When Phoenix Labs set out to develop Dauntless back in 2015, it wanted players to be able to play together no matter what platform they were on. It knew something like that was unusual in the industry, but it wanted to try to make it work.
“Really early on, as early as 2015, Dauntless had Xbox and PC versions playing together for development reasons,” Phoenix Labs CEO Jesse Houston said. “It’s easier to do, but it wasn’t compliant in the least. The controllers worked together and that kind of stuff.”
Houston joined GamesBeat’s Dean Takahashi to talk about the realities of crossplay and managing a live service during the first day of GamesBeat Summit 2020. One topic they touched on was how Phoenix Labs grew Dauntless (a free-to-play multiplayer action game about hunting giant monsters) steadily over five years.
“As we ramped up work on the console versions, we wanted to achieve this vision of playing with your friends on any platform,” Houston said. Dauntless was announced in 2016, had closed betas in 2017 on PC, and then moved to consoles in 2018. Houston emphasized that the slow progression of steadily adding more people to their playtests and betas helped prepare them for an official crossplay launch.
“It helped our own confidence in our development methodologies and our ability to keep a premium experience, knowing that we’d been running a live service non-stop for so many years,” he said. “Transition from our own platform to Epic’s platform and other consoles was more of an iteration rather than publishing it for the first time.”
Crossplay is becoming more of an industry standard with major games like Call of Duty: Warzone, Rocket League, and Fortnite all letting players compete across PC, PS4, PC, and even mobile in some cases. The process is challenging even for major studios, especially an independent one like Phoenix Labs who only has around 50 employees.
Houston said that it’s been difficult to navigate how different companies handle certification, such as platform holders like Microsoft and Nintendo. Working with different platforms to make sure the builds are exactly the same, something increasingly important in crossplay, has been a months-long “trust-building” exercise. Dauntless launched on Nintendo Switch in December, only adding more complexity to managing the live service.
Working in Unreal has helped, as Houston says Epic Games has expanded the engine’s toolset for handling crossplay through their work on Fortnite. They’ve been good at “adding those elements to vanilla Unreal,” he said, adding that Epic Games has paved the way for crossplay in general with their work on Fortnite.
Houston also discussed the shortfalls and roadblocks they’ve run into while trying to push crossplay in Dauntless, mostly having to do with coordinating revenue, tech, and trademarks with multiple companies for the first time. Phoenix Labs’ plan with Dauntless has been all about crossplay though, so they never doubted their end goal and will continue to invest in it.
“We can see that Call of Duty and a lot of big players are starting to see the value of it. Platforms are opening up,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of folks shipping games with crossplay.”