How PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds went from scrappy mod to one of the games of 2017

By Alex Donaldson, Tuesday, 27 June 2017 15:35 GMT

The boss of all things Battlegrounds talks shop.

playerunknown's battlegrounds

E3 was a great topper to a pretty damn momentus first half the year for the developers of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. In February practically nobody had heard of the game. In March it debuted on Steam Early Access and went on to sell over 4 million copies and pass $100 million in revenue. This is a game that isn’t even technically officially out yet.

At E3, Brendan ‘PlayerUnknown’ Greene took to the stage at the Microsoft conference to announce Battlegrounds would be making its way to Xbox One. He’s the face of the game, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that behind Greene is a Korean developer: Bluehole. Bluehole pitched Greene on a stand-alone Battle Royale game based on ideas expressed in his successful mods, and Greene moved to Korea to oversee development of the game that became Battlegrounds.

In the aftermath of the Xbox announcement we sat down with Chang Han Kim, executive producer of Battlegrounds and the man who originally made the call to open communications with the popular Irish modder of ARMA 3 and DayZ. Our chat covered the Xbox exclusivity, the future of the game, and what happens once they finally hit 1.0.

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“We definitely do have plans and thoughts about other platforms … Xbox has a game preview program which they’ve been running very successfully for about two years – and so that’s why we wanted to try a similar approach to PC but on Xbox.”

VG247: Well… given what the last few days have been about for you, I wanted to start by talking about the timing of what you’re doing on Xbox versus potential other platforms later. Are you a hard Xbox console exclusive for the foreseeable, or are you considering other platforms?

Chang Han Kim: So, we definitely do have plans and thoughts about other platforms… but at the same time, we’re still an early access game. Our mentality and direction has always been to receive as much feedback as possible from our community and iterate based off that. We want to take the same approach with our console user base as well.

We want to take their feedback and make the game evolve based on that feedback. Xbox has a game preview program which they’ve been running very successfully for about two years – and so that’s why we wanted to try a similar approach to PC but on Xbox.

Would it be right to think that your decision to go with Xbox first was influenced heavily by it having an early access program?

Xbox did have the game preview program running – and that was something we wanted to do in our approach to game development, so that did play a factor.

Okay, now we’ve gotten that out of the way – the last few months have been explosive for you guys. Did you anticipate this success? From my perspective it came out of nowhere – did you guys feel before you started that you had something this hot on your hands?

No, we couldn’t have! [laughs] We definitely couldn’t have expected this amount of success. During the course of development we ended up having about… our external testing was over the course of about ten weekends. We mostly conducted our testing with hardcore fans of the Battle Royale genre – streamers from Twitch and things. We saw that the game was improving based off those iterations and the number of tests that we did and the feedback we got from our testers. We saw the response to the game slowly coming up as we conducted the tests. We did think that we might be able to satisfy the fans of this genre to a certain degree, but not to this level of success. Like you said, we didn’t do any advertisements externally, we didn’t spend a lot of money on promoting it… so yeah, we couldn’t have expected this amount of success.

Especially since we’re an early access game. We thought we’d start selling the game just to receive feedback from the early purchasers, and once we go 1.0 people would only then recognize our game and start buying it. That was our expectation. Even at this early stage, so many people are buying right now. As a result, there are a lot of instabilities and the like too – so that’s another focus that we have, taking care of those.

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When I’ve mentioned to people I was doing a Battlegrounds interview, people assumed I’d be talking to PlayerUnknown. People tend to forget this is also coming from a Korean company. So I’m curious about the partnership between you guys and PlayerUnknown – there’s a cultural distance, there was a physical distance… how did that partnership come about, and how has it been building?

Korea has always had a strength in the online games space. At the end of the day, we view this game as a section-based online game. So we thought we could have the competitive edge from a development skill perspective. From a global market perspective, I’d always thought that the last man standing, battle royale type of experience could really have a shot at making it big. As the executive producer during my process of coming up with the proposal for this project I’d found out that there was this guy called PlayerUnknown who’d been doing this for years as a modder.

I reached out to him and we started talking. Although we had a very long distance in between us we just talked a lot, and ended up talking about the vision of this battle royale experience. In the end we learned that we had a lot in common. PlayerUnknown was just an individual doing all of this by himself, so he needed a dev team. For our dev team, we needed the originality from PlayerUnknown – we had to learn from his past experiences. That’s why we decided to partner together.

As far as cultural differences and language barriers… I get the question all the time, even in Korea. At the end of the day though, if you think about it… if you get a bunch of creative people together the nationality differences don’t really matter. It’s always going to be difficult! [laughs] Even in the same culture. So managing the team well was extremely important. We had to go through a lot of discussions and arguments to put everything together.

When the team was working with PlayerUnknown and we had some arguments and heated discussions, people were having difficult times but we didn’t think it was because of the cultural differences. Making a game is just difficult by itself!

“I think that it’s important we don’t just try to attach lots of numbers of different systems like many games do.”

This is a really pure, simple experience. It’s bare bones, but that’s part of the appeal. What’s your vision and idea for expanding the game without compromising the simplicity at its core?

Since day one our philosophy and mentality has been not to predefine our future and work towards that. We’re still sticking to the thought of receiving a lot of feedback from our players and will evolve from that. We’re not going to just set a direction and keep pushing towards it.

Another very unique strength that we have is that it’s such a watchable game. Playing Battlegrounds is very fun, but it’s also very fun to watch. We’d like to also enhance on that specific facet based on the feedback that we get from the community.

The pure Battle Royale experience itself will be there, but a lot of experiments on the gameplay itself will be done on our custom games feature. We feel like one of the reasons behind the big success we’re experiencing right now is… Well, you expressed it as being bare bones and pure, right? What we actually focused on is to focus down on the simple, core gameplay. That itself was enough to lure a lot of players to our game.

I think that it’s important we don’t just try to attach lots of numbers of different systems like many games do. Even moving forward I don’t plan for us to add a lot of new stuff. Instead, our focus will be on the core gameplay.

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Speaking of watchability – how much has your development shifted to accommodate that? Are you planning a lot of partnerships or adjustments to lean into that side of the game’s success?

When it comes to spectator mode we already provide a very bare-bones form of it, and we’re monitoring the response from people using it right now to further improve it. We do have plans to further improve it based off our 3D replay system too. That’s in the works already.

When it comes to interacting with the viewers, we have a lot of people from Twitch and other places talking about the interactions we need from viewers. Much like the movie Hunger Games where viewers have the ability to impact the game. We’re still thinking about it – it’s not that high of a priority for us at this point. Before we launch and get out of early access it’s important for us to focus on the specific details of the game to improve it.

What I mean by specific details is… well, we’re introducing vaulting and climbing, making changes to the basic action system. This will yield a change to gameplay styles. When you’re able to climb over places and walls that you weren’t before, it’ll bring changes to the gameplay and how the game is played. If we test it out sufficiently and make a good version of that, we do anticipate the battle royale gameplay to become more diverse over time.

Cross network play between the PC and the console is definitely something we want to do down the road.”

With console development now underway, do you see a future where cross-platform play is on the table for Battlegrounds?

Cross network play between the PC and the console is definitely something we want to do down the road, and we don’t anticipate we’ll have any technical issues with that.

But… when you consider the competitive side of the game, I do feel that there’s a balance issue between controllers and keyboard and mouse. That’s what’s making it difficult for us to do right away. If we’re going to allow players to use controllers we need to have the aim assist added in and things like that. We’re not going to be supporting it right away, but it’s something we’d like to look into later.

Okay, let’s finish by skipping ahead. Battlegrounds 1.0 is out and released – what’s next? Do you see your update cadence remaining as frequent as it is in early access, slowing down, or something else?

Although our business model is that of a paid, premium package game, essentially this is just an online game. Online games consistently update new content and provide it as a service, not just a one-time thing. Regardless of us being early access or 1.0 consistent content updates will definitely be made to it as an online game. Us getting out of early access and getting into 1.0 won’t mean we’ve wrapped up content. We’ll have more content coming in at all times.

First we want to make sure the basic product plays well, plays stable, and is optimized. Once we feel like we have a complete version of that, that’s our standard of getting out of early access and into 1.0, but contents will keep getting added afterwards.

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