The temptation to say that Mobius Digital has had an ‘out of this world’ success story with the Outer Wilds would be as accurate as it is deeply, deeply clichéd (and no, I won’t apologise for it). For a project that started under such inauspicious beginnings, it has reached astronomical heights (still not sorry) – going home with a Golden Joystick last year, and picking up numerous other awards this year, including three BAFTAs just days after our interview.
We sat down with Mobius Digital’s creative lead Alex Beachum and tech artist Logan Ver Hoef, who were predictably over the moon (okay, now I’m sorry) with the feedback the game has seen so far – particularly since it began life as Beachum’s Master’s thesis during his time at The University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts’s Interactive Media & Games Division.
Beachum explains: “The year before I started my thesis we had a couple of classes, a world-building class and a thesis prep class. Between the two of those, I worked on a couple of one-off prototypes, one where you toss out a probe with a camera on it, and another where I had to do something with the uncertainty principle, which led to a prototype where if you looked away from an object, it would teleport elsewhere – what became the teleporting quantum rocks from the final game.
“Probably the most important one was when one of my classmates said that I should make an emotional prototype. So I decided to make one where you roast a marshmallow over a campfire, and then eventually the sun explodes.”
It’s easy to see how each of these prototypes would later merge together to form Outer Wilds, a space exploration game with a very literal gameplay loop – every 22 minutes, the sun explodes and you start right back at the beginning, roasting marshmallows by the fire.
The team Beachum put together then “duct taped” these prototypes together, as he puts it. And by the end of a year-long development, much of the Outer Wilds was already together, right? Well…
“It wasn’t done,” Beachum says. “It was this rough, pre-alpha version of the game where there’s a time loop and all the planets physically existed, but with little in the way of anything that you’d consider level design. Mostly just a bunch of Maya spheres with extruded things coming out of them.”
“It was very charming,” Ver Hoef adds. “It looked like an N64 game.”
For the next few years, the game became something of a hobby project, a handful of people working in their free time while Beachum worked at Microsoft.
Even when Beachum moved back to LA to join Mobius Digital, it wasn’t until the Outer Wilds won in the Seumas McNally Grand Prize and Excellence in Design categories at 2015’s IGF awards that the team at Mobius decided to take on the project.
Mobius then had the unusual benefit of picking up an existing project, with the design pillars already decided and in place in the early version of the game.
THE PILLARS OF CREATION
“We had three major pillars from the student thesis,” Beachum recalls. “One was curiosity driven exploration. We wanted to make sure that players are exploring because they’re curious about the world, and not for any other reason. That informed the narrative structure of the entire game – you’re finding clues that teach you about things to go investigate, but we don’t put a giant waypoint on your map.
“Pillar two was that the world would change over time, in a way that you can’t control. We didn’t want to make a player-centric game. Nature will go on with or without you and there’s nothing you can do about it.
“Finally, the third pillar was really putting the feeling of the space at the core, a camping in space aesthetic where you still felt vulnerable. We kept these pillars to this day, which sometimes made development more difficult. When we started it at Mobius we actually kind of lost our way a little bit initially, just because it’s a huge transition, and when its been a while you forget the point of the thing you’re making”
Still, following a successful crowdfunding campaign on Fig in 2015, development was full speed ahead – with a plan for a shorter development cycle.
“The original plan was to ship halfway through 2016,” says Ver Hoef. “I joined just after the Fig campaign, and the plan was that in nine months from that point the game would be shippable.”
Once publisher Annapurna Interactive got involved in the project, however, plans changed drastically.
Following a lengthy negotiation process, Mobius suddenly found themselves developing a much more polished version of the game than had been initially planned.
“Annapurna games definitely have a standard,” says Beachum. “They just don’t put out games that don’t look and feel fantastic. It was definitely way beyond what any of us expected to be bringing Outer Wilds to. So that added about three years. There was a period of time where we’re just figuring out like, Okay, what does the double-A version of this game look like? It took years to figure out exactly what that was.”
“Even though we were dramatically uprezzing what we were shooting for,” adds Ver Hoef, “our team was still just a dozen people. So the big question was: how do we make something that’s gonna hit the bar that Annapurna is looking for with only four 3D artists?”
Despite the new visual high bar to hit, Mobius managed to press on with the project without ever cutting back on the game’s initial scope: Though as Beachum recalls, they didn’t have much freedom to do so anyway.
“Early on, we kept being asked ‘ hey, can you guys just… not do this planet?’ And just no, no, no. It’s this whole tangle – here’s the narrative map, it’s like this. We were sort of locked in.”
In fact the small areas that did hit the cutting room floor did so in order to prevent players from becoming distracted from the central mystery of the game’s world, instead of limiting the overall scope.
“So there are two escape pods, there’s one that lands on Ember Twin and another on Brittle Hollow” says Beachum. We had this whole idea that the two groups of survivors would have needed a way to communicate with each other. So we had them build these little lighthouses on the poles of each planet, and they would send morse code signals to each other across the solar system. We had working versions of these, and you could throw a switch to turn them on, and beams of light would shoot out and there was text that you could read of them communicating.
“We ended up cutting these because players thought there was a puzzle there when there wasn’t. You’re shooting a beam of light at another planet, surely this does something! And no, it’s just a story thing, it’s a piece of world building. As cool as those conversations were, it had nothing to do with any of the major curiosities the player was supposed to be investigating.
“We realised that we needed to cut things that weren’t directly related to information players should care about. One of the big reasons why we’re very thankful we ended up having all of the extra time that we did, is if we had put out a version of the game after a year and-a-half, it would have been this weird niche game that only really hardcore players would know. People would be reading all this text and be like, ‘I don’t get this’. We built a lot of stuff before we realised that what we had done made no sense to most people, and so we pared a lot of stuff back.”
While personally we resent not being able to explore giant laser lighthouses, it was probably a wise call, with the final game feeling like a perfectly tailored mystery waiting to be unravelled piece by piece. Still, with the game having gone through three distinct stages during its lifetime – from the initial Alpha, to the Mobius version developed for the Fig campaign, to the final Annapurna release – Outer Wilds has a few inherited issues from those early student days, as Beachum explains.
“The one everyone talks about as being the puzzle that doesn’t work is the Ash Twin project. With the quantum stuff, you go to a quantum rock and you learn a rule, and it’s really clear. This was more complicated. We tried to put anything related to the Ash Twin project nearby to one of the warp receivers, but players don’t pick up on that. If you go to all the warp receivers, you’ll learn everything you need”
“Ha, I didn’t even know that!” interjects Ver Hoef, surprised.
“And there’s a whole lot of reasons for that,” Beachum continues, “but what it all boils down to is that the solution to that particular mystery is something we came up with back while it was still a student project. When we finally realised people were having trouble with it, we pulled it apart. We’re like, ‘oh, no, at the core of this, this doesn’t actually make 100% sense!’ It sort of makes sense, but we literally can’t fix it. All we could do is try to improve the clues for it and try to help people understand the logic that went into it, but realistically, we should have done something else.”
IT’S A WILD WORLD
This wasn’t the only problem the Outer Wilds had, however. The game fell foul of a truly unfortunate coincidence – releasing around the same time as another space-faring title, Obsidian’s painfully similarly named, The Outer Worlds.
“It was pretty upsetting.” notes Ver Hoef. “I remember it was the VGAs, we had a trailer announcing that we were coming to Xbox. And then there was another trailer announcing the The Outer Worlds. And I was just despondent for a few days.
“But in the end, it’s only been good for us. Because they’re so much larger, it means people will see an article about Outer Wilds and be like, ‘oh, that’s the new Obsidian game’ and click on it. And we get people learning about our game that wouldn’t have learned about it otherwise. So at the end of the day, it was probably a-ok.”
“You expected people to hate it?!”
And of course the game’s big impact salves any such wounds. As we’ve said, it has seen such an incredible level of success that I’ve run out of space puns. It might have been a long road to get here, but the team is delighted with where they’ve ended up.
“I mean, literally the day before release, I was just thinking ‘oh, god, I hope people don’t hate it’” says Ver Hoef. “Because our opinion was always that this is going to be a very niche thing. Just because the game is self-directing [with no waypoints or missions], there’s gonna be a solid player group for whom this is exactly what they wanted – but we didn’t think it would have tremendously broad appeal. When the review embargo lifted, we started getting reviews – and people don’t hate our game! and that was just…”
“You expected people to hate it?!” interrupts Beachum.
“Well, yeah…” replies Ver Hoef. “I’m a pessimist. But from there, it’s just been so entirely out of scale with my expectations. I mean, we’re up for a number of BAFTAs! Yeah okay, sure! It’s bewildering and I don’t know if I’ll ever work on a project like this again.
“As someone who’s made something, you only look at it and see the problems and things you want to fix. But I think what’s really thrilling is seeing our communities playing through it, and how much they love to make things based on it, and how much care they put into not spoiling it for anybody. Everyone in that community is just like, ‘okay, we’re gonna ask you a lot of questions to understand exactly what tidbit of information to give you, in order to give you the exact experience that we had.’”
“Our player base is super lovely” agrees Beachum. “It’s incredible. It’s like, ‘oh, my god, everyone’s being so nice – and it’s the internet!’ It’s really cool anytime you hear a story, where it’s like, ‘oh, my kid played this, and now they want to be an astronaut.’ It’s just like, I don’t know how you respond to that! It’s really, really, really cool.”
“It’s somehow made those nine months that stretched into four years feel like it was worth it for me” says Ver Hoef. “Which I think for any project, that’s a reasonable amount to ask.”