PlayerUnknown, as it turns out, is a pretty humble guy. Not the sort of person you’d expect to have their name up in flashing lights.
But every single day, as many as 400,000 people see his name on their computer screens at any given moment. It’s because they’re playing, the PC smash hit that’s sold — despite being a buggy, unfinished game with only a single level.
The name, PlayerUnknown himself tells me, was simply a matter of convenience. They couldn’t call it “The Hunger Games,” after all.
Because in a nutshell, that’s what PUBG is: 100 players parachute onto a huge island, scavenge for weapons, and fight until only one is left alive. (Only with guns instead of bows, and cast-iron pans instead of spears.)
While most of today’s games let you come back to life, rewind your actions and try again and again, every choice in PUBG matters. One good hit, and it’s game over. “I wanted to create a game that you really value your character, you didn’t want him to die,” says PlayerUnknown.
And he did. It’s so stressful that my arms shake, my body sweats, during a good match. It’s a game where cowering in a bathroom is not only a valid strategy, but sometimes necessary to cut the tension.
But PlayerUnknown isn’t some rockstar game developer from the likes of Electronic Arts or Ubisoft. In fact, he’s not your typical game developer at all.
41-year-old Brendan Greene, aka PlayerUnknown, is a former DJ and web designer from Ireland who simply wanted to play a game he couldn’t — and decided to make a version that anyone could enjoy.
He taught himself to make mods for the zombie survival game DayZ, back when it was itself a mod of the military combat sim Arma II. After making a name for himself with that popular Battle Royale Mod — and a stint consulting on H1Z1: King of the Hill — he moved to Korea in 2016 to join Bluehole Studio and finally realize his vision.
I spent two hours talking to Greene about his life story, where his game came from, and where it’s going next. Here’s the lion’s share of what he told me, with some light edits. (You’ll need to imagine his Irish accent.)
He’s an artist, by training.
Greene, aka PlayerUnknown: I did fine art in college, and when I was finished with that — well, the art market in Ireland is very hard to get into. There’s a lot of… who you know, and whether the higher-ups think you’re decent enough to be brought up. I was dating a girl at the time who was a graphic designer and a web designer, and I saw that as a way to make money from art, rather than become a struggling artist.
So I kind of taught myself graphic design and worked for a few companies as a designer. And then, like about… oh jeez, 10 years ago I guess, myself and a friend set up a recording and design studio. He looked after all the recording for bands, and I did all the artwork for their albums, I did the videos and that kind of stuff.
We did that for about two years, and then I fell in love with a Brazilian and headed off to Brazil.[He spent six years there, then came back to Ireland after his romance ended in divorce.]
He doesn’t consider himself a gamer.
Well, I was always into games. I just didn’t get a chance to play in them very much in my kind of twenties and early thirties because I was a DJ, so most weekends I was out at gigs. But I was playing games since my dad brought us back an Atari 2600 from when he used to serve in Lebanon with the Irish peacekeepers.
Above: One of Greene’s hour-long DJ mixes. He says he far prefers playing to a live audience.
I loved that, and then we eventually got a laptop… like a 386 laptop, I think it was. I had Doom on it, and Flight Sim and a few others. The first multiplayer game I really fell in love with was Delta Force: Black Hawk Down. I played the absolute shit out of that game until there were no more servers left.
I loved the whole idea of it. The fact there was bullet drop, that it was somewhat realistic, and I could go be a sniper quite easily. But I didn’t really play a lot of games. I don’t consider myself a gamer, compared to a lot of people I meet at these conventions where their life is dedicated to games. I enjoy games, but I don’t consider myself on that level. I’ve never played Zelda. I’ve never played these classic games because they don’t interest me.
I moved onto America’s Army 2 and 3 after that because again, it was that kind of military simulation. I liked America’s Army because if you made a mistake, you were dead for that round and you couldn’t just respawn. I loved that mechanic. It kind of influenced me with the Battle Royale games as well, where I felt that respawning was cheap. You don’t really value your character when you get to respawn constantly.
That whole idea that during a round, once you die, you’re dead… you make better decisions.
Yes, he’s seen the movie Battle Royale.
I loved it. I think it must have been during college, I saw it and I just loved it. It was brutal and I love that kind of movie where it’s the horrors of when you put people against each other. Like I was a big fan of Lord of the Flies in high school. We had that on our high school exams. I’ve always been fascinated by man against man.
He freely admits he’s following in other developers’ footsteps.
I was inspired by The Survivor GameZ… it was kind of the first survival esport competition for the DayZ mod. It was organized by Jordan Tayer [now a community manager for Twitch] and Brian Hicks who’s the creative director for DayZ now. It was because I was unable to play it that I was inspired.
Editor’s note: The Survivor GameZ wasn’t a mod just anyone could play any day. It was an event that had to be organized, which happened maybe once a month at best.
When I was first coming up with the idea for my own mod, one of the guys I was working with at the time on a mod called DayZ Civilian suggested we do the “DayZ Hunger Games.” And I thought “OK, this is cool,” but after a few days of thinking about it, I was like “No, we can’t call it DayZ Hunger Games” because of licensing restrictions, and I didn’t think it was all that original because we already had The Survivor GameZ.
Then I remembered Battle Royale. It wasn’t teams of two against each other, it was everyone against everyone else, and I liked that concept more.
But he was also inspired by frustration with other games.
I wanted to create a game where you really value your character, you didn’t want him to die, because he’s important to you.
My frustration with a lot of AAA game titles was that they weren’t hard anymore. Once you die two or three times, you know where the enemies are coming from, and in a lot of the bigger titles, the ending… I come from an era where the end boss for a game, you spend f****** days or weeks trying to beat him. With a lot of the AAA titles these days, there’s no boss at the end. Just press F at a particular time, and it plays the cut sequence at the end.
That left me very disappointed.
Why I like our playground, so to speak, is because you’re facing off against other players and they’re the hardest to beat. Especially if they’re skilled players who have been playing a while, you have to become better to beat them.
Even with our zombie mode, there’s no AI. It’s 90 players playing as zombies, so you’re not dealing with AI, you’re dealing with clever people.
He pieced together the original Battle Royale mod pretty much by himself.
I had no money to pay people, so in the early days it was literally just me. I spent a month writing the original code for the DayZ Battle Royale mod and it was terrible: my code was so bad.
Above: A look at the original Battle Royale mod. You can see the similarities.
I just wanted to try to make a mod, when I saw all these other mods of mods coming out. I had this idea and I loved what the other Survivor GameZ did, and I just thought this would make a really cool game mode for everyone to play. So I literally just sat down with another mod, DayZ Overwatch, and just tried to add my bits of code into that to make the game mode. It wasn’t really a true mod; I just wanted to see if I could do it.
Editor’s note: Today, Bluehole Studio has an 80-person team working on PUBG, including 7 or 8 in a new US office in Madison, Wisconsin.
He wants to inspire new game developers, the same way he was inspired by DayZ and Arma 2.
I’ve said this before: I want to find the next PlayerUnknown. I want to try to find someone who creates a game mode or a mod for my game that propels them to fame, and gets them to make their own game too.
We want to [let people mod PUBG], but we have to do it carefully because because we’re very protective of our server files. Allowing people to run their own dedicated servers would mean releasing the server files and that could lead to piracy. It’s something we want to do, but it might take us a bit of time to actually implement it, because we really have to figure out the best way to do it so the game still stays secure.
The name ‘PlayerUnknown’ doesn’t have a cool story behind it. Sorry.
So, when I had a DayZ mod server, my nickname was Captain Darling, after Blackadder [a British comedy series starring Rowan Atkinson, who you may also know as Mr. Bean.] I loved being called either Darling or Captain.
But I was going onto a friend’s server to build a base or something like that, and I wanted to change my name. I don’t remember why. But the default name in Arma is “Player1,” so I just deleted the “1” and added “Unknown.” I thought it sounded cool. That’s where the name came from. I wish it was a fancier story, but no, spur of the moment.
Ultimately I’d like to do the Daft Punk thing and have no one know who I am, but it’s my name on the game so I have to be a little bit more public. I don’t mind it. I quite like the anonymity at conventions, where I can still walk around and not everyone knows who I am. It’s kind of a first-world problem, complaining about fame.
He lives in Korea now, but he doesn’t speak Korean.
The executive producer Chang-Han Kim, he had pretty much the same vision for the game, and that was the hook. He wanted modding, he wanted custom servers, he wanted all the things I wanted for my Battle Royale.
Seeing they were an MMO studio worried me initially: Would they be able to make a realistic world? But I saw the quality of their artwork and their motto of a well-made game, and that’s what really sealed the deal.
I’d been wanting to make a Battle Royale standalone for years, and after a few missed starts, reaching out to other companies, nothing ever moving forward… when [Bluehole Studio came along], it was really a no-brainer.
I lived in Brazil for six years, I’ve lived in the UK and a few other places, so moving to Korea wasn’t a big deal. We have full-time translators in the office and I’ve been trying to learn Korean, but oh my god, it’s a hell of a language. I can say hello, thank you, stop here, turn left, turn right, the basics to get me by… but most days, I don’t go out all that often here. Most my weekends are spent chilling, and on a day-to-day basis I don’t have a need to use Korean.
Since I don’t see myself living here for the rest of my life, I don’t really want to spend my weekends studying another language. That’s essentially very lazy, I know. But since we have three translators here full-time, there’s never any language barrier at all.
He doesn’t play his own game all that much, and that’s intentional.
I don’t. I watch it a lot on Twitch; It’s the greatest gameplay debugger out there. I just watch people constantly play it. I don’t play it all that often myself because I kind of want to keep myself… somewhat separated from the game mechanics. I have a pretty good vision how I want this to evolve.
When I was in the recording studio, a friend of mine who was a producer didn’t listen to a lot of music, because he didn’t want to be unduly affected by other music he heard and have it bleed into his music. I kind of view gaming the same way. I feel like if I play my game too much, or even if I play too many other games, subconsciously, I’ll just want to do things to make the game easier for me. Or add things that I want to the game, which aren’t necessarily the best things for the game.
Now, I could be completely wrong with this assumption, but I think it’s held me well so far.
Don’t get me wrong, I do play my own game. Not as much as I probably should, but I play it occasionally. I’m okay at it. I tend to camp a lot. But also, especially when you’re in the office during the day, it’s such a high-tension game. That, you know, you’re sweating and shaking at the end of it… and that’s not very good if you want to get more work done afterwards!
That vision for the game: It’s big.
My boss says, we’re building this as a service, not as a game. Over the coming years, we’re just going to keep upgrading and keep improving and keep adding to the game, much like what Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has done.
We’re not looking at this as a short term game, we’re looking at this as something we want to do for the next 10 years.
Above: An informal look at what it’s like to play PUBG.
But his definition of ‘complete’ is much more realistic.
For me, when we move to full launch — and please don’t take this as the word of god — but I just want to see the game balanced and launched without issues. I want to get the Battle Royale game to a competitive state where it’s balanced and people aren’t dying of bugs. We have other elements, we have custom games and modding coming in the future — it’s going to take some time yet.
The only one that I really want in, that’s going to be added anyway, is vaulting. It’ll change verticality in the map, but it means that people can get around easier and not be trapped by a small fence. That’s going to take us perhaps another month to get it to a state where we’re happy to release it. It may take a little longer, as all things in development sometimes do. All the features we’ve announced, I want them in for the full version.
Things like new weapons we’re going to be adding every month anyway, but everything we’ve announced should be ready by the full launch.
The game might only have the one existing map at launch.
I’m not sure about the two new maps being ready, one of them may be… we’re going to do a blog post about the current state of the new maps. The images we released a few weeks ago, they were what we call a beautiful corner, where the artist spends a lot of time creating a small patch to give a sense of what the overall map looks like, and it gives a false impression that these maps are really far along. I’ll be going into that a bit in my dev blog so we can temper people’s expectations.
We’ll have our 3D and 2D replay system. We have a very basic 2D replay system which is just a map and we track people’s positions and deaths, and you can just replay the round, see people’s strategies.
With 3D replays, being able to watch your whole round, in-engine with a free camera where you can record the round from any position you want, follow any player you want, I think it will open up the door for content creators to get really creative. I see mini-movies being created from the replay feature.
The rest is balance, he says.
The loot system we’re working hard to balance, and make it fairer for everyone so you’re not landing in a town where one person has an [assault rifle] and everyone else is f****d.
The other thing is the blue zones. We still have a little bit of work to do, especially on the ending zones, to make them a little bit fairer so that you’re not getting killed by the zone so much. I think in the final zones, they’re still a little bit on the fast side and they take away the tactical nature of the game. It’s my firm belief that the game shouldn’t be killing me, it’s other players that should be killing me. So moving forward to full release, it’s about balancing the core gameplay systems to a point you’re dying to other players 90% of the time.
We’ll be tweaking the leaderboards, and the load system and matchmaking, to really get it into a good state. And that’s when you know I think the release will come, once all those features we’ve announced are kind of polished and ready for the public.
New servers and a new technique could make the game perform a bit better.
I’m confident we can get these all ironed out, especially now we’ve been expanding the team and getting more engineers. It just takes time to find the right people with the right experience who can do what we want them to do.
We have a new Ukranian guy who just joined the team, a rendering engineer, and he’s currently working on a thing called shadow caching which should improve client performance significantly. But things like that take two months to write. I’m pretty confident we can get the game competitive so people aren’t dying from lag and stuff like that, it’ll just take us some time.
Currently, we’re also bound by [Amazon] AWS locations when it comes to where we can put servers, but we’re looking into other ways of adding new servers in new regions, so there should be less lag when Russians can play on Russian servers and EU players can play on EU servers.
Don’t expect bullets to shoot through fences or gates ahead of the full release.
First, we have to get our servers to a really good state. Optimization before anything else. As our boss says, build is king. Really, all these additional features will get added once we’re happy the game can support them without dragging down performance too much.
Penetration and air drag, it’ll take us some time to get right, because it’s a lot of programming to get that into the game. We really want to get penetration in there. There’s no firm ETA, and we haven’t even looked into starting it yet because we’ve other things on our plate. Vaulting, for example, comes first, and then we’ll look at penetration to make the gunplay a bit better.
Air drag will change the gun meta completely because suddenly you won’t be able to snipe with an M16 — because the drop over a long distance will be too much — but to actually get air drag into the game is some complex mathematics, and we have to have people specifically do that.
And don’t expect to shoot through the walls of a house.
I think you’ll be shooting through wood. I don’t think we should be allowing people to shoot through concrete walls, because we don’t have any penetrating bullets [in the game] that would be able to go through that. Light metal, wood, those things that would realistically be penetrated. House walls I think are just too thick.
We’d love to add more destruction, but some of this stuff is quite expensive and doing it in an open world raises its own challenges. It all comes down to whether we can afford to put it in.
Killcams are coming eventually.[Killcams are an instant replay from the perspective of the player who killed you.]
For solos, we want to have a killcam. We want you to be able to see where you died from, because I think it would cut down a lot of the accusations of hacking, for one. But I think it would just add to the gameplay, knowing how you got killed. I think it will help you get better at the game if you’re like “Oh s***, I should have been watching that corner.”
We want killcams for solo, but not for squad or duos because there’s chance of abuse there.
The optional zombie mode will be fleshed out in a big way.
We have so many more plans for the zombie mode. Custom animations, custom takedowns, attacks, those will all get added in over the coming months. But since we showed it off at E3, we thought “Let’s just add this into the game quickly.” We didn’t spend a lot of time on it yet because we have more important things to do with optimization and getting the game finished.
We just wanted to put it in there so people could play it, because it was a hugely popular game mode even without the zombie characters.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to drive a tractor. (Yes I asked.)
You know, that’s not a bad idea. I might reach out to the art team and see if we can make those tractors driveable, because I think it’d be quite fun to have someone driving around in a tractor. Let me reach out to the team.
Competitive players complain about tick rate. He’s trying to improve it.[Editor’s note: Tick rate is how quickly internet servers update the game simulation, and thus is a huge factor in how quickly players can see the results of their actions.]
At the moment, we have a max of about 30. Ultimately, for any competitive Battle Royale, I would like to see tick rates of 60 and above, but again for games like CS: GO and Overwatch it’s relatively easy to do because it’s a small map and only 10 players on the map so the server isn’t being hammered. With our game, you’ve got a hundred people and a large map and it’s just a whole different set of challenges to get it up to 60fps. But that’s what we’re working for.
The Xbox version is already underway, but it won’t affect the PC release.
They trust us. They’re happy. I’m not really that involved with the Xbox development side of things, but [Microsoft] is not looking to influence the game in any way, they just want to help us get the best version of the game onto Xbox. They send some developers over here to work with us, to figure out how to optimize the game.
It’s going to take us some time to get there, but we have a version running here on the Xbox One X dev kit which runs pretty well, and it’s not even optimized yet. It’s a completely unoptimized port of the PC version, and we’re getting over 30 fps.
We have a great team, our partner Anticto based in Spain, and they’re doing most of the Xbox development. The core team is just three Spaniards who are super intelligent. They did the level streaming system for our PC version that works really well, so they’re the core Xbox developer, basically.
When people heard we were moving to Xbox, they’re like “Oh! Never going to finish the PC version!” because that’s the way it is, but Anticto are based in a different country, so the resources that have been dedicated to the PC version haven’t been diminished. We’re not simply going “F*** PC, let’s move on to Xbox.”
His life hasn’t changed. Yet.
I was looking at [the Steam Summer Sale] after a few days, and all that could come to my mind was “It’s like day five of the sale, and no one seems to.” I think a lot of people were waiting until we were on sale to buy the game, and once the Steam Summer Sale hit, they went “F*** it, I’m just going to buy the game now.” It was insane. I didn’t expect us to be #1 throughout all the sales, yet we were.
The thing that made me so happy was even with the insane success we’ve seen over the last [four] months, we’re not running around with bottles of champagne. We’re really like: Expand team. Focus. Get this game complete.
I’m quite a simple chap. I don’t really want for much. I like staying in nice hotels, but apart from that, my lifestyle hasn’t really changed. I’m not someone that looks for labels or fancy cars or anything like that. It’s just, for me, I just want to make a good game, and once this game is complete I’ll be happy.
And when we have our first major, with 32 or 64 players in an arena, that’s when I see the game as having done everything I wanted it to do. That’s when the game is at a state I could probably leave it — I’ve been doing Battle Royale games for like five years, and I have other ideas — but that’s when I can kind of a take a few weeks off, a month off, on holiday.
It’s a bit tough for me because I have a daughter in Ireland and I get to go back every six weeks or so. The company are great, they pay my flights back to Ireland and make sure I get to see her, but I really want to take some time off and just go home, or even take my daughter on a trip around the world.
I never expected the game to be this popular, and I’m just thankful that people enjoy the game. That’s why I’m so committed, and the team is so committed to finish the game, because we just don’t want to let those people down. I think we’ve been given a huge chance by the gaming community. I really don’t want to f*** it up.
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