Sunday, 22 April 2018

TDS 2: Playerunknown's Battlegrounds


Game Design Case Study: 
Playerunknown’s Battleground
Part one
By Tyson Bennett, creator of Act of Treason

PLAYERUNKNOWN'S BATTLEGROUNDS (aka PUBG) is a last-man-standing shooter. Players must locate weapons and supplies in a large map and fight to the death to be the lone survivor. Rounds often start with 90+ players and only stop when one player or one team is the victor.

I wanted to cover this game as it went somewhat viral in popularity, and I believe this has to do with the fact that it is a great game mechanically speaking. You might not play PUBG, but there is a wealth of game development and game theory knowledge to be acquired from looking into this game. The setup and premise of the game allow for very tactical, intense and engaging play, which makes for a solid competitive experience. Winning in PUBG is highly rewarding and is dependent on both macro tactical play as well as micro gun play - This sets it apart from many other competitive shooters.




While PUBG has many great qualities, it also has some flaws. As of the 28th of December PUBG sits at a low 57% recommended on Steam. Metacritic is similar with only 38% positive user reviews. These ratings shouldn’t be taken as representative of how good PUBG is. PUBG is actually a very popular game and has many players all over the world. I imagine a more realistic rating would be somewhere in the >80% region. I think the artificially low rating that we see is caused by two primary drivers:

1) The developer has managed to piss off the community by going back on promises and generally not listening to the complaints and grievances of the players.
2) There are a fair few negative things that get in the way of enjoying the game that are not related to the core game mechanics, such as hackers, bugs, poor graphical performance & netcode that leaves a bit to be desired.

These two things are likely to influence outspoken and negative reviews, and may curb the number of positive reviews. No one likes paying top dollar for a game they can’t play - or can’t play without erroneous things like bugs getting in the way of the fun. It only serves to piss players off further if they feel like they are not being listened to. PUBG certainly has done well enough considering the reviews overall, and has managed to develop a large following, in spite of it lacking in some polish.

Let’s dive deep into what makes PUBG so popular. The things it does well, and the things it does not so well, and the general strategies and mechanics of the game.


What makes PUBG fun?

I talked about how one might quantify what makes a game fun in my article "What makes games fun?" This is a good place to start for us here. The fact that you’re dropped onto a big island with 100 other people and it’s a fight to the death - last man standing - is a strong indicator that PUBG is going to be highly competitive. PUBG is a game of intense competition and I would argue it is the backbone of the game. The developers have done a fairly good job of making sure the competitive element within the game is fully capitalized on. Hackers are the main thing that gets in the way of this, but we will cover that later in the article. Maybe hackers get in the way enough that it turns some people off of the game - I wouldn't be surprised.

blue striped bar represents a somewhat more optional node

Quick Note: When we talk about what makes PUBG fun, we’re not trying to describe exactly what everyone experiences when playing PUBG, nor are we trying to rank how fun the game is. This is just a rough guide for what general factors and attributes of PUBG might make it fun for someone to play. ie: someone who enjoys more competitive gaming is more likely to enjoy PUBG.

I’ll be drawing a lot of comparisons to Counter Strike (aka CS) and some to Fortnite. That’s not to say either game is better. That’s up for you to decide. At the end of the day, it’s personal preference. I’ll only be talking about their differences and some observations as to why someone might enjoy one game over the other.

Social: Playerunknowns Battleground manages to draw in quite a social element with its ability for squad play, in either a duo, three man or four man squad. While in a team, there is plenty of "off-peak" time looting and running around. This is the perfect opportunity to shoot the shit with your friends or strike up a conversation with randos. Compare this to some other games where you’re too focused on playing, or the game is so intense for the entire duration that it's hard to focus on social interaction. Conversation can often end up as either difficult or comes at the expense of performance within the game. The downtime with looting in PUBG offers ample chance to chat! This facilitates social interaction quite nicely and its where some of the fun of PUBG can stem from. Admittedly, this downtime spent looting can be a detriment for solo play as there is less to do and no one to socialize with. PUBG can be less enjoyable when playing in solo.

Added to this, the content of PUBG can offer some rather interesting subject matter for your conversations. There is a lot to discuss in terms of tactics, and quite often funny situations crop up in the game.

Some situations are just ripe for a good laugh with mates

PUBG also makes for a great game to play tactically as a cohesive unit - using team tactics to achieve victory rather than relying purely on individual player skill alone. You have the option to play with two, three or four players. This scaling allows you to play as you like, and doesn't force you to play with randoms. This flexible squad based matchmaking gives you the flexibility to hone your team skills with people whom are interested in playing to win - allowing you to focus on improving, both as a cohesive team. Being able to work as a team - have each others backs and provide accurate calls can be a large part of the fun of this game, and are rewarding in there own right.

Ultimately, PUBG does well to capitalise on the social interaction between its players. It is a well suited game to play online with friends, and this ultimately ends up boosting its appeal.

Problem Solving: This is one area where PUBG does just a little better than some of the other FPS games in the market in my opinion. Let's take CS as an comparison. The tactical choices in CS are clear and laid out as there only a few variables and the meta is well known. In CS you start each round in the same place. You decide where you want to go to, and you buy the equipment you want out of a limited range of optimum items. It is all rather boilerplate. Large macro calls about what to do are not needed as much in a game like CS. Now, with that said, there is clearly still some amount of making calls and strategic thinking involved. I'll I'm saying is with so many known factors and limited variables, there is naturally limited scope in the strategies that need to be implemented on the fly.

Now let's compare this to PUBG where there are many more variables to contend with. From the start of every game you begin in a plane which has a randomized flight path. How the game goes is entirely up to you. Do you go for a location with good loot knowing it’s likely to be highly contested, or do you aim for an out of the way location to loot in safety?  Do you try to land in a place in the hopes of getting a vehicle so you can immediately relocate, or do you try land somewhere central to increase your chances of getting into the circle safely? Do you fight, or is it more beneficial for you  to run? All of these questions can't easily answered without knowing more about the situation - and that is what makes PUBG a interesting strategic game.

Clearly the optimum parking strategy

In PUBG, you’ll have to adapt to the situation at hand, and the answers are not always clear cut. Do you engage with that enemy you spotted and risk giving away your position, or do you leave it to gain a position, or loot advantage elsewhere? Do you head to the falling loot crate to try get better weapons and armor, or will that just get you killed? Do you spend the extra 20 or so seconds you need to swap out your AKM to an M416 on that dead dudes corpse? Or do you choose to not take the risk of looting to avoid getting shot and instead keep with the current ammo you have salvaged?

PUBG is filled with tough decisions like this all the way through. CS has tough decisions too, however they typically have more 'known quantities' with more fixed variables. Again, neither one is necessarily better. They are just different. It's arguable that tactical decision making has a greater impact on your chances of winning in PUBG moreso than CS. As a natural consequence of this, gunplay takes the forefront in CS as the main decider of victory. In PUBG, I think tactical decisions such as when to move, where to position, and when to attack, can be more vital to success.

Competition & Mastery: As talked about before, this is PUBGs bread and butter. The developers have done a good job at making the game fair and balanced, which is very important for a game that relies on competition and mastery for its fun. Choices are balanced and there is a strong incentive to improve ones skill in this game. Winning is very difficult, and thus highly rewarding when you do win.

Having 90+ players in each game could add to the appeal. Assuming you're an average player, you'd expect to win roughly 1% of the time based on the number of players alone. This makes it highly rewarding for when you do win. If you've won a game, you'll know what I'm talking about when I say the euphoria you feel after winning an intense match. If you were to lower the number of players, it would make for a shorter game, with less investment, and less reward for winning. Both a smaller player count and a larger one have their merits, however, what is worth noting is that the larger player count of PUBG makes for a rather unique experience that isn't really covered by many other games at the moment. This alone is of benefit to the games appeal, as it is a unique and new experience for the player.

I won’t expand on this point much further as this will be touched on later within this article in other points.

Discovery: There is a bit to discover in PUBG in terms of all the items and the maps. Both maps are massive with a lot of ground to cover and places to explore. Added to this, there are many vehicles, guns, and rare weapon drops to discover. While it's a fun little aside, it’s not the main meat of the game.

The map is likely the strongest aspect of discovery within the game, as the maps are huge, and even slight variations of terrain, weapon, playing zone, and foe, can make for a situation that feels quite different each time. For example even within the same town I am discovering new ways to use the terrain to gain a tactical advantage. There are also locations that I have never visited, or have only visited once.

Story, Progress and Creativity: PUBG offers little for any of these mostly because it doesn’t need to. While players to have the option to swap up their clothing, this is pretty low key and doesn’t have any major effect in-game other than a small bit of camouflage if you’re wearing the appropriate clothing for the terrain/lighting. It’s nice to have the customization, but I doubt PUBG is gaining or losing many sales because of it.

Unlocking clothing could count towards the progress element of the game. A player could be incentivised more to play if they are wanting to collect all the items of clothing & skins. It is also interesting to note that it is another source of revenue for the company, which may be one reason why they are focusing on it as much as they are. The time would be better spent on fixing other aspects of the game such as the hacking, but that might also be less profitable - who can say?

Don't judge me
Thankfully there is no progression in terms of upgrades, powers, perks, or new guns to unlock which was a very good decision by the PUBG developers. Adding any levelup component in an online multiplayer PvP game would create an uneven playing field which would dampen the games ability to be as strong as a competitive game. As it stands , two players are only differentiated by their personal skill level - and quite frankly I love this about the game. It's the players mastery of the game & their tactics that's the deciding factor in determining victory. Nothing else (except maybe a healthy pinch of luck). When it comes down to it, the better man/lady (/or perhaps the better hacker) wins.

Overall: PUBG is a very good competitive game that rewards players for both great macro tactical play (map positioning, choosing when to fight, etc) and micro play (gunplay, reactions, aiming, etc). The developers didn't waste their time adding unnecessary aspects to the game that would take away from the competitive element. The setup and nature of PUBG allows it to better tap into social interaction as well as problem solving when compared to some other First Person Shooters. Most importantly, PUBG is highly rewarding and highly competitive. All of these elements go quite some way to explaining why PUBG is so popular and what makes it such a good game mechanically speaking.


Some Negatives

I’m sorry to say that most of the negatives we are about to cover are not to do with the actual mechanics or the balance of the game. Which is very sad for me to say as a game designer as now I don’t get to comment on the game mechanics as much. The game mechanics themselves are actually pretty good in PUBG, it’s just the other stuff that gets in the way! I would hate to be strictly a game designer on a project such as this, because my job would be mostly irrelevant at this stage - and yet I would still see so much potential for improvement! It would be frustrating to say the least.

There are far bigger issues with the game that aren’t related to the game mechanics that should be addressed. These issues stop the game from being as good as it can be and get in between the player and the fun of the game.

The Hackers & Teamers: Cheaters will always be an issue with many games but it is of particularly high importance for competitive games. With PUBG being such a strongly competitive game, hackers and cheating becomes quite an important issue. Why? Because the last thing anyone wants to do is spend 30 minutes playing a game, looting, waiting, spying, camping, killing, to have a victory ripped away from them dishonestly at the end. I myself have had at least 3 victories ripped away by all but 'confirmed' hackers. I am a living witness as to how annoying it can be! 

Do you reckon' it's coincidence?

There is very little agency given to the player to combat this hacker onslaught. Furthermore, the effort the developers are putting into fixing this issue is not easily seen. This makes it seem like the developers aren’t doing much to fix this issue. I have read that over 1.5 million hackers have been banned in PUBG. While that is a huge number, and it sounds like a great effort, this number on its own means nothing. It may only represent a fraction of the hacker base. How many of these are repeat offenders? All we have to go off of is our subjective experience when playing the game. Many people I talk to have had run in's with hackers in PUBG. I think the developers could take a smarter approach with this.

In fact in doing a little research into this it seems that the developers have put in very little effort into even the most basic of ‘hacks’, as demonstrated here (https://youtu.be/mIznMSTj-1c) (published on 27 Sep 2017). There seems to be very little anti-cheat in place, which is unfortunate as cheating is a huge dampener on the player experience. Writing the code so that it is more resistant to macros, or so that it doesn't provide as much benefit should be very possible. I’m sure there is a huge range of hacking and cheating that is going on that is not being policed.

The recent update with the killcam did help somewhat as players can get a better handle on if they have encountered a hacker. Unfortunately the only thing this does is at best provide for slightly more accurate player reporting. The developers still need to investigate and act on each instance of cheating. If a hacker is left up to a week doing blatant hacks, and then banned, they can just purchase the game an hour or two afterwards and get right back to playing again. I imagine the game could monitored in real time and accurate predictions could be made on all users based on several points of data, such as location, name, accuracy, monitoring player mouse movements, large jumps in player performance, number of reports, applications running, etc, etc. This data could be used to generate accurate reports on who may be potential hackers, and it could be done real time. It just seems that this data isn't being collected and acted upon.

Games like League of Legends took an interesting approach in using a community based moderation system called "The Tribunal". It gave players rewards for helping to moderate their own community. Now I’m not saying such a system is flawless, there are advantages and disadvantages to anything like this. Ultimately it all comes down to the implementation. Riot Games (the developer of League of Legends) could be seen taking a stand against the ‘toxic’ players within the community. It was a very visible stance to be taking. Riot Games could actually be seen to be doing something, and this gave the players some comfort. Players of PUBG have no such comfort. It looks like nothing is happening for the most part.

I would be cautious to suggest anything as a solution without trying it first. But with that said, it would benefit the game greatly to have something done. In my opinion, some possible solutions would be:
  1. Providing a less rigid system that lets players point out cheaters. This means letting players report before they die, and being able to report any player they can see/name. This allows for richer data collection, making finding and dealing with hackers a much easier task if you have skilled people to collate the data.
  2. Rewarding players who point out obvious Teamers and Hackers. This could easily be done with a small reward on login that says "We have successfully identified 3 hackers based on your reports. Your reward is 120 BP". This encourages accurate reporting as well as improving the visibility of something being done.
  3. Region-lock players (this may be happening). This may help to contain hackers to a certain problem region if such a problematic region exists. Either way there are additional benefits to actioning this point, such as removing language barriers on an intently team focused game. Also, helping to stop issues with laggy players and generally improving the responsiveness and play experience of the players.
  4. Improving the visibility that something is being done. This is done as a consequence of doing points 2 & 3, and to a lesser extent, point 1.
I’m not saying any of this is easy. Naturally there can be quite the legal implication from banning a players account, and invalidating their purchase. But for the health of the player experience it is very important to put a lot of time and effort into it. I would argue this is the weakest part of PUBG at current, and it's ruining the play experience. By not tackling hackers, the developers will hemorrhage players, and may actually encourage more hackers who will operate under the rationale of: "I'm clearly very unlikely to be caught as everyone else is getting away with it, and everyone else is doing it, so I'm leveling the playing field." By their lack of quality action, Blue Hole is not just letting the problem remain unchecked, they may actually be letting it get progressively worse.

In regards to the BP reward for players who successfully report, an understandable critique would be that it might encourage over reporting in order to capitalise on the BP reward. It should be made clear to the players that doing frivolous reports will result in either their reports getting ignored, account suspension, or a ban from the game entirely. This could easily be done by looking at the reported generated by the user and looking at the total report count over the games played, and the report accuracy. It should be easy to separate out users who typically give strong reports to those who give weak or false reports.

This is an issue of great importance for the enjoyable and playability of the game. If the developers are seen to be doing nothing it will only encourage more players to engage in the practice, whilst serving to piss off the existing playerbase.

Bugs, laggy servers and bad framerate performance: There isn’t much for me to say on this because these issues are all rather technical, but these are all things that could use some tweeks. Polish and QoL (quality of life) improvements are important in any good game - but things like the net code and lag are of even greater significance in a game such PUBG as they impact the competitive aspect of the game.

Having a win stripped away from you because of a spot of lag, or a glitch, or performance issues would be infuriating, and might influence a gamers choice to play PUBG regularly.

These issues need a little more elbow grease by the developers. I understand they can’t fix this overnight, but they need to work on this over time if they are genuinely interested in improving their game. It's clear that the developers are still focused on improving the game. It just seems that their efforts are focused in the wrong areas at current.

This may, or may not, be a bug in progress

Melee weapons: This is a small issue in PUBG, but as a lover of anything melee, it irks me more than it should. Actually landing a hit with a melee weapon is very difficult in PUBG due to how the collision detection and netcode interacts. If a player steps away from you, you’ll only start accelerating after them once your foe has already accelerated and left. This interaction can leave you outside of melee reach while you chase after them. Which feels ridiculous as you were touching your foe not moments before. This effectively renders melee weapons exceedingly difficult to use and forces you to use strange tactics in order to keep your speed up and preventing yourself from colliding with character models at the wrong time - effectively counteracting the bad coding by behaving in ways that are not intuitive.

Added to this, the range on melee weapons seems short - this is also counter intuitive. PUBG might benefit from a "lunge" mechanic similar to other games like COD (Call of Duty). I'm not saying it should act the same, or be an instant kill. But a subtle "lock on effect" or even just a boost forward, would be enough to give melee weapons to actually make them viable early game.

A disorientation effect, or weapon stability debuff is also an option, although I would want to do extensive testing before it is applied. This gives a melee attacker a little bit of respite for landing their first hit, and means that the contest of melee weapon versus ranged is a little more even at extremely close quarters.

Needless to say, I think this interaction could definitely use improvement! Perhaps a tweak to either the netcode, player collision, or the melee weapons is in order so that melee engagements don’t feel so clunky. Obviously melee weapons should still be slightly weaker overall compared to sidearms and other ballistic weapons. But a small boost to the QoL of melee weapons would bring them up from where they are, which is basically a novelty item. With all that said, melee weapons are such a small part of the game that this could be left unfixed without too much detriment - but it would be nice.




Balance

Balance is a important topic for many games, and PUBG is no exception. Games are all about choices. Good choices mean fair and valid options, and with PUBG being primarily a competitive game, this is of even greater importance. Balance is something that PUBG gets pretty good. PUBG is fairly resistant to imbalance since all players start in the same situation and have access to the same resources. No one is at an advantage or disadvantage. Some of the weapons are imbalanced, sure, but fortunately none are so imbalanced to the point of being broken or useless (apart from the exception of melee weapons, that are barely better than the players fists). The inferior weapons, such as the crossbow, still have a legitimate use in the beginning of the game. The superior weapons are not overpowered enough to be broken, and come from loot crates that all players have access too and can be risky to seek out. It is quite possible for a K98 to take out a AWP. It's just a little tougher.

I will say that there is of course an element of luck within the game, with the most impactful being where the circle randomly chooses to close in on - especially at games end. Where things like items, cars and loot crates spawn is a close second. Being a little influenced by luck isn’t necessarily a bad thing. PUBG seems to strike an okay balance between skill and luck - except at games end where you can sometimes be all but handed victory on a silver platter by a lucky circle spawn for you, and an unlucky one for your opponent. Perhaps a better mechanic is for the circle to collapse inwards in a more predictable pattern near the games end?

Something interesting to note is how team size affects the effective health of vehicles. As you might imagine, when playing in solo matches, a vehicle may have too much health to take down by yourself. However, when playing with a squad, your damage potential is up to 4 times greater against a single target, and a vehicles health may actually be too low to sustain fire from an opposing team. This means the best tactics can actually vary quite a bit depending on the squad size, with vehicles being more viable in the late stages of a solo match, as opposed to a four man match. An easy solution could be to have unique "armored" variants of vehicles, that only show up in games squad matches. These vehicles could have increased health to make them more hardy. Added to this, perhaps the UAZ could be limited to duo + squad sizes. But again, this could just be something that is interesting to note, rather than something that needs fixing.

With all that said, nothing is hugely broken or out of place in PUBG apart from maybe grenade spamming and the circle mechanics, which I will discuss as their own points later in part two.


Weapons

I’ll be talking about the weapons of PUBG because they are an integral part of any shooter.

When you look at the weapons of CS, only a handful out of all of the available weapons for purchase see much play within the game. There is a good reason for this. Game theory and dominant strategy dictates that players will pick the best known option available to them, for a given situation, in order to improve their odds of wining. While an AK might be the best weapon at a medium range, it is not the best weapon at a short or long range. Added to this, it is not the most price efficient weapon. Because of this, the network of viable weapons in a game of CS is fairly broad, but still, only a 1/3rd of the 34 weapons see any great deal of playtime. While it isn't a bad thing to have so many options when it comes to weapons, it also doesn't add much to the game. It is typical for a CS player to never even buy 1/2 of the available weapons over the course of several games. I have always thought that a competitive shooter game doesn't need  more than 6 or so weapons. Games like Halo and Unreal Tournament are a fairly good example of limited weapons within a game. You simply don't have to have many weapons to have a great game.

PUBG is interesting an case in that you do not have much control over what weapons you come across. Thus all weapons are typically viable at one point or another. Early game, if you encounter a double-barreled shotgun, and you perceive it as the weakest weapon, then that's too bad, because it is still your optimal weapon as of right now until you get something better. Unlike most other competitive shooters, PUBG would likely benefit from having additional weapons to choose from. The looting element really does make PUBG a different experience to most common shooters, and forces the player to be more adaptive to the situation as it unfolds to them. A game like Slay The Spire is a great example of how you can add a lot of value to your game by forcing the player to adapt to any given situation. Slay The Spire is a game almost entirely devoted to giving the player a situation to react to, and then a choice.

Players can only carry two primary weapons at a time. All weapons have situational advantages and disadvantages that can be quite nicely categorized into their effective ranges. Close, medium, and far. Since you can only use one weapon at once, it often pays to carry two weapons that are ideal for two different effective ranges, enabling you to be most effective at two out of three range categories. let's break down the weapons into their various qualities and ranges. 


While not perfect, this nice little table does help to highlight where some weapons shine.

An interesting side note is the S686, which is a highly risky weapon to use in close quarters. It is very unforgiving weapon if you miss. However it is exceptionally powerful if you hit. Making it a high risk, high reward weapon. Most of the other weapons on this list do not have as interesting a risk vs reward profile.

Many players opt for a weapon from the medium range category and a weapon from long range category, such as a AKM and a SKS. However, another popular variant is to opt for a weapon from the short range category, as well as a weapon from the medium or long range category, such as a Vector and a AKM, or a UMP9 and a Mini 14. It might be obvious to say - but it is rare to see players using two weapons of the same category. This is because there is no tactical advantage to having two weapons that fulfill the same effective range. There would literally be no advantage to swapping to your secondary weapon. However, if you have a UMP9 and a SKS, then you have an advantage to swapping to the UMP when you explore the close quarters of a house.

You'll notice that all these variants try to give the player the best "bang for their buck" in terms of optimum weaponry for any given range. Yet you will always be missing a weapon that is effective for one of the three range categories. This means that if you encounter a Vector user in close quarters while you only have a M416 and a SKS, then you'll be at a disadvantage. Choosing your terrain to match your weapons, as well as your weapons to match your terrain, is an important factor to winning in PUBG.

I think the case can be made for a lot of different weapon loadouts, and this is really good game design. Playing with the same weapons every single time would get boring after a while, and having to adapt to the situation at hand and use a variety of weaponry keeps the experience lively.

This makes for a very interesting challenge for the players as they loot up and find better gear. You just don't know what you're going to come across next. You need to both plan for the now, as well as the potential of what you'll come across in the future.

Until next time.

Cheers,
 Tyson
Creator of Act of Treaon


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