Image courtesy of Stray Bombay

The Anacrusis’ colorful retro futurism delivers Left 4 Dead play to ‘70s outer space

Brian Crecente
Chet Faliszek is the CEO and co-founder of Stray Bombay Company working  on The Anacrusis, a four player co-op FPS. Previously he worked at Valve for 12 years, where he was co-project lead on the Left 4 Dead series and a writer on numerous franchises including Half-Life, Portal, and Team Fortress.
Chet Faliszek likes to tell a good story.

You’ve probably experienced some of his work in games like Half-Life 2, Portal, and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. But it’s his work on Left 4 Dead and its sequel that solidified his love of storytelling through cooperative gameplay.

In 2019, he co-founded game studio Stray Bombay Company around a desire to inspire people to play together cooperatively. And now, nearly three years later, the studio’s first product – The Anacrusis – is live in Early Access.

There’s a lot of unique aspects to this first Stray Bombay creation. It’s a four-player cooperative shooter which – as with the Left 4 Dead games – relies heavily on an artificial intelligence game director to guide pacing in a way that is responsive to player actions and skills. But this iteration of the director is much smarter, able to look at the big picture when directing action and leading movement.

The Anacrusis – which has a team of four star-tossed, stranded characters fighting to survive their first encounter against aliens on a massive starship – is steeped in a wonderfully kitchy design language. Inspired by the likes of Space 1999, Logan’s Run, and the original Battlestar Galactica, it’s a game flush with a colorful retro futurism.

With the recent release of its third update, we chatted with Faliszek about the birth of the studio, the inspiration and evolution of its first game, and how Unreal Engine helped bring their vision to life.
Image courtesy of Stray Bombay
What would you say are the guiding tenets of the studio and how are they used in initial game ideation?

Chet Faliszek, CEO and co-founder of Stray Bombay Company:
We have a set of pillars that shape the direction of the game and the studio. The most important one, for the game and the studio, is that we want people to work cooperatively on a shared goal. This means we are transparent and make decisions as a group, whether we’re deciding what our studio’s goal is or working on in-game minutiae.  A good example is the in-person to remote transition that happened at the start of the pandemic. One person wanted to move away from Seattle. Instead of just answering that question – can they move – we asked the whole studio, if that person gets to move, does this mean we should all get to move if we want?  And if that is true, shouldn’t we then be hiring people from anywhere we would move to? We decided as a group that we wanted to shift to a virtual studio, and two years after that decision was made, more people on the team have never been to the office than have.

Our general premise is that if everyone is honest and places the studio’s goals above their personal goals, we’ll make better decisions as a company by sharing all the information and making decisions together.

How did the idea for The Anacrusis come about?

I really wanted to get back to four player co-op; it’s my favorite type of game. While I play a little bit of everything, the games I keep coming back to all live in that area. I play Deep Rock Galactic, GTFO, and others on a regular basis with folks from the Stray Bombay community.  For the setting, I’ve always loved late ‘60s/early ‘70s sci-fi. There’s an earnestness to shows from that era—they look campy and silly to us now, but the folks working on them at the time treated them as deadly serious drama. And the design language of that era—post-Flash Gordon and pre-Star Wars’s space truckers vibe—is uniquely suited to games.

I think that era of sci-fi is in a similar place that zombies were when we were starting Left 4 Dead. Gabe asked me a simple question – aren’t zombies cheesy?  At the time, yeah, sure, but what if we made the game where the characters didn’t know or acknowledge that zombies are cheesy. What if the characters just played everything super straight?
Image courtesy of Stray Bombay
How did the core game idea evolve?

We always knew a few truths – we needed to get four players to stick together and give them a common but fairly non-threatening enemy that everyone could work together against, regardless of their skill level. Then we needed special enemies that would help us create an ebb and flow to the combat. We spent lots of time looking at how players played the current crop of co-op games and tailored our special designs based on the experience we wanted players to have.

Those initial designs remain pretty close to what we launched with, but like everything we put in the game, they’re constantly being shaped by feedback from players. For us, early access was always about getting the game into players’ hands as soon as possible so we could start collecting feedback from the community. That’s one of the things that has been incredible about the first few months post-launch. The community has been so generous with their feedback and suggestions, and the special design has benefited greatly from that.
What made the studio decide to use Unreal Engine for the game’s development?

We knew at the start we wanted to support mods in a new way – one where they were replicated across to all players and could be dynamically added to the game.  We are a first-person shooter. We also wanted to ship on the PC and major consoles, so those requirements combined with the need for dedicated servers to support cross-play, and the choice was easy.

How did sticking with one engine for the entirety of the game’s development impact The Anacrusis?

It wasn’t just sticking with Unreal 4; we made the conscious decision to avoid making fundamental changes to the engine to lower our cost for support upkeep. Unreal 4 out of the box is more than enough on its own.  We can quickly integrate the latest stable engine updates with our version of the editor, test our integration in a day or two, and deploy the updates to the entire team after that.

From a development standpoint, this has been the most stable process I have ever worked on and has allowed us to create a culture of playtesting. From day one, we’ve played the game multiple times a week, which has changed the way I look at game development.

What sort of issues did the use of the engine solve, and how did it empower the studio in creating The Anacrusis?

There is a reason everyone starts with shooter.exe.  Out of the box, you get a working, fun shooter framework that you can build your game on.  Obviously, we added to and changed that core frame dramatically over the intervening years, but to have that stable starting point and a quick build > test > iterate loop set us up for success.

On top of that, the gigantic number of free assets and tools included with the engine gave us so many options to try out new mechanics and allowed us to focus our art budget exclusively on assets that would ship with the game.
There’s a lot of attention paid to the game’s AI director 2.0. How has it evolved past the original concepts and execution of the game director 1.0 found in Left 4 Dead?

The original Director did an amazing trick with pacing – it tracked intensity and then played with that to give you moments of downtime followed by exciting battles that were just different enough each time.

For Director 2.0, we expanded on that – we built a system that not only understands the player in that short term. It also builds up a profile of the player and can make the game easier or more difficult based on more than just throwing enemies at the player. The Director 2.0 can drive you off the path to look for items, surprise you with enemies from behind, and vary the mix of enemies to add (or reduce) stress on the player.

It knows when you need help too, so if you are hurting, it spawns health on the path. If you miss that, it will toss a little more in front of you.
Image courtesy of Stray Bombay
From where did the concept for the game’s space setting and ‘70s retro-future look come?

I grew up watching Space 1999, Logan’s Run, the original Battlestar Galactica, and such. As I got older, I was drawn to Syd Mead and other artists who harken back to those days—before Star Wars took over the sci-fi world with greeblies, and we lost all colors that aren’t shades of grey.

How did Unreal Engine help the team's artists achieve their goals for the look of the game?

On our end, we use UE4's layered material system so we can swap colors and materials on props and weapons very easily. Unreal's material system has made it convenient to author our own materials and effects without needing to write a shader. It helps with iteration and reduces the need of a programmer or technical artist to set things up for you. Unreal provides a lot of options when it comes to creating VFX, prototyping ideas to show others, and even implementation. The materials system does the heavy lifting and empowers our small art team to punch far above their weight.
Image courtesy of Stray Bombay
Were there particular games, movies, books, or other creations that helped shape the look of the game, its characters, and its setting?

Faliszek: For the setting and world, it really pulled on TV and movies from the late sixties to early ‘70s, where the sci-fi nature was more about taking what we have in the real world but making it strange than the smaller/faster/better that happened once the integrated circuit captured the public’s imagination. In particular, TV during that time went into strange and goofy places.  It’s hard to describe that era – I was very, very young, but to me, it felt like we’d all be living in space by the time I was an adult. Trips to space stations and the unknown areas of outer space felt like the next frontier.

For the characters, there are two places of influence – we just looked at who was in space the day we started thinking about it. We’ve constantly had humans in space since the dawn of the ISS era, and there’s an awesome website that lists all of the people who are in space on any given day. No matter when you check the site, you’ll see a diverse list of the best and brightest people from their respective countries. We believe that when space travel becomes more commonplace, it will continue to be a reflection of our population.

As for the characters, the names and nationalities of the characters are combinations of multiple people, such as Guion Lawrence Jr.  Guion Bluford was the first African American in space, and Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. was scheduled to be the first African American astronaut before he died tragically in a test flight before his first mission.

Why does the team think that mods are so important for modern social games?

Faliszek: We firmly believe that games are more than just the original statement made by the developers. Once you release a game, it becomes part of the community.  We already see the impact the community has on our design with feedback from Early Access, but we also want to take it further.  We want them to be able to share their ideas and take the game and content to places we maybe wouldn’t consider.

Whenever someone brings me a hard problem, I say – we should share this because we are smarter as a group than as individuals. The same goes for the game itself.  We’ll start with the release version of the game as our statement, but it will grow over time based on not just community feedback but also what the community creates.
Image courtesy of Stray Bombay
How important was early playtesting to the game’s development? What sort of changes did that lead to during early development?

Faliszek: Early playtesting is everything. We have changed everything based on that, from how the Director works, to weapons, to the UI.

Our entire design process is: Start with the game goals and keep them in mind as you start your work.  Design the piece you are working on.  Implement the smallest part of it you can to test - first test it with your co-workers during the daily playtest.  Iterate on that feedback and build it out more, each step sharing it with internal or hopefully external playtesters to get feedback.

It’s impossible to point to one thing in the game that hasn’t changed with feedback.
Why was it important to release the game in early access?

Faliszek: We didn’t want to give lip service to the idea of player feedback. When you’re doing closed or private playtests, you are getting a certain type of player who gravitates to wanting to try new things.  You still get that a bit with early access, but if you want regular feedback from regular players, you need to release early and update often. Once we got the game to a point where the core loop was fun inside some specific constraints, we put it out there.

How has the studio worked with the community since early access launch to evolve the game?

Faliszek: Even before we released the game, we played games with our Discord community multiple times a week (It’s at, if you’d like to join), and that has been invaluable.  Nothing crystallizes the failure of friends lists and matchmaking quite like trying to start a four-player game when you’re playing on multiple platforms and aren’t all friends already.

Since launch, the community has been giving great feedback, not just on Discord but also through the various platforms, forums, and our support ticket system.  We try to remove friction so we can get the most feedback possible.

We also try different experiments to find out what’s fun and what isn’t on Discord.  Right now, we have weekly challenges in the game that force you to play the game in different ways or have a different challenge, but we can only update those codified challenges when we update the game client. On Discord, we take the challenges a step further and really push strange ways to play the game. So we ask players who can get through Episode Two the quickest?  Who can kill the fewest aliens in Episode 3?  All of these are tests for – what is a fun challenge, what falls flat.  A good example – kill the most aliens in Episode One without wiping – this quickly becomes less about the challenge and more about who has the most time on their hands?
Image courtesy of Stray Bombay
Can you walk us through the idea behind your town halls and what you think they will offer beyond the regular modes of communication with the game’s community?

Faliszek: We started doing town halls to talk through certain features that take us a little longer to stand up with the community before they were available.  When we want to take the community’s temperature on something that will require significant development investment, we hop on Discord Stage and talk through it with the person leading that effort internally and then open the floor to ideas and feedback from the Discord community. It supplements the internal conversations we have and ensures we have some ideas about the player perspective as we start.

A good example of this is our town hall for holdout mode.  We defined the goals and the constraints of the mode, and the back and forth with the community came up with a bunch of really interesting ideas we can try out during the process.
What sort of tools have the game developers used to try and foster meaningful cooperative play in The Anacrusis?

Faliszek: The biggest thing we need to do is not introduce elements that cause players to compete or work against each other.  A good example is the perks system.  Originally, we just dropped individual perks on the ground around the level, and the first player that found a perk got it. So this led to some players racing around the levels looking for all the perks, while the other players were sad or angry that they were missing out.

Instead of forcing players to compete with loot goblins, now we distribute perks with Matter Compilers (MC). When a player finds one, they tell their teammates where it is, and then the machine doles out a single perk to every player. It turns that moment of discovery into something exciting to share with your friends.
Image courtesy of Stray Bombay
How have you evolved the weapon selection, and how the weapons work in the game?

Faliszek: When we started working on the game, we wanted to place weapons in tiers so you’d have a progression of different guns as you went through the levels of an episode. But when we introduced perks, we realized that the tier system limited our perk design space—you don’t want to make investments into guns you are going to drop in a level or two.  So we shifted from tiers to letting players invest in the weapons they’re holding using perks. Our playtesters loved being able to create a unique build of special abilities that changes every time you play.
Looking at how the game is evolving now, how is the studio working to polish the ebb and flow of the gameplay, allowing for moments for players to breathe while also feeling like their survival is achieved by pushing them to the cusp of their skills?

Faliszek: During our external playtesting prior to release, we realized that we could use the Director to separate the perceived intensity of the experience from the actual difficulty. We don’t move any of the sliders related to the combat sandbox in the game to adjust the intensity of the experience the Director creates. It always takes the same number of Plasma Rifle bullets to kill a common alien. Aliens always do the same damage to players when they land a melee hit.

We shipped a game that worked great in the situations where we spent the most time testing it prior to release—with four friends playing who were all on voice. Now we’re working really hard to bring that experience to the rest of the player base—people who are jumping into the matchmaking pool alone or in duos, who don’t want to use voice, and such. For example, we realized shortly after launch that we shipped a game that was much too intense for many players, especially if they weren’t playing with friends and weren’t using voice. In addition to adding better communication options, we just shipped a new default difficulty that maintains the desired intensity while reducing the unrelenting nature of the combat.
Image courtesy of Stray Bombay
How do you plan to roll out story to players interested in the game’s backstory, universe, and characters?

Faliszek: We are trying to do something a little different with the story, which means that Early Access players won’t always have the best experience. But, the first time you play an episode, the game will give you the canonical storyline.  It tells you what you need to be doing, where you need to go, and how to accomplish your goals. On subsequent playthroughs, it expands the world and explores more of the interplay between the characters, as well as expanding the player’s understanding about the aliens and world the game takes place in.

But it’s delivered a little differently than in traditional games.  Instead of having two characters have a scene where they talk directly about the original attack, they talk more like normal people. They have a conversation for a reason, more than just to deliver us exposition.  So players aren’t directly told – this is what happened – instead, they need to piece it together from different playthroughs.  It has been interesting watching players piece together parts of the story in our discord – players are smart – so if they aren’t making the right connections, that is my fault.
What sort of statement or statements do you think the game makes?

Faliszek: We just think the world is a better place if people work together, which is why we designed the game to encourage cooperative play, without opportunities for players to come into conflict with each other. At the same time, we feel like our approach to game design at the studio level sends an important statement as well. We managed to ship The Anacrusis without a significant crunch period. In the two weeks prior to our certification submission, with just a few days where people worked more than our standard eight-hour day. As a studio, we chose to make cuts to the launch version of the game rather than to crunch, knowing we’d be able to add the features we were forced to cut during our Early Access period.
Image courtesy of Stray Bombay
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. How can people find out more about your studio and The Anacrusis?

Faliszek: They can find us on Steam, Xbox, and the Microsoft Store. To keep up with development, everyone’s welcome in the Stray Bombay Discord and we post regular updates on the web, and our YouTube channel.

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