Moon Rover aims to explore new frontiers in emergent games
Stockholm studio founded by Far Cry and Battlefield developers working on a new recipe for emergent multiplayer co-op action
As the name implies, the newly established studio Moon Rover Games is looking to map out uncharted territory.
With a founding team of developers who worked on franchises like Far Cry, Battlefield, and Crusader Kings, Moon Rover wants to build on their experience with emergent gameplay and use it to do something new in a type of game defined by its ability to turn out novel results.
"There's something around emergent game experiences, a slight loss of control around the way the game works that I just really love," Moon Rover creative director Jamie Keen tells GamesIndustry.biz.
"There's this kind of joy you see within players when they get to experience this stuff, when they get a system that feels like it has a life of its own. That's something we really want to push forward with.
"We're taking a leap out of the anecdote generator that was Far Cry, and the [emergent] moments that punctuate through Battlefield. We want to do the same sort of thing, find our own recipe and move the design and paradigm on a bit if we possibly can."
Keen says Far Cry and Battlefield are "pretty intertwined in terms of the possibility space you can get to," saying that he hopes to take the best of the story and playful sandbox aspects of those games and put them together in a multiplayer co-op action experience.
And while he has high praise for the emergent qualities of a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (in which new clips of what's possible with the game's various mechanics seem to make the rounds on social media regularly even six years after launch), he says Moon Rover isn't aiming for something quite that vast.
"Because you're building possibility spaces rather than definite routes through things, you don't really know what's going to happen"Jamie Keen
"This will be a more contained versions of things," he explains. "We want this sense of direction and familiarity, but also the sense of novelty that you get when the best of [Far Cry and Battlefield's approaches] are combined."
We note that while emergent gameplay is a significant part of the appeal of the aforementioned games, it's not something at the heart of the marketing around those titles.
Keen suggests that's because getting across what makes emergent games work is one of the hardest parts of making them.
"It's an impossible thing, as soon as you hear, 'Oh that moment was amazing! Can we make sure it happens all the time?' It's like, yes, but then the magic goes away," Keen says. "Because you're building possibility spaces rather than definite routes through things, you don't really know what's going to happen.
"It's that part that makes it really hard to sell to people, whether its marketing or pitching. You want to be able to describe the boundaries of the experience and then say the magic here is that there are millions, or possibly billions, of combinations of things. So the thing you're going to see is truly unique to what you're doing, and this possible combination may never be experienced by anybody ever again."
Moon Rover CEO Julien Wera notes that it works a little differently outside of the AAA space, with Dwarf Fortress and Crusader Kings prime examples of games built around emergent gameplay that also sell themselves around it.
"It's fairly hard to market when you're in the very mainstream slice of the industry," he says. "Having myself worked for many years on the marketing of Battlefield, explaining that it's cool that you don't know what's going to happen is always very difficult."
Given their experience with emergent games driven by numerous overlapping systems in the past, we ask about the design approach. Do they start with a small number of interacting systems and gradually build more onto it to find the right balance, or do they try to implement more systems and then pare it back to just the ones that meaningfully impact the game?
"Over time you build up a bank of what works," Keen says. "The way you start exploring these systems initially is, 'Let's try these things and see what happens.' And it's a little bit haphazard and trial-and-error. Then after a while, you get a sense of what different things combine in different ways to provide interesting spaces and you end up forming patterns you know will work together and extrapolating from there.
"Quite often it's more the interdimensionality of things. It's when you get things that are poked on different axes in terms of different possible spaces, that's when you get the really massive growth of potential outcomes."
As the design of the game takes shape, Keen says he pushes more into adding that complexity, at which point the issue becomes maintaining some semblance of control over the project.
"Then you have to deliver an experience to players rather than just throwing systems together and it turns into a great big mess, things are happening and there's no sense of progression or causality to the thing," he notes. "That's when you need something that can sift signal to noise."
That's where Moon Rover is relying on machine learning technology to run through and assess a vast assortment of possibilities, as well as provide data to help them decide what's meaningful and what isn't.
"That's one of the things I found working with games like Far Cry," Keen says. "Very quickly you realize it's very hard to design causality into the system and to get a meaningful experience out of it. If you start pushing more and more features into it, it just becomes a mess and really hard for you to work out what the eventual outcomes are going to be as a human.
"We want to make sure nobody at Moon Rover feels like a cog in a big machine"Julien Wera
"The combination space is potentially in the billions, but being able to put that in front of a machine learning system can bring signal to noise and work with that massive number of possible combinations in a way that would be very hard for a human to do."
Advances in tech are also going to benefit the company's culture, Wera says.
"One thing that's been really amazing is to see the opportunities that are afforded by the technology that is available today to independent studios, to see that we will be able to make really ambitious, really impressive games without having to grow to a multi-hundred person team," he says. "We want to make sure nobody at Moon Rover feels like a cog in a big machine. We want to make sure people come and they matter, through their craft but also through who they are as individuals. And I think we have all the tools and possibilities at hand to make that happen."
Moon Rover is hoping tools like machine learning can help the studio punch above its weight while keeping its headcount in the 50-70 range.
"What we're looking at is what's the right number in a studio to enable us to make ambitious products but also make sure that everybody still knows each other, is able to go and talk to everyone, and knows what everyone is doing," Wera says.
"We're looking to grow slowly. I think we've worked on projects in the AAA space that had somewhere between 50 and 70 developers and it felt like there was this area where you knew everyone and everything that was happening, but once you get higher than that and past 100 all of a sudden that goes away."
Wera describes the goal as a "human-sized studio" that will help leadership maintain a healthy culture acknowledging everyone's humanity.
"We're trying to walk the walk and behave by example, have a lot of transparency and psychological safety so everyone can have an opinion and [give their] input on the work. Everybody's working together and everybody's really open to input on all topics, from the project to how we build the studio to recruitment and all of that."
He adds, "The key is that [prospective employees] understand that when you join a new studio at this stage, you're joining on an adventure. You might be an artist, a programmer, or a designer, and of course your responsibilities include doing your craft, but also when you're joining that early they include being a carrier of the culture and building the company together the way you want it to be."
It sounds like the studio may have a preference for on-site employees. Keen says it's great that the industry has embraced remote and hybrid-working since the pandemic, but he has a clear preference to be in the same place as his colleagues.
"As an industry, we have a lot to improve in terms of diversity, harassment problems, and workplace toxicity. Having been at Ubisoft, we've been acutely aware"Julien Wera
"Myself, I've really missed working on site in a studio," Keen says. "I've missed the energy you get, the bouncing of ideas between people, watching them take life and zip around a work space like lightning. It's incredible to see when it really functions. I know this isn't for everybody and I really appreciate the ability to work from home when need be, but I think for us that's really important, and a lot of the people we're talking to are in the same place, where they also have missed that kind of energy and special vibe you get when a studio's really ticking over and working well. We want to capture that again."
We note that most of the founding team (technical director Ben Keen and narrative director Christofer Emgard would be the other two members) worked for Ubisoft when the company's work culture left much to be desired, and we ask what they would tell would-be Moon Rover applicants who were concerned about the culture of a studio established by people who succeeded in an environment like that.
Wera prefaced his comments by saying that they appreciated the opportunities they received at Ubisoft and the people they worked with before adding, "Overall as an industry, we have a lot to improve in terms of diversity, harassment problems, and workplace toxicity. Having been at Ubisoft, it means we've been acutely aware. Once these stories broke out, you hear about it and there are a lot of discussions internally, etc. That means we're giving particular attention to make sure we're building a new company on very healthy foundations.
"That's one of the motivations for us to break out on our own and start something new. You don't carry baggage and can start from something healthy, something new. You can really have discussions about these things from the start with everyone at the company on how we make sure we don't have these kinds of problems."