Take a moment to consider the biggest video game of the last five years: 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V. With an estimated 85 million copies sold, it’s also arguably the biggest game ever, and it looks the part. Even without much expertise in video games, you’d imagine that a blockbuster video game would look something like Grand Theft Auto V: something with an extremely recognizable and popular brand name, in a popular genre that allows for a vast range of experiences, an eye for detail that elevates it above the crowded competition, backed by an aggressively supported and constantly expanded online multiplayer component that ensures it tremendous longevity.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is the complete opposite of all that. An incomplete, work-in-progress game when it first went on sale exclusively for PC users in March of last year (as an “Early Access” title, which lets developers sell copies of their games unfinished to both help fund development and incorporate feedback from real players), the game had a horrible name, didn’t look great, only mostly worked, and was built entirely around one idea, on one map. Inspired by films like Battle Royale and the Hunger Games novels, players are dropped out of a plane onto an island in groups of 100 with nothing but the clothes on their backs and challenged to become the last survivor. Less than a year later, it’s one of the biggest hits in video-game history.
Last month, after nine months in Early Access, Battlegrounds (often abbreviated as PUBG) was officially “released” — such terms are slippery when Early Access games are involved, but the full release came with, among other things, a host of new features that allowed users to edit replay videos and a brand-new map to play on. But Battlegrounds didn’t need a full release to make it one of the biggest games ever made: A month before the “complete” version 1.0 of Battlegrounds was released on December 20, the game had already sold 20 million copies in Early Access. Compare that to the other big video-game success story of 2017, the Nintendo Switch, and its most popular game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s not a perfectly clean-cut comparison, because unlike Breath of the Wild, playing Battlegrounds doesn’t require the additional purchase of a whole new console. But Breath of the Wild, like Battlegrounds, went on sale in March and had only sold 4.7 million copies by fall of last year, and still managed to capture the attention of the entire industry.
We’ve only seen something like Battlegrounds once before, almost ten years ago: Minecraft. Like Battlegrounds, Minecraft was initially released in a rough prototype way back in 2009, grew via word of mouth, transitioned to a “full” release, and years later still regularly blows away every other game in sales. Minecraft isn’t just a game, it’s a platform — a game of games and a subculture unto itself. Around this time last year, it was announced that Minecraft had sold 122 million copies, with 22 million of those sales attributed to people who bought the game in the back half of 2016. That’s better than most games can ever hope for, all for a game that’s existed in its current state since 2011.
The difference with Battlegrounds is that, unlike Minecraft — which caught on quietly and inauspiciously before its mainstream tipping point in 2011 — it’s engineered for this specific moment in video games. The game was built at the crossroads of every major trend in video games when it launched in spring 2017: It followed a wave of quietly popular survival games, was built for a burgeoning ecosystem of video-game streamers, shows promise as an eSport, was initially released in Early Access, monetized further via loot boxes and microtransactions, and is designed to be played indefinitely under the “games as a service” business model. Battlegrounds is a white whale of a game, both lightning in a bottle and an unusually deft and successful trend chaser.
That success is only likely to continue in 2018 as the game continues to be expanded and supported with new maps and features, and an Xbox One version — currently in the console’s version of Early Access, called Game Preview — launched alongside the full PC release and expanded the game’s reach even further. Less likely to find the same kind of blockbuster success are the kinds of games that were doing so even five years ago. The video-game industry of 2017 was in flux; commentators fretted about the possible end to the era of mainstream, big-budget single-player games. Whether or not that’s true, the success of Battlegrounds is the sort that the mainstream games industry will doubtless spend 2018 watching and chasing, hoping that maybe someone can pull it off again.