Battlegrounds' PlayerUnknown and the future of Battle Royale

Armageddon man.

By Ian Higton. Published 10 April 2017

In its first three days in Early Access, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds made over $11m. That's a staggering figure for what technically amounts to an unfinished game. Such is the power of "Battle Royale" - an emerging breed of massively multiplayer action gaming based on the Japanese book and film of the same name, in which scores of players fight for the title of last person standing on a single map. It's an enormously popular subgenre, and it's almost entirely the work of one man - a modder whose online moniker is now synonymous with the game mode.

Brendan Greene, aka PlayerUnknown, is a 41-year-old father of one. He spends his time flitting between his home in Ireland, where his daughter lives, and his office in South Korea - home of Bluehole, the development studio doing the heavy lifting on Battlegrounds.

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I caught up with Greene at this year's EGX Rezzed, and broke the ice by asking him if he plays his own game in his spare time. "I don't get the chance to play it all that often", he says, shaking his head. "I play a lot of Battlefield 1. I just love getting a sniper rifle in that and just playing in that class. It's quick and it's easy. Battlegrounds leaves you sweating at the end of it. It's very tough - support groups are needed!"

Battlegrounds sees up to 100 players duking it out on an island, parachuting from a plane and scrounging for weapons, vehicles and gear from the environment itself. You can stick to the coast to minimise the odds of being surrounded, but as time goes on, the size of the play area shrinks, forcing players together in a chaotic final encounter.

It's the fourth Battle Royale game Greene has worked on. I ask him to recount his rise from humble modder to battle royalty, a journey which spans just four short years.

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"Yeah, so I started on Arma 2," he began. "I made a mod of a mod, DayZ: Battle Royale. That's where I started and then when DayZ Standalone came out I moved on to Arma 3 because interest died down, because everyone was playing the standalone. Then in Arma 3 I kind of tuned the game mode."

It was his work on these mods that led to him becoming a consultant on Sony Online Entertainment's H1Z1 for its Battle Royale mode, called King of the Kill. "Sony, they licensed my idea basically, which the lawyers found very interesting as a concept. It's like, 'You want to what?!.' But they simplified the idea and made it into what they did."

While all these games may seem similar on the surface, Greene insists that they can coexist. "When I started this I wasn't intending on copying Arma 3 and I wasn't intending on copying H1Z1," he says. "People say to me 'Oh you're a H1 killer', and it's like, no we're not, you know it's like we're different game modes. Ours is a little slower, a little bit more tactical, we emphasise decision-making. H1's a little bit more arcadey on all the kills, and Arma 3 is much more simulation. It's a slower, very tactical, very simulated game and we want to kind of go in the centre.

"I always compare it as like League and DOTA, they're two amazing games in the same genre and I think it's just fans wanting to say 'Oh you killed H1', and it's like, 'No! It's my game mode in H1!.' Even some of the H1 fanboys that don't know that it's my game mode on H1, they're saying, 'Oh I'm going to play H1,' and I kinda go, 'Thanks. Great. If you enjoy it, fantastic!' "

All this talk of killing H1Z1 makes me wonder if the release of Battlegrounds has created any friction between Greene and his old colleagues at Daybreak Studios, the current developers of H1Z1. "Oh no, not at all!", says Greene. "I mean, I was talking to Russell Shanks the ex-president of Daybreak and he was wishing me all the best when he heard, like he said, 'Oh I'm so happy that you got a chance to finally make your own game.' "

"They've done great things with King of the Kill, it's wonderful to see what they've done and it's helped cement the genre of Battle Royale."

Compared to the release of similar Early Access games, in particular H1Z1, Battlegrounds already feels incredibly polished. There are frame-rate hiccups here and there, especially at the start of each match, and occasionally a bit of rubber banding on the servers, but crucially, the majority of features work as they should. What's surprising, not only to me but to Greene himself, is that the game has been in production for no more than a year.

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"I went to Korea this time last year and even the producer said, 'We're going to do it in a year.' " Greene flashes a playful grin and continues: "I was like hmm, at the start. I was like, 'Really?! A year?!' But you know, the team is phenomenal. They put in super long hours, like 14-hour days and are really committed to making it good. It's kind of Bluehole's philosophy to make well-made games and it shows. And you know, people are saying to us, 'Six months in Early Access? Yeah right!' and I can tell you, in six months time we will have a pretty much finished game."

It's a confident boast but considering the progress already made, it's a believable one. What happens at the end of those six months though? Will the team draw a line under Battlegrounds and move onto a new project, or will it continue to support the game?

"Oh no, we want to add new content, we want to add new maps, we want to add other settings, stuff like that, maybe a few game modes," Greene says. "But really we want to focus on adding a good deal of content so that when we open up modding for everyone they have content to do whatever they want with. You know, a good source of weapons, vehicles, buildings, that kind of stuff."

How about short-term goals? What's first up on the list of things the team want to improve on now there's a week's worth of Early Access feedback to draw upon? "We have to balance weapons and stuff," Greene says. "We'll add air drag over the next few months. It's going to take us time to do because of zeroing and stuff but we want to really balance gunplay to make it feel solid. Balance the classes, add some more weapons.

"For me it's just more polish now, go through the map, grid by grid and make it look fantastic. Little details like the terrain. Like, grass has a tactical advantage if you turn the foliage to very low. We want to get rid of grass from a gameplay perspective. We want to make it more like Battlefield 1 grass that doesn't really have an effect on gameplay."

I ask him the inevitable question about a console release, and while Greene seems confident it will eventually happen, he won't commit to a date. "We have a team that is looking at porting it and we use Unreal which is built for multi platform so we have to just get it performing well on console. We're looking to release on console sometime after the PC version is finished but you know it's there and it's on our roadmap as a thing to do, but for us at the moment - performance for PC - get that running smooth first."

So what's in store for PlayerUnknown after Battlegrounds has run its course? Will Greene continue to be the figurehead for the Battle Royale genre or is it time to try something different? "No, no I want to do something different," he says. "I'm still not finished with the game, there's going to be years yet for Battle Royale and Battlegrounds because we have plans for eSports and all that kind of stuff, but I want to do another game.

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"I have two more ideas of games that I want to make, one kind of a riff on Command and Conquer, but more interesting. I have a pretty good idea... well I think it's good! The other one I want to do is a proper survival game. I want to do 100km by 100km maps that probably are procedurally generated with 2000 people. You know it's a big dream, but it's in there and let's see. The technology is getting there, there's some interesting stuff like distributed computing for games that makes it more feasible but for the moment I want to finish Battlegrounds, and then I can go, 'This is the end of Battle Royale for me.' "

To polish our conversation off, I ask Greene to share his best tip with me (while I really enjoy Battlegrounds, I'm terrible at it). He laughs. "You see people like, 'Oh I got 40 kills in a round. I came third though,' and it's like, but you didn't win so, I don't care! Win!

"And by winning it's being smart and not taking on fights until you know you can win them, that's the key here. Go get good loot and then find a bush and then love that bush, and just wait for people to make mistakes."

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