Working with a live community on an Early Access game can be a difficult task; working with a live community as large as the one coalescing around PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is a different thing altogether. For Brendan Greene, the game's creative director, the secret has been to stick to the principles laid out in the earliest stages of its development, even after its rapid ascent to become one of the most talked about games in the industry.
Speaking at Devcom yesterday, Greene discussed the importance of staying in touch with your players; even when your game has sold 8 million units in 4 months, even when its concurrent player count is poised to breach 700,000 users on Steam, and, crucially, even when they may not believe that you're even paying attention.
"We have a really strong community," Greene said. "We have huge amounts of feedback on Discord, on our forums, and even when we stream we get feedback via Twitter and stuff.
"I go into our Discord on a Sunday and just spend two hours in there chatting with people - and people love that"
"Whether it's hack reports or bug reports, they're all passed onto the team. It's sometimes hard to communicate to the community that you do hear everything, even though they don't believe you. What I do is go into our Discord on a Sunday and just spend two hours in there chatting with people - and people love that, having that connection with your community.
"I am a player. I didn't come from the industry. I was playing games up until about a year ago, and now I'm a creative director. I feel like I'm one of them, and being able to connect with the community really makes them feel like they have a say in the game."
Greene has certainly taken a less than typical road to his current position, where he could sit and regale the Devcom crowd for 90 minutes as one of its most prestigious speakers. He developed the "Battle Royale" concept through mods for games like the Arma series and H1Z1, refining its core features and mechanics in direct contact with players. Indeed, Green admitted that "I wouldn't be sitting here" if it wasn't for the support of the popular streamer Lirik. "Him playing my game for three years led to H1Z1, and that led to Battlegrounds," he said.
Greene now has a team of more than 100 people at Bluehole - the Korean studio that hired him as creative director - but that increase in scale hasn't diminished the role that livestreaming plays in the way Battlegrounds continues to evolve and change. According to Greene, everybody in the office watches streamers every day. The content they produce, he said, is "one of the best debugging tools out there," and a crucial insight into what the community enjoys.
Marek Krasowski, a programmer at Bluehole, attributes this close monitoring of video content to the creation of one of Battlegrounds' "iconic" weapons: a frying pan, the physics of which were altered so it could deflect bullets to satisfy Greene's curiosity. Krasowski neglected to revert the change, and the now bullet-proof frying pan shipped with the next patch.
"We only found out after we saw videos of people swatting bullet shots with the frying pan," Krasowski said. "My boss came up to me and said, 'Marek, what did you do?' But we couldn't take it down. People loved it."
Greene added: "We originally put the pan in as a homage to [Kinji Fukasaku's 2002 film] Battle Royale...and now it's just glorious. We've even talked internally about allowing grenades to be hit with the pan, so you can hit a grenade back."
These methods have clearly served Battlegrounds well, but with the game's launch still scheduled for this year Greene admitted that much of the necessary "balancing" must now be done with data. "We're now moving away from community feedback when it comes to balancing stuff like loot," he said. "You really have to learn that data is the best way to balance sometimes. I had a lot of experience with Arma III balancing via community, and now having to switch over to doing it purely on data... Yeah, you've got to trust your data science team, but we have a great one. They're really helping us."
"You promise something and two months later you can't deliver it - because, y'know, game development is fucking hard"
This speaks to just how much Battlegrounds has grown since it launched in Early Access in March. However, Greene said that its longstanding community sometimes fails to appreciate the difficulty Bluehole has faced in keeping pace with the virtually unprecedented pace of the game's rise.
"We have seen massive growth over the last four months, but we've only been out for four months. Sometimes it's hard to convince the community that, 'Guys, calm down. We are expanding, but trying to find engineers that fit the team well, and other members of the team, is a tough process.' It's not a process that you can just throw money at and it's fixed.
"It will take us time, and it's communicating that to the community. But that's why we believe in this really open sense of development, where you don't treat your players like they're stupid. They understand game development, or they want to understand it, and the more you communicate and the more that you show them about it, the better it is for you."
This commitment to transparency informs the way Bluehole speakers to its players. Greene admitted that he has made mistakes in that regard, but that both he and the company has come to see that keeping channels of communication as open, honest and well monitored as possible, and avoiding "PR speak" when things go wrong, are integral to succeeding in open development.
"When I first joined the team at Bluehole, myself and the executive producer sat down and discussed open development," he said. "Again, it goes back to the players wanting to know how games are made, and by informing them of that it leads to less misunderstandings when you announce things.
"I've learned never to make promises on the internet, because [the players] will remember. That comes from my own naivety as a game dev; you promise something and two months later you can't deliver it - because, y'know, game development is fucking hard.
"We try to be as open as possible, and to be open about our mistakes. Let people know about the problem you're having with your server, let them know why it happened; most people are intelligent enough to understand what's going on. It's when you try to whitewash situations with PR speak that sometimes isn't the best.
"Most people these days will see through that. We've tried to be different."
We are a media partner of Devcom. We attended the event with assistance from the organiser.