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Fulfilling the Kool-Aid Man fantasy

Stellar Jockeys' Hugh Monahan on the design and marketing challenges of the destruction-heavy Early Access title Brigador

For the first two years of Brigador's development, the four-person team at Stellar Jockeys had a three-paragraph elevator pitch for the game, an isometric mech shooter in which players act as the bull to the china shop of a futuristic sci-fi metropolis. After going through that explanation enough times, the pitch eventually boiled down to, "You're just a giant Kool-Aid Man."

Stellar Jockeys CEO and designer Hugh Monahan is scheduled to speak at the Montreal International Game Summit this month about "The Kool-Aid Man Effect: How Full Destructibility Impacts All Design," but he recently spoke with GamesIndustry.biz to scratch the surface of his talk and assess the successes and failures of Brigador's time in Steam's Early Access program.

Brigador said full destructibility was a foundational aspect of the game. The developers had enjoyed previous games that featured destructibility like Battlefield and Red Faction, but also felt frustrated when they took the tools of destruction away to shepherd players through mission-critical portions of the game.

"If you're going to be the Kool-Aid Man, you need to be able to bust through everything," Monahan said. "There's nothing worse than saying, 'Oh, you can do all this stuff except when it's actually important. And then we're going to put up unbreakable walls.'"

But as the title of his MIGS talk suggests, there are drawbacks to a dogmatic approach to destruction.

"The more control over the environment or freedom of movement you're giving to the player, the less control you can assert from a design standpoint on what the player will encounter or experience," Monahan said. "And that mentality of giving as much free rein as possible to the player is directly in opposition to any kind of linear storytelling or explicit, capital-S Story or narrative on a game."

That hurt for Monahan, as the Brigador universe was conceived with plenty of lore for interested players. However, trying to incorporate even basic storytelling into the missions of Brigador given its open-ended gameplay would have meant either conceiving of all the different ways players could enter a situation and creating custom narrative band-aids for each of them, or coming up with transparent half-measures that don't mean anything to the player. Ultimately, they chose to keep the gameplay pure, and threw the story into other outlets, conveying it to the player between missions and relegating some of it to an audio book Monahan co-wrote and edited to launch alongside the game.

"We basically blew a very important round of press on Early Access when it wasn't ready for a lot of people."

That wasn't the only time Brigador's story took a backseat to its gameplay. When the game launched into Steam Early Access in October of 2015, it lacked any kind of campaign mode. Instead, it just had a Freelance Mode, an offering where players could set the desired parameters of a battle and then jump straight into the action. Monahan said the overwhelming first reaction to the game was that it was a great gameplay prototype, but players wanted to know where the story was. After a little more than a month of seeing the same reactions again and again, Stellar Jockeys shifted gears and decided to retool the Early Access plan to create a 21-mission campaign. It meant keeping the game in Early Access a few months longer than anticipated, but it made for a stronger offering.

"From [the perspective of] what the product to customers ended up being, our experience with Early Access was a huge success," Monahan said. "We completely pivoted our focus."

Unfortunately, that success wasn't replicated in other aspects of the game.

"Early Access from a design standpoint informed us what the game needed to be to better fit the expectations of our consumer base, and we were able to adjust and that worked out great," Monahan said. "The not-so-great part came from the marketing standpoint and how we managed a lot of the expectations and visibility of it."

When Brigador launched into Early Access, Stellar Jockeys made the rounds of press and YouTubers, attempting to get coverage. They were successful with a number of outlets, but Monahan the initial reaction wasn't overwhelmingly strong due to a mix of factors like the lack of a campaign mode and a relatively unpolished user interface.

"Generally speaking, unless you're a very popular title, you can only command the attention of the press so many times. And it's my feeling that we basically blew a very important round of press on Early Access when it wasn't ready for a lot of people. And that actually hurt us in the long run."

When the game actually launched properly last June, Monahan said the press was a lot less receptive to it. Most sites either didn't cover it at all, or gave it a perfunctory story just to inform people that the game had graduated from Early Access.

"The problem is that a lot of the decisions we made, while they made for an interesting game, made it very hard to market it and build up a user base."

Monahan also pointed to the game's control scheme as an issue. In videos, Brigador looks like it could be a twin-stick shooter, but it was actually built from the ground up to use much more complex tank controls to create a high skill ceiling, which Monahan said was another of the game's foundational tenets.

"Once that control scheme clicks for people, it's great," Monahan said. "But for some people, it can take hours for that to click. And often times, especially with the embarrassment of riches you have with games right now, if a game's not feeling good in the first 40 minutes you're playing it, you just return it and spend that money on another game."

He added, "The thing is, the vast majority of your players are never going to come within a stone's throw of a high skill ceiling. The decision to launch the game only with tank controls, I can say that was a mistake but it was a very informed mistake, or at least an explicit decision. The reason we launched with only tank controls was because we didn't want to allow people to saddle themselves with an inferior control scheme and hamstring their ability to learn and play the game. And from a certain perspective, that makes sense. The problem was that mindset was predicated on the idea that everyone who was going to play the game was going to play it like a hardcore player, not someone who just wants to get in, pop around for a bit and blow some stuff up."

Stellar Jockeys added an option for twin-stick controls a couple months after the game's launch, but by that point it was too late.

"We set out to make a game that was different and mechanically interesting and unique, and I think we accomplished that," Monahan said. "The problem is that a lot of the decisions we made, while they made for an interesting game, made it very hard to market it and build up a user base. There are things we could have done to compensate for that, but it was a combination that we weren't experienced enough and didn't understand what we had built enough to be able to compensate."

According to Monahan, Stellar Jockeys is weighing its options on its next project.

Disclosure: MIGS has a media partnership with GamesIndustry.biz, and is paying for our accommodation during the event.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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