GAMESCOM 2017: Splash Damage’s Neil Alphonso on realising the potential of Dirty Bomb and its competitive future

Splash Damage has been building competitive games since before esports was even a term. The company was founded in 2001 by creators of several multiple mods, but really found success after releasing the freeware Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory (W:ET) in 2003.

Since then, multiplayer has been the studios bread and butter. Building the multiplayer components of triple-A titles like Doom 3, Gears of War 4 and Batman: Arkham Origins. In between these, they’ve also been building competitive class-based multiplayer since W:ET hit the internet, culminating in 2015’s Dirty Bomb.

Dirty Bomb isn’t a bad game, but it underperformed. There was definitely the sense, as an observer, that publisher Nexon didn’t really understand what they had. The game was a hardcore shooter that prioritised teamwork and smart play over twitch reflexes, and even though the appetite for this type of game was there, it didn’t really make a big impact.

However in February this year, Splash Damage bought the rights to Dirty Bomb back from Nexon and became its own publisher, citing a lack of publishing support from the company. Dirty Bomb is Splash Damage’s first IP, and it was back in the driver’s seat.

“It’s been a watershed moment for us,” says Neil Alphonso, the associate creative director on Dirty Bomb. “Obviously, we’ve been live for a while. We’ve been in development even longer. I’m one of the people who remembers the earliest phase of it at the studio. I’ve seen enough of it to know it’s like a lifetime and you got certain moments that make a big difference.

“Earlier in the year, we started ramping up the team a lot. Now, we’re actually seeing the fruits of that, because obviously, you open a bunch of roles. You’ve then got to interview people, hire them, onboard them. That takes a bit of time, but we’re in a spot now where a lot of those people are being really productive.”  

Alphonso describes the current focus of the team at Splash Damage as getting content out for the players with a “good cadence.” This means regular releases of new stuff, whether that’s obvious content such as mercs and maps or more subtle improvements like quality of life adjustments or bug fixes.

Alphonso continues, referring to the Enemy Territory games that Dirty Bomb is trying to evoke: “I suppose when you make a game that is like a spiritual successor to one of our own games. You always have really ambitious dreams for it and we’ve never really been able to realise those. I think we’re taking the first steps to really doing that now, which is super exciting, and now we have a year’s worth of stuff we want to do.”

“I suppose when you make a game that is like a spiritual successor to one of our own games. You always have really ambitious dreams for it and we’ve never really been able to realise those."

In addition to the content, this means giving players different ways to play the game. “One of the things we learned the hard way as a box product developer was that we’re just really used to making solid core products. Whereas, in a live service game, and a lot of other companies have figured this out already, it’s a lot of what you do with your existing stuff. How you do events, how you have different things happening.”

Alphonso describes himself as a long term World of Warcraft player, and says that when you’re up close to it you don’t often appreciate all of the effort that Blizzard puts in to keep players engaged in its calendar of events, changes and expansions. “It’s super important,” Alphonso says, “to people that are trying to figure out where to put their time and their money, that they have faith that your investment is going to be rewarded.”

Alphonso says that esports aren’t something the team is going to push heavily, instead the studio will be looking to provide the community with the tools to grow a competitive scene themselves. Splash Damage, Alphonso notes, is a studio that was born out of clan play and Dirty Bomb is a game that he believes is well suited to competition. “The way I see it is that there are fairly big games in esports that aren’t necessarily great esports games, just because they have a big player base. Our hope is as the game grows, which we’re pretty confident it’ll do, with us making it better and better, [it] will cause the competitive scene to grow.”

Alphonso mentions that the objectives and team based play could make it engaging to watch, but the speed of the game, and the rapid to and fro, make it so fast that it could be tricky for casters to watch. With a laugh, Alphonso asks whether casting is becoming as difficult as competing in esports.

The future of Dirty Bomb, and the game’s esports potential, is focused around its core fanbase.

“We’re very close to long time fans of Splash Damage,” says Alphonso. “We get them in on our private test servers before any big chances because we realise that we can’t play the game as much as they do, because we’re making it.

“In a lot of ways, they are closer to it. We can suggest something and they’ll go nuts about the idea. They’ll dig into it on so many more levels than the team and in so many cases they’ll find things, good and bad, and report them to us so we’re aware of them.”

Alphonso laughs to the obvious question about whether the feedback is good or bad. “It’s most positive now, and I think that’s an endorsement of where the game is at.”

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