Canadian Game Awards spotlight – interview with Dauntless’ Jesse Houston

Phoenix Labs created its free-to-play action game Dauntless in 2014, and throughout the years, the Vancouver-based studio founded by Riot Games alums Jesse Houston, Sean Bender and Robin Mayne has expanded and brought on talented individuals from studios like BioWare, Capcom, Blizzard, and others.

Dauntless was an ambitious title for the studio. While working as a smaller-scale team, Phoenix Labs released the game after a pipeline of alpha and beta periods. Dauntless also became one of the first games to knock down the barriers between consoles and PC with its cross-play initiative.

This year, the Canadian Game Awards gave Phoenix Labs the award for Best Art Direction. We spoke to Houston about the studio’s source of inspiration and what the new year will have in store for the studio.

Steve: Phoenix Labs is a relatively new studio. What was it like to take those first steps at a new studio and hit the ground running?

Jesse: It’s been wild. I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best studios. It’s a hell of a lot different to do it yourself on your first run. It’s been great though. It’s super cool to have the creative freedom to deliver a game you want to get out there to a community.

The other nice thing is having the opportunity to work with literally the best team I’ve had in my career. We started the studio with the idea of hiring the best folks we’ve ever worked with, and we did. It’s inspiring to show up to work and have these titans of the industry here. It’s awesome.

A large segment of the studio’s team is comprised of established industry professionals. While having all these minds come together, do you feel as though that gave Dauntless that extra bit of magic? 

I think so. It allowed us to think in a progressive way. We’re already primed with learning from other projects. We turned our eyes to what the future looks like.

When you think about crossplay,  a core feature of Dauntless, it’s still a rarity in most games. It takes a heck of a lot to get done, and we were able to get it done with a relatively small team and a relative shoestring budget. At the time we launched, it was us and Fortnite. These were the only two games to have ever done crossplay at that point. Fortnite is like a 3000 person team and we were 80.

It has given us an opportunity to think creatively and try stuff we never thought was possible. We took an open development model. We took a ton of community feedback. We patch every two weeks through hell or high water, [as] we have done for years now. We’re constantly adding value and couldn’t do that if we didn’t have the experience. 

Dauntless had the advantage of an open beta on PC before expanding to consoles. Do you feel as though Phoenix Labs had a chance to set the barometer and gain community feedback prior to a wide release?

For sure! As an example, we never planned to have ranged weaponry in the game. In the closed beta, people kept asking for ranged weapons, and we put this hybrid-ranged weapon in, and it wasn’t ranged enough. So we went with guns, and actually the next weapon we’re adding is another ranged weapon. We’ve literally been running a live service for five years even though the game has been out for two years.

We do these things called Holiday Builds where when we close up over the Christmas break, everyone plays the future builds we’re working on. That first Holiday Build was a disaster! I had to work the whole holiday to keep the servers up. I learned how to script servers so everyone else could eat and play the game. It would crash every 10 minutes. And that was years before it went to the general public. With that, we learned automation was great. Thank goodness for automation because otherwise, we’d still be doing that today.

Phoenix Labs seems to have taken a lot of inspiration in Monster Hunter not only from a gameplay perspective but from a visual perspective as well. There also seems to be a bit of Disney/Pixar incorporated in the art style as well. How did the team come up with the visuals for Dauntless?

You actually nailed it. Most people think it was from Fortnite. We started the same time Fortnite started development so we didn’t have the chance to steal their art (laughs). What we did was absolutely looked at where Disney was going at the time. Disney is awesome. They have one of the world’s greatest, forward-thinking art machines. They spend more money than we spent making Dauntless on art research every year.

Very specifically, we looked at Tangled which had this very high quality of lighting but low frequency of detail. We wanted to add a slightly more mature flair to it. But not so mature that it would turn audiences off. It’s obviously evolved over the last five years. If you look at our original announcement video, it was more gritty. Now it’s more fantastic. It’ll continue to evolve over time as well.

How did the studio feel about being nominated and winning Best Art Direction at the Canadian Game Awards?

It was genuinely super awesome. We’re a very proudly Canadian company. It meant a lot to us. My background is in art. The team has worked really hard for a long time. It was a very small art team working out of their weight class. I could not have been prouder for what they’ve put together. We don’t do it to win awards, but it always feels good to get them.

Vancouver is often seen as a major hub in Canadian games development. What is the professional games culture like in the city? 

So, I actually moved back here to specifically start the studio. I grew up here and left to go work in Montreal, and Edmonton and then L.A. Vancouver is a really interesting spot for developers. There are some great studios that are super big. But there is a vibrant midsize studio culture as well. It’s universally unique for the world. 

You think of Montreal and San Francisco, they have a lot of big studios. Other places have small folks. But nowhere has done a great job like Vancouver has with creating the midsize studio, the 20-200 person studio, in the same way. Plus, not going to lie, the weather here is a lot better than everywhere else in Canada (laughs). I’m still wearing a short sleeve shirt and walking outside.

It’s a great ground for having really awesome high-end talent and at the same time, an inspiring place to work. I can open up my windows and see the mountains. I’m in an industrial park yet there’s a mountain view from my window. It helps create a really creative environment. 

Dauntless’ Reforged update recently launched. As with many updates, there are those in the community who enjoy the changes, and those that don’t. What is the studio’s philosophy behind listening to the playerbase while also staying true to the intended vision?

It’s an awesome question. To your point, Reforged was a huge change. I think IGN called it Dauntless 2.0. We got moving on it in the February-March timeline of this year. We put the majority of the studio on it. We also patched and added features along the way. We knew it was going to be a big change. 

We’ve been saying for a long time that we’re pretty unabashedly multiplayer. Our studio mission is to bring people together through multiplayer. One of the things Reforged delivered on was an early promise that we didn’t do a great job delivering before, which was creating a more open-world multiplayer experience. That started to surprise some folks [who had gotten] into a pattern of going out and grinding the game solo.

If I reflect honestly, we could have probably done a better job communicating how the experience is still fun to play solo. You don’t have to group up with folks, you may just encounter other folks on the islands. We also didn’t tune it to make sure people aren’t hard pushed into groups. This is actually something we used to do and try to get people to play together in a very beat-you-over-the-head kind of way. The matchmaker would default you into a party quickly. This time we wanted to gently get people into parties and let them opt out more naturally, rather than hitting a solo button before the matchmaker started a match.

I think we could have done a better job communicating that vision to players. Those first couple of days there was a lot of anxiety over that in our community. We tried to get out there and be present and be there with them. To be honest, that’s almost all gone now that players have experienced it. We’ve now done a couple of hotfixes and making sure we are listening and paying attention. That was largely in response to the feedback. 

What does 2021 have in store for the studio? 

It’s going to be huge. We just announced the 1.5.1 patch. We started up two new studios. There’s the studio we opened up in Montreal and another in L.A. We’re expanding our San Francisco studio quite a bit. There are currently 20 folks in San Fransisco and that will probably double. L.A. and Montreal will be huge.

We’ve got more for Dauntless. We’re super keen on Dauntless and that will be a lot of focus in Vancouver, but we also have a lot of new games we’re spinning up as well. So, it’s exciting.

[This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.]

Thank you to Jesse Houston for speaking with us. Dauntless is available on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S and Nintendo Switch.