Nick Clifford is a long-time video game industry veteran. Before taking on his current role as Director of Marketing at Phoenix Labs, he spent years at Electronic Arts, working on such franchises as Command and Conquer, Medal of Honor, and the Mass Effect trilogy. From there, he moved on to Riot Games to work on player relations for League of Legends, before the founders of Phoenix Labs contacted him to help with the development and launch of Dauntless.
With the dust still settling from Dauntless’ history-making cross-play launch, Mr. Clifford was kind enough to join PlayStation Universe for a long, free-wheeling chat about the history of Dauntless, the game’s record-setting launch, and Phoenix Labs’ plans for the future. The following is edited slightly for clarity.
The Early Days Of Phoenix Labs And The Announcement of Dauntless
PSU: You were at Phoenix Labs for the announcement of Dauntless, correct?
NC: Yes, that was my baby and my brainchild. I joined Phoenix Labs right around when the company was still maybe 10 to 15 people. We had the concept for Dauntless in our hands at that point.
And really, why Jesse [Houston], Sean [Bender] and Robin [Mayne] – the cofounders of Phoenix Labs – picked up the phone was the fact that we had all worked together for several years; whether it was at BioWare, EA, or Riot Games.
The concept of the game was there, we had our first playable demo version of the game, and we were ready to share it with the industry. And it’s been kind of a wild, exciting, fun journey since then.
PSU: Dauntless is well-known in the gaming industry, receiving a lot of attention very quickly after the game’s initial announcement. Was the response from the community intimidating? Invigorating?
NC: The community response definitely inspired us. We announced Dauntless at the Video Game Awards with Geoff Keighley a couple of years back. One of the things that was super important to us was that, while many of us have worked in the industry for a very long time, we were a new studio bringing a new IP – and really, a new genre of PVE game – to the free-to-play and online gaming space. So it was critical to us that we’ve proved the promise early.
So right after we announced the game in December, we brought it to Pax South in San Antonio for the first hands-on reveal with the community and with the industry. And shortly thereafter we went to Pax East. Right around that time we did our first closed technical alpha – an invite-only play test with the community and took the game outside the four walls of the studio.
There were definitely some moments of, “Oh God, do we push the button? Do we open up the servers for players to come in and check out Dauntless?”
But really, the community has been very supportive, very feedback-driven, very collaborative. We’ve tried to cultivate that collaborative development culture within the community since day one. Being an online service-based game, we are quite literally serving players every day. So we treat it as a performance art where we vibe off of our audience, and the audience helps us make the performance better and create the best possible product that we can.
The Decision To Release – And Why Phoenix Labs Committed To Cross-Play
PSU: When the decision was made to come out of Beta and release on PC, Xbox and PlayStation simultaneously, did anybody freak out about the monumental task that was involved?
NC: We always knew that we wanted to come to console. But being a fixed resource studio, at the time we decided to do console, we were maybe 50 or 60 people [strong]. We’re now closer to 90, which is where we’re going to settle for now. But resources and allocations were a reality.
As soon as we launched our PC open beta around May of last year, console work was the next most important thing for us. We were thinking, “Okay, we got the PC beta out there, it’s open access. People on PC can play it.” We were already iterating on feedback from the community. So the next big effort for us was to take this evolving product and bring it to console.
The task was definitely monumental. But from day one, Dauntless always worked on a controller. Our lead combat designer plays on controller. As soon as we got Dauntless running, basically we plugged in a controller to make sure that it worked and we started designing the game with that intent in mind.
From a gameplay perspective, I think we’ve always thought about the couch experience. We definitely had to do some work around UIs, and menus, and things like interfaces that we had built for a mouse click versus scrolling on a controller. And then, obviously, there’s optimization work to get it not only working on console but also like the PlayStation Pro and the Xbox One X.
It was a lot of work. But the cool thing about that was that, at the same time we were doing console work, we were also trying to drive down our PC requirements. Dauntless can be a very pretty looking game, but it can also be a bit of a system hog if you let it.
We have hardware surveys, and we have players from all across the world playing. Brazil is a huge region for us. We can’t really expect everyone to have an RTX card inside their PC. Honestly, a lot of people play on things like Intel-integrated and much older chipsets, and we want to support those people. So, a lot of the work that we did for console, we were able to pipe back into the PC version to help optimize the experience for all players across the board.
PSU: Dauntless is the very first game ever to release with cross-play enabled between multiple consoles and PC, correct?
NC: That is correct. We aren’t the first game to support it; obviously Fortnite was the first one. [But] we are the first game to launch with it. We’re pretty flattered and humbled by it actually.
As we identified that we wanted to come to console, the recurring theme of bringing players together really stood out to us – at a time when we’re trying to bring the game to as many platforms as possible, at a time when we’re trying to make it available worldwide by spinning up local servers and adding additional languages.
It also became apparent that we wanted to really deliver on that promise by allowing players to play together across all platforms. Our studio website [has text] about bringing people together through shared multiplayer experiences. I don’t know if we can make that promise if we don’t take big swings like a launch with cross-play, and bringing the game to different regions in different languages. So playing on PC then going home and picking up right where you left off on your console was super critical to us.
Three Platforms Means A LOT Of New Players
PSU: Phoenix Labs announced that you passed the 10 million player mark really quickly. You had this huge influx of players right out of the gate. In retrospect, were there things that you didn’t anticipate? Were are you ready for that amount of players all at once?
NC: I think we were ready for a big influx of players. When we launched our PC open Beta last year (just candidly speaking) we thought we were prepared, but we learned a lot in the first couple of days – in actuality, the first couple of weeks – about how to scale a live service game.
I’m sure you saw that in the first couple of days of launch we had a login queue. It took players a while to get into the game just because we had to throttle the load, not only on our servers, but across like all of our services. So with things like APIs, logins, matchmaking, there’s basically a bunch of workers running around in the background, making sure that players can play the game. That got hit pretty hard.
Those types of problems are ones that we did a lot of stress testing on. We fired up swarm testing to simulate what hundreds of thousands of players do to our game. But ultimately those are just simulations. Those are just tests, and until you have real players hitting your services in a real way, it’s really hard to anticipate how things will unfold, especially over the course of days and even weeks.
We discovered opportunities to improve our services in week two, week three, just because we needed that prolonged exposure at that scale to teach us those lessons. I think we were prepared in so much that we knew a lot of players were coming into the game. I am completely blown away that we hit that 10 million number so quickly, but it’s been awesome.
I sound like I’m standing on my soapbox at this point, but it’s been an awesome rocket ship, and it’s super inspirational for everyone here to see all these new players show up, all the feedback they’ve given us, and all the positive response from it.
PSU: Those first few days after release, while you guys are adding more servers and people are screaming on Twitter that they couldn’t play the game, what was the mood like around the office?
NC: Everyone was inspired and focused. We built out what we call the war room here at the studio. It’s in kind of like a separate quiet space. It looks kind of like a NASA control room, or like the Control Center from 24. We had about eight to 10 stations set up, maybe half a dozen monitors set up literally to the second – checking our game health to let us to give us like eyeballs on any early indications that something might be happening.
When you open the flood gates in the dam, the water comes crashing through the city. It can feel stressful at times, but everyone here at the studio is very player-focused. Everything we do is through the lens of ‘Is this what’s best for the player? Is this good for players?’ So when the players showed up, everyone was inspired to answer the rallying call. Everyone was excited to hop into the war room and solve these problems as quickly as possible because it was what’s best for the players.
Free Goodies For Dauntless Through Twitch Prime
PSU: I was delighted when I discovered the Twitch Prime promotion on Amazon. It just seemed like such perfect timing. The game came out, the dust settles a little bit and then bang: here’s some free stuff to bring you back into Dauntless. How far in advance did you guys have that promotion planned out?
NC: We’ve been working with Twitch for several years now, whether it’s on the streaming front or the Twitch integration front. We started talking about lining up our Twitch Prime promotion from the beginning of the year.
The team at Twitch was super awesome. I gave them visibility on ‘Hey, we’re coming to console. These are our dates. I would love to line this up around console so that it’s one big push while Dauntless is in the spotlight in the industry.’ And they were super excited to be a part of it.
PSU: The promotion is going to go throughout the summer months, correct?
NC: It’s basically every month starting with June for four months.
PSU: Can fans expect to receive similar items or surprises tucked away in there? Can you talk about the content at all?
NC: We’ve basically got an exclusive armor set for Twitch Prime and every month you’ll get a new piece of that armor set. So by the fourth month you’ll have a complete armor set with all four pieces in it. And then a whole host of cool goodies like the Twitch purple dye, some consumables here and there, and an exclusive in-game title for your slayer as well. There’s goodies sprinkled throughout each pack.
Why You Won’t Find Loot Boxes In Dauntless – And A Look At The Evolution Of Dauntless’ Gameplay
PSU: In the early betas there were some gameplay ideas that are no longer in the game. For example, players used to be able to hunt smaller animals for crafting materials. Were there other big concepts that kind got removed from the game or that never actually made it into the game?
NC: Yeah, definitely. You’re totally correct to call out the critters on the island. The reason why we pulled them out at the time was, we really liked the idea of flushing out the island experience – call it the ‘non-encounter’ portion of exploring the island.
But I think the design wasn’t fully realized yet. We were using it as a mechanism to add things like crafting and gathering on the island. The feedback from the players was that it felt a little tacked-on, like it’s something I have to do, not something that I’m excited to do. So what we’re doing now is revisiting the ‘critter experience’.
We’re revisiting what that experience could feel like through the lens of the behemoth encounters, through the lens of this new Trials Mode that’ll be coming with the next season. We’re designing it specifically so that it can be a part of the island exploration experience from the ground up versus like, ‘Hey, we made goats’. Let’s put them on the islands.
Something else that we implemented early on that we took out – and we’ve decided to leave out – was loot boxes. When we first went into closed Beta a couple of years back, we turned our in-game store online and you could purchase items. A lot of us have come from a free-to-play background. At the time it made the most sense to us to implement this loot box system into our in-game store. So many other games were doing it. We had quite literally done it in other games like League [of Legends].
Response from our community very early on was that it felt pretty gnarly to spend real money for a chance at a thing. Like “I’m going to buy the emote loot box and hope I get the ‘death metal’ emote and oh, I got the ‘high five’ emote.”.
Fortunately our community was very honest, very open with their feedback; ahead of the industry controversy that came around Battlefront and a couple of other games around that time. So, we ripped loot boxes out and replaced them with a more bespoke store model where if you want the emote you can buy the emote; if you want the armor, you can buy the armor.
That further evolved into our Hunt Pass or our seasonal content that’s in the game you see today. Some other things came up in early feedback and early closed beta days. We’ve revamped the progression in Dauntless a couple times now – I’d say maybe two or three times – fairly substantially. That’s all based on player feedback and clear data around how players play through the game.
The first major overhaul was in closed beta and, more recently, when we launched on console, we revamped the entire quest structure. We added the Mastery System to the game to give players a sense of accomplishment and achievement regardless of what they’re doing. That was all based on player feedback; players saying “Hey, I don’t really want to hunt Moonreaver Shrike for the 30th time by myself just to craft this axe.” We wanted to smooth out how players not only play through the game, but also the matchmaking; how to find other players of similar skill and similar interests in the game.
I’ll close out with this last example. Ranged combat was something that from day one we were like, ‘Eh, we’re not really going to go near that.’ We want Dauntless to be all about high fidelity melee combat. You’re going to be right in the behemoth’s face, 24/7.’
And the community said, ‘Yeah, cool, but where’s ranged combat?’
I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. It’s swords, axes, hammers. Melee is your bread and butter.’ And the community continually challenged us, like ‘Come on. This is what we’ve wanted. We’re super hungry for this. So the war pike – our fifth weapon, which came in closed Beta – was our first experiment with what a hybrid melee-ranged weapon could be. And we really liked it. The community really liked it.
We’re continuing to evolve on it, but that set us up with a lot of teachings and a lot of feedback around the Ostian Repeaters, which we added in Fall of last year. And that’s our first purely ranged weapon.
But still, we didn’t want with someone hanging out on the periphery, a hundred yards away from the behemoth, just mindlessly firing arrows at it. Dauntless is a game about skill, about strategy, about decision making. So even with the Repeaters, we designed them in a way that the player has to weave in and out of range with the behemoth to really maximize their efficacy and their damage against the behemoths. So, it’s a really good example of the community challenging our assumptions and helping us create something that I think otherwise we would not have on our own.
PSU: Yeah. I love the repeaters. There are a lot of things about the game that I’m still discovering. I opened up heroic patrols recently, and these guys were in there shooting these beams of light that I’d never seen before. They were just chewing through the behemoths, and I thought, “Oh man, there’s this whole other side to this game that I haven’t even seen yet.”
NC: You know, that’s what we aspire to create through the progression. With this next expansion that we’re bringing in July, we really want to challenge the players’ assumptions of what the game is and what encounters can be; really challenge their strategies.
That’s really what we want. We want to provide a really engaging, thought-provoking experience. And, when you’ve mastered the regular patrols and regular encounters, here are the dire behemoths. They have new attacks, they’re stronger, they’re more difficult. They kind of flip your assumptions of the encounter on its head. And once you’ve got that mastered, okay, here’s the heroic behemoths. Here’s the deep end of the court. You gotta be max gear score, really buttoned up, coordinate with your team.
And even then, I think it was late last year, we added the concept of exotic gear to the game. I think the weapon you’re referring to is the God Hand, which is an exotic weapon. And we’ve got a couple scattered throughout the game. And once you’re in the deep end of the pool, these are the highly coveted rewards that all the players are after right now.
A Discussion About Dauntless’ Future – And Phoenix Labs’ Massive Roadmap
PSU: The current Hunt Pass activity that has players gathering flags scattered around Ramsgate is a nice daily distraction. Are there any plans to expand or add additional activities in Ramsgate?
NC: Yes, there are multiple plans in place for the city experience. We definitely want to expand the ways that players can earn their Hunt Pass experience; collecting the flags, getting break parts, doing your weeklies are the primary ways of doing it today. But in the future, we definitely want to expand that more, so there are new ways for players to engage with the game.
We’re always looking to evolve Ramsgate as the game evolves as well. For example, last year when the Repeaters arrived in the game, they were brought in by this new faction called the Ostians, bringing this heavy military, more tech-focused faction into the game.
And they quite literally arrived by crashing their airship into the city after it was attacked by this new behemoth. That came complete with [us] revamping the city. We made a new area for them. The narrative of the city was now that the Ostians quite literally arrived on your doorstep. And we left the city that way for several months.
Only recently have we expanded on their narrative in the city. We patched up the airship an there’s no longer a smoking crater in the middle of Ramsgate. Even then, with the arrival of each Hunt Pass season, each comes with its own seasonal overhaul of the city. Like right now, everything looks like cherry blossoms and very Ninja-inspired. The season before this was a kind of this Conan the Barbarian-inspired arid, barbarian desert vibe. So the city’s always evolving from an aesthetic standpoint, but also, as we add new gameplay mechanics, new vendors arrive in the city as well.
PSU: Speaking of new gameplay mechanics, I was curious about the new Trials battles that have been announced on your roadmap. It sounds as though players will battle behemoths with remixed powers, with leaderboards in place to record performance. Are those going to be solo battles? Or are they still going to be teams of four?
NC: All of the above. I usually refer to Trials Mode as our tower-of-power mode, or our ‘arcade mode’. But really it sits alongside the core progression of the game. It comes complete with, again, a brand-new faction that explains the narrative of how this new island came to be and why it exists in the world.
Trials Mode is meant to challenge players’ understanding of an encounter, and it includes several different modifiers. We were just checking out what it would look like if Embermane [a fire-based behemoth] tapped into the electric shock lightning element, borrowing certain abilities and attacks from other behemoths.
So, if you can imagine trying to fight Embermane while thunder clouds are coming down upon you, and Nayzaga’s lightning gates are showing up all over the place, these are really challenging end-game encounters that come complete with our own rewards in addition to leaderboards.
There’s going to be an opportunity to do Trials hunts through matchmaking, or through pre-made groups, or solo if you want. I think solo is going to be really, really challenging, but we’ll have our matchmaking queues and grouping and all of that set up for Trials.
PSU: The rewards for Trials are going to be steel and gilded Marks, which are new currency types. And there’s going to be a specific shop set up to buy goodies with these new currencies. Are those currencies going to only be earned through Trials or will they be available as microtransactions?
NC: I believe the new currency is only earnable. We want people who complete the Trials and who are best at Trials to be able to rep their skills back to their social circles and back to the city. So it’s super important to us that, if you are the top person on the leaderboard, you earned it and you didn’t buy your way up to it.
PSU: I saw on the roadmap that you are also adding new cosmetic slots, the example being halos and wings. Will cosmetics for these slots be available to purchase in the Trials shop? Are players going to be able to earn cool things for those slots through Trials?
NC: I know that we are planning to do both progression-earned quest items and paid cosmetics for those slots. I don’t know if we know whether that’s going to be earned through Trials, earned through the Hunt Pass, or paid through the Trials store or through the in-game store. We’re not sure yet where that lives exactly. But as we open up a new cosmetic slot, what we effectively have is a new store offering. We want to make sure that it’s not locked behind only one specific way to get it. We want players – whether they’re free-to-play players who haven’t bought a thing or whether they’re players who want to buy things – to get access to content for that slot.
PSU: The roadmap also calls out revamping for two similar owl-bear behemoths, the Shrike and the Skraev. In what way will these changes make these two distinct from each other?
NC: Those two encounters are fairly similar. These two behemoths were developed fairly early on, and we wanted to push the encounters further apart. The first thing is we’re adding the Winterhorn Skraev to the game. He’s the dire version of Skraev and comes complete with a ton of new attacks. Super challenging. We debuted him at E3 last week, got our butts kicked on screen. He’s in the next patch, which is scheduled for early July.
But as we reintroduce this encounter, it gave us the opportunity to revisit the base Skraev encounter as well, and help push it further from the Shrike encounter. Now there will be different skills that you need to learn. He asks different questions of the player than Shrike does.
As we did that, we also wanted to revisit the visuals for both of what we call the owl-bears. They are going to come complete with like a new visual pass on them. They look pretty stunning, in my opinion. We’re super excited to get them into players’ hands and hear what they think.
As a live game, we get to hear feedback from the players and we can still look into the game in real time. And if something’s not working out or if we want to double down on something and make it better, all it takes is a couple of patches to get it there.
Will Dauntless Come To PlayStation 5 (Or Any Other Next-Gen Systems)?
PSU: With the recent Switch and mobile announcements, Dauntless is moving closer to the vision of “One Dauntless”. Does Phoenix Labs have any plans for the next generation of consoles such as PS5?
NC: We know as much about the next generation of consoles as the rest of the industry does coming out of E3, for obvious reasons. Both Microsoft and Sony are playing it pretty close to the vest because they want to keep their secrets in there. Surprises or moments of delight for players.
That said, we are ravenous for the latest hardware, whether that’s a new RTX video card or a new console from Microsoft. We don’t have any concrete plans just because it’s so super fresh and we know so little about it. But I can tell you – philosophically, as a studio – when a new platform comes to market, absolutely yes, 100%. We want to be a part of it because, again, we want to continue to expand our “One Dauntless” vision, where Dauntless is everywhere and accessible and cross-platform-cross-everything, for sure.
PSU: Have you guys looked at Stadia?
NC: Again, we kind of know about as much as the rest of the industry does. We had some really good talks with Google early on. We’re not quite sure – being an online game – latency and online latency is a really interesting problem to solve. I think many of us here believe that if anyone is going to deliver on cloud-based gaming, I think it could be Google.
We don’t have any concrete plans for it. That’s not from a lack of confidence or anything like that. It’s just, again, so fresh that we haven’t really had a chance to unpack it yet and figure out how it fits into our product strategy. But, yeah, we’re already talking with Google. We’d love to hear more about it and figure out how we can make it work.
The Future For Phoenix Games
PSU: Phoenix Labs has been synonymous with Dauntless for several years. Releasing a AAA, online, cross-play title that has been a huge success, Phoenix is now a proven commodity. Is Phoenix Labs looking to produce other games?
NC: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely. It took us about three years of development to bring Dauntless to market – market in this case being open Beta. We definitely want to be a multi-game studio. We don’t want to hit that sophomore slump. And we do recognize that if we want a game to come out in a timely fashion, the best time to plant that tree is yesterday.
We don’t have any announcements around what it is or even what genre it’s going to be in. But we have already started internal thoughts and internal plans. Thinking ‘if we want to do this thing, when do we do it? Who do we do it with? How do we do it?’ Dauntless is 100% the priority for us as a studio right now. But we are kind of starting the early think tank/creative development phases of what a game two could be at this point.
Geeking Out Over Dauntless
PSU: Just for fun, to wrap things up, do you personally play Dauntless?
NC: Oh yeah. I’ve been playing it since my job interview with Jesse and Sean and everyone, they had me play the first playable behemoth, which was Drask at the time, and give feedback on him; and I’ve been playing it ever since. I’m kind of roughly where you’re at. I just unlocked the Heroic tier. My gear is a little under level for it, but I’ve been powering through this season’s Hunt Pass because I love Ninjas. I’ve been playing it kinda nonstop since we launched.
PSU: What’s your weapon?
NC: I have always been a big axe main. It was the second weapon we added after the sword. I always have the power fantasy of being like a big burly tank. I might only hit the behemoths a couple times, but when I do, I like to see those big numbers. So I really love the axe. I really like the war pike. And I’m coming around to the repeaters as well. I’ve been using them a lot lately.
PSU: There’s something about the repeaters, how customizable they are. There are so many different combos you can put together. I’m just starting to scratch the surface of mixing and matching the barrels with the elements.
NC: We’re looking to take a lot of the learnings from building the modular aspect of the repeaters and figuring out ways that we can apply them to other aspects of the game as well. That’s not to say that all the weapons in the game will become modular one day, but it does introduce some really cool concepts for future weapons and maybe revisiting crafting previous weapons as well.
PSU: Who is your favorite behemoth?
NC: I have the unpopular vote. My favorite is Drask. Not because he’s the first behemoth we ever made, but because I think he is one of the earliest behemoths in the game that is just a very hard skill check.
Can you dodge through attacks? Can you avoid his tails? We get a lot of feedback that he is too hard for where he is in the progression or, you know, he doesn’t telegraph his attacks well enough, and I think some of that feedback is super valid. But, at the end of the day, I think he’s just the first real challenging encounter that you can’t just like button mash your way through.
I’ve got some other behemoths that I’m a big fan of. I really like Nayzaga – not because again, he’s super challenging – but I just like that alligator look. I like that raid boss feel when all the lightning totems go down, and it’s like, “Okay, I’m on the small totems. Jordan, you’re on the big totem and Quintin, you’ve got to reflect the big ball back to the big totem on the stand”. I think he asks players to coordinate in really interesting, exciting ways. And I dig on that very much.
PSU: Which behemoth drives you crazy? What’s the hardest one? Which one’s your least favorite?
NC: I think the one that I struggle with the most is probably Kharabak, not because I think he’s poorly designed. But I think this is probably why I picked up the repeaters, because as an axe player, Kharabak is just super vicious. If you can get him stunned, you’re great, but landing that first hit with the axe against him is super challenging. And also, you never have stamina with the axe and I’m always bleeding when I’m fighting Kharabak. So I just feel like I’m constantly taking damage. I’d say he is definitely my arch nemesis.
PlayStation Universe would like to sincerely thank Nick Clifford, Andy Burt, and the rest of the crew at Phoenix Labs for their kind participation in this article. Dauntless is available to play for free on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.