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Drifter is launching its superior co-op third-person shooter game on Steam today. You can also play a blockchain version at Gala Games.
It is a title in which you face superheroes who have been corrupted and turned into evil abominations. And it represents a huge milestone in the journey of Drifter, who has turned in different directions in the name of survival as an indie game creator. The game itself is quite interesting, but so are Drifter’s choices in deciding to make two different versions of the game.
Based in Jackson, Wyoming, and Seattle, Drifter’s game is available on Steam in early access for $25, though it will sell for 15% off its launch week. The game also has a blockchain version available through the publisher Gala Games.
Drifter CEO Ray Davis and co-founder Brian Murphy said in an interview with GamesBeat that the company originally focused on VR games like Robo Recall: Unplugged, Lies Beneath, and VR shooter Gunheart. Davis was proud of what the company accomplished in virtual reality, but it didn’t take off as expected. The company decided to go back to making PC games like Superior.
“In fact, we launched our latest virtual reality title published by Oculus. That was Lies Below. And we had a lot of fun with that game. And you know, we’re still huge fans of VR. But as I’m sure you know, the market was in a weird state,” Davis said. “So we decided to take a break from this and go back to our classic gaming roots.”
It took about 2.5 years to get to this point, and that’s a long time for a startup.
“Cooperative shooters on PC – that’s in our DNA, you know,” Davis said. “And we look at what happened to the superhero arc that became popular in the mainstream. Marvel has been very successful. This is the perfect backdrop for the kind of games we love to play, and more importantly, we love to create. Superheroes are evil and now you’re hunting them down and stealing their superpower.”
The company had been working on a rogue-like game at the time, similar to Hades, which was very inspiring.
“Hades was like a masterpiece,” Murphy said. “And we wanted to see if we could take some of the mechanics that they presented in such a polished way and apply a third-person shooter sensibility to them. We were also very excited to be back at the coop. At the time, we hadn’t seen rogue co-ops, which ends up being a really interesting challenge in itself.”
I asked why the team didn’t just make a game about hunting supervillains.
“We’ve seen a lot of superhero stories that follow exactly that storyline. And we were only interested in creating a world where superheroes got everything they wanted. And then that power starts turning them into monsters,” Murphy said. “And I think we just want to do something different. We love the genre, but we didn’t want to go and try to perfectly emulate what other people are doing in the genre. We want to do something that is uniquely ours.”
In that sense, BioShock was also an inspiration, where humans gain god-like powers and don’t really do anything to save humanity. Another inspiration was that of Brandon Sanderson Steel heart novels
And while that sounds dystopian, Davis said the game also has a goofy sense of humor.
The gameplay of Superior
You start each mission powerless and weaponless as you hunt superheroes, steal their powers and save the world. As you succeed in your quest, characters are upgraded with a branching skill tree, granting more powers and abilities to take on more dire heroes.
“Superior is non-stop, moment-to-moment action that challenges players to embark on a fest of superpowered survival,” Davis said. “Whether solo or in our favorite co-op mode, Superior offers players a ton of objectives, inventive power sets, unlocks, and abilities that result in endless gameplay options.”
Armed with a powerful arsenal and your teammates, you progress through a sprawling hyper-stylized superhero universe with multiple dynamically configured locations and missions. With hundreds of unique super powers, weapons, items and abilities to upgrade and choose from, Superior lets you create your very own Hero Hunter.
Superior has a ton of features, like customizable characters, which can be upgraded through gameplay. It has boost abilities, where each session players earn XP and unlock new abilities and overdrive abilities, such as satellite death rays or stealth mode.
You start your career with lower level weapons like pistols and a baseball bat. As you run and gun, you pick up more powerful equipment like grenade launchers, railguns, and plasma blasters. There are dozens of superpowers you can unlock, like throwing fireballs or burning enemies as you leap into the air in streams of flame. You can create layers of ice to speed up allies and deal frost damage via ice spikes.
You can use force fields that deal damage, create explosions, and knock enemies back. You can use Xeno, an alien goo that swarms to your aid in combat and allows you to shapeshift at will. You can use Volt to control electricity and transform your character into a being of pure energy.
In the full game, you face off against six unique ex-superhero bosses and an army of their minions. Each character unleashes their own brand of chaos with superpowers, from force fields to fireballs.
Players encounter new challenges and monstrosities on their quest as they fight for hours in dynamically changing environments. Mission objectives, routes, and adversaries are also dynamically reconfigured, with new content revealed as players progress through challenges.
The Blockchain Pivot
While still independent, the company is back on the path it came from, having developers who came from working on triple-A games like Gears of War, Doom, Halo, and Apex Legends.
The developers made some tough decisions in developing the new game. Davis said the studio chose not to take on venture capital, even during the heyday of recent years when venture capital money was finally available en masse to fund games. Then came the pandemic.
“This is our safe pandemic game,” Murphy said. “We started it right when the pandemic started. It has been our lifeboat.”
Instead of turning to venture capitalists, Davis said the company decided to embrace blockchain technology. Gala Games offered to finance the studio and the game in a publishing deal. But that meant Drifter had to make a version of the game for blockchain technology, as Gala Games is a publisher of non-fungible token (NFT) titles. Gala Games, started by Zynga CEO and co-founder Eric Schiermeyer, has been hugely successful with token sales and has been funding many projects.
“A lot of this was certainly complicated by the pandemic. But I think fundamentally, when we started Drifter almost seven years ago, we shared a passion for doing game development as well as emerging technologies. And looking at the virtual reality of time, we ask: ‘What can we do with this?’”
When Web3 came out, the team had a healthy dose of skepticism that persists even now. It was a controversial decision to use Web3, both internally and externally.
“I see so many parallels to when we started with virtual reality,” Davis said.
But Davis believes that underlying technologies allow gamers to own their games and sell them if they want to.
“We treat them as two completely different products, essentially,” Davis said. “There is the Web3 version through the Gala platform. And then what we’re mainly focusing on right now is the Steam release and ideally bringing it to other platforms very soon as well.”
Steam’s vision will not have a blockchain, which Steam would block anyway.
“We are giving players a choice,” Murphy said. “We are not trying to shove a business model down the throat of the players. We just want to make amazing games that resonate with people.”
The Drifter game debuting on Steam is a normal Web2 game, and the team wanted to make sure that people could play using normal payment systems instead of cryptocurrency and still be able to play without having to buy blockchain assets.
In that sense, it’s a normal game that Drifter created without having to give away much of his own capital in a venture capital deal. However, Drifter is also releasing a version where players can purchase NFTs. Funding from Gala Games allowed the company to grow to 36 people and survive while developing Superior. And it also allowed them to do the Web2 game and the Web3 game at the same time.
But unlike many other blockchain games, Drifter has something real to show for it. The game can be similar to Hades in its roguelike gameplay. It can take up to 15 hours to kill a boss, and the game has three bosses at the moment, Murphy said.
More bosses will be released after the game comes out, he said. Over time, the company hopes to add more modes, such as player vs. player.
Davis noted that the reaction to blockchain games is similar to that of generative AI. Some people think it’s cool and some people think it’s full of scams. But the team focused on the notion that players can decide to sell their game character if they choose to. Blockchain technology allows them to do that. Web3 players can purchase character cosmetics or character variants. But the team refrained from using NFT to allow players to “pay to win”.
“What we’re focused on is making sure we’re creating the most fun and playable game, and then engaging with audiences who are passionate about these different technologies,” Davis said. “And our early developments with the Gala community have been incredibly positive. You know, people are super excited. There is a strong desire for real content. This is a fun game to play with your friends. Let’s start with that.”
Will the Web3 version make more money? It’s silly, as last week’s news of a new crypto winter with the FTX debacle could add more frost to the blockchain gaming market. However, the Web3 version could be more attractive in Asian markets where blockchain gaming is more popular.
“I wouldn’t even dare try to predict how this is going to play out,” Murphy said. “We don’t want the business model to ever harm the gaming experience. We recognize that there are two very different audiences that we are trying to serve. We are paying close attention to what is happening around us.”
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