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Q&A: How Steam co-op hit GTFO chooses depth over breadth in game design

January 28, 2020 | By John Harris

January 28, 2020 | By John Harris
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Design, Video



GTFO from Stockholm-based 10 Chambers Collective is a brutally difficult mix of tactics and resource management that pits four human players against a horrifying underground labryinth of freakish monsters. Its play balance is geared toward making sure players lose most of the time, much like certain other genres of games that have proven inspirational lately.

What GTFO offers that they don’t is four-player FPS co-op; players absolutely must work together and make effective use of their resources or there’s little chance of them making it out alive. Some players might find this forbidding, but those who like it like it very much. 10 Chambers co-founder Simon Viklund took some time to answer our questions about this big-selling early access game.

Who are you and what is GTFO?

10 Chambers Collective is a collaboration between nine game developer veterans and former colleagues, founded by Ulf Andersson. We have an office in central Stockholm but mostly we all work from our separate homes and keep in contact via webcams. Our ambition is to self-fund and develop niche games that we feel bring something fresh and exciting to the market--focusing primarily on co-op experiences. Right now we’re developing GTFO, a hardcore four-player co-op PvE stealth/action/horror FPS.

It seems like a lot of the design energy right now is in making large-scale competitive games like Fortnite. What made your team decide to go with this smaller–scale, cozier experience?

Haha, I’m pretty certain this is the first time anyone describes GTFO as "cozy"...In any case; our philosophy was that we’d rather be one of few ducks in a small pond, than being one of many ducks--and probably a comparatively small one--in a big pond.

We looked at the collected strengths and experience of the members of our team, and figured we had a good shot at creating a four-player PvE co-op FPS; plus we love that genre ourselves. But we wanted to shrink the pond even more, so we made the game quite strategic, slow-paced, and extremely punishing. We’re not about adding a single-player or PvP or battle royale or horde defense game mode--we’d spread ourselves too thin and if any of it would be any good at all, it would all be puddle deep. We’d rather make a hardcore co-op only game that is ocean deep for that specific group of gamers who have been looking for something like that.

Part of GTFO's reason for being is to force actual cooperation between players, to force them to go about their missions working together, with purpose, instead of with everyone just doing their own thing. How does that work in practice? What does four players working together in a difficult situation mean, in play terms?

From a game design perspective, it’s a lot about depriving the players of critical information and resources. Scarce resources force players to make the most of what they have: Pool resources together, work out joint strategies, attack in sync, etc.

It’s important that no player alone is so powerful that he or she can carry the team or even break away from it. The lack of information is manifested in other ways: Very little information is given to everyone, forcing players to share information verbally via voice chat. For example, often it’s just one player carrying a biotracker--meaning that player has to share the information verbally that the tool provides, with the rest of the team.

Co-op games imply a strong PvE aspect, which in turn implies difficulty. How do you balance your game for a variety of player styles and skill levels?

GTFO isn’t really balanced for players with different skill levels. It’s a very unforgiving game that whips you into submission if you approach it the wrong way. If you attempt to run-and-gun in GTFO, you will either rage quit or change that strategy. We do have plans to add difficulty layers to the expeditions, so that those players who want to can explore even harder parts of the maps. What’s important is that we retain the sense of bragging rights in surviving an expedition--surviving an expedition in GTFO should always be a feat!

One thing about high difficulty is that it will inevitably turn away some players. Are you afraid of the strong focus on difficulty and play rigor reducing GTFO's potential audience?

We’re banking on it. We’d rather have a small audience that absolutely adore the game than having a large audience that just casually enjoys it. And, since we’re a small company we know that we can survive even if just a comparatively small group of players support the game. That’s part of the strength of being a small company: You can afford to make a niche product that doesn’t appeal to everyone. Your product isn’t "too big to fail." So we’ve intentionally made the hardcore difficulty a part of the GTFO brand.

To focus in on one aspect of the play: the puzzles. Like the box opening minigame, or communicating codes from terminals to open doors. Little timing puzzles like this, and other possible examples in the game, are interesting little pieces of design...How does the GTFO team feel about these little minigames, how difficult they're supposed to be, and whether they're distracting from the greater challenge of completing the mission and staying alive in a hostile environment?

The codes needed to open doors are intended to force players to communicate. Another similar thing is the simple fact that you don’t drop in with a waypoint telling you where to go: The team starts off every expedition sort of arbitrarily exploring the surroundings looking for a computer terminal. "Is it behind this door?" "Maybe behind that other door?" "Wait, the bio tracker says this other door has a lot of dormant monsters behind it, let’s not go there if we don’t absolutely have to…" "Yeah, we take the first door and go from there."

That sort of discussion is inspired by the lack of information--the team has to decide on a common approach because the game won’t do it for you by use of a waypoint. Simply put, GTFO isn’t the type of game that leads you by the hand--it obligates the players to take charge themselves and make an effort to move as a team. The hacking puzzles are intentionally rather simple but they become tricky under stress: If that potential health/ammo pack inside the resource box is critical for survival in a combat situation, your teammates have to cover you while you unlock the box with the puzzle, or you won’t survive. So in certain situations it inspires teamwork.

One thing about what amounts to an instanced mission style of game is the decision of what things to take in with you. GTFO's various tools each have different purposes, but only a limited can be carried in with you...GTFO [gives] the player information with which to make informed decisions about which tools to bring. How does that work, in the game? How do you give the player enough information without directly telling them, "Hey! You should bring a turret this time!"

Part of the fundamental concept of GTFO is making the players experiment--there’s seldom a certain tool or weapon combination that is perfect for any given expedition. We don’t want a game where it’s “Oh, fire enemies--switch to ice beams! Now there are ice enemies--switch to fire beams!” That’s paint-by-numbers gameplay and not very inspired game design--not in our book at least.

There shouldn’t be a single, obvious approach in any given situation--and players are actually expected to do some "trial and error" to find out what works best for them. The level of complexity will increase as we add more tools to choose from (right now there are only four) and also add more symbiotic relationships to the tools (i.e. they have alternative functions when combined). This will give the team even more reason to discuss what tools everyone should bring, to serve the joint strategy they decide on.

There's a lot of tactical options and subtleties in the game. Like, flashlights wake up monsters, who alert their comrades; or, scouts can detect players by detecting them by tendrils; then there's the heartbeat of foes, which represents periods of special detection. On the player's side, there's foam that slows enemies down, sensors, mine layers and sentry guns. How do your team go about creating the gameplay in GTFO, and are there plans to expand it yet further before full release?

We have a wealth of ideas, yes--and we will create many more monsters, more environmental hazards, more objectives/scenarios, more tools and more weapons for GTFO.

As mentioned we also want to expand upon the symbiotic relationship between tools--but we also want to expand upon the relationship between monsters and environmental conditions--these are the things that really add a level of interesting complexity to the gameplay experience. One type of enemy might be easy to defeat in regular conditions, but then you meet that same monster in different conditions--and then it’s a whole other deal. It might be waves of electro–magnetic pulses that occasionally wash across the map and disable the tools that usually help you target and kill these enemies, or it might be that the monsters are harder to see because of darkness, fog or even other, more “outside the box” conditions.

We intentionally set GTFO in a sci-fi universe to have a carte blanche in terms of being able to do anything for the sake of interesting, challenging gameplay.



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