PUBG is now 38.3% of all internet traffic. The rest is cat videos…and porn.
This is part one in a three part series that explains why games like Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite have exploded in popularity while other, seemingly well constructed games, died off before they even made a splash.
Playerunknown’s Battleground (PUBG) is a massive, run-away success. As of writing this, it has surpassed Counter-Strike and DOTA 2 to become the most played game on steam. In a typical twenty four hour day, PUBG floats between 10% and 25% of Steam’s in-game population. The success of PUBG is even more surprising considering its lack of overall content and bugs that persist today (early access ended in December). So what’s the big deal? It’s popular but why does that matter? It matters because it demonstrates the first person shooter market can change. In the age of Counter-Strike, Call of Duty, Overwatch, and Battlefield there is still room for new games and new ideas to thrive.
I didn’t get into PUBG immediately. The concept sounded great but due to my schedule and backlog of games I didn’t pick it up until September of 2017. It took one match for me to realize that Blue Hole was sitting on the best idea in the FPS genre since the original Counter-Strike. In this series of articles, I will explain why PUBG, a game with less than stellar graphics and plagued by cheaters, is a resounding success that nearly no one saw coming. At the same time I’ll briefly cover why LawBreakers, a game that was well built and technically sound, failed to capture even the tiniest portion of the market.
Reason 1: PUBG created a market instead of chasing one.
To understand why PUBG was so successful, we have to look at the traditional strategies that companies use when they want to sell something (whatever that may be). When developing a product (or service) to sell, an organization will normally pick from two different market approaches: Option A (break-in) or Option B (create).
Option A: Design and sell a product/service for an established market
The advantages of option A are (usually):
- Less market research required, customer base already established
- Less of a need to be number one, a product can survive as long as it turns a profit
- Second-mover advantage
- Generally lower chance of failure if the market isn’t saturated
The disadvantages of option A are (usually):
- Limited growth potential, the size and limit of the market is usually established
- Competition has first-mover advantage, can be difficult to convince consumers to change products (switching cost)
- High chance of failure if the market is misread and already saturated
Product A Examples: LawBreakers, Anthem – Both of these games are using established markets as their potential customer base. Anthem, when released, will attempt to break into the co-op FPS “looter shooter” market. LawBreakers attempted to use the hero arena market.
Let’s talk about LawBreakers for a moment. If you are familiar with the story, you probably know it failed right out of the metaphorical gate. Game launch failures of that magnitude are often the combination of a number of factors, but for now, let’s dissect just one of the reasons Lawbreakers was a total loss.
On paper, LawBreakers looked like a safe bet. It was functional, mostly bug free, and likely enjoyable. The plan for LawBreakers was to expand into the already established hero arena market that was largely controlled by games the likes of Overwatch, Paladins, and Rainbow Six Siege (R6 is a hero shooter tactical hybrid).
Cliff Bleszinski and his marketing team released LawBreakers in a market already saturated with similar games. Overwatch, for example, is an absolute juggernaut in that space. Overwatch has what amounts to first-mover advantage and they are easily the market leader. A lot of other games followed Overwatch into the hero arena market and packed the genre full of alternatives (e.g. Paladins, Quake Champions). When one considers the alternatives to the alternatives as well (MOBAs, other games, dwarf fortress, writing a crappy video game blog), there were simply very few, consumers left for LawBreakers to…consume. Is this the only reason why LawBreakers failed? No, but I would argue it is the most influential. Could another game, designed in a different manner, with a different pricing model, break into the hero arena market? Yes, its possible, though I would argue it would be very difficult. Let’s be frank, LawBreakers didn’t flop just because the market is saturated. They made a lot of other mistakes with its design and marketing. I will cover the other reasons in the next couple of articles.
Option B: Design and sell a product/service that will create a new market (or greatly expand a tiny one)
The advantages of option B are (usually)
- Massive growth potential, potentially higher profits compared to option A
- First-mover advantage, control of initial customer base
- Brand recognition
The disadvantages of option B are (usually):
- Generally higher chance of failure compared to option A (lack of data to analyze)
- Potential to “poison the well” – failure can tarnish brand recognition, future products
Product B Examples: Ebay, Amazon, PUBG – All of these products/services took a risk and attempted to solve a “problem” for consumers in a unique way. Ebay was the first major player in internet auctions, Amazon sold books via the internet, and PUBG provided tactical FPS players a new game to tackle.
You can probably guess from the images that Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds is an Option B approach to the market. Like all products utilizing this approach, it is generally riskier than Option A but the payoff is almost assuredly greater (first to market, control of initial customers).
PUBG is successful for the same reason the original GoPro was successful: The product created a sub-market instead of chasing trends. A GoPro, for example, falls into the broad, “people-who-need-a-camera” market. To call a GoPro “just a camera”, however, would be disingenuous because the product created a market that didn’t exist before – the action camera. We can apply the same lesson to PUBG: It established the Battle Royale market as a new sub-market in the overall FPS marketplace. You may be thinking: “Battle Royale games existed before PUBG.” It is true that the Battle Royale concept did exist before PUBG (as did portable cameras) but it was largely a niche genre that went largely unnoticed by the overall consumer base. Just like the GoPro before it, PUBG is that special combination of accessibility, usability, and quality that has suddenly made the Battle Royale genre a burgeoning market.
Now you might be asking yourself: “Why doesn’t every game developer just try a new concept and create a market for themselves?” The simple answer is that it’s really difficult to “strike gold” and make it work. There are a lot of factors at play but one of the biggest is the human factor. Humans are creators of habit and, generally speaking, stick with what they know. AAA game publishers/developers rarely attempt to create a market (option B) because there are millions upon millions of dollars on the line. AAA publishers would rather make some money in an established genre than have a complete failure in trying to create a new market (or sub-market) with a new product. There is a reason why Call of Duty is essentially re-released with minor changes every year – human beings enjoy that which they already know. This is also why new game types/genres often come from small and indepedent developers.
Independent developers are more willing to take risks with capital because they have less overhead. Independent developers might have more “passion” and “desire” to do something different but they don’t answer to a publisher supplying them with millions of dollars in funding (thus demanding ROI). It’s generally accepted among industry professionals that blowing up the industry with a new game is as much luck as it is careful planning & execution.
In conclusion, this explanation of product markets should make it a bit easier to understand why some games are successful, some fail to make a splash, and a few sit in the middle. It’s important to remember that markets alone don’t make or break a game. They are only one factor in the equation. In the next couple of articles in this series, I will cover design, accessibility, and wildcards.
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