There’s a guy in the house opposite me. I saw him land, only a moment after I did, and I don’t think there’s any way that he didn’t see me. We haven’t exchanged a word or a glance, but I know that we’re in an unspoken race and that the finish line will be the death of one of us. It’s him or me. I’m sneaking now, hunkered low and exploring a first-floor bedroom. This house hasn’t been kind to me so far. A better pair of boots and a pair of jeans from the dining room were a lousy start. The kitchen floor was littered with ammunition and a frying pan, but no guns. I’ve been on the ground for maybe 90 seconds now, and I’m looking in the last few rooms of the house. My mind wanders back to the guy I saw land on the lawn of the house opposite. Has he had better luck than me? If he has, I’m going to be in big trouble.
It looks like there’s still one room I haven’t been into. One lone closed door remaining. I mentally cross my fingers, open the final door and walk into the room, scanning the floor. Painkillers, a gas mask, a trench coat. No guns. I swear under my breath and stop for a moment. I’m near a window and through it I get a glimpse of movement. Sure enough, it’s the guy who landed in the house opposite. He’s running across the road toward the house I’m in – and he’s armed. I freeze, like a rabbit in headlights. He’s coming, he’s equipped, and what do I have? I’ve got a fucking frying pan. I weigh up my options for a moment. I could run, but as soon as he gets a bead on me he’ll put bullets in my back and that’ll be it. I could stand and fight, but… yeah. See previous comment re frying pan.
One other option presents itself. It’s obvious. Hide.
I look frantically around the room, looking for somewhere that’s big enough to conceal me but inconspicuous enough for the other player to just wander blithely past it. There isn’t. It dawns on that I don’t even know if ‘hiding’ is a mechanic in the game. I sneak around into the bathroom and close the door behind me, then crouch down with my frying pan ready. He’s coming; I can hear the muffled thump of feet on the stairs.
A mere moment later, the bathroom door opens. At that moment, my mistake crystallises in my mind – all the other doors visible from the stairs are open except for this one. If I was him, I’d check this one first… and that’s exactly what he’s done. I stand up and charge the door, getting in one good swing with the frying pan, and then it’s over. He hoses me down with the automatic rifle he was carrying, and for me the game ends. I breathe a sigh of relief and lean back into my couch, as the guy who killed me picks through the stuff I was carrying. To no surprise whatsoever, he doesn’t take much.
That little reminiscence sums up my first ever experience playing Playerunknown's Battlegrounds – and it sums up a large number of the subsequent experiences between that first go and my realising that battle boyale is a genre that doesn’t sit well with me a couple of nights later.
Battle royale games – especially PUBG and Fortnite – are very much the flavour of the moment. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last year or so, the premise is simple. A plane (or bus!) full of people parachute into a map, scavenge for weapons and equipment, and kill one another. Last player standing wins - in the case of PUBG it's a chicken dinner. Fortnite lets you build defences on the fly, while PUBG goes for a more realistic tone, but regardless of these minor differences the basic idea remains consistent. As game ideas go, it’s beautiful in its simplicity – the rules of the game so obvious that they need no explanation, and a set of mechanics that reinforce that simplicity.
I can see the appeal of battle royale games. Everything about them should tick a box for me. And yet, in the time I’ve spent playing them, I simply haven’t had any fun.
So there I am, leaning back into my couch. The controller’s still in my hand – the game’s offering me the option of either watching other players or joining a lobby for another game, but I’m doing neither of those things. Instead I’m doing what I always do when I have my ass absolutely handed to me in a competitive game. I’m trying to figure out where I went wrong. What mistake did I make? What was the decision process that led to me trapped in a corner, armed only with a frying pan when confronted by a player with an assault rifle, in a game that lasted a little under two minutes?
I think battle royale games have several problems – in the case of PUBG in particular, the actual shooting and movement mechanics feel incredibly clunky. Graphical glitches are ever present, and the game is host to more technical issues than you can count. I realise that it’s in early access, that it isn’t finished, and that these things are likely to change in time – and that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are currently a part of the experience. Also in the case of PUBG, the menus are a mess and the controls are horrible. If you’ve played a lot of shooters on the Xbox, the control system breaks most of the conventions that we’ve been conditioned to by more games than I’d care to count. Fortnite fares better on all of those fronts – but it’s still affected by the biggest problem, because that problem seems to be genre-wide.
That ‘biggest problem’ is the one that caused me to lose that initial encounter and countless since – and that’s the luck of the draw. As I sat there, sipping my cold tea, the answer to the question of ‘what could I have done differently’ was ultimately ‘nothing’. As a new player, I had no way of knowing which areas of the map would be more populated than others – but that concern was secondary to the realisation that it almost doesn’t matter where you land as the map contracts anyway. No, the luck of the draw is down to how quickly (or if!) you acquire weapons, and whether or not anyone else has landed in your vicinity. If you fail to acquire weapons quickly enough and someone else has landed nearby, it’s highly likely that your game will be over very quickly.
I know what you’re thinking – given enough games and enough time, I’ll get to know the maps. Given enough games and enough time, I’ll get to know which ammunition belongs with which gun. Which mods go best with which weapons. What distances weapons are most effective at. Which buildings are defensible.
All of those points are fair, and yet none of them really matter to me. I looked around at all the other games that I could be playing and decided that I simply wasn’t enjoying the core experience enough to be prepared to take the time to get good. Instead, I opted to leave the genre behind to people with more patience than I – people more willing to accept luck in games than I am. And so far, I’ve no regrets. Maybe I’m missing out, maybe not.
But as the big name shooters (looking at you, Call of Duty and Battlefield) begin to add their takes on the genre into their massively popular offerings, it’ll be interesting to see how the future pans out for the games that broke the trail. Will they continue to attract players as their USP’s are consumed whole? Or will they adapt to survive? Or is the player base for these games now so massive that it’s immune to other, more established franchises turning up to stake their claim to the territory?
It’ll be interesting to watch, that’s for sure. My take is that the decision to move Call of Duty and Battlefield into the battle royale space are too little too late from the respective publishers – that the BR space is already far better established than they might believe, and that players have already made their choice of where they’re playing it. CoD and Battlefield were the last to jump out of the plane… and by the time they hit the ground, all the guns are going to be gone.
They might be able to find some nice trousers and a frying pan, though.