Abid Hussain Barlaskar
Media

PUBG Mobile’s big comeback: What it means for the brand, gamers and the ecosystem...

Like the sanitised, 2019 version ‘Game for Peace’ in China, the brand is set to market PUBG Mobile for its India comeback.

Teenagers huddled together, digging into lit up slabs and passing crisp gameplay directions to their mates. This became a common sight in India, all thanks to PUBG Mobile. However, the game being played on those large smartphone screens was soon replaced by alternatives because of a ban imposed by the Indian government (on September 2).

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) banned PUBG Mobile (and 117 other Chinese apps), citing data security issues. A Sensor Tower report suggests that the ban caused a significant spike in the download of (PUBG Mobile) alternatives.

PUBG Mobile’s competitors Garena Free Fire and Call of Duty: Mobile currently hold the number one and two spots respectively in the ‘Top Grossing’ list of games on Google’s Play Store. Garena Free Fire was developed by Sea Group (Singapore-based tech company) and Call of Duty by Activision Blizzard (US-based). Until recently, PUBG Mobile’s distribution in India used to be handled by Chinese tech company Tencent.

While the ban hasn’t been lifted yet, PUBG Corporation, the creator of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), and a subsidiary of South Korea-based video game company Krafton, is taking steps to alleviate the reasons that got it banned in the first place. With favourable conditions and a possible unban, can PUBG Mobile regain lost ground?

PUBG Mobile’s big comeback: What it means for the brand, gamers and the ecosystem...

Within a week of the ban, PUBG Corporation severed ties with its Chinese publishing and marketing partner Tencent Games (responsible for the game in India). Krafton signed up Microsoft’s Azure cloud services to host the battle royale game, assuring better security for user data.

The company just announced that it is launching a new PUBG Mobile India specifically for the domestic market. The new version would have localised in-game content, ‘green hits’ instead of the red blood spill and restrictions on game time for young players.

Apart from the ‘sanitised’ game, the company will create an Indian subsidiary and set up a local office. It also plans to make investments worth $100 million in India. Over that, the company has already posted a relaunch promo video on its social media channels.

But can it get PUBG Mobile unbanned?

PUBG has tried it in the past, with great success in China, a country known for its rather stringent regulations. After failing to get approvals for two separate versions of the game, Tencent retouched one of them (in May 2019) and branded it as Peacekeeper Elite (reads as Game for Peace in Chinese).

Peacekeeper Elite (reads as Game for Peace in Chinese)
Peacekeeper Elite (reads as Game for Peace in Chinese)

The blood spill was replaced with green flashes and the ‘last man standing’ storyline was changed to ‘peacekeeper training’. Also on dying, character corpses don’t hit the ground, but wave goodbye and vanish. This version received necessary approvals from the Chinese government which, in turn, drove monetisation.

India is a very important market. Important enough for launching a whole new game. As per Sensor Tower, India held the top spot for PUBG Mobile downloads (about 175 million installs pre-ban), making up 24 per cent of the total share globally. China accounted for 16.7 per cent, with the US at 6.4 per cent.

Akshat Rathee, co-founder and MD of Nodwin Gaming, mentions that the ban on PUBG got both gamers and the communities of gaming content consumers to taste games beyond PUBG, be it, Call of Duty, Free Fire or even Ludo.

Akshat Rathee
Akshat Rathee

We asked Rathee if this would make it harder for PUBG to regain lost ground. Rathee responds by drawing an analogy from OTT content. “If a certain series goes off Netflix for some time, people will watch it when it returns. Same goes for PUBG. With PUBG gone, people played Ludo, they might have watched ‘Mirzapur’ (TV series), it could have even affected Indian Premier League (IPL) viewership.”

Piyush Kumar, founder and CEO of Rooter (a sports content and social streaming platform), feels that the absence and relaunch of a new game won’t have any impact on PUBG Mobile India’s return. “Gaming, unlike social media presence, is not something that you lose if a platform is relaunched. Whenever the game returns, friends and others will immediately resume playing. Players will probably love it even more.”

Piyush Kumar
Piyush Kumar

Speaking on the content ecosystem built around PUBG Mobile, Kumar mentions that while the games changed, the volume of content did not shrink. “PUBG streamers have started playing Free Fire (mostly) and Call of Duty. Their exposure to other new games has increased. Once PUBG returns, they’ll probably play and stream all the games.”

Pranav Nalawade, chief editor at TalkEsport (esports news website), echoes Kumar’s view and says that the impact on PUBG Mobile will be minimal, especially because casual players were able to play the game until Tencent shut down operations in the end of October. “PUBG fans did not make any big switch in the last two months, hence, it won’t take too much of an efforts to rise back to the top spot.”

However, post the ban on PUBG Mobile, equations were drawn with the case of short video app TikTok, whose absence caused a mushrooming of new vertical video apps overnight. On the other hand, we did not witness a single significant entry in the area of battle royale mobile gaming.

Rooter’s Kumar says that it is a difficult task to develop games, especially at the standards of PUBG. “The tech for short video platforms is easy to create. In fact, there are template codes available today. If somebody sets out to make a game at the standards of PUBG, it will take over a couple of years.”

Will PUBG Mobile India leave room for others?

Multiplayer action game FAU-G (by Bengaluru-based nCORE Games), which was announced immediately after the ban, could be a desi alternative to PUBG Mobile. Similarly, the mobile version of online multiplayer action game Valorant is about to hit the market.

FAU-G
FAU-G

Rathee explains that while PUBG Mobile was there, Free Fire was doing well too. “The market expanded phenomenally. As PUBG Mobile gamers started playing and streaming other games, the community which would ask for PUBG content only, realised that their gamer hero could do other stuff too. Like (Bollywood actor) Shah Rukh Khan explored non-Karan Johar type movies…”

He adds that PUBG Mobile will return and capture the top of the ecosystem, but the bottom and the middle tiers will demand new things to explore and become famous. While a PUBG streamer will take some time to gain fame in the crowd of players, the lower tier gamer can migrate the community to a new game and earn fame there.

“That’s the reason why a lot of CS-GO players are moving on to Valorant (PC game) now. Also, Indians will definitely download FAU-G, but whether they will play, will depend on the quality of the game.”

However, the ban hasn’t been lifted yet and MeitY is (reportedly) yet to give it a thought.

On being asked if the solutions put forth by PUBG Corp are potent enough, Rathee says that the developer’s solutions seem “proactive, tenable and future looking.” He points out that PUBG Mobile was mainly banned because of geopolitical issues with China. It wasn’t about the game or its nature.

“Krafton has announced major investments. It has announced partnerships with Microsoft Azure, which is apparently more secure. Krafton itself will run the game in India. They’ll set up a local office, and hire lots of people. Will it be acceptable to the government? That needs to be seen. After all this, if the ban still persists, it will be with a new reason. The Chinese antecedents as the reason behind the ban won’t persist,” Rathee signs off.