In addition to making a whole new map, the team at PUBG Corp has also been working on new tools and features to help set Vikendi apart from its predecessors. There are new guns, new vehicles, and even a new footprint-tracking mechanic that makes late-game battles in snowy parts of the map even more treacherous. It’s a lot of work.
With Vikendi soon to hit the main game, we had the opportunity to speak to PUBG Corp’s world art director, Dave Curd, about what it takes to make a new battle royale map.
With every map we produce, we have some conversations internally to justify a map. Why do we want to make a map? What can we do to bring something new to the table? We have to have a really good reason to start a map because it’s a big deal. We had these conversations about what the new kind of encounters players could have and that was definitely tracking footprints – the idea of the hunter becoming the hunted. So from there, snow starts to make a lot of sense for the environment . Then as artists and designers, we look around and try to think of places we haven’t been yet and places that we think players would be excited to visit.
We kind of quickly zeroed in on Slovenian architecture, and the landscape there is really beautiful. Then from there, we talked about towns, cities, and unique locations. It’s just a lot of brainstorming, a lot of research, and then a lot of whittling down a million ideas to get down to the core ten or 15 areas we want players to visit.
With everything there’s vigorous play testing. We absolutely looked at super tall structures and we definitely had some things like that in play test, but we found it was like, “Oh my gosh, it’s fun to snipe from up there, but it’s not very fun to go up all those stairs.” So there’s all kinds of things that get cut pretty early. The good thing is we always design by blocking everything out and grey-boxing first. So very simple structures, no art, we’re always just trying to find the fun first. If it doesn’t pass the fun test we cut it.
So there’s a conversation with the designer of what do we want to achieve? What are we thinking about? In the tall cosmodrome tower idea the designer may have seen some photo references that they were into, or they saw something in a movie that was really alluring and wanted to kind of riff on that. The designer will have the kernel of the idea, absolutely. So while they’re designing it in grey block, I’m looking at a lot of references, film, real life, and art, and then I’m coming up with mood boards and style sheets. If it passes muster and everyone decides it’s fun, it’s very easy to take a few concepts and knock it out the park.
You get inspiration from a lot of different sources and put them all in the blender to achieve something really new and unique. There were trips to Slovenia to research the environment, to research the art and architecture. You have to do a deep dive into pop culture, so you’re looking at any kind of movie or TV show that takes place in the region. Even things as esoteric as travel books in the library can be useful. One of the initial challenges of making a realistic game is trying to bring a fresh take that we haven’t seen in a bunch of other competitive products.
Do you find yourself getting any inspiration from some of the other battle royales and their maps?
We don’t limit ourselves to just battle royale because if you’re looking at the other battle royales out there, they’re not really doing what we’re doing. We’re all kind of out there to meet a different goal, each one of those titles has its own feel or approach. But clearly, you have to look at all triple-A titles to make sure we’re trying to stay out there on the bleeding edge. We’re all gamers and we’re always checking every big game that comes out to see what they’re doing and see if there’s a few learnings we can incorporate into PUBG.
Are there places or that you spend huge amounts of time on that players probably won’t even notice?
We take that in consideration, we always try to art direct and design from big picture to little picture, especially myself, I love to design a small magazine cover that lives in the world. But that’s something nine out of ten players won’t even notice. We always try to make sure that we’re spending most of our effort in the big picture and less so into the little details. We’re basically describing the craft of environment art, these artists and designers do environmental storytelling, there are easter eggs, and we’re trying to do stories within the houses and building in an environment like the Dino Park or the Cosmodrome.
You can pour over those places and uncover new things every time you visit, but it’s all in service of players, looting, attacking, and surviving. If we’ve made something that makes a player want to stop and stare at it for ten minutes that’s kind of not a good thing, because we want players to keep moving.
What challenges did you encounter that are unique to creating a snow map?
Well the two big ones, there’s kind of technology and then visual. In technology, the big challenge is reconciling the footprint technology, “How do we acquire the decals for footsteps, for vehicles, for crawling in the snow?” The gameplay design intention currently in PUBG if you see an open door or a shattered window, you know someone’s been in the area, but you have no concept of when. Are they in the building right now? Was this at the very beginning of the game? You have no notion of that. So we went into it with the idea that if you see footprints, if you see vehicle prints, then you know that you’re pretty warm, there are players close by. With that design intention we had to put a lot of work into making the feature easy to read and easy to use. So there was a lot of play testing, but we landed with something we really like.
Then the visual challenge was very different from a map like Miramar, where our design intention was to have these big, dry, empty valleys that are perfect for deadly sniper fights. Miramar is very sparse, it’s very brutal. We didn’t want Vikendi to be as punishing because every map should have its own feel. The challenge in Vikendi is that snow is white, so it’s very easy to identify targets. We had to use foliage where appropriate, using a lot more solid cover like boulders, trees, and tractors. On top of that we also use atmospherics to protect players, like using haze or falling snow so that you’re not instantly sniped from 500 yards away just because you’re not wearing white clothes.
Was that a concern when making Vikendi? The idea of some players having an advantage because of the cosmetics they own is pretty controversial…
Well, yeah. And that’s kind of interesting because some players really like to take every fight. So we see people dress up in our wildest costumes, and then other players are going to grind really hard to unlock white palette clothes and try to dress for the season. So I think it’s fun that our game gives the player that roleplaying possibility. Do I dress for the snow? Or do I just express myself and take every fight?
With Vikendi out on test servers what has the reaction been like from players?
I’ve got to say, it’s been a really awesome. I think that’s why we get it on the test server, you know, to make sure that that even though we internally play test, and we have a good feeling for what we enjoy and what we intend, you never know until those millions of players are hammering on it if we kind of hit our goal. People do seem to feel that Vikendi has found that sweet spot between the mayhem of Sanhok and the tactics of Erangel.
I think the mid-game is feeling a lot better in Vikendi than it has in some of our other maps so we’re trying to get some key learnings out of that. There’s been a lot of conversations on both sides about the loot. Vikendi right now has more of a close quarter combat loot bias and that’s very intentional, as we’re driving players to experience the game in certain ways and we’re taking that feedback on board when something’s not right. That’s the great thing about these battle royale maps: we get to tune them forever, we’re always messing with loot, and we’re always messing with balance. But I would say this is about as good as you can expect it to be. The streamers have been pretty hyped, the community has been sending us a lot of love. So very, very satisfying.
How is it as a designer when you see so much of your work leaked?
Honestly, I’m pretty heads down. Obviously that stuff is out there but my team’s engaged on shipping the map. I try to stay off of Reddit and just get my job done to tell you the truth.
What’s your favourite part of Vikendi?
Oh my gosh, I’ll tell you a couple. I love Dino Park. I think it’s really fun and totally different from what we’ve done in the past. There is a maze in the middle of Dino Park that’s just perfect for a close-quarters combat specialist like me, and I’m only a specialist because I’m terrible with a sniper rifle. But as someone who loves shotguns and SMGs it’s so much damn fun to fight in the rock maze and be clearing out the little restaurants and souvenir shops. From a theme and design standpoint I enjoy that.
I also really enjoy the cosmodrome because I think you have a lot of different gameplay loops within one area. Outside there’s lots of long range combat, the buildings are all pretty well tuned. We have underground bunkers for really great CQC, too. I think you can have a lot of different stories in the cosmodrome. And really, any of our dense forest fights in the middle of nowhere, those are great fun as well. There are a lot of heavy trees, a lot of heavy snow, a lot of boulders. It just feels fun and cool, you see little breaths come out of your character’s mouth and it really captures that survival game itch you want to scratch. It’s really suspenseful because you never know where the combat going to come from, it’s hide and seek – I really have a good time in our forest combat.
Has the Fix PUBG program helped to optimise Vikendi?
Oh, absolutely. Every map, we’re going to learn more. Every map we’re understanding how to maximise prop density versus performance. The original Erangel map famously used some Asset Store props. It was made by a small team and that’s exactly what you want to do when you’re prototyping a game with a small team. They did everything exactly as you’re supposed to do, but now with each subsequent map, we’re making the props in-house, we’re making sure that the props are up to performance quality, we’re making sure the buildings are designed and optimized really well.
That’s just stuff we can control on the art side, on the engineering side all those dudes – who of course all are super smart – they’re always trying to push the consoles and PCs harder and get more bang for buck. Trust me, as an art director there’s nothing I love more than to just do everything to the the nth degree and with the highest level of quality. But we’re game makers – this isn’t Hollywood – we want to make a fun game first, and part of fun is performance. You want to feel that you lost a gunfight because of someone’s skill, not because we had too many unoptimized trees. All of us at PUBG are always trying to make the smoothest experience possible.
I know it’s a long way off, but what do you have in store for the next PUBG map?
We’re all having those internal discussions and there’s a lot of really cool stuff in the pot. I can’t tip my hat yet, but there’s definitely some cool shit coming.
Are there any environments or settings you’d love to work on?
Oh, my gosh. Well, I’ll tell you what, the stuff I want to try is all stuff that’s on the table. So I’m not allowed to say, but we’ve kind of touched on all the major biomes and I think what’s next is going to be really fun and really surprising.