Did Microsoft make a mistake paying for PUBG exclusivity?

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) has been a phenomenon this year, scorching its way to the summit of Steam’s Most Played and Top Selling games list. At any given time of day, more than 300,000 people are playing the tactical shooter, each of them hoping for the savory taste of a chicken dinner. The game continues to break concurrent player records on Steam every month, and shows no signs of slowing down. Even the test server has started showing up on the Most Played list despite player progress not carrying over to the full version of the game. It was nominated as one of the best games of the year at this year’s Game Awards, and (eventually) won the trophy for Best Multiplayer.

It didn’t take long for that kind of success to grab people’s attention. Microsoft quickly snapped up the exclusive rights to a console version of PUBG, announcing the partnership during the company’s June 2017 E3 conference. At the time, the move was seen as one of the better announcements Microsoft could have made, a highlight in an otherwise mediocre conference. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight however, I started wondering if Microsoft might have made a mistake by purchasing exclusivity for PUBG on the Xbox One.

PUBG has been in Early Access on PC since it debuted in April of this year, and should be entering its full 1.0 release status next Wednesday. The console version just released yesterday, exclusive to the Xbox One family of systems. While both the PC and console versions offer a tremendous value for $30, some competitors have sprung up since the game’s first Early Access release that change the value proposition rather significantly.

Competition from Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite

Like many people, I was talked into purchasing PUBG by a friend. One of my most reliable Overwatch partners started appearing online less and less, and she eventually logged into Battle.net and talked me into trying out the hot new game on Steam. After playing a few rounds, the appeal was immediately apparent. The constant tension PUBG manages to instill in its players is one of the more impressive aspects of the game, and it’s amplified by the constantly shrinking playspace which ensures matches never last too long. It’s a game of moments, and anyone who’s played for a while will have stories to tell, tales of triumph or slight mistakes that cost them the game.

Not long after I bought PUBG, I decided to try out the Battle Royale mode in Epic Games’ Fortnite. As much as I had enjoyed my time in PUBG, I felt an immediate sense of buyer’s remorse. For all intents and purposes, Fortnite’s Battle Royale is exactly the same as PUBG, from the opening parachute out of a cargo transport to the constantly shrinking playspace. Neither game has deformable terrain, but Fortnite allows players to smash buildings apart with a massive pickaxe and collect the materials to build cover or other structures where they see fit.

Fortnite was also built around playing on a controller, making it much easier for console-first players. This is not an insignificant advantage when the PC version of PUBG requires players to remember more than 20 inputs to play a round.

The only differences I could see were all tilted in Fortnite’s favor: it’s got a construction system built in to make each game play out differently, the art style is cleaner and more pleasant to look at, and, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t cost a dime to play. The Battle Royale mode has caught on in a big way, and Epic boasted last week that over 30 million people had downloaded the game on PC, PS4 and Xbox One, with over 1.3 million playing concurrently. This actually edges out PUBG, with just over 25 million copies sold according to Steamspy.

Fortnite isn’t the only game to borrow ideas from PUBG’s success. Late in August, no less of a gaming mainstay than Grand Theft Auto added a very similar sounding mode to GTA Online with its Smuggler’s Run update. The “Motor Wars” mode was described as a “tense battle for survival” and included many elements that have become familiar through PUBG. Players begin a match by jumping out of a helicopter in up to four teams, and have to stay within a constantly shrinking section of the map while trying to be the last group standing. While this mode barely supports a quarter of the players in a standard PUBG or Fortnite match, it’s a free add-on to a game over 80 million people already own.

Why should people buy PUBG on Xbox?

The Xbox One X is a powerful machine, and one of the advertised advantages for the console version of PUBG is a significant upgrade to the game’s graphics. This is ironic considering many of PUBG’s best PC players intentionally set their graphics as low as possible to show less cover onscreen. What’s more, anyone who’s played PUBG can tell you audio cues can be just as important as visuals. While gaming headsets are pretty common, I find that I’m much less likely to wear mine when I’m sitting on the couch than when I’m using my PC. I’m not familiar with the habits of every Xbox One player, but I doubt I’m alone in this scenario. Personally, given the option, I’d rather play this game on my PC than through a console.

There’s no question PUBG is a compelling experience, whether you win a game or get punched out just after your chute drops. It’s also sort of a mess, and trying to do simple things like jumping over a low fence can be a crapshoot. Though it’s constantly being updated, it’s unclear how many people will be willing to buy an unfinished game when it releases on Xbox One (Early Access titles being more of a PC gaming experience). An even better question may be: how many people will be willing to purchase a game they may already own?

PUBG has been a runaway sales hit on PC, but that may actually end up hurting its sales on Xbox One. Players who’ve already purchased the game on Steam probably have significant time invested in their avatar’s appearance by now, and may not be interested in starting over. One of the most important aspects of a multiplayer game like PUBG is being able to find a match quickly, and this is why the enormous playerbase is so important. Only one person out of 100 can win a round, and the other 99 will probably want to try again and get into a new game rather than waiting to see how the match ends.

Since PUBG and its competitors are all multiplayer-only games, they each need a significant playerbase to ensure gamers can play whenever they want to. If players end up avoiding the console version of PUBG, it may end up suffering a fate similar to LawBreakers, Battleborn, or Evolve, without enough players to sustain healthy matchmaking. PUBG wasn’t the only game in town when it launched on PC, but it played better than its competitors in every way that mattered. That may not be the case when it releases on Xbox One, and as a result players may look elsewhere for their Battle Royale fix.

One way to make sure there’s a dedicated playerbase for both versions would be to allow cross-play between the PC and console editions of PUBG. This won’t be supported at the Xbox One version’s launch, though the studio behind PUBG has expressed interest in adding the option at some point in the future. Of course this adds another set of challenges, since using a keyboard and mouse is generally much more precise than playing with a controller, and console players in this scenario would likely start at a disadvantage.

I may be totally wrong, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on console may end up surpassing the success of its PC predecessor. But between increased competition and the game’s own massive PC install base, the Xbox One version may find an uphill battle trying to grab players’ attention.