Brendan Greene may be the creative director on the fastest growing game in the world, but he’s still got his feet firmly planted on the ground – or, in this case, his behind firmly planted on a street kerb as we find the most convenient place for a quick chat around the back of the huge, esports-focused Hall 9 at Gamescom.
He’s buoyed by the success of the game’s invitational tournament going on nearby, but also happy to talk about why Bluehole has chosen Microsoft and the Xbox as its preferred partner for the console version of his game.
When the PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) Xbox deal was first announced back at E3, the game was already a trending brand. But since then, it’s gone stratospheric, smashing concurrent player records on Steam repeatedly.
It’s arguably Xbox’s biggest exclusive this year, launching on December 12th on Xbox Game Preview and with a boxed version hitting shelves on the same day. We ask Greene the obvious question – why go with Microsoft when PlayStation has the bigger install base?
“With Unreal Engine, we can port relatively easily to Xbox, but we still have to do a lot of optimisation and performance work to do, and that’s why we partnered with Microsoft to publish,” he answers. “We’re using the Windows universal platform, so essentially the games are the same.”
"Early Access and Game Preview are just great programs if they are used right."Brendan 'PlayerUnknown' Greene
Beyond that, Greene is keen to replicate the Early Access model that has given the game so much success on Steam. “Xbox have the Game Preview program, which is so important for a multiplayer game, to balance it correctly. We can essentially release it into a beta. It’s invaluable, working with players to make the feel of the game better. Early Access and Game Preview are just great programs for developers if they are used right.”
The company is also receiving significant technical assistance from Microsoft, who is obviously keen to get the game to Xbox owners as quickly as possible.
“We have a small team in Spain, Anticto, that were looking after the main part of the Xbox port, while the main team in Korea were looking after the PC version. But now we’ve partnered with Microsoft, they’re sending engineers to Korea and Spain to work with us and really get the best version of the game. We want to keep it equal on both platforms, we want the game on Windows and the game on Xbox to look and feel the same.”
We’ve played a preview version of the Xbox code, albeit running on a PC rig, and it certainly feels like the same game to us. Both Greene and Microsoft have talked about there being a single version of the game, but what does that mean in practice, and, more importantly, will there be crossplay?
“We’re still discussing that,” he says. “Because they’re such equal versions of the game, we want the ability for both platforms to play against each other. We love that idea, but we have to do it in a fair way. We’re maybe looking at keyboard and mouse versus keyboard and mouse, or controller vs controller. We don’t know yet, we’re still talking to Microsoft.”
With Microsoft having announced upcoming support for keyboard and mouse on Xbox for the first time, there are intriguing possibilities with players being matched by controller type rather than hardware box.
“We have an Xbox One version running on a PC, but it’s the Xbox One version. The view distance is a little shorter, but up close the game looks pretty similar to the PC version. So I’m happy enough with that.
“It’s going to take us some time to really get it polished completely, and that’s why the Game Preview program is great, it allows us to get millions of people to give us their feedback, especially for a console shooter where you need that to get the controls feeling solid, so that people feel that it’s competitive.”
HOME GROUND ADVANTAGE
It’s certainly getting competitive, too, although Greene admits the game has a long way to go before it becomes a finished product.
“We’ve got a lot we can improve,” he says. “No one has done a battle royale esport before, so we don’t know where to go with it yet. That’s why we’re working with an organisation like ESL to figure out the best format and the best way to observe 80 people at the same time.”
Those mass player counts made the game a huge hit with Twitch streamers, but are now proving somewhat trickier to tame for esports coverage. Greene and his team are working on tools to cope, though.
“We’re working on the 3D replay system that will really benefit the esports end of things, because all deaths will be recorded and you can just replay them as you see fit. It’s going to take some time, but we’re going to slowly build a great platform for it.”
Of course, it’s not just early days for PUBG as an esport, but as a game overall. “We’ve been out four and a half months,” says Greene. “People tend to forget that we’re not a fully featured game yet. We’re coming at the end of the year and we’ll have so much more by then. This platform will be so much more stable.”
It will be an interesting journey. Strong strategies emerge in all competitive games, but counters are usually discovered by the opposition, creating a shifting meta. In battle royale, however, players can’t afford to take actions specifically to counter only one or two other players. So the game needs to be cautiously designed to encourage the kind of behaviours the developer wants to see.
Greene agrees: “Exactly, we’re all about the balance and working with players, to really get the game to a state where people feel it’s competitive enough, and the great thing about the community is that they are vocal about it and they know that we listen. We have so many people that are really passionate about seeing battle royale as an esport. They really want to give their feedback and their suggestions, and we take it all onboard. We may not implement it, but we do take it onboard to make it the best version we can.”
It’s not always clear, even to the victor, just why you won a particular round of PUBG, so we ask Greene whether he can offer any more clarity on the reason for the game’s huge success.
“I’ve had to think about this a lot, and really I’m still thinking. It’s a very basic game. It’s easy to understand, though it’s hard to master. It’s a big playground, and we just give our players the freedom to do whatever the hell they want. You want to run round in a pair of boxers and have a frying pan as a helmet and that’s it? Good for you, buddy. It’s that freedom that has captured people’s imaginations.”
Greene started his route to development as a self-taught modder for the Arma series.
“I basically took elements of games that I enjoyed when I was creating the battle royale game mode. I saw the survivor games, I always liked the idea of a last-man-standing deathmatch, I liked the looting system in Day-Z and developed my own after that. It was just a game I wanted to play from playing other games and thinking, ‘If this was a little different’ or, ‘If I add this’...”
He also feels his outsider, non-industry background has given him something of an advantage.
“I come from being a player, not an industry veteran, and that’s given me something of a leg up, as I’m not tied down to knowing too much about the industry. I was speaking before Richard Garriott at a dinner with Microsoft, and they said [in awed tones], ‘Oh, you’re speaking before Richard Garriott,’ and I said, ‘Who the fuck is Richard Garriott?’ And they all looked at me with dropped jaws,” he laughs.
“But that’s me, I haven’t been in the industry for very long. I was a photographer and a DJ and that end of stuff I know a fuckton about, but when it comes to games I could be standing beside the most famous people in games and I would not know who they were.”
That’s not to say Greene isn’t a people person. In fact, he’s pushing himself to meet the community as much as possible: “When I get a chance to go to conventions, there are so many fans that want to meet me. Giving them that opportunity is no big effort for me, but some of them love meeting me and I love to give them that chance if I can.”
And from next year, it looks like there will be even more fans keen to meet the now not-so-mysterious PlayerUnknown. It’ll be a busy year for both Greene and the game, and a hugely exciting one for what is still a fledgling genre.