Friday 17 January 2020

Donegal gaming pioneer Greene makes play for second €1bn hit

The creator of global blockbuster Player Unknown's Battlegrounds has ventured to Amsterdam in the pursuit of fresh success

Brendan Greene, CEO, Project X, PUBG Corporation
Brendan Greene, CEO, Project X, PUBG Corporation

John Reynolds

Growing up and playing with his friends in an army camp on the Curragh in Co Kildare, where his father was relocated from his native Westmeath, might have put blockbuster video game creator Brendan Greene, 43, on the path to making a multi-million-euro fortune. His is a rags-to-riches story - in 2014 he was on the dole - that still has plenty of chapters left to unfold.

He has set up a new studio in Amsterdam where a 25-strong team are busy working on what he hopes will be a second hit game. Research director on the project is David Lupien St-Pierre, a Canadian computer science specialist, while he's also working with Italian physicist Alberto Cereser.

He outlines how they aim to use AI: "We want to use it to enable our artists and designers to be more creative. It's a super-interesting avenue.

"Our art director describes it as: 'You can be the musician playing an instrument, or you can choose to be the conductor, who knows and trusts what every instrument will do, and just knows the big vision'. We've got 10 engineers and programmers, some game and sound designers, an animation lead, some artists and a producer. We think 50 people is our maximum.

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"I just make games that I want to play. We're building tech internally, and games on top of that tech. It's an iterative process. I try to take my inspiration from outside of gaming. I find if I see a problem, I can find many solutions to it."

He reveals he's working with a company that will be doing some motion-capture work for it at the world-famous Pinewood Studios - but he's not actually working with Pinewood itself, he emphasises. Greene is not prepared to say anything more about the new game until next year.

The former DJ compares creating his second game to a musician making a difficult second album, continuing: "If you look at progressive rock in the 1970s, they might've spent six years in the studio creating a single sound. I see these parallels with music. I look at gaming now, and you have these super, overproduced triple-A games. But the flipside is there's also a birth of indie, if you think of a game like Goat Simulator.

"The future of gaming might be some sort of engine that will just allow me to create my own game. I won't need to worry about animation or all of the difficult technical stuff, because it'll just be done by the engine. I'll outline an idea and it'll know what to do. Punk music kind of broke progressive rock, and then you have someone like electronic music producer, DJ and musician Deadmau5, who created an album in his bedroom on a PC and shot to global fame."

Greene looked at setting up his studio in Prague, but didn't want to learn another language, he says. Dublin was considered. But Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport is better-connected to where he travels most.

The UK was ruled out because of Brexit: "I got the chance to open my studio where I wanted to. Services are good in Amsterdam. Taxes might be a little high and it's a little expensive, but the quality of life is good, and I can attract people to come and work here."

He aims to only work 10 months a year, and wants the same for his team: "I want us to have a month off in winter, and one in summer. How we achieve that is admittedly a different question."

Greene is also very conscious of the risks of overwork, burnout, and the need to take time out from work and gaming - in order to remain creative and avoid tunnel vision or creative block.

Burnout and the consequences of chasing fame are issues for the professional gaming and streaming end of what is now a $150bn (€135bn) global industry: "There are no support structures for people."

In Asia, meanwhile, there are curfews on gamers' habits, limiting the time they can play.

Greene adds: "What I have now is a massive opportunity, or a chance not to f*** up, basically.

"It's also a lot more responsibility. Some of my staff have kids and are buying houses. I have the faith of people who want us to succeed.

"It's a lot of pressure, but I can't think about it too much. I've just got to make the game I want to make, and hopefully it'll do well.

"I'm the CEO of a company, but have very little experience. It's risky. I've got my team now, but from day one, I've worried about whether I can provide the right leadership, though I've been able to employ leaders. There's a lot of faith being put in us."

The new game is a joint venture with Krafton, and it is funding his new studio, he says. Greene adds that people represent about 75pc of game development costs, but declines to say how much the new title might cost to make. There's a meeting of all Krafton's most creative people once a month, and weekly planning calls that aim to help share knowledge and experience with other teams and studios.

Some gamers regard Greene as the creator of the so-called 'battle royale' genre of games, including his first hit, Player Unknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG).

For readers not familiar with it, it's a multiplayer Hunger Games-type format that combines strategy, survival, exploration and scavenging.

The aim is to eliminate all your opponents, so you're the last person or team alive. The PUBG tagline is 'land, loot, survive'.

More commonly associated with the genre, and someone who helped PUBG achieve its success, is 'Ninja', a 28-year-old professional gamer and streamer - real name Richard Blevins - who reportedly makes $500,000 every month playing the world's most popular game, Fortnite. That title has been a $2.5bn-plus hit for its developer, Epic Games.

Thanks to more than 400 million mobile downloads, 50 million PC game sales and more people playing on XBox, PUBG made profits of over €500m on about €1.5bn in revenue in 2017 and 2018 for South Korean studio PUBG Corporation - which is now part of a group of studios called Krafton Union.

Its founder and CEO, Chang Byung-Gyu, is worth €800m, according to Forbes, and owns about 20pc of the firm with his wife.

Last year, SK Telecom, South Korea's largest mobile phone network, sold a stake in Krafton for €98m, making a €44m profit.

The firm still has shares worth €104m, but neither Krafton, nor SK Telecom, would reveal any details about the size of the shareholdings.

Tencent at one stage was the second-largest shareholder after the Krafton CEO. It has put more than €500m in for a stake of about 10pc.

There may be other shareholders in the firm, but any further financial details aren't public. Industry analysts and journalists in Asia didn't respond to our enquiries.

At one stage, Tencent offered Greene a blank cheque to work for it, but he chose not to take up the offer.

He is reluctant to talk about how much money he's made from his good fortune. Speculation on the internet has talked about him being worth anything from €200m to €4.5bn. It seems possible he's worth in the tens of millions, however.

Markus Persson (aka Notch), who created and sold Minecraft to Microsoft, had a 70pc stake in the business (Minecraft) and made $2.5bn at the age of 36.

Greene explains: "I'm not worth €200m. I see that and think 'that'd be great'. I never go into my financial details. It's a cliché to say it, but it was never about the money. Krafton has been good to me, always very fair and kept me well-rewarded.

"I've never gone to them, 'I want 50pc', and it's not fair because I don't do half the work. To be honest, I have imposter syndrome. I just put a circle on a map in PUBG and designed it so people would get dropped out of a plane."

He's bought some properties, and is filling his wine cellar at Berry Brothers & Rudd in London thanks to his new-found wealth, he reveals - adding that he's also enjoying collecting rare watches and staying in top hotels around the world.

A financial adviser manages some investments for him, though he gets invited to invest in other game developments and the likes of gaming investment outfit the Makers Fund.

He's giving to charitable causes on an ad-hoc basis, admiring the work of the Movember movement, one of whose co-founders is a friend. Meanwhile, Greene has splashed out €4,000 on lots of Lego, including Millennium Falcon and Bugatti Veyron models for the new studio, he says with a laugh, insisting they're to help with team-building. There's a library that's being stocked and a couple of classic arcade game machines as well.

It's a far cry from when, prior to being on the dole, he recalls being at rock bottom about eight years ago after marrying a Brazilian woman and then being left with very little in her country after they later divorced. He was also struggling with work as an events and wedding photographer.

"I was really at a low point, with nothing, and worrying that I'd be able to eat each week. Now, because I've had some success, I enjoy life, but I also try to look after people as much as I can. I feel it's a responsibility that comes with success."

Being at rock bottom did have the benefit of getting him interested in Day Z, a 'mod' (modified or customised version) of a game called Arma.

That brought Sony calling and led to a year-long consultancy role, working on a mod called H1Z1. After that, a CEO from one of Krafton's studios got in touch and PUBG was born.

While Greene's mother worked as a marriage guidance counsellor and psychologist, he seems to play down any influence the move in his father's army posting from Ballyshannon to the Curragh, and his growing up there, might have had.

Yet while PUBG isn't a military game as such, it does seem to be partly inspired by the likes of the mission, battle and survival elements of such titles, most of which are a decade or more old.

Playing with his friends after school, there was a Ranger Wing bomb house nearby, and some of the rangers would show them their revolvers, shotguns and spent concussion grenades.

Greene recalls: "I admit that I loved military games; the likes of Black Hawk Down, America's Army and Arma as well."

 

CURRICULUM VITAE

Name

Brendan Greene

Age

43

Position

CEO, Project X, PUBG Corporation

Lives

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Education

BA fine arts, DIT Mountjoy Square, Dublin

Previous experience

Graphic designer;

Web designer, New Media Studio (worked on Toyota and Department of Environment websites);

Wedding and events photographer;

DJ;

Consultant, Sony

Family

Engaged, with a teenage daughter from previous marriage

Pastimes

Collecting wine and rare watches, travelling, philanthropy

Podcasts: Radical Candor and some management-related ones. “I’m trying to understand how to be a better manager. I prefer podcasts to reading.”

 

BUSINESS LESSONS

What advice would you give someone looking to become a fellow game creator?

It’s a common one I’ve heard for any type of business or career, but do something that you love.

If you’re going to design a game, design the one you want to play. Because at the end, if no one else likes it, at least you’ll like it. Don’t try to make one that you think people will want to play, because that leads to pitfalls. Do something you love, work hard, and put your heart into it.

It’s not as easy as just having an idea. It’s that commitment, executing the idea, and then supporting the players of your game or mod, which is something I went the extra mile to do in my early days.

Can you recommend any aids to the creative process that you’ve found useful?

I find inspiration outside of gaming. You need time away from that focus or concentration, enjoying other experiences, almost to let your mind drift. And keep a journal or use an app to write down your best ideas before you forget them.

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