Hybrid MMO/Monster Hunter action game Dauntless is hitting a very specific niche, and hitting it hard. Since announcement it’s garnered serious attention from an underserved subset of gamers who really want to kill giant enemies - Behemoths - gather loot, and do it all with their friends. The game was being shown off at PAX East, and right there on the show floor Phoenix Labs’ president Jesse Houston talked to us about the game, his new company and where it all goes next.
For more on the game, check our run down of the Dauntless Behemoths revealed so far.
He’s remarkably honest for a company co-founder, having spent more than ten years at Ubisoft, Bioware and Riot producing the world’s biggest games. We’ll have more gameplay-focused thoughts, as well as an interview with design director Chris Cleroux, soon. For now, Jesse has plenty to say about the company, their ethos and future plans for the game.
PCGN: How has the reaction been since you announced?
Jesse Houston: It's been really humbling. It's tough because - a good first world problem to have - we blew our predictions for how many folks would be interested and yadda-yadda-yadda, and so we weren't originally going to come to a PAX. We announce, it goes crazy, takes our website down, we're like, 'Shit - what do we do?'
We [realise] we have to react, decide to go to PAX South. We got a 20” by 30”, the biggest that they had, we figure it out, build a demo and then, like, [the line] is looped around twice at this thing, the fire marshal's mad at us, PAX is mad at us, we're like, 'Shit, now we have to go to East too' [because] people want to see this game.
Factually, we'd expected it to be kind of dark for a lot longer but now we're actually having to be a bit more open, which is cool because it's also changed our whole strategy. We're going full transparent. We'll talk about stuff that's in development, we'll talk about our crazy ideas, we'll tell people we're not sure about things and we'll learn. It's been awesome.
The community is so cool, everybody's just been mega-chill and awesome to talk to. I hang out on the community’s unofficial Discord [channel] every night. I'm just chilling in there, we talk about Raspberry Pis.
Is the community at that nice size where it hasn't got so big that you run into problems by being so open?
Before this I ran League of Legends...
That's a slightly larger game, no offense.
No, none taken [laughs] - you know, God, I hope we never get that big. If I went anywhere near the forums it was like, an emotional disaster, right? I was being character assassinated left, right and centre. Whereas [in the Dauntless community] there's [plenty] of folks who are pretty active and every one of them is super-chill. They're not used to talking to folks that just want to be honest, gamers who just happen to make videogames. So we've just been really lucky.
A few companies say that about their employees, but aren't as open with their communities.
The reality is if you talk enough, people just come to expect that you're human. You're humanised and they're like, 'Oh yeah, Jesse just said something stupid' and you can be [more theoretical]. You can be like, 'Wouldn't it be fucking cool if Pangar could destroy trees?' And then we can't do it, and [we explain that]. I think when you get folks into the mindset that we're just going to be open, everybody's just gonna talk and it's gonna be okay - especially when, I mean our PR team's dope, but we don't have internal PR. I own the company, so I get to set the tone, I've always wanted to be open so guess what, we're just gonna be fuckin' open.
The marketing team is also like that too. Our marketing guys all play videogames, Nick, our lead marketing guy, is not your standard marketing fuckwad. He's a dope gamer, we've all worked together for like 15 plus years. The first 25 folks have all shipped at least two games with me. We all know each other, we're not worried about shit, it just doesn't matter. We don't do media training, because why don't we just talk about what we're doing?
Has the early interest changed your timelines at all?
We're adding a bunch more closed stuff, so in the next couple of months we're gonna do a closed alpha thing. We've been running a live server for a year and a half now, we're just gonna start opening it early and just kinda hope it continues to work out.
And when it immediately breaks you can see what works and what doesn’t?
Yeah, that kinda thing. Other than that, there hasn't been a major, major change other than just accelerating [things. We’ve got to bring more folks on and we're not gonna do the whole 'We're not ready to talk about that yet' bullshit, we're just gonna be like, 'Here's what we think, here's what we know.'
We're putting a blog post every two or three days out right now, just trying to get all the stuff in our head out. That's been the big change, being more open. We won't do it like we've always done it.
Is what we're playing today the same thing we'll be seeing when it goes wider?
From a combat perspective it's feeling pretty good. Every holiday we take the game home and play, and we basically cut a bunch of the stuff out of the holiday build and then polished it a little bit for the demo. The actual game is quite a bit further ahead, for example all of the [special abilities] have been completely redone since this. But from an overall, ‘what swinging an axe feels like’ [perspective] it's about there. But it's completely missing the armour abilities, the equippable items that each come with a special ability. It's missing all the secondary stuff but from a primary abilities perspective it's a bit more where we want to be.
What's the plan for the closed alpha?
We're thinking like Tuesdays and Thursdays we'd turn it on for eight or nine hours, get some people in, get a bunch of data, get on the forums with them, see what their feelings are. Then do some changes, do that for a bit.
We're getting pretty close to systems complete and that's the point where we think it's worth putting out there. We're in hardcore content creation for the most part right now, so it's a really good time to [gather] feedback.
Where do you want the skill in the game to lie?
I would be incredibly happy if some dude who streams naked Dark Souls runs can beat the game without leveling up. That would be super dope. It's going to take that degree of skill to get there. We do want gear to be an important part, but we also want there to be a strategy and tactical component to it. We don't want it to be easy.
Drask [hardest monster in this build], two groups in two days have beaten him. At PAX South, Pangar, only 20 per cent of people beat him.
My group and I managed to beat him, but it took a long while.
That's the thing, right? We want this game to be hard, we don't want it to be trivial. It's important that it's easy to get into, but we want to warm you up into a hard game, have a high skill cap. Because then you can create that social respect of: 'Dude's in Black Dragon armour, legit.'
So you want to have that old-school WoW thing where some extremely low percentage of people have done the highest level of content?
Yeah, I'm okay with that. We should have content that is rare. I'm totally fine with that. The cool thing that we can do is [create] the turbo-hard version of Drask, who is white and has a bunch of ice abilities. We can do variants that keep a little bit of the original encounter, but we turn them to 11. Give that a special armour set and be like, 'Good luck.'
As I think about it today, I want most players to be able to experience the endgame, but I don't want most players to experience the end endgame. I think if half the folks who enter the game get to the endgame I'd be really happy.
What's the inspiration behind the art style? At first glance it's a little bit Overwatch-y, to the point where early impressions might dismiss it for looking like a clone.
The fact that you put us anywhere near Overwatch is a big... thank you. So we wanted to [go with this] because it's going to be a service-based game, right? That means it's going to last a while, and that means that if we take the ultra-hyper-realism, technology-based high fidelity graphics [approach] you start looking old really quickly. Like, remember how good Counter-Strike looked? Modern Warfare looked amazing back in the day, [but it] doesn't age well. I don't want to shit on those guys, it literally looked fucking great.
Whereas TF2 still looks really good. I think Overwatch is gonna look great in ten years as well - thanks Blizzard, why can't you just make a game that nobody wants to play? [laughs] So when we were really looking at this to [create] timeless visuals we actually looked at Disney for a lot of inspiration.
The initial inspiration was based off Tangled. So really simple shapes, low frequency of detail in textures but then really high-end lighting. Hyper-realistic lighting and then keeping everything simple, straightforward, easy to read. Kind of painterly, if you will. That's how it all started and it's evolved since.
With it being a live game, how do you think you'll run your business model?
Where we're at is it's gonna be free-to-play. We cannot go anywhere near putting weapons and armour and stuff like this behind a paywall. As you saw, skill is such an important component to it. When you go into the city, when I see you, I have to know that you're wearing that black dragon armour [because] you're a badass, not [because] you've got a deep wallet.
The next step I want to take is - if you're wearing the black dragon armour but it's hot pink, you've got good fashion and a deep wallet. Customisation, personalisation, transmogs, that kind of stuff - I think there's a tonne of opportunity there where we don't have to put stuff behind a paywall and players can reward us with their dollars rather than being forced to do it.
So you're avoiding charging for variety - characters to play, Behemoths to fight?
I don't think we need to. Based on all of our modelling anyway, even in our most conservative models we'll be just fine. We're in Canada, that makes it cheaper. We're a pretty small team, we don't have a big publisher, if the doors stay open everybody's happy. So we can afford to be a bit conservative and build a game that people are going to love for years rather than knock stuff out immediately.
What's your dream for the game in a best case scenario?
I’ve got a backlog a mile long of stuff that I want to do, but I'm so hyper-focused on just making a game that's high quality now that I'm not really planning on what happens if [it's a huge success]. If 20 million people decide they want to jump in, I don't know, I won't sleep [laughs]. We'll probably just continue to try to feed the beast more quickly, add more content and see what happens. That'll be a good day, if that's the problem that we have.
Were you worried before the announce that people wouldn't be interested?
Yeah, for sure. I've worked on some great games, I've always had a big publisher that had all the validation in the world. This time it's our idea. We're not big, if we whiff, we're done, fail. It's not like I've got 70 million dollars to [just throw around]. I'm anxious as fuck, not gonna lie, it's scary. I'm super passionate, I love the game, I have no fear that the game is good, but it's good for me. I'm kinda just hoping I've done my homework well enough, the community is big enough - our strategy of building games for a community that's underserved, is that the right strategy?
It's not a normal one. We're not doing the 'Let's take a shooter and merge it with a MMO' [thing], grab two good genres and try to combine them. We're going after a unique, niche space. Thank God for Bandai Namco because Dark Souls is paving the way for hardcore action games. It's not just Monster Hunter and a couple of other weird niche games. Games that are skill-based PvE are actually becoming quite popular, that's been a good signalling event for us, stuff like [our popularity at PAX] is another good signal, so ideally - if we don't fuck it up - it seems like we're on the right path.
How does the success of stuff like For Honor make you feel?
For Honor's a pretty different game but it's really nice to see that there are other hardcore, skill-based games that are not just on-the-rails story adventures getting a lot of traction. I think consumers are showing with their dollars that they actually want these things. You think [back to] five or six years ago, publishers were like, ‘No, no, no, if it's not PvP’ [don't bother].
I think there's this cool renaissance happening around the industry, not just with hardcore games but with also games that have been more niche. Like Mirror's Edge 2, that getting greenlit and actually doing well enough to be profitable, it's super dope to see the big folks going after stuff that is not just giant sports game number 53.
I look at it like this. I worked on Mass Effect for a long time so I'm going to talk very positively about it - I think Mass Effect's a good example. The RPG space is not 70 million gamers, the dudes who are doing Divinity are not going to try and out-sell GTA. But they're successful, they're doing great, they make high quality games, they're passionate about their audience, the audience is passionate about their games - that's fucking dope. I think it's awesome that we are able to now, as an industry, go, 'Hey, we make games for an audience, not for numbers'.
You make a good game and, Field of Dreams, right? The players will come.
Did you think about going the Kickstarter route, or any crowdfunding?
You know, I didn't, no. I think there are pros and cons. The games that do really well on Kickstarter generally have somebody who has a lot of [fame] - like Tim Schafer. Dudes like him are able to get up there and go, 'You remember me from my 8,000 games.' But I've kinda been behind the scenes. I'm not sad about it, I've got to work on some great games, but I can't be like, 'Hi I'm Jesse Houston, you might remember me from that E3 demo in 2011' - nobody cares. Nobody gives a shit who I am, which is great.
Also I think [Kickstarter] forces a type of development that isn't in alignment with how we want to develop the game. It forces you to do a lot of demoing, create a lot of video content - we just wanna build the game and show what we have at any given time, but we don't want to have to teach people about game development. We just want to talk about how we're doing it. We're [also] really lucky in that we were able to self-fund.
Similar topic, what about publishers?
You know, we've talked to a bunch of publishers. They've expressed interest, we've expressed interest, we moved away, they moved away. You know, we're a free to play PC game and PC is back on the upswing - but it's on the upswing, it's not the current [vogue]. Two things that publishers don't get.
Plus when we're like 'Oh, by the way, we're also in a really kinda niche genre that's really only on the upswing too' and 'I'm basically going to talk to anybody the fuck that I want and it's going to be great'... I think there's definitely a future working with publishers - Microsoft were in the booth earlier, came to have a little meeting, Nintendo was here. We'll see what happens, I'm not against it. [The demo stations] have Xbox controllers, we keep the build running in case we want to go that route.
The reality is that the rules are changing pretty quickly too. Ideally I want to be able to make it so that the folks who are playing on PC can play with the dudes who are playing on Playstation or whatever. Patch it equally, have them all be equal citizens - three years ago that wasn't a reality and that's becoming more and more of a possibility.
Much more to come on Dauntless - has it got you excited? Let us know in the comments below.