The team behind Mavericks: Proving Grounds certainly talk a good game.
They also talk a big game, since the headline feature of Mavericks is all about scale and scope. A battle royale match with 400 players? Fine. 1000? Sure thing.
It's not all about raw numbers, however. The team at Automaton, Mavericks' developer, are also focused on density. In my brief five-player hands-on with the game's basic systems I see examples of this, such as how walking through the brush will leave trampled foliage that could potentially lead enemies right to your current position. It's not just about player counts, they say: it's also about density, the type of which hasn't been seen in the genre before.
Future plans point to MMO ambitions and even persistent systems and worlds that smack of the madness of EVE Online, and there's experienced staff on hand at the studio from the likes of EVE, Runescape, and Killzone, among others.
Leading the charge is Automaton CEO James Thompson - far from just a suit, an experienced engineer who appears to be getting stuck in on actual development himself. Bristling with enthusiasm despite being in the middle of a loud trade show, he offered up an explanation of what Mavericks hopes to do and how Automaton plan to achieve it.
VG247: For the uninitiated, how do you describe Mavericks?
James Thompson: The quickest way to describe Mavericks is to say that it's a battle royale - but we really see it as a massively multiplayer PVP experience. It's really approaching the genre in a very different way to anything that's come out on the market in this genre recently, though - it's been built from the ground up with an MMO architecture, with SpatialOS as the infrastructure and server side of that.
From a technology perspective it's new engine tech we've been working on starting with working in CryEngine and then developing further for new systems, for streaming, for a higher level of detail. That allows us to do far more fidelity at scale than you'd expect from previous games with off-the-shelf engines. And then on the server and infrastructure side, we simulate the world with a swarm of workers on top of SpatialOS - so it's not limited to just one dedicated server. We separate out physics from other aspects like gameplay logic, and that means that we can scale say bullet physics however much we need with the density of players - up to 1,000 - and even down to the density of where people are shooting. This means that even though we have higher fidelity than many other games, we have much more consistency with things like frame rates.
"We're not trying to just throw more players at the typical online play - our big step forward in that area is more tactics, more simulation, a more consistent ability to show you how good you are at the game."
We're a battle royale game, but we're also a virtual world game in that it takes place in the proving grounds, a place which is a large 16km sq playable area with a capital in the center - a social hub. That's how you join the game, so there's a consistent, MMORPG style entrance to the game where you can trade, you can see the progress of your character... we're creating a backdrop through that.
It's not about trying to bring RPG gameplay elements into the battle royale setting - it's still got that core competitive esports side to it and that's our focus this year - but it is set in a setting where even in the small demo here you can see the aesthetic and understand more about the world we're building.
It's all roughly based on Northern England, the countryside. It's a place you can recognize, a world that is designed to be intiutive as we'll be adding a lot of new systems that are really about destructibility, using the world to your advantage, tracking players, tactics... and there are so many of those things that make the world more dynamic than other games.
Let's talk about scale for a second. The number being thrown around a lot is 1,000 players to a match, which is significant. Are these numbers really tenable, and will you offer many options in terms of match size and format?
This is obviously new territory, and really the whole genre is pretty new. We see that there are different benefits to different scales of match. We're not trying to be inflexible, but we have to consider two things: queue size is of course a huge concern, we don't want players to sit in large queues. But on top of that there's prestige. If there are like ten game modes, being great at one is slightly less impressive than if there's only a handful.
We don't want to dilute things too much. Having said that, we associate those big, 1,000-player kind of games with special kinds of moments. It should feel like there's been a warm-up to these battles. Maybe there's been an invitational charity event, maybe it's a big match between the 1,000 best players in the game. I think of it as being like an awesome finale - but it doesn't necessarily make for the best, most consistent experience. Right now we're at 400 players for more typical matches.
We're not trying to just throw more players at the typical online play - our big step forward in that area is more tactics, more simulation, a more consistent ability to show you how good you are at the game. We want less RNG, less 'oh, I just happened to find this amazing weapon'. We still have a bit of that, but because you have more tactical systems at play there are more ways to prove your mastery of the game. Because we have a map that's more dense with more objectives and the like, we really feel it's come together as a system you can really feel like you can go into the online play and demonstrate your skills in.
You can just explore and have fun in a more casual play, too, and we feel like even that will be better because there's more to explore and more to discover thanks to that density. It's a large map - the full map is four times bigger than PUBG, approximately.
Now, PUBG and other games are now doing more maps, obviously, and we're focused on having a very varied, large map that has a consistent lore that'll also develop over time. We'll be developing post-launch at a very rapid rate. Other games in the genre are incredibly slow at developing because they were other things that have been changed into battle royale - we're built for it, so our map should evolve, and do so more quickly. We think that'll work well for the genre.
The next question is obviously stability, though. How do you ensure this actually runs well, and ensure that if you have the success some of your peers have seen servers don't go off the rails?
We're very conscious of that, yeah. We've done a few announcements, and even though we're really only doing the huge announcements from E3 onward we've already had 100,000 sign-ups in the first week... the amount of volume we've had is incredible. Because of that we know we're going to have a huge volume when we launch this game.
"We associate those big, 1,000-player kind of games with special kinds of moments. It should feel like there's been a warm-up to these battles."
On top of that, we're really conscious of doing a stable launch. A lot of us come from an MMO background, and I feel like both Automaton and Improbable are focused on building a game that has a robust system. What we're building with Improbable on SpatialOS and in Mavericks in terms of the shooting itself isn't just about scale but about robustness. You don't just compromise because we have this scale. That's what we'll be demonstrating later this year when we launch in Q4 out of closed beta - we'll have a closed beta first, but that's more to test gameplay, though we'll do some scale testing there of course.
We're very, very aware of the huge number of players that we're expecting and we're working to support that. Of course, as a technical architecture SpatialOS is designed to scale infinitely - there's nothing stopping it other than the data center limitations that'll come into play, but we're mapping that out and we're aware of that.
What's pretty interesting to me is how you're using a few different technologies to make this work - SpatialOS but also CryEngine. Can you talk a little about how they interact and why you chose to go with them?
Spatial is very much about the simulation and the server side of things. It connects players or networks players while allowing us to simulate the world at a large scale ... but, you obviously need to use the game engine in conjunction with that to do the rendering and the other classic things you associate with game engines that are sold as packaged products. For Mavericks many of those packaged products had too many limitations, so we took the game engine that was closest to what we needed - that was CryEngine. CryEngine has always been about fully real time, high quality games, and it fit with the ways we wanted to push the limits of fidelity and scale. We needed the best streaming and high fidelity systems from the get-go, and CryEngine does that for us. It's about the rendering, it's about streaming things in...
Now, on top of that we're working with further modules on top of the engine that allow us to build out this massive world faster. Mavericks isn't just about 'how do we render a massive world for players to run on their computers', it's also for our team a very different approach where we can build the world a lot more efficiently. Our development pipeline is all about being fully real-time, so you can edit anything instantaneously anywhere. We really focused on being able to have ten to a hundred times the speed of world development as you might expect from a traditional map while still retaining the level design philosophies and carefully-crafted properties of shooting games.
For us, the biggest change in Mavericks is about the simulation of the map and how it's structured, how you can use that to your advantage... it's a massive step up in terms of complexity of development of the game and even running the game. CryEngine's a big part of the development process, but we're running that simulation in the cloud.
You've got the extra map size, obviously, but how are you balancing level design for such large player numbers?
We're basically 2,000 Call of Duty maps in one, so we're not going to be spoke-make entirely every single piece of the map, but we do give that impression because we do much more with modular sets that build up that level design.
The point of the modules is that even though it looks like everything is bespoke-made, underneath there are a few areas we tested in internal play-tests and saw that it's good gameplay. We then take a few of those primitives and then adjust and do slightly different things with them across the map. We're thinking on a design level - so it's not just about reskinning art.
"Our building system has as much destructibility as Rainbow Six Siege... Sieging a house is a big deal in Mavericks, where it's an afterthought in what you might see on the market today."
Like, buildings mean gameplay, so we're thinking about design. For example, in that we'll be showcasing this summer, our building system has as much destructibility as Rainbow Six Siege... it has many different destruction systems. Sieging a house is a big deal in Mavericks, where it's an afterthought in what you might see on the market today. We think about each of these components as pretty substantial pieces of level design, and so to make sure that all these pieces are adding up to fun, so we're really thinking about level design. Current battle royale games... they don't really go there yet. They're fun, but they're about the players and are set against pretty basic backdrops. Obviously Fortnite is a different approach since you can build stuff, but still.
What we're using today are these smaller areas as we've been using in testing. So it's a smaller area, but we'll test it with less players - anywhere from five to fifty players. All these things will come together to create the full thing.
We're experimenting with an objective style systems like capturing things, and we're also reducing the randomization of how things spawn so that you feel more rewarded throughout your session. We're also ensuring through the character progression RPG style systems that you still get something out of any given match without being the last man standing. We reward you for tactical play in this context, independent of the winning in the end.
You've mentioned progression a few times, but in a genre like battle royale it's presumably all cosmetic, right? What have you done to make it meaningful?
In terms of gameplay the progression is cosmetic, however in the capital and the social hub you're gaining items and gear, and you can use that in the open world in fun PVP showdowns and stuff - that's a sort of secondary part of the game that exists mostly to show off your prestige. In terms of what we're focusing on this year, the battle royale session-based mode, you don't gain advantages because you have cool gear back in the social hub.
The social hub is important, though. There's a city in the center, there's trade... we've seen Destiny do a basic example of that to some extent, but we're larger, more persistent and have more player-to-player interactions than that. Later on it will evolve into full open world gameplay where you have factions and clans fighting in a more persistent way, but this year we're not introducing too much of that... We'll still have the core - the community, the progression of your player.
For us it's also the first time that a game has done both that type of online community and competitive game modes. At the end of the day what we're launching this year is a competitive experience - it's good for esports, it makes sense for session-based play, but we're using that system as a backdrop for further development, to allow players to get better at the game by understanding the tactics of the map.
Looking towards next year when we launch more of the open world stuff it's also about keeping the game fresh - where the global narrative that happens pulled from the RPG will impact the backdrop of the games. It allows us to update the game in a way that's non-intrusive but also allows you to feel like you're part of an evolving world. battle royale is all inspired by the movies, and what makes it epic is that you're in a world and you're fighting to the death, but current games aren't really making a believable world in that sense.