Just under a year ago, Daybreak Game Company made an almost unprecedented move. They split their game in half. H1Z1 was transformed into two games – H1Z1: Just Survive, concentrating on surviving in a hostile environment, and H1Z1: King of the Kill, the more aggressive deathmatch-focused spin-off. And while Just Survive has maintained a loyal following by staying true to the series’ roots, there’s no denying the growing popularity of King of the Kill.
Around the time H1Z1 split in two Chris Wynn came on board as Executive Producer of King of the Kill. Already a fan of the Battle Royale mode from the original core game he could already see the potential for the series lining up with the direction games was going in.
“There were two really interesting things happening in the industry,” said Chris, “the first was Day Z and the other was the Dark Souls franchise coming out of Japan. Even [further back] there was Ninja Gaiden. But [these games] were in your face about how difficult they were, which was something the industry got away from for a long time. There were the definite feeling and perception that your games had to be accessible, therefore them easy. These game flew in the face of that and said ‘games can be challenging as well’.”
Coming into a team in the middle of both a development cycle and a restructuring wasn’t easy, but it also wasn’t entirely new to Chris. Years before he joined an established team when he started working on Gears of War 3, and more recently Chris was there at the beginning of the development Mass Effect Andromeda. His tactic was simple – be respectful of his new team.
“I really just wanted to build momentum and make higher quality stuff. My approach there was not to come in and swing my weight around and throw a bunch of crazy new ideas at them. It was really [about trying] to be as least disruptive as possible but affect a quality bar and culture stuff. Like how much pride we had in the game and what we want to do with it.”
Chris was destined to be a gamer. His father was, and remains a gamer and bought an Atari 2600 back in the day. Years later Chris managed to convince his brother to pool their savings and buy a Nintendo Entertainment System when it first launched. “[I remember] playing everything, from Zelda to Metroid, Track & Field, Excitebike. All those old Nintendo games, I was really into them.”
But he had another passion too – movies. When it was time to head off to college Chris studied 3D modeling with the goal of getting into special effects. But things changed when consumer grade 3D graphics cards began to hit the market. “Suddenly gaming went from 2D sprites to 3D, and I was kind of sitting there, I had just learned all these skills, and I went ‘oh my god, I can go and make games, this is incredible!’. So I switched focus and really wanted to go make games.”
His first big break came at a small local developer. Coming from the world of cinema he had to learn the importance of ‘game ready’ art, which meant working with much tighter system resources. “I’ll never forget, the interview for the job that I ended up landing they gave me a test. They sat me down in front of a computer and said ‘build a tank that we can put into a game’. So I did that, did that for them and then I went home and thought ‘you know, I built a shitty tank’. I redid it at home and emailed it to them, and that’s what got me the job, the fact that I went home and redid it. It’s what got me into the industry.”
KING OF THE UPDATES
A big part of Chris’s job is keeping King of the Kill up and running while ensuring his team stays on task with new content. The problem he says is that working on a game that is both in development and out in the world means issues can crop up and take over his entire week.
“I came in this week and I was expecting a fairly quiet week and getting through a bunch of my to-dos,” explained Chris. “Then right away Monday morning we’re looking at our European server load and we’re right at our limit. And that’s not good, players are getting huge queue times and lag and stuff like that. So [all week] we’ve been running around trying to get that fixed … My whole to-do list was blown away Monday morning and that became my number one priority. Every week we get something like this.”
Still, no matter the issues on the backend the show must go on. Coming into its second year as a standalone product, King of the Kill team has big plans for 2017. Chris says there’ll be a greater focus on tournaments and eSport-style events. Another change the team hopes to make for the game going forward is finding ways to reward different play styles.
“Both [stealth and aggressive] strategies are valid in my opinion. But from what we’d like to see in the game and what we’re going to reward going forward we’re going to make some changes. Ultimately it’s your finishing position that matters the most, but we’ll reward aggression a bit more than we are now.”
Speaking of strategies, our own SeaNanners employed what some might call “sneaky” tactics at the TwitchCon 2016 King of the Kill Invitational. Hiding behind a rock with a big gun and a lot of patience, Adam was able to secure 7th place in the first round of the tournament. “It’s a valid strategy and I have nothing against it,” remarked Chris with a laugh, adding that he still wants to push forward with rewarding players taking bigger risks.
THE HIDDEN DEPTHS
One of the best aspects of King of the Kill is its accessibility for people watching the game, even for the first time. There’s no ultimate moves or special spells to understand, it’s just people with guns, fighting to survive and avoid choking on poison gas. The game being enjoyable to watch isn’t by accident either. Chris says this when he talks about the game internally he considers it one of the “pillars” of the game and wants to “keep it as fun to watch and it is to play.”
In doing this though the depth of King of the Kill can get lost on those unfamiliar with game’s mechanics. It looks like chaos, but Chris points out that if you want to win you can’t be thinking one move ahead – this is a game that demands an early, mid, and a late game plan. “From the outset, it looks really simple,” said Chris, “but when you play it it’s actually really deep. I think that’s why it’s successful, but I think it’s missed a lot when people talk about the game.”
Over time new strategies become part of the meta-game and keep the player-base on their toes. It’s how good shooters evolve and grow and become more competitive. In fact, the emergent gameplay and challenges are big reasons Chris came to work on King of the Kill. “[Aside from the fact] that I loved the game, was that I was really athletic as a kid … I played a lot of sports as a kid and was super competitive, so to be able to marry that into what I love to do, which is make games. [It’s been] really pretty special for me.”
As the new year dawns, the King of the Kill team continues to work hard, striving to make the game the best it can be. Speaking candidly, Chris knows that one of the areas the team is going to work harder on in 2017 is talking more openly with the growing fanbase about the state of the game.
“There are some new experiences for me,” said Chris, “like maintaining a live environment while developing new features and getting that balance of resources right. That can jeopardize other things we want to do, it can be difficult to set priorities and hold to them. That’s a big focus of what we’re looking to change going into 2017.”
Despite the challenges Chris says he’s very happy the progress of the game, singling out the implementation of Seasons. “That was a huge effort actually, and it required not only people on the King of the Kill team but people on our operations team and server teams because we had to stand up to a whole lot of stuff. We’ve seen really good server stability, seen the game behaving the way we want it to behave, and we’ve seen the players really respond to it.”
For now, Chris and his team can take solace in the fact that the first year of King of the Kill is nearly behind them. And judging by how far they’ve come, the future looks bright for the ever-growing fanbase. Even if that future is filled with deadly poisonous gas. And looters, and drive-bys, and a lot of dead people, of course.