Phoenix Labs have made a steady reputation for themselves in the industry. Their debut title, Dauntless, released as a free-to-play online experience across multiple platforms including PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and the Epic Games Store. In many ways it gets compared to Capcom's Monster Hunter franchise in that both games involved players using elaborate weapons to take down giant monsters, then using their body parts to craft better weapons and armor.
While Dauntless has been a great success, introducing tons of players to the joy of fighting giant monsters with friends, Phoenix Labs hasn't rested on its laurels. In fact, the studio has taken great steps in growing, not just with their debut title, but with bringing in more talent to their workforce.
In a one-two punch of announcements, Phoenix Labs announced Dauntless: Reforged. This is a complete overhaul of Dauntless, adding in new elements to make the whole experience better. And the studio announced they would be establishing brand new offices in Montreal and Los Angeles. Naturally this means hiring new talent, more robust support for their debut game, and a chance to continue making brand new experiences for players to enjoy.
All of this is very exciting for the Canadian studio, but questions do still linger as to what these changes mean both for the future of Phoenix Labs and their projects going forward. Luckily I was able to get some answers from CEO and co-founder of the studio, Jesse Houston, as well as pick the brain of Product Manager Omar Kendall about the design of the game going forward.
First, it was curious to discover the reason for the LA office was more a case of convenience for employees than the location itself. Houston mentioned his time working with Kendall at Riot Games in LA on the massively popular League of Legends.
"I saw firsthand his killer game dev skills and vision for product leadership. He was looking to establish a team to build a new game prototype, and after chatting a bunch, we offered to bring him into the fold to build his game in a new LA-based studio, rather than seeking out funding elsewhere," Houston said.
Fast-forward to now and Kendall leads the recently formed LA office alongside multiple other talented developers the two had rubbed shoulders with in the past. All sensible and savvy decisions all told.
Now when it came to other projects the studio may be working on, Houston was a bit less forthcoming.
"We can't share anything specific at this point, though I will say that every game we create at Phoenix Labs will live up to our studio aspirations of bringing players together through deep multiplayer experiences." He continued on stating, "We want to establish Phoenix Labs as a dynasty company, so players know that when we release a game that it will live up to the high standards we've set for ourselves and exude our core values."
That sentiment definitely shows with the changes being made in Dauntless: Reforged. The new progression system, called The Slayer's Path, gives players the opportunity to align their progress with their interests. No more forcing players to do stuff that doesn't fit their playstyles. In fact, one of the biggest challenges was migrating player progress from the previous system to the new one, and determining where existing players fit in the new progression system. It's a headache that plenty of studios have had to come to grips with in their live-platform experiences: not just retaining old players but bringing in new ones.
Then, there's the introduction of Hunting Grounds, which is a much more freeform way of handling Dauntless' core gameplay loop of hunting Behemoths. Previously, you'd head to an island, seek out a Behemoth, defeat it, then take its parts back to Ramsgate to craft more powerful gear. Now players can to stay on islands for as long as they want, pursuing multiple Behemoths and engaging with dynamic island events. They can also refresh their consumables and change out their gear, which wasn't possible previously.
This introduces its own form of challenges. Making sure players have plenty of activities to do while on an island, overcoming the technical hurdles of allowing players to jump from island to island without returning to Ramsgate, the list goes on. But on the plus side, the islands can now account for six players at a time rather than four, and each island has drop-in/drop-out online connectivity for each island's instance.
Of course, the questions inevitably lead to the talk about more platforms. Would Dauntless branch out its PC platform from the Epic Games Store? Would there be an enhanced version for the next generation of consoles? While Houston didn't say anything about the former, he was quite upfront about the latter.
“Dauntless is actually now available on PS5 and Xbox Series X/S as well and it's been great introducing our game to these new audiences! The version of Dauntless on next-gen platforms as it exists today should feel similar to what we have available on other platforms. We do have plans to optimize the game for next-gen and tap into some of the more cutting edge technological advancements on these platforms. We should have more to share on that next year.”
So to the handful of you lucky souls out there who have a PlayStation 5 and/or Xbox Series X, Phoenix Labs has you covered.
It's also a testament to just how much Houston and his team have planned to support Dauntless for years to come. There's an entire development roadmap laid out on their website that is constantly being updated with complete transparency for their player base.
This is the kind of open dialogue that has to happen when you're designing and testing a live service game like Dauntless, something that Kendall had plenty of time to come to grips with while working on League of Legends, learning multiple lessons along the way.
“My previous experiences leading game teams had taught me to try and learn as much as possible about the players and their needs before making anything, because if you get something wrong, you’re not going to be able to fix it," Kendall said. "On League, we still tried to learn as much about players as we could up front, but we knew that our understanding would only improve once our creations were in their hands, and we felt a responsibility to make changes in response to those learnings. Whenever we’d buff or nerf a champion, or even remove and replace a feature entirely, it was always in direct response to players and how they were interacting with the game in the real world."
Considering just how passionate and vocal the League of Legends community can be, Kendall got plenty of feedback in that department. But Kendall sees it as a creative dialogue.
"It wasn’t always easy, but working on League helped me learn to embrace video game development as a collaborative experience between developers and players," he said. "It’s a learning I hope to leverage in all of my product design going forward."
There is plenty to speculate about Phoenix Labs going forward and the longevity of their titles, but when asked about the studio's future, Houston seemed quite confident.
“Three years is a blink of the eye in our vision for a dynastic studio! My hope is that in the next few years, players will have their hands on a few of our new prototypes in a more finished form, and we can continue to iterate and build upon their feedback in the open," he said.
While the promise of having more online experiences at the quality of Dauntless are scintillating, Houston was also quick to remember those hardworking talents making this brilliant content.
"Ultimately, I want us to use the next few years to deliver on our promise of creating the best multiplayer experiences in the world. When Sean [Bender], Robin [Mayne], and I established Phoenix Labs, one thing we always talked about was creating a studio where people could spend their whole career honing their craft in an environment that rewards innovation and risk taking," Houston said. "Over the next few years I welcome the opportunity to bring on plenty of new future Phoenix Labs retirees.”
Here's to the future of Dauntless and to all of the fresh talent helping bring these projects to life at Phoenix Labs. Now to see if my go-to weapons got nerfed so I can complain to Kendall about it.