Skip to main content

The cat-and-mouse creation of Hunt: Showdown, and why there may never be a Hunt 2

How Crytek navigate the "religious wars" between players over their shooter's direction

A player aiming a spiked grenade type device at another in a brick passageway in Hunt: Showdown
Image credit: Crytek

When I reviewed Hunt: Showdown for a different parish back in 2019, it was a swampy, stealthy, slow-paced extraction FPS that consisted of weaving through mouldy undead and pockets of inconveniently noisy wildlife, ears pricked for the rustle of a rival player in the bushes. It was a game in which every footfall felt like a gamble and every second lasted an eternity, even before you entered the lair of a giant spider. Fast forward to 2023, and streamers are playing Hunt: Showdown like it's Titanfall 2, scurrying along walls with scant regard for the NPC cannon fodder below, duelling each other on rooftops with pistol shotguns, and tearing through those poor, befuddled boss monsters like sandcastles.

Thus the fate of any competitive shooter lucky enough to acquire a seasoned pro following, I guess. But still, returning to Crytek's PvPvE shooter has been a shock, and speaking to the development team, it sounds like the devs themselves have been struggling to keep up with the more ambitious players, too. Showdown was never expected to endure quite this long and evolve in quite this way, according to general manager David Fifield, and managing the community's ambitions for the game is as much of a challenge as compensating for the limitations of its ageing engine.

"It's not like the Hunt team were saying OK, and then in year five and six, we're totally gonna [do this]," he says. "Every year you were looking at: should there be a Hunt 2? Should we do another thing, or should we make a sequel? And it just felt like there was always so much room to add a little bit more to Hunt, and the audience kept growing and growing, so it was like, well, the audience is gonna keep growing, and people are keep coming back. We'll just keep making more content for this one. But we'll also add in the microtransactions, or the premium currencies, or just different ways to sell DLC, that let us keep funding development for a game that people bought five years ago."

A monster emerging from fire in Hunt: Showdown
Image credit: Crytek

The unpredictability of Hunt's development is typical for what Fifield - whose prior credits include Halo, Call Of Duty and MechWarrior - characterises as an early wave western game-as-a-service (GaaS) project, its development dating back to the mid-teens. "Hunt launched five years ago, when service games were still just kind of appearing, right, and even the biggest brands and the biggest IPs were like, 'No, we're yearly iterations and they would just stamp out a new version every year'," he says. "And then you started getting the Tarkovs, the Hunts, the PUBGs and even the H1Z1s, maybe that far back."

Many of the biggest game-as-a-service projects became services almost by accident, Fifield suggests. The obvious one is Epic's Fortnite, "a four-player co-op PvE game that decided to try and throw this crazy Hail Mary pass to put a battle royale mode in there, took the world by storm. That wasn't the plan for that product, that was a four-player co-op product that became a royale sensation. And so then [Epic] decided, 'Hey, we have enough players, there's no point in making people reinstall, let's just keep putting more content in there.' That's one of the bigger service games to break into western markets - a lot of that stuff existed in Asian markets for years."

Hunt isn't a phenomenon on par with Fortnite, but its steady popularity as one of Steam's evergreen 50 Most Played games harbours lessons aplenty for the creators of multiplayer shooters at large. Fifield argues that the key thing that underpins Hunt's on-going success is knowing how to impose a direction without trampling on how people are playing the game. "One of the things that upsets me most is when developers or designers accuse the public of playing their game wrong," he says. "It's like, the public's going to play the game they find most enjoyable, or they're going to play the game that lets them win the way they want to play. All those pieces that say you're playing it wrong - well, no, they're playing it right for them. Maybe you designed it wrong! Or maybe you just need to understand that not everybody's going to play it the same."

Watch on YouTube

It's equally important to avoid "floundering into chasing other crazes, other games and what did or didn't work for them, because it may not work for you," Fifield adds. "I think you can see that with other IPs or shooters that are like, okay, we tried to be kind of a Counter-Strike and that didn't work. And so now we're going to try and be an extraction shooter. Or now we're going to try and be an arena shooter."

Even as GaaS developers avoid stepping on players' toes, they should also be wary of undue pressure from the more vocal portions of their community. Fifield says that there are "religious wars" in the Hunt playerbase over everything from the addition of dual pistols to how much camping and sniping is permitted in a game that continues to emphasise stealth, for all the agility of certain streamers. "There are strong emotions about whether everyone should have to kick in every door and fight straight up as fast as possible, or if it's OK to be skulking around in the bushes at the far ranges, trying to snipe and opportunistically hit people. And some people want to straight up fight, and some people want to sneak and ambush, and you know, they'll argue about it for as long as we have the servers on."

One way in which Crytek have sought to please all parties is via the concept of a Wildcard Contract, which is essentially a set of modifiers for particular tastes and skill thresholds. "That's a place where we can start to consider if you want the rules to be different," Fifield says. "Right now we use them for the low visibility modes, like when we set the map on fire, or there's pouring rain, or it's night - well, here's a contract where you could go in and you're not going to be able to see very far. So maybe there's not a lot of sniping, maybe there's more ambushing, maybe traps are a little more dangerous, because they're harder to see. So that's kind of one mode of play where you can give the player the ability to choose: do you want the standard rotation of some visibilities all mixed together? Or do you just want to go to this low visibility or kind of different rule set to have out there?"

One of the trickiest things to decide when tinkering with the game is whether a particular player strategy or tactic counts as cheating outright. "There are different classifications that we put all those kinds of things into," Fifield says. "Is it aimbot stuff? That's one kind of cheat that you're looking for. Are people playing tricks with rendering?" All FPS developers must wrestle with such questions, of course, but it's a tougher call for Hunt because the game is built for a certain 'acceptable' level of unfairness. Its premise of whiskery ne'er-do-wells squabbling over boss tokens in a huge, busy world of knotted, overlapping sightlines is designed to encourage underhand tactics.

Crytek have had a particular struggle working out what to do about ReShade, a post-processing plug-in which some players have used to clear off a little of Hunt's murky ambience, and spot opponents from further away than they should. The problem is that ReShade has also seen use as an accessibility tool: some colourblind players have come to rely on it, and were understandably upset when the developers eventually removed the feature in August this year.

"We now ban ReShade, because there's just enough advantage to be found in playing with a rendering to increase visibility, versus what your opponents can actually see, that we determine that one crossed the line from acceptable aid into exploited advantage," Fifield says. "So that's a line that you always wind up struggling with, what's the proper accessibility for visually impaired folks that need some help, versus people just putting it into kind of a weird, almost broken-looking view, but it shows up the enemies super, super well. That was one we acted on, and it was a minor controversy, but you know, it was far and away preferred by the community that we removed that from player options." Fifield's defence of the change notwithstanding, colourblind players continue to raise objections about the ban on Steam, pointing out that it would have been better to render ReShade unnecessary by introducing accessibility settings that meet the same need.

Updating Hunt in response to how players play it has also meant pushing the capabilities of its CryEngine technology. Take last year's decision to set maps on fire, or this year's introduction of rain - a dream from early development which almost never came to fruition. "It was pushing the thresholds of what we could do with the current engine," Fifield confesses, adding that "for a long time, we shied away from even attempting rain because we were worried about performance, we were worried about how that can be rendered on current systems. And we found a version after several years of trying."

A player lurking under a bridge in Hunt: Showdown, hoping to catch another off guard
Image credit: Crytek

Fifield himself thought simulating wet weather wasn't practical when he joined Crytek in 2022. "I was like, 'look, we're not going to do rain', and that then started people thinking 'but what would it take?' And it just wound up taking a couple of years to put it all together in a way that we could do with the current technology." Crytek's success notwithstanding, implementing these more recent effects has made the need for a larger technological overhaul in early 2024 indisputable. "It got to like, if we're going to keep doing stuff like this, we have to raise our min spec, and we need to go to the new engine. We took it as far as we could go for some players, we even probably took it too far - we were pushing hard against those minimum specs for the last gen consoles."

As for current trends among Hunt players that Crytek might seize upon and explore, Fifield and his colleagues are interested in the concept of a "naked" run, where players drop into rounds with minimal or no equipment, as in many battle royale games. While the idea of a no-gear playthrough is hardly exotic, it's an intriguing way to play Hunt, given the relative shortage of weaponry to find in the world.

"These people voluntarily just log in carrying little to no gear, or maybe they just have a knife and a medkit, and then they have to find what they can in the world, which is very sparse compared to other games, or get opportunistic kills and pick up weapons and go from there," Fifield says. "So that's one concept - we don't have a mode called Naked run, or, you know, 'unequip Hunter'. But it's interesting that people are kind of creating that mode and forcing it on themselves. So that's something we're looking at, and considering what we might do with it." Who knows - when next I talk to Fifield, Hunt might be enjoying yet another lease of life as a Fortnite-style rush for the choicest map drops.

Read this next