PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds has taken the world by storm. Since its release on Steam Early Access in March, the title has sold an incredible 6m copies. It recently hit 422,618 simultaneous players on Steam.
With such incredible success comes incredible attention, and a community hungry to know what's next. Will we see animals in-game? When can we expect the console release? And what is life now like for the mysterious PlayerUnknown himself, who is all of a sudden the hottest video game developer on the planet?
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After weeks of trying to pin him down, I finally spoke to Brendan "PlayerUnknown" Greene, the creative director of Battlegrounds and expert designer of the Battle Royale-inspired video game. It's no surprise I struggled to get hold of him - the 41 year-old Irishman has been travelling non-stop since E3 in June to different conventions. When we speak, he is in Atlanta for DreamHack. No rest for the wicked.
After reminiscing about life in Ireland (I'm Irish myself), and the joys of potato bread, we get down to business.
I don't know how you deal with all this travelling and constant jet lag.
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Greene: It's tough. We did E3, Sweden, Amsterdam, London, Ireland, Wisconsin, RGX in Austin and back to Seoul. That was...hard [laughs].
Have you had any crazy offers since everything blew up?
Greene: I've been contacted by a few people but I want to finish Battlegrounds first. I want to get it to what I wanted it to be from the earlier days of modding, which was really just a successful esport. Once that's done, then I'll start looking.
What are your main development priorities right now?
Greene: We have some systems and features we want to add, like the vaulting system and mantling, we've been working on for a good few months. But it's a fairly complicated system, so it'll take us a bit more to write them into the game. We have some 3D replays, much like the CS:GO demo system, so you'll be able to watch your rounds back in 3D and use a free cam to create content from matches you've played. And, you know, we have other replay systems. But really it's just about focusing on performance and optimisation and getting the game working well for 99.9 per cent of players.
A few weeks ago you posted a picture of the new desert map, but people were more concerned that there was a bicycle visible. Can you confirm if we will be seeing rideable bicycles in the future?
Greene: [Laughs] We have the tech in there, I mean the motorbike code, which needs a bit of adjustment with the sidecar and stuff, but that'll be improved over the next months. Because we have the motorcycle code there it is possible for us to do bikes. I'm not going to confirm we're doing bikes, but it is possible for us to do. With the new maps, we want to add new vehicles which fit those particular locations, just to give more content, more assets for people to play with.
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Is there an ETA on the new desert map?
Greene: We're going to be doing a blog post on this some time in the near future but what people saw in that is what is called "a beautiful corner", an area of the map made to show the art director the overall feel the team want to give the map. You know, I saw it and was just like, "that's cool! Oh man." We're going to explain these maps are still in early development and we're still working on two at the moment. We're trying to pick one to focus on. But it's still going to take us many months to get it out. I mean maps are not an easy thing to do, the last map took us about six to nine months to get to a really playable state. Maps take time. But we're going to be working hard and we're expanding the team so there's no ETA, they'll come when they're ready.
You said you've got two maps in development. So we have seen the desert map, can you tell me about the other one?
Greene: So the other is set in the Adriatic, a mountainous island with a snowy peak with an old cosmodrome in the centre. It's going to have much more vertical features than the current one. I've seen the beautiful corner for that map and it's really cool. Sergi, our environmental artist, he's leading the charge on that. He's spent lots of time reading up on the Adriatic and seeing that area and what kind of trees are suitable, to make it feel like a realistic location. I can't wait to start showing off some of the new areas. I get to see so much stuff internally and we don't want to release it all yet.
Will we be seeing any changes to the buildings and environment on the current maps or is this the final look going into full release?
Greene: No, no. What we're trying to do here, we're not building just a game, we're building something we want to last. I look at CS:GO and it's been around for 10 years, and it's been upgraded and upgraded, it's always getting better and that's what we want to do with Battlegrounds. We see it as a great big playground for people to come and try different play modes and play together, and we want to keep upgrading it. So much so that Sergi and myself had a discussion about maybe doing like Erangel 2.0 so, you know, in a year's time we just look back at the first map and redo it to make it better and make it really feel like where it's meant to be.
Will custom servers be introduced to everyone at some point or are they only for PUBG partners?
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Greene: Well at the moment we have to [make them only for partners], because the custom game is not a finished feature yet, so we really want to restrict that. We are paying for these servers so we can't give them to everyone. They've proven to be popular so, you know, if everyone gets them it's going to cost a lot of money. We want to make sure the feature is there first and figure out how we can do this correctly because we're a company, we can't give everything away for free as much as we'd like to.
Does the team actively listen to community feedback and work it into development?
Greene: For sure! Even from when we were doing alpha, our community manager Sammie organised interviews with Marek, our weapon and gameplay programmer, and a lot of the top H1 and Arma 3 Battle Royale players. They'd talk for an hour over lunch about how they felt about gunplay and movement, and really try to get their opinions and thoughts to make the game as good as we can. We have our forums, where we have a huge community that gives us feedback and bug reports. We did a quick poll on our new user interface to find out what people want. It's not a popularity contest but we look at this and go, "ok this is the overall feeling and this is what we have to work with, how can we mix that together?" They do a really good job. We have our data science guys and our community development team, they do a really great job funnelling that feedback through to the development team. They really take that feedback seriously.
Is that why you introduced first-person servers, because it was something the community was requesting?
Greene: Oh, no. If you look back when I first created the Battle Royale game mode in Arma 2 it was first-person only, there were no third-person servers. Then, when I moved to Arma 3, there was third-person because in Arma 3 first-person there was a grunting noise I didn't like and I didn't want everyone to play with the grunting noise. I made third-person servers, then in H1 there was third-person servers, but Battle Royale is better in first-person. Well there's no better, there's different. There's a way to play third-person but I prefer to play first-person because it's far more intense. I can play fewer rounds because it does get the heart going. I wanted to get first-person servers up. It's taken us a while because it required a lot of work from our end, so we had to change the FOV and move the camera position up a bit.
[We stop because Greene's phone goes off with Knight Rider's Kit car sound. Greene starts impersonating the noise, "Whoosh!"]
Greene: I love first-person and there's a big community out there that like first-person servers. That's the way they want to play. You shouldn't look at it as hardcore, we're not doing anything like that. We're removing the crosshair, because it's more immersive. You should really try it, it's a different experience. You get used to it and it feels great. I spectated some rounds in first-person competitions in Arma 3 where two people are in the same bush and they don't see each other, they just walk past each other like ships in the night. You know it's those moments, when you die it feels fairer. There's no peeking and stuff, so you feel better, especially when we add killcams and you'll see where you killed from. It'll really round out the game. And listen, third-person is great to play as well. It does take different strategy and tactics, because you have to be aware of peeking. It still takes skill to play third-person. There is no difference in skill level, it's just a difference in, I feel, intensity.
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You said you used to sneak into Arma games and watch players, will you spectate players in Battlegrounds when the feature comes?
Greene: We're still working on the spectator camera, it'll come and I probably will [laughs]. I get to watch it on Twitch or Mixer or YouTube, it's great. They're the best debugging tools out there, having thousands and tens of thousands of people play your game and upload content. People will find a bug and upload it and it's great for development because you can see very specifically what's wrong. You can try to figure it out and QA can use these videos as reference, so we can really try to track down and find bugs.
Why has Battlegrounds decided to team up with Facebook?
Greene: They approached us and said, "listen we'd like you to do some community streams with us." We have quite a big Facebook following on our page, there is a community there, so we decided, "let's do some streams for them." It was really as simple as that. It's just to show that community how games are made, we've been doing it since we started (doing blog posts and stuff). It's just to let people see this is what is going on when you make a game.
A player datamined some unreleased objects and skins, can you tell us whether we will be seeing these in the future and if so when?
Greene: The armour stuff, the Mad Max style stuff, was from some early concept models they'd done. You know, they're kinda cool. We keep our skins somewhat realistic, but it can be made to work. So we have various plans for cosmetics and customising of characters and stuff. Battlegrounds is such a spectator sport as well, people seem to love watching it and being able to dress up your character - it's the little things. That's what people like to do. We want to nurture that, we want to give rarity to items, we want to make an economy there for people that they can trade for skins. CS:GO has been very popular and successful doing that, I want to emulate that, it's a good system for a game.
Are there any plans to add micro-transactions for cosmetic items? (This interview was conducted before the announcement that starting from 3rd August, players can buy vanity items, with proceeds used as prizing for winners at the gamescom PUBG Invitational and for charities of Bluehole's selection.)
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Greene: The current system as you play you get points, with the points you buy crates, so we will be adding in a key system. Eventually you'll have to open these crates with keys. You'll be able to sell these crates as well on the Steam marketplace, if you don't want to open them. We have to enforce a rarity or a soft limit on how many crates you want to buy. There will be some people that want to buy a lot of crates, and that's fine, but until launch we are still going to have free crates.
We will have to test out the monetisation system sometimes during Early Access, just to get drop levels right and see if anything has actually come out. We have a great data science team, they look at the steam marketplace, and we really want to create a system. It has to be a good economy, and that's not always going to be what everyone wants. Everyone wants free stuff. We think monetisation is something games kind of have - we want this game for five or 10 years. We're not going to be selling 5m copies every few months or whatever. There has to be a way to keep our servers running and keep the company going so we can add new content and this kind of stuff. Most people understand that with monetisation. It's one of the better ways to do it in games, they're cosmetic only so there's no interference in gameplay. It's sort of a voluntary system, we're not forcing people to do it.
Are cosmetics lower on your priority list at the moment?
Greene: Oh, yeah. [The art team] are working on the new maps but they're also our character team. They're working on new cosmetics and stuff and looking at various things. I've seen some of the stuff they're doing and it looks really cool, but it's not what we are focused on. We're focused on optimising the map and optimising the code and network, so the game runs smoothly for everyone. We will have cosmetics but it's not our focus at all. Cosmetics come more at launch. We will be giving you new cosmetics throughout the course of EA as well, but it's not our focus. Our focus is optimisation and getting servers running real smooth for everyone.
Do you get much of a say in things like cosmetics?
Greene: It's a team effort here. People will suggest things and we'll be like, "OK, let's try this or let's do this." There is very much a sense of, I know what my vision is, but everyone else is committed to that vision. They suggest things and I see things, it's very much a collaborative effort.
You just pushed back full release. When are you aiming to launch now?
Greene: Originally when we started this we said, "OK, we have a timeline here of about six or seven months after March," which led us into September/October. Instead of saying six or seven months we said Q4. We didn't feel like we were pushing it back, it's still going to be out before the end of the year. We want to make a good game. For us, that's the most important thing. The build is king. That's why we didn't tie ourselves down to a certain month. Consumers aren't stupid. From day one, we've been so open about how we make games with blog posts, dev blogs and streams, and going, "this is how a game is made - with all its warts and all." It's not easy and there will be delays. We had to push back our monthly update a week because we had an internal issue with a crash that we needed to fix. People were like, "oh my god, it's delayed!" and it's like, it's a week. We don't want to push out a build that's crashing for a lot of people, we want to give you the best experience. We're lucky, 99 per cent of our fans understand what we're doing.
Do you have a rough time-frame for your Xbox One release?
Greene: No. We will announce the release date when we're ready. That's for the big people in PR and marketing to tell me when I can say [laughs]. You'll find out when you find out.
Has there been any unforeseen challenges adapting the game for console? Has anything needed drastically reworked?
Greene: Oh, no. Using Unreal first, it's a fantastic engine, it makes moving to different platforms relatively easy. There's optimisation that we need and we have a partner in Anticto, in Spain. There's about four or five of them working on the console version at the moment. They're very clever guys. They've helped us with a lot of features on the current game mod and for console. It's great, we have them working on that and the main team is still focused heavily on the PC version.
Have you tested to see if 100 man servers would work on console?
Greene: We have a version running on the Xbox One X prototype in the office which can plug into the online servers. We were playing on live servers on the console at about 30 or 40 FPS. So it works on 100 man servers.
There has been quite a furore about team kills and banning people. Do you think PUBG has stricter rules than other online games?
Greene: I come from Arma 3 and was part of that community, we didn't take any shit. We have rules and rules are there to be obeyed. That's it. I used to say, "play fair or not at all." When it comes to cheating or not following the rules, they're there for a reason and they're not that hard to follow. We're not asking you to do anything too extreme. A lot of the problems come from the fact there are no real systems in place for reporting, but we're working on them. It's still month four in Early Access. We just launched and a lot of people forget that. We're still building the game. There are report features coming. It just takes us time to make them fair and build them into the game in a way that feels good. We get a lot of stuff on social about things like this but we're doing our best to really come up with a fair system. Mistakes will happen and people get unfairly banned, but we move on and try to give them a system that works eventually.
Any plans to introduce wildlife?
Greene: No. I mean I'd love to add wild roaming dogs that could attack you but that's animal AI and that's a lot of work. We're building this as a service. One of my dreams is building big maps but that's a lot of work. If you think an 8x8 map takes time, imagine a 50x50. I would love to create a world like that with AI, but the work involved in that is ridiculous and at the moment we have Battlegrounds to finish. It's one step at a time. In everything we are doing it's baby steps, there's no point rushing into this. No, we're not just trying to sell a game and make a quick buck. We are trying to build a service here that provides players, content creators and viewers with something that's amazing to watch, play and just have a good time in. That's what we're trying to do here.
From day one I was hesitant about going into Early Access, it's a great program but there's been a lot of bad press about it. I was hesitant but our boss convinced me to really just think about it again. He's right, it's a great program to develop a multiplayer game in because you get the community feedback to make the game great. I'm just happy we agreed that when we went into Early Access we would release a kind of beta version of the game which was somewhat stable and that you could play. People have been playing. We're close to 400,000 maximum current users at the moment, which is insane. When we first released this there was the obvious comparison to H1, which I find funny because I helped H1 as well. People were saying, "you're copying this game!" and it was like, "no, we're not." This is my vision for a Battle Royale, it's not the same as H1 and it's not the same as Arma - it's something in between. People have loved it. Now we're passing CS:GO, every now and again, at weekends when CS:GO is at its minimum player count. It's crazy.
Is it strange for you to go between South Korea and Ireland? I imagine quite a few people recognise you now in Korea.
Greene: No, not really. No one really recognises me yet. I haven't been in the Korean press really that much but apparently in the Korean dev community I'm a bit of a rockstar [laughs]. I guess I'm going to find out at G-STAR. I'm going to G-STAR this year, so people will want to come and see me. It's going to be crazy. I'm somewhat unknown still, it's great, I can wander around and people don't know who I am. I did a press shoot for, I think, Game Informer and they sent a portrait photographer out and they allowed me to cover my face. I take pictures with fans and my face is out there, but in my official shots I like to play up to the PlayerUnknown thing.
A bit like Daft Punk?
Greene: Oh my god, I love Daft Punk! [Laughs] I was raving to Homework. I like that idea. I like that it's not about me, it's about the game.
Can you reveal weapons we will be getting in the future?
Greene: We really want to balance out the classes. We have some plans for maybe adding in some pistols and other rifles to the game to really give people a selection. With new maps, myself and Pablo, our lead animator, were talking about adding new vehicles and weapons specific to these maps, really give people a different Battle Royale experience. They're such great plans.
Has any definitive decision been made on cross-platform play? I know there's been a lot of debate about aim-assist among players.
Greene: Regarding cross-platform, we're saying nothing definitive. We'll maybe look into it but for the moment it'll be console versus console. We want to give console players a good experience playing against other console players. That's important for us. FPS on console is a tricky thing, it's not the easiest thing to do. You can't make it feel too unfair. We have our game designers back in Korea, they've spent hours sitting there thinking, "how can we do this to really make it feel great?" I've pretty high confidence that it's going to be great FPS on console.
You have mentioned before wanting to break into esports. Has there been any development on these plans? (This interview took place before the announcement of the gamescom PUBG Invitational.)
Greene: We have a great business development team that is looking into the best way that we can work with organisations and teams to make this a truly competitive game and that means the organisation of live events. How will we do it? Because it's not easy. It's not CS:GO or DOTA, where it's 5v5, it's a complex thing. A good round of Battle Royale needs, I think, about 64 players or so to make it feel like a complete game. That's hard to do. We're talking with the big organisations and production teams to figure out how we can do this. Again, baby steps. We're focusing on making the game competitive and trying to make it that you're not dying from bugs, you're not dying from server disconnects, it's a stable game that feels competitive.
We're going to run events and invitationals until it's a true esport, I guess. Until then we'll be working with streamers and content creators to try to see what format works. We did the Gamers Outreach invitational and we raised a huge amount of money and had over 300,000 people watching. That's League of Legends and Counter Strike numbers for just a four or five hour event. That was amazing to me. The possibility to do something great with the game is there but until it's stable and optimised we're just going to take baby steps and move forward slowly. It's a simple plan, right? It's common sense. We have a great thing in Battlegrounds in that it's really fun to watch and really fun to play. It's easy to understand. There's three rules: you land, you loot and you kill everyone else. Everything else is whatever way you want to play the game.
Can you tell me about anything you have coming up that you're really excited about, or maybe something you haven't told anyone else yet?
Greene: I'd love to give exclusives but we've kind of been pretty open. We have new weapons coming but we're not going to announce them yet because we still want to give the players on social media something. I'm looking forward to the 3D replay system. We have this team from Korea, they're actually another company, and this is the great thing about our team, Chang-Han Kim [executive producer of Battlegrounds at Bluehole] just looks at what we need. We said we need to build this 3D replay system and there's this company in Korea that's really good at doing that so they sent four of their guys to our office that work in the meeting room to specifically look at that. There's a constant expansion of the team to get the best people to do everything so our core team can focus on the game.
You move around quite a lot, what is a typical day in your life like? How do you touch base with the studio when you are in Ireland?
Greene: We have Slack. I'm based in South Korea and get to go home to Ireland, sometimes. I won't get home for a while with all the travelling, especially with the conventions. We have a lot of fans so I try to get to most conventions so I can say hi. I want to give them a chance to get a stupid picture with me. The fans, I wouldn't be here without them. It's tough, I'm never going to complain. First World problems - I travel too much. We have a global development team. We have a team in Madison, Wisconsin, we just opened an office there, they're making the desert map, and we're looking at opening other offices. We've always been a global development team, so we have a good system where it's almost 24 hours. When one team is sleeping another one is working.
Is your daughter old enough to understand what you do and how big a deal you are right now?
Greene: Yeah, she's 11. Last time I was home she said, "the guys are all playing your game" and I was like, "oh OK." Roman Atwood contacted us about getting a custom server and I asked her, "do you know who he is?" and she was like, "oh my god!" So I sent him a DM and said, "man, could you record a short video to say hi to her?" and he did. He recorded a video and introduced his family and stuff. Her mum sent me a message saying that was the coolest dad thing I've ever done. It was good to be able to do for her.