Since release in March, battle-royale-'em-up PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds [official site] has sold 4 million copies, and at the time of writing it's the third most played game on Steam in terms of concurrent users. That's not bad given that its creator, Brendan 'PlayerUnknown' Greene, has never made a game before, only got involved in modding a few years ago, and doesn't really consider himself a gamer.
At this year's EGX Rezzed in April, I spoke to Greene about his rapid journey through the industry, his plans for new modes in Battlegrounds, how he feels about competition with H1Z1, and his hope of giving back to the community that helped him by turning the game into a modding platform.
RPS: How did you get into the games industry?
PlayerUnknown: I was a photographer and designer in Brazil, where I lived from about ten years ago. Towards the end I discovered DayZ, the mod, and that kind of got me back into gaming. I wasn't really a gamer; I'd play games every now and again but when I was in Brazil, I wasn't really playing very many videogames at all. I just loved the idea of no storyline, you do whatever the fuck you want.
But then I had my DayZ mod server, and I started scripting stuff in and changing it a little bit, and playing around and then I decided I'd see if I could create a mod. I saw the survival games and DayZ, I thought it was a cool concept, but I wanted to change it and make it so everyone could play it. I created a DayZ mod based on the DayZ Overwatch mod because they had the biggest selection of guns, and I made the DayZ Battle Royale mod for that. That kind of took off.
Then when the DayZ standalone came out, our popularity on Arma 2 died off as everyone went to DayZ standalone. I used that opportunity to move to Arma 3, and then in Arma 3 I tuned it a bit more, removed the zombies and stuff, and made it just more the Battle Royale mod that people know today.
RPS: What kind of design were you doing in Brazil?
PU: Graphic design, web design, that was my career for many years, from my 20s all the way through my 30s, I was a graphic designer and photographer. Like I say, I didn't play-- I could list the games I'd played and loved on one hand. But I played the shit out of those games, right? Black Hawk Down I played for years, because I loved its realism, its custom made maps, its user modes, and I love that. All the games I play are military simulations, they're all real-- I want the game to look like this, I want good weapon physics, I want all this kind of stuff. I want air drag. I want to take a kilometer-wide shot and watch the bullet drop. That kind of stuff.
RPS: So was the stuff for DayZ your first time trying to mod?
PU: Oh yeah, and I was terrible at it. The guys who helped me in the early days of Arma 3 looked at my code and were like, 'How the hell do you make one of the more popular mods for Arma 3 and write code like this?'. It worked, but it was terrible coding. There were a few times where, [for example] I wrote the loot system in Arma 3, I wrote it myself and it took me a time to figure it out but it works really well.
Coming to make a game now myself, because I did most of this stuff in Arma 3, being now the creative director, I don't get to implement. I have to tell, and that's been a hard adjustment because there's some days you're sitting there and you're like, I have nothing to do today. I've written the docs I have to do and you're playing Battlefield or something like that, kind of going, 'I feel bad or guilty.' My production director is like, 'No, listen, it's just the way it is,' you know?
RPS: So how did you learn to program?
PU: I just taught myself. I was a web designer more than a web developer, so I knew how to read code, but I couldn't write code all that well. I could take someone else's code and mess around with it. So when I started modding and writing scripts and stuff, I looked at other people's code and saw it was-- and SQF in Arma is a terrible language but it's a good language because it's kind of easy to understand. It's very frustrating to work with but I managed to make it work.
RPS: A lot of copy-pasting and...
PU: Oh, no, I'd write my own functions and stuff like that but using other people and seeing how other people did it. There was some copy-pasting but again, you know, I got help with code and you just look at our changelog and you list everyone who has helped you. But that's what I love about the Arma modding scene especially - it is very friendly. If you have a good idea - and we weren't monetising it, I pay for the Arma 3 Battle royale servers to this day every week or every month and don't charge people to play. It's just like, modding should be free, and the opportunity I've been given, I get to give back to the Arma community, because without them I wouldn't have what I have today.
RPS: So you transitioned to Arma 3, the mod was popular, were you then approached by Daybreak or Sony Online?
PU: It was Sony Online. So Adam Clegg [game designer at SOE] followed me. Like, okay. I was watching devlogs about H1Z1 before it was launched. They were talking about a Battle Royale game mode and I was like, [smiling] 'That's great guys.' You know. It's like, do you want to pass me some money? [laughs] And then John Smedley followed me, and sent me a message saying, 'Hi, I'm John Smedley, President of Sony Online, we should talk.' OK, had a Skype call, he flew me over to San Diego, we talked. Said they wanted to include my game mode in H1 and if I'd be good with that, and I went with it. And yeah. H1.
RPS: Do you feel a sense of ownership over the game mode? I know other people were doing similar stuff, and there were Hunger Games game modes for Minecraft, and...
PU: Oh yeah. Look, I don't claim ownership. So, it's a last-man standing deathmatch. That's been around since people could pick up clubs and hit each other. I would never claim ownership over that. The ever decreasing circle - I couldn't program squares like it is in the Battle Royale movie. The code for doing squares that shrink, I just couldn't do it because I wasn't a very good coder, right? So I moved it an ever decreasing circle that sort of moved around inside itself, because that's how I could do it. I don't even claim ownership on that. These are old ideas. I love to see what the genre has created. It's various versions on something that I guess I popularised, you know? The idea itself is not mine.
RPS: There's a history of this within modding; Capture the Flag modes have been in just about every multiplayer shooter, but they began with a Quake mod, the creator of which then got hired.
PU: This is it. Even in Delta Force: Black Hawk Down you have king of the hill game modes, you've got all these capture the flag modes. Delta Force had all these other game modes that, they've been around since people have played games. I like to provide a new spin on them.
RPS: So what was the ongoing nature of the relationship with Sony Online? Did they hire you, were you a consultant?
PU: I was a consultant. They licensed my game mode, they licensed my idea for inclusion. Which was last-man standing deathmatch with an ever decreasing play zone, with a random loot system. That's what my idea would be, really. They changed some stuff, they simplified the loot, their bombing zones aren't the same as what I had in Arma 3 and now in Battlegrounds. But I helped them get it into the game by just consulting with them for a few months, and then I really let them do their own thing. I went back to Arma 3 then and focused on getting the leaderboards online, and doing all that stuff, and let them do their own thing. What they've done has been great. They've got huge numbers of players in the world.
RPS: So what was the next step after that - you've partnered an existing development company?
PU: Yeah, so Bluehole, they made Tera. I got an email from, internally we're Bluehole Ginno games, and Ginno Games was bought by Bluehole some years ago. The owner of that, Chang Han Kim is the production director now of the game. I'm working with a team within Bluehole. Because they've got ten games either in development or out. He approached me last February, and said, "I've wanted to make a Battle Royale game for years. I love what you've done, do you want to come and make your Battle Royale vision with me?" I flew to Korea, heard what he wanted, he wanted modding, he wanted all this... The same stuff that I wanted from a game.
I decided, right, and moved to Korea. Moved out last year, the day before my birthday. I've been there for the last year making the game. It's been great because we're completely in sync in what we want. We want all the same things for the game which is a joy. In the company, we have management, but they really let you do your own thing. Like your team is independent from the company, so we make our own decisions, we make the decisions we want. They're fine with it. Now that we've had the success, it's a vindication of the work we've been doing.
RPS: It's an unusual story, to go from photographer to modder and then very quickly--
PU: My first job in gaming is as creative director at a company. You don't get that opportunity, and I'm extremely lucky to be where I am. I really don't want to fuck it up.
I had some people over at the hotel last night, and I said, because I've had relative success with this game, and it's blown up, now there's a lot of pressure on my next game. It's like, what do you do next? But coming not from gaming, most games like Zelda? Never played it. I had an Atari 2600 when I was a kid. I played some online, like Delta Force: Black Hawk Down and America's Army and that kind of game. Didn't play a lot of the triple-AAA titles, don't consider myself a major gamer like most people here [at EGX Rezzed].
But it gives me a lot of freedom, because I don't know the technology. I kind of know it now because I've been making a game for a year, but I can still request stuff that I just don't know if it's possible. It lets me dream a little bigger, I guess, because I'm not tied down by knowing too much about it.
RPS: Can you give a specific example of that?
PU: Well, just like with our engineering team. I'll go, OK, I want lights in all the houses, that you can blow up. They'll look at me like, 'Hmm, really?'. [laughs] Like just not knowing the tech, not being an industry veteran and knowing the engines intimately, I can requests that may not be possible but are possible but are very hard. It's good. The game we have now is just because of, 'Oh, can we do this?'. It's a little bit harder sometimes but it shows in the game.
RPS: How are you going to grow the game? Other modes, or...?
PU: We're going to have modding, right? I have a few other modes I'd like to put in, more as a templates for modders to look at and go, 'OK, that's how they do that.' We have our custom games for partners so they'll be able to mess around with the core Battle Royale game mode on a private server for their friends, their viewers and stuff. But for me, it's about providing a platform. I want to provide a platform for other people to create game modes, to find the next PlayerUnknown. I'm giving them a really textured island, we have more maps coming, and we're providing a lot of content to our users, and they can go wild with that. For me, that's what I'm trying to provide. Battle Royale is part of Battlegrounds, but it's not all of Battlegrounds. It is this platform for you to use.
RPS: How is that different from what Bohemia do with Arma, since Arma is obviously a platform as well?
PU: Oh yeah. I wouldn't be here without Arma. Arma has given us DayZ, it's given us now Battlegrounds, and H1 to some respect. It's just a fantastic platform, but Arma is-- and it's the one thing-- I love using Unreal [for Battlegrounds], but the ability for Arma to do these massive open worlds, these truly great worlds, is something that I'm very jealous of. Because you can do it in Unreal but it's tough. We've had to do a lot of changes to core engine code to make stuff work on that large a scale.
But for me, it's about giving a platform that's not quite as realistic. Arma is super realistic. It's very simulation, and I want to give this universe that's a little less so. You still have really good bullet physics, we're going to be adding air drag, so the guns should work like real weapons. But it's just a little bit easier to work with. Again, I'm not doing it to compete or anything like that, I just feel that since I came from modding, I have to give modding back in my game.
RPS: Can you talk about those plans for future modes?
PU: Well, there's got to be a few surprises, but look at the game modes we have in Arma 3 Battle Royale. Like there's 'Street Fight', which is based in cities, and it's just with pistols and SMGs, with air drops containing [assault rifles]. You can take more damage, and it's just a little more brutal and close quarters than Battle Royale.
I've done a lot of other game modes in Arma 3, not spins on Battle Royale but... You know, 'War', it's a longer game mode so there's like thirty minutes at the start where you can run around, loot, kill, but when you die you respawn, and you parachute back in with a pistol. Then the blue zone happens and once that locks, when you die you can't respawn again. It's longer than the regular Battle Royale.
RPS: Which was the most popular of those modes?
PU: Pure Battle Royale, but we launched the squad mode on Arma 3 Battle Royale six months ago, and that's really proved... Like, our concurrent user (CCU) count before was like 400, and when we launched our squad mode it's gone up to 900 now and it's stayed that way consistently. It was a really nice thing for me to see, when we launched Battlegrounds, the CCU from Arma 3 Battle Royale hasn't gone down. Because you have the Arma 3 fans that want that.
I say to people, Battlegrounds isn't copying H1, it's not copying Arma 3. It's somewhere in the middle. If you want a super realistic Arma 3, go play Arma 3 Battle Royale. If you you want something more arcade-y and lots of fun, H1Z1: King of the Kill is there. There's no competition. I see a lot of the public saying, 'H1Z1 killer.' It's like, it's my game mode in H1, I don't want to kill it! Why can't we both exist in a genre? Look at League of Legends and Dota 2.
RPS: It does feel as if there's a lot of people frustrated though with H1Z1 and DayZ, that they're games that never seem to be finished, and they're in early access and it's been years and there still bugs.
PU: Game development is hard. What makes it hard is, we work with Unreal, which is a joy because they have a company that is focused on making an engine. So there's 40 people just working on code for the engine. You look at Daybreak and Bohemia, they're working on their own engines, and that's just infinitely harder. I think the ForgeLight engine is a ten year old engine. Now, they've improved it considerably since then, but it's the same with the Arma engine, it's 15 years old. Now DayZ are making a new engine, and that's just something which takes time.
It's something a lot of people don't understand and they get a lot of hate because of that. I just try to correct them whenever I can. It's like, listen, guys, they will get finished. Companies are not going to abandon games like that, you know? People say, 'oh, DayZ will never be finished,' and of course it will. People tell us we're not going to be out of early access in six months; challenge accepted. I can guarantee you, six or seven months and we're out of early access. It's the team. It's a matter of honour, you know? We will finish this game in six months.
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is in early access now. It's been around four months so far.