Apr 19 • 43M

Podcast: Dread Hunger's James Tan talks the hit social deduction game.

Looking at the million-seller in depth.

 
1.0×
0:00
-43:15
Open in playerListen on);
Conversations with smart people in the video game industry on how games get discovered and played.
Episode details
Comments

Welcome to the second Tales From GameDiscoveryLand podcast in Season 1. In this episode, recorded a few weeks back, we talk to James Tan of Digital Confectioners, one of the key creators of smash hit social deduction game Dread Hunger. He talks about the project’s ‘hook’, its surprise Chinese success, and post-1.0 path to 1 million units sold (!).

Presented by Simon Carless, founder of GameDiscoverCo, this bi-weekly, limited series podcast features conversations with smart people in the video game industry on how games get discovered and played. Below is a lightly edited full transcript of the entire podcast.

Reminder: you can get hold of episodes via our official podcast page, and also via Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Pocket Casts. If you need it, here’s our podcast RSS feed. And thanks in advance for listening.

Podcast transcript: Dread Hunger’s James Tan!

SIMON: Imagine you're an explorer, trapped on a ship in the Arctic tundra, with your crewmates. Some of them may not be entirely who they seem. How do you survive, find the traitors, and win the game? This is the conundrum in the Digital Confectioners-published social deduction game Dread Hunger. It's one of the top titles on Steam right now, thanks to its massive viral success in China.

For our latest podcast, we had a chance to explore these wild viral discovery moments for the game with James Tan, one of the main creators of Dread Hunger. How did the team approach development? Why did the game take off shortly after its 1.0 launch? And what can we all learn from his success?

I'm Simon Carless, founder of GameDiscoverCo, and this is the Tales From Game Discoveryland podcast.

[Music]

SIMON: Great, so here I am and I'm here with James Tan, how's it going, James?

JAMES: Hey Simon, this guy really well, thank you.

SIMON: Cool, yeah, I'm excited about this because you're one of my first guests on the podcast, and I get to talk to you about Dread Hunger. And Dread Hunger is a game that's doing pretty well recently. So firstly, congratulations on that - are you happy with how it's being received right now?

JAMES: Thank you. Likewise, this my first podcast so I'm very excited to do this as well. Yes, I would say we're extremely happy with the results, and extremely happy about the success of the game. 

SIMON: What I wanted to start with was talking about the background of the creation of the game. I know that social deduction games have been around for a while - even before Among Us. And Among Us is obviously a well-known one. But there's also games in VR - like Ubisoft had Werewolves Within that I think was social deduction as well. So I wanted to ask - what made your team want to make a game like this? What's the genesis of the project?

JAMES: So this project started around late 2019, when we got together with a good friend of ours, [Killing Floor creator] Alex Quick. We had made games together in the past - we made Depth together way back. 2012 was when we started that project together with him. And essentially, I gave Alex and my lead product designer Neil free rein to do whatever they felt like doing. And given that Depth was an almost hardcore, PvP, asymmetric style shooter, they wanted to do something a little different.

They explored around all these different genres and all these different themes - and they settled upon social deduction. It wasn't very popular right at that moment, and they've been playing some really popular board games surrounding social deduction, things like The Resistance, card games like that.

I think that sort of sparked this initial idea of: “Oh, what happens if we try asymmetric from a different angle of hidden information, rather than one side is sharks and one side is divers.” They are obviously very different. But in this case, it was more about “Oh, what if the asymmetry was about information, and how asymmetrical that that can be?”

And it sort of evolved from that idea, rather than looking at: “Is social deduction a really popular genre within the gaming space at that time?” In terms of the theming, a lot of it was very much based on on the TV series The Terror. At the time we didn't think many people were looking at that - so that's why we decided to go with that theme.

SIMON: And that's pretty interesting from a discovery point of view. You were accidentally early to a genre that, at least from Among Us perspective, suddenly became quite popular… Probably from a discovery point of view it's better to go into a genre that has some people familiar with it, than one where you have to blaze your own trail, right?

JAMES: So when we first started looking at these genres, social deduction and survival, we started by picking out the stronger genre, which was actually survival at the time. We wanted to have that asymmetrical gameplay using some of the misinformation [concepts].

But the game initially was more focused on the survival elements and sprinkles of misinformation, where one player would say “Oh, you know, I just went and did this” when they actually didn't do that - or “I just saw somebody do this”, when that actually didn't quite happen. 

We really liked those kinds of betrayal moments. They gave players more room for player-generated stories about funny things that would happen. I think it's fair to say that when Among Us really started gaining a lot of traction… [we] pivoted a little bit in the marketing message. So we focused a bit more on: “You’re all trying to survive in the cold scenery, you don't know what is… in the wilderness out there and there’s these animals trying to hunt you down.” And on top of that” “the worst enemy is potentially your crewmate.” And I think that made for a really compelling theme.

SIMON: When I was talking to you ahead of this podcast, you wanted to make sure that you’d answer who would say “isn't it just Among Us in 3D?” To your point… there's quite a lot more gameplay in it, right? There's a lot of survival elements, there’s action. So you would describe it much more as a hybrid, genre-wise than simply a pure social deduction game, right?

JAMES: Yeah. I think the best way of putting it is that Among Us really focuses just purely on the social deduction - that’s the pure focus. Because we throw in more survival elements, we get to the point of feelings, like, desperation of ‘how do I survive?’

And maybe in order to survive, there are things that I'm going to need to do that I otherwise normally wouldn't. And so trying to put players in that kind of situation. I think it's very similar to maybe how you would actually feel if you were stuck in the Arctic, and you had a very small crewmate size. And you're trying to go out and look for resources, food… and there probably are things you're going to have to do in that situation.

I think the strongest element in Among Us: when you are the impostor, it's very clear that you know what you're supposed to do. You're just supposed to eliminate everybody else in the most stealthy way as you possibly can. And when somebody gets eliminated, they go into that discussion room to figure out who is or who isn't the impostor. And then they throw whoever [they think] that is into space.

In Dread Hunger, it’s a lot more about subtlety. There's a lot more arguing in terms of “yeah, but he did this” or “he also did this” or “she did this, but she also did that”. You know, “why would, in our case, an impostor have been a troll?”, “why would a troll go and get all this coal for us that we actually need - like, why would they do that?” And possibly the troll is playing a long game, so he tricks them or tries to gain their trust. 

There's a lot more of those elements coming in when you can do actions where you're trying to gain somebody's trust,. So during our play tests… when we were playing, often we would play the long game, where we would gain everybody's trust. And just constantly say things like: “if I was a troll, I wouldn't be bringing back all this wood” or “I wouldn't be bringing back all this coal”. Only for… halfway through the game or near the end of the game, we’d be saying: “Haha, actually, I was the troll and I've just stolen all your food”, or “I've just poisoned all your food”.

There's a lot of these kinds of subtle elements which feed into the social deduction. We feel rather than just accusing somebody just outright: “Oh, you're the impostor”? There's really not a lot you can do about that situation, once the group has decided that.

Even if somebody identifies you as a troll [in Dread Hunger] and says, like, “I actually saw this player do this thing” which… positively identifies him as a troll? Because it's still a survival game, trolls can still fight back. So yes, they might be discovered. But that's not the end of the world for them. So they can still gather resources to craft weapons… and just go on the offensive.

SIMON: That's pretty cool… it's pretty complex. It's interesting to me in terms of how you developed this - there's obviously quite a lot of complexity of tactics. How did you work with earlier development? Did you announce the game early? Did you have a lot of further alphas and betas to get people interested, and then tuned the gameplay? Or were you a bit more private earlier?

JAMES: We were definitely a lot more private early on, I would say. There was just a lot more experimentation. And I think it's fair to say that this is where a lot of the experience comes in.

With Alex and Neil having played a lot of these social deduction board games, [they considered] what are the kinds of emotions or feelings, or the kind of situations we want to recreate within this game. And then thinking about the game design from a point of view of - rather than just the straight mechanics of  “Okay, so we add this weapon that will allow players to do X or Y or Z?”, it's more thinking “Well, what are tools that we can add to the player's arsenal that could create these situations for us?”

SIMON: In terms of design, it seems like you've kept it pretty close to the chest. And even in terms of announcing the game - how long before Early Access release did you end up announcing? And how did you go about building up a head of steam for Early Access?

JAMES: The general strategy that we tried was to use Steam’s playtest functionality. We already had a very dedicated community following from Depth, so some our community from Depth followed us through to Dread Hunger, which was awesome.

So we started with this very small contingent of players - we were playing the game and we were exploring different concepts and different ideas. But even then that period of time only lasted several weeks or so - and then we went from playtesting to Early Access. 

By that stage, we had a reasonable-sized team working on the game - around 20-30 people at that point in time. And so within internal play tests, we were already starting to see a lot of the situations that we wanted to create within the game happening naturally. 

SIMON: It seems like after you went into Early Access and even up to date, you've done a pretty good job of the Games as a Service approach. You've been quite aggressive with doing regular updates. So I wanted to ask about that a little bit - was your team already used to this very [iterative] approach from the other titles you'd worked on? It seems like you were quite efficient at it.

JAMES: For Early Access, we knew it was important to have really regular updates, I think it's become part of Early Access now. You can't do Early Access now where you just go like “Okay, the game is there, and you'll hear back from us in three to four months time with an update.” You need that regular roadmap of content drops, and we've been doing that for Depth for a really long time.

Depth launched in 2014, and we only recently sunsetted that game in 2022. So it's been a really long time, and we're very much used to creating some Games as a Service. But I do want to say that Dread Hunger is not really designed to be Games as a Service, in the sense that we're not going to do regular DLC or regular monetization methods that you would normally see in GaaS.

SIMON: It's games as a service in the sense that it's regularly updated, but it's not games as a service in the sense of [a major concentration on] IAP or DLC. That makes sense to me. 

I want to talk a little bit about the success of the game, because I remember seeing the game once or twice through Early Access. And it was an interesting one because it had definitely not failed, it wasn't like it had a dead community.

But it seemed to be bubbling along all the time at a mid level of, I'd say low thousand of CCUs? So.. how did you see that? What were you doing during Early Access to try to juice it? Do you feel like you've had some success? Or do you think it's just the fact that it wasn't 1.0 yet that was making some people hold back on it?

JAMES: I think there's a lot of speculation as to what happened during Early Access. We don’t have a ton of proof… but I'll say it here. We generally divide it into two parts of the world - we've got the West and the East, this particular part with the East being China. 

We think what happened in the West is that there definitely was some level of burnout… from the social deception category of games. In the sense that everybody had played Among Us… and almost became burnt out on that genre. Where they just said: “Oh, it's another social deception game, I've already played that, I'm done with it, I want to look for something else.”

And I wonder if that's true that is a similar space with Battle Royales. People have played their favourite Battle Royales, and they basically say: “I don't want to play a different one, because I've already experienced what that whole genre has to offer.”

Whereas I think something weird happened with China. Among Us wasn't a massive sort of phenomenon within China itself. I'm curious, and this is pure speculation, whether it's a situation where it takes time for these kinds of genres to go from one region of the world and then they jump to a different region of the world. And then maybe they come back into previous regions, when you get this new generation of players who haven't played those types of genres before.

These genres may be coming and going in waves - like, for the longest time I thought that first person PvP arena-style shooters were basically done. We'd seen Quake 3, we'd seen Unreal Tournament. And trying to make one maybe five years ago was basically a no-no. But I think certain games like Halo Infinite have come back, and shown there's actually possibility again to do those sorts of things.

SIMON: So - I think you had good success through Early Access but it was kind of bubbling along. And it seems like, just after full release, China especially started to notice [Dread Hunger] and then also the West did.

So can you talk about the period around full launch and how it went? What were the first signs that you felt like you were starting to do better? Did you have local partners that helped with that, for example?

JAMES: Dread Hunger is an interesting game because we self-published it. We didn't have any sort of external publishing help with it at all. And more interestingly, we did not actually have any partners in China to help us with that at all. We focused all of our PR and marketing efforts purely in the West.

And so seeing the sudden rise in China was a complete surprise to us, Something that we hadn't anticipated at all, and not something that we even tried to really do, as such.

We learned from Depth that localization is really important. A lot of game developers will say you should localize your game to pretty much all the languages that you think are going to be important to your game. From our experience, we also looked at it from a point of view of… “Are they more comfortable with their own native language versus just English, or versus some other language?” 

We definitely feel that within certain countries, they very much prefer their native language. So localization was the main thing that we did to ensure that players in those regions could play the game very comfortably.

I think there's a lot of history with social deduction [in China], and I had no idea. A number of years ago they used to play a game just called Werewolf and this was the real life version of this - very similar to Mafia, right? And what happened was they had some very popular streamers just play this game in real life. And it became pretty popular. But that popularity transitioned into a TV show. So they had celebrities playing this game as a TV show, and that gained a ton of popularity as well. 

So… the general population of under '30s had all played this type of game, [and] it became popular enough that people were actually setting up sort of cafes, very similar like karaoke bars. These were cafes where you could go to and play this game with random people in real life.

This was all unknown to us… but when we found out we said: “Oh, okay, that makes sense.” Because of people under 30 [in China], 80% of them had played this type of game before. They could see the connection between those games and what this game is trying to achieve.

We didn’t know this happened - and it was only fairly recently when we found out… We suddenly made the connection. “Oh, okay, that makes sense!” I'm sure some of us might be thinking: “Well, you know, if it was that popular, certainly there would have been games made like this, right?” 

Truth is there were games that were made like this in China, as well. The problem was that they tried to take the real-life Werewolf game and just transition that into a mobile game. So it became a bit like a Zoom meeting… they basically have people just on a webcam, and they put webcams up in a row. 

Basically, you're chatting. But it didn't have the same vibe as the real life thing, because people would often AFK, and [players] were just using that game as a means to do other things. Whereas with a video game, it's a lot more of a directed experience, where you've actually got tools that you can use.

SIMON: Yeah, and Dread Hunger is a very nice looking game. It's like a triple-A adjacent-looking game. So that's obviously going to help, because there's plenty of players on Steam who want to play good looking games that aren't like, cartoony and/or Among Us-like.

Obviously that [China surge] has led to problems for you as well, because your game is lobby based. So can you talk a little bit about that? Some of the West has been complaining that there's a lot of foreign-language speakers in lobbies? Do you think that's a little bit overblown, or have you ever tried to do anything to help with that?

JAMES: I see that as a similar problem to what PUBG had in the past, where you've got the sudden influx of players who all speak a different language. And it's essentially impossible to communicate with each other.

As for what we are doing about this, we've added language filters, so you can start filtering by languages. We've added regions, so you can say: “Okay, I really only want to look for games within my region.”

We're doing more things to help facilitate easier ways of finding matches within a certain set of parameters. Whether I only really speak English or Chinese - you can start filtering for those. There are some things that we're still cooking up, but it is a very complex problem to solve.

We've even sort of had the wild idea - if we could use like, speech recognition or something to take in what they're saying through the microphone and translate and then convert it to English on the other side. But we found that's a very difficult problem to actually solve.

SIMON: Yeah, I think Microsoft has tried to do that in real time, and it's taken them massive computing power, so yeah!

Roleplay is a big part of this game, and I did want to ask about community management and player management. I saw that you had a code of conduct, which I thought was kind of cool. Could you talk a little bit about how you decided to set upthe code of conduct and whether you feel players pay attention?

JAMES: Early on when we were in the Early Access phase we had Romy, and she has been doing a fantastic job along with the community management team. We actually had a very pretty serious trolling problem right at the beginning. 

I think that taught us a lot of lessons. Social deduction or social deception as a genre is very interesting, because when people are playing it right, you not only get the real sense of betrayal but you go, like: “Oh, I should have seen that coming, that's totally obvious.”

But I think there's a very grey line, there's a fuzzy area where you could be trolling and you can just say: “Actually, I'm the thrall [one of the bad guys in Dread Hunger!], I'm supposed to do this sort of thing, right?”

So Romy's been doing a fantastic job with the community management team there. For social deception games, you sort of have this very grey area where [there is] trolling and griefing. It's okay if somebody is a thrall and they're doing things that basically [create an] advantage.

And when the game is played right, you get that feeling of: “Oh no, I've just been betrayed and I should have seen that coming… all the signs were there, and I just didn't quite pick up on it”. And next time, if I see somebody doing these things, I'll know better for sure.

The problem we had really early on is that we just had a lot of trolling and a lot of griefing. And when you have games with VOIP and you have games where you can do things that negatively affect other people, I think that's when we decided: “We really need to start encouraging people to play in a way that's enjoyable and fun for others.”

And I would say that our community is fantastic because they know where to go within that very grey, fuzzy kind of area. And I'd say that's something that we're really happy about - our community is doing a really great job there, and actually just making it fun for everybody. 

SIMON: That's really good. And ultimately you're right, this only works if everyone on the team of players is playing within the same boundaries. And I do think it's great that you've had a really clear code of conduct about what you expect acceptable behaviour and unacceptable behaviour to be.

JAMES: Yeah, it's difficult, right? Like, it's always tricky. There was a part in the game where we had made the game… a lot more fuzzy than what it is today. For example, as a crewmate, you used to be able to build these explosive powder kegs and you had legitimate uses for them. They were quite lethal - if you saw thralls and you wanted to defend an area, you could start throwing down kegs. You could also use kegs to detonate and explode icebergs that were in the way. 

There were legitimate uses for those. But most of the time, unfortunately, as we grew the community much larger, it just became a tool for griefers to use constantly. So we had to change the gameplay a little bit, where we say: “If you’re a crewmate, there are just some things that you just can craft, you can't do.” Because often we got the the very blunt response of “Well, if you let me do it, I'm going to do it.”

SIMON: I also wanted to ask about your monetization methods for the game. Obviously, the main way you buy the game is standalone. But I did also notice you have a few cosmetics available. My impression is that’s not a massive part of the game's future - because it's a fairly period game, so you're not going to be selling space helmets. But I thought it was cute you can buy glasses and I think maybe hats [right now]. Can you talk about how much of a focus you put on that? And is that something that you'll be doing more of? 

JAMES: Yeah, I would say that we wanted to get away from trying to transition this into a live service, or to make it into a GaaS. We think that this model can work really well. But we don't feel that's what we wanted to do with this. And in terms of adding more in-app purchases, that's certainly something we'll be doing just because we've got ongoing costs to cover.

But I think one thing that completely surprised us was the average and median play times for the game. We didn't anticipate it being so long. For Depth, we had an average play time, I think, about four or five hours. And then the median playtime for Depth was one and a half hours. Those are the numbers that we're used to, right?

But for Dread Hunger, we're seeing average playtimes of 30 hours, and we're seeing median play times of seven or eight hours - which is in our opinion really, really long. We didn't anticipate people would be ‘maining’ the game this much.

So yeah, I think our current strategy now is really just to focus on original [standalone game] sales, in terms of purchases, and to make the pricing right on those. And then go for in-app purchases in the long run.

SIMON: I used GaaS earlier in this for games as a service and I think you're right, some people associate that with much more IAP-led economies. But also there are games like Astroneer and No Man’s Sky that just keep updating, but they don't have a great deal of in-app purchases.

And they just rely on people buying new copies of the game. So it sounds like that's really what you're going for - mainly - in the medium term.

JAMES: I think we just see this as a much more straightforward economy for people to get into. They buy the game once, and… they can play basically forever. And if they want to continue supporting us, that's fantastic. And they can do that, rather than being led into an economy where it's like: “Okay, the game might be free or the game might be extremely cheap.”

One of the things with Dread Hunger is [that] we don't do daily drops, and we don't do per-round drops… I think it was an experiment of ours to say “Well, can we get a lot of intrinsic reasons for people to keep playing, rather than a lot of extrinsic reasons?” 

I think this goes into the psychology aspects of game design a little bit. For Depth, we… have constant drops that occur at the end of every game. And people's focus would shift away from “I want to play the game”, to “I'm only playing the game to get the drop”, and that was that.

SIMON: So you're definitely keen, at least at this point in the game's history, to keep people's motivations much more pure and around actually playing the game. Rather than worrying about auxiliary stuff related to it?

JAMES: Yeah, absolutely, because some of the behaviors that we saw in Depth were really kind of interesting to us. People would play the game, but they wouldn't really actively participate in them. Or they would do things that would only increase the score, so that they would get more drops.

We just didn't want to see that happening again, where you've got a population which are majority focused on “I just want drops.” They'll join the game and they'll just AFK the whole thing. We added AFK prediction, and then they find a little hacky program that will move them every now and then. Then it becomes us spending way more time stopping people from abusing those systems than focusing on making the game better for people.

SIMON: I also wanted to ask you about… when you've seen the game go a little bit viral, especially in China, I know you can't really monitor this but - did you get a sense that it was streamers playing in groups that was a reason why it got bigger? Do you have any sense about how it ended up blowing up?

JAMES: Yeah, so learning about the history of what happened with social deduction and the Werewolf game and so forth, that was a revealing point to us. But we didn't learn about this until much later.

When we see a sudden-up spike and whether it's CCUs or sales, you just go like: “Is this a one off Is this gonna last a day or two days, or three days or something? Or is this going to be more of an ongoing thing?’

I think the way we figured this out was when we were seeing basically constant growth every day, and we saw it for longer than a week. The first time that we started seeing these spikes it was around the middle of January, about a week before our [1.0] launch. So we started saying: “Oh, there's a new region playing this game” and then we thought, “Oh, that's interesting”. And as [CCUs] continued to grow through the week, we were wondering “Is this going to last, or is this going to disappear?” 

So we started tracking our retention numbers - our D[ay]1s to D30s, well, we didn't have D30s at the time, but D1s to D7s. We saw that they were above [the industry standard]. These were numbers published by Supercell, and they indicated if you have the [right] percentage numbers you've got a sticky game. And if you've got a sticky game, you're likely to continue to grow.

We really learned about this in Depth. Depth has a very low retention, I think its retention is really: “People might play it for a couple of days, and they're done with it forever”. They've seen it, they're done with it. And the extrinsic benefits like the drops and so forth help a little bit - but they're not strong enough to constantly keep people coming back. 

What we saw in Dread Hunger was totally different. People were constantly returning to the game, which was fantastic. And we think it's that combination of two things. You've got streamers playing the game, and good retention. And so when people do go in there and buy it and they're really enjoying themselves, you're going to get this constant growth pattern, basically just going up and up and up and up.

SIMON: It's interesting you mentioned Depth. Depth may have relatively poor retention in your view but also it’s sold a lot of copies. Is that because it has a really good upfront hook? Is that the reason it does well, you think?

JAMES: So this was really good advice from somebody’s opinion I really value, which is Jamie [Cheng] from Klei. He revealed to me that you really want your game to do well when it's not on sale. If it only does well on sale, you've got a problem, because you're constantly having to do sales to keep chasing that.

So with Depth, I really think the reason why it probably sold a lot of copies? It's probably because it is a good game but it was also [regularly discounted to] $5. And so you get to this point where you sell the majority of your copies through really cheap sales, the $4 to $5 range.

Once the bulk of your sales come from that [price] region, it's almost like you get this feedback loop. People are saying it's a good game but it's only worth $5, so I’ll only pick it up when it's $5. I think with Depth, the main driver was just the fact that it was cheap. It was good for it being that cheap - but we had anchored ourselves incorrectly.

Whereas with Dread Hunger… people are buying it without a discount. During the Lunar New Year sale, even though we weren't on discount and we had just recently launched at that time period, we were still hitting in the top 20s on the [Steam] global top sellers.

We were looking at that and we're thinking: “Well, if we can still hit the global top 20 and not being on discount, and not being really present on the storefront [since Steam had a front page sale takeover]… this is doing really well.” Whereas most of the time, if you're not on discount during a Steam sale like that, you're probably just going to disappear and never be seen again.

SIMON: I agree - and I know you made Depth, I would like to defend it. I do think it has a good hook, because it's a good looking game where you're playing as a shark or a diver, right? I think people are excited about sharks attacking divers. So I think that's just a really good entry point… I do think Depth has a bit of a hook, actually.

JAMES: I mean, we do like Depth a lot ourselves. And I think there's just a lot to learn from how we made that game’s game design.. I think that has really fed back into… how we changed our design philosophies surrounding Dread Hunger. 

I think at the time, for Depth specifically, we were looking more at Counter-Strike and what they were doing. This is how we got to the whole “oh, let's let's think about drops”. And after going through all of that, we decided “Okay, maybe we don't want to try that again for whatever's next.” And in this case, it was Dread Hunger.

SIMON: If I go to your Steam page, there is another title called Last Tide, and it's some kind of aquatic Battle Royale. Was that something that was your core game for a while, and who worked on that? It seems like it was pretty cool, but it didn't end up achieving escape velocity.

JAMES: This was very much the same team worked on this game as Dread Hunger. From a studio makeup, we’re really strong in engineering, Myself and my co-founder Sam, we’re both engineers. Him being more on the infrastructure side of things, and me more on the Unreal Engine side of things. 

At the time, when Battle Royales were coming out, we were looking at them: “From a technical perspective, we think we could do a better job in terms of… framerate, in terms of network and playability.” This was during when [Battle Royales] were just a mod.

It wasn't really like “Oh, PUBG landed and became a massive success, so now we're going to start doing that.” The way we see things is that if we try to chase massive successes like that, you’re going to fall. Unless you've got really deep pockets, it's really hard to chase a massive success. Timeline wise, we started working on that really early on. And we didn't really shift focus to purely working on that game to until later in 2017-2018.

I think the short story is that, we launched it. And by that point there were so many Battle Royales available… it got to a point I think, around our launch, everybody was announcing their Battle Royales. There was too much supply, and not enough people. 

One of the things that we learned is that…people are playing [PUBG] it for like a median time of like 15-16 hours and the average playtimes must be just bonkers, like 100 hours or something. Trying to pull people away from their ‘main’, which in this case might be PUBG, might be Fortnite, might be other Battle Royales… it’s a really difficult thing to do.

SIMON: Yeah, that's something I've noticed, actually. There were some genres [that I call] them “displacement genres”. You have to displace the game that's already incredibly popular - and this has been a problem all the way back to a World of Warcraft.

Everyone was like “wow, World of Warcraft is doing so well, we'll just make lots more of World of Warcraft“. And the answer is, you have to get someone to stop playing World of Warcraft to start playing your game. I agree, I think that's ultimately the issue with Battle Royales. And obviously the good news with social deduction games is there's really less games in that space right now. 

There's a few games out there, but [social deduction games] are more sophisticated and I think a bit more complex to make. So that's probably another reason that you've managed to distinguish yourselves. I think you can't ham-handedly slather on gameplay mechanics and social deduction - they're pretty subtle from a gameplay standpoint.

JAMES: Yeah, absolutely, and I think making multiplayer games brings its own level of complexities and difficulties. We just have to deal with a different set of problems compared to single player games.

SIMON: So we're approaching the end of the chat now and I wanted to about where you see yourself going in the future for the game, for the next few months. Right now, you've picked up this head of steam… What's your plans for the future?

Are you going to be updating it often? Are you thinking about other platforms or other gameplay mechanics? Are you just concentrating on kind of getting it right for the people who are playing it?

JAMES: A bit of both… Definitely there's still room for improvements that we need to make to existing systems and existing things such as improving the lobby filtering, lobby searching and things like that.

I think when something reaches any level of popularity like this, you're going to start to see things like cheats and hacks being used a lot more. So that's something that we're also working on reducing, improving the play experience for people who are currently playing.

But there are new ideas and new thoughts surrounding game mechanics and all these different things. As for the different platforms, we've got a lot of different things in mind there as well. Nothing ready to announce just yet, but we hope to jump onto that as soon as we possibly can.

SIMON: I guess one final question before we go. This may be unfair for people who are in the middle of making a game or don't have a chance to play games, but I like to ask people what games they have played or have been playing in the recent or semi-recent past ,and why they liked them.

JAMES: I guess the only real game that I've been playing a lot is Minecraft at the moment. And that's really because I have been having a really fun time playing with my daughter. There's something magical about that game that just seems to spark interest and excitement at that age.

It's really fun reliving that, because I remember playing Minecraft when it was the original Java version way back in 2008 or 2009 And so it's kind of interesting… seeing how the game has changed in like the last 10 years or so.

SIMON: Yes, it's a wonderful game, My son is very into Minecraft. He's six but he isn't really into playing, and he's just into all the YouTube videos and lore surrounding it. I think you're right, Minecraft has a lore and the logic that I think children really enjoy, whether they're actively playing it or not.

JAMES: It's super fascinating just because on first glance when you look at the game, you think: “Okay, I know what this is all about.” But as you start digging into it further, you start going: “Oh, actually, there's a lot of interesting layers here”

SIMON: That's great. That's wonderful. Okay well, thank you so much James. Thanks for coming on and we really appreciate it.

JAMES: Yeah. Likewise.

[Music]

SIMON: So that's about it for this week's show. We'd like to thank James Tan for coming onto the podcast - you can find out more about Dread Hunger - tagline 'You are who you eat', at Dread Hunger dot com.

As a reminder, this podcast is made by GameDiscoverCo, home of newsletters and consulting - and now a podcast - around video game discovery. Sign up to our newsletter at http://newsletter.gamediscover.co, and upgrade paid to Plus access if you can. You get extra newsletters, charts, Discord access, eBooks and more.

Our final credits: many thanks to our producer, editor, and transcriber Alejandro Linares Lopez, theme tune composer Keith Baylis, aka Vimster, and all of our subscribers and listeners. And we'll see you back in GameDiscoveryLand in the near future.