The first time I left the starting town in the indie role-playing game Outward, I found what looked like to be a giant chicken. The thing followed me as I attempted my first quest: finding mushrooms in a troglodyte cave. It was persistent. It was pesky.
It killed me.
Outward is what happens when you take open-world RPGs and throw in elements of survival games like Ark: Survival Evolved. It takes away the niceties of the blinking dot on the map to show you where you are. Want labels? You won’t find them on the map, either. And encumbrance matters — and you’ll find yourself struggling with your urges to be a walking Costco and pick up everything as prepare for your first trip into the wild.
It’s fascinating and frustrating. And Guillaume Boucher-Vidal wouldn’t have it any other way.
The creative lead and CEO and founder of Nine Dots Studio did an interview with me about Outward, which released today on Steam, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It’s the game company’s third indie, following its debut with Brand in 2012 and GoD Factory: Wingman in 2014 (Bandai-Namco published it). We talked about Nine Dots’ approach to Outward and how even its world map reflects its approach to leaving solutions in the hands of players.
This is an edited transcript of our interview.
Survival is hard
GamesBeat: This RPG feels like Ark: Survival Evolved. But then you die the first time. You get back to your town. Then it starts to look like an RPG. Are you worried about people getting confused about this?
Guillaume Boucher-Vidal: To be honest, we did have some issues with people’s expectations being all over the place. People who have experience with a game like Skyrim or Fable or Witcher, they expect just that because they’re familiar with that experience. Then you have this other category of gamers who play Ark and Rust, and because that’s their basis, that’s what they see in Outward. We’re trying to be consistent in saying that Outward is an RPG with survival elements and not a survival game with RPG elements.
GamesBeat: That seems really clear in the first town. That’s your base, right?
GamesBeat: Is that the only town?
Boucher-Vidal: There are four towns. We have four different regions, and they all have different biomes. They all have their own city to visit. I think that’s one of the things that will get the point across: that it’s an RPG, the fact that there are merchants and NPCs and quests. People can interact with that and make the world feel more alive. It’s not just a survival experience where you would expect to build your own base or something like that.
GamesBeat: When I was running through town, I already found a couple of quests. Just going and getting some mushrooms, but the sense I get from this game already is that a simple quest to get some mushrooms isn’t so simple.
Boucher-Vidal: That would be a correct assumption, yeah.
GamesBeat: This is hard.
Boucher-Vidal: Well, the one thing that I think will be difficult for some, and very enjoyable for others, is that Outward requires the player to unlearn. That will be the biggest challenge. We’ve played so many games where we’re always being spoonfed the content. We get our handhelds. We’re thrown around in situations always in a moment where we can easily handle that situation. We were thinking, in a game like Outward, we want to make it more simulation-ist, a bit, an experience. We wanted to put ourselves in the shoes of someone who would be doing something dangerous. What is the thing you need to do if you’re in danger? You have to be careful. You shouldn’t be seeing two bandits and thinking, I’ll just jump in there and kill them. You just got out of the village. You have no experience. Two bandits that are better equipped than you, more dangerous than you — they can obviously survive out there and you can’t. Why would you run into this without getting prepared?
This idea of teaching the player, no, you can’t just jump at it, and if something works, all right, do that. If it doesn’t, don’t get in there and expect things to work out your way eventually. We know that some players will hit a wall, and we kind of — we’re OK with that. We’re unapologetic about it. It’s not meant to be a game for absolutely everyone. It’s meant to be a game for people who are looking specifically for that extra challenge.
GamsBeat: My first wall was carrying stuff. I enjoy RPGs that have encumbrance. I started as a D&D player, and in my campaigns, I used the encumbrance rules. In Outward, it seems very punishing. Even with the first bag I found, lying around in my house, I was so overweight. All I had was a set of padded armor, a hatchet, a pick, and food. I’m still pretty early on, but are you going to be able to carry more?
Boucher-Vidal: The first backpack you find, the satchel, is really just a starting point. But the same way that you can increase your armor and your weapons, you can find an improved version of a backpack and eventually have more inventory capacity.
GamesBeat: Can you make yourself stronger to carry more?
Boucher-Vidal: There are some armors that give you extra capacity as well. For instance, the trader, the caravaneer at the entrance of town, sells some trader armor. That increases the inventory capacity, because it has pockets and everything. That’s one way to go at it. The general trader, even in the first village, sells a backpack that’s not just–the satchel itself is just a piece of fur that’s tied together. An actual backpack from the store will already almost double your inventory space.
GamesBeat: Why make the inventory so limiting?
Boucher-Vidal: I know quite a few games that are actually more limiting than Outward would be. I’m thinking of State of Decay, for instance, or even DayZ. But the core of the idea was, every single thing we could think of in the usual RPG experience that would remind me that it’s a game, we evaluated whether or not we wanted to change it. With inventory, the core example was, I’m running around in Skyrim. I don’t have anything with me suggesting that I have a lot of inventory space. I see five sets of full plate armor in a stall, and I just pick it all up and then it doesn’t change anything. It’s almost limitless. That just reminds you that it’s just a game. For some it’s quite okay, but to me, the core of my experience when I play large scale, especially open world games, I want to feel immersed in that world. I want that world to feel real to me. We tried to go with as realistic as we could in terms of inventory capacity.
GamesBeat: Like in this image, that’s what you’re trying to avoid?
GamesBeat: A warrior walking around with a weapon shop on his back.
Boucher-Vidal: Exactly, yeah. I love it. That’s a great picture.
GamesBeat: Do you worry that you’ve gone too far the other way?
Boucher-Vidal: One of the worries I had was, if we go too easy at first, people would get the wrong habits. To be honest, the beginning of the experience is actually the hardest. But then you ease into the rules of the game and you can — you learn to adapt to your situation, because we force you to get there. If it was easier at the start and then you hit a wall mid-range, maybe you’d think, oh, the game is doing something wrong. Whereas if it happens from the beginning, you’re more likely to think, oh, I’m doing something wrong. Clearly I don’t understand the rules of this game.
A new world
GamesBeat: Where did the lore of this world come from? Is this something you’ve been noodling on for some time?
Boucher-Vidal: My approach to creating a world is to try and get some geopolitics going. I would start by having some key ideologies in mind that I’d like to see being confronted. For instance, we have the Blue Chamber Collective, which is one of the core factions in the game, and the Kingdom of . They both represent a different take on what, in their opinion, people should do to face off against the hostility and danger of the world. Then we just had to position them on a map.
The Blue Chamber Collective is very central to the continent. They’re close to water. Then we have the starting village, a fishing village, closer to the water. I kind of imagine what would be–how the culture would be affected by that geopolitical situation. For instance, the Kingdom of Aurai would be able to have such a different mindset — they had to be isolated. They’re in a desert past a mountain range. That kind of thinking came into it. Then we wanted to avoid some of the tropes. For instance, when we founded Nine Dots — that was eight years ago — we were talking about how we wanted to avoid the classic monsters, fighting rats and bats and spiders and wolves. We just started making creatures that either were not often seen, but that were part of the mythology, like the manticore, or creating new monsters altogether. We went from there.
Also, another point was — and this is part of a conversation I had with the lead programmer at Nine Dots, Pierre-Tuan Vallée — we had this respectful disagreement about religion. I was saying that, myself, I was against organized religion, and he had a much better experience and said that most of the people who knew that he found inspiring were actually deeply religious people. I got to thinking, well, instead of just expressing my disdain for religion and doing something that other people had done before, I decided to invent a religion that I would adhere to myself. That kind of created a bit of the lore, because the god of that religion, the Holy Mission of Elat, he is designed in a way that I would be preaching for him if he existed in the real world. That was one of the inspirations that made our world a bit different.
It’s usually starting from studying some kind of either philosophical question or problem that we want to solve, or perspective on disagreement, and giving them form. It comes very quickly when you have all these different elements that go in place. Like how to fill the gaps in between. Sometimes it can be something that’s just, oh, I like that kind of thing, and it fits there. We need prey in the wild, not just predators, because we need to hunt and find food. We’ll need deer. But what’s special about that deer? If you stick to the vision, there’s always a way to evolve that. In our case a deer isn’t just a deer that would run away. If you find a male deer, those are very aggressive and they’ll protect their territory, but only if you piss them off. Or we’ll have a bird that’s very curious, but as soon as they start losing health they’ll flee, and that will make the hunt harder. That kind of thing, where — it just evolves naturally, because we had a strong central point.
GamesBeat: As I’ve put more time into this is, the difficulty, the lack of information, it isn’t a hurdle. It seems to be more like something that’s spurring me on. Is this feeling what you were hoping to get from players?
Boucher-Vidal: This is something we’re not trying to control too much. We’re more focused on what it is that we want to create and seeing how people will react to that, as opposed to having a master plan around how we’re going to control exactly how people will react. But one thing I know for sure is that gamers, especially those who like hardcore experience, their ego is piqued whenever they lose. That’ll get them on that train of thought of, oh, you think you got me? I’m going to take over. I’m going to win over this. I guess this is because many of us here at Nine Dots are that way. When we lose, we see that as a provocation, and then we need to get the better of it. The satisfaction we feel when we do accomplish something is that much more prevalent than if I play games like, say, The Witcher or Assassin’s Creed, where everything is really handed to you.
GamesBeat: What really stood out to me was the map. Even in the first town, your house isn’t even an icon. You remember that there’s person who’s sitting at your house, and my reaction was, OK, that’s my house. You don’t see where you are on the map. You must pay very close attention to where you’re going and how you’re maneuvering. Did you want the player to be conscious of where they are at all times and having put that together for themselves?
Boucher-Vidal: Oh, yeah. That was a core thing about the design of exploration. When we were thinking about the experience of adventuring, it wouldn’t only be about combat. It would be about exploration and knowing the environment. When there’s a map that already gives you that kind of information, you’re not looking at the world. You’re not drawing the world in. You’re just looking at the map, and the way is handed to you. Let’s say you have that trail on the floor. If you need to follow that trail, it’s all you’re going to be looking at. If you want the big picture, if you want to take in and absorb the world, the less indication we give, the better. It’s something that we felt was very well-achieved in the first Dark Souls, where there’s zero map. And yet you would get to a point where you just knew your way left and right. Whereas so many other games, they’re less complex, and yet you wouldn’t know where to go, because you’re so accustomed to just following a GPS.
GamesBeat: With the wide net you’re casting, PC and console, what are you looking for? How many people do you have to reach for this to be a success?
Boucher-Vidal: Of course there’s a lot of people involved in the project. By that I mean the pie is shared between the publisher, the store, the studio, and even the studio, we received funding from the Canada Media Fund. We’re part of an accelerator program. All that means that it’s a fairly complicated calculation. But my personal objective would be that, I feel the game did well if it sold 100,000 copies. We’ll be actually probably very profitable for every party involved if we get to 200,000.
GamesBeat: The first game I was thinking of when I was playing this was The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall. It has that same lack of information. Did anything like that play into what you’re doing? Or is this really just something where you’ve taken lots of stuff you like about RPGs and made it your own?
Boucher-Vidal: I started The Elder Scrolls series with Morrowind [the third game]. Even though it’s probably not as hands-off as Daggerfall, it was definitely one of the influences. But many of the decisions were actually part of the design core, not just comparing ourselves to other games. I know a lot of people draw comparisons with other titles, but the truth of it is, we kind of designed by subtraction in a sense of, we knew what we wanted the game not to be, and we found our place through that, more so than we just found influences left and right and stitched together a Frankenstein design.
Dotting the line
GamesBeat: Why is your company called Nine Dots? Where did that name come from?
Boucher-Vidal: Actually, there is a puzzle that was invented, or popularized, in the 18th century, called the nine dots puzzle. The concept is — I’m just going to type something in the chat to show you. You have to link all nine dots with four lines. The solution to this puzzle was the origin of the saying, thinking outside the box. The fun fact is, at first I thought of calling the game studio “Outside the Box.” And then when I did some research I found out that in Canada there were already 400 companies that had a name close to or similar to that. Everyone wants to be called Outside the Box, they’re not thinking outside the box. I pushed further and found Nine Dots.
A little something I’d like to add that might be of interest to you, since you asked about the number of copies we need to sell. Talking more on the business side of things, when I say that Outward doesn’t need to please everybody, that’s actually one of the things that makes us exceptional. Most open-world RPGs need to strive to be mainstream, to be able to sell enough copies to be prolific enough, to be worthwhile. Whereas we’re only a team of 10 working on this game. That puts in a position where we’re almost the only studio that can afford to make an open world game that’s a niche title. I feel like this is a kind of privileged situation. I wish more studios could do it. At the same time, as a business owner I prefer being unique and having my own area for myself, of course. But what that does is, we can aim at doing something that’s not for everyone. We can make something that’s a specialized title, whereas most people in the same genre need to go mainstream. That’s an interesting place to be at as a business manager.
But also, for critiques, for reviewers, to be able to evaluate — oh, this game is not meant for everyone. It has a clear vision, a clear audience in mind. It can go for only them and set some other people aside and it’s okay. That’s why we’re also very transparent with the public. We don’t want people to picture Outward being a triple-A gigantic world, as detailed as The Witcher 3. We don’t want them to think that. We want them to look at the game and make an informed decision about whether or not it’s for them, because we know it’s not for everyone.
GamesBeat: Is it also for people who didn’t know they want this, like me? I’m finding that the more I play, the more I’m into it. I had no idea I wanted something like this.
Boucher-Vidal: Anything that gets big had to start as a niche somewhere. A big company wouldn’t make a bet on a game like Outward with $20 million. But they might for a smaller budget. But if it does work, then I feel the opportunity there is, we’re kind of testing the waters. There will be the early adopters. If it works well and seems to be ramping up and people are spreading the game through word of mouth, stuff like that, then yeah, maybe the next Outward will have the production values and the budget to stand out even on a mainstream stage. But only once it’s been validated as a niche title.