The RPG genre has seen some absolute gems release over the past few years. Games like The Witcher 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition and others have set the bar for the genre this generation. While those experiences are certainly standards for developers to aim at, companies like Nine Dots Studio are also trying to innovate within the space.
Nine Dots Studio is developing the upcoming RPG Outward. This brand-new IP brings gamers into a gorgeous, diverse world where each time you playthrough the narrative your experience is different. Not only will your story change from playthrough to playthrough, but gamers will be able to do something no RPG has done this generation.
You might be wondering what exactly Outward could do that studios like BioWare and CD Projekt RED have yet to do. Nine Dots Studio is bringing local split-screen co-op into its RPG experience. This is something that we have yet to see in an RPG of this magnitude, and it feels like a game changing feature.
Gamers can play online or locally with a friend and take on the world of Outward. The maximum amount of players will be two per game. The combination of the stunning world, dynamic narrative and innovative split-screen co-op will make Outward a can’t miss title.
We Write Things wanted to learn more about Outward and had the opportunity to speak exclusively with Guillaume Boucher-Vidal. The founder and president of Nine Dots Studio shared new details surrounding the game’s narrative functions, customization, progression, skills, local co-op, world size, playthrough lengths, dynamic defeat scenarios, the possibility of partnering with a publisher, and more. We hope you enjoy the interview.
We Write Things: How will player choice impact the story they experience?
Guillaume Boucher-Vidal: The most important choice for players will be which faction they choose at the beginning. Each of those factions will give you a different perspective on a bigger story around the world itself. Those perspectives show how the different factions interact. Other elements would be the survival of an entire town could be decided by whether or not you succeed in a quest. Other things we are thinking about is the survival of some important characters. We want players to be one of the many different people who are interacting with this world. It’s more about your perspective and what you understand versus your actions changing things for everyone else.
WWT: How will dynamic defeat scenarios work?
Boucher-Vidal: Say you fell unconscious from hunger or cold or you were defeated by a monster. You can see where it happened and try and choose a defeat scenario according to that. It’s going to change where you spawn back and in what situation. For instance, you could collapse from the cold. Then you wake up and there’s this small scene that tells you what happened. A doctor may have saved you and now he’s asking for compensation for his services.
There is also this Geb scenario where sometimes you die and you wake up at a camp. There’s a lit fire, food and a special drink. There’s a letter there saying, ‘I saw you were in trouble, so I saved you. You owe me one, signed Geb.’ And you’re like, ‘wait, what happened?’ Then there’s this local legend telling you, ‘I got saved by Geb the other day too.’ We want to bring [those stories] into the lore. Then we have defeat scenarios that feel like a quest. For instance, you could get beat up and captured by bandits, then you wake up in prison and need to escape. You don’t have your gear or anything. You have to decide to go for your gear or leave altogether, get some equipment and then storm back later on.
WWT: Survival elements are clearly present in Outward. To what degree will the survival elements affect players?
Boucher-Vidal: At the beginning, things like hunger and thirst will be harder to deal with. As you get stronger, it will stop being problematic because there are villages. It’s not like survival games where survival is the core element of the experience. In our case, it’s more of a supplement. Some games, when you kill a deer, you get enough meat for just one meal. In our game, if you kill an animal, you can have enough meat so that the hunger problem is solved for a while. You could even take the extra meat and sell it at the village and make a profit. At first, you eat to survive and as you progress, you eat for a bonus because that is what you need to survive dungeons and more difficult regions.
WWT: This world seems diverse and massive, but what sort of size are players looking at in Outward?
Boucher-Vidal: Since you can play split-screen, it wouldn’t make sense to have one very large map where one person is at the top and the other person is at the bottom. Instead, we divided the world into smaller regions that are four square kilometers each. They are vastly different from each other. We have a desert, cave, marsh and all of those have different obstacles. We use the different regions to offer more variety. They are large enough where it would take multiple hours to walk and see everything there is to do. In structure, it’s closer to what Dragon Age: Inquisition did with the Hinterlands and multiply that by a few times.
WWT: With the world feeling segmented in a sense, how many regions will players visit?
Boucher-Vidal: For now, we know there are going to be four, but there’s the possibility of extending that. There may be five regions before launch. What I see as the best way for us to operate is to add more regions over time and have these DLCs, sometimes free, sometimes not. I see this as something we can really build on over and over again. Once the game is complete, we can easily start adding new factions, storylines, skills, weapons, monsters and all of those things. The potential is there, the game could be explosive in scale.
WWT: What will length look like for a single playthrough of Outward?
Boucher-Vidal: If you are mainly focusing on the story and doing a bit of exploration along the way, the game can be 12-20 hours. That would be for completing one faction. You won’t get the full story until you complete all of the different factions. Our goal is to have a game that offers 40-80 hours of gameplay for someone who is really trying to see everything.
WWT: Split-screen local co-op isn’t something we’ve seen in RPGs such as this one. What made the studio decide to implement this feature?
Boucher-Vidal: [Local co-op] is the single most challenging aspect of this game. At the same time, when we were discussing the game, we said ‘either it can be played in split-screen or we don’t do it at all.’ It was that important for me to have it in the game. I thought, ‘what could we offer that no other RPG could offer? What could be the thing that no matter what, we have that and the other [games] don’t?’ Split-screen came to mind in that regard. We’re not a team of 200 people. We won’t be a game that has graphics the likes of a game like Far Cry, but what we could do was what the others wouldn’t.
Having a game playable in split-screen means, to some extent, reducing the quality of the visuals in the game. Usually, that’s something marketing wouldn’t allow on a game production. In our case, we only need to have 70,000 copies sold and we would start making a profit. For a game of this genre, that is nothing. When we compare to other productions, they need to sell over a million copies to be worth it. That’s a big difference. We don’t rely on making a game for marketing. We’re making a game for players.
WWT: Frame rate is always an issue when it comes to split-screen. How much easier is it to manage frame rate on PC versus console?
Boucher-Vidal: It’s a world of a difference. Almost all of our limitations are on the fact that we need to run at least 30 fps on console. On PCs, we can easily get to 60 fps, 1080p and all of those fantastical graphic settings. Having split-screen available on a PC game is also something that is very rare.
WWT: How will progression work between the single-player and the co-op experiences?
Boucher-Vidal: If you have joined someone else’s game, you can still acquire XP and bring that back into your own game. Through progression, we want to make sure you can be good at everything, but it’s not a class-based system. You can decide to be a hybrid who has spells while being a warrior as well. You could also be a rogue, mixed with a hunter and a craftsman.
WWT: Are gamers looking at a straight up leveling system or will there be different tiers of progression?
Boucher-Vidal: [Progression] will be a mix of equipment and the skills. We are still looking at what limitations players will have on which skills they can get. There is no strength or dexterity point. We are really focusing on skills because they directly affect gameplay. There will be active skills and passive skills. These are more like perks in something like Fallout. However, getting all of the perks for your character isn’t something that will be possible in our game. You can be taught to use a bow as more of a sniping weapon where you shoot one arrow and it counts or [you can learn] a faster way of handling the bow. Those are two different strategies. Players have to choose one.
WWT: For both passive and active skills, what should players expect from them?
Boucher-Vidal: At the moment we are looking at 50 different skills, not all of them being [active]. Of course some of them will be passive skills. Some of those might have multiple tiers. For instance, you could have [a skill] that increases your health and then you’ll have health 1, health 2, health 3, etc. That’s basic stuff, but they all count as one skill. We are going to do a blitz of all players abilities we can add into the game.
We already have 20 different skills that are working and we are thinking of adding more once we have a development sprint. [In the sprint], we’ll see how many skills we can make and then choose which ones are the most important. However, it’s heart-wrenching to choose one skill because that might mean another won’t be in the game. It does mean [every skill] that’s in the game will be there because we thought it was most relevant to the experience.
WWT: How will gameplay adjust when a high level player teams up with a low level player?
Boucher-Vidal: We want our game to be more difficult when you play with someone else. It’ll either be a difficulty of one player or a difficulty of two players, no matter who you team up with. How I see it is if you join with a player who is a higher level, then you just go out and do something that would’ve been more challenging on your own. This does mean that it will be possible to carry another player through the experience. We decided on this approach because we didn’t want to spend our resources on policing how the player would live the experience. We also want the game to be something you can play through multiple times. This enables more ways of playing by not trying to limit what a player can and cannot do.
WWT: Since there’s an online component to the game’s co-op, is there a matchmaking system you guys are looking to create?
Boucher-Vidal: Not exactly a matchmaking system. Perhaps we’ll have something more like a lobby where you can announce publicly that you’re making a game, but not really much more than that. As good comparison would be Borderlands, where it’s a game you play more with your friends. We don’t want the game to be an MMO. We want it to be more of a shared experience.
WWT: Is it possible to exchange items or gear between players you encounter?
Boucher-Vidal: Yep, it will be possible.
WWT: What customization options will players have for characters? Can we choose to be a man or a woman?
Boucher-Vidal: Yeah. For now, we have three different races [for players to choose from]. You can be either white, asian or black. You can be either male or female.
WWT: What is the maximum amount of players in a single game?
Boucher-Vidal: It’s going to be two. We originally thought it would be technically feasible to do up to four for online, but it brought about a lot of questions about how to balance the experience. The game balance itself was a big challenge.
WWT: Have you guys thought about joining up with a publisher?
Boucher-Vidal: Yes. It’s definitely something we are looking into. I just came back from GDC and we’ve been in talks with multiple potential partners for two years now…The expectations of players for RPGs are very high. There are many things publishers can help us with. For instance, voiceovers are something we can’t really do on our own. Either we try and go through Early Access to try and do it on our own or we get a publisher and then we can really focus on making the game happen. It’s definitely part of the strategy we have.
WWT: Are there freedoms you lose when you join up with a publisher?
Boucher-Vidal: One thing you sacrifice when you join a publisher is flexibility. Once you sign an agreement, it’s usually to reach a certain vision of the project. If you make changes during development, publishers have to agree with those changes. Flexibility is something you lose. We’ve been so close to the project for so long that maybe having an external eye on it can be a good thing. I know it’s hip to bash publishers, and to an extent, I agree with some of the criticism. However, they’re not all the same and they all see something different in a product.
It’s more important to find the right partner. I wouldn’t sign with a publisher that doesn’t understand the product we are making. Paradox is a very good example of a publisher that knows its players [very] well. They know what it means to have Paradox imprinted on a game. If they tell us, ‘Our players will be more receptive to something like this,’ us, as developers, gain something from listening to that. The players get what they expect. The publisher gets what they expect. We get the support we expect in return.
WWT: There’s been quite a bit of new hardware released since last year. What are your impressions of PS4 Pro, Nintendo Switch and the upcoming Project Scorpio?
Boucher-Vidal: Personally, I find the current-generation of consoles, not Pro or Scorpio, are under the expectations of what a gamer would actually need from a [generation] switch. When we went from the Xbox to Xbox 360, it was a very big jump. Nowadays, if you buy an Xbox One, for the same price you can get a better PC. The offer, in terms of hardware, is not where I wish it was.
I don’t think that a Scorpio and Pro can fix that because they still expect [developers] to work well on [the base PS4 and Xbox One], which is the problem. Having higher resolution isn’t the problem. There are just things you can’t do with the technology limitations. If we have more power, instead of using it for higher graphics, we could use it for richer systems and richer features…Outward will probably be much more fluid on PS4 Pro and Project Scorpio than the weaker systems, but the experience won’t really be different.
WWT: For developers to truly unlock Pro and Scorpio’s potential, do we have to ditch the base PS4 and Xbox One?
Boucher-Vidal: Yeah. I think that’s when the bigger jump will be seen. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the plan, to try and change the model closer to what cell phones are doing. But ask any mobile developer if that’s something they like (laughs). To support all of those different [platforms] is a pain in the ass…I really think consoles right now are losing everything that made them special and gave them relevance on the market and that kills me. I grew up a console gamer and have an emotional attachment to it.
Outward is currently in development at Nine Dots Studio and will be coming to PC, PS4 and Xbox One. There is no indication as to whether or not the game will land on Switch, though I doubt it. Stick around here at We Write Things for much more on Outward.
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