One of the most popular booths on the show floor at PAX South 2018 was Microsoft’s Mixer booth, which was hosting the Darwin Project. Developed by indie Canadian studio Scavengers Studio, Microsoft quickly saw the potential between creating a Hunger Games-like action-survival game, and incorporating their own live streaming software, Mixer. The result was a throng of people crowded around the Mixer booth as they yelled to nuke certain zones and cheered to bestow buffs and aid to their favorite players.
It’s Battle Royale, with audience participation.
The Darwin Project is a 10 player survival free for all that Microsoft announced during E3 2017. That was still the early days of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds’ (PUBG) meteoric rise up the player charts. In the months since the genre now called ‘Battle Royale,’ after the 2000 Japanese film, has become the giant of the industry. Everyone’s scrambling to make their own version of PUBG. While some will go bigger, Darwin Project opted to go much smaller and more intimate, with a few unique twists.
“We have been working on the Darwin Project since September 2016,” said Simon Darveau, co-founder of Scavengers Studio and Creative Director on Darwin Project. “We are not at all trying to clone PUBG as some people might think!”
While bigger Battle Royale games feature larger maps that gradually get smaller, Darwin Project’s already tiny, snowy map introduces a gameplay feature Darveau refers to as manhunt. “Everything you do leaves information on you in the world,” said Darveau. “Just walking in the snow leaves a trail. Harvesting a resources leaves a clue behind. If someone finds this clue they will know your position and will even be able to see you through the collision for 30 seconds.”
There’s a fun balance between predator and prey during each match. The primary goal should always be to scout for clues of other players while trying to avoid the same fate.
The world is covered in snow, which leads to several complications. First, some areas leave light snowy footprints, while deep snowdrifts will slow you down considerably, leaving a winding ravine that may as well have a neon glowing sign above it.
The other issue is the cold. Not only are there nine other players who want to see you dead, your body won’t last without a heat source. In addition to a health bar, I also had a warmth bar that constantly dropped over time. If it ever bottomed out, my screen would begin frosting over and I’d start taking real damage. The solution is to harvest some nearby wood and build a campfire.
But wait, you cry. Won’t other players see the campfire and come kill you? Ah, now you’re beginning to see the agonizing, minute-to-minute choices you have to make during each match.
It was warming myself up by my fire when another player crested a nearby hill, like a moth to the flame. They opened with the bow and arrow and scored several hits. I charged with my axe, getting in a lucky strike, but not before my life was cut short.
Every prisoner-turned-contestant starts with a bow and an axe for combat. There are no shotguns or sniper rifles in the arena. Everything must be crafted from harvesting wood, leather, and electronics, though you can choose your initial loadout of craftable tools before a match. Wood can make campfires and arrows, leather lets you upgrade your boots and cloak to provide more heat resistance or speed, while electronics offer the most powerful tools, including energy shields and turrets. But electronics can only be found at the mercy of the Show Director.
“One of the most interesting features we have is the Show Director,” said Darveau. “We are trying to recreate The Hunger Games idea. In The Darwin Project, there is a player who plays the Show Director, and they create the game world. They can shut down different zones or make a player hunted.” When I replied this sounded a lot like running a game of Dungeons & Dragons, he smiled. “The first name we used for it was the ‘dungeon master!'”
At PAX South they were showing off the new ability to integrate the audience’s votes in who received help and who would be targeted, and it made for a fun, interactive experience. “We really wanted to put the human element at the forefront of this game,” added Darveau.
The Darwin Project just wrapped up its first open beta last weekend. I attempted to redeem myself in the arena only to be humbled again and again, often within several minutes of starting a match. Battle Royale isn’t exactly a forgiving genre, and Darwin Project’s relatively small player count and arena size naturally leads to much quicker matches than others of the genre. But I never encountered connection issues or bugs, and the potential for both competitive gaming and entertaining spectator sport is easy to see.
“There are so many directions this game can evolve,” said Darveau. “We can expand the Show Director, we can give more power to the spectator and the viewer. We’re very interested in this idea of a social video game and the future of this type of game.”
Darwin Project is planned to arrive on Steam Early Access and Xbox Games Preview by the end of March, possibly as early as February. It should see a full release by the end of the year.