Splitgate is a little bit of an anomaly. Being in early access for two years, it has exploded onto the scene over the last few months, seeing hundreds of thousands of players making their way to its arena action.
To shine a little light on it, we had a chat with Splitgate CEO and co-founder Ian Proulx about the game's past, present, and future.
We had quite a long chat, so our sub-headings will tell you what each section is talking about so you can skip around to the topics you're most interested in. We'll start with some introductions.
James Bentley (RealSport 101): Could you Introduce yourself and what you do on the team?
Ian Proulx (1047 Games): "I'm Ian Proulx, I’m the CEO and Co-founder of 1047 games. Early on, I was a programmer and my job has transitioned over the years from 99% programming and 1% managing and now, I don't really get to program at all and I help manage things, help recruit. It’s a start-up so I do a little bit of everything."
The Splitgate Idea
JB: Where did the idea of Splitgate come from?
IP: "The basic idea from the get-go was very simple. It was “let’s put Portal into an FPS”. Ten years ago, I played Portal 2 and absolutely fell in love with the concept. I just thought it was the most mind-blowingly cool mechanic I’d ever seen in a video game. Being the FPS fan that I was, instantly my brain started thinking… “What if I could turn this into a PVP game?
When we started, it was just barebones FPS with portal guns. It is now much more of an arena shooter. It’s got a bit of a Halo feel - a bit of an unreal tournament feel. It very much has evolved and been fine-tuned whilst still focusing on the same fundamental, initial idea."
What did the team learn in early access?
JB: Since the middle of 2019, how has the development of the game changed and how has the community affected it?
IP: “Theres definitely been a lot of learning and changes over the last two and a half years. If you compare the game today to the game from two and a half years ago, it’s the same core gameplay, it’s just significantly more polished with a much better user experience.
I think we had a fun game two and a half years ago that was flawed and not polished, as we’ve developed it through feedback and tweaked it we’ve ended up with something that is not only polished… but is fine-tuned for a good experience and a well-balanced experience. “
1047 Games' Origins
JB: At the start of the studio, was Splitgate the immediate idea that came about or was there something you messed around with before that came to fruition?
IP: "When I went to Stanford, I studied computer science and I really wanted to learn gaming and there wasn't a gaming class so I talked to my advisor. This was when I started on the game. I built this rough prototype of an FPS game with portals. Fast forward to January of 2017. I still had this idea that I loved and though was very cool. That was when I actually set out and said “Okay I’m gonna start this thing.”
I reached out to my friend Nick Bagamian who is the best engineer I know, a good friend of mine and a gamer. We played a lot of Halo and Rocket League together and basically, I said “look, I’ve got this idea, why don’t we build this thing together.”
"Make what you want to play"
JB: Now that games courses are starting to become implemented, is that something you’re looking forward to seeing more of in the future?
IP: “I think it’s great. I think more schools should do it and I’ve actually been pushing Stanford to try to do more gaming. We actually created a gaming class last year at Stanford. My co founder Nick and I created the class and we were the TAs for the class. It was essentially the unreal engine class that we wish we could have had when we starting learning. Unfortunately, right now we don't have time to do it again but, in the future, it's something we really want to come back to… Gaming is the future.”
This ties into an interesting thing at the core of the team. Making the classes they wish they could have taken, making the games they wish they could have played. In my time speaking to Ian, there was a sense of passion for the project that was as infectious as it was charming.
Ian's Advice for 2017 Himself
JB: If you could go back to January 2017, is there any advice you would give yourself?
IP: "I was so naive, which was good because if I knew all of the things I would have to go through and all of the hard work… there's just a million things you don’t think. You think you have the coolest game on earth and there’s just so many things you’re forgetting. I think if I knew - if I had to go back then and tell myself everything - I would be overwhelmed.
Nick and I started off and we had no idea what we were doing. We were just like “We have a cool game idea, we’ll launch this thing in like a year. Hopefully, it goes well and we’ll keep doing it. Obviously, that’s not how it worked out. I think it was good I had no clue what would go into this.
I’m a big believer in learn by doing. I guess what I would have done differently, I would have done longer, extended play tests. We would do these 24 hour alpha play tests and it’s hard to gather that much out of those. You get good feedback but it’s a very different thing when it's a weekend alpha test as people will check it out and that’s that."
This speaks to the power of keeping players around, something Splitgate has gotten increasingly better at. Keeping players engaged and actually playing is a skill small alphas don’t train you for.
Plans for Single-player
JB: Are there any plans in motion to do anything single-player or is it (Splitgate) going to be exclusively multiplayer going into the future?
IP: "We don't have any specific plans so I don't want to get anyone too excited, but we have definitely thought about where to take this beyond just where it is. I'll go for one example of what I’d love to do, sort of a single-player experience.
We have in Splitgate a race game mode, where it really focuses on the portal plays. There's no guns. It’s just how quickly can you collect the disco balls from point a to point b to point c. And it really emphasises how good you are with the portals and we have a leaderboard for that. There's sort of a subgroup of our player base that really really loves this race mode."
You can read all about the potential single-player mode right here.
Thoughts on Trickshotters
JB: I’ve noticed that trickshotters have started to pour into Splitgate. What are your thoughts on trickshotters in the game?
IP: “I think it's awesome. I think our game is made for that. Not even just trickshots, Splitgate, in general, is a constant highlight reel and it lends itself well to trickshots, esports, streaming. There's so many cool things you can do in the game. With most first person shooters, your typical highlight is maybe some headshots, double kills, killing sprees.
That’s all cool but in Splitgate, that’s just another play. In Splitgate, the cool plays put headshots and double kills to shame. The cool plays in Splitgate are the crazy 360 trickshots or the crazy portal plays where you just absolutely embarrassed somebody.”
How has angel investment shaped the game?
JB: How has that (the angel investment) shaped your design philosophy knowing you actually have cash available to go into the future?
IP: “When we started, we were literally two people and we had a 15,000 budget (7.5 put in by both members). That allowed us to hire some part time contractors. We had to cut a lot of corners really. Those are corners you can get away with cutting but it makes it really hard. We couldn’t afford an art team so we had to use a lot of assets from the unreal engine marketplace.
Thankfully there’s a lot of good content out there. When we started, it was much smaller so there was way less content you could use. Every map when we got started was just “generic sci-fi looking map” because that was what we were limited to. We decided the one thing we can't cut a corner on was our guns because that takes up a very significant portion of your screen at all times.
We had an artist who made every gun and a first-person animator who made our animations. Everything else was stock. Over the last few years, we’ve just continued to take it a step further from, when we started, a very generic looking indie game to a very cool looking indie game to now, a very polished high quality looking game.”
JB: Can you reveal any easter eggs nobody has spotted yet?
IP: “There’s definitely some (easter eggs) that nobody has spotted yet. Pantheon has a good one that no one has found yet. That’s not the only one, there are many maps that have easter eggs but that’s the one we will leave you with.”
This answer is perhaps my favourite and did not spring from a question. I just started talking about Halo 2 and Ian took it the rest of the way.
IP: “I absolutely loved that game. I’ve been a gamer prior to Halo 2. I grew up playing Nintendo 64 - Smash Brothers, The Legend of Zelda, Golden Eye. I loved video games but video games were a hobby, it was not a passion. Halo 2 took it from a hobby to a passion and, honestly, an addiction.
I absolutely loved that game. What it did to online gaming and competitive gaming. So many amazing things. My fondest memories are growing up, playing Halo 2 and Halo 3, listening to Linkin Park and Breaking Benjamin, drinking Mountain Dew. That was my childhood.”
Thoughts on battle royale
JB: The Twitter page has made a couple of tongue-in-cheek jokes at the expense of battle royales, I just wanted to get your opinion on them?
IP: “I don’t have a problem with battle royales, I like battle royales. I played a tonne of PUBG when it came out and thought it was awesome. A little buggy but still very fun. I think where I’m at with battle royales is like 'I’ve played that for four years.'
I’m tired of it. I’ve played Apex, COD, Fortnite and they're great games. I understand the appeal, I’m tired of it and I need something new. Speaking as a gamer, Splitgate fills that void in my heart that I’ve been missing 15-20 years. It’s a nice change of pace and something I’ve wanted to play for a while, as a gamer, and I’m happy to see it doing so well.”
The return of the arena shooter
JB: Do you think we could see the return of the arena shooter?
IP: "I think it’s gonna be a big return. I’ve had to have this conversation with investors many times when they’re considering investing. What I always say is I don't think everybody just stopped liking arena shooters. So many people on Twitter have talked about how they miss arena shooters.
They miss Halo 3, Unreal Tournament, Quake, so many good games that people still like. Where the arena shooter genre has gone wrong over the last few years, I think it has failed to do two things.
Number one, it has failed to innovate. I think Quake Champions is a great game but it's fundamentally the same thing I was playing in 1998. I don't think that will keep people going. More importantly than that, I think the arena shooter genre has failed to create an accessible free-to-play experience to the masses.
Going back to Quake, Quake is a great game, it started off as a 30 dollar game and pivoted but it wasn’t designed to be a free-to-play game. I think there’s a lot that goes into designing a free-to-play game beyond making a fun game. There’s the on-boarding, there’s all sorts of retention mechanics.
Your users aren’t people who are in love with your game in general. It’s a free-to-play game. The kind of user who downloads your game often goes in with very low expectations, that’s just the nature of it because it’s free and cool and “sure I’ll try out this free game.”
So how do you keep that user hooked? I think that’s something that Splitgate does really well because we’ve had 2 and a half years of learnings on that.”
Is free to play the way of the future?
JB: Do you think free-to-play is the way the bigger games will reach the market?
IP: “I do. For a single-player game, I don’t think free-to-play ever makes sense but I think, for multiplayer, that's the way of the future. I think it’s a model that works really well. Mobile has been doing it for a while and PC and console are just starting to catch up.”
Plans to bring Splitgate to Nintendo Switch
JB: Are there any plans to bring Splitgate to the Switch in the future?
IP: “We haven't had those conversations with Nintendo. It’s absolutely something we would like to do but, realistically, it does feel pretty far away… I’m not even ready to think about Nintendo. Personally, as a gamer, do I want it to come to Nintendo Switch? Of course I want it to come to Nintendo Switch but it’s too far away for me to even think about that.”
Plans for the future of multiplayer
JB: Can you give us a hint at any plans for the future?
Ian then asked what he was allowed to reveal to me and was told he could say very little. We were told we would definitely find out more for the future of the game at Gamescom this year. Perhaps a big announcement is on the way.
Advice for a new Splitgate player
JB: If you were to give advice to a new player starting Splitgate, what would be something you would tell them?
IP: "We’ve designed the maps in a way where you don’t have to use the portals to have fun. Definitely, if you want to accelerate how quickly you’re able to improve, you're gonna learn a lot faster by seeing what other people who have already gone through this are doing.”
You can read this full answer over in our dedicated piece right here.
Any plans outside of Splitgate?
JB: Do the team have any plans outside of Splitgate?
IP: “If I think five, ten years in the future, do I have other game ideas? Absolutely. But we’re not starting on any game any time soon. We are all in on Splitgate and we think it's got many years of growth.”
Advice to devs making their passion project
JB: If you could give any advice to a dev chasing their passion project, like you and the team did, what would you say to them?
IP: “I would say be persistent. Stick with it. You are going to have to learn a lot of things and, as great as your game is, and as great as you think your game is - it probably is awesome to a lot of people - there’s still a lot of learning to be had that go beyond “is my game fun?” You need to be able to constantly ask yourself whats working and what isn't. I think you need to constantly... Not get attached to specific parts of your game. Be ready to realise you may have made a wrong decision, as good as your intuition is as a game developer. Be quick to adapt.”
Thank to Ian for chatting with us and giving us some of his time and insight. Hopefully we'll see a lot more from Splitgate in the future.