I've been watching the PUBG Global Invitional on the ground in Berlin (yep, it's even hotter), but before the pro-plunkers went to bat I got the chance to sit down with Playerunknown himself. Playerunknown is also known as Brendan Greene, the lead designer of Playerunknown's Battlegrounds. I asked Greene about how PUBG Corp handles player toxicity, and failed to convince him to embrace the objectively best name for his videogame.
RPS: Why are the people in Plunkbat so keen to parachute onto an island and murder each other? Can you confirm my colleague’s theory that it’s a stag and hen do gone wrong?
Brendan Greene: Erm. It isn’t, and also I would love to ask you a question: why do you call it Plunkbat? Why? Like, you know what that means, right?
RPS: What, that it has a strange definition on UrbanDictionary.com?
Brendan: Yes it does!
RPS: But lots of words I use, when you look them up, people on Urban Dictionary have given them weird definitions.
Brendan: This is true.
RPS: And that doesn’t get in the way of me using those!
Brendan: No… I don’t really care about it, I just look it up and go ‘really? Ugh’. Because I’d be interested to find out which was first, our shortening or… the other one. [Ed's note: Our first use of "Plunkbat" dates from May 23rd 2017, while the grim UrbanDictionary.com entry Brendan is referring to is from a little over a fortnight later on June 8th.]
RPS: See, I would say that it doesn’t matter. I would encourage you to embrace it, and ignore urban dictionary for the trash heap it probably is.
Brendan: I could, yeah… or I could just rip the shit out of you!
RPS: (laughing) Alright, alright, we’ll go back and forth on that. I’m happy with that. But back to the question!
Brendan: Yeah, let’s be serious.
RPS: Yeah, seriously, is it a stag and hen do gone wrong?
Brendan: No no... the dreams of a mad Irishman.
RPS: OK, I can see you’re being coy. The only definition dictionary.com gives for ‘Royale’ is “custard cut into shapes and used as a garnish in soups”. Is that a clue?
Brendan: (after a lengthy, puzzled pause) ...no. (laughs) Really? ‘Royale’?
RPS: Yep, there’s some fun trivia for you. OK, so, moving onto serious things: Like everyone I know, I’ve long had public voice chat turned off in Plunkbat because those first moments, in the the loading area and the plane, it’s like a separate arena where people are competing to be as obnoxious as they possibly can. Do you see that as a problem?
Brendan: No. Well, yes and no. Obviously some of the more ridiculous things people say, I wish we could filter some of that stuff out. I think some progress is being made in the audio identification tech that you need to physically do that, but I think… you know, the reason I like it is because sometimes you go in and it’s not horrible, it’s really beautiful.
Like I remember going in all the way back in Arma 3, and coming into a lobby and there’s one guy standing there playing church music, Russian church music, and everyone else is sitting down in front of him waiting for the round to start. So I think yes, there is an awful lot of obnoxious... idiots, to use a nice word. But I think it also leads to some ‘follow me I’m a [inaudible]*’. That there are some very interesting social things that happen within the battle royale lobby, and I don’t think I’d change that. Because you know, along with the good comes the bad, but it’s still an interesting space for [people on] the internet to interact with each other, right?
RPS: But once the voice filtering technology you’re talking about becomes a possibility, that’s something you would look into?
Brendan: Oh I would love to. I mean, all the way back in Arma 3 Battle Royale, if you used homophobic or racial slurs we banned you. Permanently. Goodbye. It’s just unacceptable, and something I really... Like, I don’t care what you do in your private space, but in our game you act like a decent human being or you don’t play.
RPS: Do you not think there might be alternatives out there at the moment to make that possible? So I mean they’re slightly different, but games like Overwatch and Rainbow Six: Siege are taking steps to tackle toxicity. Is that something you’d be looking at in the near future?
Brendan: Well no, I mean we are looking at ways to deal with toxicity within the game. We want to get rid of the guys that decide ‘I want to be a dickhead on the internet’. Why they choose that I don’t know, but yeah we are looking into all these. I can’t tell you that yes we’re going to do it or we’re not going to do it, but as I’ve said I’ve been a strong believer in getting rid of the idiots since [the] Arma days, so I want to continue into this - it just takes time to build these systems up. We already have report systems in the game. If someone is being an idiot, people can report them, and if they get enough reports there’s a banning system there. So we already do deal with toxicity, we need to do more obviously, but we’re waiting in a lot of regards for tech to catch up.
RPS: You temporarily banned a streamer for threatening violence against you, physical violence against you -
RPS: Did you not temporarily ban DrDisrespect?
Brendan: We banned DrDisrespect for killing a teammate in a squad game.
RPS: I thought I saw the reason you gave on Twitter was that once he’d taken it a step too far with--
Brendan: Oh no, that was my own personal thing on him. He was banned from the game for killing a teammate live on stream. He was banned for teamkilling, you know - you don’t teamkill in the game!
RPS: And so this, arguably abuse outside of the game, that didn’t enter into the decision?
Brendan: No. God no!
RPS: Do you think there’s a point when streamers who are either abusive themselves or encourage other people to be abusive, where PUBG Corp should take action?
Brendan: I mean... I couldn’t possibly comment.
RPS: Yes you could!
Brendan: I could, I’m not going to!
Brendan: But yeah, honestly, he wasn’t banned for what he said to me. That was a personal thing, he was banned for teamkilling, 100%.
RPS: That’s my misunderstanding.
Brendan: Oh no that’s fine, I just wanted to clear that up. Because literally, I do not have the power to ban people in the game. I cannot ban people in my own game, like we leave that to the CS team, that’s who bans people. No one in the community has the power to ban, nobody on the team other than the anti-cheat team and the community service team. They’re the ones who look after that. We don’t get the power to ban people, because of abuse [of that power]. Or the possibility of abuse. Like even in Arma 3 I wouldn’t do the banning, we’d leave it to the admins to make decisions like that.
RPS: Fair enough. So, Steam’s peak and average player counts in the past 6 months have shown your playerbase has halved. Why do you think that is?
Brendan: Yeah, but so has Dota’s!
RPS: Well OK, but why has Plunkbat’s?
Brendan: It’s the way that all games go. That you have a peak player count and then it levels out, it maintains. So going off Steam metrics alone is really shortsighted because we’re across five or six platforms worldwide. Especially in China, we’ve released our mobile game in China, a lot of people have moved from PC to mobile just because it’s the way things happen in China. They prefer mobile games over PC games. Internally we see the numbers and they’re not really dipping, it’s more stabalising. You know, even the Steam numbers have now stabilized. We know that yes, we’re not at our peak player count anymore but as I said, look at Dota - they got 1.2 million peak and now they’re back at 600k. You know, games go through this evolution of like having huge popularity and them coming down to a regular player count and that’s what I think you’re seeing with us.
RPS: So you definitely wouldn’t attribute it to people playing Fortnite instead?
Brendan: I don’t think so. We’re different games, right? I mean, one’s Fortnite and one’s a serious battle royale. I think you may see some overlap in the playerbase but I think people that like PUBG like PUBG and people that like Fortnite like Fortnite.
RPS: You don’t feel the need to do anything radical to lure people back, you’re content to be - in fairness - as massively popular as you currently are?
Brendan: I mean look, we have to stabilise the game, we made our plan for esports out today, we have a bigger plan in mind. We’re not looking short term, we’re not looking month to month, we’re looking year to year now. We really think that we have a chance to make a really good realistic battle royale esport, but it just takes time to make. That’s what we’re trying to do over the next two, three, five years.
RPS: What have you learned over the course of designing three maps for a battle royale game? Do you focus on making the environment fun to fight in, or do you first try to make it look natural?
Brendan: No, it’s fun to fight in first. You know, we have internal playtests currently on the snow map, it’s about getting 100 players into the game and seeing how the map plays. It’s playtest after playtest, we all get feedback and then that’s implemented. So really it’s more about the general layout first, and then we play that, and then we worry about beautifying it. It’s really about getting the feel of the map first and how stuff is laid out rather than making it beautiful first.
RPS: Normal Plunkbat rewards hiding and camping. How do you turn that into a compelling esport?
Brendan: Well, you’ve seen a compelling esport! Look at the last few... Look at Broadcaster Royale, which came out last week. Yes, there was a guy snaking on the ground, but it was an amazing finish. I think [it depends] on the region you’re playing in - I was at the Turkish regional finals, and they’re super aggressive. You know, they don’t camp! They go after teams, they fight. Same with the Asian players, they don’t care. Western teams? Sure, they may be a bit more campy and a bit more cautious in their playstyles, but I think tomorrow you’re gonna see a big mess of different playstyles coming together. I think it’s not going to be a camping thing.
But again, it’s about winning. That’s the core thing about a battle royale, it’s about who wins! And if it means that you camp in a bush, that’s the way you win. There’s no right way to play, I’m not going to tell you, like, 'This is the right way to play or this is the wrong way to play.' It’s the win, that’s all that matters.
RPS: Mmm, but it is true that you’ve incentivised players to be more aggressive by using a scoring system that rewards killing people rather than just surviving until the end.
Brendan: Oh yeah, sure. We want to give ways of... the challenge we face is that if one team is doing very well at the start, do they get above everyone else and no one else can win? So we want to give this kind of catch up mechanic, so if you are aggressive... You know, we saw with FaZe last year in the EU finals that they were nowhere on Day one, and then they nearly go into the finals because they really played their hearts out and they got kills and started racking up points. It’s about finding that good balance of points that rewards those aggressive players, but also doesn’t take away that this is really a survival game and not a shooter game, so to speak.
RPS: Do you think there should be a Plunkbat movie?
Brendan: There is, it’s called Battle Royale!
RPS: OK, last question. What would you say to someone who insisted on using an affectionate yet strangely divisive nickname while interviewing that game’s lead designer?
RPS: Thanks for your time.
*At this exact moment some nearby people who were packing equipment away clanged a pole, which my recorder did not like at all. Feel free to fill the blank in with your imagination.