Exoprimal devs tell us how they pushed for thousands of onscreen dinosaurs, and why it bears no relation to Dino Crisis
"All the time, I'm standing behind everyone being like 'More dinosaurs!'"
Last july I was given the opportunity to play an early beta for Exoprimal, Capcom’s upcoming multiplayer shooter that pits you and a bunch of your mech suit-wearing buddies against unstoppable raptor hordes. In the nine months since I took command of a T-Rex and did a sick backflip, my life has not known peace. “I’m really excited to play Exoprimal” I’ll say to colleagues, unprompted, in important meetings unrelated to anything prehistoric in nature. “From what I've played, it blends PvE and PvP gameplay into a single multiplayer mode that feels very unique and hugely entertaining”. My tax return was voided because I drew a big stegosaurus on it. I have renamed the cat “Sniper Neosaur”, and I am disappointed that she has yet to emerge from a gooey purple orb.
It was my delight, then, to be given the opportunity to sit down with key members of the game’s development team to discuss Exoprimal’s inspirations, its inevitable comparisons to Dino Crisis and how Capcom plans to use it as a template for their live-service games moving forward. Alongside a fresh opportunity to check out the game, I hopped onto a Zoom call with Exoprimal’s director Takuro Hiraoka, technical director Kazuki Abe and art director Takuro Fuse.
Even if you ignore its hordes of mutated dinosaurs, expressive mech suits and sinister AI announcer, Exoprimal is an unusual proposition for Capcom. As the publisher of both Monster Hunter and Street Fighter, games that are frequently updated beyond their initial release, they are well equipped to ensure their titles are given long and healthy life spans. But Exoprimal is being pitched as a more traditional live-service release, complete with seasonal updates, time-limited content and a premium battle pass.
Despite their prevalence, it’s a type of multiplayer game Capcom have yet to truly explore (outside of last year’s naff Resident Evil spinoff Re:Verse). But in a recent interview with Famitsu (thanks Siliconera), Capcom president Haruhiro Tsujimoto described Exoprimal as a “touchstone” for how the company will approach games as a service moving forward, implying the game has ramifications beyond a one-off release about hitting raptors with a big sword. “Aside from the game concept, this title is kind of a challenge for ourselves to take on and to tackle elements of game design, such as running a game as a service, running our own servers, to enable cross-play across platforms and that kind of thing” says Kazuki Abe. “Do these things that Capcom hasn't been known for in the past, and do them our way so that we have a basis to move forward and expand into future projects with similar technologies and similar strategies.”
No pressure then, I suppose. Still, the team seems in a strong position to achieve that goal, consisting of multiple Monster Hunter alumni. Indeed, both the director Takuro Hiraoka and technical director Kazuki Abe have worked on multiple titles in the series, including Generations Ultimate, World's Iceborne expansion pack and Frontier Online. I was curious if this experience has helped with the creation of Exoprimal, something Hiraoka confirmed. “It was definitely useful”, he says. “I'm sure you know if you've played the series, there are 14 different weapon types, and they each have their moment to shine depending on which monster you're playing against. While there's a massive difference in the number of enemies involved between Monster Hunter versus this game, the experience of designing a game with multiple roles was already very much there in the DNA of Monster Hunter.
"Action, in general, I think is definitely one of Capcom’s strong points and one of our main legacies. So combining those aspects, while it wasn't like I could directly translate it over on some elements, I was able to take the fact that I know how to make a great sword or a long sword work against a certain monster and translate that into ‘Okay, well, the dead eye suit, how's that gonna work and will players want to use these skills against these dinosaurs in these situations?’. There is a lot of crossover that you can use”.
One aspect of Exoprimal that shares no similarities with its monster-hunting cousin is the structure of its matches. Framed as a test conducted by a (definitely normal, not at all evil) AI to create a weapon capable of keeping the scaly, gnashing flood at bay, games are a race between two teams of five players to see who can complete a set number of dino-killing challenges before the other. The final round shakes up proceedings by pitting the teams against each other directly, forcing them to fend off player-controlled combatants alongside bothersome AI dinosaurs.
It was the rhythm of these matches, not the dinos (well, partly the dinos), that sparked my imagination upon first playing the game. Dubbed Dino Survival, the rhythm of Exoprimal’s primary mode is energetic and exciting. There’s a unique tension to matches, a frantic build-up to an explosive finale that provides losing teams the opportunity to snatch victory from the gigantic, dribbling jaws of defeat.
I asked Hiraoka about the team’s inspirations for this specific blend of cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes and was delighted to hear it came from a fairly unlikely (but unsurprising) source. “There's lots of great [PvE] games out there”, he tells me. “You know, such as the Left for Dead series. And one thing we felt was that at first, while you're still getting used to the concept, you probably find it very challenging. But eventually, you probably master how to take on enemies and what's going to happen during the game. After a while, maybe the thrill will wear off. You know what to do with the game. It becomes somewhat predictable.
"By comparison, something like the Dark Souls series, it's fundamentally a single-player game. And again, it's difficult, but you could master it, and you could get used to harder behaviour in that world and enemies. And then, suddenly, there are these points where another player spawns into your world. And it's not an AI-controlled enemy or something you can predict based on the rules of the game thus far. It's completely thrown you for a loop about what they're going to do and how you have to react to them. And that thrilling, scary moment of like, ‘I don't know how to handle this!’ within the context of the game you've mastered at this point, I think is really exciting as a concept.”
“So when it comes to team-based action against massive hordes of dinosaurs, we also felt that around the time when you may feel like you've got a handle on everything, throwing in this curveball, where you not only have to defeat the dinosaurs, but then take on another team who've been doing the same missions in parallel, that it would keep things spicy. You never quite know what's going to happen in that moment. Even if you've been playing the first missions for a long time. That extra level of unpredictability, variety and excitement, would just bring a new edge to the game design and also add more longevity and surprise.”
But what of Capcom’s other dinosaur-based series? One that has been notably absent from the company’s lineup for just shy of 20 years? Exoprimal has been compared to Dino Crisis at every turn, and despite few similarities between the two in terms of gameplay and presentation, it's hard not to think of Regina and her S.O.R.T cohorts while playing. Two decades after the release of the much-maligned Dino Crisis 3, I was curious if Exoprimal began life as a reboot of sorts. “To be honest, no” says Hiraoka. “It always started off as a concept to create a new IP. The fact that dinosaurs are in it naturally puts people in mind of another game that has dinosaurs in it. But that's purely the only level of overlap that the two games have.” Fair enough. Perhaps we’ll see some Dino Crisis themed cosmetics in a future crossover event, seeing as the company has already confirmed that Capcom-themed content will be arriving post-launch.
One thought I couldn’t shake during my time with the game last summer was how Exoprimal felt like a quintessential PlayStation 2 release. It featured all the hallmarks of a Capcom game from that era: experimental game mechanics. Stylish action. A goofy sense of fun that permeates throughout every mech suit, dinosaur and story beat. It’s a bit of a nebulous trait to nail down, a feeling rather than a series of mechanics or a specific design consideration.
I asked if there was a conscious decision to attempt to create a game that fits within that classic Capcom template, and after the translator relayed my question to the team, it was met with raucous laughter. At first, I was worried I had caused offence. I had meant it positively, in praise of the game’s tone, but was terrified they had assumed I was deriding its presentation or technical achievements instead. After a few gruelling minutes, I was put out of my misery. While Hiraoka confirmed that he was also a huge fan of Capcom games during that era, and that those influences may have potentially led to the creation of a game that fits within that mould, it wasn’t a conscious decision. Abe’s response, on the other hand, was what had instigated the laughter.
“I don't really have the same experience, because I was already at Capcom during the PS2 era!”, he says, his tenure at the company compared to Hiraoka seemingly catching the group off guard. “So I don't have that kind of outsider's perspective on the games as a pure player. But my take on what you said was that, at that time, in the PS2 era, people were really bringing their own tastes and personalities to the fore. When they were creating these games there was a lot of authorship and you could sort of get a sense of the kind of people who made them. Not to say that we necessarily don't do that anymore. But I think as time has gone on, and games have become more of a team effort, you don't necessarily get that individuality from things anymore.
"Exopriomal is a brand-new IP and it was a great chance for the team to do what I just described, which is, you know: ‘I want dinosaurs! I want 100s of them! I love robots!’. I think that that personality really shines through. And because it hasn't got the legacy of previous games in the series to build on, it can just be what it is. It doesn't have anything to sort of justify in that sense. So perhaps that is a commonality with what you would describe as the atmosphere you get from classic-era Capcom games.”
With our time coming to an end, I ask one last question to Hiraoka: is there a particular element of the game he’s most proud of? “I think I'm really proud of the fact that I've been able to bring a new IP to fruition literally from scratch off a very vague and out-there concept. A multiplayer game where you take on a huge number of enemies,” he says. “Like, that's the sentence that started it all. And then, well, ‘What if the enemies were dinosaurs?’ and then deciding what you would play as and how many are going to be on screen. And the technical process [that] started off with 100 dinosaurs on the screen, we pushed it to 500, we pushed it to 1000. All the time, I'm standing behind everyone being like “More dinosaurs!” and with the fact that we were able to bring it to the sort of crazy levels that we have at the moment. Of course, it's not purely me alone. It's a huge team effort. But over the past few years, seeing all that come together, and now we're on the verge of finally releasing the game. Yeah, I'm proud that it's come together the way it has.”