Quatum League started as an internal jam project at Nimble Giant (although back then it was still NGD Studios). The situation was pretty dire at the time, the studio having just lost a big client and even considering closure, in addition to mounting economical woes.
Nevertheless, both the studio and the project survived that period - I had blogged about those moments roughly as they were happening:
Even though this project is now complete, I don’t want to stucture this as a post-mortem: all applicable development lessons and takeaways have already been processed.
What were our goals in developing Quantum League? People who are outside of game development often assume the sole reason one makes a game is to sell millions of copies and make tons of money. In reality, if that were the sole motivation, much less projects would ever see the light of day. I’m not saying we didn’t mean to make a profit, obviously, but the principal driving force was in fact proving the Studio’s development capabilities in a genre we were newcomers in and with a game engine we were learning to use.
Development of the project started right as Epic Games switched the licensing on Unreal Engine 4. While the prototype was made in Unity, the project was quickly rebased to Unreal. During the first months of the prototype, we were learning the engine as we were discovering the game we were building as well - it was actually pretty fun! Learning a new engine technique sometimes opened up an opportunity in the prototype - conversely, developing the prototype forced us learn about new areas of the engine.
It was at this stage where I managed to rediscover how fun it was building levels out of BSP volumes - all my early forays into level design made by blindly prodding at the editor shipped with UT99 were coming back!
Another team was also working on a technological framework for multiplayer games on Unreal. In parallel, yet another team was working on a look-dev demo to test the art pipeline - the increased confidence in our skills in that new engine led to us getting a contract for a Battle Royale style shooter prototype. This meant that Quantum League had to be put on hold while almost the entire studio switched over to that project, which unfortunately didn’t pan out in the long run. Who knows, had that project taken off we would probably have forgotten about QL.
But we didn’t, and half a year later we were back on rebooting the prototype, using the newly-developed technological framework. This turned out to be the true beginning of pre-production, and the target was to build a vertical slice.
This is the version that we presented at EGW and that we ultimately demoed in early 2018.
Presenting to a large room full of fellow developers is always fun, and interestingly there were several people in the audience who came to chat afterwards, sharing their stories of having chased a similar concept, but with different results.
This is a thing I encountered many more times during development, as Time Loop mechanics reached a sort of mini-mainstream (at least amongst game developers) - the reveal of 12 minutes and Death Loop and their eventual release will tell if the public shares this interest as well.
I had tried to investigate if there was any common factors in the zeitgeist at a certain point in time which may have influenced so many people in pursuing similar concepts, but as always these things are nebulous. There is no single common reference or starting point that I’ve been able to identify that different games shared - other than the inception of those projects seems to have happened around 2015-2016 in most cases.
After EGW, studio leadership went over all the feedback and reactions we had received from showing the alpha, both on the floor of GDC and in private meetings, and decided to greenlight full development.
The dire conditions in which we had decided to do a prototype jam had improved, and Quantum League was then going to be one of many production lines. Two were dedicated to client projects, and we were the third. This meant that we had to keep the team lean as it was the other teams who were actually making money to keep the lights on. This was an interesting challenge, as it meant that we had to focus on achieving what we could with what we had, without losing sight on the big picture.
Did you ever think of a game idea and wonder why hasn’t someone done it before you? Well obviously the first answer is: you haven’t looked hard enough - of course someone had the same idea before and tried to execute it! However their efforts may have not been fruitful, or maybe they pivoted along the way… We encountered many problems that seemed unsolvable at first glance while working on Quantum League - brain-searing dilemmas that had no right answers no matter where you seemed to look. And nevertheless we managed to move forward.
First big dilemma was technical: How do we ensure that the things that happened once, happen again very precisely in the same way as before? QL is a shooter, and bullets travel big distances very fast. Getting the player orientation when the bullet was fired slightly off even for a fraction of degrees can mean that the entire sequence collapses and loses meaning. And how do you do all this OVER THE INTERNET? We found a general method to solve these problems, that required that we look very hard to specific cases and fine-tune our solutions to fit. By the end of development, we managed to reliably make all sorts of gameplay interactions, and even managed to add special powers to characters that defied these limits.
Then, another large and permanent hurdle was the accessibility and UX of the game. The human brain is not really wired to think about time loops, paradoxes or other related phenomena - at least not untrained ones. We identified early on that in order to make our game approachable by players, we had to nail the experience and expectations of being in a time loop could look like, so that players could visually stitch up the history of what has/will/could happen in their current run.
There were several experience artifacts that resulted from this effort, and I’m pretty proud of how they turned out. One big part of that pride is actually due to the process of how they came to be; The team understood the problem, but we struggled in agreeing into a possible solution. We had solutionS, but they were too hard to imagine or prototype in order to prove them practically. So I set out to organize a series of guided brainstorming / problem-solving meetings that included everyone on the team (one of the benefits of having small teams!). These series of meetings really helped me put my current design philsophy in practice, and were also a positive moment for the whole company: we felt we could solve any problem!
When I think about the solutions, what we went with was not what anyone entering the meetings was rooting for. We really found a new solution collectively, and I think that’s one of the most beautiful outcomes you can hope for as a Game Designer.
Once these experience improvements were selected, designed and implemented, the quality of the overall game grew by an rder of magnitude. It was much easier getting the idea across to new people, and thus we began dreaming bigger: maybe we had a potential hit in our hands! The kooky prototype had grown into an FPS that we really enjoyed playing, and the regular internal tournaments became really intense and spectacular.
We started seriously planning on how to reveal this game to the world…
The first major demo opportunity was the Brazil Game Show in Sao Paolo. We applied and were awarded a booth in the indie space of that massive event, lost amidst the sea of loudspeakers and RGB neon. Already, despite the language barrier and the unpolished state of the build, we could see that the same magic that had happened at the office also was taking hold on random gamers: once the mechanics clicked, people really got into the competitive nature of the game and a big queue formed, the people waiting cheering on those that were playing (even though they didn’t still understood the true nature of what was happening on screen - which is a recurring theme).
BIG festival done, we came back renewed and validated that the game had a potential public out there. At around the same time, several publishers began interacting with us, interested in what could become of this weird kooky FPS. While I will keep their names secret, there were at least two who got up to the point where numbers were being negotiated before a signature. However, studio leadership decided at both those points that the offers were not as interesting, and preferred to continue on with self-publishing. Luckily, at that point as well, we weren’t strapped for cash anymore, so this wasn’t a death sentence, more like a promise of more freedom to really polish what we thought was important.
Then, we were lucky enough to be invited to the Indie MEGABOOTH in 2019, which was being hosted in PAX, both East and West coast. This meant being able to travel to Boston in the winter, then Seattle in the summer of that year. For those trips, the studio had decided to try and up our “conference” game, and we made special dedicated spectator modes that we could hook up to the playing PCs and broadcast on a big screen to everyone waiting in line to play. We even threw in some camera angles and effects to amp up the wow factor.
As a side note, it was at Boston PAX that we also became aware of “Lemnis Gate”, which carried a similar concept as ours but in turn-based fashion instead of simultaneous (you-play-I-play). Also, Splitgate was hitting hard at that same conference, which mixed multiplayer Halo gameplay with Portals (from… Portal). I mention this because there was a definite wave of A to AA “weird FPS” games happening at that stage, in addition to Quantum League, none of which seem to have achieved significant impact as I write this. Splitgate was maybe the most successful one, but still had to close its servers down the line (a sequel is reportedly in development?)
Both PAX gave us significant exposure, Steam wishlists were the highest the company had ever seen, and all that helped us carry us along the final stretches towards an open alpha test, somewhere in late 2019 (September I think?). It was meant more as a stress test for people we already knew from the Discord, but it still created considerable buzz abroad as well.
Everything looked rosy as we headed towards an early access release in may of 2020… that is, until COVID-19 hit.
The Lockdown went ok for the project at first, we felt productive and focused, but soon isolation began taking a toll on the whole company. Teams were getting frayed, leadership was getting very stressed, and the entire financial situation looked uncertain.
And as we lurched closer to our intended release, key teammembers began leaving, as everyone was working remotely everywhere and Argentine developers were relatively high-skilled for a low international price (in dollars no less! the dream for an argentine), our most valued teammembers kept getting poached by bigger companies one after the other. Churn was high and it became difficult to ensure quality and development focus for the last stretch before early access. To this day, I still kind of hold a personal grudge against a certain Swedish development studio who seemed to be specifically targeting our company for recruits… I know it’s not personal, but still!
Nevertheless, we made it to Early Access. Release went mostly well barring some hiccups, but then the usual issues of a live game started to become clear: retention, retention, retention.
At this point, we were asking 10$ to play the game, as it was arguably early access. This was ok: our previous open alpha had revealed that people who were not really warned about the unique nature of the game didn’t take kindly to the game making them feel dumb, or getting curb-stomped by our most dedicated Discord players on their first match. The skill ceiling in Quantum League was HIGH. Like SKY HIGH. Which is usually a good thing, but can also mean that between people who are a little ahead in the learning curve have a big difference with those who start. There is no such thing as beginner’s luck in that game.
However, as with all indie-ish games in early access, onboarding left a lot to be desired. Skill-based matchmaking did ok when numbers of players were fairly even, but after a few month it became clear that we had two classes of players: pros and wannabees. Pros liked the game and stayed engaged, but wannabees rarely became pros and often felt like they would never break in…
At this point, we began talking internally about taking the game F2P. We even had built the entire infrastructure for that, designed a cheapo season pass, new modes…
But at the same time, the release of Quantum League, its quality and relative success attracted other kind of interests: company acquisition.
When it became confirmed that the company would be acquired by Embracer, it was obvious to me that Quantum League would not fit in their strategy (did they even have a strategy at that point, other than acquisitions? unclear). With a heavy heart, i began looking elsewhere for employment, with the relative relief that my departure would no longer be a factor in the future of the game (which at that point seemed set in stone) or the company itself (which at that point seemed to be set for life)… My family and I chose to move back to France, which closed that chapter.
As I finish writing these lines at the very last days of 2023, Quantum League’s servers will finally have closed. I will always love what we built: it is truly a dream project, both in the sense that it was ideal to work on, but also because it seems like something that shouldn’t have existed, but did. I know its development changed all the developer’s lives it touched for the better, was a vehicle for personal and professional growth, and an instrument to solidify what is in my opinion the elite south american game development studio. I have also kept in touch and followed the careers of some of those Quantum League pros, as they evolve towards other games, grow their families or their careers… I can’t help to think that this game could have touched so many more lives.
I am not a wishful person, but if I could make a wish, I would love for the game’s concept to be reimplemented in some way. I kind of miss playing it, even though it would mean spinning up a local server and playing with friends or coworkers, exactly like we did back in the early days of the prototypes… Maybe the community could continue building on its ideas and find what would truly make it click, that we didn’t get the time or energy to do?
Or maybe not, who knows…
See you in the next loop, Quantum Athletes!