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How PUBG survived an army of clones

How PUBG survived an army of clones

Hello and welcome to Protocol Gaming, your weekly guide to the business of video games. This week: How PUBG became one of the unlikeliest success stories in gaming, exclusivity is still a sore spot for some players in the aftermath of E3, and an experimental Pokémon game is coming to Switch soon.

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The Big Story

PUBG survived the battle royale gold rush. Now it's thriving.

One of the biggest surprise success stories in the game industry has been PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, or PUBG, as it's better known. The game was released on PC in early access back in 2017 as part of a unique partnership between British game mod designer Brendan Greene and South Korean game maker Bluehole. It was an instant sensation. And last week, parent company Krafton filed to go public in what is likely to be South Korea's largest-ever IPO. But the road hasn't been an easy one.

PUBG helped kickstart the mainstream battle royale trend, with its large player count and shrinking circle. It was a revelation for gamers used to shooting games relying on quick reflexes and the steady feedback loop of play-die-respawn. In PUBG, if you perished, you were out of the competition for good.

  • But PUBG's core game design, which cannot be copyrighted, made it ripe for copycats. Soon enough, sleeker, better-produced battle royale games like Fortnite, Apex Legends and eventually Call of Duty: Warzone emerged.
  • PUBG, hamstrung by bugs and a slower development pace, couldn't keep up with the breakneck update cycle and cartoony, kid-friendly appeal of Fortnite, which cemented developer Epic Games as an industry leader in the battle royale space.
  • If you asked most gaming fans, including myself, what their impression of PUBG was around 2019, they might have said it was a second-rate BR game on the decline. And they would have been very wrong.

PUBG didn't fade into obscurity after Fortnite. Instead, Bluehole released a mobile version of the game in 2018, developed by Tencent's Lightspeed & Quantum Studio, and it quickly grew into one of the most successful mobile games in the world and the pillar of the PUBG brand.

  • PUBG Mobile has been downloaded more than 1 billion times worldwide, not even including mainland China. In 2020 alone, the game made more than $2.6 billion and just this past quarter surpassed $5 billion in lifetime player spending, according to analytics firm SensorTower. With the PC and console versions' combined 75 million unit sales, PUBG ranks as the fifth-bestselling game of all time.
  • The game is among the most popular mobile titles in China, where it was rebranded as Game for Peace to appease the Chinese government. China accounts for more than half of all player spending on PUBG Mobile and a significant chunk of its overall player base when combined with the standard version of the game.
  • PUBG Mobile recently relaunched in the India market, following a similar rebrand to appease the Indian government and its ongoing feud with technology companies linked to China. (Investor Tencent was the previous publisher of PUBG Mobile in India.) The new game, Battlegrounds Mobile India, is expected to be another major hit for the growing PUBG ecosystem.

PUBG is now evolving into a vast entertainment property, and whether the game can be successful as a broader franchise will determine the scope of Krafton's upcoming IPO. At the higher end, the company could be valued at more than $25 billion.

The success of PUBG is a stark reminder that the gaming industry now includes so much more than what gets shown at E3 or what big character-driven franchises are used to market game consoles. But more than anything, PUBG is a testament to the power of mobile, and the ways in which easier access to higher-quality games on smartphones is both the single biggest driver in industry growth and a viable path for early-access indie games to transform into worldwide phenomenons.

Overheard

  • "We support and encourage cross-play … that number will continue to grow." —PlayStation boss Jim Ryan tells Axios that Sony is committed to supporting console cross-play, which it once vigorously opposed and even made developers like Fortnite creator Epic pay extra premiums for after it eventually caved.
  • "If you want to play Starfield? PC and Xbox. Sorry, all I can really say is, 'I apologize,' because I'm certain that's frustrating to folks, but there's not a whole lot I can do about it." —Bethesda marketing chief Pete Hines tries addressing the controversy around Starfield's console exclusivity in an interview with GameSpot after Microsoft's Xbox E3 showcase last week.
  • "I think that's going to be really important as we emerge from this pandemic, and people are looking to engage in other activities, hopefully travel, vacations, etc. Nintendo Switch is one of those devices that they can take with them as they embark on various travels. The positioning we still think is incredibly relevant." —Nintendo of America President Doug Bowser comments on the enduring popularity of the Switch, especially during the last year of the COVID-19 pandemic, in an interview with The Verge.

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Lootbox

  • Cyberpunk 2077 returns to PlayStation. Developer CD Projekt Red and Sony reached an agreement to bring back the troubled action RPG, which was removed from its digital store in December amid a rocky, bug-ridden launch. The new listing reads, "Purchase for use on PS4 systems is not recommended," with Sony encouraging players to use a more powerful system.
  • Activision Blizzard squeezes through controversial executive compensation. The publisher was fighting with investors over its unusually high payday for CEO Bobby Kotick and other executives, with GamesIndustry.biz reporting a narrow 54% shareholder approval of the compensation packages.
  • Microsoft nabs former Stadia design director Kim Swift. Swift, best known for her work on seminal Valve hit Portal, is joining the Xbox Game Studios team to help developers build for the cloud, Polygon reported Monday. Swift, who left Stadia last month, marks another departure from the former Stadia game development division that was shut down earlier this year.
  • Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart bucks an industry trend. The new PlayStation 5 exclusive from Insomniac Games sold more copies in its second week than its first, according to retail sales data from the U.K. The rare occurrence is likely due to console bundles becoming available in stores following launch, with many consumers still itching to get their hands on the new PS5 hardware.
  • Breath of the Wild 2 lights up the fan theory community. The long-awaited sequel to the last Legend of Zelda game got a loose 2022 release date and new trailer last week. And now, fans are tossing out their most outlandish theories about the game's setting and a potential surprise protagonist. (Playing as longtime villain Ganondorf seems like … a stretch.)
  • Twitter reveals what games are most popular — on Twitter. The social networking company put out its list of most talked-about gaming topics for the first half of 2021. Genshin Impact led the list of most tweeted-about games in the world, while the Breath of the Wild sequel, Elden Ring and Battlefield 2042 were the most talked-about games at E3.
  • Next-gen PS VR may arrive during next year's holiday season. Bloomberg reported last week that Sony's next iteration of its virtual reality headset could launch during the fall of 2022, giving us the first real timeline for when the next-gen device could arrive.
  • Microsoft's cloud gaming service could bring next-gen to older consoles. Microsoft's post-E3 summary described an all-new use case for Xbox Cloud Gaming: bringing games exclusive to its Xbox Series X and S consoles to older Xbox One hardware. It's a novel use of cloud gaming and could mean Game Pass subscribers might not have to upgrade in the future if they don't want to.

Look out for

An experimental Pokémon game arrives as a Switch exclusive next month

The Pokémon universe has mostly dabbled in turn-based role-playing territory, with some offshoots like puzzle games, dungeon crawlers and a photography series. But next month marks the launch of Pokémon Unite, a new 5v5 strategy game modeled after the multiplayer online battle arena genre popularized by League of Legends and other titles.

The game will be free to play and a Switch exclusive, before a wider release on mobile phones in September. It's an interesting gamble from The Pokémon Company, but Pokémon Unite could make the infamously arcane MOBA, one of the most popular esports genres, more accessible to a younger mainstream audience.

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