Image courtesy of Red Barrels
It's common for a game to get patched after launch, but developers are usually focused on fixing bugs and other relatively minor tweaks. It was a surprise, then, when Outlast 2 suddenly received a "global rebalancing of the game difficulty" update last week, a little over two weeks after it came out. It was a surprising admission that one of the game's key components was off.Outlast 2 developer Red Barrels told me there wasn't one specific moment that caused them to reconsider the game's difficulty. The decision came after several weeks of observing feedback from fans and critics. Red Barrels is a small team, and things change when thousands are livestreaming their experiences with your game. You suddenly have an enormous pool of possible testers. "We knew the game could be demanding," said Red Barrels co-founder Philippe Morin. "Players need to be patient when they feel the urge to run and they can't turn a corner carelessly without risking a consequence. That's the experience we wanted to create. That being said, we realized we might have pushed too far in that direction and we needed to make adjustments to ensure players are encouraged to play until the end."
Balancing difficulty in a horror game isn't easy. You want people to feel tension in the moment, but running into a game over screen over and over isn't ideal, either.Besides changes to enemy movement speeds, the amount of damage caused, and their ability to perceive the player, Red Barrels reworked sequences by outright removing some of the dangers in front of players. In trying to dial the difficulty back, they worked under a new edict: make the game feel too easy.Over the course of development, Red Barrels did conduct playtests to get a sense of how people would play the game they were building. And though Outlast was successful enough for them to work on a sequel, it doesn't mean Red Barrels became a studio with hundreds of employees. There are 20 just people working full-time at the Canadian developer. They have to pick and choose their battles."Difficulty seemed fine with most players, but not everybody," said Morin. "The problem is that if you have two out of 20 people who find the game too difficult, you can't be sure it's those individuals specifically or if they actually represent 10% of the players. We didn't have enough data to be sure."There just wasn't enough time or money to conduct a wider playtest, so Red Barrels rolled the dice and presumed their internal red flags were outliers. They were wrong, obviously, but in making that decision, Morin weighed against another undesirable outcome: they'd overcompensate in the other direction.
This worry was directly informed by Red Barrels' experience with Outlast, which shipped without difficulty levels. They added some in a patch, after fan requests."I've read many times that the first Outlast stopped being scary when people realized they could run at the enemies, get hit once and then keep on running until they're safe," he said. "We didn't want that in the second game. In Outlast 2, if you run at an enemy who can see you coming, he kills you. To me, it's the equivalent of running in a courtyard when you know there are three snipers in the watchtowers."Being able to easily run away from enemies in Outlast didn't bother me, actually. I was there for the jump scares and creepy imagery, and horror games aren't usually where I'm seeking to push my gaming skills. As someone who's spent countless hours with horror games, I feel pretty confident when booting up a new one. That said, when I streamed Outlast 2 for Waypoint viewers last week, I struggled through some early sections in a way that dampened enthusiasm to keep playing.
"I've read many times that the first Outlast stopped being scary when people realized they could run at the enemies, get hit once and then keep on running until they're safe."
"We did what we felt was necessary so that the game never becomes 'comfortable,'" said Morin. "Outlast is about suffering. It isn't designed to be for everyone. Big studios have to worry about pleasing everyone, we don't. What would be the point of being independent if we couldn't stick to our guns. Obviously, we hope as many people enjoy the game as possible, but there are comprises we're not willing to make."The release of this patch gives me renewed interest in playing a game that'd rubbed me the wrong way because it wasn't fun. Seems like everyone wins. Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email here.