“We don’t really worry about numbers, just making a good game.”
That’s something studio executives and game developers say a lot, but people rarely believe. It’s also what Brendan Greene, better known as PlayerUnknown, says about his incredibly popular game, PlayerUnknown’s Battleground. And I believe him.
PUBGparachute out of planes onto the weapon-littered land below. You then pick up said weaponry and fight to the death. There’s a blue electric field you need to stay within, and it shrinks as the game goes on, meaning you’re more likely to encounter someone hoping to kill you.
You win by being the last player standing. The game congratulates you with a simple message: “WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER!”
The premise has piqued the interest of millions of players. The $30 game (AU$40, £22) has only been available on PCs through Steam since March, and has racked around 18 million players since. That’s an astonishing feat, especially for a new game franchise.
The even more bewildering thing? PUBG is still in beta. It’s currently the most-played Steam game right now, and all of those folks are playing a buggy, unfinished product. It’s evolving in front of their eyes — soon new abilities to vault and climb will hit the game’s test servers, for instance.
PUBG is at the cross-section of two very lucrative industries. It’s currently sold exclusively through Steam, and digital video game sales are this year expected to hit $100 billion, up from $61 billion in 2015. Separately, it’s a big hit on streaming services like Twitch, at a time when the video game streaming business is predicted to grow 6 percent each year until 2021.
The game, it was announced on Tuesday, will hit the Xbox One on Dec. 12. Talking to me at the PAX gaming festival, which just wrapped up in Melbourne, Australia, Greene seemed more curious about how a new, more casual player base would like the game, and less interested in how many people constituted that new player base.
“There’s a large community out there that will not play early-access games. I’m looking forward to seeing if we’ll get another rush of people,” he said, sounding more analytical than excited. “But really it’s not about numbers for us.”
Part of that is because PUBG has already surpassed Greene’s wildest expectations. The game’s server architecture was designed for a million players to play concurrently, a number which itself was initially a pipe dream. “No way are we reaching that,” Greene remembers thinking.
Now PUBG hovers around 2 million concurrent users. That’s awesome, but keeping up with that demand is also a challenge for Greene’s team. It’s like a constant game of catch-up, he said.
About 120 people work on PUBG, most of them in South Korea. Greene, a self-taught programmer and video game modder, founded the PUBG project at the South Korean Bluehole Studios last year. Now, though, he’s no longer involved in the day-to-day development.
He’s calls himself face of PUBG, and the developers the heart and soul. “[The team] have the vision,” he said. “Every now and again I’ll have to go ‘no, we’re doing it this way,’ but in general I just let them run with it.”
He cites the game’s blue-circle development as one such time he intervened in the process. “They’re a little bit weary about tweaking things now because we have such a big player base,” he explains, “but I know that we have to improve the way the blue circle works. We’re gonna be testing new mechanics over the coming months to see if the community likes these things.”
The team is now focused on polishing the game, getting it out of beta and into version 1.0. While they do that, Greene travels the world, spreading the good word. I spoke with him days ago in Melbourne. As I write this, he’s in France for Paris Games Week.
Apart from the promotional duties, being behind 2017’s biggest game hasn’t been altogether life-changing. “I maybe buy a bottle of wine that I like every now and then, but really my life hasn’t changed all that much,” he said. “I’m not an extravagant chap.”
PUBG becoming a phenomenon has been a strange experience for Greene. He’s previously said he’s not as hardcore a gamer as most of the people who play the game, and now deflects some of the praise that comes his way.
“People are comparing me to [Minecraft creator] Notch, it’s like what the fuck! I see myself as being very lucky in the industry … not like guys like [Metal Gear Solid director] Hideo Kojima, who have slogged and worked hard to get their masterpieces out there.”
That said, Greene and his team are certainly in the midst of their own hard slog. The December Xbox One release of PUBG is near, but it’s unlikely to be finished. “Various Xbox One features and functionality will change and come online over time just like they have on PC,” PUBG Corp. CEO Chang Han Kim said upon Tuesday’s announcement.
Greene sounds confident that a completed PUBG isn’t far off, though. “It’s all about getting the game to 1.0 and beyond,” he said. “We’re nearly there.”
Focus has shifted from adding new elements to the game to perfecting existing elements. No PlayStation release is planned as of yet, though he does hope at some point there can be some crossplay between PC and Xbox One players.
But cross-platform play is far from the only post-1.0 idea Greene has considered. He liked DOTA 2’s VR Hub, which made spectating a much more immersive and social experience for esports fans, and has considered that for PUBG, for instance. But if that comes to fruition, it won’t be soon.
Greene and his team aren’t interested in rushing, and with their player numbers it’s they really don’t need to. He says they’re thinking five and 10 years into the game’s lifespan, about ways to continuously improve it.
In other words, there are many chicken dinners yet to be served.
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