This week, Google Stadia emerged with a surprise announcement of a pretty big game launching immediately: Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG). Say what you will about the game’s age or its arguably dated take on battle royale, but PUBG still enjoys a healthy population of PC and console players. And now, it’s included with paid Stadia Pro subscriptions (which includes the new two-month trials that dropped earlier this month) and supports cross-play with a healthy population of Xbox One and PlayStation 4 players.
But what could have been a no-brainer blip of good Stadia news has been bungled by a design decision that’s sparking frustration and annoyance and is even affecting the existing console versions: new, stupid, spawn-out-of-nowhere bots.
98 problems, and a bot is… all of them
After hearing reports about a surprising bot influx on Tuesday, I booted PUBG using my Stadia Pro account on a laptop to confirm the bad news. I took an angry Redditor’s advice and jumped into a less popular matchmaking queue in order to guarantee I’d run into at least a few bots: a “first-person” solo-battling queue on the newly reworked Vikendi map.
After waiting roughly four minutes, I entered a pre-battle lobby with only one apparent human rival (you can tell based on who’s running around and throwing snowballs). Then the usual PUBG battling began: you skydive onto an island, pick up scattered supplies, and run toward an ever-shrinking central point.
Things were weird before I even put on my virtual parachute. Each match begins on a plane that flies over the battling map, and you get visual feedback for who’s jumping off and where. But in my first Stadia test, I only noticed one opponent jump off my plane, not dozens. Hmm.
Nobody apparently took a parachute anywhere near my starting zone, and with headphones on, I didn’t hear any footsteps or vehicles as I began amassing loot and preparing for an eventual showdown with someone. But who? The first answer came in the form of an explosion of bullets from a lightly occluded patch of trees half a klick away.
Here’s how dumb this bot was: the time I needed to triangulate the shot, get the foe in my sights, fire, realize I hadn’t put any bullets into my gun, reload, aim, and actually confirm my kill would have been enough for any human player to shoot me down three times over. I could see the bot mostly standing still in the distance while it pumped round after round in my direction. When I eventually looted its corpse (marked with a username with an underscore in it—an apparent tell of an official bot), I confirmed my suspicions: it was shooting an unwieldy SMG without a scope and, therefore, had no realistic chance of accurately taking me out from its distance. (It also had a massive inventory of health items, in spite of spawning and attacking nowhere near any lootable buildings.)
Its AI-driven decision to shoot roughly eight bullets a second with that pepper-spraying gun (in a stupid display of “HEY, OVER HERE, GUYS!”) while standing still had me howling: even noobs don’t play PUBG like that.
I moved on to loot another nearby building, at which point a bot appeared from out of nowhere, with zero audible footsteps leading up to its appearance, and struck me down. In a normal PUBG match, this would be the point where I could either pull up a “deathcam” view of my demise or “spectate” that player’s continued run through the island. I couldn’t select “deathcam,” however, while “spectate” instead loaded the viewpoint of the only other human player in my match.
Every opponent this player faced had at least one underscore in its username and would appear in all kinds of random ways. Some could be seen running in stuttering patterns on the horizon. Others opened fire wildly, exposing themselves as open targets. Still others zig-zagged backwards into the poison cloud with no apparent rhyme or reason—and certainly not in careful, “circle around for a safer path” strategies. At one point, a bot appeared behind the person I was spectating on top of a hill with a ridiculous upper-ground angle; the human I was watching didn’t notice this, stood still in a hiding point to peek at other bots, and was never shot. Meanwhile, two other bots in the distance ran next to each other without exchanging a single bullet.
A bot did eventually take this human down, at which point I got to watch the remaining two bots shoot each other to death—slowly and inaccurately, despite the spectator camera at this point showing that each bot had perfect aim on its target.
Caught watching paint dry
I joined one more match this way, waited five minutes in a queue, and was booted into a match where I was the only human player. I watched the “kill feed” in the top-right whittle down with AI bots killing each other, with each username containing an underscore. I amassed four kills by taking out bots who magically appeared somehow (again, zero skydivers followed me to my ridiculous corner of the map). Then, once more, an out-of-nowhere bot appeared within a few meters and killed me. Had I put forth any effort in these mostly bot matches, I would’ve probably fared better, but I was almost instantly bored with this proposition: a wholly unfair slew of stupid bots, who would either give me mindless target practice or would pop up around a corner and insta-kill me.
Then I wondered: is this the normal bot population I should expect, especially in a game that supports crossplay? I went back to the livid “PUBG on consoles” community on Reddit, where I learned something that Stadia’s PUBG build doesn’t communicate: you can’t join XB1 and PS4 instances unless you hook up a gamepad. It’s a reasonable limit in a world where mouse-and-keyboard players enjoy an assumed matchmaking edge. But why did I need to dig through angry Reddit posts to learn that, instead of getting a tidy, official notice within PUBG or the pre-game Stadia loading screens? Shouldn’t Stadia be eager to hide any evidence that its userbase is scant?
With a gamepad hooked up, I jumped into a more popular “third-person” server queue, where my session began almost instantly and was populated with roughly 20 other snowball-throwing lobby members. I waited a second to parachute, began free falling, and looked around: I could see five parachuters and skydivers in my general vicinity. After eight minutes of lonely looting and car-driving, I spied an opponent standing mostly still between some trees. Without a sniper rifle, I had to settle on a scoped semi-automatic rifle and pump a few rounds into this opponent, who didn’t bother dashing behind trees or cover after taking a couple of bullets. Target down. The username had an underscore.
I lived for another five minutes, killing two apparent human users along the way (I was actually trying this time) before dying as the 11th-ranked player out of 99. I spectated my killer from that point forward, and his next kill, the #10 player, was a bot standing entirely still inside of a small shack, staring away from both the open door and open window that exposed it. I ranked one spot below a bot who was caught watching paint dry. Cool.
“Positive or negative effects”
The PUBG-on-consoles community was warned about this change on Friday in an official developer letter. As PUBG Corp’s Joon H. Choi wrote:
We’ve seen the general skill level of our players grow significantly over the last 3 years. While PUBG veterans continue to hone their skills and improve, we’re seeing more often that many newer players are being eliminated early with no kills—and oftentimes with no damage dealt. You’ve been telling us for a while that the widening skill gap is creating a more and more challenging environment for some of our players and we’re now ready to talk about our plan to help this. In an effort to provide more ways for players to hone their skills and be able to fully enjoy what PUBG has to offer, we’ve decided to introduce bots with Update 7.1. Bots can have both positive or negative effects on a game depending on how well it is programmed.
The letter goes to great lengths to describe how “much attention” the devs devoted to the bots’ shooting and movement—which my experience summarily disproved. It contains zero acknowledgement of how or why these bots spawn out of nowhere. What about the crucial visual and audio feedback a PUBG player employs in its initial drop? What about the fact that human players have to hop into loud vehicles in order to have anywhere near as much map mobility—and thus contribute to the audio and visual landscape of an average PUBG match, which is now reduced by a bot population?
PUBG began life as a brainchild of Brendan Greene, a modder who cut his teeth on the hyper-realistic likes of ARMA III. Even with quality-of-life updates and console-friendly tweaks over the years, PUBG has always been the slow-and-realistic yin to Apex Legends and Fortnite‘s yang. The game isn’t doing Fortnite numbers necessarily, arguably because the game still requires a $30ish retail purchase to get in, as opposed to other battle royale games offering a free-to-play entry point. Yet it’s still hooking players by adhering to its “git gud” mentality. Just on Steam alone, it reached over 500,000 concurrent players today—today’s high for a paid Steam game.
As of press time, we can’t find conclusive evidence that this bot update will ever reach the PC version; other outlets have hinted to the possibility, but none have cited a PUBG Corp statement. But the horrible experience we’ve had with these bots, echoed by other angry users, doesn’t appear to be getting through to the PUBG powers that be. In a Wednesday update on Reddit, PUBG Corp doubled down on its use of bots in general console matchmaking, telling fans: “We obviously do not want matches being overrun by bots, but we need to be careful to not quickly rush a change without getting more data during peak hours this evening.” The devs then practically begged their fans to “please continue to play the game” to contribute to their data-digging effort.
Multiple questions in the Reddit thread asking why PUBG Corp didn’t test the bots in a sandboxed test server build of the game—available on both XB1 and PS4—remain unanswered as of press time. While PUBG Corp has assured fans that they can expect bot-free matchmaking in the consoles’ “ranked” tiers, these are currently closed, with a vague estimate of their relaunch in “May.” PUBG Corp could very well undo all of these bot-related changes in a follow-up update, but for now, the company sure doesn’t seem to be getting the point of what has differentiated PUBG enough to keep it popular for this many years.