Open Sharing Keys Game’s Runaway Success

Since its beta release in early 2017, PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS has become one of the most popular video games in the world. The basic premise is that 100 players parachute onto an island and scavenge weapons to defend themselves. Alliances develop, but in the end it’s every person for themselves. Your mission? Just be the last player alive.

“I think it’s just a simple concept: it’s man trying to survive. You never know what you’re going to get. It’s a new experience every time, and there are no other real rules,” says Brendan Greene, PUBG’s creative director.

2018 SXSW Gaming Featured Speaker, Brendan Greene

2018 SXSW Gaming Featured Speaker, Brendan Greene


"As the designer, it’s impossible for me to be better than people who play more than me."

In an industry where gaming franchises are conceived by massive corporations like Blizzard and Riot Games, PUBG is an anomaly. Brendan Greene is a relative neophyte when it comes to the video game industry. He pivoted from a career as a photographer and designer, gaining a working knowledge of game design by creating custom modifications of PC military simulation ARMA 2. In 2013, with tutelage from a community of developers who tweak existing games to their liking (called “modders”), Greene released his own version of ARMA 2 called Battle Royale, inspired by the Japanese film of the same name and the Hunger Games series.

“I’ve been really lucky in that the gaming and modding community, especially with ARMA, is very open about sharing what they do and believe everything should be free,” says Greene.

That support taught Greene the skills needed to manage everything about Battle Royale on his own. As the mod gained popularity, Sony took notice and hired him as a consultant on another deathmatch game, H1Z1. Then after its release in 2015, he received an offer from South Korea-based Bluehole Games to develop his own stand-alone title based on the same concepts.

“My boss at Bluehole ... he just sent me an email. After talking to him, I saw his passion about making a battle royale game. Then he gave me a chance to have a team and make my vision,” says Greene.

Growing from a one-man operation to creative director of a team proved challenging. “One of the biggest lessons was trusting my team and finding the right people to work with,” he explains. “But once you find them, you can do anything.”

In early 2017, a beta version of PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS was released to online PC gaming service Steam and for Xbox One. True to his modding roots, the game was a work in progress. ““There were no frills, but it worked,” says Greene.

The game skyrocketed to the top of the Steam charts, surpassing Dota 2 and Counterstrike: Global Offensive as the service’s most popular game, greatly exceeding both the company’s expectations and technical capabilities. It has currently been downloaded over 20 million times, with up to three million users playing concurrently.

“It’s crazy. They’re surreal numbers. Our server was only built for one million players at first, and we thought we could just double it, and there was no way we’d hit that number. Now we’re at three million,” says Greene, just days before December’s official “feature complete” release of the game.




“Feature complete” may sound like a finished product, but in today’s gaming world, there is no such thing. Players expect regular updates, from fixing bugs to additional content like new maps and play modes. True to his modding roots, Greene hopes that the community will help dictate how the game develops. He employs a data science team to monitor forums and social media for trends and works with players to understand how to improve the gameplay. The goal isn’t just to dump a game on the public, but to keep evolving it over the course of at least five years.

Part of that evolution comes in the form of secret “easter egg” tricks. One of the most well known involves an unlikely weapon: a frying pan. Since players begin the game unarmed, and weapons are scattered at random, desperation leads to innovation. Even kitchenware ransacked from a house can be used as a weapon, and although players can equip a frying pan as a melee item, it was often overlooked. That was until an update made it bulletproof, able to deflect shotgun blasts and serve as makeshift body armor.

Now living in South Korea and heading up a team of developers, Greene has less time for gaming but still logs into PUBG regularly. The game’s title actually came from his online handle, PlayerUnknown, but he doesn’t stake exclusive rights to the username. Anyone can log in as PlayerUnknown, and the random nature of the map generation keeps his gameplay honest.

“People usually don’t believe it’s me, and the beauty of the game is that I can’t predict a thing. As the designer, it’s impossible for me to be better than people who play more than me. There’s a fairness to it,” says Greene.

His continued enthusiasm might seem quaint, but it’s a crucial part of what made the game a success. “At the end of the day, I just wanted to create this game, even if it was only me and my friends who enjoyed playing it. I say to people, do something you want to do and love doing, even if no one else likes it.”

Brendan Greene was a Featured Speaker at SXSW Gaming 2018. Watch "PLAYERUNKNOWN: From Mod Creator to Creative Director' below:

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