Although the amount of time I have for the hobby has dropped dramatically, I’d still describe myself as a gamer. I play all sorts of games, primarily on PC, and in recent years there’s been a growing tendency for PC games to have some sort of multiplayer component. Many are designed solely around this online experience. Which is all well and good, and although I prefer single-player games for the most part I do play multiplayer if there’s enough else to keep me interested. But that doesn’t mean I play them in quite the same way as the creators might have intended. So in this article, I’m going to talk about my life among the PUGs. It can be frustrating at times, but there are reasons why people do it. And, every so often, you learn something that makes it all worthwhile.
Let’s start with a definition: PUG means Pick Up Game, and the people who play predominantly in that manner are known as PUGs.
PUGs are not always newbs, or even n00bs. Newbs are new players. They are often clueless and inept, as well as prone to making spectacularly poor choices, but there’s no shame in this. All of us were newbs once upon a time and did more or less the same things while we were getting the hang of whatever we’re doing. The important thing is that newbs do learn.
N00bs, in contrast, do not. They share all of the same weaknesses of the newbs, but they never get any better. This is irritating enough, but they often seem to have a continent-sized chip on their shoulder with respect to more or less anyone. Ignoble in defeat, insufferable in victory, n00bs have a tendency to blame everything and anything if the slightest thing goes wrong.
PUGs are not always casual or hardcore either. Casuals might play a game, and they might even play it a fair bit, but they don’t have the same investment of time, effort or interest as the hardcore do. They’re there to have a bit of fun and/or kill some time, and as soon as something else catches their attention they’ll be off.
The hardcore, on the other hand, are committed. They’re in constant pursuit of the “best” way to play, and devote a lot of time and effort to that pursuit. These are the people who are most likely to join an in-game clan or guild or whatever, in order to have other similarly-committed people to practice with and compete against.
Incidentally, these two categories tend to have an antagonistic relationship. Casuals often think that the hardcore live on Mount Tryhard and are frightened of ever having fun; the hardcore often believe that casuals are missing the point of the game (winning) and want participation awards for simply turning up. Both sides are wrong.
The real distinction to be drawn is between a PUG and a “premade” (a group that gets organised before the game starts). PUGs play the game without the expectation of having their buddies around to play alongside. The best ones are quite willing to help out anyone in their group, and in fact can be excellent team players. But if that doesn’t pan out then they are also entirely willing to shrug their shoulders and treat the online experience as a single-player game, albeit one with weird AI participants. Some even prefer it this way.
PUGs can be newbs or n00bs, but don’t have to be. They could be hardcore or casual, or something else entirely. They can play in a group or with a group, but are quite prepared to go solo. In an online game, especially one that’s built around the idea of cooperative action, the question that keeps coming up is “why would anyone do this?”.
I’m not going to try to speak for all PUGs but there were three main reasons why the PUG life chose me, and some or all of these might apply to others as well.
The first is timetabling. If you’re going to play in a team it’s expected you’ll be doing it when everyone else in the team is online, and online primetime is generally assumed to equate to evenings in North America. This is profoundly inconvenient for those of us in different time zones, and sometimes this alone is enough to force people out of playing in a constant group. Allied to this is the fact that not everyone can set aside large uninterrupted blocks of time at odd hours of the day, even if it is to play with friends. I always felt it was a bit unfair for other’s fun to be contingent on my availability, especially when I might get called away at odd moments. As a result I didn’t feel able to make this sort of commitment.
Secondly, you might not want to play with others. Some people call this being antisocial, and perhaps it’s true in some cases, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the case. It’s just… look, I was playing a game set in Middle Earth (Lord of the Rings Online, if anyone cares). In one group I joined there was Gandalff, Gandelf, Mithrander, and Gray_Pilgrimm. It was already hard enough to take seriously. Would having another random munter (doubtless called something like “SponsoredByWeed”) show up and start babbling aimlessly enhance the game in any way I cared for? So I am sometimes a bit picky about who I’ll group with and for what tasks.
Which brings me nicely to point number three: I’m playing for the experience, not just the XP. I like the sense of progression and achievement that comes from filling up an XP bar, or getting a nice new piece of gear, don’t get me wrong. But what I really want is to be taken away from reality for a while, and having the chance to explore another place is a big part of that. So I want to examine odd corners of the world and talk to the characters who inhabit them, not just race through the checklist of things I have to do before I can “finish” one location and move on to the next. I’m far more interested in the story that the game is built around than performing it all as quickly and efficiently as possible, which often brings a degree of conflict in to working with other players.
Being a PUG is not easy, especially if you’re a dedicated one. You’re essentially playing a different game to everyone else, and that can lead to difficulties.
For starters, many multiplayer games are designed around the idea that a group of players will be working together in it. Not having other people to support you means you have to take a very different approach to the challenges you encounter, and the techniques that make sense in a group often don’t when PUGging (and vice versa). You have to be more cautious and really pay attention to the environment you’re operating in. You also have to be more self-reliant, and prepare for a wide range of possibilities and enemies instead of specialising. In games that allow player-vs-player combat, you also have to be prepared for that. Having a plan for what you’ll do if you encounter a group of belligerent opponents all acting together is a good idea. Hiding is good, running is better; doing both while irritating the hell out of them by plinking them with ranged attacks they can’t counter is best of all (bonus points if you can lead them into an even larger group of enemies).
The flip-side of being so self-reliant is that you have to be self-reliant. Some games are team-vs-team brawls, and playing one of those as a PUG can be frustrating. You have to be able to carry far more than your share of the burden in order to make up for the lack of coordination with the other members of your team. And this isn’t easy. Often, an even moderately-competent opposition will kick your gluteus maximus and then present it to you with a small parsley garnish. That’s just how it goes in PUGlandia sometimes.
Being a PUG is its own reward, of course. But once in a while it turns up something unique, something you simply couldn’t get in any other way. As an example, I think it might have given me just the tiniest insight into something women have to deal with. And yes, I know how that sounds. Let me explain.
It happened not long after I had started to play a new MMORPG. There are lots of options when creating a character in these games, but most players choose something that does a lot of damage in combat. As I’ve mentioned, however, when soloing or PUGging you need to be a bit more flexible, so I chose to play a supporting class – strong healing talents, a good dose of enhancement and boosting abilities, and a few offensive skills for when a sword or mace wasn’t enough.
This all worked well enough in the zones set aside for new characters. I was able to cope well with the situations I encountered, and when I did group up my abilities complemented everyone else nicely. I was starting to settle in happily to my new role as a wandering preacher from the church of heavy armour. Reaching the mainland, however, revealed an experience that I was absolutely unprepared for. Remember how I said most people choose to play the combat experts? Well, it turns out that combat experts badly need supporting characters to keep them in the fight. But no one wants to play those characters because everyone wants to be a hero, and so as a result there’s a great shortage of those support classes.
Since I was playing one of these classes, I quickly discovered it was impossible for me to so much as walk down the street without being bombarded with requests to join someone’s group. The polite ones would send me private messages asking me to join them, the less polite ones would just send me a group invitation and expect me to accept it. Both could get quite shirty when I refused. I ended up getting fairly hacked off about the whole business.
“You want me to join your party for an adventure? Then treat me like a person, you musclebound imbecile! Talk to me, treat me like an individual who is valuable in their own right, and more than just a collection of status effects! Then maybe I’ll come with you and help out. Or maybe I won’t; maybe I want to do my own thing sometimes too.”
When I found myself thinking that, I had to pause and consider the real-world situation it reminded me of. And if PUGging can give that sort of insight in such a painless fashion, then I think it has something going for it. Besides, it’s a hard life to give up.
Question of the post: What are your concerns about multiplayer games? Has gaming ever given you something you regarded as a profound insight?