PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is a mammoth success on Steam as well as broadcasting services like Twitch and YouTube, and the Bluehole studio built it specifically for that audience of live-video viewers. Woonghee Cho, Bluehole’s global buisness boss, explained to GamesBeat that the studio set out from the beginning to design its last-man-standing shooter with broadcasting in mind.
That has worked so far. At any one time, tens of thousands of people are watching PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds livestreams on Twitch. That doesn’t include broadcasting sites that are popular in places like China or South Korea. And appealing to that audience has also led to financial success, with sales of more than 4 million copies worldwide. Cho credited a lot of that to the game’s watchability, and he went so far as to call livestreaming audiences Bluehole’s most important customers.
“From the start of the project, we knew that viewers were the most important customer group,” Cho said through an interpreter. “We knew this game was going to be fun to watch online. So we focused on that and developed features related to that characteristic. That led to our viewers growing really fast, right after we released the game. That resulted in growing viewership on platforms like Twitch. I think that’s what led to all the sales, without any special marketing programs or campaigns.”
The Twitch-first strategy isn’t new, of course. Developers and publishers have identified live gaming video as a key avenue for reaching potential customers. Battlegrounds, however, has made that work like few other games ever had. It is even selling well in China without a local publishing partner.
Bluehole isn’t just sitting back and hoping people play its game. It is collaborating with streamers in China and other regions around the world to get them to play the game. Through an initiative called the Battlegrounds Partner Program, the studio even provides these partners with a special version of Battlegrounds that includes the option for custom matches and a zombie mode that broadcasters can play with their audiences.
But Battlegrounds is catching on with a wide variety of players. I even wrote that it is the most important shooter since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and that’s not just because Bluehole is working with livestreamers. So I asked Cho if some of this came down to being in the right place at the right time.
“I don’t think we actually hit the best timing or anything,” he said. “H1, ArmA III, other battle games were already very popular on Twitch. They had a lot of viewership. I don’t think there was a right time to be popular. But we had our focus on viewers and making those customers happy … through [the Battlegrounds Partner Program], we focused on making sure content creators had the best environment to create entertaining content for their viewers. I think that really worked.”
For more from Bluehole’s Woonghee Cho, be sure to read my full interview with him below.
GamesBeat: Is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds selling faster now than it was when it first came out?
Cho: It isn’t as fast as the first day or the first week, but now—different from other games, we’re maintaining a very constant speed in terms of sales. Recently, the sales in Asia, especially China, have gone up. Those regions are showing very rapid growth, and we’re maintaining a very constant pace.
GamesBeat: On the sales picking up in places like China and elsewhere, the game seems to be a global success. It’s not just huge in America or Europe or South Korea. It’s popular everywhere. How did that come about? Is there something Bluehole did to make that happen?
Cho: Basically, one of the most important customer groups for Bluehole and Battlegrounds is viewers. Viewers that watch the game through online streaming platforms. From the start of the project, we knew that viewers were the most important customer group. We knew this game was going to be fun to watch online. So we focused on that and developed features related to that characteristic. That led to our viewers growing really fast, right after we released the game. That resulted in growing viewership on platforms like Twitch. I think that’s what led to all the sales, without any special marketing programs or campaigns. We did the same thing in China. We’re collaborating with a lot of streaming platforms. There are multiple giant streaming platforms in China, and there have many streamers and content creators streaming our game there. I think that’s turning into sales in China as well.
GamesBeat: Is there something of a right-place-right-time thing happening here, where these platforms are in place all over the world, very ingrained in the way people consume game-related media, and you came along at the right time to take advantage of that?
Cho: I don’t think we actually hit the best timing or anything. H1, ArmA III, other battle games were already very popular on Twitch. They had a lot of viewership. I don’t think there was a right time to be popular. But we had our focus on viewers and making those customers happy. We have a program called the Battlegrounds Partners Program, which allows content creators to be partnered with us. They have access to custom games. Through that program, we focused on making sure content creators had the best environment to create entertaining content for their viewers. I think that really worked.
GamesBeat: Is that the focus going forward, making sure the game remains as entertaining as possible to watch as well as play?
Cho: That would be one side that we would focus on. On the one hand, we’d like to continue to provide an environment where content creators can create entertaining content, as if they watching a comedy show. It can be really entertaining and funny to watch for many viewers. In Battlegrounds there can be a lot of situations that you don’t expect to see and it turns out to be hilarious. But on the other hand, this is something we’re not driving ourselves very actively at the moment. But we do feel we could create an environment for serious competition, which is something we’ll focus on later. We’ll have these two strategic focuses that we’ll continue to look at in the future.
GamesBeat: I played a little H1Z1, ArmA, and similar things, but not as much as I’ve been playing Battlegrounds. Maybe it’s not as obvious to me as it is to some people who this would work as an esport very easily. I think the main reason for that is because people can follow the action really simply. You don’t have to be overly familiar with the game to understand the goals of the individual player trying to win a match. Do you think that’s one reason it could work as an esports? What does the future of competition look like for Battlegrounds?
Cho: It’s true that it’s really easy for viewers to follow the match. In esports the fundamental thing is you have to be able to gain a lot of audience who will enjoy and watch the entire experience. It’s easier for people to watch Battlegrounds than League of Legends or Dota, because if you don’t know the rules, it’s quite to follow MOBA esports competition. Because of that, there’s a possibility that we could develop a competitive scene. We have confidence in that. But on the other side, the rules are totally different. It’s not like any other esports game out there. We don’t know what rule set or environment would be the best for Battlegrounds. We’re not experienced with any kind of esports scene for our games yet. We’re not sure about the production or broadcasting side as well. It’s difficult to imagine what it would look like in the future, which is why we’ll be experimenting with little things online and offline to see what could be enjoyable for viewers and players.
GamesBeat: So you don’t have one game type in mind that you want to be the esports game mode right now? You’ll be continuing to experiment.
Cho: That’s right. Right now, we’re focusing on getting custom access to Battlegrounds partners, different teams and organizations and communities. We’re really focusing on giving that access, so the stakeholders have the freedom to voluntarily set up a league and play with people who want to participate. From there, I think we’ll gain a lot of insight. Some people say that a mode developed by the publisher — for example, CS: GO has a mode like this – could be the most popular. But we don’t believe in that, because I think the community will tell us what they enjoy. This year we’ll watch what our community and different teams in the community do as far as tournaments and competitions. I think they’ll come up with rule sets and game modes they really enjoy.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me how you guys got connected with Brendan Greene in the first place?
Cho: Our VP and executive producer, Chang Han Kim, wanted to make a battle royal game for a really long time. It was when he was developing an MMO PC game. Back then, when he was developing games, he had to make those games successful in Korea first, and then he would take them to other countries and publish them there. He waited until his last project, Devilian, was finished, and then he was looking at different markets. He looked at what other publishers in Korea was doing. Everyone was developing mobile games. He’d been developing PC games for almost 16 years, and he thought that he didn’t want to develop a mobile game just because mobile games are popular now. He still wanted to continue developing PC games. He realized that he still wanted to make a battle royal game and start this new project. He did some research and found that there was already someone who had developed battle royal game modes on top of other survival games or military simulation games, which was PlayerUnknown and Brendan Greene. He wrote an email to Brendan and asked him if he’d like to come to Korea and develop a new stand-alone battle royal game with him. That was last March, in 2016. They just hit it off, and their visions were very aligned. Brendan was happy to have someone who agreed with his vision. He moved to Korea a few weeks later and started working with Chang Han’s team.
GamesBeat: It seems like going for PC gaming in today’s climate, where everyone’s doing mobile games, would have been crazy, but it made a lot of sense to Bluehole because—why? Why stick with PC gaming? Is it just because that’s what the company had always done?
Cho: Bluehole has many other teams that develop both mobile and PC games. There’s a team called Bluehole Phoenix that has already made successful titles in the mobile market. This wasn’t a top-down decision from the management, that we should focus on either mobile games or PC games. It was just that this individual, who leads a team – Chang Kim, who’s our executive producer – wanted to make a PC game, a battle royal game. That was his decision. He wanted to drive his team to make Battlegrounds. It wasn’t the company’s direction. He wanted to pursue this specific game mode, and that’s how it happened.
GamesBeat: China is a market that seems confusing to someone like me who has no experience with its gaming scene. Is the reason the game is so successful in China because of existing relationships? Is there a publisher that Bluehole works with in China? Or is it something special about this game in particular?
Cho: If you look at the actual market size and potential of the Chinese market, I don’t think we’ve succeeded already. It’s too early to say that, because the market is so huge. But we still took the same strategy we implemented in North America and Europe. We focused on working with content creators and entertaining viewers. The game is being sold on Steam in China as well. We don’t have a specific publisher we work with at the moment. In China it’s only the beginning for us. We haven’t really actively started doing business development in China. But just like in North America or Europe, we collaborate with many content creators and try to showcase the game on different streaming platforms. We see good possibilities in the future.
GamesBeat: Is that a strategy that other developers could follow, developers that are foreign to the Chinese market? What I’ve always heard is that you have to work with a publisher there, that it’s too difficult to go in on your own. I know that a lot of that is the case with mobile, because of the various content distribution platforms. But do you think this is a strategy that could work for other developers?
Cho: There’s definitely a limit to growth if you don’t work with a Chinese publisher in China. There are people who can access Steam in China, but the size of that group is very limited. The growth you can gain from just working on your own and using that strategy—it won’t be limitless. We’ll hit a ceiling at some point. We’re definitely looking into working with a Chinese publisher in the future. That’s how we’ll be able to grow even further.
GamesBeat: What were the conversations like between Bluehole, Microsoft, and Sony that led to the E3 announcement that Battlegrounds would at least be a timed exclusive on Xbox One? I think that’s right, a timed exclusive?
Cho: Yes, it’s a timed exclusive. Microsoft has been very proactive in proposing good suggestions. We really liked their proposal and had some good conversations with Microsoft. We’d already been thinking that Xbox would be a good platform to launch Battlegrounds for North America and Europe. We felt like their vision and our vision were very aligned. That’s how we decided to move forward with Xbox on the timed exclusive launch. Also, Xbox has the game preview program, which is somewhat Similar to the Steam early access program. We focus on getting user feedback in that early access phase, because we believe that’s how we can improve and finish our game. Xbox game preview would be a good program for us, so we can launch the game in early access form, hear from users about what we need to improve, and then finally finish the game based on that feedback.