Content warning: This report contains references to graphic threats and toxic behaviour.
For many, finding success as a professional game developer is a dream, one that few people will ever experience. Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail and PUBG creator Brendan Greene are both living that dream, but in a conversation at Gamelab last month, they made it clear that all success comes at a cost.
Ismail interviewed Greene onstage at Gamelab, the Spanish developer conference, in a candid conversation that tackled some of the darker aspects of attaining what so many developers aspire to: visibility, influence, and large numbers of people engaging with your games. At its peak, for example, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds had more than three million concurrent players, but that level of attention often brings toxicity as well as passion.
"Everyone likes to have an opinion," Green said. "I've been told they hope my daughter gets raped, that they hope I burn to death and die slowly. This is from public Facebook profiles, with their picture there... There's some guy who wants to be a web developer and he has a design business, and he's calling me a faggot on Twitter.
"They work their heart out on the game, and then just get hit in the nuts constantly"
"It's crazy, the hate I receive. I just have to ignore it... I'm very careful about what I share online, and generally all of my details are pretty locked up... I don't get the thinking behind it. Why are people doing this? Why do you think this is okay?"
"I once got a photo of my front door [direct messaged] to me anonymously," Ismail added. "That was not great."
Very often, that toxicity stems from a real problem -- a delayed update, perhaps, or a bug that needs to be fixed -- but that frustration isn't always articulated in a helpful way. As Greene explained, the 'feedback' his team at PUBG Corporation receives can amount to little more than "fix my game asshole." These are only words, he stressed, but it can be difficult to respond in a positive way to such negative comments.
"When we were redesigning Erangel [the setting of PUBG], there was a leak of a map with a lot more compounds. This was one of our test maps that we were using internally -- and the internet went wild. 'You've ruined Erangel! You've no idea what you're doing! You're fucking terrible designers!'
"The design team really took it to heart... They really took it to heart, and that kills me. I have some friends on the DayZ dev team, and it's the same. They work their heart out on the game, and then just get hit in the nuts constantly."
Ismail said that toxic behaviour seems to be based on the belief that developers are "lazy" -- the fact that there are problems with the game is taken as evidence that the people making it aren't working hard enough, or simply don't care. The opposite is true, however; making games is so challenging, he explained, that even constant, diligent effort can't eradicate every single problem.
"I get asked all the time why many Early Access games fail," Greene said. "And it's not because we're lazy, or we're trying to rip people off. It's because you find a problem that you can't solve and then the budget runs out."
These issues will exist for all developers dealing with large communities of players who are invested in what they're making, but in the case of PUBG it was magnified by the unprecedented scale and speed with which it grew. Greene recalled advising the management at his publisher, Bluehole, that the game would possibly sell one million copies.
"Who owns the game? Is it me, or is it the community? And it's me"
"They were aiming for five million -- we passed that in a few weeks," he said. "It caused problems for us. We were a team of 30, 35 people, with a game that had a peak of 3.2 million concurrent users. Our server system was designed for a million concurrent users, because we thought there was no way we'd hit a million. We had to do so much just to catch up."
This meant that Greene's team was receiving a huge amount of feedback, some of it as toxic and reactionary as the examples given above, and some of it simply not useful in terms of making PUBG better -- however much the players believed their suggestions would improve the experience.
"There's feedback of wanting the game to be better for them, and there's feedback of wanting the game to be better for everyone," he said. "For us, yes, we listen to the criticism, but sometimes we'll just go ahead and ignore it, because we have our vision for how we want the game to be.
"I got asked a question at GDC: Who owns the game? Is it me, or is it the community? And it's me. You enjoy playing the game, and we love your feedback, but ultimately it has to be our vision... You really have to be careful about dealing with that feedback, and ensuring that the vision stays relatively pure."
Greene is now working on something new, having moved to a "Special Projects" team within PUBG Corporation in April this year. Whatever that next game proves to be, Greene is unlikely to eradicate the kind of abusive behaviour that is present in so many online communities. However, he has learned a great deal about identifying bottlenecks in production -- which are often used as justification for toxic behaviour -- and how to avoid them through careful planning and the right processes. He has also learned the value of taking a break.
"I make sure I take time off," he said. "I work hard, but I take my weekends off. I make sure I take my vacation... Taking time off is the most important thing. Don't overwork yourself.
"I did it in Seoul for two years. I worked 14 hour days, easily, for a long time, but I'm 43 now. With my new company, I have an aim where I want them to work four days a week and have a day to do whatever they want. To get there we're going to have to work hard, but that's the aim. You want people to be happy."
GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner of Gamelab 2019. We attended the event with assistance from the organiser.