of a match, it's just the tip of PUBG's current iceberg of problems.
This year is arguably the most important year for PUBG. It's established now, with a bustling competitive community at its behest and another new map on the horizon. If PUBG's in it for the long haul, then pervasive problems will need to be addressed—just as Miramar was recently tweaked according to complaints, adding more buildings and roads to the map in recent weeks. If PUBG continues to shed players this year as its chief competitor Fortnite Battle Royale grows, it could spell trouble on the horizon for the landmark battle royale game.