Interview With the Creators of ‘Spellbreak,’ the Magical Battle Royale Game

Free-to-play Battle Royale Spellbreak has amassed a large audience since its release in September 2020. Since then, it has received tremendous support from its developer Proletariat, and it has major plans for the game's future. But behind the scenes, how does a Battle Royale game like this come to be? What are some of the innerworkings of the game's design that its developers are looking to iterate upon? How has the past year impacted its development? All that and more is discussed in our interview with the developers of Spellbreak below.

Interview with the Creators of Spellbreak, the Magical Battle Royale Game

Joseph Yaden (JY): Would it be possible for Spellbreak to get a Platinum trophy patch on PS4?

This is the first time anyone has ever asked about this! In all honesty, it’s not a thing we’ve given a lot of thought to, but in all fairness, if we added a Platinum trophy it would need to be far more difficult than our gold trophy. Let me think about this, but we generally want to make sure people truly earn a platinum trophy in our game, and don’t just talk about how easy it is to get to one in Spellbreak. We have a reputation to uphold!

(JY): Did Proletariat think the Battle Royale genre would still be popular in 2020? Fortunately, the game has amassed an audience but that isn’t always the case when publishers try to capitalize on a trend.

We all firmly believe that Battle Royale is a mode that is here to stay. It has a lot of qualities that simply allow players of different skill levels to group together and play without worrying too much about the pitfalls of other game modes, where you’re either waiting to lose, or really don’t want to group with people not on your skill level. With that said, we really wanted to focus on adding a new feeling to our game, so that its moment-to-moment combat felt different than any other game on the market today.

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(JY): What are some of the hurdles of upgrading a current-gen game to next-gen. Of course, you don’t just hit the “upgrade to PS5 button.” 

Upgrading to the next-gen is always a bit difficult. While the hardware is generally more powerful, there are normally a lot of new features and integrations you need to be able to take advantage of in order for the overall game to feel like it's actually part of the next generation of gaming. Figuring out how to take advantage of those features, while ensuring that they play well with the other inner workings of your game’s systems is actually where the big challenges come from. This is often made even more difficult due to having fewer titles that use the new hardware, so you have even fewer people to talk with/titles to look at for insights into how it can be done.

(JY): How has COVID impacted the team at Proletariat?

Immensely. We went from a studio of around 50 people before Covid to releasing a simultaneous multiplatform game 6 months later while growing to be larger than 100 people. We had to determine how to onboard new team members remotely, playtest and develop remotely, and even just how to handle daily communication without the benefits of shared spaces. Since then, we’ve gotten fairly used to being a fully remote company, and have learned how to continue to push simultaneous releases while doing so.

(JY): What’s your take on skill-based matchmaking? Fans of competitive games have been vocal about disliking SBMM, but of course, there are pros and cons to all types of matchmaking setups.

I think SBMM is a design specifically meant to ensure people lose about as much as they win (since they are meant to be matchmade with people around their level of skill). I think this has significant challenges in a Battle Royale specifically due to the amount of randomness in it. I generally feel like you can make SBMM work for many games, but I also think it's important to recognize how it can interact with the other designs within a game mode. In general, I feel like it's more likely to answer skilled players’ needs if used within a mode that has less randomness.

(JY): What’s the biggest Spellbreak issue the team at Proletariat is concerned with?

The thing we are most focused on is trying to unlock the overall value of Spellbreak. It's very clear people are extremely excited about what we have built, they love the art style and the feel of combat. It's also clear that people seem to want more than just a PvP experience when it comes to Spellbreak. Overall, we are really trying to find a method to bring more options into the game, which will allow different players to experience Spellbreak the way that they want.

(JY): Obviously, crunch is a major topic while working in any creative field. What’s the work-life balance like at Proletariat? 

We have a long-held position here at Proletariat, where we generally try to never crunch. This has been hard to uphold, and we have certainly failed to do so on occasion. However, whenever we do fail to do so, it's never a mandatory ‘work harder because we say so’, it's always positioned as a ‘we have to work hard until this concrete goal has been reached’. I personally think it's never okay to simply mandate extra hours because people believe extra hours are needed. It's always seemed a particularly distasteful combination of lazy and malicious in terms of respecting people’s time. I also think without the challenge of trying to land your project on time, quality and budget, it's a disservice to the skills needed to be a good planner within an organization. Everyone loses.

(JY): What are some accessibility features the team would like to add to Spellbreak?

The two that are pretty consistently within our conversations are better colorblind options and possible approaches for hearing impairment. Neither of these are particularly easy to solve! We want to make sure we can do them right, which is part of the reason we’ve been talking them through a bunch.

(JY): How long would a new class take to implement from conception to release?

That’s a very hard question to answer. Our bar for classes is that they answer specific player needs that the other classes don’t, while also delivering on an aspirational magical player fantasy. That is often what takes so long, as it's an ideation problem. Once there is consensus on that, it comes down to how divergent/different the class’s spell and sorcery are. If it's a completely different element, that adds even more work due to having to make sure that all the elemental interactions still work with the other elements in the game. For us, that process has taken anywhere from six months to over a year.

(JY): What’s a Spellbreak feature you (or the team) wanted to implement that never made the cut?

Environmental interactions. Spellbreak is a game where weather could be completely transformative. Imagine yourself as the ultimate Fire mage. You’ve dispatched over a dozen other mages without being challenged at all, then you make your way to the final circle only to hear the telltale sound of thunder in the distance. You see a bedraggled Conduit with a mere uncommon gauntlet limp out from behind a boulder and you lift your Legendary gauntlet only to notice it has…started to rain. The changes of gameplay for both of those classes in that situation would be interesting to explore.

(JY): Did Spellbreak start out as a Battle Royale game from day one, or was there a different idea at first?

Spellbreak did start as a Battle Royale. We did almost all of our first prototypes that way, though we did branch out as we layered in other systems. Once we put elemental interactions into the game, we had a team deathmatch specifically with the goal of being able to test a lot of combat in one sitting. We never expected that would be the main mode, however.  In many ways, some of the game modes we’ve added (Clash, and most recently Dominion) are homages to the alternate modes we would use when trying out different forms of combat.

We want to thank the team at Proletariat for their time with this interview. It's a fascinating look at how a team carves out a place for itself in the Battle Royale space, as well as how this past year has impacted a game's development.

Joseph loves Nintendo and horror games. When he's not writing about video games he can usually be found petting his cats and listening to some Progressive Metal. He thinks Meshuggah is tight.