UK-based studio Automaton Games is making a tactical shooter MMO that will feature up to 1000 players, with a world that will be shaped by their actions. This game has not been officially announced yet, nor does it have a name (it's been codenamed 'Project X', so I'll stick with that for this piece), but after speaking to Automaton's CEO and CTO James Thompson about the project at EGX, there's plenty to share on what they've got in the works. That includes a previously announced 400-person PvP arena mode, which sounds laser-targeted at the growing crowd around PUBG and other battle royale games. Last month, Automaton announced that it had raised $10 million of investment to make this game.
"You’re all on an island and it’s set in the near future," Thompson tells me when I ask about the premise. "There’s a reason you’re all there. There is a central capital which runs the area. You have four faction towns which have different agendas—they [either want] to live there and make the best of what they have, or they’re really trying to take over. And you’re part of this set of people who have come in and you are going to be here to overthrow the whole regime, effectively, and that will literally happen."
"On a global scale between what all the players do, the whole narrative will progress based on those player interactions, but there’s fully fleshed out characterisation and stories for all the different parts of the land. So there is quite a lot of narrative, that’s a big part of what ties together that side of the experience."
Project X is built using SpatialOS, a cloud-based technology that exists to help developers get around the traditional hardware restrictions of game development. That's as simply as I can put it without falling down a jargon hole of words I don't fully understand. Improbable, SpatialOS's creator, touts 'massive scale', 'meaningful persistence' and 'rich simulation' as three major advantages of what its technology offers. Sandbox MMO Worlds Adrift was also built using it. In that game, players can build an airship, crash it somewhere, then another player can come along later and see the wreckage, as a piece of living environmental storytelling—that's a small, neat way of demonstrating what they mean by 'meaningful persistence'.
Thompson describes this game as a "full MMORPG", with five progression tiers of weapon and armour, as well as customisation and perks. Players will pass parties in the world that could be two people strong, or up to 25, with a kind of risk/reward system to balance the game. On the unlikely event that someone's on a 1000-strong killstreak, other players will be alerted that this is going on, plus there will be a bounty system to keep people in check. It's players policing each other, in a sense, with ongoing balancing provided by the developers. Without seeing it in action, these are just bullet points to me—but it's an interesting-sounding premise, and so absurdly ambitious that I'm intrigued to see how it plays. This is all set in a world with wildlife, dynamic weather, tracks, wildfire, dynamic water and other telltale signs of change to the environment effected by the players.
Not enough going on in the game for you? "Currently you can literally nuke the whole world," Thompson tells me, in what sounds like a killstreak award. Tanks are mentioned as another, less drastic killstreak bonus.
The game also boasts a 'machine learning-driven quest and events system', backing up the idea of this "global narrative", which is hard to parse right now without having seen the game in action. You take on RPG-style quests, and based on which factions you ally with, how you choose to complete these quests and what your clan does, this will apparently inform how the story progresses on a macro level—Thompson talks up a "large global impact". He says they're making a game that's both authored and emergent, co-existing in the same space. You can ignore the MMO stuff if you want and play the game solo.
400-player battle royale?
A MMORPG with survival elements is what'll wrap the whole game together, then, but the promise of a 400-player competitive mode within that is Project X's biggest draw. PUBG's success means a lot of studios are looking at moving into the same space, and differentiating them will be important. "Obviously battle royale is having quite a lot of popularity right now, it’s come from a sort of different direction to what we’re from," Thompson says. "We’re thinking, let’s make awesome MMO worlds and experiences, and I think that the current battle royale games out there right now are almost like, 'let’s make a mod of an existing game but try and push the players up a bit and try and get a really fun last-man standing experience' and that’s obviously latched on a lot.
"We do have, within our game, the arena mode where you do play in that format, but I would say that it’s not really player numbers that is the big differentiator between what we’re doing and what these games have done. It’s the level of simulation, the level of fidelity and the amount of information you see and how that affects the tactics used in the game." As for player count, that changes depending on if you're doing solo or team play. "With parties of four we do it as 400, with solo we do it as 100 in the arena—this is more about time constraints, making sure that you’re playing a sensible round.
"We’re doing something that’s progressive I think from the battle royale games that are out there, but that’s not the scope of the game. It’s all about really pushing—in a specific way—MMORPGs forward and yet being a dip-in dip-out shooting experience." The overarching game is very different to a battle royale mode, Thompson says. Nonetheless, some of their proposed additions sound inventive and cool.
It's the detailed world simulation underpinning everything that I'm most curious about. "We think there are a few areas we can improve on a lot through the way our world works, even just if you look at the arena," Thompson says, discussing battle royale games as they currently are. "[Say] you’re walking through some land and you’re leaving trails, you’re displacing the foliage, there’s the wildlife there who react to what you do and that may inform someone else that there’s someone nearby."
I've got a lot of questions about how 'Project X' will work. Without seeing the game in action, it sounds very blue sky, and the most important thing will ultimately be how it feels to play as a tactical shooter. The level of ambition here is off the charts, particularly with the changes to the simulated environment as you play—I'm a little skeptical, but definitely curious. Look out for more news on Automaton's project later in the year.