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‘PUBG’ creator’s next project is an open source metaverse for everyone

But first, he needs to make the tools

(Washington Post illustration; Xbox Game Studios; PlayerUnknown Productions)
5 min

Brendan “PlayerUnknown” Greene, the creator of “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (commonly known as “PUBG”) has embarked on a metaverse project called Artemis.

Greene revealed new details about Artemis in Hit Points, a newsletter by video game journalist Nathan Brown. In 2019, the developer announced a new project after leaving the PUBG team: “Prologue,” an open-world survival game on a massive, 40-square-mile map. In Tuesday’s edition of Hit Points, Greene told Brown that “Prologue” will ultimately be a tech demo for the even more ambitious Artemis, an Earth-size virtual sandbox.

Companies in the tech world have expressed their ambitions to build the metaverse, the hypothetical next iteration of the internet that technologists surmise will be less like the text-based internet we have now, and closer to a digitized version of the real world. And Greene’s vision of the metaverse is a world owned and shared by everybody.

PlayerUnknown Productions, the Amsterdam-based studio Greene founded to develop “Prologue” and Artemis, sounds more like a research and development lab than a game developer. Greene told Hit Points the staff includes nuclear physicists and mathematicians — decidedly not the sort of workers you might typically find on a video game team. But Artemis isn’t really a game in a traditional sense. Greene described it as a decentralized interactive world where the inhabitants are free to make or play whatever they wish.

“I’m quite zealous about this,” Greene said. “It has to be made a certain way. The only way this exists is if it’s made for everyone, and it’s not made for money.”

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It’s a big vision that requires skilled management, which is why Greene brought on former Ubisoft Massive managing director David Polfeldt to the PlayerUnknown team as a senior adviser.

The technology to create something like Artemis does not even exist yet. Making a 1:1 scale virtual Earth with thousands of people exploring its fully realized biomes is, currently, an impossible task. The tools for crafting a metaverse mirror of Earth don’t exist yet, at least on a scale that is practical. That is why PlayerUnknown Productions has been singularly devoted to building a game engine, Melba, which will be propped up by machine learning.

Building Artemis, Greene said, would require an absurd amount of labor for human engineers, but it may be doable for an AI capable of churning out an entire planet’s worth of trees, plants, valleys, rivers and mountains at a relentless pace. It may also be able to populate Artemis with animals and even human NPCs that behave and interact in realistic ways — as long as the AI is built well and fed the right data. Greene told Hit Points that his studio has already filed several patent applications for some of the tech it has developed, and he shared a little about how it works.

“We’ve created some new knowledge here: mapping terrain, populating it with trees and assets, inserting artist-made locations into that terrain,” Greene told Hit Points. “And that’s all done generatively, as you move through the world.”

All of this is going to take a long time, about 10 to 15 years by Greene’s estimation. Polfeldt is optimistic about the project’s success and cited the team’s small staff as an advantage rather than a hurdle. To Polfeldt, it means the team can knock out the many objectives ahead of them — task by task — as they steadily march toward the white whale of a planet-size digital playground.

Greene has remained open to using blockchain technology. Since anyone in Artemis can create whatever or do whatever they want, Greene said, they’ll need some way to verify proof of ownership or some sort of currency to exchange for providing a service.

“We’re building a digital place,” Green said. “That has to have an economy, and it has to have systems at work. … But it’s not about, like, Chanel and Louis Vuitton. It’s some kid called AwesomePickle selling cool skins because he understands what people want.”

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The dream is for Artemis to be an open source world that anyone can modify with a decentralized ownership. All of Artemis’s inhabitants will have a stake, with PlayerUnknown Productions eventually fading into a “maintenance” role to make sure that things are running smoothly, according to Greene. It’s a place with a framework but “no real rules,” he said.

Open-world games — even those with a limited scope and strictly controlled ownership relative to Artemis’s pitch — have already created some fascinating emergent moments, unplanned and often unforeseen by the developers. In 2007, a woman in New York City placed an ad on Craigslist offering sex in exchange for 5,000 gold in “World of Warcraft” to purchase an epic flying mount (the woman claimed to have found a client in a follow-up post). In 2012, the zombie apocalypse title “DayZ” inspired discussions on human nature as players chose to either band together or murder each other over cans of beans in the game’s cutthroat world. In 2005, a “World of Warcraft” glitch that acted like a viral epidemic forced the developer to briefly shut down the game to keep the “virus” from infecting all players — an incident later referenced by epidemiologists researching predictive modeling around covid-19.

Greene referenced English computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web who also gave his creation away freely without copyrights or patents. More recently, Berners-Lee has been deeply critical of Silicon Valley giants controlling vast portions of the web and warning against a future he described as a “digital dystopia.”

To that end, PlayerUnknown Productions is going to build Artemis — but Greene wants its inhabitants to determine what it will be.

“We want to make our engine easy to mod, and to make it open source so everyone can participate,” Greene told Brown. “It won’t be PlayerUnknown’s Metaverse, just like it isn’t Tim Berners-Lee’s internet. It has to be owned by everyone.”