Experiment 101 on Biomutant and Not Making Another FPS with Kalashnikov Toting Angry Dudes
While spending some time at PC Gamer Weekender, I had the chance to take a look at Biomutant, an open world, action RPG involving agile, furry creatures. Featuring intricate character customization and crazy slow-mo fights, Biomutant leaves the fate of a dying world entirely in the hands of the player. Will you choose to save it or help to destroy it?
During my hands-on session, I had the chance to speak to Stefan Ljungqvist, Head of Studio at Experiment 101 and Art and Creative Director for Biomutant. Read on to find out how players’ actions impact the story, how mutations work and why potatoes are so important in the game.
As a reminder, Biomutant is scheduled to hit PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One later this year.
Can I get you to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your game, please?
Hello, my name is Stefan Ljungqvist. I am the Head of Studio at Experiment 101, but I’m also the Art and Creative Director of the game Biomutant.
Biomutant is an open-world, Action RPG. We call it a post-apocalyptic, Kung-Fu Fable. It’s a mouthful, I know, but it has a meaning! It’s post-apocalyptic in the sense that you play in a world that is dying, so, it’s not a world that is born by a nuclear blast and you explore the aftermath, you are playing while the world is dying – that’s an important fact! The Kung-Fu element is kind of obvious: you are playing as this furry mammal that is kind of agile. If you know Hong Kong action movies, John Woo (the director), includes a mix of melee and shooting, but he also then has some unarmed moves. In terms of Kung-Fu, it’s not your traditional Shaolin style, it’s weird Kung-Fu, like Chicken Kung-Fu, Turtle Kung-Fu. We call it weird in a good way. It’s more about the fun factor. Then with regards to Fable, that’s kind of clear, you play as an animal and there’s kind of a sense of morality in the game too.
I understand that this game has multiple endings. Could you tell me a bit more about the decisions that players will have to make in the game and how they will impact the story?
In the game, there are two major things that will affect the conclusion of the game. At the center of the world, there’s this huge, Tree of Life. It’s a representation of the status of the world. The world is currently dying, and as a player, you have the choice to either stop it from dying or help out and make sure it dies. Compared to Star Wars, you have the Force or you can become a Sith, it’s kind of up to you. There are five massive roots from the Tree of Life that stretch out across the world. At the end, there is this massive creature that is eating the end of each root which is infecting the tree. As a player, at any point in the game, you can choose to try and defeat that creature, but you don’t have to. You can also find other ways to help take down the tree if you want to end the world in the grimmest way.
Secondly (and there is a layer on top of this), there are six tribes in the world that are not in conflict with each other but they are not aligned either; they stand divided. As a player, you have the option to start to interact with them and maybe ally with one of them, again, it’s up to you. At the beginning of the game, three of them are, let me say…‘evil’ – I’m painting broad strokes here! Three of them are ‘good’, well, they are all kind of good. You have to see it from a karma perspective because we have a Yin and Yang system, so it’s all about balance. Let’s say you ally with an ‘evil’ leader, you can help him take out rival tribes but you can also help him unite tribes. That plays towards the ending as well. Let’s say you go back to the grimmest ending, you will help an evil leader wipe out all of the other tribes, and he will then be subdued unless you kill them. All of these combinations are also available to you. Those are the two big things that play into the ending. Our game is more about meeting characters in the world and their fate, so you will also have a hand in that. Other key characters that you meet will also play a role towards the ending.
Finally, you have to consider one more thing. At the beginning of the game, you meet this big bad wolf character and he plays a part towards the end as well. He will be a recurring character. Unfortunately, I can’t say more or else I will spoil things, but he plays a part in who you are and where you came from. You will have to make constant choices. For example, when you come across a small village, what do you do with the villagers? Every action, as in an open world RPG, has a consequence in some way but they all play towards the end, change dialogue, or activate/deactivate quest lines.
I read that potatoes can be used to heal the Tree of Life in this game. So, if I were to feed the tree one hundred potatoes per root, it would cure it completely. What made you pick potatoes as the healing item?
We call them Nonos. When I was in Russia, they were constantly referring to potatoes as Картошка. In Sweden, it’s kind of similar to Russia and many other countries, even England; it’s like the potato is a staple from the wars, we had something in common. I spoke about magical potatoes, they are called Nonos and they are small creatures of the earth. In a way they are potatoes, but they are magical potatoes. They are interlinked and are a metaphorical representation of the life energy from the Tree of Life. So yeah, they are magical potatoes, why would you not put that in a game if you can?
How do you unlock mutations?
There are two different types of mutations, but I also want to highlight that we have bionics, prosthetics that you can put on as well. Let’s go to the first one, the game is called Biomutant, so we have bio-mutations – those are the physical ones. For example, you can get big, huge pincers on your back, so you can grab people, throw them and whatnot. You get those by finding bio-pools in the open world. You can see in the trailer, the he [main character] is kneeling by one of these pools. You can also see in the character creator that he is leaning by one of these pools. So you find them in the world. To upgrade, you find these creatures called Morks, they spawn them from this oil or from the contaminated pools. For each Mork you defeat, you get one bio-point. There’s kind of a risk-reward as they are also contagious. You have to take them down quickly or else you can get infected. You use those bio-points at the bio-pools to upgrade or unlock bio-mutations.
Then you have psionic mutations. Think of Bruce Banner, the Hulk. You find broken, radioactive machinery in old bunkers, then you can expose yourself to the radioactivity and that’s how you then unlock those psionic abilities. Bionics are crafted by a small, yellow, furry guy, a crazy inventor called Wisk. When you start to get to know him and help him out with some stuff, he will then make things for you like the gliding wings or the jump pack. Those are the three main things.
Do any of the mutations have side effects? If so, what are they?
You can get contaminated or infected. That means that you are now also contagious. If you meet other key characters and you are contagious, you might infect them and that also plays a part towards the ending of the game. We are trying not to say “if you do this, you cannot do that”, we are saying do whatever you want in order to get as much as you can.
Quite a few devs working on Biomutant previously working at Avalanche on the Just Cause games. Of course, this is a very different game, but what transferable skills were you able to apply to the development of Biomutant?
If you look at the Just Cause franchise, I was the original Art Director, so it’s kind of my aesthetic vision that seeps through here. You can see that this is a colorful game, right? And Just Cause is a colorful game! It’s more from a heartfelt perspective that we didn’t want to make a brown game. I’ve said before, also, if the world needed another first-person shooter with an angry white dude with a Kalashnikov, I’m not going to make it, and I think the whole team shares that notion. We want to make something a little bit more whimsical, with the focus on the game mechanics of free-flowing fun, like games used to be. I think that’s something that carries on, like player creativity. The CEO of Avalanche, Christofer Sundberg, used to say: “We provide a sandbox for people to have fun with, to fuck with the world.” We kind of do the same here, but not the extent of what we did in Just Cause, there’s a lot of difference there. Those two things are a little bit similar, and of course, we are making an open world game. From a production point of view, there’s some insight from my end that comes into how did we construct this massive world. Now we are moving to Unreal Engine which is different technology. At Avalanche, the Avalanche Engine was constructed to do open world games, Unreal Engine isn’t, really. It’s more of a level-based engine. Obviously, I think that experience came in handy to make a game like Biomutant.
I’ve noticed that you’ve already included the option to turn down the frequency that the narrator speaks in the game. What was your reasoning for this exactly? Was the option put in place due to people playing and disliking it?
No, I think it’s only a small amount of people that say they dislike it. Those players are always the most vocal ones. I think if you buy a game, that game should be your game, so we are going to try and put in as many options as we want. That was the notion from the get-go. There’s always the trade-off though as we are a small team, so we cannot make everything. Photo Mode a good example of that. People say, “you have to put it in!”, and yeah, we know, but we also have to finish the game! It’s especially important when you are a small team to figure out how much of this can you actually do, realistically. Our goal is to include as many options as possible. The more you play, we are tuning the frequency of the narrator already. If you’ve played for an hour, the dynamic community you will hear will have already been tuned. During combat, that’s when some players won’t want to hear it anymore at all. Okay, you can turn it off if you want to, but the game will also automatically do that for you. However, the narrator is also an important figure in the game… you cannot turn off the narrator completely because he is interpreting what all of the characters are saying. If he is off, you will only hear the animal mumbo jumbo. He’s a vital part of the narrative.
I understand that Experiment 101 was acquired by THQ Nordic back in November 2017. Has this impacted the development process at all?
Really? They didn’t give you any money?
We don’t need it. For us, they provided the resources we needed from the get-go. We were working with them from the start of last year. We had a true commitment, we are going to take full responsibility for the game, and they are going to empower us to do it. They really proved that from GamesCom when we announced it, moving forward. To us, it was a natural decision when they invited us to become a part of the family because it fitted well. Now we are an internal studio, I’ve worked in video games for twenty-five years, across five studios and we’ve always been independent. Even Avalanche is an independent studio. That means, as a developer, you are always thinking about a lot of other things, like running the actual company. One of the reasons I left Avalanche, I mean, they are my best friends, I love them, I just wanted to go back and make games. I’m an artist, I wanted to go back and make games again. This was very good for us in the way that they [THQ Nordic] can take a lot of the other things so we can focus on making the game.
Action games work best at 60FPS, will Biomutant run at this refresh rate on consoles?
We were in a phase where we were actually thinking about it, but if you look at all of the open world games on console, none of them are running at 60FPS. There’s a reason for that, because there’s always a trade-off. If you are making a level-based game, it’s a lot easier to control that. We put emphasis on this open world adventure, specifically on the journey and on trying to have the game look as good as possible. Here, at the PC Gamer Weekender, you will see the demo we are displaying is 150% better looking than last year, and it runs 150% better. On the PC, I expect it would go beyond what we are showing here. Today we are showing everything on par – all the platforms on par – so this is actually what it looks like on consoles.
Yeah. Very close to that. If you have, for example, a massive amount of enemies, there’s always a trade-off. There’s one scene at the end of this demo with a guy in a wheelchair, where there’s, like, ten enemies but it’s in an enclosed space. We have quite a few of these scenarios in the open world, so I would say it’ll have to be 30FPS on console.
Will Biomutant have enhancements for the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X?
I hope so!
When is Biomutant scheduled to release?
Sometime between tomorrow and the end of December.
It may be a little early to ask, but do you have any plans for DLC?
We are currently only thinking about completing the game. We want to complete this game, it’s our baby. We only have twenty people in our team… it’s a massive undertaking, to put it mildly!
Thank you for your time.