PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds dev: “I want to find the next me”
Bluehole's Brendan Greene on the rise of Battle Royale, the importance of modding support and escaping the stigma of Early Access
Up to 100 players are spread across a large map. They all begin unarmed, compelled to scavenge for the weapons that are randomly spawned through the area. Over the course of 30 minutes, the playable area contracts, forcing survivors into a fight to the death. Last man standing.
This is the premise behind the hugely popular (but perhaps clumsily titled) PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds. But it's not an entirely new premise - it's the culmination of its creator's vision over several games.
Brendan Greene - who also goes by the handle PlayerUnknown (hence the game's title) - started out as a modder on the DayZ add-on to Arma II, for which he built the well-received Battle Royale mod. When the game's audience moved to the standalone edition of DayZ, Greene took his concept and fine-tuned it for Arma 3. His efforts gained the attention of Sony Online Entertainment, which brought him in as a consultant on zombie survival title H1Z1, where he created the Battle Royale-esque King of the Kill mode.
Now creative director at South Korean dev Bluehole, he has finally been able to oversee the ultimate realisation of his vision: the aforementioned Battlegrounds. Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz at EGX Rezzed, Greene is thankful for all the experience he gained before taking his mod of a mod and making it a game in its own right.
"I've been lucky," he tells us. "I've had the past three years to refine Battle Royale as a game mode, from Arma II to Arma III and then H1Z1. This is my final vision of what Battle Royale should be. I'm not adding stuff for the sake of being different, or adding a new fresh element just to have something new. We have a pretty solid game mode. It's been a refinement of all the ideas I've had from the mod and various other games that have sprung out of this genre. This is the final refinement."
But what makes the mode so popular? The survival genre has already attracted millions of players, thanks in no small part to the original DayZ mod, but why have fans of this specific variation on the theme follow Greene from game to game?
"You could have a frying pan and possibly win if you played your cards right. It's about giving players a unique experience every single time they play a match"
"I think it's because every match is different," he says. "When I first started this game mode, it was to find the best player in the moment no matter what they had. You could have a frying pan and possibly win if you played your cards right. It's about giving players a unique experience every single time they play a match.
"Every game ends differently, you never know what you're going to get in terms of loot. You're always looking for the next bit of loot to improve yourself, and I think that's what makes it replayable and makes it catchy for people: everyone starts the same, and you get to prove yourself with 100 different players. Everyone has the same chance. There's a little bit of luck involved, but if you're smart, you can survive to the end most times. It's giving players the choice to play however they want. For me, that's what I've always wanted. I don't want to restrict people and tell them this is the way you have to play our game."
The biggest challenge lies in the random loot placement - and it is random, as Greene stresses a couple of times during the interview. Not knowing where the best weapons are means players need to be resourceful if they're going to survive the beginning of each match, let alone prepare for the heated battle at the end. A set-up such as this is open to criticism, particularly from disgruntled players whose searches produce nothing more deadly than a knife while they're being gunned down by sniper and assault rifles. So how does Greene and his team ensure loot placement really is random?
"Spreadsheets," he laughs. "Bluehole is an MMO developer. They have spreadsheets that let us calculate everything down to how many AK-47s will spawn on the map. We can't tell you where they'll spawn, but we can tell you there are 20 in the map somewhere.
"It's funny, because we haven't touched loot at all but people still say "oh, they must have changed this". But that's just the way the loot system works"
"Finding that balance is tough. We're happy with the loot at the moment. It's a great system - it comes from the Arma III mod where houses are broken into residential or military-type buildings and then each one has a percentage as to whether they'll spawn low, medium or high-value weapons. It's funny, because we haven't touched loot at all but people still say "oh, they must have changed this". I love that because it obviously feels like we changed something, but we haven't. That's just the way the loot system works."
The new drop mechanic, by which players are flown over the map at the beginning and choose when to drop to the ground, also helps mix things up. Players are responsible for where they start, Greene explains, so if they choose to start away from their opponents, they have more of a chance to find more weapons and equipment.
"You will find stuff if you look," he says. "You're not going to get geared in the first two or three minutes, but that's part of the joy of playing the game: you have to keep looking, keep levelling yourself up as the match goes on. That was a big part of designing this: adding that depth. You have lots of systems to help make your character better, to learn and ultimately become a better player."
Of course, Greene has left a legacy in the previous games he modded for. H1Z1 has directly benefited from his influence, and the DayZ team were almost certainly paying attention to his formula as the original Battle Royale mod took off. Does this not put him in competition with these games, let alone the rest of the growing survival genre?
"I get asked that quite a lot," he admits. "Some call us the H1Z1 killer, and we're not. People still say to me they prefer H1Z1, and that's great, it's fantastic so go and play it. This idea that it's a big battle between the games? I'm friends with Brian Hicks from DayZ and Adam from H1Z1, and we love each other's games. It's not a competition - well, okay, it is a competition. But for [Bluehole], this was not about standing out, or putting in fancy frills and features just to make us stand out. It was just about making a good game. If it's playable and it's got a good concept, that will make you stand out. I think it's something we've shown."
"I want to find the next PlayerUnknown, I want to find that person who creates something using my game that lets them go on to create their own game"
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds launched in Early Access last month, taking a staggering £11m in the first weekend. Many devs would perhaps take their foot off the gas at this stage, using the shield of Early Access to tweak and hone the game, but Greene is determined to be out of this stage and fully launched within six months.
"People are like, 'oh yeah, right' because of all those other games that said that and are still in Early Access two, three years on," he says. "But we're really lucky, we're working with Unreal. DayZ and H1Z1 work on their own proprietary engine - that is so much harder to work on, because Unreal has a lot of people just working on the engine whereas DayZ has maybe 10 or less. That gives us a huge advantage. We're going to do this in six months because we have a team that are committed - and they're Korean, so there's honour involved."
Greene's position at a South Korean studio is interesting. He claims it is the first time a Korean team has taken a foreigner as its creative director, something considered to be a big risk in that part of the world. But his relationship with the top brass at Bluehole sounds remarkably strong.
"The management trusts us," says Greene. "We're somewhat autonomous: we still have to give them reports, but we do what we want to do. The launch was vindication of that. With our success now, it's shown that it is possible."
He goes on to explain how he was initially reluctant to use Early Access, but another member of the team convinced him that it was the right way to go: "When we first started development, I was unsure about Early Access because of all the stigma attached to it. But our producer decided that before we did Early Access, we'd make sure the game was stable and playable. So now it's more like Early Access Beta rather than Alpha."
Greene's concerns turned out to be unfounded. In addition to the £11m made in the first few days, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds was consistently at the top of Twitch's leadeerboard for its first week, peaking at 150,000 viewers. At the time of writing, just a few weeks later, it still has a third of that actively watching matches - and Greene is keen to maintain this excitement.
"You see games on Twitch all the time where they get a really good momentum at the start and tend to drop off after a while," he says. "What we want to do is continue to improve the game's performance. We have a good solid game mode here. It plays well, people are enjoying it, it's addictive, people just can't stop playing it - some of the Twitch channels are hosting 15-hour streams. You'll be in the stream at 3 o'clock in the morning saying, "Go to bed, please stop playing."
"It's important to give Twitch streamers what they want, but you still have to make your game your way at the end of the day"
"Twitch streaming is becoming a really important part of getting publicity for your game. Making a game that plays well for the audience... Some viewers say our game is a little bit boring to watch because the start isn't as hectic as H1Z1, where it's solid action from when the players drop right up to the end. We've had to... not fight that, but we're still making our game. I think it's important to give Twitch streamers what they want, but you still have to make your game your way at the end of the day. We listen to feedback but we're still making our game, because if we listened to everyone we'd end up with a [mess].
"Everyone wants their own game. Some of the H1Z1 players want me to copy that game, and the Arma players want me to copy Arma, but we're doing something in the middle. That might be want they want, but it's not something we're going to do."
Greene and the Bluehole team are also bearing streamers in mind as they plan future updates which will not only help make it more enjoyable for people to watch, but also attract the interest of the competitive gaming world.
"We'll have 3D in-game replays eventually with a cinematic camera so you can go back and record your round," he says. "That's going to be helpful for any eSports things we end up doing - especially if we could have a live game delayed by two or three minutes so spectators can see stuff. Capturing action in Battle Royale is quite tough because there's so much going on, but I had four years to think about these tools that I want to build and now I get a chance to work with this team that trusts me and wants to do everything I want to do. I feel a little bit blessed, and I really can't let the public down."
While PlayerUnknown's Battleground is in many ways the culmination of Greene's journey to create Battle Royale, in other ways he sees it as a beginning. He refers to the title not as a game, but as a platform that Bluehole are providing. Already there is the ability to create custom games, redefining the size of the teams, the speed at which the playable area contracts, the loot drops and more. The game also supports full modding, with Bluehole offering tools to the community - and this is incredibly important to Greene.
"It's where I started," he explains. "I'm a modder, I don't consider myself a true gamer. I was a photographer, a DJ, a designer for most of my life, those were my careers. I played games occasionally. Then I discovered DayZ and I just fell in love with that game because there was no linear storyline, you could do whatever the hell you want. That got me back into gaming.
"I've been given a huge opportunity and I'm very lucky with the chances I've had to come from modding to making my own game and have it be such a success. I want to find the next PlayerUnknown, I want to find that person who creates something using my game that lets them go on to create their own game."