For four years, Polish developer People Can Fly has been putting together its first new IP since Bulletstorm, released almost a decade ago. Outriders is a huge new venture for the company; a new world, a new genre, and a new publisher. But it also builds on the strengths the studio established in its very first game, Painkiller, back in 2004: it’s a fast, bloody shooter that’s as gleefully entertaining as it is gory.
More than anything, though, the story of Outriders is powered by one thing: freedom. The freedom to choose your weapons, your abilities, and armour. The freedom to fine-tune a character at the most granular level. And, for the developers, the freedom to go their own way after years of working on another company’s projects.
For almost a decade, People Can Fly worked with Epic Games. Their partnership was so close that Epic even acquired the studio in 2012, rebranding it Epic Games Poland. Together, the teams worked on the Gears of War series during Epic’s tenure, as well as Bulletstorm and Fortnite. But after operating for three years under the Epic banner, the Polish team began to feel the need to forge their own path again.
“We wanted to do our game, not work on others’ IP, no matter how good those IPs are,” explains Bartosz Kmita, game director on Outriders. And so, in 2015, the team bought themselves out from Epic and rebranded back to People Can Fly.
Newly independent, the idea for Outriders began to form in the team’s minds. From the start, one thing was clear: they were going to stick to their (digital) guns. “There were some pillars that we knew that we didn’t want to change,” says Kmita. “One of them was, of course, that we would make a shooter. As we often say, that’s our DNA.”
But their new freedom meant there was also opportunity for change. They decided to depart from the more comedic, tongue-in-cheek tone of games like Bulletstorm and Fortnite. “We decided to make a game for ourselves that we would want to play,” Kmita notes. “So we wanted to go a little bit more grim and gritty.”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%E2%80%9CWe%20wanted%20to%20do%20our%20game%2C%20not%20work%20on%20others%E2%80%99%20IP%2C%20no%20matter%20how%20good%20those%20IPs%20are.%E2%80%9D”]The tone and design of Outriders’ world and story was quickly forged thanks to the team all having similar ambitions. “All of us were reading similar books,” says Kzrysztof Dolas, Outriders’ technical director. “A sci-fi world was something that came to all of us.”
“I remember how Heart of Darkness [influenced] one of our ideas about how we’d progress through the world,” he adds. “In this book, the character was going deeper and deeper into Africa, and here we go deeper and deeper into our world.”
Going deeper eventually became something that characterised the whole project, not just its story. Kmita says that the team wanted to make something that was more than “a game about killing and shooting”, which resulted in a change in genre. Instead of a straight shooter like the team’s previous games, Outriders expanded into an RPG exploring the human colonization of an alien world.
As the idea for Outriders grew in scope, it became clear that the studio was not yet large enough to achieve those ambitions. “When we split from Epic we were a group of 30 or 40 people,” says Kmita. “We lacked a lot of people needed to deliver this kind of game. So we started to build the world and the game, but in the same moment we were building the team and the company. From 30 people, in four years, we grew to almost 200.”
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Spread across offices in Poland, the US, and the UK, those 200 staff worked towards creating a game that was all about freedom and options. “We absolutely know that there will be some players who will basically want to just shoot, fight, get loot, and that’s it,” Kmita says. “We don’t have a problem with that. But for all the people who would like to know this world better, know the characters better, who would like to do some side quests for them, then there is some additional conversation to dig more into the history of this world.”
For those players who wish to be focused on shooting over conversation, Outriders does have a solution: “We added some sophisticated systems, like ‘skip cutscene’,” laughs Kmita.
When designing the way players interact with the story, People Can Fly discovered that the co-operative nature of Outriders meant they had to re-think one traditional RPG element. There are no narrative choices akin to those seen in games like Mass Effect and The Witcher, because each person in the party may want to choose a different path. “When we tried [branching narrative] in the multiplayer, it basically was not working because the voting system stuff was not pleasant for us,” Kmita explains. It didn’t feel right to make a big story beat a democratic vote.
As well as a change in story presentation, Outriders presented People Can Fly with the chance to change the way it approached shooting. To ensure player freedom, the team looked to an interesting new touchstone. “We were more inspired by Diablo than other looter shooters,” Kmita says. That inspiration can clearly be seen in the way characters are built, with experimental skill trees, incredibly powerful and adaptable active abilities, and a plethora of modifications.
“We wanted to have this feeling that you can build your character,” Dolas says. “You can adjust them to the playstyle you want to have. If you want to be this guy that goes into the battle and fights close quarters, you can, but if you want to be a sniper and also use some skills to stay behind and help others from your team, you can do it.”
The first choice a player makes when building an Outriders character is their class. But earlier in development, you didn’t even have to choose that. “We started designing this game without classes at all,” Kmita recalls. “We wanted to give the freedom for all the choices we have, but we realised that people are too lost if there’s too many options from the beginning.”
To further help early-game decision making, each class has a skill tree split into three branches. “This helps channel [players] into one direction, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best, most optimal way,“ says Kmita. “When you’re experienced, I think you will not be looking at the three divisions in the skill tree, but rather finding your own way for how to build your best character.”
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=%22People%20maybe%20don’t%20have%20any%20more%20time%20to%20spend%20300%20hours%20to%20grind%20one%20item.%E2%80%9D”]While many of these design decisions are hallmarks of the action-RPG genre, the looter-shooter elements may give the false impression that Outriders is actually a service game, akin to Destiny or The Division. But Kmita is clear that this is not the case.
“When we started our game and realised that the story is so important, we realised if we did a game-as-a-service, we would probably start chopping everything into sub-content,” he says. “We didn’t want to do this because the story was so important for us.”
“We think that there are a lot of cool games on the market, and people maybe don’t have any more time to spend 300 hours to basically grind one item,” he adds.
While the story of Outriders still has many more chapters to go – it won’t release until later this year, there’s a next-gen version to come, and work is still to be done – the parts that have already been written have been evolutionary for People Can Fly. The company’s ambition has taken them from a small Polish studio to an international developer, all in less than half a decade. Regardless of if Outriders is a cult favourite or global phenomenon, it’s a game that’s facilitated change and freedom, both for its eventual players, and the people that made it.
Matt Purslow is IGN’s UK News and Entertainment Writer.