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The idea behind Dreadnought is something I’ve wanted in video games since I spent my mornings watching Star Blazers before rushing off to elementary school — big spaceships with big guns blasting one another to smithereens.
Seems I’m not the only one. Mike Barr used to watch it after school (note: Star Blazers is the English localization of Space Battleship Yamato, one of the seminal sci-fi anime series from Japan). Dreadnought’s capital ship battles drew him to Six Foot, the studio working with publisher Grey Box and Yager Development (the Spec Ops: The Line studio) on the free-to-play multiplayer game. It’s in a closed beta test for PC, and it’s entering a similar test phase on the PlayStation 4.
Barr is the lead producer for Dreadnought. It’s a team shooter, but instead of playing a soldier or over-the-top character (such as an esports star-turn-mech pilot D.Va in Blizzard’s sensational Overwatch), you’re the captain of a cruiser, from a small-but-speedy corvette to a massive dreadnought. It’s five-on-five, and it has the standard roles you’d find in such games: scouts, healing (or repair, in this case), artillery, damage-dealers, and tanks. You can buy skins and other cosmetic items to gussy up your vessels. It also offers premium-tier subscriptions that not only give you Elite status and boost the rate at which you earn XP but also give that boost to your teammates.
A longtime veteran of free-to-play game development (he started his career on Dark Age of Camelot, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that launched in 2001), Barr spoke to GamesBeat after a demo last week in San Francisco, where we talked about his love of sci-fi and big starships, making free-to-play games and dealing with the market, and what led him to working on Dreadnought. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
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GamesBeat: You mentioned Star Blazers. There were fighters on the show, but it was mostly about big ships-versus-big ships.
Mike Barr: Right. It was about the Wave Motion Gun, about the Argo and all the other ships coming at it and how it could fend everything off.
GamesBeat: Have you always wanted to make that sort of a game?
Barr: I’ve always had an affinity for sci-fi. I was always drawn to ships like that. When I heard about Dreadnought and what it was, I was very excited to be attached to the project.
GamesBeat: I didn’t expect artillery in a game like this.
Barr: That’s funny because that’s the ship I’m drawn to. I love the artillery. It’s that massive effect. You just bolt somebody and they’re wrecked. You lock yourself down in siege mode and fire it off three times and somebody gets wrecked. It feels really rewarding.
GamesBeat: When it comes to dealing with the tech involved — the engine works on any platform, but is there any difference in dealing with the animations when you look at the PC side over the console side?
Barr: Yes, there are different challenges. On the PC you have — people are constantly upgrading machines. New video cards come out, updated drivers, and all that. With the consoles, that’s what the console is. You have different generations, but you know what you’re dealing with, and there are certain limitations.
GamesBeat: When you’re developing on the PC side, do you ever have to think about how to make things work for Intel versus AMD and the like?
Barr: You definitely have those concerns. You reach out. You have relationships with people who make the hardware, and you talk to them. You make sure you have drivers that work the way you need them to, that they’re considering your game. If you run into problems, you ask them because sometimes, they have expertise in why you’re running into this problem. It’s a relationship.
GamesBeat: You’re doing this three times over, right, because you’re also dealing with the custom chip in the PS4. Does that necessitate three different teams?
Barr: We actually have three different teams, yeah. Yager has a team working on the PC, and they have a team working on the PS4, but we’re also partnering with Iron Galaxy Studios. They’re doing some of the lifting on the PS4 as well.
GamesBeat: When you’re making this game and playing it for tuning’s sake — the first comparison I think of is World of Warships. Have you played that?
Barr: Yes. We had the World of — in the year I’ve been here, we’ve had World of in mind because they have several games, vehicle games, and they reach a fairly wide audience. People understand that going in before they pick up a game like Dreadnought. I think it feels a little more like — Peter[Holzapfel, the game directer at Yager] talked about Trafalgar, that style of naval battle, broadsiding each other. I think World of Warships might hit it a little closer. But that idea of battling with vehicles and progressing your vehicles up through tech trees and getting different things.
GamesBeat: One thing I liked was how quickly your main guns reload. In Warships, you’re sitting there with naval cannons that take a long time to reload. They go for some historical accuracy, whereas for you, there’s no such thing. How hard was it to look at your ships and say, OK, how quickly should we pace this?
Barr: We were talking about the artillery cruiser. You can’t have an artillery cruiser that does that massive amount of damage that can fire every second. You’d just win. So you have to slow the reload time on that. But I think we’ve taken the reload concern to the next level with energy management. You have to pick and choose there because once you blow through all your energy, you have a cooldown, and you have to wait for that to build back up.
GamesBeat: I noticed there wasn’t something in the HUD telling me I was running out of energy. Or did I just not notice it?
Barr: There should be something where the audio says, “Energy Systems Offline.” But there’s no visual flash or anything, yeah. That’s something I’ll talk about. I haven’t had a lot of feedback on that, but typically — we get feedback from players who play a lot, so by then, they’re pretty comfortable with it. That’s more like a focus-testing kind of — the first time you play, you may not pick up on that right away.
GamesBeat: You were talking about trying to get some of that sort of bridge chatter in the game. Are you aiming for more of that?
Barr: There’s a decent amount. After you get a kill, sometimes you’ll get a report from your weapons officer. After your energy runs out, you get reports. Depending on certain conditions that are triggered in the match, you’ll get different reports. It’s not constant, but you should hit it at several points in the match.
GamesBeat: Moment to moment, it reminded me a lot of the second season of the Battlestar Galactica reboot.
Barr: Yeah, the battleship warps in, and the raiders come in, and you have to scramble the fighters, and Galactica starts firing.
GamesBeat: It’s a far more agile ship than from that series. It’s a different approach to combat, and I haven’t really played a game like that with big capital ships. We talked about tuning for the big guns, but for the rest of the ships and their roles, like artillery? How hard was it to get that feel?
Barr: The destroyer and the dreadnought are not too far off. One is a little smaller, a little faster. The dreadnought is more like that tank with more abilities. They’re not too hard to balance apart. But then, it’s working out. We’ve gone through iterations where maybe the artillery was ruling the day. It was doing too much damage, or it was firing too quickly. I remember one case where, if you played the artillery — its turn radius, for the one with the big cannon, is pretty slow. Previously, it wasn’t quite as slow, and you were just able to rule the day because you could spin around and target the next guy quickly. We had to slow that down a little bit. It’s like any game. You need to do a fair amount of testing balance. Then, you get it out to the players and get feedback from them. We had some ships where the healing was overpowered — on some of the heavy tacticals. We needed to tweak that a little bit, so that’s not the ship that’s rolling. People would get two of those in a match with three dreadnoughts, and the dreadnoughts could never be killed. We had to balance that.
GamesBeat: I was playing with a tier-two destroyer, I think. How big do the dreadnoughts get?
Barr: The sizes don’t really change much. Your big dreadnought at tier two is pretty much the big dreadnought. What’s different is there’s vastly more hit points and armor. The battles become more of a slugfest as you go toward the veteran and the legendary.
GamesBeat: The scale, size-wise, between a destroyer and a dreadnought isn’t too different. It’s just how they’re loaded out and how they maneuver?
Barr: The dreadnought is a little bigger, but it’s not dwarfed — like the corvette next to the dreadnought. If the dreadnought gets too big, they don’t really work in a battle together.
GamesBeat: Did you ever try using ships that were significantly larger than others?
Barr: If they did, it was before I got here. I don’t think they did, though. I think they pretty much had the scale they were going for and stuck with it.
GamesBeat: Players-vs.-environment (PvE) isn’t in the game yet, right?
Barr: The Havoc mode we’re playing right now will be in very shortly for PS4. That’s a three-player wave mechanic setup. That’s coming in. We’re working on different PvE. The idea is more like a story mode, where you’ll get a bit of lore, some kind of story going on, and maybe five missions that link together in a PvE scenario.
GamesBeat: Would you ever have scenarios where you’re attacking a static target, such as a star base?
Barr: We’ve considered things like that, yeah. Or a mission where there are cannons on the ground and you’re taking those out. There’s a PvE mission right now that exists on the PC called Onslaught. In that case, there are capital ships for each side, and they’re worth the most points. You can defend yours or destroy the other team’s, as well as all the little fighters and destroyers that you can take out that are AI-controlled. It’s a mixture.
GamesBeat: You’ve been working in online games your entire career, right?
GamesBeat: Going back to Dark Age of Camelot?
Barr: That was the first, yes.
GamesBeat: What is it about online games that draws you?
Barr: It’s fantastic to see the community. Peter [Holzapfel, Yager’s game director for Dreadnought] touched on that earlier. The growth, the way you put a game out there and it evolves. The players play it and love it or hate it. They find things they want you to adjust. You have a conversation with them. You figure it out. OK, I see where you’re going there, let’s move in that direction. It’s an evolving game. The game five years in — look at a game like World of Warcraft. It’s a totally different game after five years.
GamesBeat: How involved are you with talking to players?
Barr: Our community team is very involved. I try to talk to the community team regularly. I try to reach out to customer service regularly as well. I don’t do a lot of direct contact. Once the game releases, I do plan to get more involved.
GamesBeat: What have you noticed from players as far as what they want in online games and how that’s changed in the last five or six years?
Barr: With the free-to-play model, it’s different. In the past, they’d give you $15, and you gave them the entire service. With free-to-play, you have to provide a game that’s fun and enjoyable for people who just play for free, but you also have to add value for people that spend money. Sometimes, that’s a fine line. People want to feel like it’s fair. You have to dance along that a little bit. You have to provide value to both people who pay and people who play the game for free.
GamesBeat: When you were talking about your payment models earlier — one of the things that stood out to me was, somebody who says they’re an Elite member, or whatever you end up calling it, they can buff other players with benefits who aren’t. That’s nice, but what happens if that team ends up playing a bunch of free players?
Barr: If that team has five players and they all have Elite status and the bonuses are all going to them, but on the other side people are all free — those others won’t accelerate as quickly, but the people who are all Elite status will probably move on to veteran fleet or legendary fleet. Then, you’re not matched against them. You’re progressing at different levels. People who are purely free will play against more people who are purely free or new people who come into the funnel later. The other thing is that it’s all random. You can have some squads forming up like that, but it’s random, so in one match, there may not be anybody with Elite status, and in another match, there may be three.
GamesBeat: Is there anything in the matchmaking that might say, here’s an Elite player and another player, let’s pair them with free players, and everyone’s happy?
Barr: I don’t think matchmaking currently considers Elite status, but we’re tweaking matchmaking constantly. That’s something we could consider.
GamesBeat: Have you found that with free-to-play, people who pay are more demanding as far as what they want from the game, or is there not much of a difference?
Barr: The trick to the people who pay — again, it has to feel like it’s worth value. I’m a consumer of free-to-play games myself. Typically, I’m the guy who doesn’t drop down money right away. I’ll play a game a couple of weeks. When I’m invested in it and I see the value in what they’re trying to get me to spend money on, I’ll give them some money. I want to support the game, and I think it’ll give me value in the game. It’s that contract with the player. You don’t want to have a game where it’s painful to just to play it, and you’re paying to get away from the pain. We don’t want to do something like that.
GamesBeat: What’s a good example of free-to-play game today that’s meeting that balance of free versus paid players?
Barr: The Tanks model does a pretty good job, the World of games. No, here’s a game I actually love. I play a lot of it personally, and they probably have an update today or tomorrow because [Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2] is coming out. Marvel Heroes Online, they do a really good job with daily rewards and loot that you collect in game. You get so much loot that you want to buy new containers, and they charge you for new containers, but you’re thinking, OK, I want to keep this loot that has value for me, so I’ll give them five bucks for a new container, something like that. They’ll do sales on their currency and things like that. So, OK, I’ll pick and choose. I’m having so much fun in the game, and I see so much value — you can unlock characters as you go by earning daily rewards or getting drops in the game, but you can also accelerate it. If I want a new character or a new costume or something like that, I’ll give them some money. I’ve probably spent $50 or $60 there, something like that.
GamesBeat: Talking about daily rewards, are you going to have any?
Barr: Yeah, we’re looking into daily reward types of systems. Consecutive logins or you have bonuses for your first time playing. Those kinds of things. We don’t have anything locked down yet, but we’re working on things like that.
GamesBeat: Hearthstone is one of the biggest free-to-play games around, and yet, they don’t offer daily rewards. How do you come down on the subject?
Barr: I think it’s totally worth it. I think it’s a great idea. Myself, as a consumer, as a player, I want daily rewards. I want to log in and know I’m going to get some kind of value showing. That carrot. There are so many different things to play, right? But it’s a touchstone. I know that I’m going to go back here and log in and get something out of it. And I can look around and see what’s new.
GamesBeat: What kind of daily reward do you prefer? Something that just gives you a reward for logging in or something like, “Do this goal today and you’ll get this?”
Barr: I think it should be a combination. You get something just for showing up and looking at what’s new, being a player in the pool, something that makes your time go faster, but also, you should have something like daily quests or contracts. I know that if I do this today — if I run through these five matches or kill these certain ships, I’ll get a reward on top of that. I think it’s good to have a combination of incentives.
GamesBeat: On the slide presentation, we saw the characters and the captains y’all took inspiration from, but there wasn’t a Star Blazers nod. Did you fight to get that in and lose?
Barr: [Laughs] It’s funny. I was in Berlin once, and I didn’t realize that they had made a live action version of Star Blazers. It was dubbed in German. I woke up in the middle of the night and turned on the TV, and I didn’t know if I was dreaming. It’s a touchpoint to me, but I don’t know if it’s a touch point to a younger generation. I would have loved to see something like that in there, but I understand why it wasn’t.
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