Not to state the obvious, but there’s some irony in the fact that the biggest video game of the year — maybe of the last five years — is made by a guy who calls himself PlayerUnknown. In his defense, he adopted the moniker when he was unknown. Now, Brendan Greene, an Irishman who found success cobbling together video-game mods while living in Brazil, lives in South Korea, “or whatever convention or hotel” he gets sent to, promoting Microsoft’s new Xbox console. Millions of PC gamers know his real name and spend thousands of hours playing his game — PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Today, it arrives on the Xbox One. As he put it when we met last month, “I’m now becoming PlayerLeaveMeTheFuckAlone.”
It’s going to be very hard to get fans to do that. PUBG, as it’s known to its devoted fans, has already found phenomenal success on PCs. Within six weeks of its debut, it had sold 2 million copies; as of this month, more than 24 million copies of the game have been sold. “Over 6 million have played 100 plus hours,” Greene bragged. Earlier this year, the game broke the record for most concurrent players online at the same time on Steam, PC gaming’s biggest video-game marketplace. A quarter million fans, not even playing the game, watched streamers explore a new map when it went public last week. PUBG is such a phenomenon that today’s Xbox One launch might be a bigger deal for the Xbox brand, which has lagged a step behind rival PlayStation, than it is for Greene. Now, Microsoft can claim a stake in a bona fide video-game phenomenon — one that’s not only enormously popular, but is changing the way people make and play video games.
If you saw PUBG casually, over the shoulder of someone playing it, you might be surprised that it’s reached this level of popularity. It’s not a particularly visually impressive game, and gameplay can been oddly quiet and slow. PUBG is a “battle royale” game, which means it’s one that throws dozens of players into a combat arena and forces them to fight to the death until only one remains. As the name implies, it was inspired by the Japanese film Battle Royale, though you might be more familiar with a comparison to The Hunger Games.
Every match starts the same way: A plane flies over a desolate, vaguely Eastern Bloc island. The 100 people inside the plane decide when to parachute out. Once on the ground, they scavenge for supplies — weapons, armor, backpacks, health supplies, frying pans, anything that might give them a slight edge. Shortly after this exploratory period, players are given a destination to head to on the map, and just to make sure that happens, a slowly contracting force field funnels players in the right direction (players don’t last long outside the force field).
Unlike games like Call of Duty or Halo, which place players in close proximity with plenty of firepower to waste, PUBG is a somewhat calmer experience. You spend much of the time alone (or with your handful of squad-mates), exploring abandoned buildings, and trying to find a couple of bullets. It’s a game about knowing when to choose your firefights. Do you shoot at the car driving past or do you wait behind a wall until it’s gone? You can spend minutes without seeing another soul, only to find yourself in a sudden, frantic fight to the death.
This is, obviously, a conscious decision on Greene’s part. Greene has long loved games that encourage exploring, like DayZ, a popular zombie-survival game that began as a mod for a military simulator called Arma 2. “The first time I played it, I ran around for about four hours,” he explained wistfully. “I did nothing in those four hours; I just ran around and survived, but it was the most amazing time I had in a video game, because it was just a world.”
Soon he started hacking together his own mods — homemade add-ons — for the game, creating a multiplayer mode that would grow into the PUBG juggernaut. Greene, then a DJ and photographer living in Brazil, was not a dedicated coder. His earliest versions were made of code he “begged, borrowed, and stole.”
Nevertheless, his multiplayer mod, which he released on his own site, battleroyalegames.com, was a hit among gamers, traveling through the Arma and DayZ communities. “When I first launched the DayZ battle-royale mod in Arma 2, I only had six servers. I had to restart them all and lock them all by hand, because there was no way to do that automatically,” he recalled. “I was monitoring the text chat and I’d see people saying, ‘I’ve been waiting two days to get into this.’”
DayZ eventually grew from a mod into a full product, so Greene ported the mod over to Arma 3. Soon after, Sony Online Entertainment began talks with Green about adapting his mod for their zombie game H1Z1, this time calling it “King of the Kill.”
The success of those projects brought him to the attention of Chang Han Kim, a developer at South Korean studio Bluehole. Kim told Greene that Bluehole could make his dream game, and more audaciously, that they could bring it to market in a year, an ambitious but not unheard-of turnaround time by the standards of video-game development. Greene would get a team of developers, significant creative control, and the chance to develop his ideal game from the ground up, rather than shoehorning it into someone else’s work.
In the world of video games, though, “bring it to market” doesn’t mean “finish.” Steam, the dominant PC-game marketplace, allows developers to sell games before they are deemed finished, a model popularized by the cultural phenomenon known as Minecraft. It’s a good model for game creators, like Greene, who understand the medium’s balance between art and tool, trying to make something distinct and fun without worrying about making it definitive.
The ability to offer games as developers continue to work on them represents an enormous shift in the video-game industry, a move from imagining games as individual, often physical products that must be completed and shipped to stores to conceptualizing them as living, breathing services that can be altered in response to user feedback or market conditions. There are obvious practical benefits for this, but it’s also led to cultural shifts in how gamers interact with their games. A person buying PUBG not only gets a new game, but also buys into a community and — as someone investing early in an unproven product — a tiny bit of influence in exchange for their faith. At the end of the day PUBG only survives as long as it has an active player base, and maintaining that involves allowing the audience to be heard, even if you don’t necessarily care about what they have to say — Greene is adamant about his creative control over the game.
It’s also a lucrative business model. Rather than selling players a new game each year, you might try to get them to pay for the service multiple times, a model that once only applied to persistent online games like World of Warcraft. For months, PUBG players have been spending their time on a single large map. This month, they get a second locale to explore, the desert expanse known as Miramar. The game will also add a significant upgrade to how players move, allowing them to vault over low walls and through windows, which can significantly change the game’s rhythm. Greene told me that he was thinking of adding a system for allowing certain bullets to penetrate certain materials.
After PUBG leaves Early Access and hits Steam as a finished game, paid add-ons like cosmetic player upgrades, which don’t affect player performance or ability, will be the game’s primary revenue stream after sales of the base game wane. “I’d like to see some nice suits in there, so you can John Wick it up a little,” Greene added.
It shouldn’t be a problem. Even as a game that was unfinished, PUBG saw launch numbers that would make most game publishers drool; by my back-of-the-envelope calculations, it’s earned $720 million in gross revenue — nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars — all for an unfinished game not yet available on console. “The curve is angling toward people playing a lot,” Greene says.
This is in part because PUBG is a great game. But it’s also because of another titanic shift in the video-game industry: the rise of streaming. Despite an almost complete lack of traditional marketing, PUBG exploded out of the gate on Steam thanks to it being seeded to the right influencers. Since its launch, PUBG has stayed near the top of the most-viewed game’s on Twitch, the de facto game-livestreaming service.
Video-game livestreaming is big business. PewDiePie, the most popular YouTuber, made his early mark playing video games and reacting to them in front of the camera. In 2014, Amazon bought Twitch, which started as a spinoff of Justin.tv, for a billion dollars. YouTube has a portal that mimics Twitch’s game-centric interface. Last year, Microsoft purchased Beam, a nascent Twitch competitor that has since been rebranded as Mixer.
It’s easy to see how to turn streaming into dollars. You can sell ad space on the stream itself, or you can use the streams to sell copies of the game being played, as Twitch now does. You can sell monthly subscriptions for a low fee and then also accept small tips that feel identical in form and function to Venmo-ing a friend. A good Twitch stream can be like a good sports broadcast — exciting, engaging, and maybe at the end of it, you go out and buy a basketball or the Nikes players are wearing, too.
PUBG’s developers are very clear that the game wasn’t developed with streaming in mind, but the game and the industry’s current media environment seem well-suited for each other. “I didn’t know about streaming, I didn’t watch people on YouTube, but now I realize — yes, they are kinda important,” Green said as an intentional understatement. Getting streamers loyal to PUBG gives PUBG longer legs. The long stretches of downtime between spikes in action let streamers shoot the shit with the chat before they try to shoot competitors with a crossbow.
“What is the unique player story that is created every time I jump out of the plane? There’s an opportunity for expression that is unique in the game,” Nico Bahary, an executive producer on the Xbox version, said. “Do I engage my opponent? Do I strategically hide? Do I use a sniper approach?” PUBG serves as a big sandbox for self-expression, akin to games like Grand Theft Auto, but with the stakes ratcheted up substantially. You spend a lot of time over each match building and customizing your player in solitude, only to have that wiped out by another player in most cases.
Right now, Twitch is the most dominant of these streaming services. The day after the new map, Miramar, went live on test servers last week, more than 224,000 people were watching PUBG streams on Twitch. In contrast, roughly a thousand were viewing the game on YouTube or Mixer. While nobody I spoke to at Microsoft said this outright, having PUBG as a console exclusive could provide the best boost yet to Mixer, which is baked into the heart of every Xbox One.
Streaming from a PC usually requires a Frankensteining of different apps and services, and PC gaming is generally seen as a “hardcore” market — one where those who care build custom rigs rather than opting for the ease of a one-size-fits-all console. The console market is much broader. Some customers buy a new game every week or two, some only buy that year’s Call of Duty. Earlier this year, Microsoft updated the console’s operating system to include a “broadcast” function right in the quick-access menu, making it easy to go live on Mixer in just a couple of button presses. As PUBG makes its way to a broader audience, so will streaming culture, and not far off from that is, presumably, a lot of money.
Mixer is touting a few things that it hopes brings people over. There’s co-streaming, where multiple streamers playing the same game can be watched simultaneously, like gaming’s version of NFL Red Zone, hopping between feeds depending on which has the most action. There are also hooks in the platform to let viewers find ways to interact directly with the streamers they’re watching.
PUBG’s structure is such that winning is almost beside the point — and you’ll almost always lose. That difficulty, Greene says, is “the beauty of battle royale. One in 6,000 people win their first match. You’re twice as likely to get struck by lightning. But that’s what makes it fun.” YouTube highlight reels usually focus less on victories than they do on funny stunts, antics, and impressive kill shots (and to make things easier, the game now records those moments automatically).
Those who make it to last-man-standing get a sense of pride, and a chicken dinner (the game’s results screen displays the highly meme-able catchphrase “winner, winner, chicken dinner.”). No gold, no riches, just protein. And then you start back at square one the next round — all of your weapons and resources gone. It’s a competitive shooter contest rendered as slapstick, B-grade Mad Max.
Right now, Greene is focused on refining his vision for the perfect light-dystopian military simulator. But on the horizon lurks a number of opportunities. Tencent is releasing the game to an enormous new audience in China, where it will also be available on mobile. There are already plenty of other developers working on copying the battle-royale mode for their own properties (earlier this year, Bluehole entered into a brief tiff with Epic, which released a mode literally called “Battle Royale” for their game Fortnite). And of course, there are e-sports, which Greene thinks PUBG has an easy way into. Unlike strategy games like League of Legends or Dota, which require intimate and intricate knowledge of the rules, PUBG is easy to watch. If you’re alive, you’re winning. And if you’re dead, there’s always the next round.