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When development takes a hairpin turn

Auto Age: Standoff was two months from release when Phantom Compass added the Rocket League to its "Rocket League + Twisted Metal" gameplay formula

Phantom Compass founder Tony Walsh has a pretty clear sales pitch for his studio's latest game, Auto Age: Standoff.

"For us, it blends the old and the new," Walsh told GamesIndustry.biz this week. "It combines the best elements, as we see them, from Twisted Metal and games like Vigilante 8 or Interstate '76 with more modern vehicular games like Rocket League. Where some of those older games were a little more tedious to play, even though they're fun and fast-paced, what we bring with the Rocket League sensibilities is an extreme level of agility in the vehicles and a lot of air play you don't normally get in land-based vehicle combat games."

While the game has been in the works for about three and a half years, the Toronto-based developer didn't actually have a key part of that pitch in place until very late in development.

Cover image for YouTube video

"It had been a slower paced game until about two months ago," Walsh said, "and then we jacked everything up about five times the speed and five times the agility. It made the game what it is today, which is easy to pick up and play, but with a really deep level of mastery and tactical mechanics."

He added, "It's actually much better now. The game was already good and fun and engaging, but it had a lot of issues around driving agility and the blend between real physics and what you would expect from a game that looks like a cartoon. So there was a little bit of a disjuncture in expectations. Originally, we didn't want to be the kind of a game where you could hop around all over the place. But as we workshopped it at [GDC and PAX] and got feedback from consumers and industry people and press people, we began to adopt the opinion that Rocket League is the most popular vehicle game that I can think of in terms of competitive play, and really if we want to on-board that kind of audience, we need to appeal to them.

"Rather than having them pick the game up and complain that it doesn't play like Rocket League, we wanted to give them something much more familiar. We made a ton of other changes to ensure that the real physics aspect was diminished in favor of the joy of blasting super fast through crumbling industrial areas."

Walsh said the choice to bring exaggerated physics into the game was one the studio grappled with for months, but didn't actually act on until an intervention of sorts.

"We went as far as we could not doing it, then we got some feedback from a key industry company that makes games," Walsh said. "And that feedback was pretty much the last straw for us in terms of setting us on the right path. Their complaints validated what we were worried about and knew we kind of needed to fix, but that was the nudge that got us to make the change."

"The feedback you get at shows is almost always going to be positive, at least in our experience. So that can be a trap."

Walsh said the team knew the game it was making well enough to confidently make the change, and to know the game would be better for it. The only question was whether or not they'd be able to tackle the technical work involved with such a drastic shift in such a short time span.

"If we'd screwed that up, it would have jeopardized launch," Walsh said. "So I would not recommend that at all. But you as the developer always know your game best, and you always have to measure input from whoever it might be against what you feel is necessary."

Beyond the technical issues, there's also the issue of community. Phantom Compass had been showing Auto Age at events like PAX, promoting it on social media, and had run a beta test late last year. There was a group of interested fans who seemed to like the game as it was, and such a shift so late in development could risk some backlash if they weren't on board with it. Despite some concern about that, Walsh said such backlash really manifested, and most players so far have thought the changes were for the better.

"Nobody picked up the game because it had realistic physics," Walsh said. "They actually all expected it to play like Twisted Metal, which is a fairly arcade-style combat game. They just liked the visuals and it was fairly fast-paced at the time and the mechanics were cool."

As for the positive feedback the game had received previously, Walsh cautioned that such things need to be kept in perspective.

"The feedback you get at shows is almost always going to be positive, at least in our experience," he said. "So that can be a trap. People don't really want to say too much about the game sometimes directly to the developers. So there's a difference between in-person demos and online commentary that might be a little bit more honest."

Auto Age's original realistic physics clashed with its visual style.

Taking your own numbers too seriously can also be problematic, he noted. While Auto Age was wish-listed by 3,000 people on Steam, the conversion rate in these early days (the game is currently selling for 20% off) hasn't been what the studio had hoped for.

Walsh obviously wants to see Auto Age succeed, but he sees original titles as just one (relatively recent) pillar the company is built on. Phantom Compass turns 10 years old on January 1, and it's made it this far largely on the strength of its work-for-hire business. Its first major original release didn't even come until 2014's pinball action title Rollers of the Realm, as Walsh said it got by in the early years by stringing together service work primarily for local TV production companies producing kids content.

"It's not like the video game industry of maybe 20 years ago where you could pitch publishers and get paid to produce a game for a publisher."

When Phantom Compass was finally able to make its own titles, it was with financial assistance from the Ontario Media Development Corporation, the Canada Media Fund, and FACTOR (Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings), which helped pay licensing costs for a mixtape feature in the game and music in its promotional material. Together, they've been "integral" to Phantom Compass' ability to minimize risk while creating original games, Walsh said.

"As you might imagine, it's really difficult to get funding for new ideas," Walsh said. "It's not like the video game industry of maybe 20 years ago where you could pitch publishers and get paid to produce a game for a publisher. That almost never happens, especially for newer studios or studios that have not shipped titles previously. By leveraging these programs, we were able to produce completely new IPs with very little risk to our company, and that's basically stimulated the company growth. We've grown from just myself and the occasional contractor when I started the company 10 years ago to eight staff based between Niagara and Toronto."

Even Phantom Compass' work-for-hire history owes a debt of gratitude to government funding, as the programs it was producing tie-ins for were often government funded themselves, and broadcasters were given additional money specifically to produce websites, games, or other digital efforts to go along with the programs. Unfortunately, consolidation in the marketplace and a trend for broadcasters to move such digital development in-house called for an adjustment to the company's strategy.

"It's a very tough industry right now. It was starting to get tough when I founded the company, and the landscape always changes. That includes both service work and the viability of original IP and different marketplaces."

Walsh said the team is thinking hard about its next original IP and how best to market it, while the work-for-hire aspect of Phantom Compass will likely expand to include in-demand options like VR and AR work. Whatever happens, he knows changes will be necessary if the company is going to make it to 20 years.

"We just have to always be working hard to keep those two pillars going until we have a hit game, which, statistically speaking, the odds are stacked against us," Walsh said. "So we're going to keep fighting as long as we can handle it, but I've got a great team behind me and I look forward to the journey ahead."