Phoenix Labs is an indie studio made up of industry veterans from Riot Games, Bioware, Blizzard Entertainment, and Capcom. The team’s first game, Dauntless, is a western take on the action hunting genre (Monster Hunter, God Eater, Toukiden, etc.). The title is free-to-play and is currently available in open beta on PC. I recently got to sit down with studio Director Jesse Houston, as well as Senior Designer Chris Fox, and Marketing Manager Nick Clifford.
Jordan: When I last spoke to some of your team members, I asked them about Phoenix Labs being one of the first western developers to take on the monster hunting genre. How did you personally go into the project as the director?
Jesse Houston: It has been an interesting roller coaster of emotions. When we first got started we built it out of love. I absolutely love Monster Hunter and I love Toukiden, so the idea of building this game was actually not one that was like, “I want to build a game in the hunting action genre.” It was more like, “Hey, we want to go and build a game for a community that isn’t already super crowded, that has a lot of opportunities to bring Western ideals to it.” One that we as a team, even as a super small team, could really latch onto and love.
It had to be a genre we liked to play. We did a bunch of brainstorming and we came up with a lot of different ideas. One of them was to do a team-based character action shooter; then Overwatch got announced. But literally as we picked something else we came to the conclusion that we wanted it to be inherently cooperative online. As we circled in we wanted PvE, so hunting action just started to come out and became the obvious choice for us.
It should be noted that I may have tilted the scales a little bit given that I’m one of those 1,000+ hours of Monster Hunter players. [Monster Hunter] World came out and my family just didn’t get to see me. My youngest daughter forgot my name. That’s kind of how we came to decide that was the game. We didn’t expect another console release of a hunting action game from Capcom and we were actually really excited about Monster Hunter World. It was really validating that we made the right strategic choice. It also has since really helped bring even more folks into the genre.
Nick Clifford: So Monster Hunter World came out in January, and very understandably our player count dropped a little bit when the game came out. After that, we kind of had a permanent lift in our daily population.
JH: By like 30 percent.
NC: Monster Hunter brought that many new people into the genre space and made more people aware of Dauntless. We’re really happy for all the dudes over at Capcom. Every time they make an announcement about how many copies of Monster Hunter World they’ve sold it’s just that much better news for us and for the genre space that they’re bringing that many people over.
J: Can you reiterate what in particular makes this genre interesting for you guys?
JH: One of the things that can be really challenging in normal PvE games and other action RPGs — I like to think of hunting action as a subset of the action RPG space, and as an RPG I think about my BioWare games that I built before, you know you create a relationship with the story and your own personal journey through the narrative. If you look at something on the other end of the spectrum like Diablo, your relationship is very much to make your numbers bigger, get some bigger damage, you don’t really care about “what you’re killing” versus “what killing gives you.” The story is kind of interesting but not in the forefront.
For us, we have this really unique thing where you have a deep relationship with the thing that you’re swinging your sword at. That moment where Shroud looks at you and is about to eat your face, you feel it. You have this very visceral emotional reaction and I can’t think of another genre that really has that kind of boxer’s relationship.
A lot of folks make fun of me for this analogy but there’s this relationship that boxers have to their opponents: a deep mutual respect. And that relationship is something that we find really important and is something I think is really unique to this genre. It is that David and Goliath feeling where this thing will get ya’, and yet it’s still kind of a personal relationship because it’s you against the thing and it has some sort of motivation. It’s not just a scripted encounter that’s there to be killed.
Chris Fox: From a combat point of view, I can’t imagine a better confluence of genres. It’s the opportunity to take something like the combat depth of a Devil May Cry or even a fighting game and pair it with a Diablo style loot game, and gear optimization kind of game. Merge those things together and it’s the most compelling mix of game mechanics out there.
JH: I think there’s a lot of folks that make fun of the idea saying, “we’re the Dark Souls of” but we are literally the Dark Souls of action RPGs.
Phoenix Labs: *Laughs*
NC: I’m a huge Dark Souls player; love Bloodborne, love Demon’s Souls. While those games do have an online component like Monster Hunter, there hasn’t really been that high fidelity tactical melee combat game built on an online game infrastructure. Even looking outside of the genre space, we’ve looked at some of our other favorite games like Destiny, World of Warcraft, Warframe, that have built these really great online communities where people socialize and get to hang out together. That’s kind of the foundation of Dauntless and we have this really satisfying, challenging, high fidelity combat experience. That’s what, as someone who loves tough as nails video games, gets me the most excited.
J: You mentioned that you were playing around with ideas about what Dauntless would initially be. Can you tell me if there were any other ideas of what type of game Dauntless was originally going to be?
JH: Man… that was like four years ago.
CF: We have old photos of the whiteboard where we had everything up.
JH: That’s so far in my memory I can’t even remember.
CF: We fell off of a lot of ideas, I don’t know how many of those ideas were good.
NC: One day I’m going to browbeat Chris and Jesse to make a fighting game for me.
CF: We looked at a couple of different genres, none of them really made it past the storyboard whiteboard stage, the idea for Dauntless came pretty early and we stuck with that one.
J: Can you tell me what games you guys specifically looked at studying this genre outside of Monster Hunter, I know you said you’re big Toukiden fans. Did you look at God Eater, Freedom Wars, anything like that?
NC: We’ve definitely looked at them all, I would say the stuff that resonated the most, Monster Hunter, a lot of Bloodborne for me from a combat design point of view, Devil May Cry–
JH: Just to jump in real quick, I think one of the things we’re most interested in as well is moving outside of the core genre. As you start to get into the later ends of Dauntless we start to bring in historic gameplay methods that are not seen in this kind of genre.
As an example, we have a fight called Rezakiri and it’s basically a bullet hell. We just literally started looking outside of the genre saying what’s cool and fun and started bringing that into the game. So we’re really not just going, “hey, what’s in the fighting space and what feels really good to hit,” but instead “what’s a really interesting gameplay mechanic that could be a lot of fun for us to integrate.” Really we’re looking at those kinds of thought processes as opposed to just trying to iterate on what’s already working within the genre.
J: Outside of adding new monsters, can you reveal any additional plans for upcoming content in Dauntless? Maybe hunts that increase the player count? You guys added a melee-ranged hybrid weapon not too long ago, is there any new weapon plans similar to that or a fully ranged weapon?
CF: We’re working on weapon six right now, which will be a primarily ranged weapon. We’ve been doing some design exploration on weapon seven and eight, full new Behemoth types, and beyond just new Behemoth types, new ways to interact with Behemoths. We’re thinking about a lot when we look at a new style of Behemoth encounter. What are are we putting into that? What are we asking of players?
That kind of draws everything out, if we’re asking new things of the players we need to craft new weapons and gear that have the answers to those questions. We’re pretty heavily into planning for the next number of months.
JH: Most of the team now has shifted their focus to the next big content expansion. About a third of the team is focused on getting our latest patch out the door as well as the open beta.
J: How many Behemoths do you guys currently have in Dauntless? How many do you guys plan on adding? Is your team coming up with new Behemoths every day? What’s the process of coming up with the monsters, making sure they’re balanced and fun for the community?
CF: There’s no shortage of ideas that’s for sure. We’re going to build as much as we can build as long people are having a fun time playing. The important thing for balance, it’s a mixture of lots of feedback. Our community is hyper vocal about what’s fun, what isn’t, what’s balanced, and what’s not.
We have that and we have extensive playtesting as a team. Those things make the balance; it’s a lot of work, but for us it’s trying to find the next cool experience and how to pivot and do things that are unexpected. We fully plan to support Dauntless with as much content as possible for as long as possible. We want to do this forever.
J: Based on what I’ve played, a lot of the monsters seem to be very similar in size. Comparatively, Monster Hunter has some incredibly big monsters. Do you guys plan on going bigger with the Behemoths at all?
NC: Having played Monster Hunter and Dark Souls, there is something to be said about fighting that skyscraper-sized monster. One of the things we believe in is that hitting ankles, hitting toes and feet isn’t aspirational. We wanted to make sure every Behemoth we design, the player is locking eyes with the Behemoth they’re fighting. Some of the Behemoths are much larger than others but we wanted to make sure that in their design we brought their face to the player. You have that tension and that anxiety while you’re fighting the Behemoths.
J: Based on player feedback what changes have you guys made from Alpha to now? How are you approaching microtransactions and such? Have any of your decisions during development been made based on feedback from players to other games?
NC: Really what was super important to us early on was to get the technical alpha into the hands of the community early so that we could begin to start that conversation and begin to get their feedback. Everything across the board has been iterated and improved upon. Everything from the moment to moment of hitting the Behemoths, to progression, to new weapon designs, new Behemoth design. Everything has kind of gotten improved or in some cases a complete overhaul.
We didn’t really have ranged combat in the vision for Dauntless but we heard loud and clear from the community that they were interested in fulfilling that fantasy so weapon five, the War Pike, we begin to explore what ranged combat could look like.
But we’ve also completely refactored progression as well. The old progression in the game was fairly linear, like point A to point B. We heard from players that they just wanted more stuff to do in the game because they were having tons of fun fighting Behemoths. So late last year we refactored progression in the Sharpen Your Skills update to be kind of a more zone control based structure, and that further evolved into the Evergame. The Evergame includes tons of new features, rotational content, daily challenges, weekly challenges, all kind of geared at giving players a reason to come back into the game.
Lastly, I’ll touch on because everyone is interested in it: microtransactions. Very early on we had loot boxes in the game because in the PC playspace that was what was fairly commonplace to do. Shortly after launching our closed beta in September, we got feedback from the community saying spending money to get a thing felt bad. Like players would say “they spent $5 to get an emote,” not the emote they wanted. We said, yeah that does feel kind of bad. We put in a more bespoke store model where you can buy what you want, fortunately, we did get that feedback before the industry backlash around loot boxes and microtransactions. So props to the community for helping us out there.
J: Can you let me know about you guys bringing Dauntless to other platforms like Xbox One, PS4, or even Nintendo Switch?
NC: I’m on the publishing team and just speaking transparently with you, we’re already discussing what Dauntless on consoles could look like. I think for us we want to get the open beta out, we want feedback from the community.
Honestly, our community is about to expand and we’re going to learn a ton in the process. But yeah, things like Steam, things like consoles, definitely on the road-map. We have the game totally working on controllers today, you can pick up your Xbox or PlayStation controller and play the full game, that’s all done. As someone who plays it at home on his couch, it works pretty well. We want to make sure we bring that experience to console.
Dauntless’ open beta is available right now. If you’d like to know our thoughts on the game, we got to go hands-on with it at E3 last year. We also got to interview some of the team at Phoenix Labs on camera last year, so definitely check that out as well.