Splitgate is one of the biggest games of the year, but it wasn’t always so big. Starting as an idea that germinated in the head of 1047 Games co-founder Ian Proulx since high school, Splitgate’s come a long way from its dorm room prototype days. It’s always been simple, though: a first-person shooter with portals — but making that actually happen was another story.
“In high school, even in college, my thought process was, ‘How the heck does anybody do this?’” Proulx says, speaking about game design as a career and pointing to titles from his youth like Halo, which served as inspiration for his own game. “These types of games are built by hundred or thousand people teams, you know?”
So how was he to compete? While the idea sat with Proulx, he’d go to Stanford University and study computer science with the hope of getting into games — an aspiration that would’ve simply been a pipe dream to his younger, high-school self. He’d meet his co-founder Nick Bagamian there and finally, after years of learning, they would build a foundation for Splitgate — their dream game — as a senior project in 2015.
“The very first iteration of [Splitgate] was just an extremely generic shooter with one gun,” says Proulx. “It didn’t really feel like any type of FPS game, it just felt very, very generic.” At the start, it was rudimentary and clunky, a far cry from its more polished current version. When you play Splitgate now, your portals are tied to your left and right bumpers, making them as essential to your personal FPS muscle memory as tossing grenades, but it feels even more seamless.
In the original prototype, it wasn’t nearly as intuitive: players had two guns, one for activating portals and one simply for shooting, which meant you had to swap between the two repeatedly, breaking the flow of combat.
“What we very quickly discovered was that this takes too much time,” says Proulx. “Like that totally negates the portals.”
While that was nipped in the bud pretty quickly, the game as we know it only began coming into shape for Bagamian and Proulx after a few early playtests. These playtests predated the game being on Steam, meaning they had to invite friends over for LAN parties and survey them. “Originally, we weren’t on Steam or anything, so we had to actually upload [the game] to Google Drive and have our friends download it,” reflects Proulx. It was from these conversations that they ultimately settled on what kind of arena shooter it would be, bouncing around ideas for influences from Quake to Halo, the latter of which ultimately won out.
The arena shooter is something of a niche these days, but you wouldn’t know that looking at Splitgate’s recent success. Halo dominated competitive circuits in its heyday, and games like Quake and Unreal Tournament ran and defined the scene before it. In the decades since, however, the subgenre has seen a downward trend, limping along until the next attempt at a renaissance. Some have outright declared the genre dead, but Proulx rejects that. He knows his game, which on Steam alone peaked at over 60,000 concurrent players and has had as many as 165,000 players across all platforms, is filling a gap that’s been left untended. Even now, a month or so after that initial surge, there are tens of thousands of people playing Splitgate on Steam daily, and while metrics on console are harder to get a hold of and gauge, Splitgate’s regularly at the top of the Xbox and PlayStation store pages alongside top performers like Call of Duty: Warzone and Apex Legends.
“People say it’s dead, but why is it dead?” asks Proulx. “Is it dead because everyone just stopped liking arena shooters? … I think that the reason arena shooters aren’t doing well really boils down to two reasons. I think part of it is there hasn’t been a lot of innovation. If you look at most of these games, it’s the same thing we’ve been playing for 20 years.”
Proulx believes that the main arena shooters are frozen in time, trapped by an audience that loves a specific kind of game from a specific era. When asked if he thought independent teams like his are uniquely able to innovate and revitalize forgotten genres like that of Splitgate, Proulx responded affirmatively without missing a beat. He followed up, elaborating that as an indie developer with no publisher, the vision lies entirely with them. If they want to experiment, and they’re a young and lean team, then they can afford to take risks that perhaps Triple-A shooters like Call of Duty or Halo can’t.
Proulx isn’t off the mark. Deviations from the norm in both series, among others, have typically been met with negative fan reception, weaker turnouts, and shorter tails. Quake Champions, to use an example Proulx provided himself, introduced champions — unique characters with individualized abilities like in Overwatch. To hear him tell it, though, it sounds like the fanbase hated the change and abandoned the game quickly thereafter. The truth is that gamers, as much as big publishers, seem hesitant to let developers take creative leaps. In turn, this leaves the door wide open for a team like 1047 to make something fresh and light a fire like Splitgate did this summer. Its initial beta period was so successful, the game just didn’t work right for some weeks, something Proulx called “a good problem to have, but still a problem.”
Proulx’s second reason, and the crux of why he drew from Halo more than those earlier games, has a lot to do with accessibility.
“I think the bigger issue with most arena shooters is no one has made something that’s accessible to the masses,” Proulx says. The problem with most of the field, he argued, is that arena shooters quickly established themselves as games with dauntingly high-skill ceilings, making them harder to play for anyone who plays casually or is new to the genre. Making his own game in the same vein meant it had to be something the “12-year old Fortnite kid is having fun [with] at the same time as a 30-year old Quake pro.”
1047 has accomplished this in a number of ways, including the absence of recoil and a slower movement speed. The latter not only makes the game a touch more approachable, but according to Proulx, is also be a key differentiator for those that master the game and those that don’t, since portals can technically make Splitgate, “the fastest game on the planet.” The hope is that drawing from familiar places and adapting those tenets to fit a wider audience will bring people in enough to wrap their heads around Splitgate’s key innovation and risk: the portals.
Karman Station, a remake of Splitgate’s original map, bears the marks of these lessons and showcases how they’ve designed a game around this mechanic in a way that shouldn’t alienate either end of the spectrum.
“One of the first things we realized is we should have bridges from point A to point B, because having a bridge across the floating platforms doesn’t take anything away from the competitive players,” says Proulx. “The competitive players are still gonna portal across that bridge…But the casual players, who don’t yet understand it, can learn at their own pace. They can run across the bridge and still have fun and still play it like it’s Halo or play it like it’s Call of Duty and shoot stuff…And then they can kind of learn as they go.”
While accessibility and portals have made Splitgate stand out, it’s been hard, particularly as an independent developer, to simultaneously build the game and the infrastructure to maintain it.
The team’s grown since the dorm room days (1047, the studio’s name, was the co-founders’ Stanford dorm room address) and has even grown since launching the beta this summer, but they’ve still got more they want and need to do. “Our team right now is five engineers. Four of which work on the game, one of which works on the backend,” Proulx says. This is why 1047’s latest news that they’ve managed to raise $100 million to beef up their team and game, is such a particular boon — and why Splitgate’s now in an indefinite beta.
Like Proulx noted all those years ago, big teams typically make these games; any team working on a live multiplayer game without the kinds of resources such a project demands have a hell of a task to do. It used to be that you’d have to sacrifice your vision of your game, either by selling it or compromising, in order to get it out the door. And while it’s certainly not becoming any easier to realize these projects, it looks like there’s a growing place for independent developers to try.
“When we do launch 1.0, for one, the scope of what we can do now is through the roof,” says Proulx. “Everything’s on the table now.”