Six years ago, Brendan Greene was 37, divorced and making $300 a month. Today he is a creator of the massively popular "battle royale" genre and one of its top games, PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, which brought in an estimated $1 billion in revenue in 2018.
Greene wasn't in a great place in 2013. He was stuck in Brazil, where he'd moved in his early 30s with his wife, but their marriage ended in divorce. Scraping by on the money he made from photographing weddings and designing websites, Greene was trying to save enough to buy a plane ticket back home to Ireland.
That meant cutting back on expenses like eating out and socializing, so to entertain himself, Greene turned to video games.
"I was kind of stuck in my bedroom, basically working and playing games," Greene tells CNBC Make It.
Greene, who says he played everything from Atari 2700 growing up to Delta Force: Black Hawk Down on PlayStation 2 but was never a serious gamer, soon discovered the world of online video game "mods" (as in "modifications"). With mods, fans create their own custom versions of a video game by tweaking the source code to alter gameplay. Game developers often encourage this type of engagement, even including suites of coding tools to help.
As a part-time web designer, Greene knew enough basic coding to experiment with his own "mod" games. He drew inspiration from existing "survivor"-style mods created by the online community as well as cult-classic Japanese sci-fi film "Battle Royale," in which high school students are dropped on an island, given weapons and then forced to fight to the death.
Greene even named his first mods after the movie, which helped establish him as a creator of the now huge "battle royale" genre. Greene describes the model as "a last-man-standing death-match," where a group of players are dropped in a harsh environment, scramble to find weapons and battle each other to the end. (Epic Games' Fortnite and Electronic Arts' Apex Legends are also battle royale games.)
Greene loved that style of game, he tells CNBC Make It, "because it wasn't linear, it was a world where you were set loose."
In 2014, Greene says, he had finally saved enough money to move back to Ireland, but he had trouble finding work near his hometown of Kildare. He was forced to move in with his parents and go on social welfare, the Irish equivalent of unemployment benefits, he says. The government gave him about 180 euros per week (or $202 US based on current exchange rates), he says. Greene used the cash to pay for computer servers to host his gaming mods.
Greene's parents were "really worried" that he was so focused on making free gaming mods and asked him if he was making any money from his hobby.
"I told them, 'There's a possibility I could get to make my own game, someday. But, right now, no,'" he says, as his battle royale mods had mostly only caught on with small community of hardcore online gamers.
"That was quite tough, but I believed in the mods and I believed in battle royales, so that's where I dedicated my efforts," Greene says. "It wasn't a happy time, because I was really worried about, 'Well, will I have a career?'"
Fortunately for Greene, someone else believed in his battle royales. They caught the eye of a game developer at Sony Online Entertainment (now called Daybreak Game Company) who saw someone playing Greene's battle royale ARMA mod on streaming video game site Twitch.
In late 2014, after about six months of living with his parents and taking government welfare, Greene got a call from the Sony developer and the company asked him to work as a consultant on a game called H1Z1 so they could license his battle royale concept to use in the game.
That "very lucky break," Greene says, led to a two-year consulting gig with Sony/Daybreak. While Greene declines to reveal how much he was compensated by the gaming company, he says "I was looked after by Daybreak," and it was enough to get him off the dole.
"I had gone in to my welfare officer and I explained what I was doing and he said, 'Well, listen, you really should get a job.' And, I was like, 'Just bear with me,'" Greene remembers. "'And, then as soon as I got the call from Daybreak, I had gone in and went, 'You can sign me off now.' And he was very happy."
In 2016, South Korean game company Bluehole (now Krafton Game Union) reached out to Greene about developing his own battle royale title, which would become PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (or PUBG for short).
Sales of the game took off "from Day One" after PUBG launched for Microsoft Windows in December 2017 (versions for Sony PlayStation and Xbox One followed in 2018), Greene says.
"I remember seeing the number of sales just constantly going up and up and up, and it just wouldn't stop and it wouldn't slow down. In fact it got quicker," Greene tells CNBC Make It.
The game's instant popularity was "a massive surprise" to Greene and Bluehole, he says. "After, I think it was six months, we had 3,000,000" online players at a time, Greene says — triple the number Bluehole had expected, which meant the company's engineers had to reconfigure the game's servers to host more players.
For Greene, his success has felt "crazy," especially coming just a few years after taking government assistance while he tried to get his dream off the ground.
"It was such a massive growth that it didn't really sink in, and I don't think it really has, so it's kept us all quite grounded," Greene says.
Today, just a few years removed from living off of welfare, Greene is now living in Amsterdam, where he bikes to work every morning at PUBG Corp.'s office. Some things have changed — especially when he's traveling to promote his game.
"I've seen a lot more hotel rooms since I started with PUBG," Greene says. "I've been around the world about two, three times at this stage just meeting fans and going to conventions [and] events. And, I love it."
But he's quick to add that creating a billion-dollar game also doesn't mean he's surrounded by opulence all of a sudden.
"There's so many myths and rumors out there about, like, I'm on the yacht, you know, drinking champagne," Greene tells CNBC Make It.
But he still works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days and has "a pretty regular life," he says. The success "means I'm comfortable now; I can provide for my family, my [13-year-old] daughter and stuff, and they don't need to worry," Greene says.
Meanwhile, since it's release in 2017, PUBG has paved the way for some of the gaming world's other biggest titles — including Fortnite and Apex Legends. Fortnite even went on to eclipse PUBG in terms of sales, with an estimated $3 billion of revenue last year.
"I have been amazed by how big of a game mode I helped create many years ago, and it's turned into, like, a whole genre of games," Greene says.
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