Colin Foran, Head Of Game of first-person shooter (FPS), Shrapnel, shares his thoughts on how Web3 games can attract players by focusing on quality and user-generated game NFTs.
With Neon Machine’s successful conclusion of its US$20 million Series A funding, the Seattle-based gaming studio is well on track to launch its early-access gameplay of Shrapnel, a sci-fi first-person extraction shooter, by the end of this year.
Not only is Shrapnel’s progress driven by a core team of Emmy award–winning game industry veterans, but the high-profile game project also distinguishes itself from other first-person shooters in the gaming scene with its user content-driven gameplay. This includes giving players the ability to craft and design their own maps, gears, and even insignias for fellow players, while handing them the autonomy to stage player-led tournaments at the same time.
Watching the riveting trailer of the game that was built from scratch with the Unreal Engine 5 game engine, it is hard to imagine that the idea for Shrapnel’s concept was an idea 20 years in the making.
“Our CEO, Mark Long, really had this idea in his mind for a couple of decades now, like over 20 years. And he was so passionate about it that he actually bought that domain name back in 1995.” said Colin Foran as I pressed about the story behind Shrapnel’s name. “He said, ‘Well, you know, if we wanted to make a shooter, I’m sitting on this name’. And so, we said, ‘Great, this is wonderful!’ And we all got a pretty good laugh that he was finally able to make the game that he wanted.”
Lounging comfortably in his Seattle home, the bespectacled Head of Gaming at Shrapnel enthusiastically detailed the development and concept of Shrapnel, whilst his canine companion, affectionately named Murdoch, punctuated the conversation by popping onscreen from time to time. “He had always had this idea that the UGC (user-generated content) was a piece that was missing from that, and it finally felt like we had arrived at a point where the technology could execute the vision. Interestingly, Shrapnel is reminiscent of earlier games that we all used to enjoy, something like Unreal Tournament back in the early 2000s.” Foran added.
The first-person shooter (FPS) genre is a cornerstone of the gaming industry which all gamers are familiar with, and it is the same familiarity and approachability that Foran hopes to tap into when introducing gamers to Shrapnel. “We feel that the gaming atmosphere and users have become so much more sophisticated, because now you’ve got a gaming population that’s come up through Minecraft and Roblox. There’s nothing to graduate into when you’re a little older, or maybe when you’re feeling a little more competitive.”
But with FPS giants like Apex Legends and Call of Duty occupying large swaths of the Web2 gaming market while decentralised shooters seek to emulate the success of these games, how will Shrapnel carve its own slice of the Web3 gaming pie?
The key to doing so is quality and emotional immersion into the game, which Foran states confidently. These two core elements will help players form an emotional connection with the game, and it is Shrapnel’s ticket to standing out from the crowd.
Watch the full interview here on Youtube.
It takes more than just a name to make players stick around to play the game. So how is Shrapnel creating that emotional engagement with its players?
When we decided to make a first-person extraction shooter, a lot of that came from our background in gaming to create an approachable genre. There are some tried and true things that we can do, just to get people in initially. And then we can start introducing UGC (user-generated content) like making insignias, call signs, or more sophisticated things like putting environments together. Eventually we can say, hey, this is a free-to-play game so you don’t have to interact with Web3, but if you do, we’re going to make that as easy as possible for you. You can never try to force a technology on someone, and we believe that if you can’t answer in one sentence why this is worth somebody’s time, that it’s probably not a good idea.
Our key gamer demographic that we’re going for is entertainment-literate, and there’s an amazing assortment of entertainment for people to go to interact with. It’s about making those interactions as simple as possible, and that philosophy really hits the entire ecosystem because Shrapnel isn’t just a game; it’s also about these creator tools in the marketplace, the community, and the rest of the Web3 trappings that go with it. And all of those other experiences are just as important as the shooter, right? We want people that might never approach a first-person shooter to feel welcome in the community.
With your background as a creative director with HBO, you have integrated technology into your games such as the acclaimed Westworld Awakening VR experience. What drove your direction towards a VR game based on a TV series?
Throughout my career, it was always a combination of traditional storytelling and some new technology. So HBO was going to make its own games based on its IP (intellectual property), and that’s historically been a very difficult thing to integrate linear entertainment with what’s happening in the interactive space, and we just wanted to show that there was an opportunity to do it differently. We were actually in the writer’s room with the show runners and saying, “if you trust us to work with your IP, we will show that it’s not just a distraction; it can actually reinforce what you’re doing as a creator”. Ultimately, they decided to go into a different direction. But I believe that VR will have its day, it might just be a little bit too early for it.
The other founders that I work with are also very much technologists, and we had been sort of crypto curious just because we enjoy technology. But the more that we thought about it, we said, you know, this almost feels like the early days of mobile gaming or mobile DLC (downloadable content). It always felt like we were coming in either a little bit too early, like with VR, or a little bit too late, like with microtransactions. We thought, ‘we might be right on time.’
That idea of a true digital ownership has been a problem the game industry has been trying to solve for 20 years, so it’s a non-trivial thing for us to say that we’re going to try to add this strange new variable. But there’s a very compelling reason for why we would want to do it. You should be able to sell those things that are a representation of your time, and then go play more video games. It’s all very, very straightforward.
As a casual gamer myself, it would be a dream come true if I could play games and earn from it.
It’s always so strange to me that you need to convince someone that’s put 2000 hours into Warcraft, to convince them that their time is valuable, and you should have something at the end of that since we spend so much time in these worlds, and we care about them so much. The idea that it’s such a one-way value dynamic just seems so strange. Ten years from now, we’re going to look back and say, ‘Well, of course we’re doing it this way. How could we have done it any other way?’
There are gamers who are resistant to integrating with Web3. What do you think it takes to remove that barrier and make them more receptive towards Web3 games?
It absolutely has to be the quality of the experience. You need to give a very clear example about why things are better with this without overly burdening the user, and we will never exaggerate or emphasise the technology. Shrapnel is the cool extraction shooter that lets you do things that other extraction shooters do not, and that feels like a more appropriate contextualisation for what that technology is.
If people are coming to your games, it’s because they’re having a great time, or their friends are having a great time. We are taking a very subtle approach towards introducing the technology; like, I wouldn’t expect anyone to go near the marketplace after having played for a couple of nights or start using the Creator tools. There’s a certain expectation of quality, and we ignore that at our peril.
I think people can become very, very passionate about technology, but it always felt a little bit backwards to me. It would be like building a storefront without having anything to sell; a consumer isn’t excited about those things in the way that we would be as technologists. And if you’re busy wagging your finger and telling people that they’re stupid for not understanding it, you’re going to lose.
How will the integration of NFTs enhance the user experience for the person playing the game?
The game itself is about extraction, so you don’t get to keep anything unless you successfully extract it, and you can lose anything you bring into a match. There’s a real value attached to it now, and we believe that that’s going to fundamentally change the way people play the game. Games have gotten very, very fast and manic over the last 10 years or so. Like, when I look at Apex Legends, it’s super, super fun, but it’s fast, fast, fast. And what we want to do is make a game where you stop, and you check, before leaving an alleyway. You’re quietly interacting with your other teammates, it’s much more tactical and methodical.
Where I get excited is more on the UGC side of it. I’m seeing a list of items you used to make your level and there’s an exploding barrel which I really liked. I’m going to drag that into one of my levels, and every time my level has your exploding barrel, you’re going to get a cut of that. And that to me is this atomic, fundamental value. Like, I don’t need to convince you that you should get paid for the work that you do; that’s just a thing that makes sense. You don’t really see a lot of that in gaming now, but once people see it, they become familiar with it.
That’s going to create some very, very interesting moments. You and I could be watching an e-Sports match and they’re playing for a sniper rifle that’s worth $14,000. You might never have heard the word ‘crypto’ before, but you could still say ‘that sounds really exciting’. That sort of goes back to that earlier point that I made, that the gameplay for Shrapnel isn’t going to look like any other gameplay that you’ve seen before because it’s just a fundamentally different experience.
Coming back to the idea of Web2 versus Web3 games, there is no doubt that Web2 games still draws in more users. What is the particular spark that Web3 games still lack?
It’s the quality. Games are extraordinarily difficult to do, and I always like to joke and say it’s not rocket science, but it’s pretty close. You’ve got artists, you’ve got engineers, you’ve got very deep subject matter expertise, teams that are hundreds of people working over the course of several years. So, you don’t approach it unless you’re very passionate about the idea.
There was such an urgency to get games out quickly because we have this technology and we’re really excited about it. If you’re not committed to it, and you’re not passionate about it, the consumers will pick up on that immediately. I remember when we were trying to drum up our initial round of VC funding, and they asked, ‘what are you going to do?’ And we’d say, well, we’ll make a fun video game. They said, ‘you guys are so far ahead of everybody else’. And it’s like, no, it’s fundamental. Nobody cares unless the game is fun, right?
I think we’ve touched on quality over and over again. But to you, personally, what does it mean to bring quality to a game?
Well, I think there’s the visible and the invisible quality. Do I care about the characters in the universe? Do I care about this specific weapon versus that one? Those are all very visible. When someone says, ‘I love Valorant, and I love Apex Legends’, they can immediately say ‘I love those characters; I love that environment designer; I love the way that I feel when I’m in this world’.
But then there’s the invisible stuff. When I launch the game, does it crash, or does it run perfectly? Do my saved games work? One thing that worked against a lot of early Web3 games]is it was rushed out and people knew it was rushed out. We say you only get to make a first impression once, and the industry did itself a disservice by trying to push out as much as it could, as quickly as it could, without really understanding why. When I look at the organisation making Shrapnel, we’ve got the game teams, and these are people that have been making hits for a really, really long time.
So that’s always a consideration for us. There are one thousand ways that those things can go wrong, but when it works, you don’t even see it. Like matchmaking for example, now I’m going to go play the game. As soon as it stops working, everything stops. I’ve known amazing triple-A teams that fall down on matchmaking. I try to be aware of where those potential pitfalls are, to make sure that we’re not losing people before getting to the end. Because that’s where we are giving our statement of intent and really trying to show the thing that we want to make.
One of the mechanisms is about levelling maps up in terms of rating, and migrating to the center. Could you maybe touch a little bit on that?
When we first had this idea, we wanted to make sure that it was always as familiar as possible because we were challenging people with new technology. So, when picking a level, I wanted it to look like a traditional level selection screen. You’ve got four or six maps that come from our studio, and now I’m seeing levels that were voted up by the community. The closer to center you get, the more people are playing them; it is all very merit based. You make a level; you can send me a code which I can play on. If I don’t want to go searching, I know that anything in the center, or anything around it, is probably going to be pretty fun.
To be in the center means more people are going to play, that means more people are probably going to start purchasing those components; it is highly desirable to be in that center stage. And so, now we start having a conversation around gameplay into UGC, into the economy, into the marketplace; it’s a virtuous cycle. But if we step back and look at it, people voting for the most fun levels feels like a pretty good time.
When you’re making these things, it is very easy to forget the perspective of the user. But you always have to step back and say, ‘What I want to play when I get home from work, and I’m tired; I just want to veg out and play some interesting video games.’ That idea of ‘Oh cool, this level uploaded earlier this week has rocketed up in popularity. Yeah, I want to check that out.’ It’s really enticing for people. I think that the stuff we make is pretty cool, but there’s always going to be someone that comes up with that one cool idea that nobody else did. That goes back to Unreal Tournament back in the day. So many of those game modes we take for granted now, such as capture the flag, were weird little experiments in 2002. If we can get anywhere in that vicinity, I think we’ll have been successful.
Speaking of Unreal Tournament, I understand the game is being created on Unreal Engine 5, especially the trailer on the Epic Platform. As a gamer myself, I have to ask the question that is on everybody’s mind – Is the trailer representative of the gameplay?
We definitely wanted it to be a statement of intent. The game is always going to change and that’s by design. But we wanted to show what our initial vision for the for the gameplay experience will be. So, we went into it knowing the character designs are probably going to change, the environments are probably going to change, the weapons are probably going to change, but we want it to have this intimate, desperate feeling to it, and I think that came through pretty well in the trailer.
Ultimately, we’ll have to see how the game gets received. If the community wants it to be more energetic, then maybe it becomes more energetic; if they want to slow it down, it becomes more tactical. But we needed to give the community an idea of what we wanted to create, and I think the trailer is a pretty honest interpretation of that. We are going to open it up early and use our audience to play-test, and coming from a AAA background, that’s a terrifying idea. But yes, it’s also very interesting.
In APAC (Asia Pacific), mobile gaming is the predominant trend in the region with a growing market for mobile games. But I noticed that Shrapnel aligns towards a PC (personal computer) experience. Will that influence the direction of Shrapnel’s development for its APAC players?
Totally. Ultimately, we are a small team trying to make a very large experience, and mobile is absolutely a part of that. We are in the process of spinning off [towards] APAC, and we are starting to create collaborations with like other games in that space plus attending more conferences and competitions as well. Within the next couple of months, you’ll see a lot more region-specific elements.
It yields a genuine experience for that region, because a lot of the contents will be coming from creators in that region. You want to make sure that if people are experiencing your game, they are getting a genuine experience from it. And I think we’re just at that starting point now which is really exciting.
Will the mobile game version bring across the same emotional immersion we’ve just discussed, or will it be a watered-down version of the PC gameplay?
The people on our team have spent a lot of time thinking about that transition from either console or PC to mobile, and we are at a point now where we’ve got a pretty solid understanding of what makes a good experience. But at this point it’s like a crawl, walk, run thing, right? There’s still a lot of standards that we need to figure out. After that, we can optimise this in a mobile direction.
But in the meantime, what we’re trying to do is create tools that would be better experienced on mobile. If I’m at the bus stop, or I’m riding the subway, I’m going to use my Shrapnel tools here since I’ve got time to kill. Then I go home, I immediately see that creation on my PC. It’s not like one needs to be better than the other, but rather it’s using the strengths of each platform only where it makes sense. We want to make sure that we are meeting the consumers wherever they are, in whatever experience for platform they’re aiming for, tailored to what they need to do.
Do you have any advice or parting words for Web3 games that are trying to implement emotional resonance?
It’s answering those very simple questions again; are you aiming in a specific development direction, or are you telling a story because you’re really passionate about it? I’d say find a story that you want to tell, and then tell it in whatever way makes the most sense for you.
We used to do a lot of trans-media, basically a game influences the comic, the comic influences the book, the book influences the TV show, that sort of stuff. And it was very deliberate on our part, because we could explore different character-centric stories in a comic book, much, much faster than we could in a video game. But we can explore the world with much more richness in a video game than we could with short film.
So, it’s about using the strengths of each medium to meaningfully search for a story somewhere. And once you find that thing that feels very compelling to you, that’s the thing that you want to go make. If you’re not passionate about that thing that you’re making, people will pick up on it.
Watch the full interview here on Youtube.