Prioritizing features for Early Access release in Osiris: New Dawn

Osiris is a case study in developer focus. Brian McRae of Fenix Fire talks us through how the two-man dev team decided which features to prioritize to make a strong impression in Early Access.

Osiris: New Dawn by Fenix Fire is a multiplayer survival game in which players take on the role of astronauts stranded on distant planets. Their primary goal: Colonize a new solar system. That means gathering resources to use as crafting materials, avoiding things like freezing to death or suffocating in deadly environments, and fighting off hostile indigenous creatures.

When it hit Steam’s Early Access portal in October, Osiris quickly climbed its way to the top of the sales charts – quite a feat for a game few had heard anything about up until just before its mid-development launch.

“We didn’t want to advertise this game in any way whatsoever while we were developing it,” says Fenix Fire founder Brian McRae  “We didn’t want to paint ourselves into a corner.”

Development of the game has been happening in bursts for the past five years. It was produced almost completely by just two people, McRae and programmer Manny Flores, working on a heavily tweaked version of the Unity engine.

Osiris is a case study in developer focus. It’s resonating with players not because it’s a complete game with a wide scope – there’s still much to be done to achieve Fenix Fire’s vision for the game, and it’s hard to say how much longer it’ll take to reach that point – but what’s available to players of the Early Access build is tuned and honed to offer a deep experience. “We knew what group of features we needed to create a core gameplay loop,” says McRae.

There’s only a single planet to explore, but that planet offers a compelling experience. The two-man team focused on key features that would make a strong impression in an alpha release, and give a powerful sense of what the full project hoped to acheive. As McRae puts it, even players who give Osiris negative reviews on Steam seem to agree on the game’s vast potential. 

Making an Early Access title feel ‘good enough’

Getting Osiris in shape for Early Access meant carefully prioritizing and focusing on immediate goals. “It’s important to have a top-down idea of where the overall game is going, but I think one of the key elements of running a game business is deciding where to put your effort on a daily basis,” McRae says. “Every single day we would take a look and see, what is the most important thing we can accomplish today?”

The limitation of having a small team led Fenix Fire to focus on a single element at a time. “It was like, ‘Let’s get the environment looking really really good.’ And I wouldn’t move on until that happened,” McRae explains. “‘Let’s get the camera really really good,’ and I wouldn’t move on until that happened. Then, ‘Let’s get the player movement really good.’ And then a weapon, let’s get that really good.”

In addition to tackling elements of the game sequentially, they had to ruthlessly delineate when an element had reached a “good enough” state, so they could move on to the next bit of the game. “We knew we couldn’t spend a month on a weapons system; we could only spend a two or three days on it,” says McRae. “So it was a competition of getting it to a really good state, but also having some kind of a limit, so we could keep moving.”

Prioritizing visuals

Making sure Osiris’s key elements each got the attention they needed to be strong, playable systems has helped make it a success at its Early Access launch. But while the mechanical aspects of the game were always on the team’s mind, those elements were being created to push toward a single goal: creating the mood of being stranded on another planet.

That drove many of the elements that make Osiris feel like it can stand apart from similar games.  “We knew we wanted the player to feel vulnerable,” McRae said. “That was the big thing. And how do you do that? We needed to really set the stage with the visuals. If you look at any great sci-fi movie or horror movie, what really stands out is the detail. You have to have that suspension of disbelief. So we were working on that, getting the graphics going, upgrading Unity to give us the feature that we needed. The lighting, the reflections, the global illumination, all the little tricks that make graphics look great.”

At the same time, McRae knew that they needed the aliens to be truly frightening. “We knew we were not going to show anybody this game until they were,” he says. 

Tiny details were very important in creating a visually compelling experience. For instance, Fenix Fire worked hard on the locomotion of both the player character in its third-person mode, and on the game’s aliens, so their movement looked more natural – and thus a little more frightening. “A company that I ran before Fenix Fire was doing real-time cinematics for AAA studios, and one of the things that I learned doing that was just the importance of really good foot placement. It’s crazy to think about it because people take it for granted, but foot placement is everything – as soon as the feet slide even a little bit, the illusion is dispelled.”

Going with your gut ... and listening to your publisher

Even with a clear idea of where Osiris was heading and what Fenix Fire felt it needed in order to be enjoyable, “ready” was still a bit of an arbitrary distinction.

“The plan was always, let’s get something that’s – I don’t want to say playable, because it’s more than that. That’s a very kind of general term,” he said. “. Once we had a solid foundation (coupled with us running out of money) we knew it was time to get it in front of an audience.”

They also had outside advice on when to release their alpha build. Osiris is being published by Reverb, which has experience both with survival games and with Early Access – Reverb also worked with Studio Wildcard on PR and maketing for another darling of Early Access, the dinosaur-centric Ark: Survival Evolved

“We ultimately followed our publisher's lead on how far we should take the project before launching,” McRae says. “This is a volatile, hit-driven industry, and because of this there will always be rapidly abandoned projects. This is one of the primary reasons we wanted to go to Early Access. We want to see if it’s too boring, I hate using that word, but if it lacks challenge, then we want to find that out and wrap that up.”

Listening to your audience

What are the next steps for Fenix Fire on Osiris? Debugging and playtesting and working out elements like player progression, the proper level of damage dealt by a single bullet, and the aggressiveness of the game’s aliens. And after that? “New planets, new vehicles, new attachments to your base,” McRae says.

They are also gauging the feedback that the Early Access build is receiving. “We’re listening to the audience and seeing where they’d like to take it,” he says. “The best policy is to find a two-way communication channel that allows a transparent conversation with your audience on the present and future of the project. I’ve jumped onto a few Twitch streams and asked the streamer ‘What do you think? What would you like to see?’ 

One idea already floated from the community involved adding a racing aspect for one of Osiris’s vehicles, a single-occupant “hoverbike” sort of vehicle. And VR might become a focus for Fenix Fire, if the community shows an interest.

“I’ve made a million decisions so far. I could use some help,” he said. “I don’t need to make a million more decisions. I feel like I’ve got so much of my fingerprints on this thing, I’m totally ready to have other people say, ‘It’d be cool to do this, it’d be cool to do that.’”

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