We Happy Few Interview: Compulsion Games on Balancing Gameplay and Narrative, Early Access, and Player Reception

We Happy Few was one of the biggest surprise hits from Microsoft’s showing at this past E3 2016, launching the game into many people’s most anticipated lists. Having previously worked on the 2013 title Contrast for almost every major system, developer Compulsion Games is getting a bit more ambitious,with its next game trading out platforming for the popular survival genre.

Shifting the setting from Paris to England, and the tone from noir to retrofuturistic, We Happy Few impressed with its cinematic narrative that presented a dystopian version of history based in the 1960s. As a survival game set in an alternate timeline, your character rejects conforming to the standards of this world and is cast out by the citizens of the deranged town known as Wellington Wells.

I was able to speak to the Chief Operating Officer of Compulsion Games, Sam Abbott, about creating a game for Xbox One’s Preview Program, what they hope to hear from players, and fan expectations after the game’s showing at this year’s E3 2016.

Steven Santana: From what we’ve seen in its demos and trailers, We Happy Few seems to be mixing an intriguing world and story with its procedurally-generated gameplay/environments. How will the game balance a structured storyline with an experience that may be different for players each time they play?

Sam Abbott: Well, the first step is to make sure that the core game (the procedural survival experience) is good, balanced and stands on its own two feet.  Part of this is launching on Early Access, which is pretty exciting for us, especially because the early feedback has been very encouraging.

In the background, we’re working on the story, which will be added as another layer on top of the procedural world.  The story campaign is really a collection of linear missions and cutscenes (like any game), and adding it into the world is as simple as flicking a switch.

In terms of actual balance, we’ll be changing some aspects of the story campaign (for example rewards, difficulty, etc) based on player feedback of the procedural world. That way we get the best of both worlds – a well play-tested and replayable procedural survival game, and an exciting, free story.

SS: What resources/inspirations did you use to establish the very “British” feeling to the world and characters of We Happy Few?

SA: Each team member has their own influences that they talk about – Guillaume Provost [creative director] might say A Clockwork Orange, Whitney Clayton [art director] might prefer The Prisoner: I’d probably say Brazil.  But we have a whole range that we looked at as a team – those three, Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead, Doctor Who, etc.  It all gets combined into a hopefully rich world full of influences and idioms.

SS: With the game in early access through Steam and Xbox One, what kind of feedback will you be looking for from players? What will be the most valuable information you can obtain to make improvements to the game?

SA: The most interesting feedback to us is the kind of feedback that can add replayability and quality to the game. For example, we have three roughly different ways of resolving conflict – combat, stealth and social conformity.

Most of our encounters are designed to accommodate these as much as possible, but ultimately we can’t predict what players will want to do.  Likewise it’s hard to know what is frustrating – many players found the survival mechanics were too difficult, so we have toned them down.  Later on, once we have difficulty settings, we will bring back the difficulty for the super hard core – but knowing what the average player finds enjoyable vs a chore is really important feedback.

SS: How much of the story/narrative of We Happy Few will we experience in Early Access? What is the team hoping to build on afterward?

SA: Very little of the main story – just the prologue.  However the rest of the world is populated with side quests and environmental narrative.  There’s a lot of storytelling there already, but we’re holding off on the main “campaign” until 1.0.

SS: Have you found users in early builds of We Happy Few playing in any particular way (stealthily, aggressively, etc.)? Is there a “right” or “wrong” approach in how to survive in Wellington Wells?

SA: It depends a great deal on the player!  What’s interesting to me is how people react to the different playstyles themselves.  The aggressive players go in and kill everything.  They then ask us “what’s all this you were saying about story, social blending, etc.?”  And I say…”well you did sort of kill everyone.”

In contrast, stealth/conforming players tend to better understand the lore of the world.  But really, most players play with a combination of all of these things – fighting when they have to, being clever when they can, and bluffing as much as possible!

SS: How has the game progressed from the studio’s original vision, to its Early Access build now? Have there been any drastic changes to the concept/design of We Happy Few since it was conceived?

SA: Actually, it’s remarkably similar.  There have been some core changes – permadeath is now optional, for example.  But the actual gameplay is more or less what we were hoping it would be 2.5 years ago. I’m personally really excited about that – I think having a fleshed out world where the gameplay fits the narrative and lore perfectly makes it much, much easier to stay consistent in direction.

SS: What was the process like for getting the game ready for Early Access? What were the goals/milestones you wanted to reach before making We Happy Few available for the public?

SA: Basically we wanted to get a core game there.  Most features (definitely not all though), a good amount of content (enough to demonstrate at least partially the scope of the game), and quality to a level that is better than most Early Access games. I think we achieved that, although some would disagree.

SS: The most recent trailer for We Happy Few seemed to have a very positive reception at E3 2016. Is there any worry about players going in to the game’s Early Access period with different expectations of how it will play, based on the trailers (mostly) showing its narrative elements?

SA: Well, as we’re now post-Early Access, I think it’s probably better to talk about how this actually went down, rather than what we worried about.

Yes, some players (and media, surprisingly) came in with a very different idea of what the game would be. The people that read literally any preview or storefront, or asked questions on the forums or Twitter, were really happy with the game, and have already contributed a huge amount of helpful feedback (both negative and positive). The people that didn’t read are, perhaps understandably, confused.

That’s difficult – obviously we don’t want anyone unhappy with their purchase. That sucks, and doesn’t help us or the player.  Some people act like the game being a survival game is an affront, a direct insult that we have been preparing for years, and they tell us at length.  I don’t understand that mentality.  The game is a survival game because the entire game is based around surviving…the gameplay supports the lore and story about a world falling apart.

We’ve been in open development for 18 months and post a development journal every week.  The store pages are extremely clear about what the game is (survive and escape a procedural dystopian world), and what it currently contains (no story).  Yes, the E3 gameplay is a tease of things to come, but it doesn’t exist in isolation.  If it was the only thing we’d ever shown of the game, I’d understand more the confusion.

So…how do we address people who assume that the game is like BioShock and buy without reading? The only solution I can see is to communicate, build the game, make it great with our super supportive community, and deliver the story as promised.  Aka, do what we do every night, Pinky.

We Happy Few is currently available through the Preview Program on Xbox One and Steam Early Access for $29.99: a 45 minute free trial version of the game is also available on both platforms.

The full release for We Happy Few is expected sometime in 2017.

Special thanks to Compulsion Games for speaking to us, and to my editor Ryan Meitzler for coordinating the interview.

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Steven Santana

Born in Queens, raised in Vegas, living in Vancouver. 25, loves dogs, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and long form video critiques.

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