‘We’re trying to understand that the market has changed’ – Radical Heights dev on the lesson of LawBreakers

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I’m hiding in a bush when a man in a garish tracksuit runs past. The fool. I step out and spray him with bullets from an uzi. He’s dead in a second, exploding like a piñata into a shower of guns ‘n’ goodies. I’ve reached the final 20 survivors, and yup, Radical Heights is a battle royale, no doubt about it. But this rough and ready deathmatch has been in development for just five months. That dead man’s tracksuit? Identical to my tracksuit. The bush? An ugly placeholder of blurred leaves. In five minutes I will be murdered in a non-descript building made of textureless grey walls. Some might call the shooter unready. Zach Lowery, of developers Boss Key Productions, calls it “XTREME early access”.

“For us, early access is our way of saying: ‘Hey, this game is far from finished, right?” Lowery tells me over Skype. “Our art’s not done, we don’t have all of the features in there that we want, but we’re going to drop a roadmap to give people an idea of what’s to come.

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“And we wanted to make sure whatever we put in at an early access state was understandable. Because some early access games, they’ll put things in and it’s super confusing. For us, [it was about] making sure we didn’t put anything in that you didn’t understand. It could be a grey box, but if a player walks up to it and has no idea what to do with the grey box, that’s a problem.”

While there are still many grey surfaces in their fresh-faced free-to-play game, much is also spattered in colour. This is a future world suffering from a retroactive adoration for the 1980s. To make up for a faltering economy, a shady organisation has invented a battle royale based on the golden age of TV gameshows. As you play, events pop up, like bike races or shoot-outs, with a brash announcer’s voice bellowing through the dome in which contestants fight. There are “mystery doors” which take 10 seconds to unlock but which also play booming, conspicious music while you wait. This is Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, if Brendan Greene had been a fan of perms, BMXs and Supermarket Sweep.

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“We wanted to make it more than ‘I put my reticule on you and if I can out-click you, then I’m the best around’,” says Lowery. “So we wanted to treat it more like a sandbox and make sure we were giving people toys to play around with and have fun and kind of craft their own stories – because 99% of people who play a given round are going to lose.”

Making things more comfortable for the chicken dinnerless is a sticking point. Even if you’re ruthlessly gunned down in 12th place, like I was in that grey non-building, you’ll still earn money from all the kills you achieved or gameshow events that you won. You can then carry that cash into later matches and spend it on guns from vending machines peppered around the map.

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“So we want to make sure there are things in there that are enjoyable and it’s not just ‘crouch in a corner for ten minutes and then sneak across a field of grass and then die.’

“We’ve discussed BMX bikes giving you adrenaline, or prizes that can only be reached by hitting certain ramps and doing a backflip through a flaming hoop or something like that.”

In other words: ‘battle royale, but sillier’. That brief might be enough for Boss Key, but it remains to be seen whether it’s enough for the adrenaline-hooked poultry lovers of the world. This genre has exploded in recent times. Sky-diving with your enemies and getting summarily sniped from afar has become surprisingly fashionable. With that in mind, isn’t Lowery worried the genre is becoming overpopulated?

“No, because ultimately no one knows how big the ocean is,” he says. “There are two giant ships out there right now and then there’s us and we’ve made a splash and we’ve proven that there is an audience and there is a possibility to have another boat out in the ocean.

“But what we also feel pretty good about is that… we have lots of ideas in our mind how we can expand Radical Heights. The sky’s the limit, kinda, we have a lot of game mode ideas we want to try out.”

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Those ideas will be woven into the game as it currently exists. Or semi-exists. While the hook of the deathmatch and its surrounding silliness is present, the amount of rough edges make this one of the most noticeably undercooked early access releases in memory. Five months from “initial pen-to-paper design discussions” to downloadable bullet playground is a very short turnaround for a videogame of this kind. In a display of unabashed chutzpah, Boss Key dubbed the recently released game as “XTREME early access”. An in-game news ticker invites players to “embrace the jank”. Is that part of the comedy, I ask. Or is it an ambitious bit of spin?

“I think it’s both,” says Lowery. “I think it’s part of the comedy because if you look at early access games and you watch people who are streaming those games and playing them, they’re forgiving, right? Because people know that they’re not finished. So when you take a jeep and you crash it into another jeep in PUGB and it skyrockets you 100 metres into the air, people are laughing.

“Yeah, you’re going to lose or whatever, but for us, we knew that we were going to make this game fast and we were going to focus on the important core of the game that we needed to be playable, and that was: looting, shooting, cosmetic collection and customisation, and then our gameshows.”

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So far I’ve been ignoring an important talking point. LawBreakers, the studio’s last big team shooter, performed badly. In their own words it “failed to find enough of an audience to generate the funds necessary to keep it sustained.” So the team stopped working on it altogether. At the time, Lowery was a senior animator on the team. One of the problems, he suggests, is that their bullet-soaked, low-gravity hero shooter just wasn’t accessible enough.

“I think one of the major things that we learned from LawBreakers – that I know I personally took into Radical Heights development – was accessibility. We wanted to make sure that we did not over-complicate things and that Radical Heights was very accessible. That goes back to our early access approach. If this is a grey box, then I need to understand what to do when I walk up to it. That was our litmus test when we put something in. How complete does it have to be to really sell the understanding of it.”

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However, inaccessibility alone doesn’t kill a game. The studio has loudly asserted they’re self-publishing the new battle royale. And in their announcement of LawBreakers demise they dismissed the possibility of the shooter going free-to-play, saying “a change of this magnitude takes publishing planning and resources to do it.”

This suggests there was a rocky relationship between the studio and publishers Nexon. Or at least a relationship that degenerated in some way. But Lowery is tight-lipped about those particular problems. Even when I ask about the general sentiment within the studio, at the level of an employee, rather than a project lead, he avoids the question.

“Yeah, I can’t speak to any of that,” he says. “I wasn’t involved in any of that.”

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Likewise, when I ask if Radical Heights was released earlier-than-planned as a result of LawBreakers’ poor performance, Lowery denies the connection. For him, the reason contestants of this homocidal gameshow are seeing so many grey surfaces, is really a result of a change in “philosophy”.

“No,” he says, “it was purely because we were shifting our development philosophies at Boss Key. We’re trying to understand that the market has changed and the way that people want to consume their games has changed, and that a lot of audiences want to be included in that development.

“So that’s what we’re trying to do here: make games with smaller teams and make sure we’re getting them into people’s hands sooner, rather than later.”

Radical Heights is free-to-play on Steam with a Founder’s Pack that costs £11.39/$14.99

43 Comments

  1. Professor Bobo says:

    ‘We’re trying to understand that the market has changed’

    By being late to two different trends?

    • Pizzzahut says:

      Kinda my thoughts too..

      1. By being over a decade late to the Deathmatch scene?
      2. By being six months late to the BR scene?

    • DeepSpace69 says:

      Exactly my thought.

      It is kind of disappointing, I had high hopes when the company formed. But their first two games (that I am aware of) have been chasing the latest craze. I would think Cliff B would be confident enough to do their own thing and make it a good game. This early, early access is a bad look.

  2. Wauffles says:

    It’s the most obvious buck-chasing I’ve seen since…well…the last CliffyB game, and I’m pretty impressed that your interviewee managed to say so much without giving me any information at all about why I should be interested in this one in particular…there are so many battle royale games in early access right now, some of them quite interesting, why waste your time shilling this rubbish?

  3. grimdanfango says:

    “We’re trying to understand that the market has changed”

    Almost all of the most successful games (with the exception of games with a MASSIVE marketing budget behind them) are the ones that create a new market, rather than wasting time trying to work out where a nebulous, imagined notion “is” and “is heading”.

    Don’t try to make what existing data tells you people want – they already got that. Try to make what people don’t realise they want yet.

    It’s probably more constructive to look at “where the market is”, and attempt to do the complete opposite.

    I mean, that’s basically why Paradox are now a major publisher – from exclusively making and financing the games other publishers decided nobody wanted.

    • Hoot says:

      Give this man a cigar and a blowtorch to light it with.

      I wish you’d tell this to EA, ActiBlizz, Ubisoft, etc.

      • Thankmar says:

        I think grimfandango is right, but tbf, Blizzard was really good in sniffing out not yet realized potential in existing but somewhat fringe genres and blowing them into popularity. Not all their games, of course, but Hearthstone, Diablo and, World of Warcraft, did not cater to an existing market from a mainstream perspective. It often does not feel like that because the games are so omnipresent and oppressive for competitors, but thats how Blizzard came to be the juggernaut it is today.

        • trjp says:

          World of Warcraft took elements from existing games, threw some away and made the others accessible (or ‘dumbed it down’ as some would say). MMOs were a thing already – WoW was just the one the more timid folks decided was the one to try.

          Hearthstone also took an existing concept (Magic the Gathering) and opened-it-up to people with smaller butt cracks…

          Overwatch – erm – yeah, same old same old – Blizzard are creators of highly polished experiences – they rely on the their name to sell them over stuff which does mostly the same stuff but possibly with less fluff.

    • gozu says:

      Gotta say i disagree with you there.
      Look at every popular game, its all just iteration on generally old ideas.
      Look at Minecraft, do you think that was the first crafting game? the first game like it? no it wasn’t, it was just an iteration on those ideas.
      Was PUBG a new idea? it certainly wasn’t. Was Fortnite a new idea? no it also wasnt.
      New ideas don’t mean success in mass market.

  4. hungrycookpot says:

    I played a bit of this, and I do think its quite fun and interesting. More to draw me in than Fortnite, I think the persistant cash is a neat idea. But I also think they may have screwed up by releasing it so early; there are a whole bunch of BR games coming out now and soon, and I think they may just run out of steam.

  5. crazyd says:

    I hate that they released a mechanically interesting and unique skill intensive game that doesn’t hold your hand and has fair monetization, but became an internet laughing stock for doing it. So, they put out a quick cash grab P2W game ripping off the latest fad and find some success. Gamers are the worst.

    • Demios says:

      The problem was that they released a game in saturated market with a ridiculously dated look. Everything about the game’s look screamed late 90s early 2000s stereotypical designs. The tagline they tried using for advertising was also off-putting. “Skilled AF” is right up there with “John Romero’s gonna make you his bitch.”

      This new game doesn’t look much better on the originality front either. I’d call it Saint’s Row: Battle Royale, but I think that already exists.

    • ScubaMonster says:

      I think it’s way too early to claim Radical Heights as any sort of success. Right now there’s 940 people in game according to Steam and I have no reason to believe the population for this game is on any sort of trajectory to rise and not fall.

      At the end of the day, Boss Key chases trends. Lawbreakers was chasing the hero shooter popularity and now Radical Heights is going after battle royale. Lawbreakers actually had more in its favor than Radical Heights because it at least tried to do something different. Other than a goofy theme I see nothing remotely innovative about Radical Heights.

    • Droniac says:

      I wouldn’t say that they’re finding much success with this one right now. Radical Heights is losing players much faster than Lawbreakers did. It also apparently hasn’t sold anywhere near as many units as Lawbreakers did.

      Take a look at SteamDB or Steamcharts stats for peak player counts each day. Lawbreakers was still peaking at 1/4th its launch day figures 20 days in (3k down to 720). Radical Heights is down to a measly 1/9th of its 2nd day peak after the same timespan (12k down to 1.4k). Or if you take its slightly lower first-day numbers, still just 1/6th (8.4k down to 1.4k).

  6. Jokerme says:

    Market changes with each top selling game. These guys are seriously annoying.

  7. Hoot says:

    “Zach Lowery, of developers Boss Key Productions, calls it XTREME early access” and any casual observer who isn’t cursed with half a brain calls it a cheap knock off of an already cheap game.

    Oh, and they call it a shameless cash grab too.

    Lawbreakers fell on it’s arse because it was generic as fuck and didn’t carry the weight of say, Quake Champions, which has a pretty strong legacy as well as being awesome and doing pretty well for an arena shooter in this day and age.

    Now they’re chasing this fad with a game that just looks like pure fucking garbage. How many clones of one very specific game-type can people enjoy? I got bored of PUBG fairly rapidly (but then, I like games with depth) and as far as I can see everyone copying the formula isn’t changing anything, they’re just copy pasting the same game with different graphics.

    • Hoot says:

      Also, fuck any company whose design philosophy is “What is the market trend and how can we exploit it?” instead of “How do we make a great game?”.

      • arrinao says:

        Sadly, this seems to be the way games by non-AAA studios (and by most of them too) are developed nowadays. You can’t afford to be innovative, because in order for your game to look up-to-date and generate some interest, you need to invest money… a lot more money than it used to be in the 90’s. And once money is on the line, then in 99% case also investors/backers are on the line and they want to protect their interests. See the pattern?

  8. Durgendorf says:

    “If this is a grey box, then I need to understand what to do when I walk up to it. That was our litmus test when we put something in. How complete does it have to be to really sell the understanding of it.”

    Nice synecdoche. You’ve forever linked missing textures with your design philosophy.

    This can’t fail fast enough.

  9. mitrovarr says:

    I feel sorry for Lawbreakers. It looked like a good game, but it really should have been free to play. As it was, it just became the game that nobody would take a chance on because nobody else was taking a chance on it.

    This is the danger to multiplayer games, and why publishers should be wary of pursuing the potential greater profits vs single player. People do play multiplayer games for longer and spend more in them, but they also play far fewer of them overall and they can die without a suitable playerbase. When multiplayer games flop, and they usually flop, they flop hard.

    • DatonKallandor says:

      There was no market for Lawbreakers, even if it had been F2P. Low TTK, fast paced PvP only Arena Shooter is a tiny niche, and it’s already filled by existing games. Make it slower and you’ve got the last 3 CoDs. Keep it fast and you’ve got Quake.

      • mitrovarr says:

        People aren’t so thrilled by the latest CoD incarnations, or the latest Quake, so claiming some of their market would have been a reasonable thing to try. Also, there are a lot of people who don’t like how Overwatch and Paladins are bringing in lots of ‘low-skill’ characters, and would have been into something like that, but which respected player skill more.

      • rpsm1a says:

        Did you say low TTK? Even Overwatch has shorter TTK than Lawbreakers did. Lawbreakers failed because it was a “competitive” shooter with no draw for competitive players.

        The “there’s already a game like this” argument falls flat when you consider that before PUBG and then Fortnite, the BR market was already pretty saturated with plenty of options. Plenty of other successful titles were actually the genre clones themselves, but people picked them up because they executed better. That’s really all Radical Heights needs to do here.

        That and don’t botch the marketing.

  10. M0dusPwnens says:

    I think this has promise if they can make it legitimately silly and fun and sandboxy.

    It’s obviously a quick cash-in, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do a good job. Battle royale games are popular for a reason right now, and this is a corner of that market no one has really exploited. Fortnite is less self-serious than plunkbat, but I would call it more “unserious” than outright “silly”.

    The comparison to LawBreakers is disconcerting though. It feels like they think it was unsuccessful due to the kind of game it was, which does not bode well for their future efforts. A lot of the communication almost feels condescending, like they think they did everything right, they just weren’t trendy enough.

    I don’t think that’s the case. I think it was unsuccessful because (1) I barely saw anything about it anywhere – the marketing was terrible (2) the only thing I knew about it was that some parts of the maps had low gravity, which is not nearly enough to recommend it, so again bad marketing and (3) the art was profoundly generic and ham-fistedly self-serious for such a silly concept.

  11. satan says:

    You know, if they nail the aesthetic and make it garish and over the top, along with everything else in the game, push it really hard with twitch streamers… it just might sell (not to me, to teenagers).

  12. teije says:

    This is a total misuse of EA frankly. Any studio with so little confidence in their vision they release it in this state shouldn’t bother developing. They don’t sound like they even really want to do this game.

    Try coming up with an interesting concept or innovative approach – not just “BR with 1980’s stylings” – and then build a game using that. Game design first seriously.

  13. jeremyalexander says:

    Me Too Games, at it again. A day late and a dollar short to a trend they clearly don’t understand, now in early access. I’ve never seen a game studio so derivative and so void of it’s own ideas. Cliffy B was never a great, he’s always been solid, but let’s face it, he’s the vanilla milk shake of game designers and his games are always just cut and pasted rip offs of superior work. Gears of War should have been called Warhammer 40K: Doom Quake. As for the games 1980’s aesthetic, I grew up in the 80’s and it looked nothing like this. This is what someone who was born in 2000 thinks the 80’s were like because they looked at a couple pictures and watched a couple tv shows. Boss Key, at the end of the day, is just the saddest story in videogames.

    • mitrovarr says:

      I dunno, he made the Unreals and the Unreal Tournaments, didn’t he? I regard UT and UT2004 as the best multiplayer shooters of all time, and Unreal has a ton of originality.

  14. automatic says:

    I didn’t read the interview but I have to say this early access scene is bullshit. I have nothing against devs who want people to test their product before it is released but having to charge for it just to make it happen is a manifestation of this failing economic system. This is just telling people to buy bad quality stuff with a promise it eventually may become better in the future. You can see game quality falling by the day because of this. I’ve been baited a couple of times to this sort of stuff. One of the games is being developed for more than 5 years, the devs say it’s almost complete but it still has the same glitches from alpha stage. Pure bullshit.

    • Poolback says:

      I see what you are saying. This game is free though.

    • mitrovarr says:

      I can’t really blame them for kicking this out the door as soon as possible. if they learned anything from Lawbreakers, it was that if you’re going to chase trends, you better be able to catch them.

      Radical Heights broken and janky now is worth more than a polished version in 3 years when everyone has moved on.

    • rpsm1a says:

      “I didn’t read the interview or play the game but here are my clearly thoughtful opinions”

      🤔🤔🤔

      The game isn’t really that buggy or janky. They just have a hacker problem, and a marketing problem. The latter is much scarier.

  15. Alokozay says:

    I honestly hope this fails and they are forced to make something with an ounce of originality to survive. This whole “Hey, this isn’t boring old PUBG where you just shoot other people! We’re making an over the top, non-serious, X-treme crazy action version of PUBG! It’s totally different!” explanation (which is a concept that has been done to death itself) just makes me hate it more. Looking at the player count, it seems that people still won’t play their garbage, even if it’s free to play.

    • mitrovarr says:

      Two failures in a row won’t force them to release something original, it’ll force them to close. I’m kind of surprised they survived the utter failure of Lawbreakers.

      • rpsm1a says:

        They probably have a year runway left, that’s why they’re making a hail mary play and releasing a game only 5 months into dev.

  16. vahnn says:

    “…brash announcer’s voice bellowing through the dome…”

    This is literally the main reason I stopped playing The Culling, which I thought was otherwise excellent.

  17. PiiSmith says:

    Make Lawbreakers F2P!

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