Philippe Morin is co-founder of Outlast developer Red Barrels.
This is the origin story of Red Barrels and the road we took to create Outlast. It’s been an intense and bumpy ride, but we have no regrets, and while we are always open to the possibility of time travel, we would not want to go back and change a thing about the experience.
Stubbornness is the mother of butt-kicking.
After shipping Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune in 2007, I returned to Ubisoft Montreal as a creative director. I had learned many things working at Naughty Dog and was eager to apply them at Ubisoft. The two studios have very different design philosophies and production processes however, and it soon became obvious that I would need to revert to Ubisoft’s way, or go somewhere else.
I decided to leave Ubisoft again in 2009 and try something different. I joined EA Montreal to work on a new IP based on an original concept by Hugo Dallaire, formerly art director of Splinter Cell and Army of Two. I was attracted by the opportunity to start something new with a small team, and Hugo’s concept was too cool to pass up.
A few months later, David Chateauneuf joined the team. David and I had worked together in 1998 on a Donald Duck game and later on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time as well as the first Assassin’s Creed.
We were all confident the project would kick ass, but EA’s management felt differently. EA was undergoing many changes at the time and after a year or so, the project was cancelled. We still believe it was a great project, but we were doing it in the wrong place and at the wrong time.
We were asked to join a team on another game already in production. I didn’t have much confidence in the success of that project and, with a new year ahead and perhaps too much frigid air in my brain, I decided to quit my job in January 2011. So did Hugo and David.
We eventually met and realized we shared the same ambitions; to start our own company.
There may be a fine line between courage and naivety, and while I think success requires both, I believe I had more of the latter.
A good illustration of this, and an indication of things to come, would be in our estimation of the immediate work ahead. I figured it would take us a couple of months to work out a pitch and produce a trailer. Then another two months to get a publishing deal. In the end it took us 18 months.
And that was just the beginning.
(Pictured left to right: Morin, Dallaire, Chateauneuf)
The birth of Outlast
So, what are we going to make? The first thing we needed to agree on was the game genre. We made a list of ideas, and of course most of them sucked, for that is the nature of idea lists. In a short time though, making a horror game became the most attractive choice.
David is a real fan, even a connoisseur of horror. In 2008, he and I had tried to convince Ubisoft Montreal to let us make a horror game, but we were told that they didn’t feel that there was a large enough market for it. We reasoned that since we were going to make Outlast with a small team and a small budget, we wouldn’t have to worry about making revenues like Assassin’s Creed in order to be profitable.
Hugo suggested we use Rubber Johnny as a reference for our game. We immediately agreed it would be a very good starting point for a horror game.
Just like that, it was settled. The first project of our new studio would be a horror game. Starting from scratch with our own studio would allow us to use the expertise we had gained on past projects and execute according to our own priorities. We were excited and eager to meet the challenge.
Immediately the design questions rolled in.
What’s the core gameplay?
Who’s the protagonist?
What justifies the night vision and overall artistic direction?
What’s the journey?
All these questions and many others needed answers, and since we had decided that the team would be no larger than 10 people, those answers had to be realistic for a team of that size.
Out first debate was about the core gameplay. We wavered between a Resident Evil-style approach to guns, but with very limited ammo, and a no-combat-at-all, Amnesia-style approach. We decided to go with no combat because it would allow us to build a more focused experience. We continued to consider having “weapon sections,” but feedback from players at PAX East would later prove to us that we didn’t need those sections.
Having decided that we would use “night vision,” we needed a protagonist that required it. We considered a member of some kind of SWAT team with night vision gear, but we wanted to sell the “no combat” concept, so we dropped any kind of law enforcement characters. At the time, a lot of movies were using the found footage concept, so we thought, “why not games?” Camcorders also have night vision, so it fit nicely.
So, “who’s using the camcorder?” we asked ourselves. The answer came while we were brainstorming about the hero’s journey.
We’d always liked the simplicity of the first part of Half Life. The shit just hits the fan and you immediately have to escape.
We had to find one location from which the player would try to escape and as always, it needed to be doable by a small team. Creativity often comes from such constraints, and once more, we made a list and one option stood out… an asylum. Like camcorders, asylums have been used a lot in movies, but not that often in games, and certainly not in a realistic setting. We felt an asylum offered an opportunity to create really unique and compelling characters that the player would meet along his journey.
"It had been a year since we quit our jobs. We took stock of our situation: Twelve months without a salary, no publishers, no money, nothing. It was a bleak moment."
A camcorder with night vision, an asylum and no combat -- it was a good start. After more brainstorming, we hit on the idea of a reporter. A reporter doesn’t usually have combat skills, and has a good reason to be carrying a camcorder, particularly if he’s in the course of doing an investigation.
The reporter’s role of investigation was solid on its own, but we had a hard time finding how to mix it with the horror experience. The question was always the same: “How do we motivate the player to record events, when all he might want to do is escape?” We decided on a pure narrative approach that left it to the player himself to decide how much investigation he wants to do, without any game mechanics to re-enforce it. Since I’ve never read anything negative about this aspect of the game, I feel like it was the right choice.
The last thing we wanted to nail before work began on our trailer was the look of the patients; they needed to be frightening. What makes a character scary can be very subjective. For some, it’s the visuals, for others it’s their psychology, their actions, etc. We decided to make use of the profiles of the criminally insane patients you find in asylums. That meant focusing on personalities conveyed through dialogue, like meeting Hannibal Lecter in a closed environment. Still, we were concerned normal-looking humans wouldn’t scare some players.
We did some research into the MKUltra program and other experiments conducted in prisons and asylums up until the 1970s. You can find some examples here.
In this age of health care privatization, we figured it wouldn’t be a stretch to invent a corporation using a private asylum for the criminally insane to perform experiments on patients. In our story, those experiments would create mutations and horrible side effects. We felt, however, that viruses have been done to death, so we wanted to do something different.
We worked on this with our scriptwriter, JT Petty, and came up with the idea that the experimentation would involve morphogenesis, dream therapy and biotechnologies to create nano-bots. We included the work of Alan Turing because he was one of the primary architects of the 20th century. Turing was also key in the theory of morphogenesis, which we only have a layman's understanding of, but is essentially a mathematical definition of how cells differentiate when dividing, and how the same cells can create all our different organs, species, etc.
A lot of the themes in Outlast concern the crimes of the 20th century, especially in the way technology outpaces our ability to grasp it, and our tendency to project monsters onto things we don't understand.
We had all of our main ingredients. The next step was to figure out the best way to sell our concept.
Since Hugo is a real MacGyver with Unreal, we decided to create a fake gameplay trailer, which is basically an in-game cinematic that feels like somebody is playing. David did the layout and the first draft of the cinematic, Hugo worked on the visuals and I focused on the narrative packaging and the music.
We engaged some contractors to help us complete the trailer. One did a character model of the patient, another did some animations and a third added the sound effects.
Finally, in June 2011, after three months of work, it was done. Armed with our completed trailer, a PowerPoint presentation and some design docs, we were ready to hit the road and find the money.
Show me the money
Our first thought was that our best bet was to find a publisher to back us. We spent the entire summer doing meetings. The meetings themselves were usually quick, but arranging them and then waiting for feedback took weeks, even months. Most publishers were interested in the project and/or the team, but nobody was willing to put money on the table. We could have gotten a distribution deal from Valve, but they were not financing projects and we didn’t sign it right away in case we later found a publisher that wanted an exclusivity deal.
I believe a lot of the people we met weren’t sure what to think of our format, which I call a "AAA Garage Game." Outlast wasn’t a mobile game that could be done on a very low budget. We estimated that we needed roughly $1.5 million in order to hire the best developers available.
A few private investors made us offers, but the details suggested that they would own us so we turned them all down.
By September 2011, we still didn’t have a publishing deal, but we were not out of options. While working on our trailer, we learned of the existence of the Canada Media Fund (CMF). The program might give us up to $1 million as a recoupable investment. It meant a lot of paperwork, but for $1 million, we thought it was worth it. The CMF accepts submissions twice a year and the next round would be at the end of that September. There was one problem… one of the CMF’s requirements was to have a distribution deal. Without one we’d lose points and other projects with better scores would get the money.
"We started thinking seriously about giving up and going back to work for one of the big studios in town."
When we submitted, we had only a letter of interest from Sony and their Pub Fund program. We didn’t have a distribution deal. On top of that, the CMF won’t invest more than 75 percent of your total project, so to get $1 million, you must have at least $333,333 and we didn’t have it. We submitted anyway hoping we would get the Pub Fund within a few weeks.
The waiting game began. It takes about two months to get an answer from the CMF so in the meantime we started working on a playable version of our trailer to help us get the Pub Fund from Sony.
A couple of weeks before Christmas, we heard back from the CMF. The project had been rejected and we would have to wait until after the holidays to find out why. Soon after, we heard from Sony that the Pub Fund would be focusing on the Vita so that too was a dead end for us.
That was definitely our lowest point. It had been a year since we quit our jobs. We took stock of our situation: Twelve months without a salary, no publishers, no money, nothing. It was a bleak moment.
Rise from the ashes
At this point we started thinking seriously about giving up and going back to work for one of the big studios in town, but we decided to wait for the CMF’s feedback before making any decision.
It arrived the first week of January 2012. The project itself had been very highly rated, but we lost too many points due to our lack of a distribution deal and the incomplete financial structure. In short, we lost out on technical elements and not qualitative elements.
The next submission round was in April 2012, in that time we would have to find a distribution deal AND at least $333,333 from sources other than publishers. It also meant going another 6 months without a salary before finding out if we had the money or not. We had to decide if we were prepared to do that.
Because of our meeting with Valve back in July 2011, we were confident we could get a distribution deal to put Outlast on Steam. We started counting how much money the 3 of us could put together. It meant using most of our savings, maxing out our credit, putting our homes on the line and asking our families if they wanted to invest in our company. We managed to find $360,000, which was enough to ask for $1,000,000 from the CMF.
Since we now had a playable version of our trailer, we sent it to Valve and within days received a distribution agreement. We also made a deal with Game On Audio, who would take care of all the sound design and dialogue recording. The deal entailed deferring a percentage of their fee in exchange for a percentage of our eventual revenues. We made similar deals with our music composer and scriptwriter.
Pictured: Walker, early concept
At that point, we had all of the missing ingredients for our next submission to the CMF.
Just before the submission deadline, we got another offer from private investors for a substantial amount. It would allow us to hire a few more people and enable us to give ourselves the same salary we were making before embarking on this project. In the end though, we opted to stay independent, settle for about a third of what we used to make and work harder to compensate for the size of the team.
So, in early May 2012, we submitted to the CMF for a second time and waited until the end of June to receive their decision.
Before we heard back from the CMF, a new opportunity presented itself. A publisher approached us to pitch a concept for a contract. They were looking for a studio to make a game based on a license. Since we couldn’t be sure if we would get the money from the CMF, it made sense to do the pitch. The problem was that the license was also in the horror genre and every idea we would put in the pitch would be owned by the publisher, whether we made their game or not. We worried that this might have an impact on our game should it get a green light. We worked on it for a while, but ultimately our hearts weren’t into it. It felt like we were back at work in a big studio. We dropped it, crossed our fingers and hoped the CMF would give us the money.
The verdict came at the end of June 2012.
The good news
I screamed at the top of my lungs. We were going to make our game.
The celebration didn’t last long. We really wanted to release the game on PC before the new consoles came out. We were afraid the game would get lost in all the noise about the consoles and their games. This meant we had 14 months to make the game, which was also when we projected we would run out of money. $1.4 million may sound like a lot of cash to some, but it goes fast when you’ve got 10 people and a bunch of contractors on your payroll.
One thing that was important to us from the beginning was that we wanted to hire the best people available. A game can only be as good as the team working on it and we were willing to drastically cut our own salaries in order to afford them. We didn’t want to pass up a good developer because we couldn’t afford him or her, so we made sure we had enough room in the budget.
Before getting the money from the CMF, there was still a bunch a paperwork that needed to be done, like our shareholder agreement, opening a company bank account and getting a payroll provider, but we were already on a tight schedule, so we didn’t wait for these things. We took money from our own pockets and started hiring people.
Since the game had to be done by such a small team, we needed staff that were jacks-of-all-trades. The first person we hired was Rejean Charpentier, a solid all-around gameplay programmer who had already worked with Unreal. He had worked with us on the project that had been cancelled by EA. We then hired an animator with a lot of experience, and an artist, Alexandre Sabourin, who was both technical as well as talented artistically. Next came another gameplay programmer, Patrick Lalonde, who would focus on A.I.
We started looking for a character modeler. We wanted a contractor, but we could not find a freelancer in Montreal and we didn’t want to deal with somebody working remotely. We knew we wouldn’t have time to manage a remote contractor. We eventually found Marc-Antoine Senécal who was willing to join us, but only as a full time employee. We weren’t sure if we had enough work to justify a full time character modeler and, as it turns out, we did. Hiring him turned out to be a good move.
Outlast trailer, work in process
The upside of the 18-month delay that happened while we were looking for money was that it gave us a lot of time to think about the game and develop a blueprint. By the time people began to join us, we had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted to achieve. There were still a lot of things that needed to be figured out, but the main ingredients were there. So while we finalized our trailer with Game On Audio, composer Samuel Laflamme and our animator, we immediately went to work on our vertical slice.
The work on our vertical slice did not progress as fast as we wanted. While our ingredients were well-defined, we were having a hard time mastering the recipe. Because the vertical slice was also the beginning of the game, the first thing every player would encounter, it needed to be perfect. Despite wanting to complete it by the end of October, we decided it was more important to keep iterating until we felt it was good enough.
Feedback from the team made a big difference. The difficulty in making a horror game is that since the secret of horror is the unexpected, knowing in advance what is about to happen (which, by definition, the designers do) makes it impossible to know how effective the design is. Feedback from outsiders and using that feedback to make adjustments is essential.
Halloween came and our trailer was made public. It was really well received, beyond our expectations, and it put us on the map. Watching the number of views on YouTube go up was really motivating for everyone.
Work on the vertical slice continued. A memorable moment was when we started implementing the music. I remember doing a play-through with the whole team on a Friday afternoon. Most of them hadn’t yet heard any of the music cues yet. When an NPC spotted the player and the chase music started, we all had that “Oh shit” moment. It was coming together.
Not everything was hunky dory. Things were not working out with our animator. We needed somebody more technical and who showed more commitment. Being a small operation meant, among other things, that people needed to take on many responsibilities, be autonomous and proactive.
We hired a new animator, Stefan Petryna, who had worked on Far Cry 3 and had experience with first-person games. We needed him to jump in headfirst and get started right away.
We had our first playtest. It wasn’t a catastrophe, but it was a typical first playtest of a new IP. Players could see the game’s potential, but we still had a lot of work to do in order to nail our recipe. It was a tough moment because we were feeling the pressure of our time constraint, and knew going into full production without a clear recipe would be disastrous. Missing our deadline wasn’t an option. Gaining more production time by getting another private investor on board tempted us, but we felt giving away equity had to be a last resort.
One important issue that came out of the playtest was pacing. Players were drawn into the game’s universe, but weren’t scared early enough. They felt like a spectator and not a protagonist. So we identified a big chunk of the first section and took it out of Act 1. We decided to keep it for Act 3, when players would revisit that area. We pushed ourselves to come up with a few more scary moments and it made a big difference.
Other issues were the controls of the camcorder and the door mechanics. Both were not intuitive enough and needed to be streamlined.
On a positive note, the atmosphere of the game, set by the music and the visuals, was effective. Players felt the tension we were trying to create and were curious to explore the rest of the game.
We took about two months to fix the issues. During that time, our needs in terms of resources became apparent. We couldn’t ship the game without one more environment artist and an additional animator to focus on scripted moments. Fortunately, it didn’t take too long to find the right people. Patrice Côté was an artist who knew Unreal 3 from working on Splinter Cell: Conviction and Thief. Jamie Helman had about 15 years of experience animating for games like Army of Two and Dead Space 2. Both were ready to kick ass from day one.
By the end of February 2013, we were ready to show our demo to a reporter for an exclusive first look. We watched him play and it was satisfying to see him jump, scream and swear. He wrote a very positive article overall. Not everything was perfect, but we had our recipe. We were ready to move on to making the rest of the game.
Trailer, Halloween 2012
Our next milestone was PAX East. We assigned a few people to focus on the demo, while the rest of the team would work on the full game. Our vertical slice was running about 40 minutes long and we needed to cut it down to 15 minutes for the demo. After a bit of refactoring and we worked it out. We felt the demo had good pacing, but had no idea if it would scare players in the context of an event like PAX.
To increase the impact of the game’s atmosphere, we had our booth built specifically to isolate players and put them in the dark as much as possible. We had 2 stations enclosed by curtains, which meant that people passing by couldn’t see the content of the demo. We also got the most expensive noise-cancelling headphones we could find. We were super anxious. We didn’t know what to expect.
Slowly but surely, a line started to form in front of our booth and to our great pleasure, the screams began. It was so satisfying to hear the player’s reactions and then see the people in line giggle nervously. Twice a player jumped out of fear and partially knocked down one of the booth’s walls. By the third day, people were lining up for up to two hours to play the demo. We were ecstatic.
When we got back to Montreal the whole team was pumped, but we had so much to do in the little time left! We came up with a supercharged plan with very little room for error. We had time only for one internal playtest and one external, but not much time to take any feedback into account for further modifications.
We didn’t have a choice. The game had to be out by September 2013.
Fortunately, the whole team was on board. Everybody knew what was at stake and that failure was not an option.
On all the productions that I’ve worked on in the past, one thing was a constant: the team, as a group, always felt during production like they were about to ship a piece of crap. It’s been the case on the crappy games I made just as it was on the good games I was fortunate to be a part of. In the heat of production, the team is too close to the details to clearly see the whole. No game is perfect. All games have bugs. It requires conviction and a measure of faith to fight through this malaise and do the best you can under the circumstances. The most important thing is to deliver on the promise you made, the fantasy you sold. In the case of Outlast, the promise was to scare the shit out of players.
"On all the productions that I’ve worked on in the past, one thing was a constant: the team, as a group, always felt during production like they were about to ship a piece of crap."
In the beginning of July 2013, we did an external playtest. We heard that somebody had to step outside after about 40 minutes. It was too much stress for her and she couldn’t go on. We felt guilty about being so happy about this. We had intended to create an emotional roller coaster and we seemed to have succeeded.
The overall feedback of the playtest was good, but of course some things needed more love. The ending was one of those things.
Unfortunately, for most games, you work on the ending when there is no time left. You want to get it right, but inevitably you have to come up with a feasible compromise. From the very beginning of the production we wanted to end the game with an ambiguous, dark punch, which is a classic trademark of horror movies, but our first version didn’t have the right pacing.
Our animators came up with creative solutions and made them work even though we were only a few weeks from shipping. Because they were adding scripted events and adjusting the timing of existing ones, this meant sound and music needed to be adjusted as well. The pressure on everyone was intense.
We know the ending of Outlast is something some players dislike. I’m still not sure if it’s a matter of execution or if the ambiguous twist was just unsatisfying. One thing I’m pretty sure of is that the ending of the DLC, which we did a few months later, was even more satisfying because of the ending of the original game.
We didn’t see much of the sun that summer of 2013. It was an intense crunch, but that’s often what makes the difference between an OK game and a success. It’s that extra push at the end of production that makes the game as awesome as it can be.
Our baby is born
Outlast is far from perfect and has some of the problems you frequently see in the first game of a franchise: repetition, lack of variety, a rushed ending and a short campaign. We are proud though that based on the feedback we got from a lot of players, it delivered on its promise.
The game was released on PC on September 4, 2013 and that night, we went to bed very late. Despite all of the testing we did, there were two serious bugs we needed to fix as quickly as we could. One of them could have been avoided by testing the game on a low-end PC a couple of days before shipping, but we had stopped doing sanity checks on that machine too early. The other bugs were dll conflicts that occurred on some PCs, but not on the ones we had in the studio. One player from Vancouver stayed up all night to help our programmer find the issue. We sent him patches and he tested them out. We are very grateful to him and added him to the game credits later on.
The reviews started rolling in. Some were good, some not so good, but we are satisfied overall, especially when we take into account ratings websites that focus on horror, but are not listed on Metacritic.
Soldier, final version face mesh
After shipping, our plan was to work on an add-on, while programmers would work on the PS4 and Xbox One ports. But we were so burned out that it took us a while to get things started on the add-on.
It rapidly became evident that we would need to hire two other key resources. Our new rendering programmer, Mathieu Gauthier, would work on the ports and