Outcasters is the latest title to come out of Splash Damage – marketing itself as a playful, chaotic brawler.
From the game’s mechanics to its toy-based art style, the game seems tailored to be more welcoming to the less hardcore among us, making it something quite distinct from its usual work.
This more approachable attitude makes the game’s Stadia exclusivity all the more interesting. The platform has, maybe, not been the stellar launch that Google might have hoped for. But it’s a sign that game developers and publishers still see hope in the cloud gaming model – and its ability to reach more casual audiences.
To find out more about the game, and Splash Damage’s view of cloud gaming going forward, we sat down with Neil Alphonso, creative director at Splash Damage, and Henry Winder, technical lead on Outcasters.
Gears Tactics this certainly is not, but despite its toy-based artstyle and chaotic mechanics, Alphonso and Winder both see Outcasters as reflecting Splash Damage’s growth over the years.
“I’ve been at the studio for more than 12 years,” Alphonso begins, “since we were a single project studio working on competitive first person shooters, compared to the 300 plus people that we are now.
“And really, this game is a reflection of that kind of growth, and to a degree maturity. I mean, it’s a very funny game, but at the same time, it’s not this excessively masculine thing, it’s not about bathing in the blood of your enemies. It’s more playful, and I think that reflects how we’ve grown as a studio.”
The game is the result of a grassroots effort from within the studio, an idea born out of a game jam that caught not just the attention of Splash Damage’s senior team, but captured a sense of enthusiasm in the team as a whole.
“It’s not just a reflection of the growth of the studio,” notes Winder, “but the people in the studio too. This is a grassroots game coming from people from within the studio – six of us got the opportunity to work in a game jam for a couple weeks.
“After a couple days, we had something really basic together, and after a couple of weeks, we were able to do full scale playtests with eightplayer sessions. And instantly, we knew we were onto something when people were sitting inside of a room screaming at each other.
“We took this into the company breakout room, and invited people to play for half an hour. We were still there four hours later, still playing, still screaming at each other. That was when we realised that this was something we needed to pursue.
“We wanted to come up with something that we could really hone in on and make an IP out of. We went around for quite a while to be honest, coming up with some different art styles and never really landed on anything.
“And then, I assume because at work we have desks covered in toys all the time, someone was just like, ‘let’s make them toys.’ And we started throwing toys into the game and running around with them, and that became the natural progression of what turned into Outcasters.”
The toy aesthetic ultimately tied into the more casual approach Splash Damage had with the game. While Outcasters maintains the multiplayer-focus that is at the heart of Splash Damage, its casual approach marks a change in pace for a company with a history of more hardcore titles.
“We definitely did try to make it more welcoming and inclusive. It’s the Nintendo mantra of ‘easy to pick up, difficult to master.’ I’m very cognizant of this, having been involved with our previous games where we targeted a very hardcore niche. We needed to be mindful of this all the time, in order to not necessarily dumb the game down, but to give a smoother entry into the game.”
Outcasters’ Stadia exclusivity could definitely help with this accessibility. The perils of launching an accessible multiplayer game is the question of how many of your target market own a console to begin with.
It’s the reason why mobile has long been such a haven for casual and hypercasual titles, but it’s an area in which cloud platforms like Stadia may one day be able to compete for mobile’s crown.
Access to high-speed internet is an obvious hindrance to cloud gaming, but being able to divorce games from expensive gaming systems potentially opens up a brand new market. One of Stadia’s key selling points is that it’s available anywhere, to anyone with a gmail account.
And while the current circumstances may keep us from gaming at other people’s houses, the ability to simply log into Stadia wherever you are makes a compelling case for players introducing friends to the game with ease.
“One of the things we wanted to have,” says Winder, “was to be able to just put a controller, or a mouse and keyboard in your hands, and without instruction you can just play straight away. That is kind of the essence of Stadia, which is literally pick up and play. So when the opportunity came up to work with them, it was a natural step, it just made sense.”
WORKING FROM STADIA
Still, while we’re not able to visit a friend’s house for Outcasters sessions right now, developing for Stadia is especially convenient right now. With Splash Damage, like the rest of us, all working from home, developing in the cloud removes a lot of roadblocks for the team.
“Stadia has certainly changed a lot in the way that we develop the game as we’re going,” says Winder. “Not only the making of the game, but it goes as far as play tests. We do these daily, and normally everyone’s waiting for the build to go up, or downloading it and everyone has to wait half an hour.
“These days, especially while working from home, it’s been brilliant. We jump on a Discord server, and we’re trash talking each other and playing in seconds, because you just hit a button, and it’s up there. It’s been awesome, and saved so much time on development.
“But there’s other factors in there as well, from a tech perspective. Any other platform that we work on, we’re having to do cheat protection and having to protect ourselves against hackers and that type of thing. We don’t have any of that on Stadia. Our client is in the cloud, our servers are in the cloud, no one can touch any of that. So really, it gives us so much more freedom and time to focus on other parts of the game.”
Beyond the development itself, one thing that particularly impressed Winder was Outcasters’ visual fidelity while streaming to mobile devices.
“The first time I played Outcasters through my phone blew my mind,” says Winder. “Because during development it’s always a 1080p or 4K monitor playing the game. And things on Stadia have to be really scalable, because you can have a 4K TV, or you can be playing a game on your phone.
“So we have specifically made everything very scalable. And when you say all that it makes sense. but when I was actually playing the game on my phone, honestly, it looks really good, it’s really slick. It was a genuine wow moment for me, that I just wasn’t expecting despite knowing exactly how it all works.
“The amount of work it takes to get any game working on mobile, let alone optimised and the amount of extra rendering work you have to do. We haven’t had to do any of that. We’re running a PC game in the cloud. And it’s working on mobile phones, and it was kind of mind blowing the first time you see it, the visual fidelity on that smallest screen is crazy.”
With all that said, we’re still very much in the early days of cloud gaming. Particularly given Stadia’s rocky beginning, the future success of these platforms is still theoretical. Google may have new competitors in Microsoft’s xCloud and Amazon’s Luna, but cloud gaming still feels a long ways off from mainstream success.
Splash Damage releasing a Stadia-exclusive title in these uncertain early days is, as Alphonso explains, one that speaks to the culture at the heart of the studio.
“At the risk of getting a bit philosophical,” says Alphonso, “it’s hindsight that tells you whether it was a good idea or not right? As a part Canadian, I quote Wayne Gretzky on this: ‘you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’ We have a long history of diversifying what we do. It’s part of why we’ve been around as long as we have as a studio, we try to not put all our eggs in one basket. So getting on Stadia and experimenting with streaming technology was a really important strategic move for us.
“I wouldn’t suggest you make a super reactive twitch game. Because there’s always going to be an inherent degree of latency, but that’ll get better.
But even if that’s not the case, then you’ve got a host of other advantages. I just want to second Henry [Winder]’s point about those little wins in terms of time gained, those become massive over the course of a project.
“I’m going to be very optimistic about that and say, that’s one of the silver linings about how 2020 has been for us with this project. Being forced to work from home, without Stadia, this would have been much, much harder. And you know, other developers are saying the same thing. It shows the strength of the platform, so I don’t I don’t think it’ll go away.”