Outer Wilds is sometimes described as an experimental game, with players piecing together the game's narrative by reliving a solar system's last 22 minutes again and again. While that experimental streak has been recognized in the game itself -- the Innovation Award is just one of five GDC Awards Outer Wilds is in the running for this year -- developer Mobius Digital has been similarly experimental in how it's brought the game to market.
After all, Outer Wilds was the first game on the crowdfunding/investment platform Fig. It took an Epic Games Store exclusivity deal at the height of the ugly backlash to such agreements. On the console side of things, it was only available on Xbox One to begin with, and launched as part of the Xbox Game Pass subscription service.
While discussing Outer Wilds and industry trends at the Montreal International Gaming Summit in November, Mobius Digital co-creative lead Loan Verneau tells GamesIndustry.biz the studio is happy with the results.
"We're on Game Pass for Xbox, and it's been really awesome because I think it's brought a lot of players to the game who would not have known about it otherwise," he says. "So I think that's been a big shift. The same way it's changed the TV and movie worlds, the subscription system is also going to impact the game industry very significantly. We're starting to see that, and starting to see it maybe unlock the market to weirder things and more original things that would have been more risky beforehand."
Verneau believes subscription services will find value in attention-grabbing, innovative content that customers would like to try, but maybe aren't so curious about as to make a stand-alone purchase.
"Our industry is filled with monopolies on so many levels, from tools to platforms... it's a really problematic thing for both players and game developers"
While there are questions about the long-term implications such services would have for the health of the indie games market, Verneau isn't sure whether disrupting the traditional market will ultimately benefit or hinder creators in his position.
"My personal take is that for any industry, it's all a question of monopolies," Verneau explains. "And our industry is filled with monopolies on so many levels, from tools to platforms. And I've learned enough economics to know what that means and to think it's a really problematic thing for both players and game developers.
"As long as we manage to break these monopolies and have competition at every level, I think we'll be fine. Whether or not we can get there? Monopolies are very good at making people think they like it, because they have all the money to put on marketing. That's my personal worry. For as long as we have competition between platforms, publishers, and distributors, game developers will [be able to reach our audience ].
"It's always a risk. Convenience is the new bane of our existence, I think. And I'm as guilty as anyone, but knowing that our short-term convenience hurts us in the long-term and being able to take that step [away from convenience] -- and being able to teach people to take that step -- is going to be a fight for sure."
Verneau largely shies away from discussing broader market trends -- he's a creative lead and not an analyst, after all -- but there is one industry subject he volunteers an opinion on without needing to be asked about it.
"One of the things we pride ourselves on [at Mobius Digital] -- and I think it's important to talk about it -- is work conditions," Verneau says. "We pride ourselves on not crunching and really trying to keep healthy conditions at the office, keeping everyone in a nice work-life balance. I think it's served us tremendously, and I wish it were something we heard more of."
Verneau learned as a software engineer that crunching just adds more bugs into the product as developers exhaust themselves, and believes fixing those will more than offset any gains made by working longer hours. (He notes with pride that Outer Wilds publisher Annapurna noted how small the first bug list was when the game started going through testing.)
"If you schedule accordingly, if you don't push your team for deadlines that can't be done, if you keep the environment sane and safe for everyone, I think you can actually make games faster," Verneau says.
When asked if crunch was common at the University of Southern California (USC) -- where Verneau and a number of Mobius Digital staff previously studied -- Verneau tries to be diplomatic.
"These people were incredibly brilliant, but they were literally broken by the way they were trained"
"That's something that's talked about, but I don't know if it's pushed as much as I think it deserves to be," he admits. "To be honest, having poked around a lot at many universities for recruitment and such, the same can be true of almost every school. And at least at USC, the dialogue was there."
Verneau says he's known brilliant people who had their mental state "destroyed" by the crunch they were subjected to in an educational setting.
"These people were incredibly brilliant, but they were literally broken by the way they were trained," Verneau says. "It's very terrifying as someone who's seen on the other hand that if you just take care of your people, they'll do better, faster work. Like, why is this still a thing? But we're a young industry; we're still learning."
As for how to improve the situation when every new generation of students enters the industry already accustomed to unreasonable work habits, Verneau is mildly optimistic.
"I think in an ironic way, we can drive [healthier working conditions] through business," Verneau says. "Because it is a good business decision. It's a long-term business decision and not a short-term one. I understand in big companies it's hard because you're trying to hit a deadline for your boss, which is different than trying to hit a deadline for releasing to your audience. But from a purely financial, mathematical point of view, we should look at that and say this is the way to go.
"Because generally, I think we can all agree making more money is better. Maybe it's just trying to get something that's there in the software industry. A lot of companies like Google and Facebook -- and I'm not saying they're great companies in every way -- have learned and are doing that because they looked at the numbers and saw that was the way to go."
Disclosure: MIGS provided travel and accommodations for GamesIndustry.biz to attend the event.