Getting a Sense of PUBG Pt. 3

How we end up at locations so realistic, you can practically smell them.

Creating the most authentic game environment possible means engaging with a player’s senses in powerful, distinct ways—the discrete components of the game each appearing, feeling, and sounding just right. In our Getting a Sense of PUBG series, we’re highlighting specific facets of the game in context of the five senses—touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. While you can’t—or, at least, shouldn’t—lick your screen when you play PUBG, these interviews should give you a taste of the delectable processes that make PUBG a refreshing, true-to-life experience.

Mercifully, we can’t actually smell what we’re seeing on screen (yet), but everyone has memories that are inextricably tied to our sense of smell. Where does the smell of a campfire take you? Of a cup of tea? What about a warm apple pie? The scent from right after a rainfall?

Tapping into your sense of place—even if they can’t deliver the scents—is precisely what the level designers at PUBG are trying to do. Their mission is to create an environment that is believable, iconic, and memorable. On that team, designer Andre Tiran works his magic.

“I originally went into programming, and never really saw myself going into games,” says Tiran. Despite that, he ended up taking computer animation courses at Full Sail University, and has learned over the years to apply his combined skill set and a variety of tools to fulfill the challenges of creating—and re-creating—the literal world of PUBG.

New maps are, in some ways, the bigger task. “Creative direction plays a large part in when we put out a new map,” Tiran explains. “What location are we looking at? What stories are we trying to tell?” These questions, he adds, give him his ‘canvas’, and help define their objectives. From there, it’s a question of fulfilling the larger PUBG fantasy, as well as the extreme importance of the technical limitations they impose on themselves.

Every choice that Tiran makes is fundamentally tied to a hit to the game’s performance. “A lot of people, when they look at this kind of stuff, don’t know what those limitations are,” he says. Having a lot of buildings in one area is an obvious example, but that barely scratches the surface. “How much set dressing [props, furniture, etc.], the look of it, how close to real our polygon construction is…” Tiran’s list seems to border on endless. There are a ton of variables in play.

That’s just the design aspect. From there, a new—or, if you’ve kept up with the “Getting a Sense” series, perhaps familiar—consideration emerges: the tension between Tiran’s design, and the game’s balance. How do they get from compelling design to competitive layout? “Playtesting! When we’re first going through an area, we’ll lay down roads that we want you to go down. The endpoints of those roads naturally make good cities.” This is where the rubber truly hits the road.

As an example of said rubber, Tiran describes the process of thinking around new features, like the Loot Truck. “Loot Truck required road construction that competed with the original design. We went through several iterations of that.” He goes on to say that sometimes these are good constraints to have to work against. “Technical limitations really bring you in,” he says.

All of this has to come together in a fashion that is realistic. Tiran points to things like the overall environment art, but there are subtler considerations as things start to coalesce. “Lore being piped in helps to define how to construct these spaces,” he explains. The setting of a given map might call for one-off areas with a few small buildings. “That direction helps inform how things get laid out.” As he thinks about pure level design considerations—where a player should have cover from enemy fire, for example—artists come in and realize that vision, layering texture and doodads on top.

Lore plays a significant role in putting a bow on all of this. “There’s a group of writers,” Tiran says, “…and our creative director is always hashing out what important bits need to be brought into the map itself. It’s my job to figure out where the opportunities to showcase that are.” He offers up Sanhok as an example, where he was asked to build an island that felt like a lost paradise. “That can look very different for a lot of people, but that’s decently concrete. I can look up abandoned places—why were they abandoned? What am I noticing? What are our opportunities to create locations that help promote that vibe?”

Writers and editors often talk about something being trapped in ‘editing hell’ and simply being continuously adjusted into perpetuity, and a similar challenge plagues Tiran: When is a map truly done? His answer, broadly, is that they are not. “In the beginning, you’re just openly and creatively trying things. Then, you’re executing on those ideas. We do ‘smell’ tests on whether we should keep something.” (Smell tests! Perfect!)

So the iteration never stops. At some point, though, a map goes live. “A lot of times we’re looking at our body of work in terms of what time we have left,” Tiran says. “What do we think we can get done?” This, in turn, leads to the eventuality of trying to improve upon what’s in the live game—and remastering a classic map.

The beauty of remastering, from Tiran’s perspective, is that it’s so heavily data informed. “You don’t want to delete something important,” he says. If they identify locations that people know and love, they’ll focus on upgrading them. Redesigning or improving the other locations generally involves trying to think about something thematically interesting, like the new Indiana Jones-inspired Quarry. “That’s probably statistically the best one,” Tiran adds.

The inverse situation—something that didn’t quite turn out as planned—was the initial design for Karakin. “The direction we wanted to go with this desert, kind of rocky map was very clear. In PUBG, scopes are a lot of your power. Higher magnification makes it easier to hit people. What would happen if we had a low magnification, more short range, more difficult weapon vibe?” The answer, Tiran says, was… suboptimal. “Players were so used to having these tools. We ended up changing the loot.”

Since you can’t smell them, we asked Tiran what these maps would smell like. “For Sanhok, I’m imagining humid—hints of sweet smells from the foliage, a little of the salt air from the beachfront, the rivers and jungle have more of an earthy scent. In the ruins, I’m imagining musty, almost… like, my allergies would react,” he laughs. “Karakin, that’s more of this arid desert, maybe the oil and burning smell that the explosions give off.”

If he could add anything, Tiran says he’d try a western European region next. “I’m always inspired by vacation spots—Germany, the French countryside—and I think that would be interesting to work on. We haven’t gone there because it doesn’t necessarily fit the PUBG theme, but I think it would be super interesting.”

Looking forward, Tiran is excited to get more and more data from players. “Things like landing locations, where players are getting kills—we can take that data and aggregate it, and create some visual ways to look at spaces.” He’s laser focused on playtesting, feedback, and iteration, because he’s fundamentally thinking about level flow: creating options with building entrances and exits, things like that.

And although he didn’t get to work on it directly, Tiran cannot wait to see how dynamic map elements change the game. “I’m looking for a change that is meaningful—enough that players care, but not so much that players can’t learn,” he says. Too small, and gameplay doesn’t change at all; too much, and you’ve got a totally different game design. “Getting you to have adventures so that you can experience these dynamic parts of the map—there’s some pretty cool stuff coming in.”


You most likely can’t pass designer Andre Tiran’s smell test.

Thanks for checking out part three of Getting a Sense of PUBG! Next time, we’ll be learning all about the intricacies and nuances of sound design—so be hear!


–Kevin Hovdestad

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