Outriders: Powers on Tap

Powers matter in Outriders - and you're encouraged to use them often. Bartek Kmita, Director of the RPG-shooter, explains how they were made.
By Bartek Kmita
Tags: Outriders

Powers matter in Outriders. They really matter. So what better way to get a deep dive into the game than to talk to People Can Fly’s Bartek Kmita, Director for Outriders, and understand why it was so important that players have raw powers on tap at all times.

Over to you Bartek...

Before we even started full development of Outriders, we knew that giving players extraordinary abilities would be a vital part of the game. We’re talking about the ability to explode take out foes with time itself...

…engulf them in scorching fire...

…leap into the sky and crush them from above.

…and that’s barely scratching the surface.

The only rules we had were that powers had to be imaginative, they had to feel super-cool to use, and - most importantly - they weren’t kept out of reach of players.

Unlike some games, your flashiest abilities aren’t restricted attacks that you have to wait a minute or more to use again, nor are they merely fun flourishes that add spice to the combat. They’re a core part of the gameplay loop - very short cooldowns and powerful effects mean you’re encouraged to unleash them… and unleash them often.

In other words, your powers are on tap.

But why did we take this approach? I thought it would be interesting to take you behind the curtain and show you how these sort of design decisions are made.

Why powers are important for Outriders

The first question you might be asking is why have powers at all? Why not focus entirely on more familiar aspects, like the gunplay? The short answer is that it gives the player more options.

That’s really our core philosophy behind Outriders - giving players options. In fact, when we first started making it, there were no classes, or preset abilities at the start of the game - players were essentially given a blank sheet and told: ‘here you go. Build the character, choose your powers, and make the experience that you want to have’.

It sounds good in theory, but we found that when you give new players that level of unrestrained freedom, without an understanding of how the game works, it’s more confusing than empowering. The system was too expansive, too complex - most of our testers had no idea where to even start!

So we introduced classes - the ninja-like Trickster, the fire-flinging Pyromancer, the big burly Devastator, and the gear-head Technomancer - each with a core set of powers you get from the start. The same extraordinary amount of customizability is still there, but now we give players a guiding hand early on to show them how everything works.

The starting powers are specifically chosen to teach the player how important they are to the gameplay loop - and that players should get used to dancing round the battlefield, flitting between shooting and using abilities in equal measure.

With that understanding, it’s easier for them to really start manipulating their character to make the experience they want.

Defining the powers

With the starting classes determined, we could then really drill down into what the powers should be. We had already developed quite a few skills, but the addition of the classes let us really focus in on this part of the game.

The first point to consider was what would fulfil the fantasy of being those classes? What would make you feel like a master of fire? What would really convey that sensation of being a hulking tank?

Then there were the gameplay implications to consider: what does this class need to support the initial playstyle? How do these powers flow together?

There was no set process for coming up with a power - some were envisioned from the beginning, others came about because we saw a need or opportunity as we built the game. However they were conceived, once we had the initial design on paper, we started to prototype it with very simple animation, and very simple particle effects.

That’s a quick way to test it and find out: is it fun to play? Does it work as intended? Is it beneficial for the game?

When we were happy that the power works as intended, we start to finalize it - and this really is the hardest - and most time-consuming - bit of the process. As it moves from prototype to a fully animated version, everything from the visual effects to the animation can change how it feels - which means we have to constantly rework it.

Going too far

For example, one reason building these powers could be a lengthy task was that we sometimes went a bit too far with the effects!

For example, we have an ice status that causes enemies to freeze. Initially, we had an effect where the ice would spread across the character, but it was a bit slow. To make this more impactful, we thought we’d add some flashy visuals on top and speed up the effect, but the result of that was that all the particles ended up completely obscuring the character.

But when we took them off again, it looked bad because the ice instantly appeared rather than growing over the character. So by improving the gameplay we were destroying the visuals, but by improving the visuals we were disrupting the gameplay. It took a lot of work, and constant refinement by our talented developers and artists to find the right balance for each power.

How ‘on tap’ should powers be?

I’ve talked about how important it was to ensure that powers were always available to players, but one of the biggest challenges we had to overcome was defining exactly how ‘on tap’ they should be.

How do you make combat feel balanced when you give players the ability to burn, flay, and pulverize on command?

The answer, as is so often the case in development, is experimentation.

We tested all kinds of different builds to try and work out what the best balance between powers and gunplay would be.

For example, in one early build we investigated what would happen if combat was focused on the powers entirely. Basically, since we give players unrestricted access to drop a volcano on their foes, do they even need guns at all?

As it turns out, they do. Rather than empowering players, over-relying on skills made the game feel smaller and more restrictive. It took options away from the player, which is particularly problematic in a game like Outriders, where letting the player decide how to build their character and approach battles is a big part of the fun.

It was clear that a hybrid approach - guns and powers with short cooldowns working together - was best. It allowed us to create a good mix between offensive powers that deal damage, and support powers that set up enemies for future hits.

We settled on giving both parts of the game equal footing - at least at the start of the game, before you start speccing out your character to your liking.

Making cooldowns cool

It was clear that powers had to have some cooldowns to balance the gameplay and keep the combat tense and exciting. In many respects, the cooldown of a power defines the difficulty of the game - it determines how long you can survive on the battlefield.

But how long or short cooldowns should be was something that we had to determine for each individual ability - and there are a lot in the game.

As you’d expect it was something that takes time, sheets and sheets of data, and constant iteration. Even as I write this, we’re still working on it - and I suspect we’ll keep tweaking right up to release.

Typically though, our priority is to keep cooldowns as short as possible. If, for example, we find an ability is a bit too powerful, we typically play with things like the damage output or effect timings before we add to the cooldown. After all, powers aren’t really on tap if you have to wait ages for them to recharge.

So that was a little look behind the scenes here at People Can Fly, and how we approached powers in the game. The key thing to remember is that powers are there to be used - they’re not limited, they’re not restricted, and they’re super-satisfying to crush your enemies with.

You can experience this for yourself in the demo - available now on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X and PC.

Outriders releases April 1, 2021 (yes really!) and is available to preorder now: