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Outcasters Interview – Splash Damage’s Stadia Exclusive Is ‘Competitive, Frantic, Accessible and Customizable’

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You might remember that earlier this year Splash Damage announced to have partnered with Google on the development of a Stadia exclusive game.

That game is being revealed today, and it's called Outcasters. It may not be exactly what you expect from a studio known for its rather realistic shooters, but the developers reckon there's a lot of the team's DNA injected into it despite the appearances.

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While there's no release date yet on the game, we were able to interview co-founder and CEO Richard Jolly, Product Lead Lily Zhu, as well as Google's Justin Lambros (Executive Producer from Stadia Games and Entertainment) to find out what Outcasters is all about. Enjoy the read!

Could you give us an overview of how Outcasters was born?

Richard Jolly: We've been running for almost 20 years now. We were originally a mod team. We met as a bunch of friends in Quake back in like 1998/99, and we had never met in real life at that point, we were literally just playing games. And we thought 'Wow, this is amazing. This is the future of gaming. Multiplayer is such an awesome experience, we need to bring it to the masses'. That was really where Splash Damage started, we were just a group of friends that got together and started a company and we were mentored by id software for the first seven years of our life, which was such an amazing experience. I mean, the creators of the first person shooter genre, to have them as mentors was such an awesome thing. I think as we've grown, we've been lucky enough to work on some of the biggest IPs in the world. We also wanted to take a lot of those distilled learnings from multiplayer shooters and bring them into a slightly more accessible form. We're all getting a bit older now, we have families and responsibilities, we've got limited gaming time. How do we take some of those core mechanics that have been so good in shooters? If you look down to Quake in its purest form, Quake is about learning levels intimately. It's about knowing where the power-ups are going to spawn and it's about controlling your enemy with that kind of battlefield awareness. At the surface, that seems like such a hardcore element to that but there are so many nuances that we've tried to bring into Outcasters in what we've done. We've tried to pick something that's a little bit more accessible than the slightly more mature theme as a studio we've largely gone through and I think that's really just a case of us growing up, having kids and wanting to play games with them. I guess the kind of vinyl, toy aesthetic as well, factors into that.

I think it's fun. There's been a lot of stories around how Outcasters came about because it is a bit of a departure from what Splash Damage is known for, but I think when you get to play it, it's got that kind of that DNA of easy to pick up, but difficult to master.

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Lily Zhu: Outcasters is a top-down multiplayer game where players use a curve shot to eliminate each other and win the game instead of shooting straight. And players have the ability to play either in a free for all game mode called 'Last Caster Standing' or in an objective team mode called Gold Rush because we're Splash Damage and team play and objective-based play is always really close to our heart. So that was a no brainer for us to move on to the Gold Rush mode after Last Caster Standing. Like Rich talked about earlier, the competitive core gameplay is very important to us. Outcasters actually came about a while ago in the game jam. At that point, we were just thinking about how we can innovate on what a traditional shooter is. This is where the top-down view came from, and how the curving mechanics came about. It was just so crazy and so unique that we thought 'Wow, we have to make a push for it and get the build out and let everyone in the company play'. Fast forward like two weeks later, I think that's where we showed the game to the whole company. And this is the moment where a hundred people gathered around in the breakout room, playing for hours and watching others play, and we were like 'Yeah, this is pretty close to what we do at Splash Damage. It's a competitive game where people have fun playing and watching'. Later on, we started developing a more inclusive aesthetic, and this kind of vinyl toy style was just so close to what we want to do and we just stuck with it.

Besides this competitive core and winning the game, we have a vast customization and prestige and abilities for players to unlock through the progression and through a collection just as they play. Because for us, it's very important that the player gets the chance to express themselves in the way they want, from how they look to how they sound and to how they play the game, how they engage with the combat. So, besides abilities, we have another feature in the game, it's an in-session progression. It's like a map pickup that people can take which adds a little bit more randomness to the game, which means that every match and every playthrough will turn out slightly different, and it will stay fresh while players are constantly making decisions, how they want to win the day. So let's summarize Outcasters with this unique curve shot at the heart of the game and the features we have built around it. We want to offer players a brand new, frantic multiplayer experience where they can enjoy it with this enhanced, lighthearted aesthetic, but still have enough challenge for the long term so they can continue to hone that skill. So to sum up, kind of what cost is this. It's a competitive, accessible, frantic and very customizable multiplayer game.

And I hope that the players will like it just as much as we do.

Are you working on any other additional game modes beyond the two that are being discussed right now for Outcasters?

Lily Zhu: Obviously, during the development process, we're constantly improving and constantly thinking about new ideas. I think for launch we have made this decision to offer players two modes for them to explore. But as we internally talk about, this is just the start, the beginning. Once it's out, we're gonna listen to players' feedback, like this platform itself will constantly grow and evolve around what actually our players want from us. I mean, we're game developers, we're creative people, there is also a long list of ideas. But eventually, we're gonna collaborate with players about what is the next thing we're gonna do.

Richard Jolly: I think it's a mantra that we've had to learn early on as a multiplayer studio. Once you release a game to the public, once it's in their hands, it's not your game anymore, it's their game. Ultimately, they play it more than you do. They know it more than you do. It's about letting go of that baby, letting them steer you, and how you think they're going to enjoy the game even more. We've got this great platform and these great mechanics that we're going to be able to build on and react to when we talk to when we have we have in the players' hands.

Okay, can you share how many maps or playable characters you are going to have in Outcasters at launch?

Lily Zhu: Once you get into the game, you'll see this vinyl look of the characters. How we approached it aesthetically and creatively as we imagined them rather like playsets. We do have vastly different biomes, or themes as we call them, to present to the player. I think we have quite a lot of arenas that are specifically designed around this curve shot obviously. As for playable characters, we see the player as the Outcaster. It's not necessarily that we offer different characters, but we offer multiple skins for them to collect so players can modify the way they look. It's rather like a skin customization that we're offering to players.

Richard Jolly: And they are highly customizable. We've been known to build in customization in pretty much all our games since Brink. Outcasters has got the most customization of any of our games in terms of where you can position the eyes, the headgear, the colors of everything. I think we stopped counting in terms of the permutations. It's into the trillions. The chances of you ever seeing someone looks exactly like you is nearly impossible.

That's certainly something that a lot of players will appreciate in Outcasters, seeing as visual customization is becoming increasingly important in multiplayer titles. I wanted to ask about playstyle customization, though - are there any abilities to unlock?

Lily Zhu: Yes. As we approached customization, the main desire for us is to give players a way to express themselves, to play the way they want, so we have a lot of abilities that players can unlock through the progression. And after that, they can pick and choose which ability they want to take into a match. This means instead of us making a predefined template and saying 'Here's how you play', we've given this choice to the player. And with the map pickup I mentioned earlier, we're adding this element of in-session progression, which means that the player can make decisions of how they want to engage with the map while they are on the map. For example, we have pickups that split your shot on impact or that bounce it around. So, someone who likes to play the one way with the split, they will go for that pickup. And additionally, with the ability they have chosen, they can always adapt the way they engage with the combat. Again, it's very important for us that the players get to make this choice for themselves.

Richard Jolly: Yeah, and I think the interesting thing about the powerups is you can hold up to three and they stack. Depending on which way you equip them, which way you decide to pick them up, you can do very different things. So you can power up your shot, you can speed up your shot, you can bounce around corners, you can split it. There are a lot of extra nuances that kind of stack on top of that. So you actually, if you can get to the power-ups you want in that session, then you can very much play very, very differently each time. It's quite a fun kind of matter on top of what is already there. Because there's this nuance of not just shooting straight all the time, but actually knowing that even behind cover I could still be hit because someone can curve a shot around and hit me is actually quite an unnerving experience.

Can you speak to the balancing that had to be done between keyboard and mouse and controller users in Outcasters, since both are supported on Stadia (as well as the newly added touch controls for mobile devices)?

Richard Jolly: We've been playing with all of them from the offset, so controller and mouse and keyboard have been pretty balanced in playtesting, I think that's been the interesting thing for us. With the controller, obviously you have a little bit more kind of like lock-on and aim assist, whereas with a mouse and keyboard obviously it's much more about the purity of drawing the line, but it's been pretty balanced for us. And I think a lot of that just comes from experience. I mean, it sounds arrogant, but I think we've done enough game balancing over the years, we know what those nuances are, we know how to make the controls feel right. As with most things, it's just about playing it a lot and iterating and tweaking.

Lily Zhu: On top of that, as you said, experience is one of that. I mean, we also have bad players in the team who won't be able to win with any controls. And we have good players who can win with any controls. So far as it's striking the balance, definitely, for sure. But on top of that, what we are aiming to do as well with Outcasters is, again, giving the freedom to the player to adjust the way they play. For example, we have included quite a lot of sensitivity tweaking in the game in the settings for the player to try out. So even we can make the best suggestions that we think is right. But in the end, the players have the decision on how they engage with Outcasters.

Justin Lambros: And I think another thing on the control point is that as a publishing group at Stadia Games and Entertainment, we try to offer services to really help our developers and as Richard says, this team knows how to balance controller and PC, mouse and keyboard. What we do as a group is really spend a lot of time getting user research testing, we've got a group of folks that basically are dedicated to our exclusive games to make sure we get these games out in the hands of users in small batches and really get feedback. The team at Splash Damage has been really responsive and interactive. They've got a great depth of tools and knowledge that they can leverage them what they can tweak. And so when we get them feedback and what works for people and what's challenging, it's really been a great collaboration in that point to really try to refine both of these, because we want to make sure the flexibility to be able to play anywhere is really taken advantage of. I think to speak to your one point on the mobile touch controls, right now, that's really just an experimentation that we have out there on the platform, which is really exciting and cool for us. That's really going to open up a lot of doors. But right now that's just kind of a first iteration. And what we're focusing on is that keyboard and mouse and controller experience with this title, and that's really going to be refined and should be really fun for players right out of the gate.

Fair enough. How has it been for Splash Damage to develop Outcasters on an entirely new kind of platform such as Google Stadia?

Lily Zhu: I can tell you what was the most fun experience for us, which is, cheating is not a thing! Because obviously in multiplayer games, nobody likes cheating. And it is something we take very seriously, of course, from our experience with Dirty Bomb as well. It's not gonna be a thing on stadia and that was the point when we realized 'Oh, wow, nobody has access to the service or to the client.' It's just, you know, really a lot of weight lifted off our shoulders. And that was a great moment when we got our hands on the platform and excited us as a multiplayer game studio quite a lot.

Richard Jolly: A really interesting thing for us was obviously with COVID happening and having to quickly switch to work from home. It was like 'Well, how do you get builds to people so quickly?'
With Stadia, I don't have to. Literally, I put a build up, click a link and we're all playing a playtest and that's it. And to be honest, we always want to put all our games on Stadia going forward because it's just so easy to test.

Lily Zhu: Yeah, this is really, really awesome. You're just having a call with someone discussing a feature and they're like, you know what, let me just click this link and take a look at it in the game. It's already there. So, obviously it made a lot of things for us easier when developing on it because testing means one upload, and everyone has the same version. Nobody has to ask 'Which version do I need to get to test?' Innovation is always something that excites us as developers, of course, you start going somewhere where nobody has been. So for us, it's just like every day we're learning a lot more than yesterday. And that's a really, really cool experience.

Richard Jolly: Yeah, I think that's been the exciting thing about the stadia platform in general. Like everything, every platform in their infancy has issues, but I think we've been working through that as a partnership, and that's been the most important thing. To have that opportunity to work so closely with a platform holder early on and to be refining and building something together, in all our 19 years of making games, there has been nothing like it. Google has been so transparent in information and it has felt like a true partnership. There are certain things that being on a cloud platform with Google's infrastructure allows you to do, mechanics that you can't do in normal games and you're essentially almost like building a new genre of games that this platform allows you to do. It's like this notion of me just clicking a link and playing the game, that just can't happen anywhere else. The fact I've got outdated hardware in my living room and every three years I have to keep refreshing it while here, again, all that's handled for me. I wholeheartedly believe that the longer term future for gaming is on the cloud, we've seen this from the move from physical disk to digital. It's gonna happen, there's no doubt about it. I think Google is well positioned to do very well in this space and it's exciting for us.

Justin Lambros: It's been a great collaboration for us as well. One of the really important things for us is to learn from our developers and we're really thankful that teams like Splash Damage are going on this journey with us in our infancy to grow from a really cool piece of tech to a full-fledged gaming platform. We appreciate all their collaboration and patience. And we've learned not only on the game side, but we also try to learn on the platform, making side features and usability improvements that help developers be able to develop easier and better. It's really awesome for me to hear the ways that we've been able to help in this challenging time to kind of ease some development challenges. That's been been a great moment for us.

Thank you for your time.

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