If you haven't heard of Scavengers or the up-and-coming Midwinter Entertainment, they'll probably be on your radar soon. A few months back at E3, TechRaptor gave Scavengers one of the website's 10 Best of E3 Awards. Recently, the Seattle-based studio started conducting its first public, limited access playtests. Even more recent is the news that Midwinter was acquired by Improbable and became the first addition to the SpatialOS creator's first internal games studio.
Perhaps most impressive of all is that Scavengers isn't headed by a large, AAA team. It comprises ex-developers from AAA companies like 343 Industries and DICE, but Midwinter runs a small crew with lofty goals. Playtesting a new, giant multiplayer experience might prove difficult for a developer of smaller size. After talking with Midwinter CEO and co-founder Josh Holmes, we have a better idea of how he and his team addresses the large influx of player feedback from recent testing.
The Origins of Scavengers
Before diving into playtesting for Scavengers, it's important to know about the team behind this upcoming, ambitious shooter. For a comprehensive look at what the survival, competitive multiplayer gameplay of Scavengers entails, check out our E3 2019 article and video interview with Holmes. Founded in 2016, Holmes and his small group of developers began by talking about what multiplayer will evolve to be in the future, and how important multiplayer was.
“We wanted to create a studio that was really focused on enabling shared experiences between players," said Holmes. "We talked a lot about how the strongest bonds are formed in the face of adversity, and we were having to rely on other players—whether they be friends or complete strangers—you have this magical connection that takes place when a game works. It enables experiences that really can’t be enjoyed in any other medium, which I think is one of the most powerful parts of gaming.”
With those ideas in mind, Holmes and the other founders began to amass a crew of talented developers. From AAA teams to now a small studio in Seattle, Midwinter had a large number of individuals who have worked together on previous games like Halo and Battlefield. Others were brand new to the team, bringing new perspectives and ideas.
“I think there’s also—and I talked a little bit about this at E3—there was a desire amongst those of us who have been in AAA to move away from the massive scale that AAA has sort of enforced to embrace as there’s been this sort of arms race in terms of content footprint and artistic fidelity," said Holmes.
One of Midwinter's biggest motivations was getting Scavengers in the hands of players as soon as possible. From press and influencers at E3 2019 to ongoing playtests every other month, this process starts an important cycle in Scavengers' development.
“I think it’s exciting to start engaging in that process," said Holmes. "It’s also a little bit terrifying, like when we went to E3 we honestly didn’t know what to expect, we’re putting the games in the hands of a lot of media and influencers and other folks that were trying the game for the first time, and we were just trying to be really open-minded and listen to what people have to say and try to take away from that as much information as possible to help inform our development going forward.”
At 343 Industries, where Holmes previously served as the creative director and studio head for a time, playtesting was an intensive process. Many different teams focused on different aspects of the Halo title being developed at this very large studio. Midwinter doesn't have the luxury of a large team and dedicated playtest lab as 343 did, but the same hardcore mentality for the process remains.
"’...I'd say certainly there are times when I miss having some of those resources at our disposal," said Holmes, "but the flipside of that is we’re very scrappy as a team, and we understand the information that we’re trying to ascertain or get our hands on and we just try to be creative in the techniques and approach we take into testing for those things.”
The team has a strong commitment to playtesting internally, typically every other day in the office. Every developer has the current build of Scavengers on their desktop setup to play. With the help of SpatialOS' launcher, testing becomes even easier and more streamlined. Public playtesting is much different, of course. Thousands of people are playing as opposed to a couple dozen. With the help of a test team in Poland, Midwinter releases a more stable public build. The test team can go in and verify certain bugs or track down additional information of reported problems from the public playtesting.
"We look at a combination of anecdotal feedback that comes back from players around suggestions they might have for the game or descriptions that they give around experiences that they’ve had in any given session," said Holmes. "We also have a fair amount of instrumentation that we’ve invested time and collected little pockets of data which can be as simple as, for example, we have a goal in the game that we want players to organically stick together and play together as a group, and so one of the things that we track through data is how often players are co-located throughout a session if you have a team of three versus how often they split apart.”
The Future of Scavengers
With feedback from the first playtest in hand, Midwinter is working on expanding the diversity of the snowy environments in Scavengers. They aim to make the environment visually appealing and distinct, and also add visual aides showing areas previously scavenged for materials. One of the most vital points the team is currently working to tweak based on player feedback is the balance between PVP and PVE. With the current state of Scavengers, players aren't getting into conflict as often as they would like.
“I think that’s one of our biggest challenges as an experience is blending together those two forms of conflict," said Holmes. “We’re excited about the way the game is playing, but we still have a lot of work to do on that front."
Holmes also admits that the team didn't expect such a strong desire "for a heightened level of PVP within the game" from players. There are some battle royale elements in Scavengers, but Holmes says they aren't trying to make another entry in that genre. Still, he admits there is an appetite for PVP there that the team is actively working on.
Other elements players can look forward to in the future for Scavengers is metaprogression, which will keep players coming back for more in hopes of progressing their character. Players build their character over time, match after match, and that's another strong focus with the development.
For now, limited batches of players are being taken in to participate in Scavengers' playtesting. For the rest of the year, playtests are conducted every other month. Into 2020, ramping up to release, they will become more frequent. For a chance of playing Scavengers early and shaping its development, you can sign up directly on the game's website.