It’s not an exaggeration when I say PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS by Korean developer Bluehole took the gaming scene by storm. Released as an Early Access game late last week, Battlegrounds made it to number one on Steam’s Top Sellers list with 67,000 concurrent players and earned more than 11 million dollars in revenue over the weekend. Even today, the game continues to remain in the top 5 most popular games played on Twitch.
I was lucky enough to sit down with General Manager Yongwook Choi and Project Director Changhan Kim at Bluehole to discuss their journey, challenges, and future plans moving forward.
Inven: Battlegrounds is in the top 10 games by current player count and is also the number one top seller on Steam. I’m sure not many people expected such a successful reception for an Early Access game, especially from a domestic audience.
Kim: Neither did we. Honestly, I still can’t believe it now. We’ve done a total of three tests in North America – two alphas and one closed beta. Korean gamers rarely knew about the game back then because we’ve mostly devoted our time to the NA communities. Judging from the feedback we collected, I thought maybe there’s a possibility the game would be well-received by Korean gamers, but I did not expect anything remotely close to this. [laughs]
Inven: Do you feel any pressure since the game’s not finished yet?
Kim: Definitely. There are so many people playing the game even though it’s not a final release. We are fully aware that Battlegrounds suffers from bugs and lag. As we’ve been doing, we’ll address those issues in conjunction with the community. We’ll officially launch the game when it’s in a polished state.
Choi: The original intent of the Early Access was to include the community in the development process. We’ve always prioritized communication above all else, and I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job so far. Many Early Access titles end up being in development for an indefinite amount of time, but we promise Battlegrounds won’t be one of them. We already have a development schedule in place to launch the game on the set date without delay.
Kim: There’s one thing I’m concerned about though. Some people may not understand how Early Access works and think that Battlegrounds is a finished game. I’ve received so much feedback asking us why the final release of the game has so many bugs. I want to make it clear that Battlegrounds hasn’t officially launched yet. People who play the game in Early Access are supporting us in the development process. Also, please keep in mind that those who opt for Early Access will have the full retail version at launch.
To elaborate on Choi’s comment about other Early Access games, some developers release their games on Early Access, only to abandon them somewhere down the line. It’s understandable that people are worried that we’ll go down the same path. Let me assure you that it couldn’t be further from the truth. we’ll keep polishing the game for release this summer. Since we’re also working on the console version, it’s really awkward for us to postpone any longer than that.
Inven: How’s the console version coming along?
Kim: There’s something called the Xbox Preview Program, which is basically Early Access for Xbox. We’re hard at work adding the finishing touches to the game there. It’ll be out on both PlayStation and Xbox.
Inven: How did you collaborate with developers from all over the world? Were there any challenges in terms of language barriers and physical locations?
Kim: This is the first time I’m working with such a development system. I believed that it would be difficult to make a Battle Royale genre game with only Korean developers. That’s why I asked Brendan Greene to work with us. You know how people say that you can’t claim to understand American culture just because you saw a lot of Hollywood films? We needed an expert in this type of genre.
We have remote employees who work with us via video conference calls. They’re from various countries including Poland, Netherlands, Russia, Egypt, and Spain. I think this kind of development system is part of the reason that Battlegrounds appeals to such a diverse group of people.
Choi: At the end of the day, it’s a trust issue. I can physically see people who are here in the office but not those who work overseas. I wasn’t so sure about the idea at first, but I decided that I should put in the trust first. Once foreign developers felt that they were being trusted, they did not let us down.
For example, one of our artists has been involved in the Call of Duty series. He’s a freelance artist who left the previous company because he didn’t enjoy the structured workplace environment. It just goes to show the pride he has in his work. After I repeatedly conveyed the trust I have for him, he actually did some amazing work for us. He also congratulated us when Battlegrounds did really well on Early Access.
Inven: There’s never a shortage of survival games on Steam. Why do you think Battlegrounds was able to garner this much attention?
Kim: Battle Royale mode does have its roots in survival games. That said, survival and Battle Royale games aren’t the same thing. If you look at most survival games out on Steam, the primary objective is to survive in a big open world. On the other hand, Battlegrounds is a session-based PvP game. If you look at it from this perspective, there aren’t that many proper Battle Royale games other than H1Z1 and Battlegrounds. Yet H1Z1 isn’t a game that started out in the Battle Royale genre. It used to be a survival game until Greene came on the team to develop Battle Royale as an event mode.
The base of the game is what differentiates Battlegrounds from the competition. You know the foundation on which the game was built around? Most other Battle Royale games are mods from such games like DayZ, Rust, and ARK. With the originator Brenden Greene on the team, we built Battlegrounds from the ground-up to be a dedicated Battle Royale experience. I think that’s why people can easily immerse themselves in the game.
Inven: Could you elaborate on the difference between a mod and a fully-fledged game?
Kim: Hmm… It’s pretty tough to explain, but I’ll try. You know how Brenden Greene accumulated knowledge in servicing the Battle Royale mode for ARMA? I can’t really say for certain the specifics of his knowledge… But from map design and gun balance to the psychology of players, pretty much everything was based on his experience and knowledge. And Battlegrounds most closely reflects his vision.
Choi: If you study Greene’s development direction and the current iteration of Battlegrounds, you can see a couple design pillars: immersion and gun play. We came to understand these two elements are pivotal to making a good Battle Royal experience.
Kim: Another thing Greene emphasized was the randomized system. Everything in every round has to feel fresh each time.
Inven: Yes. As you mentioned, there are quite a lot of variables in Battlegrounds, but I suspect those will reach a limit because there is only one map. Since it is still in Early Access, I believe there will be more maps added?
Kim: Of course. We will add them one by one after we complete adjusting the current map balance for now.
Inven: I believe that there is likely much more content under development other than maps. Would you like to introduce them?
Kim: There will be more guns and transports. A motorcycle will be added to the game during April. New modes are under development as well.
Inven: Tell us more about new modes.
Kim: Like a custom game where users do modifications. They can apply rules by setting up specific options; for example, a battleground where you are only allowed to use a pistol. However, this will not be provided to every user first, but instead to content creators; those who broadcast on YouTube or Twitch. The purpose is for users to have more participation with the creators’ own content.
At the official launch, we will introduce the whole mode toolkit. It’s got quite a bit more freedom; you can even resize the map. That way players will be able to make a battlefield that even resembles “Sudden Attack” or “CrossFire”.
Inven: You must have received a lot of feedback from users after the Early Access. What were the main points?
Kim: They have pointed out many things which backed up the game internally. Also, when you look at the Korean game market now, most games tend to imitate each other and core users are getting sick of this. Because of that, we have received a fair amount of complimentary messages saying that Bluehole created something new, that we made a game which deserves a much better result overseas, and so on. I also believe that the prosperity of Battlegrounds will bring about a change in the atmosphere of the Korean game industry.
Inven: I would like to talk more about inner-workings of the game as well. We hear people saying that the price of loot has gone up to twice as much as before, making it hard to purchase decoration items. I would like to hear your plan about the sales of loot at the official launch.
Kim: We will keep adjusting the balance. We increased the price of loot in hopes of reducing the gap between heavy gamers who play 24 hours and casual users who only play 1 to 2 hours a day. I would also like to note that decoration items get reset once a week.
Inven: The method that companies usually implement for additional profit is usually DLCs or costume packs.
Kim: We can probably release firearms or attire skins. However we will not add anything that might not match the atmosphere of our game. It does not suit the tastes of NA and EU users as well. We will release DLC eventually of course, but we are now focusing more on completing the game rather than selling items.
Inven: Although I understand that it is still in Early Access, I would still like to point out the status of the server, as this is the main aspect users have expressed disappointment with.
Kim: The server is different to that of an MMORPG. Unlike MMORPGs, where it sends movement data about 2 times in a second, an FPS does it by a frame unit. Because of this difference, general FPS games can only keep up to 32 people in one battlefield. Battlefields is an exception that realized a battlefield in a large scale, indicating that the server is well stabilized.
We use the Unreal engine, but there has been no instance where a company made a large-scale FPS game with Unreal. Battlegrounds is in the FPS genre, and is the game that keeps quite a lot of people in one battlefield. So the packet transmission needs to be large, and all of these lead to the problem of server maintenance cost. That is why we are continuously performing unchecked patches.
Choi: We are aware of the inconvenience users have due to the server. We have therefore decided that the server will be our top priority to be improved on before the official launch, and the client performance comes next.
Inven: What NA and EU gamers like is very different compared to Korean gamers, and I believe that you had a few errors and mistakes during development because of that.
Kim: Well, the game is different to the games we used to make, which targeted the Korean market, so everything we did was a mistake. Every bit was a challenge and we learned from it, by applying feedback received from users as quick as possible, for example.
Inven: Are there any aspects of western gamers you find impressive?
Kim: Their community base is well set, and there are many volunteers. It’s like users answer to other users’ questions, all within the community. The communication in western countries is usually done between a user and a user first, whereas it is between a user and a company in Korea. The companies in Korea need to not just charge more for their content, but also help build a user-friendly communication culture in order to make better games.
Inven: The broadcasts of Battlegrounds on Twitch are booming. In other words, people recognized the game to be worth watching. I would like to ask if you have any plans involving esports when the game is stabilized after the official launch.
Kim: We are already receiving love calls from esports-related companies in NA. We absolutely want it to happen. But, we will start supporting esports matches that are done voluntarily by the community first, because having our own esports league is not ideal at this point. The priorities are to complete the game, and settle the community.
Inven: I am certain that this pleasant outcome will most likely impact the direction of Bluehole’s upcoming game development.
Kim: I am just a mere producer so there is no way I can say that we will do this and that with certainty (laugh), but the company has always been serious about the values we have as a production company, and thus we have “Battlegrounds”. What I believe is that the company will keep endeavoring to be “the one that makes good games”, rather than following a market trend.
Choi: The globalization of games has always been a motto we have pursued since the company was founded. Tera, based on the standards of Korean MMORPGs, has done quite well in various countries, and so has “Archery King” in terms of mobile games.
As the producer said, the biggest value we strive to achieve is in our quality and globalization, which is why we are having a hard time (laugh).
Inven: It is quite normal to be a bit greedy from a business perspective. Are you sure you have no intention whatsoever? (laugh)
Choi: Not at all. Monetization that interferes with the foundation of the game is not working any longer. Other Korean game companies are going for mobile and console, and we released a somewhat classic PC package during this trend. And when it comes to PC games, I believe that it is appropriate to have a business model which drives users to focus more on games.
It is still the same from the director’s point of view. I believe that we get a better result when a company has the goal of better quality rather than more money. I do not think that a company which earns a good amount of money is the good company. A company that makes better games is the good company.
Inven: Would you like to say some last words for the users who enjoy Battlegrounds?
Kim: Thank you for enjoying the game even though it has a number of technical issues, and we devs will complete the game to the full extent of our capabilities. Thank you!
Choi: We are not considering any additional charge system, but are only focusing on the base of the game. We hope you to keep supporting us and we will do our best.