What would the creative team behind Halo 5: Guardians do with the unlimited possibilities of a distributed computing platform like SpatialOS? We have an answer to that question. Announced at GDC 2018, Scavengers is an online shooter that uses Improbable’s game development tech to create a new genre of ‘co-opetition’ multiplayer. It’s being built by Midwinter Entertainment, founded by a team of four, including senior members of the 343 Industries team that delivered Halo 4 and Halo 5: Guardians. Here’s a short trailer:
That’s Snow Business!
Midwinter Entertainment is a 16-person studio based in Kirkland, Washington, USA. Leading production and design for Scavengers is Josh Holmes – formerly Studio Head and Creative Director of the Halo franchise at 343 Industries, and co-creator of both the Def Jam and NBA Street franchises for EA. Other members of the studio boast credits on a diverse range of games, including Battlefield 1, Full Spectrum Warrior, Farmville 2, Tron: Evolution and Star Wars Battlefront(2015).
Their new game, Scavengers, has its roots in the style of multiplayer gaming established in the Halo 5’s Warzone mode that Holmes helped create, which he calls “co-opetition”. The Warzone mode exhibited some of the basic principles of this gameplay vision.
In the emerging “co-opetition” genre, players compete to fulfill emergent objectives that change the nature of their gameplay experience. Not only are there bases to capture and both human and AI opponents to battle, but occasionally bosses spawn that demand cross-team cooperation to overcome. Enemies become friends, then enemies again. Priorities shift and the onus is placed on teamwork as much as individual flair. All of these factors are the key ingredients for a compelling multiplayer experience.
Scavengers and the future of co-opetition
Scavengers takes place in the near future, where the moon has been shattered by a massive asteroid, triggering a new ice age. Simultaneously, a cryptic new illness has been spreading throughout Earth’s wildlife. Players take control of a young survivor living in this wilderness, selecting from one of four classes, and scavenging for equipment and supplies.
At heart, the game is a multiplayer shooter where players compete with one another and with a large number of AI-driven foes for scarce resources. Each round of Scavengers is session-based, taking around 30-45 minutes from insertion to extraction. Players form into teams – ranging from large clans of 20-30 players to smaller groups of 2-4 players – attempting different in-game tasks.
Given its survival background, players must not only keep their characters safe from combat but also warm, well fed and hydrated. Die and it’s game over – players can revive ‘downed’ teammates, but dead is dead for that play session. Succeed in a match of Scavengers, and the recovered resources can be used to craft weapons. And of course, there are character progression systems, and weekly, monthly and quarterly challenges to keep the combat fresh.
The world is relatively realistic, balanced closer to Battlestate Games’ Escape from Tarkov than Epic Games’ cartoony Fortnite. “Historically, there’s been this perception that if you create hardcore mechanics, it’s going to be somehow a turnoff for a larger audience. I don’t necessarily think that’s true.” Holmes told GameInformer “We’re not trying to shy away from the idea of having a learning curve.”
SpatialOS enables Midwinter to expand and deepen the co-opetition experience, with larger teams, more and smarter AI opponents, elements of persistence and progression and a huge map added to the mix by the platform’s ability to offer near-limitless compute. Complex survival and exploration systems can overlap the game’s existing combat mechanics, creating an even more immersive mix of things to do in a single play session. “Other shooters out there today, most of those are focused around PvP, inhabiting an expansive and empty and static world,” says Holmes. With SpatialOS offering true world and object persistence, the world can be alive with threats and possibilities.
“The world that players will explore is constantly changing around them, based on these complex interactions between the different factions,” Holmes told Wired. “It really opens up the possibility space for a ton for emergent gameplay that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.”
The Salient, the Outlanders and the Scourge
But back to the core game. Each match has three phases. In the build phase, players equip their Scavenger and plan strategy with their teammates. The second phase, known as ‘hunt’, sees players fight and ally with other human players to complete objectives, gather resources and battle against AI-controlled enemy factions. And the final phase is called ‘extract, where the surviving scavengers must find and defend launch zones in order to escape with their loot.
Large and unpredictable AI populations, combined with the balance of cooperation and competition between the human players, will create rich, repeatable gameplay. There are three enemy factions controlled by the AI, which players will have to contend with: the Salient, the Outlanders and the Scourge. “They can be capturing areas of the map and becoming the dominant force in an area, feeding back into the moment-to-moment gameplay in really unpredictable ways. That’s really exciting for us.” says Holmes.
The Salient are robot enemies, using high-tech gear; the Outlanders are human survivors like the player, but AI-controlled; and the Scourge is a faction of creatures infected by that aforementioned virus, which tears apart placid animals, turning them into revenant horrors.
“The Scourge is a twisted form of wildlife.” Holmes told Eurogamer. “When you’re aware of the presence of the Scourge, it becomes something that strikes fear into the player. We want to create this sense of vulnerability, where players need to rely on one another as they’re exploring the world and dealing with these threats.”
Each faction will fight the others – players can join the battle, but will be heavily outnumbered, encouraging care and strategy. Josh Holmes again: “We want to create this sense of openness and exploration, punctuated by moments of intense combat, as opposed to a frenetic, constant, combat-focused experience. Do you ambush players? As a team you’re always having to keep a watchful eye for opposition teams.”
“We’re trying to achieve a better balance (than Halo 5’s Warzone mode),” Holmes said. “We don’t want the game of Scavengers to become one where killing players is the dominant strategy in the game, where if you’re not tremendously skilled at killing other players, that you can feel like you’re not contributing to your team. We want to create the opportunity for players to contribute in a myriad of different ways on the battlefield.” We’re interested to see what unpredicted player behaviours emerge from the game’s complexity and emphasis on creative team play.
SpatialOS and The Boundaries of Multiplayer
Given the scope of Midwinter’s design ambition, SpatialOS is a key technology in the development of the game. Thanks to Improbable’s groundbreaking technology, the game world of Scavengers can be far larger and more complex than worlds supported on a single dedicated server. The huge map can be populated by hundreds of free-roaming, highly sophisticated AI enemies, too.
“We started Midwinter with the goal of creating innovative, shared experiences for millions of players around the world,” said Holmes. “When we introduced Warzone in Halo 5, it represented the pinnacle of blended PVE/PVP. Now with SpatialOS, we have the ability to to push the boundaries of ‘co-opetition’ gameplay in Scavengers, with teams of players competing as armies of smart AI move intelligently across the map, hunting down players and each other.”
Essentially, SpatialOS’s revolutionary approach to building and managing online game worlds divides the action between multiple servers in the cloud. The hard limits and forced trade-offs of the traditional dedicated server approach can be avoided, and Midwinter can build a game that reflects their ambitions.
Making Scavengers with SpatialOS has other design benefits too. Whereas before a tree falling in the game would have to be heavily-scripted, to allow for it be to used for cover and to avoid problems with pathfinding, now SpatialOS can handle the heavy lifting, allowing for more dynamic and unpredictable events. “It’s very challenging to recompute pathfinding on the fly,” Holmes told Eurogamer. “That’s an incredibly intensive problem.”[Using SpatiaOS] the pathfinding can be recalculated on a separate worker and then fed back into the game experience, which allows the AI to be much more reactive to dynamic events within the world.”
Although Scavengers is session-based, SpatialOS allows elements of persistence to be built into the gameplay to explore new depth and gameplay opportunities in each session. For example, both players and AIs could leave distinctive tracks in the snow, which remain until falling snow fills them in. “Being able to track the footprints of anyone who’s gone through an area [is] another thing we’re talking about that could be really interesting,” Holmes says. “You could say “OK, there’s been a group of players here, and the footprints lead off in this direction. Let’s follow these footprints and hunt them down.”
Finally, building on games like Left 4 Dead, the action is co-ordinated by a Game Director AI, which knows where players are relative to each other and curates their experience of the game by altering areas, enemies, encounters, objectives, and loot. If the action lacks drama, or a team is doing too well, the director might give that team objectives that draw them closer to a rival team, to give them more hard choices. “It’s creating the ebb and flow of action over the course of the session and trying to maintain the ideal feel to the game that represents the intention of our team,” Holmes explained.
Midwinter Entertainment is the first studio to announce a funding and technology partnership with Improbable – the first partnership of its kind between Improbable and a game studio. “It’s something that can benefit the entire development community,” said Holmes, “as people who are interested in pursuing these sort of games, which require this step-up in terms of scale and complexity, will have this framework that will allow them as developers to take advantage of all of the tools that SpatialOS allows.”
“We’re passionate about making the next generation of online games possible and we’re taking steps to help studios with outstanding teams and exciting visions make games that would have previously been impossible,” said Improbable CEO and co-founder Herman Narula. “Often, innovation comes from studios like Midwinter: talented, experienced designers and developers with a track record of delivery at major studios, who want to create something truly groundbreaking.”
“We chose to partner on Scavengers because we believe that Midwinter will produce a great game and a great demonstration of SpatialOS in action, and also help us to optimize our own tech and tools for this kind of action-packed, session-based gameplay. A partnership like this is designed not just to help a great game get made, but to make it easier for other studios to make great games.”