The next game from developer Ready At Dawn — the independent studio best known for cinematic action games like The Order: 1886 and the God of War series — is a colorful, physics-based multiplayer brawler named Deformers.
In Deformers, up to eight players can beat each other up as blobby, ugly-but-adorable creatures known as Forms. Players body slam and shoot each other in arena combat that smacks of a squishy, family-friendly Twisted Metal. It's a blast, with hints of Smash Bros., Rocket League and Splatoon, but with a unique sense of style.
Hearing Ready At Dawn talk about its new game, its first since 2015's grim, alternate history shooter The Order, they expect their fans and followers to be surprised by Deformers.
"It might not be what you expect out of our studio"
"It might not be what you expect out of our studio," said Ru Weerasuriya, co-founder and chief creative officer of Ready At Dawn, during the game's unveiling. "I think that's been the first reaction for everybody who's laid their eyes on this game."
Weerasuriya explained that Deformers started as a small project, driven by internally-developed soft body physics technology, and eventually "grew to a whole team working on a passion project that we play every single day over here." Around 20-25 staffers are working on the game, while the rest of Ready At Dawn works on other, unannounced things.
Deformers has been in active development since right around the time Ready At Dawn wrapped up The Order, he said. But the inspiration for the physics-based game is more than 25 years old.
Weerasuriya and the game's director, Ready At Dawn co-founder Andrea Pessino, didn't talk much about Deformers before we played it. They wanted to get the game into our hands without much set up, they said, because Deformers is about pick-up-and-play competitive multiplayer. New players should be able to grab a controller and start playing right away — and give experienced players a run for their money, even if they don't know all the game's rules.
The rules are simple, though; players, as a gelatinous blob or floppy cartoon creature, can roll, jump, dash, shoot, throw and defend. The goal is to destroy your opponents (or your team's opponents), either by shooting them to death with gooey ammunition, by ramming into them at high speeds or by grabbing them and throwing them off the edge of an arena.
As players are killed, they'll leave behind tiny blobs of goo called tribs. Other players can soak up those tribs to increase the size of their Form, thereby increasing their health, and refill their ammunition.
Conquer and Consume
At certain points during matches, the game will drop a power-up onto the field. These power-ups grant players special abilities, like an area-of-effect blast or a magnet that will soak up all the tribs on the playfield. One power-up, rampage, makes the player's Form "Hulk out" and cause immense destruction.
Deformers' combat is incredibly fast-paced. In order to survive, players must be constantly on the move, grabbing tribs, dashing into other players and sprinting toward power-ups. Die, and you'll immediately respawn and be air-dropped back onto the battlefield.
The game is all about competitive spirit, producer Alex Salcedo said. In addition to online multiplayer, Ready At Dawn promises four-player splitscreen for local and online competitive and cooperative multiplayer.
"Games are always better when you're able to sit next to a friend and tell them what they did wrong," Salcedo said of the game's couch co-op appeal. "Or what you did right against them."
During our hands-on time with Deformers, which lasted a few hours, we played free-for-all and team deathmatch modes on a variety of maps. One was a square, symmetrical arena that was built like a skate park, with curved ramps along its walls. Another map was asymmetrical and multi-tiered, not unlike a floating island one might see in a 3D platformer.
Things got more hectic when Ready At Dawn staff switched on "tilting" and dropped us onto a circular arena that rocked back and forth at 25 degree angles. Trying not to fall off while shooting, jumping and dodging was an intense experience.
Although the core gameplay of Deformers is relatively simple, its depth — and its addictive, just-one-more-game nature — is quickly apparent.
Weerasuriya said Ready At Dawn discovered the magic of Deformers when it stripped the game down to its core components, focusing on tight controls and a core set of moves. From there, individual strategies, focusing on offense or defense, shooting or grabbing, emerged.
"When we started playing internally and you had that compulsion to play another game," that's when Deformers started to come together, Weerasuriya said. "Games have a tendency to die off because once you play it, and let's say you lost, you don't want to play again, because you feel like, 'Even if I play it again, I don't know what I would want to do, 'cause I have no idea what I could do [to win].
"The amazing thing is when ... you finished a game and you're like, 'Ugh! I wish I didn't play an offensive game because that guy's offensive and I could've played a more shield-based and throw-based game and I would've totally won.' And you're just like, 'Screw it, I'm gonna jump back in.' When that clicks, and you go, 'Yeah, here's what I could do,' it gives you that compulsion to [play again]."
Testers, he said, would stay late to keep playing the game, even when they didn't have to.
It also helps that Deformers has a quirky personality to its Forms, the blobby creatures that you play as. During our hands-on time, we saw a handful of characters, like Blob, Ragefish, Bucky, Turnip and Frogbug. They're a motley crew of slimes, bucktoothed birds, spherical fish and portly amphibians. They'll just kind of flop and bop around, both charmingly and amusingly. They're like living stress balls, the kind of thing you just want to grab and squeeze into deformed shapes.
Deformers, which is coming to PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One, will be published by GameTrust, the game-publishing arm of retailer GameStop. It's the second announced title from GameTrust — Insomniac's Song of the Deep being the first — but it's not clear when Deformers will be released. Ready At Dawn and GameTrust wouldn't commit to any kind of release date.
GameStop's Mark Stanley said they signed Ready At Dawn's next game because of its broad appeal, both from a gameplay and character perspective. There's a low barrier to entry, but there's a high skill ceiling. It doesn't hurt that Deformers is pretty well suited for demo kiosks at GameStop stores.
"The pace of it thrilled us," Stanley said. "If you asked me to whittle it down to one word, it's 'fun.' When you have something nobody's allergic to, that's just fantastic."
The man behind the core of Deformers is Andrea Pessino, Ready At Dawn's chief technology officer. He started working on the soft body physics simulation that powers Deformers — there's no animation in the game, it's 100 percent driven by physics — back in the '90s. His inspiration actually predates that; a German stop-motion surrealist short film, Balance, sparked the original idea.
"nobody's allergic to it"
"The first time i saw it it really left an impression on me," Pessino said. In the film, five pale creatures stand on a platform. They hang fishing rods over the edge of the platform and one eventually pulls up a heavy box, which upsets the balance of that platform. Things become violent and the creatures start pushing each other off the platform, until only one, now in a serious predicament, remains.
Pessino said he started experimenting with his physics-based game on the 3DO, some 25 years ago. The technology and the know-how just wasn't there, he said, and it was scrapped. But the project reemerged in 2014, when Pessino returned to some of his soft body physics research.
"By the time The Order, shipped we had a prototype," he said. "Then we spent about a year, organically looking for gameplay and refining that core combat loop."
In addition to exploring soft body physics simulation development, Deformers was also an opportunity for Ready At Dawn to pursue something new for the studio: multiplayer. Pessino said the developer has plans well beyond what we saw for the game, including more power-ups, characters, arenas and gameplay modes — though the studio wants to make sure the core gameplay is simple and balanced.
"There's going to be a lot more of everything," he said.