Nobody likes to wait. Particularly in this day and age, blah blah instant gratification blah blah Instagram likes blah blah get off your phones. You know the drill. And video games, particularly single player games, have to ensure that loading and waiting is at a relative minimum so as not to detract from the experience of the game. Multiplayer online games, however, are a little different. People might put up with waiting in a lobby for other players as they know everyone else is in the same boat. You’re not as engrossed as you might be in a narrative-driven single player game, so it’s easy to do something else while you wait. There was a period where I would wait upwards of 10 minutes just to get into a ranked match of Rainbow Six Siege, which was only even remotely tolerable as my friends were queuing with me. How can games make this experience better for the player? Honestly, I have no idea. I’m not a game designer.
That being said, I’d like to talk about an example of what I would consider a successful waiting experience in an online game: the lobby of online battle-royale shooter game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (or PUBG as it’s generally referred to) has been making the rounds lately. For the uninformed, PUBG is a free-for-all battle-royale styled fight to the death survival shooter game – which can be played in teams of up to four – in which players parachute onto a large 8km x 8km island and fight to be the last man/woman standing, while constricting barriers force remaining players closer and closer together. I won’t ramble on and on about the main game itself: hop onto YouTube and watch some solid videos if you’re really interested.
To get right into the topic of this post, though, let’s run through the typical player experience between launching the game and beginning a game round.
Starting up the game, the player has a very brief load screen before they are presented with the main menu. Joining a game from the menu requires you to queue, while it matchmakes you with other players in the same geographical region and in the same game type (solo, duo or team). Here is where the game is firstly effectual in creating a successful waiting experience: you will be immediately placed into a game.
Despite being in Early Access (essentially still in a beta state), so many players are actually playing the game at any time that I have never had to wait more than 5-10 seconds to actually be placed into a match. In most cases, it happens immediately after I click the button. This immediate feedback from the game prevents a lull in participation: as the player is loading into the game they cannot refocus on any other activity (such as browsing the web or watching a video) or they risk missing the action.
Now my assertion is a little deceptive, as the game will firstly place you into a lobby in which you must wait for all 99 other players to join before the game begins a one minute countdown to the actual start of a round. In theory, this sounds like a lot of waiting. However, the way that the game structures this waiting maintains the player’s momentum and provides an experience which ultimately counterbalances this waiting period.
Once you are in the game lobby, the first thing you’ll probably notice are other players. Not necessarily because you’re seeing them all around you, but even before the game entirely loads, you’ll be hearing them. This is a controversial topic. PUBG uses proximity voice chat, meaning that you’ll be able to hear anyone who speaks within a certain radius around you, simulating real life dialogue. Personally, I think this is one of the best features of the game, but I know a lot of people don’t agree (the two links above are guides for the game and both recommend you immediately mute voice chat).
You cannot see the names of other players, only their avatars as they run around the island. Keeping the voice chat on will expose you to a lot of racism, anti-semeticism, homophobic slurs, and generally what teenagers and young adults will spit out under the guise of anonymity. Depending on your personal constitution you might want to mute the voice chat, but I believe this detracts from the experience of the game. In fact, giving the otherwise lifeless avatars a voice and personality reminds the player that they’re not fighting against trained military: more likely, the guy you’re shooting across the field is just an accountant with a little bit of downtime before dinner and a lot of pent up anger from a rough day at work. Engaging in the anonymous banter – which may be a little easier for Aussies like myself – is something that I believe enriches the gameplay experience, lightening the mood without the worry of repercussions while precluding targeted personal attacks on single players (since no names are displayed and no indication of a real person is given outside of their voice and avatar). Scenes range from a train of players crawling on the floor, chanting “I’m a slippery snake,” to people crowding around a single player playing Taylor Swift and commenting on the latter’s choice of music. It’s weird and wacky, and a great source of entertainment provided you don’t take it too seriously.
Additionally, the fact that you are in the game serves both a functional and entertainment purpose. The ‘lobby island’ is actually just off the coast of the island on which players parachute into, meaning that in the background, the game is loading many of the assets (terrain, buildings, etc.) which will be found during the game round. This means players only ever encounter two load screens between opening the game and finishing a round: one when starting up the game, and one when entering a lobby. Secondly, this allows players to move their character and interact with the environment while waiting, instead of staring at a static lobby screen as in many other online games. The island is littered with weapons that players can pick up and shoot others with – everyone is invincible, but avatars will still react with a visible impact and splash of blood. And since these items are limited, those who have to wait the longest will have first pick, offsetting the perceived inequality in waiting times.
This brings me to the second point of the lobby’s success: engagement, or as I totally just came up with, active waiting. Even though players are instantly placed in lobbies (which could be almost full or almost empty) they may have to wait 1-2 minutes. However, this time feels significantly shorter as their participation in the game through the factors mentioned above prevents the inertia which commonly comes with an extended wait.
In spite of issues
More often than not, PUBG is a buggy mess. Playing in a team of four (myself and three friends), 75% of the time someone would crash while leaving or joining a game. It’s frustrating, and combined with a boring lobby or long wait time in any other game would be a dealbreaker. However, the numerous technical issues of the game are completely offset by its ability to keep players engaged from the moment they click play, to the moment they are clubbed in the head by a naked man wielding a frying pan. It also helps that a lot of people play this game. Depending on your skill level you may not win a whole lot of games (known as a ‘chicken dinners’), but nothing beats that feeling of absolute elation of knowing you somehow beat 99 other people – even if your winning strategy involved cowering in a bush for 15 minutes.
Image 1: Bluehole. “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.” Promotional image. Accessed 23/7/17.
Images 2-5: Author’s screenshots.