When warp-tunneling multiplayer shooter Splitgate came zooming out of its beta portal, gun barrels aflame, it was joyful madness. The maps were some of the best things about it. Old-school mega-arenas adorned with portal-zappable walls that functioned as DIY shortcuts. As virtual coliseums of chaos go, they were pretty cool. Well, now you can make your own. Splitgate is launching into season 1 this week (the developers insist the last four months have been "season 0") and alongside a couple of new game modes, there's now a map creation tool.
It's pretty rudimentary at the moment. You can place walls, ramps, blocks, doorways and objectives, as well as spawn points for weapons and players. You can create maps for any game mode but there's a limited library of shapes, by the looks of things, and currently no way to alter the texture of those shapes. This simplicity is purposeful, say developers 1047 Games. At least for now.
"This is our version 1.0 of a map creator," says Ian Proulx, co-founder of the studio. "Instead of us spending months and months building every feature we think the community may or may not want, we said: Let's get the basics in place. Let's build something that's fun and simple and easy to use and powerful…"
The idea is that Splitgaters will now chime in to say what they want from it in future, says Proulx.
"Of course we're going to evolve this. We're going to add more meshes, more features, more variants, more starter maps… but really it's about getting the basic tool in place, which is already very powerful."
The big plus so far is that up to eight people can use the editor at once, letting you build with mates and get your deadly Jenga towers up and wobbling in a theoretically short time. The developers showed off a timelapse of two designers mucking about with the mapping tool over a couple of hours. The result was a conglomeration of pyramids that immediately brought Sandbox of Halo 3 to mind. That's in keeping with Splitgate's obvious Halo-inspired feel and maybe an intentional nod and wink to Halo players of a certain age, who spent hours tentatively nudging blocks in Forge mode, the map-making tool of Bungie's sci-fi shooter, which loaded the Sandbox map every time you booted up a fresh canvas in Halo 3.
For the time being, it's a limited tool. There's no control over lighting, for example. And no sign of scripting either, which means no wacky moving parts. The devs are waiting to see if those are things mappers actually want, says Proulx. After all, they might just want new rocks.
There is a "play mode" that lets you test and run around your deathtraps as you build, an essential feature. And if you want to play maps made by others you have to go through the shooter's existing browser to find the custom games where folks are blasting each other on player-made maps. You can then save that map after the match ends.
"We're working on a system that is more developed," says Proulx on this last point. "There is no 'discover' system yet, but I do think that'd be super cool to add."
So it's early days then. But, hey, it fits Splitgate's MO perfectly. The continued absence of Forge mode from Halo Infinite has been a sad sting for lapsed map malingerers who yearn to spend three happy weeks on a single haunted mansion and share it with exactly zero people. (Listen, we all have hobbies, all right?) Once again, Splitgate seems poised to distract a few John Chiefs from their beloved battle rifles. Although Proulx, who likes the new Halo, says that's not necessarily the aim.
"We're competing against ourselves here," he says, "...the Halo comparison is very valid today but to be honest we kind of want to move away from that. We really feel we can come up with a very unique art style... And it will be something that you look at and you say: 'Oh, that's Splitgate.'"
When it comes to the inter-game rivalry, I'm not totally convinced. The other day a friend and I gave up trying to fight through Halo's server woes, as mysterious as they are chronic, and we postponed our murder sesh until 343 Industries find a fix to Big Team Battle mode that sticks. My friend left our call and immediately booted up Splitgate. The games are distinct, sure, but they're still competing for attention.
Which makes the map creator another instance of Splitgate beating Halo to the punch. On top of this, the new season will add two game modes to its already expansive list of gunfoolery. One-flag Capture The Flag is intended as a speedy objective-based mode that doesn't sacrifice the portal gun's power (in other CTF modes some walls are nullified to prevent total bedlam - not so in this new version). And a mode called Evolution will be an elimination-style battle that sees the losers of one round awarded with better weapons for the following round. So you shot me with an assault rifle? Well, now I have a plasma gun.
"It kind of acts as this comeback mechanic," says Proulx.
That rehaul is part of an ongoing effort to make Splitgate a little fancier. There is a sense, from the way Proulx tells it, that the studio is growing up.
They've also rehauled one map, Forgone Destruction. What was once a temple of rough stone slabs and blocky ledges has become a smooth monument of gilded sidings, its dried saplings replaced with lush trees, as if one of the temple's eternal combatants stopped killing opponents long enough to water the plants for the first time in a hundred years. It's mostly a fresh art pass, but there are layout changes too, says Proulx, and some weapon spawns have been swapped around to mix up the sniper-heavy combat that occurs in this particular battlefield.
That rehaul is part of an ongoing effort to make Splitgate a little fancier. There is a sense, from the way Proulx tells it, that the studio is growing up. Since the explosion of interest that subsumed the game earlier this year, the team has grown from 12 people to around 50, and the plans are to keep hiring. Investors crawled out of their money dens to vomit cash into the game's future.
As co-founder and CEO, Proulx wants to improve the studio with that funding. He describes Splitgate as an "extremely well-executed indie game". But when thinking about the future, he looks to the giants of Fortnite or Call Of Duty Warzone.
"You've got so many developers working on these games, there's just always something new coming out. We don't need to get to the size of a Fortnite. We don't need a thousand developers. But we need to be a little bit bigger such that we can get on that content treadmill, launch this thing, and start regularly putting out meaningful updates all the time.
"We really do want to create a triple-A game."
For my (non-investor) money, Splitgate has already proven itself. You can leap through an enemy's portal and donk them in the back of the skull with a baseball bat. And now you can make your own weird maps while you're at it. That's enough for me. The distinction between indie and blockbuster is so nebulous you could fly a spaceship through it. However that triple-A dream turns out, the creators can be satisfied they made a shooter that people will quit Halo to go play.