Retroit Interview – An Ambitious Top-Down Mobile Sandbox MMO from Ex GTA and Angry Birds Devs

Alessio Palumbo

The rise of the mobile gaming market might irk some of the more hardcore PC and console gamers, but it is definitely opening up a lot of possibilities for game developers to try and experiment with different design concepts and mechanics.

We recently had the chance to speak with Robin Squire (CEO/co-founder) and Paul Kurowski (CPO/co-founder) of Black Block, a Finnish studio that's currently building a highly ambitious top-down mobile sandbox MMO called Retroit, powered by Genvid's live streaming technology (which we previously covered in our Deadhaus Sonata interview).

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Robin Squire worked for several years at Rovio on Angry Birds, while Paul Kurowski began his career in the games industry a long time ago at Psygnosis, before going to work at Rockstar North on Grand Theft Auto. Let's hear directly from them to learn what prompted the concept of Retroit.

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Paul Kurowski: I've been in Finland for about five years. I worked at a bunch of companies before, you've mentioned Rockstar and then Spicy Horse Games, Crytek, I've worked with Robin at PlayRaven, that's where we met. We started this company about a year and a half ago.

Robin Squire: Between us, we have a broad history of products experiencing games ranging from Angry Birds to Grand Theft Auto. Our mission really is to build persistent open worlds and do that targeting mobile-first, so we want to build mobile-first MMO experiences. The reason being is we feel the future is connected, games like World of Warcraft, EVE Online, these big shared multiplayer experiences are really just the tip of the iceberg. Now you're seeing these rapid developments in networking, tech and cloud gaming, with people really starting to push the boundaries of what these cross-platform multiplayer persistent experiences can be. Another pillar is, as I said, we're mobile-first. We're very much focused around building an experience that is first and foremost designed for mobile, so we're mostly prioritizing things like being able to do something in a short space of time with super easy to jump into, accessible gameplay, but then also that longer term depth. And then a third pillar is that we're sort of hell-bent on using the real world as a reference for Retroit, as we are very passionate about the life sim fantasy and we want to keep our games grounded in the real world.

That really shows with what we're working on now, which is Retroit, a massive open world. It's an always-online sandbox city, every vehicle you see in the world is driven by a real player. It's this online server based world where we can have a mobile experience and a Twitch experience and many more experiences side by side.

The world in Retroit is destroyed persistently. It's up to the players to actually rebuild the things that have been destroyed by the other players and that creates an opportunity for them to earn cash in the game.

Paul Kurowski: Essentially, it's like a little society, and there are lots of jobs that you can do. It's up to you as a group to maintain and to upgrade and to build your little town.

Are there clans, groups of players that can come together to achieve specific goals?

Paul Kurowski: Well, the district itself is your kind of neighborhood if you like, so the people that you live with in that neighborhood (you'll have a specific address), you're all kind of a guild. The idea for Retroit is the city will be made up of lots of these neighborhood spaces. You will work with your neighbors to collect scarce resources and to complete objectives. How you do that is up to you, but the neighborhood is your responsibility, it's your space, and there will be other people impinging upon it or trying to steal stuff or whatever.

Robin Squire: Just to give a sense of the sort of scale that we're building, we anticipate a city will be made up of tens of districts, let's say fifty to a hundred. Each of those will contain a different own community, basically a guild. People can actually live in different districts, and each district will have its own property, which is decided on by the communities. There'll be different buildings there. It will have its own laws, its own taxes, its own political systems, and its own job economy, which will be impacted, of course, by the people who are on the ground, doing the jobs in real time.

Currently, we have four jobs in Retroit. We have the repair truck. As you play you start to unlock cruiser jobs, which are like gang vehicles which destroying the environment to earn cash, you will unlock police jobs who are taking down any gang vehicles in any racing vehicles that have got criminals, and then you'll have street racers who are racing from point A to point B and kind of competing on their own leaderboard as well. But of course, they've got to watch out for the police.

Paul Kurowski: Anything you do in the world stays done and it's a big user-generated content loop. Basically, players are creating content for each other all the time. There should be no AI in Retroit at all. It's just players.

You're not planning to add any AI to the game, then?

Paul Kurowski: Currently, we have AI bots connecting as clients, but the goal is to have no AI in whatsoever. We're trying to work out how many concurrent players is a good number within a district space, which is half a kilometer square, as Robin said, so we think we're aiming for 50 to 100 concurrent players in a district space. For now, we're trying to find out what number is fun. It really is more of a design thing than a technical thing, because we've had up to 400 clients connecting in this space.

Do you have any plans to add something like shooting mechanics at some point, to make Retroit even closer to a mobile Grand Theft Auto Online?

Paul Kurowski: It's an interesting question. The thing we're trying to do is create a community-based game and so obviously, sticking shooter elements in it is kind of pushing it in a direction where if you give players something, they're going to use it, so then it's going to become a game about violence. What we're hoping to do is to create enough activities within the space that the players are planning to do without thinking about are killing each other, though we will also have weapons in the game. They're not going to be on by default, and it's not going something that's as easily acquired as in GTA. It's gonna have to be a community decision to develop those kind of things. Because all the buildings right now are functional. Now you can drive up to them, they do stuff. You can repair your vehicle, you can acquire nitro boost for your vehicles. But it's up to the community to decide what kind of buildings they want to build and that's going to create different kinds of communities as you drive through the city.

So a community could decide to be aggressive and develop weapons.

Paul Kurowski: We're really encouraging the idea that people will develop these little subcultures within the game and create spaces for themselves at the end. We want to leave a lot of that into the hands of the players. So they will make the choices as they decide what to build.

I have read that you have some kind of political system design as well available in Retroit. How is that going to work? Is there going to be an election?

Robin Squire: Exactly, yeah. As Paul mentioned earlier, districts are sort of their own communities and in each district, members of that district can put themselves forward for an election. If they get elected, then they have access to different knobs and dials, so to speak, different levers and sliders where they can choose to affect the tax rate, they can affect the laws so they can make it super harsh for people destroy In the environment, they could be immediately flagged by the police, for example. Most importantly, they actually have access to the community funds, which means they can choose how to spend the funds on developing the properties. They could decide whether to construct a levelled up police station or whether they would prefer to construct some sort of wind farm, something that would be a more sort of environmentally friendly thing.

Paul Kurowski: As you're doing good jobs, jobs that the city wants you to do, you're getting these community points and you can actually have an effect on the city on what's being built, how fast it's being built, what the tax rate is, that kind of stuff. We're really building around this community idea that players affect each other, that you have to make decisions as a group.

Robin Squire: Currently though, we don't have a mayor system in there yet, so we're prototyping this just with the whole community. So actually together me, you, and any of the other players that are testing Retroit, they can choose to spend these community funds providing they have enough points to actually distribute that into upgrading these different buildings which will, in turn, unlock different vehicles for you, and different ways to interact with the world.

Paul Kurowski: It's very democratic right now, as everybody has an equal voice within the community over what's happening. The tax that you've paid on your salary goes to the community fund. Every time you do a job, you pay tax on that, and that's the money available for building.

Robin Squire: As we progress with the development of Retroit players are going to have more jobs to do in the world, there's going to be more buildings that you can connect to the world and each of those buildings will have different functions. For example, we'll add garbage truck jobs, a whole roster of garbage truck vehicles. Then we'll also add restaurants that will generate food as a resource, but also they'll generate garbage as a resource, then we'll start to add the dynamic economy on top of that, and that is when things will get really interesting because people can be very opportunistic and try to even influence the supply and demand. Then we'll start looking at building systems a bit more to give players a home in the world to live in, and eventually allowing that to be upgraded as well. As we go right down towards the end of the road map, that's when we're going to really start to be playing with scale. This district will be one small area of a much bigger city map where you can seemingly drive forever across it if you so wish.

Let's say that you really don't like the mayor of your city block. Can you move to another city block or something like that?

Paul Kurowski: There's a couple of things you could do. Just like in real life, you could vote for somebody else, and you could canvass for somebody else. Because if you're a member of the neighborhood, then you get a vote as everybody else does. You can run against him if you want. Anybody can join the vote, but if it's really not your vibe, if it's not your community, then you just sell your house and move somewhere else. The idea is this will be kind of a real estate market in Retroit, so the more developed your area is, the more properties cost within it. If you want to move to a really good neighborhood, you're gonna have to earn plenty of money to do that. But if you just want to move to a kind of a downtown neighborhood with not much in the way of facilities, then that's a lot cheaper. Really, part of our philosophy is to look at the real world and how the real world organizes itself and create very simple versions of those systems. But that real estate value is one of the ways that you as a neighborhood, as a community, can measure your progress against others.

What about PvP? How will that work in Retroit, if at all?

Paul Kurowski: Right now we have a very simple event system, which is just basically people who do better at their jobs get some extra money.

Robin Squire: There will be cooperative and sort of competitive options for players. But this is more about giving people goals to do on a sort of hourly, daily, weekly basis, basically like leaderboards.

Paul Kurowski: Yeah. It is very simple for now, but we'll be building on top of that events should be at the heart of the system, basically, I mean, we're running events concurrently all the time, giving people goals.

Robin Squire: Switching topic to the live streaming interaction through Genvid, the live traffic map available through Twitch is just like the district map that we have in the game, you can see all of the vehicles moving around in real time. There's a legend to the right, showing you what kind of vehicles and what kind of jobs those are. If you click on cameras, you'll then see different camera placements on the map. The camera placements allow you to look at the world through different fixed perspectives. We've got a sky cam too, which is like a helicopter camera zooms over the world.

From a player perspective that will actually allow them to go on Twitch (or YouTube or wherever) and just watch the world that they're used to driving around in from a bird's eye perspective, we are working to bring the player experience and the stream experience together. In this scenario, you would actually see police chasing people and people trying to repair the world, to give viewers that kind of news anchor view of the world. That's really the sort of concept we're going with the first iteration of this, but you can also drop items into the world. You can currently drop a giant pinata that will explode and create a shockwave and kind of push the vehicles back as they crash into it. You can drop a soccer ball, which is just really for fun as it has soccer ball physics and it's big and can smash things.

The most interesting one really is the cash truck. This is where we kind of break our own logic at the moment because this will spawn an AI vehicle. Anyone who crashes into that will earn cash, they'll basically steal cash from that vehicle, so it's like a giant moving piggy bank in that regard. This allows stream viewers to peek into the world from this different perspective, but also to be able to interact with it in ways that are very unique. Eventually, the goal is to create a TV network for the stream. You'll have the shopping channel where you can buy the items like the ball and the pinata and drop those into the world, you'll have the parody version of QVC, you'll have the politics network where you can either buy stocks and shares in a company, or you can vote on, or maybe not vote, but lobby or watch the elections play out.

Paul Kurowski: What's really compelling about Genvid is that it's enabling us to create this new layer of interaction between viewers in Retroit that we just haven't had before. We see the city as this entity that you can interact with in a number of different ways. Players playing on mobile get the experience of driving around, of course, but players interacting through Genvid, they get to sort of tinker also and be like the silent majority in the city. They get to lobby, vote, make decisions that create experiences for players as well.

Is there any potential for doing mischievous things directly from the stream?

Robin Squire: Those are the fun emergent stories that we do want to embrace a little bit in Retroit. Of course, we don't want to encourage toxicity or allow people to troll too much, but we do want to leave a little bit of breathing space for people to coordinate some schemes via Reddit, maybe everyone meeting up in the city in one place and causing a big traffic jam or a bit of mischief.

Paul Kurowski: We could aggregate the input from viewers to create events in the city. Like big weather systems, or like little catastrophes. There are definitely things we can do that on a wider view base, we could create some havoc just for fun.

Why did you pick Genvid for the live streaming technology?

Robin Squire: We've primarily chosen to work with Genvid because we had a great conversation about how live streaming technology could allow like a whole new group of viewers to interact with an always-online persistent world. And really, that was the reason honestly why we decided to work with those guys, we're on the same page with regards to how we could use interactive live streaming and their tech specifically to bring another interaction point, another entry point if you will to the same persistent shared world. Of course the other great thing about Genvid is that they've been growing and they've got a lot of interesting projects in the pipeline with many other developers. They're just super easy to work with. It's been been a very seamless experience getting that stream to where it's going and we already are excited on both sides about doing the next iteration of this, which will allow multiple viewers to interact with the world at the same time, and also will bring the mobile experience and the Twitch experience together.

Paul Kurowski: It's been a great enabler for us, opening up a new frontier in the way that we're thinking about this world.

I've read that you are using the Godot engine for Retroit. Why did you make this choice instead of going with other, more popular engine options such as Unreal or Unity?

Paul Kurowski: It was really the customization aspect and the networking aspects of it. It's enabled us to get a good networking solution working, because that was absolutely core to everything we're doing. Now we have powerful networking is, it has given us a lot of freedom to work with different technologies and work the way we want to work.

Robin Squire: Yeah, I suppose that the networking system was the number one priority. We've done a few experiments with online open worlds with other game engines in the past. We're trying to have a world with 3D physics and hundreds or even thousands of concurrent users in the same space. That's obviously a massive challenge. Working with Godot and being able to have our own customized networking and solutions has allowed us to really push the boundaries already. We've already got close to a thousand we believe can run in one district. We've actually tested it with 400 concurrent users and that worked fine, apart from the fact that there was quite a big traffic jam.

Paul Kurowski: We've managed to run it with enough clients that it's become chaotic and unplayable. We've got plenty of overhead with where we are in it.

I'm also wondering about the platform availability since you have mentioned earlier that Retroit is designed to be 'mobile-first'. Does that mean you're possibly open to PC release or even console releases later on?

Robin Squire: We say mobile first because that's really where the core of the Retroit experience is and what we're focusing on, mobile is such a huge opportunity. The sheer amount of people playing mobile games is huge and we want to create something that ultimately has got that mass appeal and that pop culture appeal to it. We feel mobile is really key to getting that super widespread adoption. But mobile is a super tough market to break into. Really, if you're going to design an experience for people who play on mobile phones and tablets, then you really need to be thinking first and foremost about the user experience for that platform, so that's why we say mobile-first. Ultimately we need to build something that is accessible and that those users want to play and then around that, we can look to do other interaction points on other platforms. For example, absolutely console or PC could work. We have had some discussions about it. But we won't go into detail now. The way you should think about our approach to platforms like PC and console is similar to how we've approached live streaming, which is a different take that feeds into the same shared world. That would most likely be what the console or PC experiences would be as well, they would be their own platform-specific thing if you will. I think the key difference is most people just want to play a mobile game while they've got a spare five minutes, rather than sit down on their couch and play it. Whereas for PC, no one's ever going to boot up their PC to play a game for five minutes. They're likely going to set some hours of the evening aside, we need to be mindful of that for the user experience.

Paul Kurowski: Yeah, we're really designing Retroit for very short sessions right now. The idea is that you can come into the game and make an impact within 30 seconds, you can make a decision, you can see what's going on. You can check what your friends have been doing, what got upgraded, and then get out again, that might be your whole session. We want to make it very, very flexible so that players can feel they can interact with this in any little bit of time they have. Retroit is really a social game. It's about community, so we want that kind of access.

Can you speak to the release date of Retroit? Is it going to happen in 2020?

Robin Squire: No, it won't be this year and the release date is currently TBD. We have a few moving parts related to the release date, so it's not something we can speak to just yet, but as a mobile studio, I think it's important to note that the way typically mobile game developers approach development is that you're always live to some extent, you always need to be doing small tests. We've been doing small tests in limited regions with players and you know, not putting any purchases in there or anything like that. To begin with, we just want to see how they interact with the early stages of the game, who it resonates with and then as we ramp up development, we'll start to gradually increase availability and gradually test more and more sort of deep aspects of the game.

Thank you for your time.

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