Things change quickly in Brendan Greene's world. Four years ago he was an "out of work photographer and web designer" with a penchant for making mods. Today, he is the creative director of the Korean company Bluehole and the creator of the fastest growing PC game in the world today.
Look closer and things are changing faster still. When we talked to Greene at EGX Rezzed in April, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds was about to hit 2 million sales. By the time we sat down with him at Devcom four months later, it had just reached 8 million sales and was a few days away from ending Dota 2's long reign as the most played game on Steam.
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds sold another 2 million units in the fortnight it took to write and edit this interview, and it looks set to break the record for the highest concurrent player count in Steam's history. Hell, it may have done so by the time you finish reading.
Well, that escalated quickly.
BG: [Laughs] I think we're going to break 700k concurrent users today.
I check that figure most days now, because it's growing so quickly. When PUBG beat GTA V's concurrent user record, I remember thinking, 'Impressive, but it's not getting past Counter-Strike.' Right now, it seems like all bets are off.
BG: It has been crazy. I talk to my boss about it all the time. We thought H1Z1 would be our main competitor, basically, but then suddenly it's CS:GO, and then CS:GO is behind us and we're looking at Dota 2. It's insane, but it's a credit to the team; through all the updates we just kept on improving the game for everyone. That's what held people.
"We thought H1Z1 would be our main competitor, but suddenly it's CS:GO, and then CS:GO is behind us and we're looking at Dota 2"
The team must have expanded a lot to keep pace. How big is it now?
BG: We started with a team of 30 or 40 people, between freelancers and people internally, but now we're up to about 120 - and we're still expanding. We're looking at new offices in Korea to make sure we have enough room for maybe up to about 300 people. We're really focused on developing this as a service, and that needs a lot of staff.
But it's just tough in Korea to get good engineers, because a lot of the engineers want to work on mobile and they're not really interested in Unreal. So we're opening new offices in, say, Europe and America to try and get better talent from all around the world, to get the best people.
Is the game growing at a faster pace than you can get the staff to support it?
BG: Oh very much. Like, we have to keep reminding people that we've only been on Early Access for five months... The biggest problem we're having at the moment is the server platform, because we're trying to develop it on a production system, which is super hard because you've got millions of players - literally millions - coming through the doors every day.
You're trying to roll out changes that you can only test so much internally, on local servers. There's big risks, and you see that when servers go down; it's because of this huge growth, and that the platform we built we just didn't imagine would be hitting these numbers.
You mentioned in your talk that you were popular in quite a few places: Europe, North America, Korea, even Japan. Very few games manage to get an audience in so many places without local partners, or some kind of marketing push. Have you done any of that?
BG: Today, it's all organic really. We've worked with content creators and influencers in various regions for sure, but the vast majority of sales have been driven just by people seeing the game and wanting to play. Bluehole has data scientists analysing this stuff on a daily basis, trying to figure out why it's so popular.
PUBG isn't the first game to break out and become successful, but it's hard to recall anything that has grown so big, so fast. Even Ark: Survival Evolved took its time getting to 8 million units sold, for example, so is this just a perfect storm? Early Access maturing to the right point, streaming and Twitch maturing to the right point, and it all just coming together at the right moment?
BG: I think so. I owe a lot of my success to Lirik on Twitch, and the fact that he played my game pretty consistently for about three years. He might take a few months off, but he'd always come back and play... That's how I got my chance with H1Z1, and now Battlegrounds.
"I knew nobody in the industry, and I knew very little about the tech. It gave me the freedom to just do whatever I thought would work"
I have a lot to thank content creators for, because it's just a different market now. I was thinking about [putting] ads on media sites, but most tech savvy people nowadays use adblock.
Don't I just know it.
BG: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah, it's tough. Traditional forms of advertising and marketing are not exactly falling by the wayside - they'll always be there - but this new streaming and content creation side to game development is massive now. And we have a really great team, who work hard to make sure that the content creators that play our game are well looked after and get access to stuff before anyone else. That helps to drive it.
Your connection to that side of game development and to working with the community goes back to the very beginning, which isn't that long ago. You didn't take a traditional path to where you are now, but that seems to have been integral to what you've achieved.
BG: I thank my stars every day that everything just aligned. I went from being an out of work photographer and web designer in Ireland to being the creative director at a big company. There was a big chance for me to fail.
One thing that came through in your talk today is the degree to which you stuck to your guns, even on things that you were told might hurt the experience.
BG: The number of times I heard, in the early days of designing the game, that, 'This is a bad idea. You can't punish the players like this.' Even one of the questions from the audience today was why the percentage win-rate is so low. It's like, I had to fight for this, and it's from my modding and not having any rules to follow... I knew nobody in the industry, and I knew very little about the tech in the industry. It gave me the freedom to just do whatever I thought would work, and apparently it does work.
I checked your Steam reviews this morning, and I was astonished to see that the recent crop have been "Mixed".
The most popular game on Steam, one developed in the open with its community, has "Mixed" reviews?
BG: We got hit hard. I said we wouldn't have microtransactions until we left Early Access, but it comes from my naivety. To be fair, we're still not adding any kind of skin system with microtransactions fully until we leave Early Access, but we do need to test it, and we need to test percentages.
And we're going to be open about it going forward, because we really think that having a strong economy is good for the game. We have the data science team to really work to find out what percentage stuff needs to be to attain a certain value. We want to be open about this because it's a good system and it's proven to work. We got hit hard with that, for sure.
"We don't have a plan to increase at the moment. That could change, but from what we've talked about internally we want to keep the same price"
It always surprises me how big an impact players can have when they take against something, even with a game as popular as PUBG.
BG: But you've got to look at the actual number of people that visit Reddit and use your social media, and it's maybe 10% of your player base - maybe. The biggest part don't read reviews, and they don't read Steam reviews. You can get these bombs, a huge amount of negative reviews, but it's just the way it works on the net these days; you've got a hive mind, mob mentality kind of thing, or bandwagoning behind people. And look, people have a right to say what they want, y'know, but with some reviews I feel bad because it'll say something like 'Performance is shitty', but when we improve it they won't go back and change that review.
Price is a combustible issue in that respect. Studio Wildcard suffered a backlash for increasing the price of Ark ahead of its retail launch. You've been quite vocal about wanting to leave Early Access after six months, and you're at $30 now. Will that stay the same?
BG: We don't have a plan to increase at the moment. That could change, but from my understanding, and from what we've talked about internally, we want to keep the same price.
For a game like PUBG, having more people playing is better for the experience overall.
BG: Exactly... We're happy. $30 is a good price for what you're getting, and this is a game that could last for five or ten years. You're buying into something bigger than just a year-long game.
How much more room is there to grow on the PC specifically?
BG: Our sales curves are just going up. They're not slowing down. I'm still waiting for that plateau, and it's just not happening yet. When you ask about growth on PC, I just look at League of Legends. 100 million active users a month, I think, something stupid like that? If we play our cards right, maybe we can get to that level of users.
Launching on console will certainly help in that respect, and Bluehole just announced that Microsoft will be publishing the game on Xbox One. That's a pretty big step, given that it hasn't left Early Access.
BG: But we use Unreal, and with Unreal porting to Xbox is simple enough. And now that we're published by Microsoft, they're sending people to our office in Korea, and in Span, and they're going to help port the game. The main development team still works on the PC version.
We're doing the publishing deal because of the expertise they bring to it, and not just to the Xbox version, but the PC version as well. We run on Windows, which is a Microsoft product, and we're working with them... to try and improve security that allows cheating to happen. It's just strengthening that relationship with the people who make the platforms so that the Xbox and the PC version can be the best they can.
Microsoft has been pushing cross-platform play a lot. Will that be part of PUBG on Xbox?
"We'd like to see some form of cross-play between PC and Xbox, but it would only be fair if it was keyboard and mouse versus keyboard and mouse"
BG: We're looking into it. We'd like to see some form of cross-play, but we think it would only be fair if it was keyboard and mouse versus keyboard and mouse, or controller versus controller. But it's still under heavy discussion.
Those chicken dinners are hard enough to win already without making it uneven, I suppose.
BG: There are games like Destiny that really get auto-aim and controllers in an FPS feeling good. And I think that with Microsoft's help it's really going to get it feeling like a good shooter on console. We want to give the same experience. We want PC and Xbox to be identical in terms of the experience you have playing the game.
And another thing is, I was at the Microsoft event last night talking to the Sea of Thieves guys. They said they loved the game, they play it a lot, but, 'Oh, you're water.' I mean, our water is not very good, but Rare has great water tech. They said, 'We should share some knowledge.' That's a great thing about being part of a network of studios. We can get that water tech, essentially for free, and we can share stuff with them. That's just invaluable, because their water is great. Having that would really finish off our world nicely.
It wasn't hard to find news stories online that took the Microsoft publishing deal as evidence that PUBG will never make it to a PlayStation platform. Would you like to reassure those people?
BG: This is just, as I keep saying, our team size is just so limited at the moment. We can only focus on PC and Xbox. We just don't have the time, and Xbox has the Preview Program, which allows us to - like Early Access - develop the game with the players. That's where our focus is right now, and we just want to make the best version of the game for both of those platforms.
You've been in Early Access for five months. It's not time to start planning for world domination just yet.
BG: No. But soon. That's next year.
In your talk you said that you never aspired to fame, only to make the game you wanted to make. But you do have quite a bit of fame now, and whenever it is that you decide to move on from PUBG you won't be able to spend three or four years modding your way to another concept. Does that concern you?
BG: Well, I can see myself on Battlegrounds for another few years, until we have our majors in place and I'm happy with it as an esport. Ater that there are a few more games I want to make, which are in my head and I've thought about over the last four years. I don't think I'll be stuck for offers, y'know.
It'll be 'PlayerUnknown's next game'. I think that'll be fine... but it better be fucking good.
GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner of Devcom. We attended the event with assistance from the organiser.