PUBG Mobile: escaping into a massive battle royale

During lockdown, I’ve started to play a lot of video games, which is a relatively new thing for me. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds mobile is a console-quality battle royale game/platform that I played on iPad for several months. It was a pretty surprising journey and I’ve enjoyed getting to know how PUBG and the similar Fortnite work.

If you are playing on the mobile platform and want to get together for some battle, the username is MPomy. I usually check in every couple days.


— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

Ah yes, the crowded and super successful Battle Royale sector of the video game market. Even if you don’t know the game titles, you have probably heard of the major players, in particular EPIC, which is responsible for Fortnite. This is not intended to be a news post and I don’t want to get into all the fascinating machinations of the feud between Apple (App Store) and Epic, but I’m Team Epic in this one. Apple has gone too far with their 30%, but that is a topic for a different podcast.

So, what does any of the have to do with the PUBG franchise? For a gaming noob like myself, these two games are very similar. They are third-person shooters that play out on a sizable and detailed virtual map, where the player drops onto the map basically unarmed, has to scrounge around for loot that can be used offensively, like guns and ammo, and defensively, like medical supplies and body armor. It’s everyone against everyone else and the last player (or team in ‘squad’ modes) left alive wins. All player are gradually herded into a smaller space as the game progresses so everyone is playing on a much smaller map by the end. Games seem to take between 15 and 30 minutes.

Alright, let’s take a step back and talk about guns and shooting games. I am a parent of an eight your old boy who is very energetic and emotional. Years ago, I told myself that when I became a parent, I would not allow my child to play with guns or idolize guns or fantasize about guns. But reality has a way of smacking you across the face. So first there was a Nerf gun, which I resisted and used as an important tool for positive incentive/reinforcement. Having a nerf gun in the house was not nearly as big a deal as I thought. My son routinely went through weeks when he wasn’t even interested in playing with it.

But the design of his and his friends’ guns comes, in part, comes from video games and video game tie-ins. This brought Fortnite front and center. Another thing I am very sensitive about, in addition to my distaste for guns in general is the toxic behavior people exhibit online. I don’t want to start ranting about the damage that Facebook and YouTube have caused, but I knew that interactions on Fortnite could be toxic. The game claims to be prohibited to those under the age of 12, but there is no enforcement. Kids as young as six are playing a lot, a probably younger kids too.

So, in another instance of leverage and positive reinforcement parenting, I got introduced to Fortnite. I guess this is the time to give a brief background on my own gaming career. I don’t really have one. I’m old enough to have been around at the dawn of consoles. Of course, my family always tried the product that was not most popular. So, instead of Atari, we had Intellivision. And I loved the football and baseball games, but that was pretty short-lived. I never had a Nintendo because I got too into music, listening, playing.

With the advent of mobile phone games, MANY years later, I kept looking for something that could soak up my attention and give me a real escape. I guess I played some SimCity, which is a planning and strategy game where you attempt to grow a safe, prosperous and happy town. I was introduced to that title in high school where it was used to help explain the threat of unchecked population growth.

What I eventually found on the phone was Real Racing 3, which I still play today. It had a steep learning curve, but I still love the granular difference between cars and the realistic feeling of adrenaline banging around real race tracks throughout the world. I found the experience surprisingly satisfying on an actual phone, even though the bigger iPad screen seems like it would be even better.

Another note about Real Racing, which has existed in an unchanged state since about 2013. The economic model is “free-to-play, pay-to-win.” That means anyone can partake of a premium gaming experience so long as they have a compatible device with enough memory. The more you play, however, the harder the game gets and then you need to upgrade your cars to stay competitive. Upgrades are much easier to come by if you pay cash. Also, the better cars require vast amounts of in-game currency. Again, with some cash, you can realize your dream of owning a Porsche 917K Le Mans car or McLaren Senna, or pretty much anything else. So, if you are a car nut, the rewards are enticing. But they are also virtually impossible to come by through just playing and grinding and spending hour after hour playing. You can get pretty far with that, but it literally takes years.

This model has been around for a long time, so I’m thinking that, as longs as the rewards are good enough, the developers and game studios are making decent money. And for someone like me who likes to dip his toe in the water before committing ANY money to a game, you can get an idea of the experience. You can know fairly well in advance what your money will get you and how much you may have to spend.

I don’t know if Fortnite invented this new incentive structure, but it has clearly had the most success. Here’s how it works. All players start on equal footing, as I described earlier and skill is required to be the winner of a Battle Royale — what gear to get, how you use the topography, teamwork if you are in a squad game, how and when to use and save resources like ammo and medical supplies. Whether you play using default settings, or whether you have spent big money on the game, you have the same chance to win.

So how does Epic monetize its 350 million users? This game features a vast array of non-competitive items you can buy — things that are purely cosmetic. But they are so wonderful! A seemingly never-ending fountain off characters, costumes, and skins that change the appearance of weapons and other items you collect during the game. There are themes and tie-ins that come and go with updates. This year Epic submerged large portions of the map under water that gradually receded. Currently, there is a Marvel tie in, which means you can play as Thor, Tony Stark and others.

These updates are organized around ‘seasons’ for which users may purchase a Battle Pass. For the duration of the season, the Battle Pass makes a variety of goodies available to players who have lot of success at the game. The Battle Pass also grants you the privilege of paying additional cash (above the season pass’ cost) to get other goodies. None of this makes you better at the game, but it will make you the envy of those defaults who have to play in a boring skin.

Part of the success, and you can’t argue with the fact that this has been successful, is microtransactions. The Battle Pass is $10, but after that initial outlay, you can spend $2 or $3 bucks and get something additional, beyond the freebies that all Battle Pass buyers get. The name of the game is to outdo your neighbor, not only in skill but in appearance. I shit you not, there are even fashion shows.

I started my journey to understand Fortnite during pandemic lockdown. One of the immediate aspects that appealed to me was the ability to interact with a bunch of people in a way that closely mimics stuff I might do in real life. Not like really shooting people, but certainly playing a very large game of paintball would compare. Your ability to interact with little details of your environment is vast and refreshing when you’ve been spending so much time inside. The map in Fortnite is about 7 square kilometers. There are interior and exterior spaces. There are hills and valleys and water and farms. There are a variety of vehicles you can use to get around if you don’t want to walk or run everywhere. These include boats, helicopters, cars and a golf cart. If you do spend a lot of time on your feet, you don’t get tired (which is one big difference between the game and reality), but as the game wears on, you have to stay in the safe zone or you start to take a lot of damage.

Another reason I didn’t want my 8-year old playing Fortnite was the violence. It’s not just the idea of inflicting pain and suffering on other people by means of firearms and other weapons, but the emotional toll of that along with the experience of being on the receiving end of those violent expressions. Of course, I’m also the same dad that let the boy watch Jaws at age six. I’m not here to give parenting advice, but Fortnite does a half decent job of toning down the violence so that it is more of a cartoon. It’s certainly way less blood and gore than Jaws. We can quibble with the euphemistic use of the term “eliminate” as a substitute for kill, but the game experience itself is not discomforting.

My personal experience with Fortnite is limited. I have played a bit on my iPad and enjoyed the intensity of battle, but I didn’t get hooked. One particular facet of Fortnite that I was unable or unwilling to indulge is “editing,” which means, building towers, walls and FORTifications (get it?). It’s an easy skill, but it seemed non-intuitive to me. I was able top run around the map and collect loot and encounter other players and shoot them very much as I would in a complicated paint ball event. But the idea of being able to instantly create towers and barriers stretched my brain a bit too far. That’s when the App Store algorithm steered me to PUBG.

As you can imagine, PUBG has no building/editing. You are stuck with the terrain and structures that are already on the map. Other than that, as I talked about earlier, the games are extremely similar. You parachute in, gear up and kill everybody else. Squads are four players in both games and you can work with friends or randoms.

Each of the games also acts as a social media platform, including baked-in voice chat that allows squad members to communicate in real time during the game. Voice chat is on by default for the entire 100 players that will participate in that particular match. You can limit it to just the four or two people in your squad. In fact, I’m not suer why you would want to listen to the whole room, but that’s the default. So, the first time I played, I turned up the volume (because sound is a big part of the game) and I was immediately greeted by simulated (?) sounds of coitus inflagrante. I luckily turned it down before nay son could ask what the hell was going on.

But the randos are actually part of the charm. On the one hand, simulated sex acts being aurally performed for six year olds is totally not OK. And I’ve also heard some VERY non-PC expressions that I would not tolerate in person. In those instances, I either bailed on my team or just kept quiet. Most often, people are quiet or don’t have the mics on, but I’ve had a few great experiences when I got schooled (kindly) by a more experienced player or got to share my accumulated knowledge with other less familiar with the game. PUBG even has a mentor program to match noobs with the OG community. I’ve never used that, but it’s definitely a cool idea.

PUBG Mobile’s battle Royale requires three broad skillsets. The first is jumping out of the airplane and landing where you want when you want. The second skill is scrounging around for loot/gear and allocating resources. You can only carry two rifles, one pistol and only enough meds and other stuff that will fit in your bag. The final phase is the endgame, which involves getting to the last safe zone (smallest circle) and finding a place where you can eliminate the last player(s) before they kill you. If someone has a high power sniper rifle and a clear shot at you, it doesn’t matter how much armor you are wearing, you are not going to survive that confrontation.

From the moment you set foot on the ground, you are in danger. If you choose to land somewhere with lots of buildings (which means better chance for quality gear), you have a higher chance of being shot by someone who got there before you. That means you want to be quick and decisive on your way down. If you want to risk a very quick game, drop in somewhere really popular. If you want to increase your chances of surviving the first two minutes, then you risk not getting proper gear, which leaves you vulnerable to players and bots. Yes, there are bots roaming around the map.

In the end, high ground with good cover and excellent visibility is your best bet, although often not available. Being on a roof can work, but you can’t get on most roofs. There are periodic airdrops which can supply you with supreme camouflage (grille suit), but snipers routinely stake out the drops to pick off unsuspecting players hoping to grab an advantage.

Each player has a bunch of hit points, which means they can take only so much damage before they are killed. Having a helmet and vest increase those hit points, but there is almost always someone who will get you before you see them. As with other battle royale games, there is an awkward in-between phase when you are ‘knocked down.’ This means that you have now taken enough damage that you can no longer use any gear, including medical supplies. All you can do when you’re knocked is crawl around pretty slowly. Also, getting knocked means you are on the clock. Yes, a teammate can come along and ‘revive’ you (and they somehow don’t need any medical supplies to do this), but it has to be fairly soon or your injuries will prove fatal.

Unlike other battle royale games, once you are dead, your game is over. In Fortnite, your teammates can resurrect your character at special ‘reboot’ stations, allowing you to get back in the fight, while also strengthening the social bonds of the team. Reviving and rebooting is an easy way to build closeness with gratitude inside the game’s social network, but in PUBG it limited to reviving. Once you’re dead, you’re dead.

Winning, whether you do it on your own or as part of a squad, is tremendously satisfying. In PUBG it increases the likelihood that you will get better cosmetic goodies. Predictably, you get more experience points when you win. As you rank up you get more goodies, but nothing that will give you much of an advantage in the battle.

I love finding new multi-player games that are free-to-play. There is a common algorithm that “matches” you with other players in order to provide the best “user experience.” Ah yes, I love that user experience. You can say what you want about the interface, the graphics, the overall look, sound and feel of that game — none of that compares to what really moves the need on “user experience.”

The best user experience is when you win.

A game like Fortnite or PUBG mobile presents a premium feel with amazing graphics and abundant features and context that you would expect to pay $40 or more to “experience.” How can they give that away for free?

The answer is to develop an algorithm that stimulates just enough serotonin to thrill you with YOUR OWN performance, while challenging you with enough so you will repeat to improve. While using the outfits as an incentive is good, making you think you can succeed at this game if you KEEP PLAYING is the real trick.

There are always a lot of new users that can help make your first few missions easier, but the developers have stacked the odds (in your favor!) with some characters in the game not being actual players. These bots may try to kill you if you find them in the field, but they don’t try very hard.

Yes, it’s a ruse, but after playing the game for a couple months, I approve the method. The bots have helped me develop some very basic skills, while also getting my ass blown off by more experienced players. I look at it as basically a hybrid continuation of the tutorial.

The usual algorithm formula is otherwise in place for matching. As you get better, you get matched with better players. After a bunch of frustrating games you will start getting some easier opponents. The push-pull continues so that your results will reach equilibrium in correlation to the amount of time you want to spend getting better.

Part of my mission with the Escape Pod is to get away from the persistent hellscape of reality. I would not think that the disturbing violence of PUBG Mobile would be much of an antidote, but the difference between me IRL and me online in these games is so vast that it feels cathartic. Do I have a secret love for these weapons of pain and destruction? Yes, and it’s not a secret. There is a conscious appreciation of the machines, like with exotic cars, where I like to know about the engineering and delight in the emotion and artistry, but I definitely don’t want one (or more) for myself. Like a racing game that lets me live out my fantasy of being a world champion driver, these games let me celebrate my love of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies in the 80’s.

I think there’s a lot of tedious and problematic and vey young people playing these games. I’m not sure how this level of simulation effects those people, but the concept of playing with people you already know (as opposed to algorithm-aided matching) is much more appealing and easily accommodated on the platform.

If you are already playing, or if you want to try, I will continue to be somewhat active on PUBG Mobile, and I would love for you to hit me up. I’m thrilled to have gotten to know some of the aspects of how these games work and why they are successful.