How Dauntless refines boss battles and combat to create satisfying Behemoth-hunting action
To see how Phoenix Labs created the new talk-of-the-town, we interviewed Phoenix Labs Marketing Director Nick Clifford, Senior Game Designer Dan Gibson, and Art Director Katie De Sousa. The trio talk about creating diverse monsters that would be fun and challenging to fight, elaborate on how they designed the game’s combat system to offer both depth and accessibility, and discuss lessons learned from their thorough playtesting. Thanks for your time! Can you please explain the initial concept behind Dauntless, which has players battling behemoths while collecting and upgrading loot along the way?
Marketing Director Nick Clifford: Before there was Dauntless, there was a belief at the studio that we wanted to connect players worldwide in an online experience. We wanted to create a place where players could create lasting memories and relationships. From there, we drew inspiration from some of our favorite moments and experiences in gaming. We kept coming back to the idea of a group of friends standing against impossible odds. Through their combined practice, skill, and teamwork, they would triumph and bring the bragging rights home with them. Several of us come from action-RPG backgrounds and we love self expression and progression: the feeling that your character is uniquely you. Dauntless is the end result of that vision and experience. We couldn’t be more proud of it, and we’re excited to bring it to players on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One at launch.
People have been praising the game’s snappy combat system. Can you talk about your approach to combat, which strikes a balance between offering accessibility and depth?
Senior Game Designer Dan Gibson: Accessibility to combat has been a forefront thought in our mind, especially with the console release. We've worked hard in the past year to increase a new player's ability to jump in and have a great time with any of our six weapons, while building weapon customization systems and content that ensure that a seasoned player can explore and tinker to create a challenging and interesting playstyle. With these systems in full swing, we can push further and demand more of our expert players while keeping the combat fun and exciting for everyone.
Considering the game is primarily about taking down a wide variety of behemoths of varying sizes and species, how did you approach creating monsters that would be diverse, fun, and challenging to fight?
Clifford: Sometimes the genesis of a Behemoth begins with an artistic inspiration, sometimes it begins with a gameplay idea, but ultimately each Behemoth is unique and should ask different questions for the player to solve. For example, our first Behemoth was Drask. We started with the basics, really nailing the feeling of combat. Is hitting a Behemoth fun? Is dodging fun? Do attacks feel fair? Is victory rewarding? We had to ensure the answer to each was a resounding yes before we moved forward. For our next couple Behemoths, we wanted to push the encounters with more variety. One Behemoth would be faster and more agile, picking Slayers off one at a time. Another would focus more on projectiles and being airborne. (Embermane and Shrike, respectively). We haven’t stopped there, Behemoths like Rezakiri and Riftstalker draw upon gameplay designs like bullet hell and portals to really flip the genre on its head.
Dauntless features a bright, colorful, and highly stylized art style. How did you set about creating and executing on the game’s visuals?
Art Director Katie De Sousa: As we work on the art for Dauntless, we always try to keep in mind how we want the player to feel when they play our game. Dauntless should feel like a rich world full of adventure and excitement, a highly saturated and stylized look helps us communicate that. We tend to avoid gritty realism, muted color palettes, and noise, in favor of bright color palettes, stylish shapes, and clean textures. These choices help the player feel like they’re in for a fun and exciting experience when they hop into Dauntless.
Upgrading to new gear is one of the most satisfying aspects of playing an action RPG. Can you delve into how you’ve designed Dauntless’ loot and crafting system?
Clifford: Everyone loves loot. The thrill of defeating a boss and taking your hard-earned spoils home - that’s why it’s so important for crafting to feel rewarding. Each piece needs to feel unique and meaningful. If each Behemoth provides a specific challenge to the player, gear is how the player answers that challenge. We wanted to avoid that feeling of just having “your set” that you use for 100 hours. Players should want to upgrade their armor every hour, and it should feel good each time. But what does victory mean if you can’t do it in style? That’s why we take extra care to ensure each piece of gear has its own personality and flair. Weather you are rocking the whole set or mixing and matching different pieces, it has to look good, it has to be your style. That’s why we’ve included a robust dye system, armor transmogs, cosmetics, and more.
Considering Dauntless can be played solo or cooperatively online, how are you handling difficulty scaling with multiple players?
Clifford: While Dauntless is an online game, we respect those that wish to go lone wolf. That’s why it doesn’t matter if you play solo, duo, in trios, or have a full party of four, the Behemoth encounter will scale automatically.
Phoenix Labs consists of developers from top tier studios that include Riot, BioWare, Blizzard Entertainment, and more. How large is the team overall and how has the collective AAA experience shaped Phoenix Labs as an indie studio?
Clifford: Phoenix Labs is composed of industry veterans from Riot Games, BioWare, Blizzard, Capcom and more. It’s an amazing collection of developers. Better yet, we’ve all worked together for several years across multiple titles. That experience has made us incredibly efficient and cohesive as a team. The Phoenix Labs team is about 100 people spread out between our Vancouver and San Mateo studios.
With Dauntless having been in open beta on PC for roughly a year, what has Phoenix Labs learned from that process that has helped improve the game?
Clifford: Feedback has always been incredibly important to us at Phoenix Labs. Even before the open beta there was a closed beta, before that, a technical alpha, before that, a friends-and-family playtest. We’ve actually been operating Dauntless as a live service for over two years now. At every step, we’ve sought feedback to help improve the experience. Some particularly memorable learnings have included ranged combat, loot boxes, and player progression. The latest weapon we’ve added to Dauntless, the Ostian Repeaters, was a direct result of players telling us they wanted ranged combat. Loot boxes have always been a hot topic, but early on in our closed beta, our community shared their thoughts that random rewards felt bad. As a result, we took them out and replaced them with our current in-game store model. Lastly, we refactored player progression and questing not once, but twice in an effort to make Dauntless as streamlined and enjoyable as possible.
What made UE4 a good fit for the project?
Clifford: Unreal is an incredibly powerful tool, and with each version update, we are able to make Dauntless that much better. Many of us on the team have previous experience with UE4, so it was a natural fit for us when we were deciding on an engine.
Does the studio have any favorite UE4 tools or features?
Clifford: Blueprints. Seriously though, Blueprints have been super useful for everyone on the team.
Has it been helpful having access to UE4's source code for the development of the game?
Clifford: Having access to UE4’s source code has helped us in several ways. First off, it helped us comprehensively understand how everything works under the hood; better yet, we’ve been able to take what’s available in the box and build upon it, extending the engine and truly making it our own. Troubleshooting has also been much easier now that we have access to all the tools available to us.
Considering Dauntless will be available for PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch and iOS, how did you handle the porting process?
Clifford: We handled all development on the PS4, Xbox One and Epic Games store releases, and we’re super proud of that achievement. We’re currently working with a development partner on the Switch port, and mobile is still on the horizon for us. Hopefully we’ll have more news to share later this year.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Dauntless?
Clifford: Thanks for chatting with us! Players can find out more info at www.playdauntless.com. See you soon in The Shattered Isles.