The 41-year-old created the enduring 'battle royale' genre in in his spare time, and never expected to be a full-time game designer
The 41-year-old created the enduring 'battle royale' genre in in his spare time, and never expected to be a full-time game designer
Brendan "Playerunknown" Greene didn't study the classics. He's never played a Zelda game, he stumbles when pronouncing Hideo Kojima's name, and he probably couldn't pick Peter Molyneux out of a lineup. For the majority of his life, 41-year-old Greene made ends meet as a photographer and a graphic designer – living that freelance troubadour lifestyle, bouncing from sublease to sublease, continent to continent. He calls himself the black sheep of his family, which is the reputation you earn when you're concerned more with art, taste, and adventure than a sustainable career. So it shouldn't be a surprise that Greene never intended to be a full-time game designer. Instead, his story begins in a quiet bedroom somewhere in Brazil. He was frustrated by the ultra-safe design decisions of the triple-A status quo, and he was dying too many times at the hands of cocky teenagers across the void. So he threw his gauntlet in the ring, and things were never the same.
"I was playing a lot of Call of Duty and Assassin's Creed, and I just didn't enjoy them. They were great games, but they weren't my type of game," he says over a Skype call from his office in Seoul. "I just wanted to make something that I would like playing."
This was not a particularly happy moment in Greene's life. The then 30-something moved to Brazil to chase "the love of his life." Two years later, he was divorced, so he started stacking paychecks with the loose plan of returning to his native Ireland. In that lonely moment, he found some comfort in the embrace of ArmA and DayZ. Both those games were self-directed and untethered in a way that Assassin's Creed categorically wasn't, and he was inspired enough to start mucking around in the source code. Greene doesn't consider himself a great programmer, but he knew enough from his web design experience to start working on his own mod. "I didn't really leave my room all that often," he says. "I didn't go out on weekends. I spent most of my time [shooting] some events [and working on the mod]. It definitely wasn't a highlight of my life. It was tough at times. But everything happens for a reason."
Greene envisioned a world where your character was more than just the hyper-detailed gun model sticking out into digital space. The average big-budget shooter tells its story in 20-second intervals. Human beings live a dozen lives over the course of a single round. There are no survivors, only winners. What if, instead, there was an experience that forced a player to regard their in-game avatars with the same value and attentiveness that they attached to their existence in real life? That's the core principle of Battle Royale, a mod for both ArmA 2 and 3, and Greene's first serious attempt at game design. Players airdrop into a vast stretch of wilderness with nothing but the shirt on their back. You hustle into long-abandoned buildings to search for guns, ammo, and anything else that will keep you alive. Slowly but surely, the map begins to shrink, forcing any reluctant survivors to engage. The winner is the last person left alive – a trophy that's usually earned by outgunning, outmaneuvering, and outsmarting everyone else on the map.
It is a design conceived specifically by someone who was tired of getting headshotted in Counter-Strike because his mouse speed was subpar. Greene believed that competition can be so much more complex than who fires first, that there is so much worth testing beyond twitchiness. He wanted to create a world where you could gamble, trust, bargain, and betray. "The whole idea of just 'respawn, start over, respawn, start over,' just bores me,” he says. “You know where the enemies are coming from. He's here, he's there, bang bang. In Battle Royale, you never have that. You’re never sure what’s going to happen. You get a unique story every time. Every time you play you'll have a different experience, and that's key."
I was watching the 'H1Z1' dev stream and they kept mentioning 'Battle Royale' and I was like, 'That's great, wanna throw me some money?'
Battle Royale was released in 2013. It won an audience almost immediately. Greene ran everything by hand, which meant that he stayed up all night keeping the servers online. "I remember tweeting out "Okay, I have to sleep now, the servers will be back tomorrow," he says. Greene still pays a monthly $2,000 to keep those servers online, but today, he works as a creative director at Bluehole Inc, the South Korean game company behind fantasy MMO Tera. It's an opportunity that grew directly out of his mod work. After Battle Royale went nuclear, he was contacted by Sony Online Entertainment (now Daybreak Games) for some consulting work. That studio was developing a game mode for H1Z1 called King of the Kill, which was essentially an adaptation of Battle Royale.
"I was watching the H1Z1 dev stream and they kept mentioning Battle Royale and I was like, "That's great, wanna throw me some money?'" laughs Greene. "John Smedley [then president of Sony Online] followed me, and I got a DM at like 2am that said 'We should talk.' So the next day, I give him a call, and that Thursday they flew me out to San Diego to talk about adding Battle Royale as a game mode to H1Z1. I have a lot to thank them for because they didn't have to give me that chance. They could've just taken the idea and ran with it."
King of the Kill launched in January 2015, and about a year later, he received an email from Bluehole producer Changhan Kim, who wanted to work with Greene on an original Battle Royale IP.
"[Kim] outlined his idea for a Battle Royale game, which was something he always wanted to make, and he had a lot of the same ideas that I had for a standalone game. I had gotten offers from other people before, but they weren’t the same kind of vision that I had," says Greene. "I flew out [to South Korea], met with the team and looked at their concepts, and I was convinced that this was the right place to do this ."
Two weeks ago, the company released Playerunknown's Battlegrounds onto Steam's early access program. It's advertised as a pure distillation of the gameplay structures Greene put forth on Battle Royale, except with the backing of a full development team and original assets. Battlegrounds rocketed to the top of the Steam sales chart as soon as it was made available, and there have been moments where it's eclipsed titans like League of Legends as the number one game on Twitch.
Greene never dreamt of being a full-time game designer – aspirations like that don't gel with his personality – but neither is he surprised at his game's success. "I always knew that the Battle Royale game mode was going to be popular," he says. "When I was first interviewed at Bluehole, the executive director asked me how many copies I expected to sell, and I said 'a million month one, easy.' I don't want to come off as arrogant, but I always suspected it would be popular."
The driving idea behind Playerunknown's Battlegrounds is that triple-A studios are underestimating their player-base. A radical new direction – like say, a tactical survival-shooter with no respawns or tutorials – isn't guaranteed to have broad appeal. Battlegrounds is hard. You will die in frustrating ways. A posse of chuckleheads will often roll up on your hiding space in a military-grade Jeep and gun you down. It’s the sort of thing that might make someone rage quit, but Greene knew that players are patient enough to put up with those miseries in order to participate in a more fully-realized world.
Greene chalks up a lot of his success to spending most of his life outside the games industry. He didn't carry any baggage or preconceived notions into his work. If there's one thing we've learned from amateur designers like Markus Persson and Derek Yu, it's that it's a lot easier to think outside the box when you didn't learn your craft in the machine. Brendan Greene will protect this creative purity at all costs, because he knows that's his greatest asset.
"When we were first designing Battlegrounds, I would put a suggestion forth and the team would say 'Oh, that's not how we were taught to make games,' and I would say 'Yes, but it works,’” he says. "I'm not an industry veteran. I don't know the engines. I don't know the technical limitations of a lot of the stuff we work with. So I say 'Well, what about this,' and the technical director will look at me with fire in his eyes, but it's given me a lot of creative freedom because I don’t know the rules"
Perhaps Greene's most outlandish dream is to turn Battlegrounds into an esport. He explains that he spent a lot of time watching pro Counter-Strike and League of Legends when he was developing the original Battle Royale – team games that occasionally devolve into the rote formulas that make him bristle. For Battlegrounds, Greene imagines a scenario where 60 of the best players in the world are dropped into the wilds and forced to make do with whatever they can scrounge up. He compares the experience to poker. Sometimes, you're dealt an awful hand, but that doesn't mean you can't make it to the final table.
From day one, I've always thought of esports as a final point for this. But we want to grow the esport organically through the community. If it's meant to happen, it will happen.
Battle Royale takes its name from the dystopian 2000 Japanese action film, which was itself adapted from a 1999 book. The plot centered around a vicious futuristic game show that assigned a bunch of teenagers to a desert island, and equipped each one with a weapon. The last person standing earns their freedom. Obviously, Battle Royale can't exist in real life – the days of gruesome colosseum bloodsports are thankfully behind us – but Greene intends to awaken those instincts again.
"I want to create spectacle in esports. I want 64 people sitting in the center of an arena with a stadium full of people watching. And then each player has to get up and walk off [as they're eliminated]" says Greene. "From day one, I've always thought of esports as a final point for this. But we want to grow the esport organically through the community. If it's meant to happen, it will happen."
It's a hugely ambitious goal, especially considering how even huge companies like Blizzard and Ubisoft have had their own stumbles in the esports space. But Greene doesn't think in those terms. So far, everything he's believed about Battle Royale has come true. It'd be silly to start hedging his bets now.
When he returned to Ireland from Brazil, he signed up for social welfare. His parents were worried. He remembers telling them how excited he was about the work he was doing on Battle Royale, and the subsequent stressful conversation when he informed them that, no, nobody gets paid for building a mod. That's all different now. One of the most rewarding things about Greene's success has been taking care of his family. "On a daily basis, they tell me how proud they are. … They haven't had the best time themselves over the last few years, and I've been able to help them out," he says. "For years, they fully expected me to be sleeping on the streets."
He talks about Playerunknown's Battlegrounds like a gift from above – an opportunity that swooped in out of nowhere and drastically reshaped his late-30s. He's now a man that goes to work for a living, as the captain of one of the fastest growing games in the world.
Still, Brendan Greene doesn't seem like the kind of guy who's keen on staying in the same place for long. I ask him what his future plans are, and if he intends to be working on Battlegrounds for the rest of his life.
"I think I'll be on Battlegrounds for another few years at least. I want to see this be made into a successful esport. I think until it's finished and we have a great platform for both modding and esports – I wanna see that through," he says. "I do have two other games in my head that I want to make, but I don't want to think about them too much. I've got some friends who do music in Ireland, and one of them was in a relatively famous Irish rock band called Royseven, and they say, 'It's so boring being a rockstar, because you release your album and you go on tour and play the same 10 songs every night for a year.' It's not the exact same for me, but I've been doing Battle Royale for four years. I want to try a new game, or a new game mode."
I ask if he'd unveil the details of those two mystery games. Greene pauses, and declines, but does say that one is a spin on Command & Conquer, and the other is a pure, authentic survival simulation. I'm sure they're big, impossible-seeming ideas. After all, Brendan Greene had faith that he wasn’t the only person on earth to want a hardcore, no-respawns open-world shooter. He trusted his vision, and a whole lot of people started trusting him.
"I come at this from a consumer point of view. I'm a mod-maker who gets to make his own game, and that happens very rarely. I can count on one hand the number of mod-makers who get to make their own game," he says. "As a result, the community has always been fiercely behind me... without them, I wouldn't be where I am today."