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Pop CultureOctober 6, 2018

The six month bug that killed PUBG down under

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Since its early access release in March last year, PlayersUnknown’s Battlegrounds has been a global phenomenon – but events in recent months have nearly killed its Oceania playerbase. Adam Goodall investigates why, and whether it can be saved.

The first complaint is posted to r/PUBATTLEGROUNDS in January – “FPP Squad Oceania Not Working” – but they start to pick up speed around April. “Can’t find a game (Oceania).” “Are the oceania servers cooked?” “Why are the search queues so long and what has happened to this game?” One post, in early July, is just an image with the title, “PUBG in Oceania is really something special.” The image depicts the lobby screen in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Two players are trying to play together on Sanhok, the game’s tiny new map. They’re trying to play on the game’s dedicated Oceania server. They’ve been waiting 49 minutes and six seconds for a game.

Since its early access release in March last year, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has been a global phenomenon. Made by Korean team PUBG Corporation, PUBG is responsible for popularising the ‘battle royale’ subgenre of shooter, in which up to ninety-nine people drop into a location and kill each other until everyone is dead except for one person and that person wins the game. It now shares that label with hits like Ring of Elysium, Call of Duty Blackout and its perennial lunch-eater, Fortnite Battle Royale.

For most of PUBG’s life, players across the world have been able to play on one of six regional servers. Regional servers are important infrastructure for any online multiplayer game: they minimise lag and other in-game performance issues so everyone can play on an even playing field. It also makes it easier to actually get into a game – the lower a server’s ‘ping’, the faster your computer will connect with it and the less time you spend waiting for a game.

The estimated match time for PUBG in Oceania is overwhelming.

In April, Australian and New Zealand PUBG players started reporting major problems with the Oceania server. Players reported waiting up to an hour to enter a new match, and a steady stream of complaints popped up all over PUBG’s social media platforms. The community Facebook page for PUBG Oceania, “the largest PUBG community in OCE with over 20,000 members”, has a lengthy thread in which community members catalogue their run-ins with the server’s matchmaking issues.

I booted up my copy of PUBG and tried to get into games myself, during peak and off-peak times. The shortest amount of time I could have waited was eight minutes. The longest was nearly 45.

That’s a problem for the local player base because if you’re killed in the opening minutes of a PUBG match, all you can do is join a new game and try and do better the next time. That’s the basic structure of a battle royale game – no respawns, no mercy. On top of that, new PUBG players are often told that the best way to learn the game is to drop in ‘spicy’ zones – zones in each map that are popular places to start because of the weapons and equipment that spawn there – and fight your way out. New players will die a lot, and slow matchmaking pushes them away.

It’s unclear what impact these issues have had on the New Zealand player base. PUBG Corporation doesn’t publish its regional player counts and representatives for PUBG Corporation did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, anecdotally at least, there’s been a steady exodus of players from the Oceania servers to the game’s Asian, South East Asian and North American servers. This has created a vicious cycle of matchmaking problems: the fewer people queueing for a game, the longer it takes to find one.

A screenshot from Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, more commonly known as PUBG.

Angus Winter is one player who left PUBG behind. Winter got into the game during the early access period, eventually racking up 571 hours in game. He had settled into a routine, playing squad matches most nights with a small group of dedicated friends. “Where at the start I was motivated and really drawn in by how tense and fun the game was,” he says, “it became more of a way to relax and hang out with that same squad of people over Discord. Play some games, talk shit and hang out, that kinda thing.”

That squad evaporated after April. “The matchmaking timer would show 50 minutes, then we’d leave the queue, start it again and then it would instantly match us,” Winter says. “It started out as a minor problem but grew worse over time and came to a point where almost any time we tried to play we couldn’t match into a game on Oceania.”

“We tried jumping into South East Asia servers, or North American ones, but the lag really makes an impact in such a life or death game where you have to make snap judgements of what to do.”

Andrew ‘Archer’ Holmes is an Australian moderator on PUBG Oceania’s Discord chat channel and has been since the community’s early stages, having originally moderated the Overwatch community that morphed into PUBG Oceania. (He stresses early and often that he doesn’t speak on behalf of the rest of the moderation team or the server as a whole.) A regular squads player, Holmes started experiencing matchmaking problems in early July. “We were getting games every night, no real wait times, and then it seemed like we couldn’t get into a game.”

“The community certainly struggled through this time,” Holmes says, “[and] there was a great deal of anger and frustration.” Holmes and the rest of the moderation team did damage control where they could, “encourag[ing] people in the community who are frustrated to demonstrate their frustration in positive ways where possible.” Without a clear fix on the horizon, though, the moderation team were left running on their unwavering faith. “Our admin team had faith that the game would see a solid player base in matchmaking again,” Holmes says, “and so we endeavoured to support and encourage the community.”

PUBG Corporation indicated that this fix was on the way in a June 20th post on r/PUBATTLEGROUNDS. “The root cause of the problem,” PUBG Corporation community manager ‘Hawkinz’ explained, “is the way map selection works at the moment.” An April update to the game had introduced the ability for players to choose the map they wanted to play on, and this caused matchmaking on all servers to take a hit. Oceania players were hit particularly hard, “because of the player base size.”

Essentially, PUBG Corporation were saying, there weren’t enough players in Oceania to sustain multiple game types and map selection. This reported lower player count has dogged the region as PUBG has grown: last year’s roll-out of dedicated first-person servers, for example, was delayed due to the player base being just “too small”.

There was little public communication from PUBG Corporation after that June post, outside of announcing a new update that everyone hoped would fix the situation. Patch 22 dropped on Wednesday the 3rd of October and included a new ‘Region Renewal’ system. In this new system, a player’s “server/region will now be decided automatically depending on the player’s local region.”

The vibe, then, was that Patch 22 was make-or-break. Many hoped that it would fix the situation and revitalise the Oceanic PUBG community. “I’d love to be able to play again on OC,” Winter said before the patch was released, “if it works!”

But there was also the fear that it would instead trap players in forever-queues and high-ping games on the South East Asia server. That it would definitively reveal that the Oceanic player base is simply too small –that the only solution to the problem is for the Oceania region to literally have more people in it.

Patch 22 dropped at 5:30pm. After everyone had installed it and scheduled server maintenance had come to an end, members of the PUBG Oceania community flowed onto the dedicated Facebook page to register their thoughts.

For some, Patch 22 has done everything they wanted: they’re getting games, there’s next-to-no lag, their faith has been rewarded, or restored. I message Archer on Discord the next day; he responds, “can’t believe servers are fixed :joy:.”

“I was super happy to see that games indeed began “popping” again,” he later elaborated. “You could tell from the General Chat of the Discord, it was going OFF. There was so much activity, people were anxious to know if the patch had given us that miracle fix.”

“Personally I am ecstatic. I rushed home from work to download the patch and I was ready to play. It had been 2 months since I had played a proper game of PUBG and the last 24 hours of getting instant pop games has been awesome.”

For others on that Facebook thread, though, the patch didn’t seem to fix their problems. “No good for me,” a New Zealand commenter posted at 1am. “Took forever to find a game, lobby was super buggy, finally got a game, 200 ping. This was the final straw for me, back to Ring of Elysium.”

For others still, Patch 22 wasn’t enough. They’re not coming back. “Fortnite is popping fine,” one commenter says. “All game modes lol.”

Keep going!