Forget Fortnite, British studio Automaton Games wants you to battle against 1,000 other players thanks to Improbable’s SpatialOS
“Battle royale” games, as the genre has become to be known, have taken the Western world by storm. Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, or PUBG for short, is heralded for creating the genre, but it’s Epic Games’ free-to-play Fortnite Battle Royale that’s really driven it into mainstream consciousness. Within two weeks of release, the multiplayer title boasted over 10 million players. Now it sits comfortably at over 45 million.
It’s understandable that many developers want to jump aboard this bandwagon, but where do you steer the genre next? Cambridge-based developer Automaton believes it has the answer: a 400-person shooter that takes place in a small pocket of a wider, fully fledged MMO. The studio’s first major release, Mavericks: Proving Grounds is just the start of these ambitions.
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“Our interest isn’t due to the success of the genre over the last couple of years,” explains Automaton CEO and CTO James Thompson when we meet at GDC 2018. “It’s great to see an ever-growing hype around battle royale as a genre, but we feel it could really become even stronger if it was actually built in a different way.”
Built using CryEngine and supported by Improbable’s SpatialOS platform, Mavericks is unlike anything the battle royale genre has seen before. Instead of the paltry 100-player count of PUBG, Fortnite Battle Royale and the many knockoffs out there right now, Mavericks drops you into a lush, dense world of up to 400 other players. In time, Automaton plan to expand this into an MMO-style environment, with thousands of players sharing the same persistent game world.
Following footprints in the mud
Instead of the vast open fields of PUBG, Mavericks’ world is a tight network of intricate spaces stitched together. I was invited to see it in action, and the dense area used to demo the final stage of a 400-person battle felt like a well-crafted Call of Duty map instead of roaming in open space.
These tactical spaces aren’t simply for show either. Environments are destructible and, thanks to SpatialOS, persistent. This means footprints are left behind in the mud, allowing you to stalk your opponents through each battle, while the visual fidelity of CryEngine means everything looks absolutely beautiful despite supporting an outrageous player count.
But this is just the start of what Automaton wants to build with Mavericks. “We’re treating Mavericks like a service. It’s a game that’ll evolve, it’s not something we plan to simply launch and make a success out of before ditching it once people move onto something else,” explains Thompson.
The larger plan is to create an almost Destiny-esque tactical shooter experience in a shared world with 1,000 players running around at the same time. More players don’t necessarily equal more fun, and the team knows this, that’s why they’re working on creating a larger world and experience that actually brings value to players.
“We’re sensitive that adding players for the sake of it won’t actually add any real value to the game, but we’re experimenting with objectives and environments so that it does offer new experiences instead of cramming in extra people onto an empty map.”
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If you build it, they will come
Automaton isn’t simply building some sort of thousand-person über battle royale, outside of Proving Grounds the bigger vision for Mavericks revolves around a shared-world MMO with players utilising RPG elements to progress through the story. The 400-player battle royale “Proving Grounds” aspect is contained to a comparatively small island within the larger world they’re creating. Think of it as building a sports stadium before building a city, and you’ll get both the sort of scale and approach Automaton are talking with Mavericks.
“I could say the battle royale element is a rather small part of Mavericks compared to what we’re building, but it could just as easily be the only mode that some people decide they want to play,” Thompson explains. “However, I don’t want people to think that we’re including RPG elements and social hubs for the sake of it, smashing elements together randomly to make it fit our vision – they’re actually all very complimentary.”
Hints of this larger world, and its progression system, will be present in Proving Grounds. Players will get their first glimpse at these elements during the closed beta period this summer as Automaton plans to showcase how Mavericks’ city and social hub will work between the various factions you play as.
If that seems at odds with what you’re used to with the likes of PUBG and Fortnite, it’s intentional. For Automation, Mavericks isn’t simply a game where you fall from the sky, grab your nearest weapon and go to town on your fellow man for the sheer sake of it; there needs to be a reason for you to pull the trigger.
Thompson wants to evoke a sense of the motives behind conflict in Mavericks. He highlights how both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games are more than simply a showcase for murder on the big screen, and that’s something currently missing from the battle royale genre of games: “There’s no sense of an involved world behind the madness. There’s no drive for why you need to prove yourself.”
He stops short of revealing exactly what player motivation will be in Mavericks, explaining that, currently, “we see our job as creating a world that’s a fantastical tactical arena. We’re creating a map that’s stitched together from thousands of tight, tactical multiplayer maps, rather than some fields with houses on them.
“We want this world to be believable.”
Ambitious or impossible?
Obviously, that’s easier said than done. With a beta set to launch this summer and a release to follow later this year, the tight turnaround time for Mavericks: Proving Ground’s launch has a few people wondering if Automaton can pull it off. Thompson isn’t phased though; Automaton has a strong technical background and a wealth of experience of working on MMOs, as far as he’s concerned the issue isn’t if Mavericks runs well, it’s about if it’s fun to play.
“We can’t lock-in what we want to do with the game, and what we will launch with, until we have a lot more variety in our playtesters. We’re not doing a beta to test stability, we’re already stable; we’re beta testing because we want to build up a map and slew of modes in tandem with the community.”
Despite his assurances, running four times the amount of players compared to PUBG and Fortnite in a larger, more densely-populated world is still no easy feat.
SpatialOS does most of the heavy lifting, which is why Automation spent time hand-building a custom CryEngine integration for Improbable’s platform – something even Improbable hadn’t yet managed. “It would be a lot of wasted time and effort for us to re-engineer [SpatialOS] technology for our own games. Simply put, using SpatialOS helps us remain focused on that instead of wasting time building our own proprietary tools to run our vision of Mavericks on.”
However, even with SpatialOS helping streamline the development process, it’s hard to ignore just how ambitious Mavericks is. The famously drawn-out development of space sim Star Citizen’s absurd scope does come to mind. Hopefully, the addition of SpatialOS and the team’s clear technical prowess can help make Mavericks’ RPG world a reality instead of simply a bigger PUBG.
We’ll find out more details around Mavericks: Proving Grounds around E3. Until then, you can keep up with its development in a series of behind the scenes videos rolling out of Automaton each week until the summer closed beta launch.