Xaviant's The Culling has found some success via Steam Early Access, and we had a chat over Skype with producer Josh VanVeld to learn more about the inspirations behind the game, experiences dealing with a large community, and the road map ahead.
"We like to think of The Culling as kind of the first game that was built from the ground up to be a Battle Royale experience," says VanVeld. "So it's 16 contestants put on a tropical island and forced to fight to the death; there can only be one player left standing at the end of each round."
We noted you referenced Battle Royale and not another more recent and highly successful franchise with the same sort of concept. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Yeah, to some extent you know there has been sort of Battle Royale style entertainment for a long time and the team watched a lot of different movies for inspiration. We watched The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger, we watched Surviving the Game with Ice T and Rutger Hauer, we watched all sorts of stuff. And, you know, from a game perspective one of the guys on the team kind of initially had the idea - at first he was looking for a way in an open-world survival type of game to encourage players to play cooperatively and support one another and try to figure out ways to keep players from just, you know, murdering each other on sight. And after he kind of banged his head against that wall for a while he realised 'wait, instead maybe we could make a version of those games where the whole point is to fight', and that's really where the idea came from. We couldn't figure out how to keep people from murdering each other so we decided to encourage it instead.
You've spent a few months in Early Access and found some success there. What's it been like launching the game?
We launched in March and we actually did extremely well with our launch. We announced a little while back that we've sold over 500,000 copies on Steam and we've also announced that we're going to be coming to Xbox One in the preview programme soon.
The launch on Steam was really amazing for us because so much of it revolved around getting attention for the game on Twitch which was not something we had been planning for during the development of the game. You know, in hindsight it makes sense that the game was going to be popular with streamers and their audiences because it is very watchable and there are a lot of really interesting moments that happen in the matches. But it wasn't until very close to launch that we had the idea of trying to seed our early kind of closed alpha programme with streamers and by having sort of... we were afraid to have too many people get into the programme because we weren't sure how our server infrastructure was going to work - we had never run a game with more than maybe 30 total players queuing for matches and so we were terrified about what would happen if tens of thousands of players showed up and suddenly our servers broke. So it was exclusive because we were nervous, and that exclusivity kind of drove demand and hype amongst the streamers and their audiences and players in general, and so on the strength of that closed alpha we then moved on and did our launch by, you know... we were originally scheduled to launch the same day as The Division and we realised we were going to be completely lost in the shuffle. So very close to that date we decided to launch a few days early as a surprise.
We had a streamer tournament and the idea was that it would just be some of the top streamers from the closed alpha would play the game in a tournament, just a sixteen man [match]. There would be two practice matches and then a tournament match. And what we did was at the end of that tournament we revealed that the game was available right then and there for download on Steam and so all the streamers who played in the tournament continued playing throughout the rest of the day and we had a really amazing launch and that was all done with, you know, no advertising, no marketing, simply word of mouth and grass roots from the Twitch community.
Dealing with player expectations with Early Access can sometimes cause problems. It's a work in progress, but not all players realise what to expect. What has your experience been like?
Well, that's really interesting. I think there is a really broad spectrum of expectations from players in Early Access. I think you get some customers who don't even realise the game is in Early Access when they buy it and they're expecting a finished experience. It doesn't matter how you label it in the store or describe it on the store page, some people are still confused about that. And then you get a group of people who have some understanding of development and like the idea of participating in the ongoing development of the game. So, you know, we found that per our expectations, players really helped us to see where the rough edges were, both technically and from a gameplay perspective, and when you have tens or hundreds of thousands who've paid money for the game, hot button issues become immediately apparent. And so performance optimisation, net code optimisation and gameplay balance as well as gameplay bugs, especially in the combat system, have all been things that immediately got pushed to the top of the list when, during development, we didn't really know how far away we were from players' expectations.
And players don't always share the same opinions, and so it is hard to please everyone...
I mean, you're never going to satisfy everyone. What we've tried to do is, we have our initial vision for a feature or for kind of how the game is meant to be balanced or what the experience is meant to be, and a lot of times we'll find the case where there's dissenting opinions from the community, so some people will like it just the way it is and some people will want it moved in one direction and some people will want it moved in a completely different direction. A lot of times in those cases we'll just stick with what our original intent was because there's not overwhelming evidence to support that we should change but there are cases where the vast majority of the feedback that we get is indicating that we got it wrong or we haven't, you know, we need to move it in a certain direction and we found that that stuff usually becomes pretty clear, and it's easy to take community feedback and turn that into a set of changes that then are typically met with a positive reaction from the community.
Given the nature of the game we're assuming that matchmaking is a key component.
Yeah, absolutely, we found that, and initially we didn't have any matchmaking so it was really luck of the draw who you got matched with early on, especially in the first month or so, there were... there was a broad spectrum of player skill levels but there was a strong representation of more casual players or with a lower skill level, so the good players were having a good time but the players who weren't great skill-wise were also having a good time because they were running into other unskilled players. Over the course of the time that we've been in Early Access so far we've seen the average skill level of the players rise, right. You know a lot of people have played the game, got their enjoyment out of it and moved on, a lot of the people that have remained are really committed and really hardcore so as we're moving forward you know we've introduced the matchmaking system recently that's going to help a great deal in terms of segregating those players as much as we can.
We can imagine that in some ways it could balance itself out with less skilled players teaming up to take on more skilled ones, What sort of tactics and player behaviour have you seen?
Well, there have been some really interesting things along those lines. Early on we saw this phenomenon of people playing as shopkeepers. So there would be people who kind of removed themselves from what we had established as the goals of the game and they were trying to find a way to play it in a non-violent fashion and so it was really interesting to see how other players would react to that when they came across basically a pacifist player within the context of this competitive game. But I think teaming is probably the most interesting thing we've come up against because during our internal development, before we put the game into Early Access we knew that teaming was likely to be a thing but it was impossible for us to predict what that would be like.
Now by teaming I mean when two players come across each other in a match and they decide 'okay we're going to work together and try to get a competitive advantage by the two of us playing together'. We thought that we were going to be okay with that but when you see sort of the... there's an element, let's say that we have two players teaming up in a match, those players are having a good time but they're kind of hurting the experience of everybody else who isn't teaming and most of the other people, the people who aren't teaming, really want a more pure, free-for-all experience. They don't want teaming to happen and so we felt a little stuck at first on that topic because we, you know, we were seeing things that kind of went against what, in terms of player feedback, that went against what our expectations were in development and it took a little while but we eventually came up with the idea of a 'showdown' which means that, when the game show detects that two players are colluding then it basically puts them in a mini arena and forces them to fight to the death.
So rather than trying to go the route of saying 'hey, like report all the cheaters, the teamers, we're going to investigate every case and sort of try to define the line between this is okay behaviour and this is not okay behaviour', we came up with a gameplay feature which would hopefully solve the problem for us and it's been really effective. We used to get many, many, many reports every day about teamers and now that's dropped off to almost nothing.
The Culling is currently available on Steam Early Access and will launch later via the Xbox Game Preview Programme.
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