PUBG will become free-to-play on all platforms from January 12, 2022. That decision reflects how the world has shifted around the trailblazing first-person shooter – the game that transformed the battle royale from DayZ mod to global phenomenon. It's been almost five years since PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds entered early access and there's been no shortage of rivals since. Something had to change if PUBG was to stay competitive.
"We came to the decision to make PUBG: Battlegrounds free-to-play because we feel that it is truly the right time," says creative director Dave Curd. "I know there are a lot of people who are interested in PUBG: Battleground but have never gotten around to playing it for various reasons – now is the perfect moment to get started."
PUBG goes F2P
Because PUBG has been a premium title since its launch in 2017, it's perhaps easy to overlook how content-rich it has become, particularly against other battle royales. When Curd assures me that PUBG "is the best it has ever been", he's pointing to its eight unique maps and deep weapon mechanics as evidence. The former ensures PUBG can continue to support a diverse range of play-styles, and the latter is a skill-ceiling that rewards patience and purposeful shot placement.
Putting PUBG's legacy aside, it's difficult to argue with the assertion that Apex Legends, Call of Duty: Warzone, and Fortnite have now become synonymous with the battle royale genre. These free-to-play games are the bedrock of multiplayer shooters in the modern era, boasting constantly shifting metas and updating storefronts to keep their massive player-bases active and engaged.
From the outside looking in, it's easy to imagine that the decision to strip PUBG of its $30 price tag is a response to the success EA, Activision, and Epic Games has seen in this space, though PUBG Corp is quick to push back against that calculation. "This is in no way a response to the other titles you've mentioned. They're all great games which specialise in their own unique strengths, just as we do. We develop our game independently of others and are excited to see what is to come," says Curd.
PUBG Corp sees the decision to go free-to-play with PUBG: Battlegrounds as more than an opportunity to "open it up for as many people as possible." The studio sees this as a chance to introduce new featuresets, make renewed commitments to the community, and grow the franchise even further before games set in the wider PUBG universe – such as The Callisto Protocol – launch later this year.
"It has absolutely opened up opportunities," Curd adds. "We can invite more people to the party and that means we'll see developments that we may not have witnessed with the previous pay-to-play model. In terms of developing and evolving, we will continue to do what we've always done: innovate, create new experiences, and grow the PUBG universe."
Growing the community
When major alterations are made to established games, it's natural for entrenched communities to fear change. Curd is quick to affirm that "despite the transition, the core game is still the core game", adding that PUBG Corp sees this as an "opportunity to continue to evolve" the central Battlegrounds experience. The creative director points to the addition of new gameplay features, and the introduction of Tactical Gear, action queuing, and a revamped tutorial system as examples of what this evolution will look like in the short term.
Curd says that going free-to-play "is going to grow our community, which is always a positive thing. We are ready to welcome new players with open arms and help them hit the ground running. We've developed amazing tutorials for newbies and will have a brand new shooting gallery, which I think is going to be a big hit."
A natural community concern is the stability of servers, and whether they will withstand the influx of new players. Curd says "the health of our servers won't be impacted" by the switch into free-to-play, adding, "as ever, we will be monitoring and updating them regularly when we need to." Given that PUBG: Battlegrounds has sold more than 75 million copies across PC and console to date, making it one of the best-selling games of all time, you have to hope that it'll be able to withstand the pressure.
It's worth remembering that PUBG Corp has tested extensively for this inevitably. In August 2021, PUBG: Battlegrounds had a week of free play; it was rumored at the time that this was a test run for a permanent free-to-play offering, which we now know was the case. "We saw a lot of success and an influx of new players when we held 'Free Play Week' last year, and we tapped into their experiences to help inform the direction we’d ultimately take when transitioning to a free to play model. While a lot of the new updates have been cooking for some time," says Curd, pointing to tactical gear and action queuing, which have long been in development. "The sentiment and feedback we saw during the 'Free Play Week' only bolstered our decision to make a permanent transition to free-to-play."
There are still questions surrounding Zakynthos, PUBG Corp's proprietary anti-cheat solution. The studio recently explained that, during the August Free Play Week, the "ratio of suspected cheaters spiked after the event started, but eventually recovered and settled in line with the numbers we had before the event." That's a promising sign. Cheaters remain a blight on the free-to-play games market, and one of PUBG's biggest challenges won't be satiating a new player base, but ensuring that the scales remain balanced. "The battle with cheaters continues as PUBG: Battlegrounds enters the free-to-play world," the anti-cheat team continues, "but we are dedicated and doing all we can to ensure that you not only hear about, but feel the effects of our anti-cheat solutions for yourselves."
A new beginning
PUBG: Battlegrounds is now free-to-play on all platforms, perhaps its most significant change since the battle royale entered Steam Early Access back in March 2017. As a thank you to all survivors who braved Erangel, and the maps that launched since, PUBG Corp has designed a commemorative pack as a thank you. It contains a handful of unique cosmetics and free access to Battlegrounds Plus.
"We think it is only fair to give a little extra to fans who have purchased PUBG: Battlegrounds before we transitioned to free-to-play. All those who have already bought our game receive a Commemorative Pack which includes a free Battlegrounds Plus upgrade where they can enjoy ranked mode, create custom matches, and collect in-game skins and G-Coin – as well as other benefits," says Curd, noting that new players will need to pay $12.99 to get access to Battlegrounds Plus.
I'm keen to see how PUBG: Battlegrounds weathers an influx of new players. As competitive as Apex Legends, Call of Duty: Warzone, and Fortnite can be, they are far more forgiving than PUBG. The battle royale leans further into realism than its competition, forcing tactical thinking and careful movement, should you want to be the last player standing. With its tense shootouts, heavier gunplay, and varied maps, PUBG still offers a nice contrast with what we're seeing elsewhere in the genre. And, as Curd says, this is just the beginning. "This is the natural next step and a great way to introduce more players to our universe."
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