One Man’s Journey From Welfare to World’s Hottest Video Game – Bloomberg

Three years ago, Brendan Greene was on welfare in his hometown of Kildare, Ireland, getting an earful from social workers about how he should stop wasting time developing free computer games.

“They were telling me to look for jobs or I’ll be cut off,’’ says Greene. “I kind of ignored them.”

Good call. The ideas he crafted in those days led to what is now the hottest video game in years. Since going on sale in March, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) has sold 13 million copies, shattering PC gaming records and surpassing best-sellers like Grand Theft Auto V and Dota 2 in number of users. Giants from Sony Corp. to Tencent Holdings Ltd. are clamoring for rights to put the title on consoles and mobile devices.

“It really felt like the universe was looking out for me,” says Greene, now 41.

He teamed up with a South Korean game developer called Bluehole Inc. to create PUBG, which is like a digital version of “The Hunger Games,” where 100 players fight until only one remains. The little-known company is now worth 5.2 trillion won ($4.6 billion), up five-fold in just three months, according to 38 Communications, which keeps track of unlisted Korean stocks. Its founder Chang Byung-gyu owns 20 percent of the company, nearly making him a billionaire – at least on paper.

Chang says his company has had talks with all of the major console companies about bringing PUBG to a broader audience. Microsoft Corp. will launch the title exclusively on Xbox later this year. Bluehole is in talks with Sony about introducing a version for the PlayStation after that. 

“I don’t think anyone in the industry was expecting it,” says Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research at IHS Markit. “PUBG has arguably risen to be Xbox’s most important exclusive for the end of 2017 and that is something that I doubt Microsoft expected.”

Surprise hits of such scale are almost unheard of in today’s gaming world. The industry is dominated by established developers like Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. and Electronic Arts Inc., which crank out predictable updates to franchises like Grand Theft Auto and Madden (in its 29th version). The closest precedent may be Minecraft, the no-frills building game introduced by a solo Swedish developer in 2009.

Greene has had a chaotic career. Trained as a photographer and graphic designer, he married a Brazilian woman and moved to her country in his early 30s. The relationship ended in divorce, leaving Greene unable to pay for a plane ticket home. He lived four hours outside of São Paulo and earned a little more than 1000 reas ($316) a month, designing websites and shooting photos at concerts and weddings.

He played computer games to pass time, and, after growing bored of his collection, stumbled into what’s known as modding, or tinkering with existing game code to create custom versions. With basic programming skills, he modified military-shooter Arma 2 into a survival game inspired by the Japanese film “Battle Royale.” The premise is simple: 100 players parachute onto an abandoned island, scavenge for crossbows, armor and frying pans, and then kill each other. The last person alive wins. (The plots of Battle Royale and the more popular Hunger Games are very similar.)

Greens’s concept took off immediately, and his custom game began attracting thousands of players each week. As is common in modding, Greene didn’t charge money to avoid legal conflicts with Arma 2’s creators and paid for online servers out of pocket. After eventually moving back to Ireland, he kept tweaking the mod — attracting as many as 70,000 players at peak — until Sony licensed the concept in late 2014 for their own title H1Z1.

“I was so happy because I was able to go to the social welfare office and say, ‘Look, I don’t have to take money anymore’,” Greene says.

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