Before its “x-treme early access” arrival on Steam, Boss Key Productions’ battle royale reboot wasn’t the “Running Man”-inspired, spandex-wearing, neon-mulletted, free-to-play creation of the ’80s it is today.
“Radical Heights” was far less radical, involving a lot of “trust mechanics” and gameplay centered on inmates and guards in a prison.
“Originally, what was proposed to us was a battle royale game, but maybe in a prison and with a lot of trust mechanics,” Boss Key creative director Zach Lowery told Variety. “We talked through what that would mean and it become a really hard mechanic to build around.”
The dilemma, Lowery said, was that trying to build around a mechanic that had one player raise his hands to not be shot and then relying on the other player to not shoot them, just wasn’t going to work. Just one fatal break of that trust and the game would be ruined. So Lowery proposed early on that the team needed to focus more on the fun and that the best way to stand out from the growing pool of battle royale titles was to take a satirical approach to the genre as a whole.
“I spent ten years working on ‘Saint’s Row,'” he said. “I know about putting comedy into a game, about bringing something light-hearted and comical to a serious game type.”
The result, after just five months of development, was “Radical Heights,” a game so early in its first access that it has a single gendered character, two hair styles, and none of its graphics are locked-down completed.
Putting the Radical in “Radical Heights”
It started back in the middle of October, 2017. The Boss Key team had shipped “Lawbreakers,” a hero shooter that sort of fizzled out after a flat launch, and were looking for another project to start on.
“We wanted to take a step back from a huge, grand project and wanted to try something small that we could have fun with,” Lowery said. “The COO at the time proposed that we try to do our own take on a battle royale game. So myself and lead designer Matt Fischman sat down for a couple of days and came up with the core idea of ‘Radical Heights’ and then the team started in mid-November.”
The two sat down in an office and spit-balled ideas around the genre.
“I know we kind of pride ourselves at Boss Key on doing interesting takes on genres or ideas,” Lowery said. “Even in ‘Lawbreakers,’ we tried to put our spin on a hero shooter. So the idea with this was to take our skills at doing interesting takes and try that out with something that is hot right now.”
After realizing that a prison setting wasn’t going to work, the team started thinking of other approaches. They had already thought about “Running Man” as a sort of inspiration when the game was meant to take place in prison. So they stripped out the prison and other darker elements of “Running Man” and aimed for something that leaned much more into the game-show aesthetic.
“Growing up a huge fan of game shows — I still am today –I really enjoyed the carefree craziness of them,” Lowery said. “People are willing to do all kinds of things because they’re playing with house money. If they lose, they get some consolation prize, go home and tell stories. I thought it would be interesting to put that idea into a battle royale game. And instead of focusing on the winner, focusing on the 99% who lose and how we make that fun for them.”
The game’s ’80s aesthetic came from the community manager, who was inspired both by “Running Man” and the fact that the ’80s was “really hot right now.”
“The ’80s and my love for game shows was a natural fit,” Lowery said. “That was like the height of game shows. And those ideas started to domino on top of each other. We kind of did our spin on ‘The Running Man.’ We took it and mixed it with ’80s fashion and a world where the contestants want to compete.”
The result, Lowery believes, is a game with a broader appeal than most battle royale games. “Radical Heights” is meant to attract not just fans of battle royale and shooters, but the scavengers. That last element is tied closely to the game’s unusual monetization system.
True to the game-show theme, all of the players in a match of “Radical Heights” are competing for fabulous prizes. Those prizes essentially come in two flavors: there are cosmetic items — spiked bracelets, lace gloves, a red leather jacket — and there is everything else — cash, a trip for two to the Bahamas, a stereo. While the game rewards players with any number of goofy, made-for-game-show prizes, they all translate to “Radical Heights” cash and that cash leaves the match with the player. The cosmetic items also leave with the player, but it just unlocks the ability to purchase that item in the store. Purchases can either be made with the game’s own currency or with real-world cash. Once unlocked, a cosmetic item can be used to dress up a character.
The cash adds a second level to the game, making it just as important to scrounge around for prizes, items, and money as it is to be the last one standing at the end of the game. And even if killed, a player takes home a chunk of the prizes and cash they collected. Lowery declined to say how much a player keeps post-death and how much they drop when they die, but he called the loss a death tax.
“It’s a percentage based on your rating,” he said. “It’s a death tax, but it’s also something that gets players to loot bodies. We wanted to make sure we’re always pushing someone to take risks.”
Looting bodies is risky because it’s possible that someone else heard the gunshots and might kill you when you run up to the body.
“This all goes back to making a game that broad audiences want to play and not just play it with people who like shooters,” he said. “Someone who likes scavenger hunts might play it with me and they’ll scavenge while I get their back.”
The idea of prizes brought with it the idea of game-themed challenges in a match which balances risk with reward. Currently, there are three game-show events in the game, though the team knows players want them to make more.
The cash drop literally takes an area on the map and makes it rain cash. Players can run into the area to grab all of the cash they want, but everyone on the map knows where it is and that players may be there trying to get cash and not paying attention to other players.
The spin-to-win game delivers giant spin-to-win machines to different spots on the map. To use them, a player just needs to stand in front of them long enough for them to activate and spit out a prize, typically high-quality gear. But it’s noisy and again, other players could be lurking.
Finally, the game has a bike race called special delivery. Lowery said the team still has work to do on it, because it’s the least-used of the three. The idea is that a bike appears at the start of a marked course on the map and the first player to get it to the finish line gets a set of armor that can only be unlocked by winning the race. Of course, the risk isn’t just that you have to ride the bike; the bike is also playing really loud music as you race.
The other major change that the team brought to the battle royale genre is “Radical Heights'” take on the safe zone. Instead of featuring a circular safety zone, “Radical Heights” uses a grid system that turns specific square plots of land on the map into danger zones. Inside the zones, just like being outside the circles of “Fortnite” or “PUBG,” a player takes constant damage.
“After we broke down the mechanic, we realized it was a simple way to push people into combat,” Lowery said. “But we knew we wanted to do something that made sense for a game show.”
So when the game starts, as players are dropping down to the earth, they’ll see a pattern of these danger zones on the map. Sometimes it’s a random pattern, but it could also form the face of a giant smiling face, a space invader, or maybe a checkerboard. “We have a handful of patterns and we throw them in there to mix things up,” Lowery said.
Once you’ve landed, just like most battle royale games, players spend time scrounging for weapons to survive. When the time creeps down to a certain point, the map tells players that the danger zones are growing, which they do randomly. As the grid fills in, players are still pressed toward one another, but then when the game reaches a certain player count or time limit, the game triggers the Showcase Shootout.
The Showcase Shootout turns the entire map into a danger zone, with the exception of one small circle of safety. Once the survivors arrive and the time runs out, the lighting changes, with a massive spotlight shining down on the final killing zone. As the players fight to be the last one standing, the circle constantly shrinks until there is a winner. Lowery said he’s watched maps where it comes down to two players standing on either side of a car as the circle closes in on them.
“It will get very small,” he said.
X-treme Early Access
“Radical” launched earlier this month in what Boss Key called “x-treme early access.” The extreme spelling of the early access may sound like the developer is simply making an ’80s reference, but the game is in a surprisingly early, though still playable, state.
Lowery said that while the “x-treme” was in part branding, it was also a call-out to the fact that the game, when it went live on Steam, was only five months into development by a team of about 40.
“We knew we had a very solid core loop and that the playability was there,” he said. “But we are launching in early access so things are going to be missing. When you go up to the bike and press e, you just pop onto the bike without any animation. It doesn’t take away from the experience of the gameplay, but we know it needs work.”
He said the team wanted to get the game up as soon as they knew that the core loops of combat, travel, collecting, and the game show were locked in. “The animations could probably be better, but we can fix those,” he said. “They’re not taking away from the core experience.”
The main reason the game is live now is because the team wants to make sure that there is an audience for what they’re building. “We wanted to get the game out there early to an audience to make sure they want the game and so we can starting collecting feedback on what we need to double down on.”
Currently, he added, while there are some locations or buildings in the game that have the basic final look of the game, nothing is completely finished. A bulk of the buildings, though, don’t even have textures or colors. There’s currently a lot of grey in the game. That’s because, Lowery said, the team wants players to check out the different shapes and designs of the buildings so the developers can hone how they work on the game before investing a lot of time on art.
“This lets us work quickly and make sure what’s right in the game,” he said. “‘Embrace the jank’ is our internal philosophy. We know there are some broken things, but we need to make sure that we are also taking steps every single patch to improve the quality of the game. From here on out, everything needs to bring up the quality.”
The early access also means that the team, which Lowery calls small and agile, can make quick, even substantial changes to the game if it makes sense.
“When we started out building ‘Radical Heights,’ myself and Matt Fischman, we wanted to make sure we were building a platform that could grow. We approached it as a sandbox game.That means our game doesn’t have to stay a battle royale game as we go through early access. There are also other elements we could add to it, like PVE. You have a lot of freedom when you self-publish and do it quickly.”
“Radical Heights,” he added, is more the product of early access and this age of game development than a reaction to the rise of battle royale games.
“Early access is an interesting thing,” he said. “I think you’re going to see more and more and more of it over the next few years. Five years ago, not many were doing early access. But the audience has changed and the industry is going through a sort of renaissance period.”
“Radical Heights” 2.0
There’s a lot of work to be done on “Radical Heights” and plans for a constant stream of patches and hot fixes, but Lowery said the team doesn’t have a fixed schedule for updates, at least not yet. The next big update is coming soon, he said, and is focusing on getting a female character into the game.
And it sounds like this is the sole, or nearly the sole focus on Boss Key Productions. While Lowery wouldn’t say what the studio’s headcount is, he did say that most everyone in the company is working on “Radical Heights.” He also declined to give Variety any player concurrent count, though he did say that he thought 1,200 wasn’t accurate. “We have a very healthy user base and it’s continuing to bring in new players,” he said. “The people who are playing the game, it doesn’t seem like they perceive it as anything but an original take on an existing genre.”