There are a lot of survival games out there these days, but none that are quite like Other Ocean's Project Winter, released in May this year.
Inspired by deception games like Werewolf, Project Winter puts eight players together in one session and pits them against a harsh environment.Complicating things is that, at the start of the match, two of the players are randomly and secretly selected to be traitors, whose victory condition is to ensure that the others fail.
It's an intriguing pitch, so we spoke with Project Winter development director Chris Navarro to delve into the development and design of the game.
Who are you, what other things have you made or done, and what is Project Winter?
We are Other Ocean Interactive, an independent video game studio with offices in Newfoundland, PEI, and California. Some of our previous original titles are Giant Cop, #IDARB, and RAD Boarding. T
here are also a number of other licenses we have worked on, including Minecraft, Rick and Morty, Toy Story, The Simpsons, South Park, Green Lantern, Spiderman, and X-Men. As a third-party developer, Other Ocean’s Ultra Street Fighter for PlayStation 4 is now the staple in multiple and massively successful Street Fighter Tournaments around the world. Similarly, our third-party work on intellectual property such as NBA Rush, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Mega Man have all achieved tremendous commercial success.
Project Winter is an 8-player multiplayer game that emphasizes creating an experience like no other game by sowing social deception and paranoia among all of the users. The player’s goal is to survive and escape the frozen tundra alive by using teamwork and cooperation when accomplishing “survivor objectives.” Unbeknownst to them, however, two traitors in the group will be simultaneously working on deceiving and stopping the rest of the survivors from escaping by any means necessary. Each match aims to create a unique experience that remains with the player long after their game session has ended.
The cartoony, stylized art helps, I think, players put themselves into the game and maybe not take it too personally when their best friend destroys them. It's a fun style! Do you think the art helps players to put the game in its proper place, or was that not a particular worry for you?
The primary intention of the character style is to project a sense of unease and creepiness in the players, in order to easily create a feeling of overall mistrust (empty eyes, wooden / stiff look, exaggerated physical builds).
However as the development cycle continued to be refined, we started to notice an unintended side effect of the style: it helps depersonalize the player. Choosing a “lifeless” avatar helps the user pick and choose whatever qualities will suit their gameplay style best and, often, it makes it easier for them to attribute naughtier personality qualities than they normally would with otherwise normal looking characters (which is a trait that definitely helps fuel the social deception aspect of Project Winter).
A big part of the game is the environment closing in, and its dangers to the players, such as the extreme cold, the bears and the hazards of the terrain. It seems like it would be important to design these in such a way that they're very hard and/or impossible to accomplish alone, but manageable with help.
From the inception of the prototype to the latest version, both the environment and the animal AI have relied heavily on our ability to balance the gameplay elements to encourage cooperative gameplay, but not make it frustrating for a player to try and venture out into the wilderness alone.
While the environment is punishing, all players have tools at their disposal to mitigate its effects such as firekits, medkits and even some unexpected but welcomed vodka. Also, the animal AI is balanced so that a single player could potentially overcome the odds even if they’re heavily stacked against them, as long as they have the right tools and a bit of luck on their side.
The ultimate goal of the survivors is to perform their tasks, survive and escape, while the traitors are to prevent any or all of the above. The tasks are randomized generally for each game, aren't they? What variety is there, and how does their selection add to the game?
The main goal for every match is to find two specific objectives on the map, enable them and trigger the escape. While their locations are always randomized, the tasks themselves do not change, although the second task can either be a repair objective or a wave of animals the players must fend off.
However, once the match has started, all players can claim secondary, randomized personal objectives that are designed to make gameplay more challenging, rewarding and, in a lot of instances, to clash with other players’ objectives to incite some conflict and paranoia.
I'm particularly a fan of game randomization, and another aspect of Project Winter is how the map is mixed up each play. The game purposely doesn't give the player as many navigation aids as your standard multiplayer game, to simulate the dangers of losing your bearings and getting lost. How much did you find to be just enough information to give players to help them get about?
During our prototype days, we purposefully decided against implementing any sort of navigation aid in the map as we wanted to accurately replicate the experience of extreme survival out in the frozen wild. We did not think the experience would benefit from making it easy to navigate what is meant to be dangerous territory.
However, after a lot of playtesting, it quickly became obvious that, oddly enough, getting lost did not enhance the feeling of dread, but made navigation monotonous and to a degree boring. After more testing we decided that sparse signs posted strategically around each map tile would help the player navigate the map without giving away too much information, while still keeping the suspense of not fully knowing your bearings.
Lastly, once the primary objectives were implemented, we needed a way to signal to the player key areas where the buildings could be possibly located, so a micromap was implemented. Ultimately, our design team achieved the monumental task of properly balancing both the risks and the rewards of venturing out into the wild to find the unknown.
The question that always must be asked about games with an asymmetric quality is: How hard was it to balance out? In this case, how did you balance the cooperative goals against traitor powers? Did it require a lot of iteration or did it work out exactly as you planned right out the gate. And why two traitors?
Early in the prototyping phase, all players would start as survivors, all vying for one of the limited seats on the escape vehicle. We used different colored radios that players could use to communicate privately so they could set up impromptu alliances.
However, we quickly noticed that this seldom caused conflict between the players. It wasn’t until later in the development cycle that we decided to shift towards asymmetry by introducing the “traitor” roles as a way to encourage people to stick together but still look out for wolves in sheep's clothing among their own ranks, creating conflict, a sense of paranoia and unease.
This area of cooperative treason games seems to be seeing a lot of energy lately in the physical gaming space. In addition to free communal games like Mafia and Are You A Werewolf?, as well as commercial games like Secret Hitler and Betrayal At House On The Hill, a lot of people seem to be enjoying this kind of playful backstab-your-buddy play. Do you know of those other games, and did you take any particular inspiration and/or design lessons from them?
Werewolf was one of the main inspirations for Project Winter. In essence, Project Winter is a virtual version of that game in a very specific setting that allows a higher level of interaction among players, while retaining that same sense of wonder and mistrust.
Another big inspiration for us was the game Space Station 13! We want every match in Project Winter to tell a unique story for every player that’s remembered long after their game session is over. We created tools that encouraged this and put them in the players’ hands to see what they did. We had many a great example of this during the development cycle but here’s one that stands out the most in my mind: Currently in the game there’s no way to directly boobytrap any items with explosives, but one of the developers found out that if they placed a mine on the ground and then “covered” it with a highly coveted item, when another player came over to pick up the item, the mine would trigger and blow them up. Many unsuspecting devs fell to this devious trick and the person who came up with it got a tooltip written about it in the game.
To slightly answer my own question, one part of the game that seems informed by the Are You A Werewolf family of games is the exile system, where a voting majority of players can revoke access privileges to the cabin. How necessary did you find this kind of social solution to a game where players can also just physically slaughter each other?
It is always a matter of balance. While the survivors have strength in numbers, the traitors have to sneak around and lie in order to power up. Once the mid-game point arrives, though, good traitors have a slight advantage over the survivors.
It became evident mid-development that we needed to give the survivors a tool to deal with the traitor’s power, so the exile system was designed and implemented as a way to help survivors limit the reach of the traitors’ abilities by locking them out of the cabin. Of course, this doesn't mean that the traitors can't use the system to their advantage by convincing unsuspecting survivors that one of their own is acting suspicious and thus should be exiled! It's all in how the players work with each other and how much they trust their teammates.
One thing about the Are You A Werewolf games, in groups of experienced, poker-faced players, is the danger that players won't get enough information to make a reasonable guess as to who to lynch, throwing the game up to random chance. This is also something that people who make other computer deception games, such as Spy Party, work hard on, giving each side just the right level of possible tells to the identity of the other side. Have you thought about this in any detail, and how?
We have thought about it, but we felt that the core fun in Project Winter comes from the lack of information itself, not the giving of it. We want paranoia to reign and the players to be smart enough to make their way through the match however they see fit. If we had offered even a bit of information on who the traitors are, we would have stacked the odds heavily against them and the game would have lost the fun factor that comes from trying to deceive. We want the players to make up that information and so far we have not been disappointed.
One aspect of Project Winter that differentiates it from other multiplayer games is that spoken communication limits are part of the game. Players can speak to each other if their characters are in close proximity, or use craftable color-coded radios for private communication. Similarly, aren't deceased players cut off from the conversation? How much of a role does the verbal communication aspect play in the game?
Communication in general is a paramount pillar of Project Winter’s gameplay system. Proximity voice chat fits perfectly in our setting because of the type of environment the game plays in. It helps create a sense of privacy as well as a strategy mechanic for every player: You can listen in on conversations from people around you without being seen, track other players based on how loud their voice is and even catch traitors, should you happen to hear them open a traitor crate that’s within hearing range of the proximity chat.
While deceased players are indeed not allowed to communicate with the living, they can still listen to the remaining living players and communicate with other ghosts, which helps them share their stories of demise and even strategize how to best use their ghostly abilities to help or hinder the remaining survivors.
Lastly, craftable radios are a great mechanic that I feel is underutilized in the game. At the beginning of every match, both traitors start with the same colored radio, which can help them get organized and formulate a plan. Once the game gets going though, bunkers are opened and more radios are crafted or found by the rest of the players, and the radio becomes a tool that can benefit the survivors. I wish I saw more players use this to their advantage.