Twitch Sensation 'Playerunknown's Battlegrounds' Explained

Twitch Sensation 'Playerunknown's Battlegrounds' Explained

'PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds' isn't even finished, and it's already topping the Twitch streaming charts Bluehole Studio

The 'battle royale' game from the genre's pioneer came out of nowhere to dominate the streaming platform

The 'battle royale' game from the genre's pioneer came out of nowhere to dominate the streaming platform

If you check Twitch right now, you’ll notice a game called Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds sitting on the front page, next to heavy-hitters like League of Legends, Overwatch, and Dota 2. That’s rarefied territory, especially for a game that seems to have come out of nowhere. Battlegrounds, which has been on the market for about two weeks, is the product of a modder-turned-game designer and a semi-obscure Korean studio. It released to Steam early access on March 23, and since then has been the top selling game on the entire service. It’s a crazy underdog story, but if you follow the history of this game and its creator, the momentum isn’t all that surprising. Here's what you need to know.

What is Playerunknown's Battlegrounds, exactly?
Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is a “battle royale” game – a genre that borrows its name from the infamous 1999 Japanese dystopian novel and subsequent action film that was controversial enough to be called “crude and tasteless” by the parliament. Generally, these games start with a ton of players spawning on disparate corners of a massive, structurally-sparse map – usually a deserted island or an abandoned stretch of wilderness dotted with a few decrepit structures. The goal is to be the last person alive. Players scrounge through dilapidated buildings to find guns, ammo, and armor, and most interactions with your fellow players end with a tense firefight and a brutal game over for the loser. The history is murky, but you can point to the zombie shooter/social experiment DayZ, and the kill-or-be-killed ruthlessness of the "Hunger Games" Minecraft servers as early prototypes of the genre.

In many ways, the design goal of battle royale games is to resist the stakes-free blitzkrieg you might find in Call of Duty or Halo. There's no real narrative in a typical deathmatch, no arc, no spleen-squeezing tension, no foreboding sense of inevitability in either of those blockbusters – you’ll live and die a hundred times in a claustrophobic map with a five second respawn timer. In Battlegrounds and games like it, you’re given exactly one life, and it’s up to you how you use it. Do you hunker down in a makeshift bunker and crawl your way to the center of the map? Do you establish an alliance with another lost soul and pray they don’t turn on you first? Do you trust the guy waving you over from that barn across the street? The fun in battle royale games is the uncertainty around all those questions.

So who is this Playerunknown guy anyway?
Playerunknown is Brendan Greene, an Irish game designer currently living in South Korea. In 2014, he released a mod for the military simulator ArmA II called Battle Royale, which itself grew out of the supremely popular DayZ mod. Battle Royale established the general trappings of the genre, and it found an immediate, dedicated audience. In fact, Battle Royale was so popular that it earned Greene a consulting position with the Daybreak Game Company on an upstart zombie shooter called H1Z1. Daybreak was constructing H1Z1’s own multiplayer variant, King of the Kill, which was directly inspired by Greene’s work, so it made sense to license the design from the original author. King of the Kill was the result, and it came out in early access in 2015, quickly becoming one of the most played games on Twitch. Today, it’s the first thing most people cite when you mention “battle royale.”

After Greene got King of the Kill off the ground, he hooked up with Korean studio Bluehole Inc. and started work on Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. His intention is to build the definitive distillation of the battle royale experience – the game he dreamed about making when he was sifting through ArmA assets as a modder. It might seems a little presumptuous that he’s literally inserted his own alias in the title, but remember: Greene essentially invented this genre.

What makes Battlegrounds different from all these other battle royale games?
Battlegrounds shares the same ancestry as Greene’s sober ArmA mods, so the world and weaponry are pretty grounded. H1Z1 takes place in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Xaviant’s The Culling is a satirical Hunger Games send-up where you can pull a katana out of an airdrop. In Ark: Survival Evolved, you can brandish an M16 and hitch a ride on a raptor. Battlegrounds’ tone is comparatively somber. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to a by-the-books tactical shooter that still plays in the battle royale space. There’s a heavier emphasis on gunplay, and a wider variety of firearms and modifications lurking in the loot boxes across the map. Seriously, you can unearth 17 unique extended magazines, which is a level of ultra-precise customization that most games of this type don’t dwell on.

But frankly, Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds isn’t a particularly deviant work. Brendan Greene is not trying to reinvent the wheel. Instead, you get the sense that this is his attempt to replicate the game that’s existed in his head for a long, long time.

Why is it so popular?
Greene has earned himself a cult following thanks to the success of King of the Kill, so that certainly helps. But also it can’t be understated how well games like Battlegrounds work as a spectator sport. Every round is a brand new story, and watching someone else struggle to survive in a cruel world can be enthralling. H1Z1 fostered a number of prominent content creators, and some of those personalities – like Dr DisRespect and Summit1g specifically – have recently started playing Battlegrounds. When some of the most popular streamers on the site start featuring your game, people tend to follow. Will Battlegrounds be able to sustain that community? Who knows, but it’s off to pretty good start.