For every million copies Battlegrounds sells, Brendan ‘PlayerUnknown’ Greene takes his team out for dinner.
“We don’t do it often,” he says. “We don’t go mad.”
It only takes a bit of googling, however, to work out that his staff might need larger shirt sizes for the summer. They’ve been out for dinner four times in the past three months.
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Battlegrounds is in fifth place for the most concurrent players on Steam – not just today, or this week, but ever. It’s phenomenally successful. But why? Why hasn’t its star fallen since launch, like so many other survival games before it? It’s not a question that Greene can bring any special insight to, nor does it seem like a topic that he’s especially interested in.
“Me, and a lot of other older gamers, want a game that’s hard,” he muses. “With a lot of the big titles like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, I found that their endings got less and less challenging to me. I want a boss that will take me 17 tries to beat.
“That’s why I created the battle royale. These massive multiplayer battles where it’s you versus other people [that] provide you with the best challenge. The deadliest prey is man.”
Right. Sure. But isn’t that true for all competitive multiplayer? This is a theme with Greene, who later describes the battle royale idea as “have fun and kill other people.” It’s not particularly enlightening; you’d be hard pressed to find a shooter that wasn’t about those things.
As it turns out, what gets Greene’s Dacia revving isn’t highfalutin design chat but adding more stuff to Battlegrounds. He enthuses about the idea of attaching C4 to a car, putting his foot down in the direction of a road block, and bailing out before the blast. Battlegrounds’ big E3 announcement, meanwhile, was wall vaulting – and Greene is particularly keen on the new number of ways it’s now possible to exit a house. Ultimately, he wants to make his game “more like a movie.”
Maybe it’s wrong to look for an overarching method or high concept behind Battlegrounds’ success. Likewise, watch back the Twitch feed of any Battlegrounds winner and it’d be easy to ascribe purpose, where in fact luck and circumstance helped whittle down their competitors.
Besides, Greene’s groundedness – his ability to retain the mindset of a player even as he becomes creative director of a huge project – has been key to the game’s development.
“From the very start, we were open with what we did about developing the game, and it comes from me being a consumer and not knowing how games were made,” he remembers. “We want people to see that sometimes it’s not easy and it is a struggle, and we’re committed to showing people all our failings.”
You might know that Battlegrounds began even more simply – with Greene, a part-time programmer, tweaking Arma in his bedroom. It’s an origin story that nicely mirrors that of fellow survival mod auteur Dean Hall.
“I don’t claim responsibility for the genre,” Greene says. “Even the ‘last man standing’ deathmatch has been around since people picked up sticks and hit each other. I was inspired by The Survivor Games in DayZ. I loved that concept and I made it more for myself than anything else.”
After joining Battlegrounds’ studio, Bluehole, Greene struggled to step back and let others do the work.
“People constantly say to me, ‘Oh, you made a great game’, and I didn’t make anything,” he insists. “I have a team of about 70 people that are amazing at what they do. Now I’ve learned to leave them to do their thing and not try to micromanage them.”
That said, prototyping Battlegrounds’ upcoming player-controlled zombie mode was an almost-solo project for Greene, who worked alongside only his lead animator for three days.
“We were in Prague at Bohemia’s studios, and we came up with some zombie animations,” he recalls. “We both agreed that we wanted fast zombies, put those into the game real quick, made a video, and put it out at E3.
“We haven’t set anything in stone yet and we’re not really working on it – it’s just a nice idea we had. We wanted to show it off because it looks really cool. I’m happy with that video, it makes the zombies look badass.”
Greene’s going to have difficulty taking his whole team out for dinner in the future. He’s soon flying to Madison, Wisconsin, where a new studio will build Battlegrounds’ Peru map. The game’s other new playground, an Adriatic arena, will be handled by Bluehole HQ in Seoul. Together, the teams will total around 80 people, with plans to expand further as they knuckle down over the coming years.
“It’s been a tremendous success,” Greene acknowledges. “But we’re trying to keep our heads on our shoulders and just finish the game.”
Perhaps it’s only natural that Greene doesn’t immediately come across as the reflective type. His mind is forever on the next stage of getting Battlegrounds done. And that can only be a good thing for those of us whose survival is reliant on luck, circumstance, and a sturdy frying pan.