In the most-talked-about video game of the last several weeks, 100 players are loaded into a cargo plane. As it circles above a large island, players can choose where to drop out. After the players touch down, they have to scrounge for weapons, ammo, and armor in abandoned houses — hoping to remain alive until a ticker in the top-right corner clicks down to one. The game is called PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds; it’s five weeks old, costs $30, and, technically, isn’t even finished. And — despite a release with no major marketing campaign or PR push — at any moment, 100,000 people are running it.
It’s tough to overstate how wildly successful Battlegrounds has been, especially given how different its path to consumers’ hands has been. The game’s developer, Bluehole, sold 2 million copies in just five weeks on Steam’s Early Access, a section of the marketplace where game-makers can sell in-development versions of games at a discount, letting players buy in before it’s actually finished and help fund further development. Minecraft, one of the most successful video games ever made, popularized the business model, but offering half-finished games is an obvious gamble. “I was really concerned about doing Early Access, because there have been so many titles in Early Access that it was almost like a poison pill,” PlayerUnknown, in real life an Irish game designer known as Brendan Greene, told me.
In this case, it paid off. Back-of-the-envelope math shows that the game, sold at $30 a pop, has brought in more than $60 million (Greene said that the initial version of the game was made by a staff of 30 to 40 people within Bluehole’s 500-plus staff), and the game has remained near the top of Steam’s sales charts since launch. In terms of concurrent players on Steam — a measurement of how many people are playing the game at a given moment — it usually lags behind only Counter-Strike: GO and Dota 2, both of which have half-decade head starts, and millions of dollars of marketing and eSports money behind them.
Battlegrounds is a “battle royale” game, a genre inspired by the Japanese film Battle Royale, which follows a group of schoolchildren trapped on an island and forced to fight to the death until only one remains. Greene is essentially the creator of the genre, and his popular battle-royale mods (modified game files) for extant games like Arma 2 and H1Z1 cemented him as its leading light. They also caught the eye of Korean development studio Bluehole.
“Chang-han Kim, the executive producer from Bluehole, contacted me with his idea for a battle-royale game, synced very much with what I wanted to do,” Greene said. “I went out, met them. He said, ‘We’ll make a game in a year.’ I didn’t quite believe him, but he proved me wrong.” Since then, Greene’s been traveling to South Korea on a regular basis; he was in the throes of jet lag when we spoke. “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” was chosen for the name because it wasn’t copyrighted, and Greene liked the anonymity of his handle. “I like going to conventions and not being known,” he said when we spoke. “I introduce myself as, ‘Hi, I’m Brendan.’ Then I’ll hear people talking at our booth like, ‘PlayerUnknown this’ and ‘PlayerUnknown that,’ and I’m just like, ‘I’m sure he’s a lovely guy.’”
As a game, Battlegrounds is fairly simple — a smartly designed, well-made combination of shooter and survival simulator. As a phenomenon, though, it’s fascinating. Video games are a multi-billion-dollar industry; major titles are released with marketing budgets and campaigns that rival Hollywood movies. Battlegrounds somehow managed to skirt this entire process: It didn’t release a barrage of trailers, trickling out minor details over the course of months, nor did it leak details, nor give access to a gaming news site for a major prerelease feature. Rather than games journalists, much of its momentum came from big streamers — pro and semipro gamers who stream their lengthy game-playing sessions online, usually on Amazon’s Twitch service — like Lirik, a 26-year-old American with 1.6 million Twitch followers; it reached and has retained a position near the top of Twitch’s list of the most-streamed games since release, standing alongside major blockbuster titles like League of Legends and Hearthstone.
Battlegrounds’ success was “rooted in several factors,” Twitch’s Jason Maestas, senior director of partnerships, North America, told me. “The fanbase was already in place,” thanks to PlayerUnknown’s previous popular mods, for one. But, just as significantly, “their team has done a phenomenal job of getting the game into the hands of many of popular Twitch content creators” — according to Twitch’s data, “essentially every major variety and FPS streamer” is playing it.
That word-of-mouth distribution method, which can bring in millions in revenue without a traditional PR blitz, represents a dramatic shift in how games are sold, and how they are played. From one standpoint, it’s meritocratic, and it’s easy to sense the waning market influence of traditional gaming publications. Personal brands and one-man (or woman) media operations can now move the needle in ways unimaginable even five years ago. This can give smaller developers, who don’t have marketing or PR budgets, a chance to shine. At the same time, the feedback loop between developers and the people who play their games most prominently and obsessively lets developers make tweaks and changes that benefit their customers directly.
In fact, part of what has made Battlegrounds such a success is that the game seems, in some ways, made for streaming. “The heart and soul of battle royale — the idea of looting, then fighting with other players — is good for streamers, especially the starting part,” Greene noticed. “It’s a bit slower, gives streamers a chance to interact with their chat [audience members], and then there’s action later.” As streamers become more and more important to the video-game economy, the more a game can cater to the rhythms of streaming, the more publicity it will get.
But while streaming factors into the game, it doesn’t dictate how Greene designs it: “At the end of the day, we’re striving to make a good game. There’s no focus on one particular part of our player base.”
Greene said that Battlegrounds has a pretty aggressive six-month road map for coming out of Early Access, and then maybe gamers can see it elsewhere. Asked if he was thinking about other platforms, Greene noted, “We’d be silly not to. We want to get this out on Xbox; we want to get this out on PS4.” Maybe eSports down the road. But he wants to get it running smoothly for PCs first. Luckily, there are already millions of beta testers.