PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds has come a long way. From Steam early access phenomenon to popularising the battle royale genre, PUBG has enjoyed millions of players across multiple platforms.
On PC, though, PUBG's peak appears behind it. It has an astonishing all-time peak of 3.2m concurrent players on Steam, but that was achieved two years ago, in January 2018. Nowadays, PUBG peaks in the 600,000s.
This is not to say PUBG is done and dusted. It remains a massive game on Steam, the third-most popular game on Valve's platform, in fact, behind only Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. And the developers of PUBG continue to update the game in a bid to keep its playerbase interested and active. Recently, we heard about the experimental Bluehole mode, a way of playing the game that forces "circle squatters" to keep moving. The latest development is a brand new map called Karakin that has something that sounds very much like Bluehole Mode, but with a twist. It's called the Black Zone, and it levels buildings. The idea is it keeps players on edge, discourages camping and gets everyone moving - all across one of the game's smallest maps.
To find out more about Karakin, and to ask more general questions about PUBG's transition to the PS5 and Xbox Series X and whether or not there's a need for a PUBG 2, we had a chat with Dave Curd, the studio head at PUBG Madison and creative director of the new map. Here's how it went.
So how long have you been working on Karakin? It kind of came out of nowhere.
Dave Curd: This has been pretty pleasant because nothing leaked. We're very proud of that. I'd say the team has been pencils down, probably about six months, from those initial ideas of, hey, we want to try a more dynamic map - how can we spice up gameplay? - to, okay, it's out on the test server. It was probably a six month push.
How many maps do you have in development at one time in various stages? Do you have a few on the go? Or do you just pick one idea to run with?
Dave Curd: Every team has their own mission. And there's a million ideas floating around all the time. But we always have to be working on one thing together to make sure development goes smoothly.
This map seems a little bit more scaled back compared to the last one, Vikendi. It's a bit smaller and there are fewer weird and wacky locations. Why did you go for a smaller map?
Dave Curd: It's really stripped down because form follows function, right? We know we wanted to try something new and dynamic. The idea of the Black Zone to where buildings can be destroyed and replaced with ruins. The idea to try out bullet penetration and breach walls. These are all new, unproven things. So we wanted to have a map of the appropriate scale to make sure everything ran well, everything was performant.
And then also the kind of experience we're trying to give. We're pushing for, I think the sweet spot between the tension of Miramar, like the sniper fights, the not knowing if people are watching you, with the game pace of Sanhok, where you can get through a game in 15 to 20 minutes. So all these decisions we're making for how it should play and how it should feel, led us to making a very tiny 2x2km map.
Destruction plays a big part in this new map. Was this inspired by community suggestions? Or was this something the team wanted to include for a long time?
Dave Curd: It's an event map, right? It's limited time engagement. So we get to put it out there and see what the community thinks. If people are like yeah, we love breach walls, we love penetration, we want to see it more, or they're like oh hey, it's interesting, but don't get that in Erangel - we're really excited to see what the community thinks.
I really liked the tactical possibilities, especially with the the bullet penetration and the way you can treat it almost like a game of Rainbow Six - you can breach and clear if you're working with a with a fully-fledged, properly cooperating team. Have you seen stuff like that happening from the pro players?
Dave Curd: I've seen some stuff on Reddit of players using the feature appropriately and also, as you'd expect, I've seen the players using the sticky bomb for fun shenanigans. It plays that cute little random ringtone. Seeing and hearing the players troll each other with these bombs has been super funny. Myself, I have had fun cutting out little tiny eyeholes behind walls and camping like a little jerk. That's been fun for me.
I loved to stand on a hill and watch the mortars rain down on the Black Zones and flatten the buildings. Are they ever going to come to the older maps, or is it like you said: this is just an event map?
Dave Curd: I'm really curious. It all depends on the community. It depends on what our players want. If we say fans first, that sounds like a really cheesy marketing thing. But we're a game for the fans, and if they don't like features we're not going to put it in. So I'm really curious to see if people are like, we want this in every map, or it's more of an interesting experiment. For me it's been tremendously satisfying to see the clips on Reddit and on Twitter of players running through the Black Zone and freaking out and being surprised. That's just been so satisfying.
I enjoyed playing with the experimental gliders as well recently. I feel like feedback for the glider was pretty positive. Has the initial feedback from breaching and the Black Zone been positive?
Dave Curd: Everyone's on the same page. Black Zone, Black Zone siren, that whole experience, it's a little loud. So we're going to try to bring that sound down. When you're playing one match and you're testing locally, it's super fun and awesome. But when you're watching your favourite streamer play it for hours, it gets pretty fatiguing. We hear the fans loud and clear, so we're going to come down on the audio.
And then there's also a pretty big sentiment that loot could come up, like players want to gear up a little bit faster. I myself am kind of feeling meds and armour could be a little higher. So those are changes we're working on. But otherwise, people are loving the mechanics. They're loving the new gameplay. I'm hearing really good stuff about how it's performing on lower end computers. So yeah, the fans really seem to like the map and the idea itself. We just have these couple of little things to tweak. And that's because we got it up on the test server and are able to get that early feedback.
I was a big fan of finding little secret passages in the mountainside and in the domes and dropping down and finding loot caches. I noticed a lot of the secret rooms had squid logos on. Are these to do with the new PlayerUnknown lore that's being built?
Dave Curd: With every map we're trying to tell small stories and get maps to relate to other maps. So you're going to see clues in this map that relate to Miramar, for example. And in terms of that logo, when you see the season's costume choices, there are two factions: there's a smuggler faction, and a PMC faction. You'll see the smugglers employ the squid logo, and throughout the map, you'll see the stencilled squid is a marking of, hey, this is their territory or their turf. And often around this logo, it's implying hey, maybe there are some secrets, maybe there are some breach wall secrets you should investigate as the player.
Are these little narrative teasers going to tie into the original narrative experience that's being developed by Striking Distance, or are they standalone stuff?
Dave Curd: Right now, everything we do is contained in just the PUBG universe. Striking Distance's effort, I don't have any transparency into it. We're not directly working together at this point.
Was the Black Zone inspired by the Bluehole mode, which was an experimental inner Blue Zone announced a few weeks back?
Dave Curd: No. All of the teams are free to run down passions and try out new things. And I believe Bluehole mode was developed by our game design team in Korea. And that's something they've been working on for a while.
Do you know if it worked? If it'll come to the game in either testing or full time at any point?
Dave Curd: I don't know. If fans love it, you'll always see more of it, because we just want to keep them happy. But I've been honestly just super heads down. Even though we're on the test server, we're still making little adjustments and tuning the map at the last minute. So I don't have a lot of good visibility to what's going out outside this little Madison silo.
As far as I'm aware, Bluehole mode was a way to stop players from camping in the circle. I presume there's a similar thinking behind the Black Zone?
Dave Curd: It's so funny how we arrive at these design decisions. The first thought was, hey, wouldn't it be great if the map could change? No two maps would be the same. The player should always have cool choices, and they should never play the same game twice. So we start thinking, man, how do we get rid of these buildings? Oh okay, a missile strike of some kind makes a lot of sense. And it just kind of thematically made sense to make something that's the opposite of the Red Zone, right? Because the Red Zone drives players into shelter, or at least out of the Red Zone. So we thought it would be fun to make an opposite, where it gets campers out. It makes sure people can't get too comfortable inside an interior while they're looting.
And we kept wanting to introduce tension and stressors into the map, and we do that with circle speed, we do that with loot. And now we do that with the Black Zone. Now I'll even find myself on the test server looting, trying to find my backpack because I can't seem to find a backpack, and I hear that siren and I see I'm in that purple circle, and I have to do that calculus of, okay, my specific building probably won't get hurt but do I want to risk it? And it's just one more thing we try to put into the player's lap to keep them thinking and keep them on edge.
Well, I tried very hard to get inside a building that was gonna get hit by a missile and I never managed it. What happens when you are in a building that gets hit? Is it you wiped out? Or are you just knocked out?
Dave Curd: You are vaporised. You are totally killed. It is very, very unforgiving. For me, it's always surprising when it actually gets me because I've been living with it for six months. Every once in a while it'll still surprise me and catch me off guard, which is pretty funny.
So if you're in squads you can't even be revived?
Dave Curd: No. You are just wasted.
Wow. I'll definitely stay out of those buildings, then.
Dave Curd: It's super dangerous. If we don't give those hard consequences... you know like how players can tank the Blue Zone [this means hanging around in the Blue Zone with loads of med packs so you don't die]? If a squad was in a building, you could say okay, one guy go outside in case our building is hit and come back and res us, and we didn't want to encourage that gameplay. We wanted a nice harsh penalty so players will pay attention.
Fair enough. Now I'm definitely scared of the Black Zone! So, with new additions like this coming to the game, do you think PUBG is ever going to be able to get back to a place where it had like three million concurrents on Steam? Or do you think that's impossible now? Do you think the high point has gone and now it's a case of keeping it chugging along?
Dave Curd: I feel like that's more of a business development question. But my take on it is, it's hard to invent ice cream, and then everyone's like, oh, we all want to eat delicious ice cream, and now everyone makes ice cream, right? When we came out, we were the first real huge battle royale game to market that caught the public's imagination.
But, you know, I'm just going to say it: I don't think it was for everybody, right? Now you have lots of our competitive titles that offer very different experiences. And that's going to make different kinds of players happy. I can't worry about the audience. I can't worry about our numbers. I just want us to keep making things that make us smile and make us interested. And I think that's going to show in the fans' reactions, and how they respond to each season and how they keep supporting us and engaging with us on Twitter and Reddit. I can't worry if we're gonna get up to three million next week. I just want to make the best damn game possible.
Fair enough. So what is the master plan here? Are there plans to release say a PUBG 2, or are you just planning on continuing to evolve and add to this version, so it's always expanding and growing?
Dave Curd: Yeah, this is an evergreen game. There's no reason to stop making PUBG awesome and keep evolving PUBG. Someone in the community posted this video that cataloged from early access, when everyone was starting in a warehouse, until the Karakin release video. And I have to admit, I had little developer tears welling up in my eyes to see how far the game has come in such a relatively short amount of time. So I want to see where our game is at in the next five years.
Yeah. I do love the way it is evolving like this. I played it back in the beginning when it was early access. And the difference between my old videos and what I'm playing now is quite vast.
Dave Curd: Every season we want to try to keep evolving the game and bringing something new to the table, and listening to the fans to make sure we're giving them mostly what they want and sometimes what they need. It's been such an awesome journey.
Finally, when it comes to PC, you can evolve the game as it goes. How are you tackling the transition to next-gen consoles with the game?
It's awesome because next-gen consoles just let us push more stuff in. Thankfully, there's no... like, if we were coming out on the Game Boy Color I'd have concerns. But with the new console generation, it's just going to help us keep that PC experience, high fidelity graphics, awesome audio - it's just better. I hate to sound cheesy, but I'm excited to develop for the new consoles.
Oh, one more! Why did you decide to replace Vikendi and not Sanhok, because I loved Vikendi and I'm not a fan of Sanhok!
Dave Curd: Vikendi is a real hot and cold map. Some people really really love it and some people are impartial to it. I would say it just made the most sense, because Sanhok is super duper duper popular. I still believe Sanhok enjoys one of our highest pick rates.
I die so fast on that so I hate it.
Dave Curd: I think that's totally fair! Our fans keep saying, hey, you're making small maps. Why not big maps? And, you know, we don't want to just provide the same kind of flavour of vanilla ice cream, you know, season after season. I think that's the quickest, easiest way to fatigue your fans. I worked on other triple-A shooters back in the day. And we would make small maps, medium maps, large maps, and the medium and large maps weren't always my cup of tea, but I understood, it's what makes you appreciate the small maps more. It's just having that contrast. So, I love Vikendi, too. I would just enjoy this event map for what it is. And I think things are going to keep on being awesome.
Cool. So is there any idea how long it will last before it's removed and swapped back?
Dave Curd: I don't know. My understanding is it's an event map for a season. So my guess is, it's just here for a brief run and we'll see what people think.