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The Culling is a combat/survival-style game in which sixteen players battle to the death with progressively deadlier weapons. This battle royale multiplayer experience quickly rose to the top 10 on Steam upon its Early Access release last month.
It's quick success surprised some. The developers, Georgia-based Xaviant Games, had put out a trailer that didn't get that many views, and held a closed alpha with a limited number of players. Yet somehow, Xaviant had a large and ravenous audience when it hit Steam.
Why? One reason is that The Culling was designed from the ground up to be streamer-friendly--as fun to watch as it is to play.
"The phenomenon of games growing as watchable--not just playable--entertainment... has always existed," says Josh Van Veld, director of operations at Xaviant Games. "As a kid, when I would have sleepovers with friends, our plan was always to stay up late playing video games. The game that’s being played provides a big chunk of the entertainment, but the interaction between friends is at least equally important."
Independent mid-sized studio Xaviant has been around since 2007, and is made up of a group of game industry veterans. Its first game, the multiplatform first-person action RPG Lichdom: Battlemage arrived in August 2014. The Culling has turned out to be a bigger hit, with over 8,000 "Mostly Positive" reviews on Steam and around 380,000 owners, according to Steamspy.
Van Veld adds, "If you go even further back to early arcades, there was always a strong audience and community aspect, just like there is with traditional sporting events. Twitch and YouTube capture that same vibe. They have found ways to provide new versions of that experience in an online environment."
People enjoy watching things collectively, especially when one side can succeed and another can fail. Movies, sports events, and now video games allow big audiences to share in that excitement of winning and bitterness of defeat.
The Culling's foregrounding of watchability came about largely by accident.
"As a small team, we had our hands full simply building a fun experience from a player point of view," says Van Veld. "It was fairly late in the cycle before we started thinking about what impact streamers would have on the live game.
Still, he says that audience perspective was something the team had to think about a great deal as we built The Culling. That's because over the course of a match, most players will die. Permanently. That's an integral part of the Hunger Games nature of the competition, and it raises tension and stakes dramatically. But as developers testing the game soon learned, this can make for some boring times for the permadead.
"Throughout development, our team would playtest three 16-player matches every afternoon," says Van Veld. "Players who died early couldn’t immediately move on to another session. This created the need for a robust spectator mode, which unexpectedly became an integral and highly enjoyable part of every match."
"Even though we didn’t have streaming on the forefront of our minds when we started, the fact that the team was spectating matches on a regular basis had a significant impact on the design and ultimately on the watchability of the game," says Van Veld. Having the developers constantly watching their own game meant making some design tweaks to improve how much fun it would be to watch, if only to keep themselves from being bored.
"Every round of The Culling plays out differently, but we’ve constructed our rules and gameplay loops in a way that guarantees there will be meaningful progression, just like you’d see in a suspenseful television show." says Van Veld. "Each player starts the match alone and empty-handed in the jungle. Immediately there’s an urgent requirement to arm yourself. There’s no respawning; your death trally matters."
Being dropped into a deadly arena with no weapons creates tension the moment the player starts the game. Someone could be out to take the one life they'll have for the next twenty minutes of play, and that drives the player to be cautious and aggressive in equal measure. Spectators become invested in the frantic scramble for survival.
Players must also make quick decisions on what to do during the match, which ratchets up tension. "Do you spend precious FUNC (in-game currency) to craft a weapon, or do you run to a nearby building to ransack it in hopes of finding something better?" says Van Veld. "Are you willing to engage another player in combat if you encounter them early, or will you retreat and save your strength?"
These dilemmas can get the viewers involved in live chat, offering advice or second-guessing decisions the player makes. This can also make the viewers feel valued should the player do what they've suggested.
"As the round progresses, players gain access to deadlier tools, so the same contestants who were smashing each other’s skulls with rocks twenty minutes ago are now brandishing katanas and hunting rifles that they’ve earned by surviving until the very end." says Van Veld.
When that death comes, it will be swift and brutal, with a viewing perspective that draws upon jump scares in horror games. "Our decision to keep the game first-person with a big focus on melee also factors into the suspense and watchability," says Van Veld. "Deaths tend to be very up-close and personal."
The perspective also helps to hide certain things from the player and audience. "Audio is a major factor because the first-person perspective limits your peripheral vision," he says. "Every time you turn a corner or start opening a crate, you wonder if there’s somebody waiting behind a tree, ready to run out and stab you when you least expect it."
It's the same sensation as watching a horror movie and picking up on a sound the characters haven't noticed, only the viewer has access to a chat window to say "He's right behind you!"
For Xaviant, looking at the game as a spectator would helped them hone and enhance the overall experience.
"Watching a match caused the team to focus on different aspects of the game’s art, audio, and animation," ays Van Veld. "When you’re playing, it’s easy to overlook placeholder assets or repetitive-looking movements, but when you’re a spectator you will notice if the game looks too much like Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots (which ours did for a while). That scrutiny resulted in an initiative to add a more visceral look, sound and feel to our melee combat, which later proved pivotal in the game’s development."
Round playtime and action escalation were also honed by this process. "One of The Culling’s calling cards is its short, explosive rounds," he says. "Each one lasts about twenty minutes, which is enough time to build an incredible amount of tension along with a strong sense of progression from start to finish. It also manages to be focused enough to hold an audience’s attention and minimize lulls in the action. Having an audience watching and waiting for the final, climactic showdown during our internal tests helped us to find the right balance."
Another aspect of the game that solidified through spectator testing was a commitment to keeping the experience approachable. "Finally, and perhaps most importantly, all of the game’s features are simple," says Van Veld. "There’s nothing going on that will be confusing to a viewer who’s never played the game. MOBAs and RTS games can be intimidating to watch if you’re not already intimately familiar with the game’s mechanics and strategies, but The Culling still manages to offer depth without presenting a high barrier to entry."
Van Veld says that Xaviant succeeded by sitting around in a room and playing their game together, just as they had as kids, "The Culling is fun to play and watch because we had fun making it. It’s as simple as that."