It’s a packed season for cooperative games and one more contestant, The Anacrusis, is about to enter the fray. It’s the first project of Seattle-based game studio Stray Bombay (backed financially by Upfront Ventures and Riot Games) and even though you may not have heard of it before, the development team has at least a renowned name: Chet Faliszek, former Valve writer on Half-Life 2 Episode 1&2, Left 4 Dead 1&2, Portal 1&2, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
We’ve had a long and interesting chat with Faliszek and with Stray Bombay’s Communications Manager Will Smith to learn all about The Anacrusis, the ’70s inspired sci-fi first-person shooter set aboard a massive starship stranded at the edge of explored space. The game is coming out this Fall on PC (Epic Games Store, Steam, and Windows Store), Xbox One, and Xbox Series S|X with cross-platform functionality, and it’ll be available on day one to Game Pass subscribers.
How did Stray Bombay come about? Did you always intend to make The Anacrusis?
Chet Faliszek: When we originally formed the studio, we had a pitch and the pitch included essentially the game we’re making. It didn’t include a lot of details and some of what we’ve done is a little bit different, but it included the basic idea of what we were shooting for, what we were going for, what we wanted to see in a cooperative/social game, so a lot of those elements were there, and a lot of how we design and how we work as a team is we are less like..If you work for a big, giant team, you need a design document so everybody is on the same page and you understand who to ask for how these things work. We’re a smaller team and that allows us, instead of having a big design document, to have design goals. We created a set of pillars for the studio in the game and said ‘Ok, we’re going to design inside of this, and then we’re going to start here. We’re going to start with ’70s sci-fi. What does ’70s sci-fi mean?’
We hired our first artist, Kip. He came in and said ‘What if it’s this?’ and I’m like ‘That’s really cool. Let’s not be Flash Gordon, but let’s not have all the greebles of Star Wars. It’s somewhere in between there’. We started working that way. It’s a very iterative process where we put things in or we try things or people show art and then we react to it and go from there. That has always been the goal of the studio, to be that way. We just needed that map, that push to get started, and that’s what we did.
How did you adjust with the remote working component of COVID-19? Was it an issue for you?
Chet Faliszek: One of the good things is a lot of our tools and everything else was already in the cloud. We could get away with it, it kind of helped. We didn’t have that big of a leap for our toolset. That said, I really like being in an office with people talking with people. Having those little conversations, we are very flat in how we work. I try not to be this overloading boss. Instead, it’s about all of us talking together and having these discussions about these elements in the game. That’s a little bit harder to do remotely, you can’t have those little pickup conversations. Instead, you have to have these formal ‘Hey, does everyone have time at 10:00 AM? We’re going to have a talk’.
I think one of the things that have really helped us as a company is we play our game, The Anacrusis, every week. We play it three times a week, in fact, and originally, we played five times a week. One of the nice things about that is The Anacrusis was made to be social so that you can talk while you’re playing it and have a good experience. You can understand the game and it means you can also talk about what you’re working on or what’s happening or talking about what’s in the game there and playing, and then we’ll talk about it afterward. That kind of social moment using our own game as our social reinforcer was really helpful, I think, for the studio. Though we had to be really deliberate about how communication worked, we had to be careful to not make design decisions inside those playtests. We make the design decision in the large group after the playtest rather than doing it kind of impromptu with a smaller group, which has been an adjustment for us.
You just said that The Anacrusis is very social, right? I’m wondering, does it have voice chat or text chat? Because some games that came out recently actually do not have voice chat or text chat at all, which was weird for cooperative games.
Chet Faliszek: Did they? I understand that as well though because all of those systems are a lot of things you need to think about. You need to think about how players are going to interact with them, how they’re going to use them, how they can exploit them. Anything negative about that, like a lot of our choices for our game, we’ve been very deliberate from day one. We know social games. We know how people behave. How do we get the best out of people? How do we have a good social experience for everybody, not just the hardcore players, but everybody, so mixed skillsets can play alongside each other and have fun.
Will Smith: Well, we’re launching The Anacrusis with crossplay across five platforms (Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, Steam, Epic, and the Windows Store) and without built-in voice chat we wouldn’t have a way for folks that are playing with their friends on Xbox from Steam or vice versa, they wouldn’t be able to talk to their friends easily. If you’re all on PC then you can play on Discord or whatever, but with the cross-platform play, it seemed more important to us to have it.
You’re using the Unreal Engine for The Anacrusis, correct?
Chet Faliszek: Yes!
I imagined that because it makes it easier, I think, to do the cross-platform stuff.
Chet Faliszek: One of the things we’ve been doing with our community all through this past year, year and a half now, is we’ve actually been playing co-op games and mods with them every week. In fact, tonight we’re playing No More Room in Hell. One of the things that’s taught us is how hard it is to do matchmaking and connect with people that you’re socially friends with on something like a discord but not platform friends with something like Steam. How do you connect? How do you get into the same game? How do you have a good experience there? For us, that was just a really important element of this, it was a good learning experience this whole year of being able to kind of understand then what we needed to have in our platform. While I’ll agree cross-platform is getting easier, there’s still a lot of considerations and a lot of work that needs to happen to have that work.
Fair enough. As you are well aware, it’s kind of a big moment for these cooperative games. Quite a few have recently been released, such as Back 4 Blood and Aliens: Fireteam Elite, and then Evil Dead: The Game is coming early next year. You worked on the grandfather of all these titles. Why is there this sudden renaissance?
Chet Faliszek: Well, I was a project lead on Left 4 Dead 1 and 2. I know Chris and Phil over there at Turtle Rock, I am a big fan of theirs. I think there’s a lot of co-op games happening, in my head I was always thinking ‘Why aren’t there more co-op games?’, and recently I’ve been playing GTFO from 10 Chambers. That’s fun, that’s like a whole different take, and I think what people don’t see is that they say ‘Oh, it’s this kind of game, it’s four-player co-op’. When the four-player co-op games can be wildly different. When people play The Anacrusis, they’re going to think ‘Oh, this is wildly different than anything else I’ve played out there’ because of the choices we’ve made.
In some of the other games, there are spawns based on things in the world versus having a deep AI. We spent a lot of time and a lot of resources creating this really complex AI that not only understands the world and the spawning and gives you those ups and downs, but it’s placing everything in the world and it knows ‘I’m placing this off the main path because I want players to go search for this stuff’ or ‘These players are struggling, we’re going to put this on the main path’ or ‘We’re going to give you this mix of specials because they’re really hard to deal with versus this mix because you guys are a really good team’. There’s so much we’ve done here that makes the gameplay so different and we’ve given players so many tools, so many inputs to how you play with special weapons, crazy grenades. One reason I wanted to do sci-fi is so we can just do this craziness.
I think these games all play very differently and I’m really excited to have people playing ours, so you can see just how different what we’ve created is.
Will Smith: It’s like bundling all single player games together, right? We’re just making games across the PvE shooter spectrum that you have to be able to play with your friends.
I’m guessing you believe the market would be large enough for everyone potentially in this niche.
Will Smith: We think so, yeah!
You mentioned the AI system. That’s always interesting to discuss. Do you consider it as a more advanced version of the so-called Director from Left 4 Dead? What does it do differently?
Chet Faliszek: Very much so. Working on Left 4 Dead 1 and 2, getting a look at the data, talking to players, getting to understand what they saw from that we saw a real opportunity. It’s a whole bunch of elements working together.
It’s just not this AI driver behind it. We have things like the specials that you fight have to be created not because they’re cool, but because these are the things we want players to experience. This is the problem set that we want to give them or this is the thing we see players doing and we want to have them behave differently. Then we have items in the world and when we first put items in the world, many people weren’t really going off and searching for those, they weren’t that excited about them. Then we came up with these perks, systematic compilers, which really make the gameplay differently every time.
They’re very powerful, so people want to go search for them, so they’ll go off the path. The AI understands on the path and off the path, so it can go hide these and force people off the path to go look for them. It’s all of these elements that we just keep putting into the game that lets us be able to have this richer set. The AI in the Left 4 Dead games really didn’t understand the player. It just kind of fired off and said ‘OK, you’re playing either easy, medium, hard and we’re going to give you this experience’.
The Anacrusis plays differently depending on who plays it. There’s only one skill level, so the game reacts to you, it learns you after the beginning. You start playing and it’ll begin to know you from session to session and it’ll start challenging you. We always want that challenge to be like Oh my God, I cannot believe we got through that, there’s only one person left and he had to save everybody. They got them back up, everything was on fire. Oh my God, what the hell just happened?
Having those kind of experiences, that’s what it’s tuned for, where it’ll be challenging, but yet it will also have those ups and downs that you want to have, and it’ll be different every time.
The AI in The Anacrusis is incorporating all of these things. We’ve given it a lot more input, so it’s smarter. It knows a lot more about the world and then we’ve given it a lot more output where it places every single thing in the world and that just gives it a lot more control of what it can do for you.
I also know that you are going to support mods in The Anacrusis, correct?
Chet Faliszek: Yeah, we actually have modders who have access to the full depot right now and we’re working with them to see what tools they need. Our goal is always to first put something in, learn from it and grow from there.
With the mods, the first thing was let’s find some trusted people we know who make mods. Let’s give them full access to our game just like we have. What are the tools they need that we have hidden behind some kind of walls or that we just don’t have accessible to them? What data do they need? How do they need to encapsulate these things? Let’s just keep building out systems for them. That’s where we are right now.
Hopefully this week we are going to be playing some of the things that they have been creating, so that’s really exciting. For me, this is all about the community giving us feedback as well as the community helping make parts of what they want to see and what experiences they want to have. Then us, you know, building that infrastructure for all of that to hang off of. Community is really important in engaging them at many different levels well.
Will Smith: That’s part of the core pillars of the studio. We’re small, so we can’t and don’t want to go out and build a bunch of stuff that then we try and the community doesn’t react to or whatever. Engaging with them early on, with the modders and with the players, gives us the opportunity to get to work as a cohesive whole. Hopefully, the output will be better for everyone.
Are you thinking of some ways to support mods on consoles as well?
Chet Faliszek: Yes. When we have the mods out there in The Anacrusis, we want to have support for Xbox as well. That’s really important to us because players should be able to play with their friends no matter what the platform. If you’re playing a new campaign that was created by the community, we want you to be able to play that with all of your friends everywhere they are. That’s one of the systems we’ve been working on that adds some complexity to having.
How do you do mods on a multiplayer game that’s cross-platform? I can’t think of anybody who’s really done it quite to this level that we’re doing, and some of that is we’re getting some help. We work with a company called Overwolf who’s been really big in the modding scene and it’s pulling all of that together that I think will let us really kind of explore that. It’s really important for us that they’re accessible on Xbox as well.
What about a PlayStation version of The Anacrusis? Is it a possibility later down the road?
Chet Faliszek: We’re a small studio. Right now we are launching on Xbox Series S|X, Xbox One, Epic Games Store, Steam, and Windows Store, and that’s about all we can handle. That is a lot for us right now.
Fair enough. The Anacrusis is also going to be available on Game Pass, right? How did that choice come to be and how do you think it will impact the game and its reception?
Chet Faliszek: I play games every week with Game Pass, it’s an amazing deal. I wish I could give The Anacrusis away for free, I wish just everybody could play all of it for free and Game Pass is probably the closest version of that. Microsoft was really supportive of this idea that we had for what we were building and really supportive of us launching on their platform and being on Game Pass and seeing what that was like. We’ve been talking with them for a long time about it and we’re excited to give it ago. We will find out what that exactly means when we launch the game.
When is that going to happen? You’ve said this Fall. It’s not going to be delayed, is it? I mean, it’s pretty close now, right?
Chet Faliszek: Fall goes all the way to December 21st as we like to remind people and so we’re going to stick with Fall.
In an interview you did with Polygon earlier when the game was announced in June, you said that you were unsure if the game was going to be an Early Access launch or a full-fledged launch. So, what’s it going to be?
Chet Faliszek: We have not announced how that’s going to come yet. I mean, for us, some of that is semantics because this is a game as a service for us, it’s going to live for a long time. This year we will be releasing season one or season zero I think as we call it and will keep building on that and releasing more and more content for it. That’s one of the things I learned at Valve, keep supporting your game, keep updating. Keep listening to the community, keep involving them in what you’re working on and how you’re thinking of it, and that’s what will grow you. That’s our approach as well. How it comes out of the gate, we haven’t announced yet, but in a way, that’s kind of unimportant to us because whatever it comes out with, three years from now when you’re still playing it, you’re not really going to care.
Will Smith: Part of it is also that we want to engage with the community on the second wave of content for the game. We want to take the feedback that we get from this first wave, from the levels that we ship with, and then use that to shape what we do for the next wave of content that will release in 2022 and beyond.
Of course, post-launch is super important for these games. Can you talk a bit about what seasons will look like in The Anacrusis? Are they going to feature new levels, new themes, settings, weapons, etc.?
Chet Faliszek: The seasons are, if you think about this as a TV show and there’s episodes, we will launch with some set of episodes. I was dared to launch with just one episode, but I think you need to do more than that. But then we will keep releasing episodes for that season. It ends with a cliffhanger of what’s going to happen. Then we go on the season two and that will include new scenarios, new game modes. I gotta be a lot of things that will end up making up that, but a lot of that will happen once we launch and see what our players get excited about.
What do players wish they had more of? Also, in between those big content drops with the new levels, we’ll have new weapons and all the normal stuff that comes with life service games at this point.
Are you planning free DLCs, paid DLCs, or both for The Anacrusis?
Chet Faliszek: We always want to make sure that the content that you can play with your friends is free. The seasons will always have the maps available to you.
Ok, that sounds good. It’s never a good idea to split the player base, right?
Chet Faliszek: I know. I mean, it drives us nuts when we do our Wednesday co-op nights and sometimes games have this. We’re like ‘Oh, this is really fun DLC, but does everyone have it? No.’ Well, I don’t wanna spend the $5 just to play the maps for tonight, so our thing is if your friends have it, you should have it and you should be able to play together.
Alright. You mentioned potentially adding new game modes, is one of them PvP? That is something The Anacrusis community has already asked for, I believe.
Chet Faliszek: Possibly. We’re concentrating first on co-op. That is the most important thing. This is actually something that we had done when we were working on the original Left 4 Dead as well if you remember, we launched co-op first and then quickly followed with PvP. This time we will not be following so closely with PvP, but it is something we think about.
It’s a game mode that I like to play as well, but our first out-of-the-gate concentration is really about making sure the coop experience is right. Because that way we can be more free with both the weapons we give you and the aliens and we can explore that space a lot more fully, and then you know, do some things like holdout mode and those kind of things that are really fun to play.
All of that is kind of to be announced and we want to make sure that we’re giving it out to the Community first, having them play, having those discussions with them.
Just to round it all up, I’d like to learn a bit more about the setting of The Anacrusis. As you said, it’s perhaps inspired by 70s sci-fi but it does seem to have its own unique spin to it.
Chet Faliszek: I’m an old man and I’m a huge fan of the late 60s, early 70s sci-fi. I mean, from things like Ultraman and Johnny Socko to the original Lost in Space and Space: 1999, just all that crazy sci-fi stuff.
We don’t do an homage to any of that. It’s not like this is comes from this and this is from Logan’s run or something like that, but it’s like looking to that and going ‘That kind of thing had this cool style to it, it’s bright and colorful and it’s thick and chunky’, taking kind of those elements and running with it. A lot of the credit I think for some of what people react to is there are artists really kind of capturing that and making a really cool world that you just want to hang out in.
Is the sci-fi setting more creatively freeing in that it’s potentially infinite? You can come up with all sorts of alien races, planets, etc.
Chet Faliszek: Yeah, I think the sci-fi element gives us a lot of leeway in what we can do with the things you’re fighting as well as how you fight with them, right? We can have a tiny black hole that you carry in your pocket, that when you see a bunch of aliens, you throw out and it sucks them all up into it. It’s fun. Our whole thing is about what fun, crazy things can you do, what are the things that we can give you in the world that are going to make you laugh and be happy that you used, and it’s just not endlessly plotting and killing the enemy, but it’s having fun while doing it.
When it comes to the narrative, I understand The Anacrusis is going to be more or less like Left 4 Dead in that there’s environmental storytelling but there aren’t many cutscenes. Is that correct?
Chet Faliszek: We don’t do cutscenes, but we do a little bit more on the story front. It’s a little bit more of a real cohesive running story that you’re exploring, that’s unfolding as you’re playing. One of the things we learned from Left 4 Dead was that people do dig in and they’ll tear apart the entire world that you’ve created and try to understand what’s happening there. For those players, we wanted to make sure we had something more there that they could dig their teeth into and explore.
We’re very much more story-focused in a way, but I don’t want that to sound scary where it’s just sitting through endless cutscenes or anything like that. It’s much more fluid than that.
Will Smith: And we have the benefit of being able to…the server knows what parts of the story you’ve heard and what parts of the story you haven’t heard yet, which is different from the Left 4 Dead timeline. When the characters are talking, you get the first story prompts the first time you play the game, and anytime you play with somebody who’s playing for the first time you’ll hear some of those same beats again, but for the most part, you’ll hear the story beats the first few times, then you get into some more interesting character stuff and find some backstory stuff, find out about other characters and stuff like that. It’s a subtle difference that we think makes a big impact on players.
I was going to ask about the playable characters of The Anacrusis. How did you settle on this team? Are we going to learn more about them as the seasons go on?
Chet Faliszek: First, definitely, you learn more about them as the season progresses. That was one of the things I wanted to explore, having little snippets about their lives that they talk about. The characters, the base of who they are starts from myself looking at who’s been to space so far, looking at those nationalities and bringing them in and then looking at historical.
I’ve always been really excited about space, from launching model rockets to watching the first ISS thing when I was a kid, right? I guess they didn’t call it that, they called it just a space station back then. We pull from some historical people and some of the people are named after that or kind of represented that way. We don’t get too heavy on that though, that’s a background, because then the foreground is ‘These people are just stuck in a world and stuck in a problem set that they didn’t create, that they don’t have any more knowledge of than you do’ and you kind of both learn it together as you’re playing.
Can you share the pricing for The Anacrusis?
Chet Faliszek: We have not announced the price yet, but I will say this. I think we’re going to price it in a way that if you’re one of our early friends joining us, we should give you a discount. Then as more and more get into the game, it’ll become that full thick game that people are used to. Then we can start looking at different things. I think the pricing conversation and all of that is something that is coming up, but we’re just not quite there yet.
Will Smith: The game’s on Game Pass, too!
Yeah, that is true. Well, thank you very much for your time.