Remnant: From the Ashes has been out for a year now. Its simple pitch of "Dark Souls with guns" was certainly enough to capture attention in September of 2019, but it came with an additional unusual pitch: thanks to its random level seeding and online community, it had the effect of becoming a live game supported by DLC as well.
That's turned Gunfire Games from the house that made Darksiders II into a new kind of live game studio, one that relies on support for a single game with some paid DLC, rather than microtransactions, to keep the doors open. After a year of successfully keeping players hooked in its grim, moody world, we wanted to know what's gone right for the folks at Gunfire, and what other developers might be able to learn from their success.
David Adams, creative director and president of Gunfire Games, joined us for a quick conversation last week, to explain how the Texas-based game developer was able to break away from the broad standards of live games and woo players with a different kind of shared online world.
Against the grind
First, some tablesetting. Remnant: From the Ashes is comparable to Dark Souls in that it's a linear hardcore action game with a monstrous setting that rewards player reflexes. But one of its core differences is that online co-op takes a more dominant role in the game, and that the levels players pass through are uniquely generated for each player, giving them independent access to different zones with different loot.
So if a player wants a particular item, they need to work with their friends or the online community to figure out who has access to a particular room with a particular boss that needs slaying. And since items are designed to be more unique than the "make numbers and colors go up" method other online RPGs use, the incentive to explore those areas is strong.
Adams says this model has worked for Gunfire over the year in part because the company has pushed far away from the idea that players should need to grind for loot. "The emphasis of Remnant was to make a game that you could play over and over again, and get different content," he explained. Because content is so expensive to produce, many live games (justifiably so!) rely on a grinding loop to extend previously-made content while new players work on that.
What's interesting about Adams' perspective on this model is that it actually strays away from the "forever game" that's attracted developers to the online RPG genre of late. Adams said there was some desire to make a game that players could walk away feeling satisfied from, with the hopes that new content would lure them back in to capture something like the original experience.
It's shaped how DLC has informed the team's long-term success. Since one player, on their own, can't see all of the bosses or weapons a content has to offer, they have an incentive to not just clear an area, but check in with other players to get access to everything else Gunfire has made.
Factoring in that "away time" from Remnant has helped informed Gunfire's post-launch decisions. "I fully admit that...we didn't really design the game to be like, 'you're gonna play this literally forever,' because we didn't want a game built around the idea of grinding the same content. Once you've seen all the random content, and gotten all the cool collectibles and figured out all the secrets and puzzles, we're totally okay with [players] saying 'alright, cool, I played Remnant."
This apparently has borne out in Remnant's sales numbers as well. Adams explained that releasing DLC for Remnant over the last year hasn't resulted in what he would call the most "financially optimized" formula for the value of each DLC pack, but continued support for Remnant by way of DLC has attracted new players to the base game. "You get a lot of people on the fence, and they see you're advertising all this new content, you can bundle the base game with all that DLC and it gets to be a better value proposition for a player," he pointed out.
A different approach to social play
Remnant's unique social situation (players hunting for certain "rooms" to get certain "drops") raised an interesting discussion about the game's social factor. Cross-play has been apparently difficult to implement (it only exists between Epic Games and Steam currently), and Adams admits the fact that there's no way to look for specific instances within Remnant creates a small communication barrier between players.
But Adams says that other social design considerations within Remnant have encouraged players to go online and build their connections there, on platforms like Discord or Reddit. He said there are other ways that developers can make social design considerations to influence player interaction in their games.
"We think about socialization in a way that's actually counterintuitive to how some people think," he joked. "I actually think friendly fire is a really cool social mechanic that makes the game more interesting."
This refers to Remnant's rule that players' gunfire can in fact, damage other players, a trait that other team-based or cooperative games have been shying away from. "It requires you to coordinate a little bit more," he explained. It's a feature that can be abused, but it helped shape other design choices in Remnant that kept players attached and communicating with one another.
"It just requires you to be aware of your teammates. You can't just blindly fire and not worry about it...and you can't just run in front of someone blasting something because you're gonna get blasted.
If there's one critical insight Adams has about the time Gunfire spent working on Remnant, it's the time the team spent "wasting time" getting the initial prototype off the ground. There was a moment where while the rest of Gunfire was working on contract work or other projects, the team behind Remnant just numbered a small few working away at experiments that might not pan out.
"It's really hard, especially as an independent studio, to resist the urge to just dump everybody [working] on it," he said. "But we did a good job of getting other contract work and making sure most of the team was employed in other ways, so that we could really have three or four people working on [Remnant's prototype] as long as possible."
"That's extremely valuable, I think."