Home Guides How UGC extraction shooter Shrapnel is shaping up

How UGC extraction shooter Shrapnel is shaping up

How UGC extraction shooter Shrapnel is shaping up


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In the latest episode of his Blockchain Gaming World podcast, editor-in-chief Jon Jordan talks to Neon Machine head of studio Don Norbury about Shrapnel.

The PC-based extraction shooter is currently in early access testing with the next test due in May, which will enable the crafting of weapon skins. More generally, they talk about how Shrapnel plans to become a UGC platform, its plans to be released on consoles, and why Neon Machine is planning to release the underlying Avalanche-based Mercury devtools for other developers to use.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You can also listen to the podcast via the Fountain app and earn Bitcoin.

BlockchainGamer.biz: So, how have the STX playtests been going?

Don Norbury: It’s been great. It’s been an excellent proof of our thesis that this is how we should be doing it, especially for a multiplayer game. Overall, we had the expected couple of speed bumps we had to navigate. But our team rallied into action, our live ops worked, our response plans worked and you kind of iron those things out little by little. And it’s trending in the direction it should, which is it gets smoother and smoother.

Our platform team uses the term boring. They want everything to be delightfully boring when it comes to launching stuff. So we’re trending more in the boring direction when it comes to the launches.

Currently STX is just one map, right?

Yes. It’s one map. Actually what people can play right now is one sixth of the space. If you’re in the garden area, you can see it very distinctly. There’s kind of a wall that blocks you off from the rest of the city. So there’s a lot of content there. But it hasn’t been as rigorously tested. You can get stuck in stuff and fall through yada yada. 

We’re arting up the area that we are allowing people to play in, and then we’ll start opening different sections of the city. Right now it’s like 12 or 14 people in a session. Our ultimate goal will end up being around 40. At that scale, it will take a little longer for people to have their first encounter, but that’s one of the reasons we’re doing it this way. We’ll open up another section, play with the number of spawns, the number of players in the session, see how it feels.

What feedback are you getting?

When players complete a STX, there’s a survey at the end. We get a lot of useful subjective and like data-driven … the ones that are more like multiple choice metrics. We can see trends over time. But even in the subjective pieces, I’d say one of the spiciest topics is whether we should have some version of a map, like a mini map. It’s to accelerate that mastery curve. 

Our creative director had his initial stake in the sand, stance against it. But he’s an open -minded person. He recognizes you never know until you play it, right? And then you have to have nothing precious. You’re willing to destroy it and recreate it. It’s whatever’s in service to the most amount of fun. 

What’s the plan for the next test?

STX3, right now it’s probably around mid -May when it’ll land. That will introduce fragments that you collect that are used to craft your own skins. So we have a crafting system that’s all blockchain-backed. Again, we’re flexing our game item template part of the actual blockchain backend.

So we have composables, craftables, burnables, all of these different capabilities that the backend can do. We’re like let’s do the craftable one and put it through its paces, make sure it stands up under scale and all that fun stuff. So yeah, you pick up these fragments and for each skin, you need three fragments and they come in different rarities. So there’s one that’s very rare. The other two might be a little more common.

And then we have a wild card system so you can buy wild cards. So if you’re like trying to grind for a particular skin and you just can’t get like that third one, then you can use a wild card. At the same time the marketplace will also support selling so people will be buying and selling fragments in the open market. So you might be able to just buy the third one that you can’t find instead of a wild card as well. It’s sort of how we’re just like incrementally adding stuff that people can collect and trade and then kind of craft their own stuff as well.

You already have some crafting live, right?

We already have insignias live. We’re not pushing them right now, but we have a decent amount of very crafty community members who have been flexing that system to its limits. What we’ll be introducing either in this next release or the next one is that those insignias have a big representation in the game. 

We’re talking right now even about possibly a way that affixes, like modifiers, can be added to insignias as well, so it creates a situation where it’s not a question if you’re going to have one equipped on your weapon. You’re always going to have this aesthetic treatment, and then you have the ability to tailor your own custom character, like the way you play, based on how you tune it with a modifier. It’s starting that player customization, player style, using the UGC as well. So it’s not just aesthetic flavor. It also can be represented with the way you play.

And then there’s the map editor in future too?

Yeah, and it’s complicated. We’ve been in development on our map tool for a long time. It’s in the actual client, so it’s not a separate editor that you download, sort of like Halo Forge in that regard. Also the way you snap widgets together is similar. It’s not Unreal Editor that we’re giving you. It’s in the actual client. We built our own simplified UI because making good maps is hard even when you’re just snapping things together. Of course, in the full creative expression, it’s really hard because things don’t fit. And it’s just too malleable for a normal user who’s not a game dev and isn’t used to slamming their head against it for weeks at a time to try and get it just the way you want it. 

And the tool set keeps growing all the time. We haven’t gotten to the point yet where we’ve pulled the Tokyo assets that we have right now. It has its own prefab set that we’ve been working with just to make sure we get the toolset fleshed out. Because as you can imagine, there’s a lot of churn when you’re building a map in terms of what those assets are and how they’re getting fine tuned. 

We want it to be in a reasonably concrete place and then pull them in, fine tune that and it’ll kind of be almost the last step before we start pulling in. We’ll do the same thing that we did with the insignia tool, which is get early community members in. We have a whitelisting entitlement feature flag system where we can snap it open for them. So everybody has it, but they’re the only people who can use it. And they’ll be able to play with it and give us feedback. And once we kind of start expanding that way, then it’ll become available for the general public.

That sounds like it’s a way off?

I think we want to do that first phase probably in Q4 this year. I’ve been making games for 20 years, so like gut check, as opposed to a production schedule, right? But if I had to put my finger on it, it would probably be beginning to mid Q4 is when we’ll start having the community build maps and get feedback.

How hard is it to keep the community engaged over such a long period?

The game itself is just one expression, which right now runs for three eight hour games. That gets concurrency, it gets global focus to it. Otherwise, it can be hard to find a match. But actually for STX 3, we’re thinking instead of it being eight hours of time, we’re going to do it rolling,so it’ll be three or four days, 24 hours a day. 

To address your original question though, things like the marketplace and crafting and being able to customize stuff bridge the gap in between the playtests. Of course, we’ll be talking about what’s coming and getting people excited in terms of the actual game releases and a lot of the feature set is still pivoting around … your ability to use stuff in the game is important for the Shrapnel ecosystem. Even with us building other ways that you can express it and use it outside of the game client itself, it’s still the game client. That’s gonna be the ultimate expression.

So it’s kind of like building a store. There are these pieces you can get, you can customize this, you can play with these new tools. and then when the new set of missions launches and that playtime comes, you can grab the client and see the fruits of your labor in the actual game.

Do you have any idea whether the people playing Shrapnel are web3 gamers or just gamers?

It’s definitely an overlap of crypto person and gamer person. If we have people who don’t know anything about crypto, that would surprise me at this point. We haven’t really expended any marketing effort to attract that type of cohort yet. We have a partnership with Myth as a streamer (2 million X followers). We have a micro influencer strategy as well, so we have one big major streamer and then hundreds of micro streamers. That’s the way we’re going to approach it. It’s how we see game marketing moving forward but we haven’t really in earnest turned much of that on. 

We’ve had a couple little things with Myth here and there. He came to like GDC and Consensys to play the game, but nothing in earnest. The game needs to get to a slightly more mature point, I think: towards the end of this year, we’ll probably turn that on a lot heavier. Ultimately, the paywall stops a lot of people from an early access perspective. Once we start to crossfade, the paywall will still prevent a lot of people from walking in and playing. But once that veil gets lifted, then it’s fair game. And then we’re in your classic, the largest funnel we can possibly have, classic user acquisition strategy, that we’re very familiar with from web2 gaming.

How does that work given that you’re a PC shooter but you can’t be on Steam?

Actually, we’re talking right now about that. A lot of us come from Xbox as well. I was there for six years, so we’re very well connected to Redmond. It’s 20 minutes away from the studio. There are earnest discussions happening about being both on console as well as Steam from a product shape.

So you might join Off The Grid on Xbox?

As far as I know, what they have blockchain-wise is primarily their mobile app and wallet provisioning. If you don’t have heavy blockchain integration into the intrinsic economy and gameplay and progression, then it’s a lot easier. For us, it’s a lot harder because it is intertwined with a lot of stuff. The whole point is to have it frictionless where players are using it and they don’t even know. We do clever things around that from a regulatory and compliance perspective. Basically we can do things in terms of when people own things instead of when they use them. 

As an example, if you want to sell something, you need to have custody of it, right? But up until that point, you’re using it. If you want to transfer it out of the ecosystem, you need to take custody of it. So we built our infrastructure with the ability to be very careful with these things. This is the only reason we can have a conversation and start planning what the console release would look like.

Do you think game developers are becoming more open about blockchain?

GDC represents this great repeating marker every year. When we went to GDC before we ever had a playable, the sentiment wasn’t outright hostile. For game devs, it wasn’t like it is among consumers and the Kotakus of the world. But it was a kind of constrained curiosity. People knew it was a thing, wanted to know how it worked, what we were thinking about X, Y, or Z. 

Last year (2023), we did a playable that we called our multiplayer experiment. We did demos over the course of the entire week and during that experience, the questions were very different already. The questions went from Why are you doing blockchain? How does this work? So how are you going to prevent cheating? It was very much the questions we typically get asked. Why are you doing this with the camera, the reload animations yada yada? It was changing a little bit. 

This year, everybody wanted to know how we were doing what we were doing. Why did you choose Avalanche subnets? How does your infrastructure work? And it was nonstop. I had a crowd of people the entire time we were there who just wanted to talk about how we’re doing, what we’re doing, what we’re doing in the future. 

So I would say, I don’t know how far the needle has swung in the public sentiment perspective, but in the game dev world, it’s very much okay. They’re now on the same page that I was two years ago, which is it’s not if, it’s when. And they’re feeling that ‘when’ is sooner than they probably expected and feel like they’re getting left behind. 

Avalanche had a big stand at GDC promoting Shrapnel and Off The Grid etc.

Yeah. We have a great relationship with Avalanche. I did a panel with MapleStory Universe and Ed Chang, who is the head of gaming for Avalabs. Aside from the technical prowess, as it applies to what we want to do for Shrapnel and for our Mercury platform, it allows us to do what game devs expect in terms of transaction time and scalability and having gasless environments so you can focus on the experience instead of this changing costs over time based on popularity. If a game has to be designed with those as a constraint, it’s going to have a very specific shape.

But stuff never works perfectly. So having Avalanche as a great partner along the way is critical. Probably the most important part is that they’re a good partner because nothing ever really works the way you expect it to and you’ve got to get through it. You have to have responsive people who are open-minded and you’ve going to come up with good solutions to stuff. They’ve been absolutely fantastic every step of the way.

So what’s next?

The marketplace is here. People can make their own call signs and insignias. The next playable will have the big crafting beat in it, as well as the marketplace expanded capabilities to sell the stuff that you have. And we’re also going to be rolling out a fiat onramp at the same time. 

Our team will also be all over the world. We’re trying to get more players in a wider variety of geographics right now. We’re very US and Brazil, South American heavy. Lots of players from Vietnam as well. So we have portions of our team that will be in Dubai in a couple of weeks and then in Bangkok and for the Southeast Asia Blockchain Week. We’ll be continuing that process and meeting people all over the world who might not know about Shrapnel, just trying to try to make it a more global household name.

It’s interesting as a PC game you’re getting a lot of players from Brazil, as that’s more associated with mobile?

We were actually surprised. This came from telemetry during the STX sessions. We were surprised to see the number of people that we had playing from Brazil. It actually created a situation with our matchmaking where, because it’s trying to resolve quality of service for everyone, and we had a ton of people in the US and a ton of people in Brazil, we were getting into these situations where they’re playing together and it’s trying to figure out which data center to use, and it’s not the best one. 

We have around 120 ,000 accounts now and I think half of them, or maybe a little over half of them, are people who are playable in early access. So it’s a pretty healthy number of people. We’ve never had a concurrency issue. People are getting into matches in 30 seconds or less. Typically, I think our average time is like 10 seconds to get into a match. So it’s getting to a point where we have enough players and enough data to start digging into it, understanding our customers and then try and cater to them better and better.

Find out more about Shrapnel via its website. Anyone who buys an early access will be able to play STX.



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