Xbox showed off a lot of products during its E3 briefing this year.
It announced not one, but two new consoles. It showed off some of its blockbuster first-party line-up, including new entries in the Gears of War and Forza franchises. But for five minutes, an indie game called We Happy Few took centre stage, and became one of the most talked about games of the show.
Developed by Compulsion Games – the studio behind 2013’s inventive puzzle platformer Contrast – We Happy Few is set in a dystopian version of 1960s England. The residents of this society take a drug called Joy to forget a ‘Very Bad Thing’ they did in order to defeat the Nazis in this alternate timeline.
In the E3 demo, we saw the main character stop taking his Joy, becoming a ‘Downer’ and being hunted by the rest of the population.
Though the company is obviously content with the level of hype following its trailer, Compulsion is concerned about the messaging around We Happy Few.
The response has been definitely more positive and excited than I thought it would be,” COO Sam Abbott tells MCV.
The general level of hype is very high. It’s interesting to us as we hadn’t appreciated what people would be intrigued by. We had a cool game with some neat mechanics and we’re very excited about it, but everyone who looks at it goes: ‘Holy shit, it looks like BioShock’, and we’ve been doing our best to say we’re not the BioShock team and our game is very different to that title. But it’s hard to tell that to millions of people around the world who are all super excited about BioShock. They just don’t want to listen, which is great I guess. If nothing else, the response has certainly been very interesting.”
At the start, the game was created as a contrast to, well, the studio’s first game, Contrast. We Happy Few has three times the number of development staff working on it than that first game.
We were basically keen to do a game that leveraged our strengths as a studio,” Abbott says. We have a pretty small team and one of the things we found on Contrast was that it was hard to create a lot of high-quality content with a team the size of ours. But, we’re really committed to creating great stuff.
So we tried to figure out at the end of Contrast how we could keep making great content but do it so that we don’t have to create as much of it as a triple-A team does. That’s where the idea of a procedurally-generated game came from. We had the idea of creating a procedural city, it hasn’t been done before and looks super complicated and impossible.
"Everyone goes: ‘Holy shit, this looks like BioShock’, and we’ve been doing our best to say we’re not the BioShock team and our game is very different to that title."
Sam Abbott, Compulsion Games
So then we wanted to make it a survival title – something with really broad appeal. The procedural world in a 1960s dystopian setting is already a risk in itself. So we wanted to take some really well-established mechanics, make them better and more interesting and tweak them in a way that people haven’t seen before. That’s where the core concepts came from.
Our art director thought that 1960s England was a rich environment to base the game. That was a great period with lots of relentless optimism about the future, while also at the same time ignoring a lot of actual problems that existed in the society of the time. So we loved the concept of retro-futurism, and wanted to work with drugs and masks… all of it came together to form a society that’s obsessed with happiness, is completely dystopian and incredibly difficult to survive in.”
Central to We Happy Few is the concept of a medicated society, where there is a pill for every problem. This is something that games have not really addressed before; but it was something Compulsion was keen to tackle.
Guillaume [Provost, Compulsion’s creative director] said he wanted to do something that used drugs and masks in an interesting way,” Abbott says. It’s a very unique way of coming up with a game – just find some things and put them together and make it work. He came up with the idea and our narrative director Alex [Epstein] also really liked it, particularly the concept of the prozac nation, the idea that prescription drugs are a go-to thing now. If you have a problem, there’s a pill for that.
It’s linked into the theme for the game, which is that happiness is generally only skin deep – perception is so much of our lives these days. You look on Facebook and everyone talks about how it isn’t real life, people put up their nice happy moments but you don’t see the real unhappiness that’s below. So that’s what the game is about – the drugs are part of that and definitely a thematic element, but at the same time it’s really about what happens when we deny reality.”
The game is launching on Steam Early Access and Xbox’s equivalent, Game Preview, next week – Tuesday, July 26th to be precise. Due to the high number of projects that hit Steam’s alpha release platform only to never be finished, Early Access has garnered something of a negative reputation. But Abbott argues that releasing this way is vital for a procedurally generated game like We Happy Few.
Releasing a game on Early Access does put off a large number of people who have been burned before. You can see that bitterness in comments online,” he says. But they are a small, very vocal and passionate group and that’s great. Their concerns are very valid.
Early Access is a tool that’s becoming better understood by gamers, but not by developers. A lot of studios put games on Early Access and won’t finish them. But you compare that to the really great Early Access stories – games like Prison Architect, which came out as very small projects and have blossomed and ballooned into something magical and ridiculous – those studios do such an incredible job of working with their community to make the game in the way that they want.
I see two different approaches: The genuine engagement of Early Access, and the ‘shit, I’ve run out of money, I have to put it on Early Access’ types.”
He continues: For us it’s about feedback. The game is procedural. We have five testers and what they are giving us is really helpful, but they’re not telling us much about how they want to play. They’re not telling us: ‘We’re trying to stealth this encounter, but it’s not working how it should’. We’re going to have a huge number of encounters and a terrific amount of content. We know this game is so big that we couldn’t test it even if our entire team was focused on that and not developing the game. We have been working with about 2,000 Kickstarter backers and that’s not enough.
Early Access is a logical step. It’s about making the game better and working with the community to deliver on what we are trying to do.