Measuring the Fun

1 December 2017
Played on Windows

PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds  (hereon PUBG) is an online multiplayer game set in a vast, open map. The premise is simple: up to one hundred players parachute from an aircraft overhead, equipped with nothing but regular clothing, and the last one alive is declared the winner.

The game has undoubtedly become a phenomenon and one of the biggest surprises of 2017. Millions are playing it at any given time on Steam, and it has quickly become the poster child of the "battle royale" genre; a genre it did not invent, but has brought to the forefront of PC gaming.

PUBG results screen

Is it fun?

This is the biggest question on my mind right now. Obviously there is a huge appeal to this title, because otherwise millions wouldn't have plopped down their money and plunged right in. It's not like, for the most part, these people bought it, played it once, then instantly regretted it either. The concurrent player count on Steam can tell you that plenty are still loading it up.

That brings me to the main point I want to explore in this article: is this game fun? I've always known I'm not the "average" gamer, if there can be such a thing. You know, the type who loyally throws down £50 on each Call of Duty and FIFA and collects the various promotional offers from cans of Monster Energy and cares nothing for the underlying issues plaguing the gaming industry as of 2017. Girls, and boys, it seems, where PC gaming is concerned, just wanna have fun.

Let's explore that idea more closely in order to answer my original question.

What's a game? And why are they "fun"?

It helps to answer this one first, I think. The term "game" is quite loose and nebulous, I'll admit. I see it as a specific task or set of tasks, with a number of possible outcomes, some of which might be failure states and others victory states, and a set of rules that govern how the player may arrive at any of those states.

That's... pretty overwhelming. But looking at video games, we generally have a victory condition, a starting condition, and a means by which the player can progress, using these rules, to either achieve the victory condition, or "lose" the game.

A game of Pacman

When video games started out, games could be roughly divided into two categories.

Games like Pacman had a main objective of collecting as many points as possible, and there was no specific victory condition. You can't "win" Pacman. It just carried on (or at least, was designed to carry on) until the player "dies" and reaches the game over state.

Super Mario Bros title screen

Games like Super Mario Bros. tasked the player with achieving a very specific victory state. Complete the final level, and defeat the "boss", and the game would be concluded in a player victory. Any other conclusion is a failure state. Usually one where the stupid pirahna plant popped up when you weren't expecting it just before you got to the end of the level.

In more modern times, most games have one or more specific victory states. Games like Doom (2016), the Uncharted series, the Tomb Raider series, the Assassin's Creed series, and all the others like them, have a particular way of "completing" the game. These are single-player story-driven experiences. But how about online, in a multiplayer enviroment?

Games like Counterstrike: Global Offensive are online multiplayer shooters, similar in some ways to PUBG, and very different in others. The deathmatch format that was popular in the days of Quake II and Unreal Tournament 2004 has died out somewhat, in favour of team- or squad-based mechanics, where a number of players work together to achieve a victory state over a similar team of "enemy" players. DOTA 2 and League of Legends spring to mind.

Bringing the topic back to PUBG in comparison to these games: there is a very limited victory state in PUBG, by comparison to other online multiplayer shooters.

In a typical solo game, you will start under the same conditions as 99 other players, and only one of those players can reach the victory. 1% of the total number of players in that game will be "victorious". Compare this with a game such as Overwatch, in the six-versus-six standard mode. 50% of all the players in that game will emerge "victorious".

Victory screen from Overwatch

Am I looking at this the wrong way? You might be thinking, "Do you have to achieve the actual victory state before you have any fun with a game? Sometimes it's fun to lose."

This is where subjectivity comes into play. There are some people for whom the only "fun" outcome is the victory. Others might enjoy knowing they're unlikely to win, but participating anyway. For some, the actual chase for the victory is the fun part. "Okay, I might lose the next ten games, but when I finally do get a victory, it will feel that much more satisfying".

So much unfairness of things

PUBG is not a fair game. It never claimed to be. Luckily, at the time of writing at least, it's not possible to pay real money to gain an upper hand, by starting with a particular weapon or piece of equipment.

However, due to the random nature of item placement in the game, a large proportion of any player's power comes down to how fortunate that player is when starting out. If the first house you enter happens to contain a high power rifle with a good scope, you'd be more likely than not to do well in that game.

In the same way that some players enjoy, or don't mind, not being able to win every game, some players find the thrill of random exhilirating. Just look at Hearthstone.

Yogg-Saron card from Hearthstone

This is a game that is unashamedly embracing of random. The entire game is built around "roughly fair" but random outcomes, fair in the sense that each player has the same random chance given the same card.

Compare this to the ancient game of chess. It is a game of pure skill. There are no random outcomes, and the starting position is the same every time. You can't draw a winning card in chess that gives you a 50% chance to avoid having any piece taken from the board. I'm not sure people would still play chess if the rules were changed in that way.

Good players are still good

Here's a question, of sorts: if PUBG is essentially random, then why do good players continue to win many games, when other players win hardly any?

The question actually answers itself, on closer examination. PUBG is essentially but not wholly random. You know that there will be more items available in locations with a higher building density. You know the locations where players are likely to go at the start of any game. You know that if you see a vehicle parked in an unusual location, you will be shot as soon as you approach it.

This is the meta game. These are unwritten rules of the game that skilful players exploit to gain an advantage (albeit a fair one) over others. The same is true in many games of "chance", like poker: there are plenty of things you cannot influence, but there are enough things over which you have control in order to sway the averages in your favour.

And then there's the players who win 20% of all their games. They're plain old fashioned cheats. It's the Internet: what did you expect?

Is it fun for YOU?

I'll admit I've not been having a great deal of fun with PUBG. I think that's down to the random element of item placement. It's possible, but unlikely, that you could go 20 games in a row and die in each game before finding any weapons at all. The fact that it's unlikely should reassure you somewhat. The fact that it's possible means it's happened to someone, somewhere.

If you have a "bad run", and die within the first five minutes of a whole string of games in a row, and there really wasn't anything you could have done better to avoid this, is that fun? The game hasn't broken any of its rules, and neither have the players (probably).

"It's just the luck of the draw." "Life is unfair, deal with it." "When life gives you lemons, make some lemonade."

Should you deal with that though? Could the game be more accommodating and put in place measures that ensure people aren't ever subject to large runs of misfortune? Of course it can. Will it do that? Probably not, no.

A PUBG player crouching next to a wooden wall

For each and every player, the point at which the game becomes "fun" will vary. Is it after you kill your first opponent in each game? Is it when you see you're amongst the final 50 survivors? The final 10? I'm not here to decide that for you: that's on you and your personal preferences.

Should a game do as much as possible to enhance everyone's fun?

Excluding the niche world of eSports, games are supposed to be fun. Most of us play games to relax, or to blow off steam (not the Valve kind), or to enjoy ourselves. It makes sense, then, that video game developers should feel obliged to make any game as fun as possible for the largest possible audience.

This doesn't always work, especially online. Overwatch has had numerous problems relating to balance, over the years, because balancing the game's rules in a particular way would favour less skilled players over more skilled players, or vice versa.

In the world of online multiplayer, if you make a balance change, someone always loses. But they're not the only kind of changes that can be made.

Perhaps PUBG could introduce a points buy system where you can start with certain limited equipment of your choice, to eliminate the randomness of not being able to find anything at all before coming across an opponent who is armed to the teeth because of a lucky first-minute find?

Perhaps there might be a kill timer which disables damage for the first X minutes, until everyone has had a reasonable chance to explore a little bit.

Perhaps the game doesn't have to be a whole one hundred players, and the map might work better with fewer than that?

Should PUBG make any of these changes, or other ones? No, of course not. It's clearly doing very well and it's clearly filled a niche in the gaming market that nobody knew needed filling.

I'm saying that for me, dying in the first five minutes of every game is not particularly fun. I would be the first to admit that I am not good at video games. But this is a key factor: are you only entitled to enjoy a video game if you are good at it?

You must be THIS GOOD to have fun

I don't believe we should be pursuing a future where the answer to the previous question is "yes". Why shouldn't Dark Souls have an easy mode? Does it physically harm you in any way if other people aren't as good as you, and in their (completely unconnected) game, they don't have to use as much skill to achieve a victory state?

In online multiplayer, this is the equivalent of ranked mode. Is it more fun that a new or inexperienced player is thrown into a game with seasonal professionals, or thrown into a game with players of roughly equivalent skill?

In this sense, random can often act as the enemy. It is an artificial and unnecessary difficulty spike. I have a pistol. You are 1000 metres away with a scoped rifle. You need far less skill than me to defeat me. Those parts are factual. But would it be boring if we always both had scoped rifles? Yes, probably.

The undeniable fact remains that people are thrilled by random. Just look at loot boxes. It's a terrible industry practice and it harms thousands of people, if not more, every day, who are prone to addictive tendencies. The simple fact of the matter is though; they wouldn't be in our games if they didn't make money.

In a similar vein, random wouldn't be present in PUBG unless it was enthralling to some people. "Maybe this game I will start with the scoped AKM and a decent vest, and I will destroy everyone and have my chicken dinner."

A complicated question and a complicated answer

If you're reading this hoping for a simple answer, there isn't one. Sorry about that. PUBG is either plagued by random, or delightfully contains random elements, depending on your own perspective. For those with a highly analytical mind like mine, I don't much relish the idea of taking my pistol and facing off against the guy with the scoped rifle halfway across the map again, so it lacks fun.

For those who aren't as analytical, or might be less bothered by the potential for random to ruin the fun, PUBG is probably a blast. I don't know! I am not one of those people. At this point I'm just a guy looking at some numbers on a Steam concurrent player chart at this point.

Will I ever suddenly develop the reaction time and delicate motor skills to perform well in PUBG? No. It's never going to happen. Should I be left out of the fun as a result? That's going to depend on your own definition of fun, of course. For the time being, however, my chicken dinners will mainly be oven cooked, with a side of tears from my latest #90 finish in PUBG!