How It's Made - How Brendan Greene and PUBG revolutionized gaming

PUBG Corp.

"Blackrock City, May 23rd, 2021," the stained piece of paper read.

"It is now 5 years after the outbreak was stopped and some semblance of civilization is getting back on its feet. Even though there are still many infected zones and though whole cities were lost, new centres of community have begun to spring up in the most unlikely of places, helped in large part by the common struggle we all endured. But there are also whispers of darker places, places where some madness still exists."

Taped to the bottom of paper were three pictures of a mysterious island.

"One of these on an island named 'Isola Di Caprais' but those who know this place it by another, 'Battle Royale.'"

A picture of this computer-generated poster was uploaded to Reddit, by an user named PlayerUnknown, who at the time had spoken to Arma 2 and DayZ mod community members about a new idea he had for that game. "Hunger Games," he thought he'd call it -- but immediately, with the film of the widely-popular teen fiction novel set to release soon, thought otherwise. He'd probably get sued. So instead, PlayerUnknown tapped into another film name: "Battle Royale," a 2000 Japanese dystopian action film that saw participants fight to the death.

When PlayerUnknown, real name Brendan Greene, posted the poster, the reception was overwhelming.

Over the past year DayZ had become very popular among those who played Arma 2, an open-world military simulation game released in 2009 that allowed for users to create their own servers and game modes. DayZ put players in a beaten-up world, where they had to scavenge for supplies and weapons and stave off hordes of zombies. Eventually several large community figures would host the Survivor GameZ, a free-for-all, last-man-standing deathmatch event on DayZ, but only select competitors could enter. A man of the people, PlayerUnknown had his own twist -- and wanted to let everyone play.

At the time Greene worked as a DJ and photographed events while living in Brazil, trying to make ends meet following a split from his wife. An Irishman living abroad with very little programming skill, Greene worked as a web designer, but not a developer, on a few different projects here and there. He had played games before, but when he stumbled across DayZ, he became enamored. He immediately wanted to dive right in.

So when he released his first mod, called DayZCherno+, and then his second, Battle Royale, he wanted to build games he would enjoy and thought others might too.

"That's where it began I guess," Greene said. "And why I wanted to do it, because of me wanting to play a game basically."

Battle Royale released to modest fame among the Arma and DayZ communities, with anywhere from 600 to 800 players giving the game a shot in the beginning. But for Greene, a novice programmer and software engineer, the upkeep of running servers for the game was more or less a full-time job. Eventually relocating back to Ireland and moving back in with his parents, Greene felt he was onto something -- but he was crunched for time, receiving welfare benefits from the government and just trying to crack through with Battle Royale.

In a series of events throughout 2013 to 2015, Greene would be recruited to consult for Sony Online Entertainment, later known as Daybreak Games, as they built their own take on the battle royale genre -- H1Z1: King of the Kill. Daybreak developer Adam "Arclegger" Clegg stumbled across the initial Battle Royale Arma mod while watching a Twitch stream from Saqib "Lirik" Zahid, now one of the website's most popular streamers, and decided he'd reach out to Greene. King of the Kill would release in early 2016 to significant hype, becoming a top game on Twitch in its first year with streamers like Lirik, Tyler "Ninja" Blevins and others giving it a go.

But if you recognize Greene's gamertag, that wouldn't be because of King of the Kill. That'd be because of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, the true successor to the Battle Royale mod and his wholly-overseen game, rather than one he provided feedback for. When it was released in early 2017, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds became the most popular game on Steam, the most-trafficked PC gaming platform in the Western world. PUBG, as it would become known as, would also spawn inspiration for other titles, too, from AAA developers around the world.

From PUBG came Fortnite, the most popular mainstream game in North America and Europe that made nearly $300 million in revenues in April 2018. Then there was Blackout, Call of Duty Black Ops 4's take on the battle royale, followed by Warzone, a part of the 2019 release Modern Warfare. EA threw their hat in the ring, too, releasing Apex Legends -- a battle royale with abilities and lore associated with Titanfall. Many other games have tried their hands at battle royale too, but none nearly as successful as PUBG, Fortnite, Call of Duty and Apex.

It's crazy to think, the formula for success came from an Irish DJ and event photographer, with almost no programming experience, who just wanted to make a game he would enjoy.

Shortly before King of the Kill released in 2016, Greene received a message from Changhan (C.H.) Kim, who led Ginno Games, a South Korean studio owned by Bluehole. For years Kim -- a fan of the "Battle Royale" movie -- wanted to create a game like PUBG. He saw King of the Kill and interviews Greene had done around the release of the game. He then looked into the Arma mod that Greene chopped together with community members. Clearly, Greene had ideas, but needed a well-oiled machine behind him to execute.

King of the Kill's success netted generous consulting fees for Greene, allowing him to get off of Irish welfare and back onto his feet, with his own apartment and a more stable lifestyle. But that was it, he thought -- he'd gone back to servicing the Battle Royale mod, now ported to Arma 3, and began developing another called "Iron Forge." He figured that would be the end of it, as setting up his own studio and learning the ins-and-outs of Unreal Engine or Unity -- the two most popular open-source game engines -- seemed daunting. But then he got Kim's message, asking if he'd come to South Korea for a few days of meetings.

Greene would fly from Ireland to South Korea the day before his 40th birthday. "I spent my 40th birthday with a load of people I didn't know -- it was wonderful," he said.

Upon arriving, he was welcomed with open arms at Bluehole, meeting extensively with Kim, the Ginno Games team and Bluehole's top executives. To his surprise, Ginno Games already had a battle royale prototype working, but Greene hadn't yet reached an agreement to come on board. He'd return to Ireland and wait.

A month later, Greene got another message from South Korea. Kim and the Bluehole executives agreed: they wanted Greene to move across the world and start overseeing what would ultimately become PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds.

"Originally they had some crazy ideas about how we got to battle royale modes kind of stuff," Greene said. "They were cool ideas, but let's bring it back, pair it back with the realism we have in PUBG. But they already had some sort of prototype built. There was a concept there and it took us two, three months of work from when I started to get something we could start playtesting. It was a very, very quick development process. I've never met a team that worked harder, basically."

Unlike King of the Kill where Greene had very real creative control -- ultimately just feeding his ideas and thoughts to a design and development team that would implement things how they wanted anyway -- Ginno Games became his playground. When a staff member disagreed with Greene on part of the game philosophy, Kim stood up for Greene. "This will work," Kim told his employee. "Trust him."

Within six months, Ginno Games were running internal playtests amid Bluehole's 500-or-so employees. Greene finally had the support to make something of his own, no longer using Arma or DayZ's character models, weapons, vehicles, etc. With Kim and Bluehole's full backing, he felt, for the first time in a while, that they were onto something big.

The task of making PUBG was monumental, though, as very few games run 100 players on the same server. That's usually a feat reserved for MMORPGs -- coincidentally, or maybe not, the genre that Kim developed prior to discovering King of the Kill and recruiting Greene. Yet throwing that many players in a game, in a small world, was difficult. It required incredibly good netcode -- something PUBG struggled with at launch (it's much better now, three years after early access launch) -- as well as pristine load management.

Then, it was time, PUBG would launch in February 2017.

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"We grew at such a fast rate at the start that it sort of caught everyone off guard," Greene said. "Our server system was set up to handle a peak of one million [concurrent users], because that's more than Dota gets and there's no way we're getting that.

"Six months later we were at 3.2 million and we had to rewrite our server backend because it wasn't supporting that kind of player base. There were hiccups, like we ran out of servers in Asia, like physical servers, there were no more servers available for us to use during that stage in our peak. These are the kind of problems you hate to have but you still are kind of going, 'oh my god. What a great problem to have.'"

PUBG quickly became a major part of the gaming zeitgeist, reaching the top of Steam's charts and ranking as one of the most popular games in PC cafés in South Korea. In North Carolina, it would inspire a set of developers at Epic Games, the studio once responsible for Gears of War, who had been working on "Fortnite: Save the World." Upon seeing the PUBG phenomen, the Fortnite team began building a battle royale of their own.

Fortnite reached heights that no other game had, not even Minecraft at the peak of its popularity nearly a decade ago -- ask any parent of anyone under 25. Ninja, a former Halo player who got in on Fortnite early, would catapult to be a cultural icon and eventually ended up on "Ellen" to play the game with the morning show host.

"When I started making mods in DayZ or in Arma, six, seven years ago, I never thought battle royale would be featured on "Ellen"," Greene said.

But even though Fortnite stole the spotlight, PUBG found its own unique home too. Today the game is the third-highest played game on Steam, with more than 450,000 concurrent users as of Thursday morning, and when it launched on mobile, it exploded even more. The game is massive in China, a market that Fortnite hasn't penetrated as much. More than 600 million people have downloaded PUBG Mobile worldwide.

On Thursday Kim was named the CEO of Krafton Game Union, formerly known as Bluehole, which is the parent of PUBG Corp (formerly Ginno Games). Greene, meanwhile, now has his own studio in Amsterdam, where he's working on new projects -- one entitled "Prologue," revealed at The Game Awards in December -- with the backing of PUBG Corp and the Krafton company. He achieved the feat that once seemed so scary to him.

For Greene, he's happy. His daughter is secure. Unlike most successful developers, he's not one to flaunt his wealth or his success -- when asked about how his life has changed after PUBG, he mentions that he has a garden now. To him, he's just living a normal life, in the Netherlands, doing what he loves: making games.

"For me, the best experience was meeting people, letters I'd get and meeting people at conventions who are like, 'me and my friends hang out again because of your game,'" he said. "This kind of stuff is really quite touching. That's what I take away from all of this."