On the Vancouver morning we call up Phoenix Labs there are 87,000 people not playing Dauntless. Instead, they’re in the queue, waiting to join the game’s newly open beta.
“We thought on our best day there was no way we will beat 50,000 concurrent users, because that would be the second-largest game on Steam,” founder Jesse Houston tells us. “Our servers are on fire.”
“On fire in a good way,” marketing manager Nick Clifford interjects. “Most of us were up all night because we hilariously shattered all the forecasts we had set for ourselves. It’s a great problem to have.”
Over the subsequent weekend, the team have managed to bring that queue down to nothing - and drink “40 gallons” of coffee. But the question remains: why is Dauntless proving so popular?
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This is a game about setting out into the forest to slay monsters: creatures with the bodies of bears and the heads of owls, over-large dogs with antlers, hovering insects with snake tails, pigs covered in porcupine quills - all rendered beautifully and at great scale.
“The fantasy of you and three of your friends beating up on giant behemoths is pretty strong,” Houston says. “There’s obviously one other very good game in the market, but there are not tons like this.”
He is referring to Monster Hunter, the beloved and long-running Japanese series with an identical premise. While a Monster Hunter: World PC port is looming on the horizon, the core games have never been on PC - a vacuum that Phoenix Labs intended to fill.
“Obviously Monster Hunter players are going to be our number one audience,” Clifford remembers thinking. “They’re going to love this game.”
By the time Dauntless hit closed beta in September 2017, however, the studio discovered that they were wrong. Their players were not into Dark Souls, for the most part, or monster hunting peers like Toukiden and God Eater. Instead they were overwhelmingly flocking from Warframe, Path of Exile, and Terraria - games that bore no relation or resemblance to Monster Hunter.
“We raised an eyebrow for a second,” Clifford says. “What we found was that for free-to-play on PC, the genre was important, but what was more important were things like co-op.
“Players who like free-to-play games will play them regardless of what kind of game they are, and point in case today, we have more people from the Warframe community playing our game than from the Monster Hunter community.”
That unexpected migration has had knock-on effects for Dauntless’s design. Many of the precepts of the genre that Phoenix Labs had assumed players would understand were being missed or misunderstood, making an already challenging game harder than intended.
“We originally didn’t have a tutorial envisioned for our game,” Clifford says. “But what we found was that if you were brand new to the genre, you didn’t really know about things like dodges having invulnerability on them, or that crafting different weapons for different counters is super critical.”
Towards the end of last year, the studio doubled down on clarifying Dauntless’ quirks during the first five hours of the game. No longer is crucial information buried on a wiki, in the forums, or somewhere down the back of the patch notes.
Moreover, there are other and more intriguing ways Dauntless is making the Monster Hunter formula PC-friendly.
“We definitely wanted to bring a more PC gaming experience to the genre,” Houston says. “One where the rate of change and iteration can be very high, so we can keep the game very tightly balanced and have new content very rapidly. We also wanted to make it a more accessible experience - one where your role in the world matters.”
Houston’s favourite point of reference is the opening of the Gates of Ahn'qiraj in World of Warcraft over a decade ago. A server-wide world event with several phases, it culminated in a ten-hour long war at the Scarab Wall.
“Players had a real impact in the world,” Houston reminisces. “And I want to go even further than that, where the decisions that players make have a very permanent change on how the game unfolds. I want to bring a lot more meaning and story to the experience.”
“Hopefully Dauntless is the story of your player,” Clifford adds. “And while you are one of many players, the collective you as a community will help, with feedback, drive the development of the game.”
At Boston’s PAX East in April, Phoenix Labs met three strangers garbed in feathers and fur, all wielding blunt weapons: their first community cosplayers. “We were not expecting them at all,” Clifford says. “It was super crazy and humbling at the same time.”
Shortly afterwards, the studio’s level design team commemorated the event permanently with three NPCs in Ramsgate, Dauntless’s social hub.
“Their minds were completely blown,” Clifford says. “That kind of permanence and agency in the game world is something that we want to continue for months and years to come.”