Love them or hate them, everyone is talking about the latest crop of high quality free-to-play games like Spellbreak.
Spellbreak in particular has built up a devoted fanbase in the two years it spent in public alpha and beta development. Now that the game has been formally released for Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, and PC, there has been an explosion of gamers to the title, making it the battle royale du jour for fall 2020.
But how exactly did the game's dev team manage to cook up a free-to-play battle royale that manages to be original enough to break away from the pack of vicious competition in that particular niche? And how does the studio plan to build a long-term success from a recent sensation?
We chatted with Cardell Kerr, the executive producer of Spellbreak at Proletariat Games, to find out.
Ryan: Why did you opt for free-to-play? Was there a creative decision beyond the financial considerations?
Cardell Kerr: We have always positioned ourselves as a company that creates games designed to change the way communities play together. The best way to build a lasting community around a quality product is to be as non-exclusive as possible. We put a lot of time into Spellbreak and getting it to where it is so we had faith we could go free to play and build a thriving player-base.
Ryan: How does one differentiate their game in a sea of Fortnite and PUBG and Rocket League?
Kerr: There are so many great games available right now, so we knew that we needed to deliver something unique to stand out. The first step is to make sure that you aren’t afraid to try something new and different from what everyone else is doing. If you can’t do that, you will never really stand out because your only real options then are to effectively duplicate a game that already exists.
“If your base game isn’t very exciting, wrapping a battle royale or roguelike mechanic around it won’t really help.”
Ryan: I think of them as two sides of the same coin, but why do you think the roguelike and battle royale genres are so hot right now?
Kerr: This is a very good question! I think that they both provide reasons to endlessly engage with a natively fun mechanic. If your base game isn’t very exciting, wrapping a battle royale or roguelike mechanic around it won’t really help, as people won’t want to keep engaging. Same token, if your base game is super fun to play, lacking content just leaves players with the memory of a good time. Multiplayer and Roguelike both serve the same master—the promise of long term mastery and content. Currently, folks are hungry for games as it's one of the few forms of media in the entertainment industry that’s still thriving despite the global pandemic.
Ryan: Games like Spellbreak and Genshin Impact have gotten a lot of flack for being visually influenced by Breath of the Wild. Style trends are nothing new to gaming and art, so why do you think a small faction of players seem so fixated on this?
Kerr: The gaming audience has grown wildly over the years. As a result, there are people that play games for all sorts of reasons. I know a lot of people will claim gameplay is the only thing that really matters, which gives us games that are mechanically amazing but not super visually polished. Similarly, there are people who look to games as needing to only execute visually to be seen as quality, regardless of their core gameplay. I think there is a bit of preciousness when it comes to specific styles, and when anything looks like it's in those camps some audiences can declare themselves as gatekeepers of sorts. I don’t feel there is much harm in that to be honest! We played those games/watched those series and they influenced and inspired our creative visions. To me, it's endlessly flattering when we are compared to titles like Breath of the Wild or Fortnite, as the difference in team size and development time is enormous.
Ryan: How did you manage to make a game complicated enough for sophisticated Battle Royale players and new audiences?
Kerr: It’s ironic, as Spellbreak has been iterated on with live players for over two years now. When we first made it available in pre-alpha, the game was very different from what it is today. I also think that “complicated” may not be the exact right word, as Battle Royale players want depth of options. Whether leading your target to land a fireball, or pre-spinning your teleport such that when you arrive you’re directly facing the breaker you’re looking forward to disrupting, each of those options are ways to provide mastery and demonstrate how good at the game you are. At launch, we really tried to sand-off the ‘complexity for complexity’s sake’ mechanics we had, and just focus on the moment to-moment feel and mechanics. We think that makes it both widely appealing and deep.
Ryan: Obviously it has some constraints, but did you struggle to get the game to run on Switch?
Cardell Kerr: Yes. We absolutely struggled. There were numerous tense moments as we worked on it where our main graphics developer would claim it would never work. We kept pushing and eventually we got to the point where it wasn’t that bad…so we kept on iterating and culling elements. Once we hit 30 FPS we were ecstatic, because we remembered the days where we couldn’t even get it to load. The thing that really makes it worth it is seeing how many people love to play Spellbreak on Switch—but I’d be telling a lie if I said it was easy.
Ryan: The game has been in alpha for two years. Do you recommend developing a game, essentially, in public?
Cardell Kerr: I can definitely say it's not for everyone. But I absolutely think it's worth it. The feedback you get from players allows you to throw out stuff that doesn’t work and double down on things that do. I actually think we will see more studios developing games like this, as it allows you to create a community before you launch, which is also valuable in order to spread the word.
Ryan: The hardcore fanbase knows Garrick’s Journal but will we be getting more animated or in-game lore about the world and characters of Spellbreak, a la Overwatch?
Cardell Kerr: It’s funny you should mention that! The short answer is yes; we have full intention of explaining more of the lore behind the world, the magic, and even the origins of both. Some will be delivered in game, some will be in teaser form and others will be more interactive.
Ryan: When can players expect new gauntlets and gear or new map layouts?
Cardell Kerr: New areas of the map, new objects on the map to interact with, plus new gauntlets and runes are all on the roadmap as we update the game. You can also expect new classes and entirely new systems. I’m very excited to see how people engage with the ‘Prologue: The Gathering Storm’ update as a whole.
Ryan: What recent games by other studios are you impressed by?
Cardell Kerr: I’ve been banging the Hades drum for a very, very long time. The amount of care and iteration that went into that game is amazing. The way they handled their community was equally impressive, and they were also very transparent about their development which is something I am in awe of. There’s a lot there to be proud of, and I am happy to cheer them on. Go Zagreus! I also have a soft spot for Sisyphus because I work in games. 😉