Automaton CEO Talks Mavericks: Proving Grounds, Plans To Launch on Consoles Too As Soon As Possible

Christian Vaz

Last weekend a game previously referred to as ‘Project X’ finally got its name. Mavericks: Proving Grounds, which is going to use Improbable's SpatialOS technology, promises a four hundred player Battle Royale mode later this year and has plans to release an open world MMO mode for up to a thousand players in late 2019.

I had the opportunity to speak to James Thompson, CEO at Automaton, during last weekend's PC Gamer Weekender. Read on to find out how Automaton plan to cope with supporting up to one thousand players in one game, dealing with latency and how they plan to improve on existing Battle Royale games.  

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Can I get you to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your game, please?

I'm James Thompson, I'm the CEO of Automaton. I started the studio in 2015 in Cambridge. A lot of us are from a traditional MMORPG background, but a few have also worked on AAA games. We’re part of quite a technically focused studio that is trying to approach massively multiplayer games in a new way.

The title that we are launching this year is called Mavericks: Proving Grounds. It's a massive multiplayer online shooter and it’s sort of an evolution to what we've seen recently of Battle Royale, with much more world simulation and focus on building a large world, while still in a tactical and high fidelity environment. It will also incorporate MMO features such as a persistent social hub and progression systems, so there’s quite a lot packed into this product.

So, I’ve heard that you’re including a mode that supports up to four hundred players...

We incorporate an open world experience. At the moment we will support one thousand players, but that's something we are really launching in 2019 as part of our open world persistent RPG push. This year we are focusing on the tactics and the strategic session based gameplay. Even though we are already launching our social hub and the world, we are focused on the more Battle Royale-style games.

First of all, we want to make sure we are making a world that's not just very dynamic and good-looking, but also very tactical. We are still going to be iterating on the parts of the map based on what's really creating compelling gameplay, and we have to start by doing these Battle Royale-style modes. We can support more than four hundred players, though the goal here for us is what makes a great compelling session of thirty - forty minutes of gameplay. If you are playing in a squad, there would be four of you, so there will four hundred players in total, if you are playing solo it's actually just one hundred. At the moment, we are still balancing those numbers through closed beta testing, which we are starting with a much broader audience in June. We aren't entirely final on the exact numbers for the Battle Royale game types, simply because we want to make the best game types.

Our open world is really designed to support a lot more players than other similar-ish games on the market because we have a much more full world. We have much more simulated tactics, like hiding behind trees means you can have more players without necessarily seeing them in the open. You have more things that occlude you, more use of the landscape. We have these destructible buildings and houses and all these different things play into what the optimum number of players actually is.

How do you think including four times the number of players will enhance the Battle Royale experience?

It's not only really about the number of players because the other thing to consider is that you can have a one hundred or one thousand player game and still only see one or two other players depending on how the game type is laid out. It's us having more players as a compliment to having a more dynamic world which basically means more consistent action is going to happen throughout your session. It's not just loads of fun at the beginning, loads of fun at the end like it might be in a simple last-man-standing game type. Equally, it’s not just aggressive team deathmatch style. This is something that has a stronger balance, so throughout the game there are objectives you go to and there are things you can see that mean you know a player is *over there* because there's more information. That's where all the fun comes from. You may not be able to deal with a situation because you read it incorrectly, but at least there's something to go off. It's not just, "oh, I happened upon one other person, great." It can be fun, and it's clear people have engaged with that sort of game over the past couple years, but we don't think that's anywhere near as compelling as something like this. We will have a consistent world in which there's more information, there are more tactics and more strategy behind it. Part of that comes from more players, but it has to come with more environment, otherwise you'll end up killing each other straight away and that's not more fun, that's just more of a mess. The world and the players go hand in hand.

What do you think is missing from the existing Battle Royale games?

This is a difficult one because we didn't really build Mavericks in the same way that other Battle Royale games have been made. We think what people are playing today is basically a game where someone took an old kind of shooter and made it accommodate one hundred players. Clearly, that kind of game type is very popular. I think people are really compelled by experiences that include a lot of players but aren’t in the traditional team deathmatch style or a grindy long-scale RPG style.

We are approaching Battle Royale in a very different way with Mavericks because we set out to make a compelling world and a compelling game type that's all about what we've seen from player to player interactions. If you compare it to what's on the market at the moment, they can be very fun and they are obviously very popular, but it's quite inconsistent. There's less real strategy and a bit more randomness. There's something there, but we think we are taking quite a significant step because we have built the world and the whole way we make the engine and the server structure, to scale with players. We are going to continue to iterate on strategy and elements in the world that consistently make fun gameplay. Our setup allows us to continue to improve our gameplay over a five-ten year term without getting suddenly constrained. In current Battle Royale games the technology and the ideas weren't ever really about that, it was just sort of a simple extension to things that have existed before. For example, we don't have to compromise on the quality of our gunplay because of the number of players. We don't use one server for the physics so we can match the AAA small-scale team deathmatch shooters with our level of networking and physics simulation and also have the scale. We don't have these compromises, there are a lot of strange compromises in the products that are on the market today because, fundamentally, they weren’t designed for this sort of thing. There's a great simple idea there that there could be a load of people going in and only one person coming out. It's clearly fun and people are enjoying it, but we've approached it in a different way, thinking much more about what it means to have fun with lots of players playing in a consistent world. Some of our gameplay is shared, and there are elements of last man standing there. There are also new elements of strategy, you know, more kinds of objectives, different things to keep your mid-game session consistently fun. Yet, we also have a  persistent social hub so you can build long-term progression.

The current Battle Royale games are struggling to keep latency down with only one hundred players in each game. How do you plan to keep this under control with four hundred players in Mavericks?

I sort of touched on that already. They [current BR games] are built with a single server architecture and also with a lot of code, say on the Unreal Engine or some other game engine that was not designed for that. We've literally built everything from the ground up and we are not limited even to a thousand players. We are architected to be a massively multiplayer shooter. For us, one hundred players is not a big number when it comes to doing really great quality latency which is why we've also pushed the graphical fidelity and everything else up - because we can! We are just built a better way. I think perhaps those other games will start to fix that, but it feels like they'll take a while to fix that while we are busy iterating on what really matters, which is the gameplay.

I’ve read that there are some crazy killstreak bonuses in Mavericks. Like, one of the developers has said that you can “literally nuke the whole world”. Could you tell us a bit more about this?

That comes much more down to the open world RPG which is coming out in late 2019. It's a very complementary game type because it uses a lot of the same world and a lot of the same elements. There aren't kill streak bonuses as such in the Battle Royale mode because it's a much more competitive experience, in a way. It's designed to be 9:05 within that session. With the open world, of course, people are a lot more free to do things over a longer period of time, to build up streaks, to build up things within the world. Within that version of the game type, yes, you can build up a really long kill streak multiplier and then you can bring in tanks, nukes and other things that we are experimenting with. The thing is that there are literally thousands of other players that know about that and they are going to stop you from ever doing it. Our intention with something like a nuke is that it will maybe never happen because people wouldn't want you to get that, they want to steal your bounty. In the game that we are doing this year, I think we are bringing a new kind of strategy to this sort of more session-orientated game type, but we think a lot of it is going to translate into our open world gameplay, or our persistent gameplay that we are doing the year after.

With regards to the Sandbox mode, how big is the world in Mavericks and what will players be doing in it?

The playable area is 16km in diameter, 10:09 playable length is about 12km squared. It's bigger than any of these sort of Battle Royale games that are out, but it's not just bigger, it's denser. It will contain a lot more carefully planned and tactical map design. We are focused much more on this year's launch and on filling out the map with these templates of fun gameplay. The map is actually going to evolve next year to incorporate the faction bases and other story and narrative elements of the RPG side of things. This year, having a big map makes sense for a tactical session-based game. That same map that is evolving to get a narrative so, after a year, we see ourselves building it up to a full RPG. However, these will still compliment each other. If you want to play a dip in, dip out, or a long session, perhaps that persistent, last man standing session makes sense. The world is one of the things that will evolve, and even then, beyond that, we see it evolving every year through player-driven narrative. If players join factions and get certain things done, they push for certain resources. In turn, that's going to affect what's going to happen in the narrative for the year after. We are really focused on doing that kind of MMO element well, but we are already pushing a lot of new technology and quality in what we are doing this year, so we are taking it one step at a time.

This year our view is to bring a massive improvement to this kind of session-based gameplay and open world high-quality shooters. We are also looking at this new kind of MMORPG as well. It's a very broad, ambitious project in a way, but we are taking this a step at a time to make sure we are doing it the right way.

There has been a mention of vehicles already, but what kinds can we expect to see in Mavericks?

The vehicle system is something we will continue to see evolve. We are going to start with some basic vehicles, that you will have seen in other Battle Royale games, to help you go across the map. We have very robust vehicle physics that we are trying out at the moment. We’re not looking to put vehicles like tanks in the game mode for this year because that’s quite strong for just session-based gameplay. If someone suddenly gets a tank, that will make a massive difference. Again, there is a vehicle system in place this year but next year we are also extending that to crazy kinds of things. You can balance that against other things in a persistent mode that you can't in a session based mode.

Are you planning on releasing Mavericks on consoles in the future?

Yes. We don't have a definitive date for console launch. We are launching in Q4 this year on PC, and we are aiming to do a console launch as soon as we can. We are already testing aspects of the game on console, we are confident about it. We still need to make sure all of the tech we are using is certified against all of the consoles then we can do it the right way. Everything is carefully designed around controllers, so we aren't just going to make a PC game and port it to console. It's being built now with console in mind. We don’t have the exact release date yet.

Will you be focusing on developing Mavericks just for the current generation (PlayStation 4 and Xbox One) or will you be including enhancements for the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X?

At the moment we are targeting Xbox One and PS4 upwards. It is very high end, however, we are leveraging a lot of modern tech that is quite efficient. Although it looks as though you might need an absolute beast to run it, realistically a lot of it comes down to the approach we are taking. It's surprising how good it can look on the same hardware. We are taking a new approach to how we load the world in and out. You see really high definition around you and traditionally that might fall off in the distance, but we are putting in a lot of work by leveraging Improbable and SpatialOS to help us make the server and the infrastructure side. We focus a lot on specific development which means that we can basically summarise what's in the distance but still show it to you in really high quality - but actually there's less information there. In order to render that sized world at the quality we are doing it, it would be impossible, but we have really efficient ways to summarise what's in the distance and depending on where you are scoping in or where you are looking, load in what you need. Being really smart about what you load is how we are able to make it look this good without necessarily the same system requirements as you might expect.

We don't have final system specs yet but, just to give you an idea, we expect that on a GTX 970 you could run Mavericks at Ultra settings. I wouldn't say we are in a different camp to other Battle Royale games because they are so inefficient, in a way. We see ourselves as the same sort of system requirements except we will run a lot smoother and run a lot better. Of course, there will be a difference between max settings and lower settings, perhaps we will even include things in there that will need a top quality card. We really don’t want to give too much away but if you take a look at the screenshots and short clips we've been able to show so far, they give you a good indication; that's not something you are going to need a crazy rig to see.

Thank you for your time.

Mavericks: Proving Grounds is scheduled to release a last-person-standing mode at some point this year. We can also expect to see the open world MMO mode in late 2019. Mavericks will be available on PC to begin with, though a console release has been confirmed for the future.

Stay tuned for more updates on this highly ambitious project.

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