Brendan Greene had a singular vision to bring battle royale to the video game market. He started as a modder, and he was a fan of movies like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. He started working on a mod that could do this kind of a first-person shooter game mode where the territory for fighting kept shrinking until there was just one player left standing.
And the rest was history. Greene hooked up with Daybreak Games on H1Z1 and then went to Bluehole, which set up a subsidiary, PUBG Corp., to make a battle royale game. There, in South Korea, Greene helped create PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. It became a huge hit when it debuted in March 2017, and it saw a meteoric rise on PC, consoles, and mobile.
Greene recently spoke about this experience with Rami Ismail, cofounder of Vlambeer, at the Gamelab event in Barcelona. He talked about his life as a modder and being thrust into game development with almost no experience beyond what he taught himself. For nine months, he toiled with the development team and eventually put their creation out in to the wild. Then he got a rush out of the huge popularity of PUBG. The mobile game alone has topped more than 400 million downloads, and the team has grown from 30 people to more than 400.
But he also got a taste for the nastiness of fans on the internet. Some have threatened his life because he made changes to the game that they didn’t like. And he also came to appreciate running into fans everywhere he goes and listening to their constructive feedback. I sat in a conversation with him and a couple of game fans came up to us during the conversation to ask for selfies.
Now Greene has set up a new PUBG studio in Amsterdam, and he is starting a new game. He isn’t saying what it will be yet, but he is done with battle royale and is on to a new singular vision. Asked if he felt pressure for his “second album,” Greene replied, “I’m not thinking about it like that. I don’t care about selling. I should care, but — I have an idea. Again, it’s something where I want to see if I can make it first. I think we can. But that’s why we have a bit of runway to just do some research and see what we can come up with.”
Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Rami Ismail: Modding is a good place to start. I know a lot of people in the room found different ways into game development. I started with modding a few things back when games were text files. You started with modding as well.
Brendan Greene: Yeah, I started in ArmA II by opening some server files and looking at the code and saying, “Wow, I can read this. This is great.” I started messing around. I saw an event called the Survivor Games. I wanted to play it, but I couldn’t, because I wasn’t a streamer, so I made my own mod.
Ismail: You didn’t have any formal training.
Greene: Oh, God, no. I’ve been in the game industry, seriously, for all of two and a half years. Before that I was a designer. I was a photographer. I did web design. I understood code. I couldn’t write it very well. But that’s how I got into it. We had a DayZ mod server. I fell back in love with gaming through DayZ. Some of you know my story. I didn’t play a lot of games, but the games I played, I loved, and DayZ made me — it opened my eyes to the possibilities of open world games. That’s where I learned I could mess with the loot tables and change this or that. That’s where I fell in love with providing people a space to have an experience.
Ismail: When you started, was it more like you were trying to fix the game, or were you just trying to make it more to your taste?
Greene: The Survivor Games, they had an offline map that you would reference for the areas you could stay in. I thought, “No, this should be in the game.” Then I thought about the way we were doing it, and that was fine, but I wanted to do it my way. I felt I could do a bit better. I was inspired by Battle Royale, where they had squares across the map. I couldn’t code squares. So I made a circles.
Ismail: Squares are hard.
Greene: No, they really are. There were gameplay problems, because if you have squares that are cut off from each other, how do people kill each other? A circle was the easiest way of doing it. I could code that. That was easy. Although the first circles on the ArmA II mod, they were using Bohemia’s own code. One circle would start south of the island, and then the next one would be north of the island. By the time people got there they’d die from being outside the circles.
There were lots of times where I’d have to — Frankie 1080p, he’s a streamer, a YouTuber, he was playing and recording a video, and he had to use hacker tools to transport everyone up to the circle in relatively random positions, because they’d die otherwise. Those early days were full of that sort of thing. But then I found some other code that worked way better, and we had a proper circle.
Ismail: This was just the stack overflow? You’d go and google and….
Greene: No, it was the ArmA forums. If any of you are doing 3D games and want to prototype, I recommend ArmA. You can do everything, and the community is huge. There are official and non-official forums with a depth of knowledge — you can try something, and then you come to them and say, “I tried doing it this way, but it won’t bloody work. How can I make it better?” And they’ll give you examples and try to help you. It was really helpful.
Ismail: But it was the opposite of stack overflow.
Ismail: You made this mod, and then — I guess now we’re here. We’re sitting here. A lot of stuff must have happened between that. For me, one of the things that’s interesting is, I remember when we were setting up Vlambeer, my own studio. At some point we realized that there was an opportunity. There was this moment where things aligned. I’m going to guess the idea of the circle was an interesting moment for you. But then it’s not just the idea, right?
Greene: For me it wasn’t only one idea. This was the game. I thought it was fair. I threw people out an airplane into the circle. There was loot on the island. I thought this was fair. I always thought — the reason I thought of this in the first place was that I was watching esports like Counter-Strike, games like CoD and Battlefield, and that rinse-and-repeat these games had that I didn’t really like. I wanted more of a challenge. With esports I saw two teams of five on a stage. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if you had 100 people in an arena?” Which we did, which was cool. That was what I saw battle royale could be. That was what drove me.
I saw that initial — when I first started on the ArmA II mod, I opened the servers. I had six servers. If a server would open it would fill in 10 seconds. Then I had to lock it and restart it. I had to do this for something like 36 or 40 hours straight, because I had no automatic tools to do it at the start. Everything had to be done manually. But again, I saw the reactions of people coming in and saying, “I’ve been waiting two days to play this.” At that stage I knew this was cool. They liked it. Let’s try to make it a bit better.
Ismail: At that point, this was a very personal interaction you had with a lot of these players. A lot of your community comes from there, right?
Greene: The battle royale community in general, a lot of them come all the way from ArmA. I meet people at conventions that know me from ArmA II. There’s that movement of people that just wanted a battle royale game who have followed me the various iterations. For me it’s always been trying to deliver what I wanted, which was the ArmA III mod in a stand-alone game. PUBG gave me the opportunity to do that.
Ismail: That loops us back to opportunity, which is good, because I was losing my own thread. Opportunity. At some point you realized you had something, right? For us that was a sort of terrifying moment. Was that a good moment for you?
Greene: Again, I wasn’t making money. This was a mod. I was paying for servers out of social welfare I was getting when I moved back to Ireland. I didn’t know where to go. I wasn’t a coder. I downloaded Unreal and got scared trying to envision making a game by myself. It was just beyond what I thought. Then John Smedley and H1Z1 and Sony Online at the time contacted me and said, “We’d like to help you make some money from this. We want to license it and build it into the game.”
He didn’t have to do that. I was a little confused as to why he did. That’ll be on my gravestone, because that doesn’t happen. I love modding, but the leap from modding to getting a chance to make your game doesn’t happen very often. When he said that, and even though the game wasn’t what I really wanted — it wasn’t the fidelity or the complexity or fidelity I wanted — I still saw the opportunity. This could get battle royale in front of a lot more people. Instead of having to download mods and install them and all that, this was just pressing play. I saw that as a massive opportunity. I said yes.
They flew me over to San Diego. We talked. I thought about it for a day and said, “Yes, please.” Then they flew me over a week later and I was there for two months, right up to launch, to work together. I loved it, because that first time we got it working internally — you had these grizzled old devs from Sony and they were whooping and shouting and roaring at each other across the thing. Again, it’s those moments where you think, “Okay, this is something I really need to work on.”
Ismail: When devs are yelling at each other, it’s usually good news.
Greene: Yeah, yeah.
Ismail: That was the first time you worked with a team, right?
Greene: It’s the first time I saw a game being made, and the complexity and horror of it at times.
Ismail: How did it feel suddenly being — I guess you were in charge, then?
Greene: I wasn’t really. I was a consultant more than anything else. They asked me my opinions on how to implement the game, but they implemented a much simpler version than what I wanted. But I was happy. It was still getting it out there.
Ismail: There was a thing.
Greene: It was why PUBG happened. It was never what I wanted, so I left there eventually and went back to ArmA. That’s what I loved. I updated it with a World War II version of battle royale. That went back. And then that’s when PUBG called.
At that stage I wasn’t really giving up, but I was losing hope that I’d get a chance to make my version of the game, because again, I don’t have experience running a company, a game company. I don’t know the intricacies — I didn’t know what an MVP was until lately. I had all these doubts.
Ismail: For those who don’t know, MVP refers to “Minimum Viable Product.” The minimum version of a game you need to make to be able to get it out there. I didn’t know that for a long time either. I was indie. I just made video games.
Greene: I’m working now with triple-A level guys. There’s a whole language there.
Ismail: At the heart of that little story there is that you knew that what you had was good, right?
Greene: I thought so, because I was watching a streamer called Lyric, and he played the ArmA III mod over the course of a year, a year and a half. For a streamer, someone who’s a variety streamer as well — it’s unusual to find someone who locks into a game like that. Then I thought, “Okay, this is something that someone can replay, and play a lot. This is the game I want to emulate.”
Ismail: Here’s the thing. You’re developing this idea. You’re starting to get these influences from outside, these developers telling you, “We can do this.”
Greene: I’m known by our CEO for saying no. He would suggest stuff and — the revive in the game, I initially said no to it, because I thought it would just be abused. I was happy with the ArmA III game mode. I was being interviewed in those early days and asked, “What makes your battle royale different?” I said, “Nothing. I have a game mode that works. I want to see if it works first.” I was very cautious about changing anything. I didn’t want to mess with the game. For me, I saw it as a golden goose. I thought, “Okay, we’ve added and changed things and it’s gradually become better.”
Ismail: You just said no to anything that was outside of your….
Greene: In those initial days, yes. Again, I was being told that this was not the way you designed games. I was told that — in Battle Royale, or in PUBG, the win rate is something like 10 or 20 percent. It’s super low. Most people would say that these are not good statistics for win rates. You need to get it up. But we don’t care! For me, it’s about just providing a fair battlefield. It was never about statistics or anything like that. It was just a feeling.
Ismail: My win rate is definitely not 10 percent in PUBG. It’s close to zero.
Greene: I don’t win. I lose, all the time. There are just better players than me.
Ismail: It’s interesting that the game isn’t really about — for some people it’s about winning, but in many ways it’s not really about winning.
Greene: Oh, no. It’s a story generator. At conventions I meet people and the first thing they do is tell me about this amazing run they had, this experience they had. That’s why I loved DayZ. Every time you play, there’s a different story. Same with PUBG. It’s a space that, especially with the flow of the game — it’s not all action all the time. You have this nice lull where you can have more action in the chat.
College friends that haven’t talked to each other in years, through PUBG they’ve started talking to each other again. They meet every Saturday and have a few games. I love that. We get letters and stuff from people. There was someone with fibromyalgia. They said they had a really shit time when they were really depressed, but PUBG came out and it took their mind off it. It gave them some relief. I really believe that if you have success, you have to try to help. It’s why I’m heavily vested in donating charities and the like. You have to use your voice for good.
Ismail: You started out, and now suddenly people are giving opinions, a lot of opinions.
Greene: Everyone likes to have an opinion.
Ismail: In my experience as a game developer those aren’t usually good ideas in general.
Greene: I’ve been told that they hope my daughter gets raped, that I burn to death and die slowly. These are from public Facebook profiles with their picture there. Honestly it leaves me thinking — when you’re writing this — there’s someone who wants to be a web dev, who has a design business, and he’s calling me a faggot on his Twitter. I don’t know.
Ismail: I think my favorite, I once got a photo of my front door DM’d to me anonymously. Okay? I just want to make video games.
Greene: There was some developer who was threatened with a gun because he didn’t fix a bug in his game? It’s crazy. The hate I receive, I just ignore it. But going to SXSW, someone said they were going to show me how xenophobic I was. I had two police officers walking around behind me. Again, I come from a generation where sticks and stones — words will never hurt me. These are just words now. I’m careful about what I share online. Generally all my details are pretty locked up, for the most part.
Ismail: They found my address through an old website I hadn’t used for 10 years. It still had my address on the WhoIs information. That wasn’t very pleasant.
Greene: I don’t get the thinking behind why people do this. Why do you think this is okay?
Ismail: What will it achieve?
Greene: It just means I block you on Twitter. Or even just mute you, so you can shout into a void. I don’t care.
Ismail: I prefer muting. It’s so much more fun.
Greene: I’ll block people, but more for low-effort comments. If you tell me, “Fix your game, asshole,” that’s just a low-effort comment. Come on. Pump some effort into it.
Ismail: At least tell me what to fix.
Greene: Tell me what you would like fixed! Most of the time if I get something like that — we have an internal bug report channel and we paste stuff constantly. Someone gives a bug report or a clip of something and it takes me two seconds to cut and paste. It helps.
Ismail: We get good feedback. That’s lovely. And we don’t always agree, but that’s our job as designers, to filter what feedback comes in, filter that through what we want the game to be, what the audience wants the game to be.
Greene: I get the other side, where stuff leaks. We were redesigning Erangel, and there was a leak of a map with a lot more content, but this was one of our test maps that we were using internally. The internet went wild. They’re ruining Erangel! You have no idea what you’re doing! But really it was — the design team really took it to heart. We couldn’t share the whole story, but they really took it to heart. That kills me. I have some friends on the DayZ dev team, and they’ve worked their hearts out on the game, and then they just get hit in the nuts, constantly.
Ismail: The story of the DayZ developer — it’s scary.
Greene: Game dev is bloody hard. I get asked all the time about why so many early access games fail. It’s not because we’re lazy or we’re trying to rip people off. It’s because you face a problem you can’t solve and the budget runs out. Or things like that. It’s really hard to overcome sometimes.
Ismail: You’re suddenly in the middle of this storm. You did the mod. The mod was building a community. People were following you all the way back from ArmA. Now you’re at a point where you’ve been at a studio, and now you’re not there anymore. You’re going to make PUBG.
Greene: I got an email out of the blue from a developer at Ginno Games, Chang-Han Kim, saying that he’d wanted to make a Battle Royale game for a while. He’d loved it for like 10 years. He loves the movie. He’d wanted to make it. He saw what I did. He said, “Come to Korea.” They were an MMO dev, so I wasn’t really sure, but I liked their work and their attitude. They had a good sell. They said they made well-made games. That was their pitch. But they really do. They work their hearts out.
I was just happy that I got a chance to make the game. Being given a team and being told, “Here’s a team, make a game,” that’s tough. But again, CH was the producer, and he really ran the team. I ran the design division, essentially.
Ismail: Now you’re in charge of a design team.
Greene: Oh, no. My own team, my own studios now. Special projects is essentially our own studio where we get to do the products we want to.
Ismail: But when you first joined….
Greene: I had maybe four people, a five-person team in those early days? It was small. We just looked at ArmA III and figured out how the loot worked, the basic logic of it, the circle timings and sizes. We made that, did that.
Ismail: You were re-creating the mod as a stand-alone?
Greene: Essentially, yes. That was the aim at the start, to just replicate it and see how it played. Now it’s been tweaked and balanced many of times. We have a whole division for that now.
Ismail: We made game called Luftrausers, which was an airplane dogfighting game. We went back and remade it later. We made it a rule not to look at the original code or game while we were doing that, because our memory of the original game was a lot — were you keeping them side-by-side, or were you trying to just re-create a feeling at that point?
Greene: It was just the logic of it. It was the way that the loot system worked. As I was saying with the circles, it was just that the rough scaling should be the same. The timings we worked out a bit later, but we had — it was more the logic of it, getting the feel of what it was like in ArmA.
We made a slightly shorter round. I was watching the first trailer for DayZ Battle Royale, and it was 90-minute rounds. It was an hour and a half of battle royale, because that had way more survival elements, that kind of thing. We discussed — we wanted to make it 30 minutes, and we thought about 35 or pushing it to 40. But that’s a nice time for me.
Ismail: Now you had that, and I guess that’s where it released, right?
Greene: We worked our asses off for nine-ish months. Korean devs, my God. I was in at 9AM and leaving at midnight most days for about nine months. It was tough. But we always said — I was almost hesitant to go into early access, but if you do, you’re immediately asked a set of questions. I wanted to make sure that the game was solid. CH agreed. We had lots of beta tests beforehand, closed tests.
When we launched in early access, I was really happy, because the week before, the final round of beta tests, I was watching a few streamers. They were playing full rounds and having fun. The game looked a bit like ass, but there were no bugs. Everything was working. I mean, there were bugs, obviously, but nothing game-breaking at all. People were having fun. Rounds were happening. Okay, it’s going to work.
Ismail: And the bugs that showed up were fun, too.
Greene: Oh, yeah. Bugs make great YouTube videos.
Ismail: This is kind of where’s blowing up, I guess?
Greene: I thought we’d do well. I told the management team that I thought maybe we’d sell a million copies. That’s what I was hoping for. They were aiming for 5 million. We passed that in the first few weeks, I think. I can’t remember exactly, but it was stupid. But that took us all by surprise. It helped, because it went so big so quickly that it didn’t even sink in. It still hasn’t.
Ismail: I can imagine. It’s like pushing the mine cart on the roller coaster and you run after it and jump in at the bottom.
Greene: The mobile game is past 400 million downloads.
Ismail: Yeah. That’s not a real number. It doesn’t make sense.
Greene: It caused problems for us, of course. We were 30 or 35 people. A game that had — back then we reached a peak of, what, 3.2 million players? Our server system was designed to cope with a million CCUs, because we thought, “No way we’ll hit a million. That’s more than DOTA.” We had to rewrite the server. We had so much to patch up. And then growing — I don’t envy CH and his work over the past — I had to go on the road and do the traveling and be the PR face of the game. He had to build the company, build it worldwide. It wasn’t just one region. It was global.
Ismail: Is this terrifying at any point, or were you just locking on to your vision? Okay, I know what I’m making. I’ll just focus on that. Because now there’s millions of people telling you what’s wrong with the game, what could be better about the game. This is how the maps should be. This is how the loot should be.
Greene: The community is very vocal. They tell us what they like and don’t like. But because we’ve been working with them from way back, we have a good — almost community ambassadors. A lot of the community have now joined the team as moderators and community managers. We have this really good system of trusted people that we consult and get feedback from. They give us feedback about the community’s feeling. We have very detailed breakdowns from regions now.
In those early days it was just a lot. But again, we had a pure vision. And yes, we listened to what people said about bugs and stuff, but really, the gameplay itself, we didn’t change. We had a plan for that, and we still do to an extent.
Ismail: That sounds really nice to have. I know a lot of developers are in this spot where they feel like they don’t really deserve their success or their authority.
Greene: Oh, no. I put a circle an island and kicked 48 people out of a plane. I didn’t really do much. Yes, other people loved the game. I don’t really feel like I should be giving anyone advice. I just feel incredibly lucky, more than anything else.
Ismail: But again — is that a tough thing? I don’t know any other story of a developer, recently anyway, that made a thing because making a square was too hard, so he made a circle, and then he had a development team. Being put in charge of that, was there any….
Greene: Oh, no, it’s terrifying. I have special projects now. I have a team of people I look after. I’m terrified. I’m essentially running a company now. I have no experience running a company. I’m reading as many books as I can. But again, I really believe — I can just hire smart people who know how to do that. I’m getting a project manager. I have a great research director. He has a management degree. He knows how to manage teams. Get good people and you’re fine.
But it is terrifying. I don’t have a lot — I’m five years in the industry, but really not. I have a few years of knowing how the sausage is made.
Ismail: Did it change anything about your design style?
Greene: No, no. I’m still fighting with my designers right now, because I want to do things that they don’t think are good ideas. But it’s fine, because I have a vision for what I want to do, and I think it’s going to be fun. I’m probably egotistical. That’s probably a nice term. But I see that there’s room for one ego in the company, and it’s mine. I have a pretty clear vision. Community development and everyone putting it together is great, but because of PUBG — my second album, I have to make sure it’s what I want it to be.
Ismail: No pressure.
Greene: No, no. But I’m doing the game I want to play. I have a really simple idea of what I want to make, and we’re going to see if it works. If others want to play it, great. But I’m not making this with the intention of dethroning PUBG or winning a war. I’m doing it because I think this could be cool. That’s what I want to make.
Ismail: It’s funny. I watch people talk about the collaborative development thing. I tend to tell young studios to focus on hierarchy. Make sure that’s as clear as possible. At Vlambeer technically it’s my co-founder JW who’s in charge of all the design. He’s the ego. It’s his ideas. And then I fix his problems.
Greene: I have a few people for that as well. They take my vision and then they said, “Well, we can’t do that.”
Ismail: “That’s a really good idea, but no.” I’ve found that works really well. It’s a focused way of working.
Greene: I always look at, say, Marvel, with Kevin Feige. He leads Marvel. It’s the same with J.J. Abrams and Star Wars. On Westworld you have a person at the top who has the vision. Yes, there is some collaboration with stuff, but there’s a very pure vision there that everyone follows. I think community dev is great, but if someone has a clear vision, then you should follow it.
Ismail: Especially with something that is so — PUBG is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Your brand is kind of attached to it. It makes sense. But now this new thing, your special project — are there any shifts for you as a leader in that?
Greene: Not so much? Again, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my boss. He said, “Listen. I think you’re a dreamer. I want you to have the leeway to dream.” That’s what special projects is. I have some ideas, so let’s go. It’s terrifying, because what happens if people don’t like it? Maybe I just got lucky. But I have a few games I want to make. Let’s see what happens.
Ismail: So what if you got lucky? Might as well try again. You’ve been reading business books, you said? Anything you came across where you think everybody needs to hear this?
Greene: I keep saying, especially for game dev, make a game you love. Even if no one else likes it, you love it. Don’t make games for other people. Don’t try to make a game you think other people want to play. It’s a game you want to play. If at least you have fun doing it, then someone else is going to fun.
Ismail: It’s also a lot easier to stay motivated on a project you like.
Greene: I was on stage at E3 in the Coliseum with the creator of Coma, and the mobile game with the infinite skiing thing. Alto’s Adventure. I love it. I was on stage talking about narrative in games. Coma, he’s spent four years doing this game by himself. It’s a masterpiece. It’s beautiful. But that’s it. You have to have that kind of passion to — this is an idea I have. That was what I did with Battle Royale. This was a game I wanted to play.
Ismail: It also makes doing press and marketing a lot easier if you’re not having to fake excitement for a game. You like the game.
Greene: It makes it so much easier. [laughs] I love this, why don’t you?
Ismail: It’s a good way of selling it. Like your studio. “We make well-made games.” I need to copy that pitch. It’s a very good pitch.
Greene: I always compare — I’m very conscious that anything I want to make, I really want to take care to make it the best product possible. I sometimes say it’s like, if you bought an iPhone that has as many bugs as a game, you probably wouldn’t buy another iPhone. I want to put effort into make sure that anything we make is made well. I want to continue that idea that if you’re buying something from me, if I’m giving something to you, it’s as good as I can make it. It might take some extra time, but….
Ismail: From your point of view — would it be fair to say that your takeaway in your two and a half years, three years in the games industry is to let smart people do what they do, and you do what you love?
Greene: Yeah, I think so. Even with the team I have, if they need anything, I buy it. That fancy Wacom tablet, or something bigger to use — I got them all sound-canceling headphones, because we had this idea of an open-plan office. It gives them a quiet space to work in. These things are just making sure — if they know how to do something, you make sure they can do it with all the ease they can. You have to look after your knowledge.
Ismail: Now, with your second album, are you terrified this time?
Greene: I’m not thinking about it like that. I don’t care about selling. I should care, but — I have an idea. Again, it’s something where I want to see if I can make it first. I think we can. But that’s why we have a bit of runway to just do some research and see what we can come up with. We’ve already done some pretty cool stuff internally. They say that if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. I’m in the right room. I grasp the words they’re using. But it’s fun. We’re doing some cool stuff.
If there are any senior-level animators out there, please, say hi. Game designers as well. Systems designers, specifically. That shouldn’t give too much away? I’m easy to find, even growing a beard to hide myself a little.
Ismail: You can’t hide on Twitter. You can’t grow a Twitter profile beard. It doesn’t work. I had one more thing I wanted to ask about, I guess more a personal curiosity. It would be fair to say that PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was a huge stepping stone in a genre. It was not the start of the genre.
Greene: Oh, God, no.
Ismail: And it was a not the end of the genre. It was a moment in the history of it. After it — have you been playing some of those?
Greene: I watch a lot. I don’t play so much. But I love what Apex did. I think they just — they understood the concept and made it interesting and new. I love when someone takes the battle royale game mode and puts their own spin on it.
Ismail: Because that’s what you did.
Greene: Yeah, yeah. It’s like Spellbound. I still love that, a hack and slash forerunner to battle royale. It’s such a simple concept, but you can throw so many games out of it. I think people are getting a bit tired of it right now, but that comes from any game, if it’s too much.
Ismail: Too much of the same thing.
Greene: But I still think there’s so much space for interesting stuff to be done in it.
Ismail: I think Apex really got the flow similar to you, the speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down. To me, the signature of PUBG is that escalation and de-escalation that happens throughout a round.
Greene: You have to give people room to breathe. PUBG is a horror game dressed up as a shooter. You need to give them those dips of, okay, I’m safe. And then you hear a gunshot. No, I’m not safe.
Ismail: Or you’re dead, so you’re definitely not safe. That’s my experience 90 percent of the time. I’m not very good at PUBG.
Greene: No, no. I can get in top three, top five easily, by finding bushes and hiding. But any time I need to fire my gun, I just — yeah.
Ismail: That’s my strategy. How did you figure that out? That must have also been really odd, watching the tale of PUBG and what’s happening now.
Greene: I love what they’ve done. It took us a year to get — we went from 30 to 400-plus in a year, which will break most companies. It’s a credit to our CEO. He’s not afraid of changing the organization. We’ve gone through two or three changes internally just to try to find the best way so we can be innovative and still move forward, still iterate.
We have a good system now internally that you’re starting to see now. We’re getting quite regular updates, good updates out. It’s starting to get into a nice flow. I’m very happy with the direction we’re going. It’s in good hands. Our new production director, he was our lead artist at the start. He just loves the game.
Ismail: Is this a growing up in public kind of thing, as a company?
Greene: Oh, yeah. We made mistakes. They were laid bare in front of everyone. But we grew. I think we’ve learned a lot over the last few years. We’re stronger for it. We’ve now settled into a nice flow. As I said, the mobile game is 400 million downloads. It’s a credit to the team. I have the vision, but it’s the team. The team — the reason I’m sitting here is because of an amazing team and the hard work they put in. I get to do this, and they get to work. I can’t thank them enough. I always do.
Question: You said you spend a lot of energy consulting on different projects. How much energy do you have to spend on the project you want to make?
Greene: No, no, I make sure I take time off. I work hard, but I still — I take my weekends off. I make sure I take my vacation. I can just walk out the door and leave it there. That said, when I’m on vacation I’m still looking at stuff.
It’s funny. When I first met my CEO, he said he just constantly thought about the game. At home, his girlfriend at the time was told, “I’m going to be thinking about the game for the next 12 months. Deal with it.” I’ve found now with this new project, because of what I want to do — there’s a dream there. I can go on vacation. I probably will burn myself out. But taking time off is the most important thing. Don’t overwork yourself.
Ismail: It’s hard not to. It’s important that you’re trying to control it. Not being aware of it is dangerous to developers. I’ve seen a lot of my friends burn themselves out.
Greene: I did it — in total, for two years, I worked 14-hour days, easily, for a long time. I’m 43 now. Even with my new company I have that aim of, I want them to work four days a week and have a day to do whatever they want. To get there we’re going to have to work hard, but that’s the aim. You want people to be happy.
Question: We’ve heard about the recent revelations regarding crunch hours at Epic on Fortnite. The team seemed to have been overwhelmed by this. What do you anticipate if you end up having to deal with a situation like this?
Greene: It’s about planning. I have a fantastic project manager. We’re on a set of processes and systems now to make sure that — I’ve learned a lot from PUBG, seeing where those bottlenecks end up, seeing where those points are. You can plan for it and say, “No, hang on.” We can make sure we don’t ever reach that point. We’re going to make sure there are processes there that work.
Question: How do you convince people to play your game? Do you have a strategy for getting new players into it?
Greene: Again, we’re lucky, but when I first made the mod, I made sure I reached out to — streamers started playing the game, because one or two got it. But it’s more about reaching out to a community and building a small community. Being active on forums. Just getting out there and having conversations. On Twitch, for example, you just go in and talk to people in chats and make friends. They see what you’re doing. Suddenly you have 10 people watching your dev stream. It’s about interacting, I think. That’s how you get people.
Ismail: What did you say? It’s less about making a community and more about finding where they are and talking to them.
Greene: Yeah, yeah. Really, you have to go hunting. If you’re making a game, there’s someone out there that’s going to love it.
Ismail: For a lot of smaller developers, when you make your game, if it’s your first game, your community tends to be small.
Greene: For the original Battle Royale mod for DayZ, I think it was 600 people. Maybe that. That grew to tens of thousands on ArmA, and then went up from there. But I just always made sure — if streamers needed a server for an event, they had it. I was always very open with the community if they wanted something.
I was very strict with the community. Homophobic and racial slurs, you got banned. We had a Reddit for ban appeals from people who would come in and say, “What? It’s the internet!” No, this is my house. You play by my rules. But it’s about having a community where you’re helping them, and they’ll help you. If you set something up, they’ll be your best ambassadors.
Ismail: A community grows. Sometimes slowly and sometimes really rapidly. But I think the trick for — game over game, every game you make, you should make sure you protect the community you have and try to grow it. That’s the best strategy in general, for independent developers at least.
Question: With the rise of hacking and things like that in your game as it became more successful, what was your strategy as a studio for trying to deal with that?
Greene: With hacking it’s a constant battle. Hackers are some of the smartest people, I swear to God. The way they think about getting into your game is just — again, we have very smart people as well. It’s about building these systems over time. Especially with a game like ours, where you have a lot of statistics, you can use those to build profiles. There’s a lot you can do, but it’s a long battle. It’s neverending. Once you close one loophole they’ll find another.
Ismail: Didn’t you have a chat with one of them?
Greene: I had a friend who used to sell hacks and stuff. Just the way he saw it was fascinating. It really was. Most of them, by the way, do it for money. The hacking industry is a million-dollar industry, easily. Especially in China. People are paying $1,000 or even $10,000 a month for a hack, for some games. It’s stupid money. All to be — especially with the hacks, you’re maybe 10 percent better, or even one percent better. It’s crazy. Just get good!
Question: You talked about having to face a lot of criticism about your decisions. A lot of your community was against the red zone, for example, even a lot of streamers. In the end you decided to stay with it. How do you face that kind of feedback when you’re developing a game?
Greene: Trolling Reddit helps. But no, really, the red zone to me has a reason to be in the game. Yes, people might criticize and hate it, usually because they’ve died to it. Again, hello Reddit. But we have reasons we have these things in the game. It looks cool, but it also provides audio and visual cover. People may not like it. One of the things is finding the balance of the feedback where they want the game better for them, and then the feedback where they want the game better for everyone. You have to find that balance.
We listen to the criticism, but sometimes we will just go ahead and ignore it, because we have our vision for how we want the game to be. I was asked this question — I think it was at one of the panels at GDC. They asked, “Who owns the game?” Is it me or is it the community? It’s me. You enjoy playing the game and we love your feedback, but ultimately it has to be our vision, or else you end up with a camel when you’re trying to make a horse. You have to be careful about dealing with that feedback and trying to ensure the vision stays relatively pure.
Ismail: In Nuclear Throne we have 12 different characters with 12 different skill sets. Our internal rule is that if people are complaining about all of them, we did a good job. If they only complain about a few, it means that everyone else is happy with being OP, and we don’t want that. That was our internal — if everyone is yelling at us, we’re probably doing something right.
Greene: In ArmA II and DayZ battle royale, I had zombies. If people complained there were too many zombies, I’d add more zombies. People want the game to be easier for them, for the most part. But that’s where we’re lucky. We have a good community where they understand that, and they also understand that they want the game better for everyone. We’re lucky to have them.
Question: In the course of growing up to 400 people, did you have a process laid down for hiring new people?
Greene: Internally we do. We have our three director-level people, and they basically run whatever department we’re hiring into, and then we have HR. I have just one guy on the staff where he’s just great. He’s very detailed. He knows how to run an interview and really go through someone’s CV and pick out little things.
But more than anything it’s about finding those people that are passionate for the game. We’ve turned down a lot of CVs because they don’t seem super interested. Or it’s just another job. They’re just looking for a pay raise. It’s trying to weed that out. You can usually get that from a person in an interview. If you have someone good that can handle people — we have a great HR person who can get a read on someone very well.
Ismail: Have you ever done interviews?
Greene: I’ve done a few, but I’m not very good. I don’t mind doing them. I usually give the vision. But I don’t know enough about interviewing to do it well, so I offset that to someone else. We hire the right people to do that.
Question: What was your motivation to go back and do the FIX PUBG project?
Greene: Originally it was just — we wanted to do something like Operation Health, where we wanted to spend some time and fix some of the core issues of the game. I think we got a lot done. We didn’t get everything we wanted done. But even just calling it FIX PUBG — there was nothing really wrong with the game. Yes, it had bugs, because all games do. But we wanted to improve it. That was just — we were genuinely trying to fix the game. That’s neverending, especially with an online service. It’s always going to continue. The thought was to fix the game. But this year we’ve done a better of job, beyond just that campaign.
Ismail: A lot of that is processes in the background, I assume.
Greene: As I said, we’re global. We have offices in Santa Monica, Saratoga, Wisconsin, Singapore, Amsterdam, Tokyo, all over the place. Everyone has an opinion. It’s setting up those processes so everyone gets to have an opinion and we have a clear vision in the end.
Disclosure: The organizers of Gamelab paid my way to Barcelona. Our coverage remains objective.