"We took a look at our live server, and we saw that our combat needed an upgrade." Adam Clegg, H1Z1’s senior designer, has a gift for understatement.
The difference between battle royale shooter H1Z1 on its live server, and the test server currently hosting the Combat Update is like night and day, with changes so numerous the game feels alien.
Luckily, Clegg is at Daybreak Game Company’s booth at Gamescom to talk me through the changes as I play.
"We went through everything," Clegg admits, as I parachute down to earth. "Animations, cameras, every gun in the game. Whether that’s weapon models or balance tuning. We did an overhaul on all of it."
"What we’ve come out with is a really nice, polished upgrade to H1Z1. It feels like a levelled-up version of what this game really is."
For a lot of the weapon changes, this update was driven by a desire to make the shooter easier to comprehend for players. H1Z1 has always been an ‘arcadey’ entry to the battle royale genre, and a large part of the combat overhaul has focused on making sure weapons do what you expect.
"What we wanted to do is make sure that people understood why the guns were doing what they are doing. So we added this dynamic reticle so that when you shoot you can see where your bullets are going and how much your cone of fire is being affected.
“That’s information that people need when they’re playing a new shooter and on the old version, the one on live, you just don’t get any information."
The rework goes deep. My first drop ends in tragedy, a shotgun blast to the back of the head seconds after landing. My second drop however, sees me taking out a couple of looters and scaling a fire escape to set up on a rooftop in Pleasant Valley, the biggest town in H1Z1’s open world, with a handful of weapons.
Shooting is more accurate and it’s now remarkably easy to work out where your rounds will land before you pull the trigger. Grenades have an accurate throw arc mapped out, so you can see where they are going to land. Combat is less about learning to use each individual gun, and more about positioning, tactics and reflexes. There’s a number of other changes too, with a new dynamic camera that affects field of view depending on where you are, meaning whether you’re fighting indoors or outdoors, the camera is subtly changing to help you out.
“There’s a number of changes to the game,” Clegg says, and the primary purpose is to make H1Z1 feel like a AAA game, with all of the polish that entails.
"It’s got to the point internally, I don’t even play the live server anymore," admits Clegg, stopping momentarily to watch as I try to take out one of the last 20 players with an AR-15. Despite having never played with the new and improved rifle, I take the guy down in a few shots. The credit goes to the game, rather than me as a player. Clegg cheers anyway.
"I just play this test server because I want the combat update to come out so badly. A lot of the players keep asking us, all the time, ‘when is it coming?’."
However, the development process at Daybreak Game Company means that they need to go through and try to fix all of the bugs before the game is pushed to the live branch. While Clegg admits they can’t possibly fix every bug, he says he’d like to give it a shot, and that even though the Combat Update is a few weeks out, the amount of players that have jumped on the chance to play the game on the test server is a sign that it’s nearly ready to go.
Clegg describes the most worrying part of the update was showing the game to H1Z1’s pro players, especially when the competitive scene for the game is just picking up speed.
"We had to make sure that the pros that are already part of our scene felt like it was in good hands," said Clegg. "So we brought a lot of them in and they gave us feedback and even on this test server, we’ve been doing tonnes based on feedback from, not just the pros, but all players. We really feel like we’ve got it to a point where there’s this happy median of players that are willing to accept some of these changes but also learn and try to get better. And I think that’s been the key here, is that a lot of the players and a lot to the pros are on the test server playing every day because they are looking forward to this update. And that’s a win in itself. It’s hard to get people on board like that, on such a big change, especially with something like combat."
Clegg says that while with every update there’s been always an extremely positive and extremely negative group, most of the feedback they’ve received has been positive. "Overall," Clegg says with a shrug, "I think that as players give the Combat Update a chance, they start getting on board with what we’re doing here."
This ties into a continued push for H1Z1 esports. H1Z1 has just had its own elite series, comprising of a five man tournament and a solo tournament, and Clegg says that a lot of the feedback from professional players was ‘I want to do this all the time’, which has led to the upcoming Twitchcon tournament, with three contests giving away $500,000 in prizing.
There’s also the elephant in the room. The massive success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has seen its player count dwarf H1Z1’s, and H1Z1 is no longer the only serious competitor in the battle royale space. Does this competition between the two games create extra pressure to try and make King of the Kill as good as it can be?
"I feel like the competition is actually really good for the industry, and it’s really good for the battle royale genre as a whole." said Clegg, highlighting that as the first team to start trying to work with battle royale esports, they’re encountering and solving problems that no other esports production had encountered before.
The combat update is currently planned for August 29, at 11am PDT.