The meteoric rise of Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds makes it feel like an overnight success. But in reality, it’s a project that started as a mod in Brazil, was developed further in Ireland, formed the basis of H1Z1: King of the Kill over in America, then eventually found a home in Korea at Bluehole, a Seoul based game development studio.
Nobody knows how much work has gone into this game more than Playerunknown himself, Brendan Greene. Freely admitting to not being the most hardcore gamer, Greene spent his childhood at The Curragh Camp, the main training base for the Irish Army and home to over 2,000 military personnel.
So, just how did a boy from Ireland end up moving across the globe and making one of the hottest multiplayer shooters on the market right now? I spoke to Greene from his office in Seoul to find out.
What was it like for you growing up in Ireland?
I was born in Ballyshannon, but grew up in an army camp called The Curragh Camp. My dad was in the army for 35 years, he was in signals. He converted a lot of the army records to the computer. He did a lot of work with the UN, peacekeeping jobs. Spent time in Lebanon and Cambodia, actually, he was there for the first free elections in Cambodia. It was a childhood of watching army men doing stuff.
Were you much of a gamer growing up? What kinds of games were you into?
I played a lot of games as a kid, I remember my dad coming back from Lebanon one year with an Atari 2600. And then my friend had a Commodore 64. When I first started going to college I was very big into cyberpunk RPGs and stuff like that, I was kind of into gaming but not the same extent a lot of people today are.
I fell out of it when I became a DJ, and a photographer, a [web and graphic] designer – that was my life. When I wasn’t designing or DJing, I was off taking photographs. I played the occasional game, like Call of Duty, but I found them a little boring for my liking. So games like Zelda and Metal Gear Solid, I’ve never really played them. [Actually, I did play] Metal Gear Solid, I played the first one and I got really bored, and that was it.
You got bored of Metal Gear Solid?! That game was a revelation for me. I love that game!
Yeah just all that sneaking around, I was just like ugh! [laughs]. I can appreciate the game, but it’s not my type of game. Delta Force: Black Hawk Down, I played the shit out of that game. Played it for years until the servers were shutting down. After that was America’s Army, I fell in love with that. But after that, I really didn’t play any games until the [Arma 2 mod] DayZ.
What made you want to move to Brazil?
I went [to Brazil] for the love of a woman, and we divorced. Then I spent another four years there, and the last two I spent saving up money to go home. I was in a small town, and there’s stuff in Brazil that makes it hard for a foreigner to live there. Even to buy a house you need two guarantors who already own houses or else you pay $1000 or $2000 a year, and that’s money you don’t get back.
So you couldn’t buy a house, and you were sort of stuck in a foreign country – what did you end up doing with the rest of your time in Brazil?
The last few years I was in Brazil I was kind of bored because I was staying home and not going out much, I was saving to get home. And I read, I think it was on Reddit, about this zombie survival game and I bought Arma 2, installed the DayZ mod, and just fell in love with the game. A friend of mine in Canada rented a server so we could run our own server for the DayZ mod, and let me scripting for it a little bit. Add different things, change the loot tables. That’s when I got back into gaming. From there, running that server for nearly a year, I decided to try my hand at making a mod.
And that mod went on to become Battle Royale for Arma 2, right?
[Yes, that’s] why I moved back to Ireland … I needed a good internet connection, and in Brazil, it’ll rain and the internet might go out. I’m trying to manage servers and their internet was not great. So I decided to move back to Ireland and really focus on this mod because I believed in the mod. I thought we had a good thing, it was always popular in both Arma 2 and then Arma 3.
Was it around this time that Sony or Daybreak Game Company reached out to you? I know you worked on H1Z1: King of the Kill with them, how did that come about?
I noticed [the developers of H1Z1: Just Survive] talking about what I’d done with Battle Royale on one of their developer streams. That piqued my interest, so I was like ‘hey guys, thanks for the interest’. I noticed [Daybreak employees] Adam Clegg started following me, then James Whisenant. Then John Smedley sent me a DM and said ‘Hi, I’m John, we should talk’, and then invited me over to San Diego.
They said ‘would you let us license your idea and put it into H1Z1’ and I was like ‘yeah’. I spent three weeks with them there, they paid for my hotel and everything, and they put the game mode into H1Z1. And they’ve turned it into an amazing product over the last few years.
It seems quite generous of them to do that, to take you in as a consultant. It seems like they could have just taken your idea, but did the right thing. Do you see it that way?
Oh yes, I wouldn’t be here without them. I’ll go to my grave thanking Jimmy, Adam, and John for the chance they gave me. As a modder, it just doesn’t happen. As you said, they could have taken my idea and ran with it.
You know, at that stage, I’d been working on it for two years and [there were big streamers] who had it as their go-to game. I happily did it for free then, I still pay for the Arma 3 servers out of my own pocket because it’s about giving back to the community. But the chance they gave me, you don’t just get that. I feel incredibly lucky.
So now you’ve done the work on King of the Kill, how did Battlegrounds start to take shape?
I was focusing on [the Arma 3 mod], and Bluehole contacted me and offered to let me make my vision of what I thought a Battle Royale game should me, which became Battlegrounds.
You’re at Bluehole Studio in Korea now, are you in charge there or do you work under someone else?
I have a great boss in Chang Han Kim, he’s our Executive Producer. Both of us are on the same page, he calls the shots and I’m happy to let him call the shots because he just thinks so much more in-depth than I do! It’s great, the team I have [here in Seoul] understand I don’t have a lot of experience on the tech side. It kind of gives me the freedom to think outside the box so to speak, so I suggest things that maybe they haven’t thought about. Or things that give the technical director a headache.
What’s it like living and working in Korea? Did it take a while to get used to?
It’s mad, it’s great. They have a great culture here – they work hard but they also party hard. They really have this passion for making games, they want it to be the best game they can make. I feel blessed to work with them, really I do. I get to dream it up and they do it for me.
Battlegrounds is in Early Access, how important is it to communicate with fans about how development is proceeding?
Your players are not stupid. And they know there are problems that come up in game development, and if you’re open with them they tend to understand. We’ve got a really great community, and sometimes if we don’t explain things to someone other players will … A lot of companies need to be more open with their fans.
What plans do you have in place for Battlegrounds in 2017?
We said already we hope to be out of early access in about five months, that’s our goal, going for a full launch sometime in the fall. We have stuff like 3D replays in the game where you’ll be able to go back and watch a replay in the game with a [camera you can move freely] so you can create machinimas of your round. Things like that will really show off the engine.
Then there’s adding 2D replays, tweaking the leaderboard, just polishing off [the game]. We’ll have full modding support down the road too once we know the best way to do that … [We also] want to find out what teams need and what organizations need from us to make it a good eSports game, like figuring how to make it good for live events.
But right now, that’s not on our short term roadmap. We really believe to push into eSports you need a good game, a competitive game, and not one that has a few bugs. It wouldn’t be fair to competitions and leagues if people die due to bugs. We want to finish the game first and polish it, get it running really good.
I’m curious about the game’s full title – Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds. You’ve used the handle Playerunknown for a while now, so essentially it’s your name on the box, how did that come about?
It’s funny, people assume I did all of the game by myself, made this game by myself on my laptop [Laughs]. I just can’t speak highly enough about the team I have because they’re just great. The funny thing is, it’s called Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds and not just Battlegrounds because if we tried to copyright that we’d get struck down.
Originally it was called Playerunknown’s Battle Royale because I couldn’t just call it Battle Royale. There’s PlayStation’s Battle Royale, Pac-Man Battle Royale, so I thought just call it Playerunknown’s Battle Royale for Arma 3. Then when it became its own game I didn’t want to keep the name Battle Royale because that’s what it was in H1Z1 when I worked with them. And I just thought Battlegrounds sounded good as a platform for many different types of battles.
And finally, how would you feel about mods being made for Battlegrounds, and the possibility of there being paid mods? Perhaps your game will be the testing ground for the next Playerunknown.
Oh look, I really believe that if we can set up a good system for paid mods then it’s worth doing. In the Arma community, for example, there are guys who spend hours and weeks and months doing the model that they then import into the game. They’re making good content.
It has to be heavily moderated because you will get people trying to rip-off other people’s mods or copy ideas. It’s inherent in any system like this. But I’d love to see modders get paid because some of them are really passionate about what they do. And as I’ve shown, it’s a way into the industry if you’re lucky, and I want to take some of the luck out of it and give people a way to possibly get into the industry.
You can find Brendan Greene (AKA Playerunkown) on Twitter: @BattleRoyaleMod