A Persistent Online War: Clapfoot Talks About Their Ambitious MMO, Foxhole
When Mark Ng co-founded Clapfoot Inc. in downtown Toronto, Canada in 2011 with Alkas Baybas, the studio had its sights firmly set on mobile gaming. Six years on from its inception, following a steady release of four games playable on mobile devices, the eight-man (and one dog) team now looks ahead to its second PC and console game in the shape of World War-based MMO Foxhole. Speaking to Mark, I found a man as ambitious as he is honest about his hopes for the new IP.
Foxhole’s goal is to “make players feel like they’re working together to affect the outcome of a war.” Multiplayer games have done this before of course, perhaps the Battlefield franchise being the most obvious example of players embracing teamwork and togetherness to win the match. With regard to what will make Foxhole stand out from the field in this respect, Mark pointed out that “the cooperation [they] are aiming for will go beyond short term game sessions that last 15 minutes. [They] are aiming to have wars last for days, possibly weeks.”
Needless to say, more traditional online battles, even in the mold of Battlefield, have rarely attempted such huge feats in relation to the length of the match. Mark explains, “this will require players to cooperate offline and online. In our current Pre-Alpha, we already have players spending many hours offline crafting elaborate strategies that include map drawings and videos. Secondly, the scale in terms of player numbers will be huge. We aren’t looking to get 32 players to work together, we’re looking to have hundreds of players working together both online and offline over the span of days to win a war.”
A PERSISTENT ONLINE MMO
It should go without saying that Foxhole will require a significant time-sink from its online community in order for skirmishes to reach their conclusions. The ambition struck me as something that could be incredibly rewarding to play if it pays off, but I also had concerns over whether or not having the feeling of victory or defeat so far apart would push players from being able to invest. It sounds like a tough balancing act, but Mark was quick to address my concerns, suggesting that the studio has been working hard to overcome the challenge of how the timing of a war’s conclusion could affect a player’s enjoyment.
“Our driving goal is to have as much of the war be determined by players as possible, including the length of the war. If we went in there and tried to dictate the length of a war suddenly, then the wars might start feeling artificial and the entire concept falls apart. Having said that, there are obviously some boundaries we need to enforce and corner cases we need to be aware of. For example, the case you pointed out where a war drags on for too long and there aren’t enough mechanics or content in the game to keep things interesting. These are the problems we are going to be solving.”
Perhaps most striking about my interview with Clapfoot’s programmer was how particular he was about Foxhole’s audience. Due to the nature of the game, it’s not the kind of product one can just pick up and play without investing time and preparation prior. Wondering how Foxhole could appeal to a wide audience — not just hardcore gamers — I was taken off guard when Mark told me that they aren’t too worried about limiting our audience. “From the start of the project we’ve had a very specific design philosophy. We’d rather design something that some group of players might love rather than something that a broad audience is just content with. There are ultimately going to be a lot of players out there that won’t like this kind of game. We aren’t too worried about limiting our audience.
If you want a game where you can jump in for 15 minutes and experience some quick action, Foxhole won’t be for you. However, the idea of working with hundreds of players to win a war that feels more real in terms of strategy and outcome than most games do, then this is something I think you might be interested in.”
So, assuming that there is a large enough player base to support hundred-player battles, the challenges this presents to the studio from a technical point of view are numerous. Mark suggested that there are going to be some pretty big technical hurdles, but they have a feasible path to solve them. He goes on to say: “As ambitious as our technical requirements are, we make it a point to put things into practice. We started out supporting 64 players on a single map instance, and now we support 120. This way we can figure out technical hurdles in a real world environment. We aren’t going to promise something for two years with nothing to show for. We also are aware of our limitations and won’t attempt something that we think is near impossible.”
DIGGING A FOXHOLE
By this point you might have the impression that Foxhole is going to be one of those games that can be truly rewarding to play when you’re succeeding, mirrored by the devastating lows when a player gets killed. Such is the case in a game like XCOM where each controlled character means something to the player because once they’re gone they’re gone for good. If players in Foxhole were to merely respawn when killed, it could take away from the dread of being under fire. Mark pointed out that this is an area still with much room for improvement.
“Ideally, we want the impact of player death to be much more than it is right now. That’s one area where we have a lot of work ahead of us in terms of design. It’s really important that players value their lives because we believe this will really raise the stakes during battle. We want the impact of player death to be much more than it is right now.
“If you and 30 other players are assaulting a town and you know your life is crucial for the operation, things will feel that much more exciting.”
Speaking of assaulting towns, we know that the game’s setting, combat, and strategies are influenced by real world wars, but Foxhole is not a game set strictly in World War I, nor World War II. It’s not grounded in reality at all, in fact, and that has allowed Clapfoot to be more creative than they otherwise might have been, had they had historical constraints to contend with. Asking whether the studio chose to go down this route because the WW1/WWII shooter market is too saturated, Mark responded: “I personally don’t think WWI/WWII as a theme is over used, but rather I think that too many games are doing the same thing in terms of game design. For Foxhole, we simply found it more exciting to be able to create a fictional universe for the game.”
There is much to be said for the indie development in scene in this day and age, with studios from all over finding success from Holland’s Turtleneck Studios getting ready to debut with Rite of Ilk to British startup Big Robot with an innovative title in The Signal From Tolva. As for Clapfoot itself, Mark has been there right from the beginning. “Foxhole has been by far the most exciting project I’ve worked on yet because of the highs and lows. We have a fairly small team, and it’s always impressed me how much we get done in such a short period of time. It’s been best when we plan some features on paper that seem incredibly ambitious and then several weeks later we see that feature released to the public. I look back and wonder ‘how the hell did we pull that off?
“With Foxhole, we’ve had to solve a lot of difficult design problems, and this has definitely caused a whole lot of stress. There’s also a lot of tough internal debate that happens sometimes, and it takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to stay focused on the ultimate goals of the project.” Being such a small studio, of course, presents its various challenges, and Mark was keen to discuss how it can be a risky business for startups. “The main challenge of being a small studio is you’re out in the wild fighting for yourself. There is no bigger publisher that is going to make the hard business decisions for you or have your back to catch you when you fall.
“The barrier to entry is obviously a lot lower for small teams these days, but all things considered, I don’t feel that it’s that much easier for any developer to find success in today’s market. I don’t think a team of our size would have been able to make Foxhole (at least in the same form) ten years ago. Technology and tools have evolved so much that it’s hard to imagine, but I do think that some of the concepts we are exploring in Foxhole could have been attempted.”
As for the reasoning behind Clapfoot’s decision to move away from developing mobile games, Mark cited the rise of free-to-play games as one of the key causes. “We moved away from mobile simply because the kinds of games we wanted to develop were more suited to PC & Console. The insane growth of the F2P market was also a huge turn off.”
And so here we are six years on from Clapfoot being founded, and having taken the leap from mobile to console and PC, the small eight-man team is gearing up to develop on the version of Foxhole that currently exists whilst taking feedback from the community via Discord. You might be wondering how a team of eight can overcome such hurdles, but that’s where Gamma Ray, Clapfoot’s pet security dog, comes in. He is the studio’s ninth team member, keeping danger at bay and no doubt providing the encouragement the team needs to soldier on through thick and thin. If we’ve piqued your interest, the best way to get involved in Foxhole is download the Foxhole Pre-Alpha on Steam and join the community on Discord.