Saturday 21 October 2017

PlayerUnknown: One Irishman's battle to conquer the global game charts with a $200m hit

Brendan Greene's parents worried he'd never get a real job

Player Unknown's Battlegrounds
Player Unknown's Battlegrounds
Low-profile Brendan Greene says he 'doesn't chase fame' and spends up to 14 hours a day at his Seoul office developing his hit game, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds
Ronan Price

Ronan Price

He's the most famous Kildare man you've never heard of. He's the pioneer of an entire gaming genre that has caught the public's imagination. Few people have seen his face and yet the rapid success of his newest but unfinished creation has made him a rock star of the entertainment industry. And, most of all, he is the $200m man.

Not bad for a former DJ, graphic designer and photographer who never had a full-time job in the games industry until last year. Not bad for a 41-year-old guy whose parents had almost given up hope of him finding a solid career.

His name is Brendan Greene but you might possibly know him by his online handle of PlayerUnknown, which gave his name to this year's breakout hit 'Playerunknown's Battlegrounds' because of his pivotal role in its creation.

PUBG, to give it its internet shorthand instead of its unwieldy full title, has astonished the games industry with its explosive popularity, despite it coming from a relatively obscure South Korean studio and being only a preview version littered with bugs.

Low-profile Brendan Greene says he 'doesn't chase fame' and spends up to 14 hours a day at his Seoul office developing his hit game, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds
Low-profile Brendan Greene says he 'doesn't chase fame' and spends up to 14 hours a day at his Seoul office developing his hit game, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds

In just four months since its release, PUBG has shifted more than six million copies and is fast closing in on $200m worth of sales for his employer.

"I'm not well known within Irish tech circles at all," Greene says in a Skype call from his offices in Bluehole Studios on the outskirts of the South Korean capital Seoul. "It's because I haven't really spent a lot of time in Ireland over the last 10 years. I was in Brazil and various other places."

His wanderings haven't diluted his Irish accent either, rarely straying from the soft burr of The Curragh, where his parents still live.

"When I came back from Brazil five years ago, I was a photographer and designer and a DJ. And coming back into Ireland at 36 and trying to start a career in photography is literally impossible because everyone's a photographer these days.

"So I was on the dole when I got back and the parents were seriously worried, as they should be, that he's pushing 40 and has no career."

These days, though, Greene can name his price, has been courted by Microsoft and Sony, and heads up a development team of more than 110 people on PUBG as creative director.

In just four months, PUBG has become the third most-popular game on PC marketplace Steam, bested only by two titles that have been on sale for more than four years. It's the second most-watched game on streaming site Twitch. A version for the Xbox One console is also in the works.

It's all the more remarkable because the open and affable Greene readily admits he's a "terrible programmer".

In 2013, he began tinkering with the code of other people's games - a process known as modding - and devised a genre called Battle Royale, after the 2000 Japanese film that presaged 'The Hunger Games'.

It's a form of last man standing in which dozens of players are dropped into a wilderness and they scavenge, hide and fight until just one is left alive.

But his mods weren't paying the rent until Sony hired him as a consultant for its H1Z1 survival game.

Then Bluehole came calling in 2016 to build the ultimate Battle Royale game and the rest is history littered with dollar bills.

"Now my parents are just proud as punch," he says. "My dad tells me on a very regular basis how he proud he is. I didn't want to let them down."

The success has made Greene a wealthy man but he retains a humble air and desire to stay at least partly anonymous. Hence his attachment to the PlayerUnknown moniker.

"I like my anonymity, I don't chase fame," he says. "I like being able to walk through gaming conventions and no one really knows who I am. But I enjoy giving the fans of the game the chance to meet me. I was at a game convention in Atlanta and I was expecting maybe 20 people. But there was a queue for an hour-and-a-half of people waiting to meet me and say hi.

"I wear battered Converse trainers and jeans with rips in them. I don't spend money on myself at all. I'm not looking to buy a Porsche or anything like that. I'll probably buy my parents a house or something.

"I have an 11-year-old daughter so it just means she doesn't need to worry about the future and that keeps me happy."

These days he spends as much time in the air as in the Seoul office directing the polishing and tuning of PUBG ahead of its final release before Christmas.

"I'm terrible at programming. I remember the Arma 3 mod, I looked up one of the GitHub pull requests and it said, this is Brendan's code, it's messy. People say, Fix your game. I say, if I tried to fix my game I'd break my game.

"We have a great team here. For me, at the moment, it's writing documentation and we have new maps in process, so I'm playing the new maps and seeing how they feel, reviewing stuff with the art director, talking with the community team about coming up with systems for customer service. And basically giving feedback or giving thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a lot of things."

This summer is also a blur of games conventions and visits to overseas offices - Sweden, Amsterdam, Wisconsin, Austin, Seattle, Cologne, Tokyo, Paris. He also visits Ireland every six weeks or so to see his daughter from a previous marriage.

While in Seoul, he'll happily put in 12 or 14-hour day at the office but says that's nothing compared to the extremes of Korean culture.

"People die at their desks here in some of the bigger companies, where they'll be working for three or four days straight and then just drop dead.

"It's a little insane - gaming is a lot more relaxed than the other cultures."

But even at Bluehole now it's heads-down time with the team of more than than 110 in the final stretch to finish PUBG.

"In development we had about 40 or so - that included some freelance guys outside of Korea. Now we've expanded the team in Korea to just under 100 people. We have a team of about 10 to 15 in Madison, Wisconsin. We plan on opening offices in Europe and in California, where we'll hire people in those particular regions. Even here in Korea, we're looking at moving offices as well because we want to get a space for about 300 people."

He still can't explain fully why his game took off like it did.

"When I came here to Korea, there were a lot of arguments because they saw the success of H1Z1: King of the Kill, and they said, 'this works'. I said, we have to make it more realistic and more in depth than what they did with my game mode because they quite simplified the idea.

"We sat down and we modelled it around the Arma 3 version and now it's a massive success and we're still trying to figure exactly why that is. I think personally it's because we have the depth, there's a good weapons system there. There's good gunplay and there's very few rules. You're free to do whatever you want.

"If you want to run around naked and try to earn your pants and win with a frying pan, you can do that. There's no forcing you to play a particular way. I think that's what's seized people's imagination, that idea that the only rule you have is to kill everyone else and stay in the blue zone. Everything else is up to you. That's some part of why we're successful."

He concedes some of the appeal might be to do with the game's plentiful glitches because of its Early Access status.

"Yeah, there's bugs in the game, there's funny PhysX stuff that happens. Two cars will hit each other and get launched into space. You can't help but laugh at that when it happens to you.

"I was very hesitant about using Early Access because I felt it was like a poison pill because there were so many other games that went into Early Access and either never got finished or their development time was extended far longer than people thought it should be.

"My boss convinced me that Early Access is a good programme and it really is for developing a multiplayer game. It really is important to test it on a huge amount of players and then you get a very stable system when you go to full launch.

"I think that's why we've a good deal of success is because it's a relatively stable Early Access game. Now, there are 10pc of people that are not having a good time but 90pc are. I look at the figures and something like nearly 1.5 million people have played 100 hours of the game or more."

The popularity of PUBG means it's within touching distance of surpassing CSGO as the second most played game on Steam. Greene doesn't think that's an accident because it has struck a chord with gamers of a more tactical nature.

"CSGO is far more suited for a younger player because the twitch shooting-ness of it and it's much faster rounds. Battlegrounds is a lot slower. I made it for the old men of gaming because I couldn't compete.

"I tried playing CSGO but once I got someone in my sights I died, every time. I don't have the reaction speed. I created Battle Royale to test the player, it didn't matter what age you were. It didn't matter how your reaction speed was. If you were a better tactical and strategic player, you could win the game. That was the whole idea that it shouldn't matter on your reaction speeds. It should be about how you play the game."

Greene's job isn't done when PUBG hits its release deadline in Q4 - the company has a five- to 10-year plan to expand the game.

But he expects to steer its direction for another year or more before he knows he can move onto something else.

"For me, it's when I see our first major esports event, like 'Dota 2' (a game which has a tournament currently running in Seattle with a $23m prize pool). "That's what I always wanted for Battle Royale - that it could be a new esport.

"But I'm more focused on getting this one finished first and then I'll start thinking about what the future holds."

His head hasn't been turned by his sudden elevation to gaming god either, despite interest from several rival companies.

"I've had some pretty serious offers but for the moment I'm just telling everyone, listen, I wanna finish this game first. Most people understand that fully and they said, we'll come back in a year or so. I've been lucky, it was kind of a big risk for me because it was my first job in the games industry. I was put in as creative director, which is quite high up. It's a long way to fall if the game fell flat on its face, especially with my name on it.

"Now that it's been a breakout success, it has given me a career basically."

But he does have an idea what he wants to do once he's finished with PUBG.

"I want to make a survival game. From the very first day that I played Day-Z, I was fascinating by this idea of an open world where people interact in an emergent way. I absolutely adore Day-Z but it's not the survival game I want to play. I have an idea of the game I want to play and what I want to do.

"The tech isn't quite there yet because I've got some rather grand ideas about map size and player numbers. It's in my head. I just wanna see if it would work. I think it possibly could. Until this is finished, it's on the back-burner. A survival game is something I fell in love with and got me back into gaming. Why not try my spin on it?"

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