Building Squad, the web’s most sociable shooter
Can you handle up to 100 players and cutting-edge voice chat, soldier?
Any gamer who has played a team-based online shooter will know how frustrating it is to be saddled with a 'One Man Army' – a headstrong team-mate who ignores any notion of strategy and instead breaks away to gain fame and glory, scuppering any chance of collective success.
Ring any bells? Then you might want to pay attention to Offworld Industries' Squad, a first person shooter that aims to replicate the reality of war in a way that has never been witnessed previously – and that means rooting out the lone wolf mentality.
"We've inverted the proposition," Offworld's community manager Keith Weisglas tells Red Bull. "Skilled players might have better understanding through more hours in-game, and better twitch skills than their opponents, but very few skilled players can fare well against the organised collective common cause of enemies communicating constantly."
Squad has just launched on Steam's Early Access service, but has a surprising history that stretches back over a decade. "At our core we're a dedicated group of amateurs, half of us who had our game development roots in modding," says Weisglas when asked about the background of the compact Canadian studio, which has around 15 staff.
"At one point in time or another each one of us had worked on or played a mod for Battlefield 2 called Project Reality, and after years of deliberation, we decided to make the jump and take on the monumental task of creating a game studio dedicated to bring everything that we liked from the mod to a whole new generation of gamers. We had seen other mod teams make successful transitions to start-up studios and release standalone games, but it wasn't until the market competition between engine developers in 2013 and 2014 to attract smaller studios did the founders of Squad find a viable solution in Unreal Engine 4 that allowed [them] to make a truly next-generation experience at the Indie level. And thus, Offworld Industries was born."
Despite evolving from Battlefield 2, Squad has almost completely torn up the rulebook to become something wholly unique, a large stride away from the exciting but almost cartoon-like nature of DICE's title. "It began with simple changes, like removing the crosshair and increasing spawn times," explains Offworld founder and Squad's lead animator Alastair Sew Hoy. "But over the years as the modding team grew, so did the scale at which we turned an arcade shooter like Battlefield into a hardcore, large-scale military experience dedicated to teamwork and communication.
"Over the 11 or so years since its inception, Project Reality added a whole slew of new and original features not seen in the original Battlefield game, such as Base Building, epic scale maps and 100 player servers. Going on 11 years, and still with an active mod team in the dozens – and an active player base in the thousands per day – the game has proven that there is a real demand for large scale tactical FPS PC games, where communication and the challenge of modern battle are cornerstones of the experience."
This obvious demand – coupled with the team's desire to shake things up in the FPS landscape – resulted in the inception of Project Reality's successor. "Squad was born from what we would see as a real gap in the FPS landscape, a game that brings the authentic military culture, communication and tactics of a military simulator, with the accessibility of more traditional arcade-style FPSs," says Sew Hoy.
"We wanted to de-emphasise the importance of one individual player, and experiment with the idea of giving players real chances at battlefield leadership, a skill rarely tested in modern gaming. Our days modding for Project Reality were spent collaborating with military veterans who understood the stress and tension of combat, and it has been the interest of everyone in our development team to translate that experience not only through visuals and audio, but also through how you play and interact with other players."
That's a key point. Interaction with your team-mates is instrumental in Squad, and voice communication becomes a vital means of cutting through the confusion to get a better understanding of what's happening on the battlefield – just like in real life.
"With a minimal HUD and lack of automatic indicators and guides, there is a truly persistent fog of war that limits how much a player can perceive," Sew Hoy says. "This results in strongly encouraging players to both comprehend and communicate on-the-fly events in brief, to-the-point radio transmissions, which can do wonders in engaging the mind and vastly increasing the complexity of firefights in the game.
"As soon as a player sees an enemy, our game dictates that the only way for you to call him out is through voice. If a grenade is incoming, the most immediate response is to yell it out to your buddies. Often for a squad leader the fastest and most efficient way for them to communicate orders is to just verbalise them. The fact that we encourage so much talking leads to half of the fun being just talking to your fellow brothers in arms."
Voice chat isn't exactly new to online gaming but Squad features a unique system, which means your words are heard by specific team-mates, and this adds immeasurably to the tactical side of voice communication. "One of the things we are proud of is the 3D positional VOIP system, where with a push of a button you can transmit to any friendly soldier around you," comments Sew Hoy. "For a long time, we as gamers have yearned for a way to do something as natural as talk to the fellow next to you. This immediacy makes more complicated tactical maneuvers or even basic teamwork more practical."
What makes Squad a more complex and unpredictable beast is the sheer number of potential players that can potentially be involved in each skirmish. "We're pulling together every new feature in the Unreal Engine as it's released, allowing us to not only get to 100 players, but maintain very long view distances," says Sew Hoy. "The engine has many features to optimise performance for mobile gaming, when scaled back up to a large scale PC game the computing cost per player is significant. We still have a long way to go and the engine itself is also continuing to evolve with us, but we are determined and optimistic that we can achieve that goal."
With that many players in combat at any one time, it should come as no surprise to learn that Squad offers very defined roles for each person to assume. Commanders oversee the battle and make important judgement calls, while ground transport drivers and helicopter pilots are required to keep the frontline constantly supplied. Medics revive and heal other players and engineers are capable of constructing bases, repairing vehicles, and placing mines and barricades. Finally there's the spotter class, which can laser designate targets for aerial attack or call out enemy movements, spoiling the carefully-laid plans of the enemy.
Each role has a part to play in battle and each can be decisive when it comes to securing victory. Add in vehicles to command and bases to develop, and it's clear that Squad is quite a leap from your typical Call of Duty deathmatch.
Squad's march to market has been the kind of long and carefully planned process you'd expect from a great military mind like Monty or Eisenhower. After putting together a viable pitch, Offworld took to crowdfunding site Kickstarter in order to secure the cash to actually make the game, but was careful not to rush the decision.
"We had looked at other options, and felt that our game wasn't going to have enough spaceships to go with the self-hosted option," says a smirking Weisglas, his comment no doubt aimed at the phenomenally successful Star Citizen. "The excitement around the Kingdom Come: Deliverance and especially the Chivalry:Medieval Warfare campaigns is what sold us on the idea.
"Kickstarter pedestals your proposition in such a way that there is very little one can do once the clock starts, and we could have prepared better for the 30 day campaign. While we are still ecstatic that we made over 230 percent our original funding goal, we came out of the campaign more aware that the game development side would be feasible, and that there was a receptive and welcoming market for Squad, and that we had the urgency to learn how to actually bring the game to the people of the world."
After a successful crowdfunding drive, Offworld being connecting with fans and YouTube players to ensure the game evolved in the correct manner during development. The feedback received during this process was essential, even if it occasionally resulted in some red faces on the development team.
"We had reached out to, or were contacted by, many modders from various FPS mod scenes, communities that had years and years of FPS game server hosting experience, and we searched out content creators who had a penchant for covering and dissecting very early alpha games in development," Weisglas says. "We literally let them loose; we had some failed builds that caused some embarrassment, we had some stunning early successes, and afterwards we had a private forum that we allowed them to rip into the product as openly as they wanted.
"My job at one point was to find our biggest critics, and also content creators renowned for their critique videos, and get them in-game to tell us how much we had to go yet. We had a decade of incubation of our game design concepts, and the early testing allowed us to break through some mental hurdles related to the fact that Squad is a spiritual successor to Project Reality, but we could unbind the restraints and build new systems to take advantage of Unreal Engine and to stay current with the evolution of FPS gamers' expectations for tactical teamplay."
The title has now launched on Steam Early Access, and according to Sew Hoy, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. "Having a chance to introduce a new crop of gamers to the heritage of our mod has been even more interesting. There are huge numbers of people out there who didn't know what they've been missing because the number of games that have attempted this scale and scope over the last 10 years can be counted on one hand. That we're opening the game to modding means a new generation of modders can dive into this, and we finally get to pay it forward by introducing and guiding a new generation of hobbyist modders and future professional game developers."
Getting Squad to market is an incredible achievement for what was once little more than a group of modders, and Offworld Industries has the right to feel very proud; it has crafted a truly revolutionary shooter. However, getting the game out of the door is by no means the end of the story. Weisglas says that the team has plenty of plans in store moving forward.
"The future is going to see us bringing on community servers in a more substantial way, and make sure the guys running the communities get full support from us as we build Squad towards the 1.0 release. We're opening up the game to modders too as soon as it is feasible, and we consider the base game feature-complete. From the development side, lots of work to bring in vehicles, optimise servers and the player experience, generate more high-quality art and designs, and the list goes on."
We have to ask: do consoles form part of the game's future? "At the moment our priority is to complete what we had set out to do on the PC," replies Sew Hoy. "Our plans right now do not include consoles, though if such an opportunity were to arise down the track, we would be open to it." Here's hoping.