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The Evolution of ‘We Happy Few’ From Survival Sim to Story-Driven Adventure

A lot can change in a few years. When development on “We Happy Few” began in 2014, Compulsion Games was a small indie studio with an ambitious idea. Four years later (with just months to go before the adventure game’s Aug. 10 release on PC and consoles), it’s in the process of becoming a first-party developer under Microsoft — one of five surprising acquisitions that the hardware maker announced at E3 2018.

The purchase represents a huge vote of confidence for Compulsion and its unique vision for games. In an interview with Variety, the developers couldn’t comment on how or when the talks with Microsoft began, but narrative director Alex Epstein said the deal closed last minute.

“It’s nice to be acknowledged by something like that. We’ve been doing weird things for so long, and that’s what we love to do. [Microsoft] apparently loves that, too!” added art director Whitney Clayton.

Clayton was the first employee that studio founder Guillaume Provost hired in 2009, with Epstein joining not too long after that. Their first project was “Contrast,” a platformer with a haunting film noir aesthetic that came out in 2013. For “We Happy Few,” Compulsion set out to create another distinctive-looking world, one that imagined what 1960s British society would look like if the Germans invaded England during WW2. In this timeline, the people had to do something so bad to survive that they keep taking a powerful drug called Joy just to forget about it.

At first, the developers turned to crowdfunding for the game, ultimately raising $334,754 CAD on Kickstarter. At E3 2016, the studio debuted an evocative trailer during Microsoft’s press briefing, exposing “We Happy Few” to a global audience. The video introduced Arthur Hastings, one of the three playable characters who realize that something is terribly wrong in the town of Wellington Wells. But with the spotlight came added scrutiny, especially when Compulsion released an early access version of “We Happy Few” on PC and Xbox One later that summer.

What the trailer didn’t show was that a large portion of of the game consisted of procedurally generated islands with tough survival mechanics. In this version, death was permanent, forcing you to start over if you wanted to play again.  

“We showed a really juicy narrative moment at that time, and people asked us if the whole game was going to be this linear experience. We never intended to do the full game like that, even though we had really strong storylines. … [We had to make sure] people know that it wasn’t BioShock, it’s not just one long, scripted narrative game. It still has an open-world element to it,” said Clayton.

Since then, both Compulsion and the game underwent dramatic changes. The studio saw tremendous growth, increasing its headcount to 40. It partnered with Gearbox Publishing for retail versions of “We Happy Few.” In the background, the game was becoming much bigger than Compulsion originally envisioned it to be, partially as a reaction to feedback from fans. This also meant that the original price of $30 was increasing to $60 for the full release.

At that point, “We Happy Few” was already moving away from its hardcore roguelike elements and into a narrative-driven experience. While the storylines mostly stayed the same — Epstein and his co-writer just added to them over the years — the developers softened the survival mechanics and got rid of permadeath.

“What the community told us is that they liked these goofy encounters with these crazy people more than they liked the systemic situations. We said, ‘OK, we’ll write more goofy encounters then,’” said Epstein.

You still need to eat, sleep, and drink, but now they won’t affect your health (satisfying these requirements give you temporary buffs instead). The team kept the large, procedurally generated areas, but they also added more handmade levels for specific moments in the story. Overall, Compulsion’s goal for the new changes was to create an immersive experience that anyone could play through.

“It’s a game aimed at a larger audience, so we wanted less friction for people,” Epstein explained.

The biggest challenge that Compulsion is facing is trying to meet the expectations that come with a $60 game. After all, even with 40 people, it’s nowhere near the size of most triple-A studios, which often have hundreds of employees. For instance, Clayton’s department — the people responsible for “We Happy Few’s” striking visual identity — has less than 10 artists. That includes 2D art, 3D environment art, VFX, and more.

Given how important the retro style has been in helping the game stand out, it’s remarkable what they’ve been able to achieve with such a small team.  

“While people are always very excited to build new, rich spaces, and especially getting an opportunity to make some more hand-crafted things — because that’s what the artists love to do — it’s been a testament to how disciplined they’ve been, to be able to keep up with the demand of making a larger game,” said Clayton. “Artists love to make everything perfect and spend infinite time on things, but it’s hard to do that when you’re making a $60 game with less than 10 people in the art department. … They’ve been pretty amazing.”

Now that they have the financial resources of Microsoft, those restrictions shouldn’t be much of a problem going forward. Like “We Happy Few’s” Arthur Hastings, Compulsion is about to find out what happens when it becomes part of a much larger world.

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