How Insurgency: Sandstorm is still growing on PC and gearing up for console

Go hardcore or go home.

Perhaps more than ever, smaller studios are able to challenge the big blockbusting developers and publishers, if not in absolute quality, then in terms of answering more specific desires from players. The likes of Treyarch, Infinity Ward and DICE are constantly seek for new ground to stretch into, changing and tweaking the fundamentals to avoid their games being called stale and repetitive, throwing the latest genre tropes into the mix and hoping that the community will be OK with games as a service and microtransactions. They might still sell millions of copies, but they’re also seeing more vocal pushback online, more criticism and people casually chatting about how the older games were the best. It’s from this that we see games like Battalion 1944, Hell Let Loose and Insurgency: Sandstorm springing forth to fill various little niches. Games that a decade or two ago might have merely been mods are now viable products.

In Insurgency’s case, it was once a mod back in 2007, before the small team of developers founded New World Interactive and worked on bringing its take on pseudo-realistic modern day shooting to a paying audience. Their latest effort, Insurgency: Sandstorm, released for PC at the end of last year and is coming to console in 2019, and on many levels it’s already been a pretty big success.

“Things have been great!” Lead Designer Michael Tsarouhas said. “In the first two months, in February, we’d passed over half a million copies sold, which was really awesome. People have been excited, we’ve been patching the game with updates. We have had some feedback that we’re not updating the game enough, not communicating enough, and that the game’s still having some performance issues on some PCs, so that’s stuff that we’re working pretty hard to address.”

While New World aren’t yet able to pin a release date on a console release of the game – which made their turning up at Focus’ What’s Next showcase a little odd – they’re obviously still hard at work bringing the game to systems they’ve never previously worked upon. It’s good to hear that a lot of their work is carrying across between the different platforms.

Michael explained, “It is [our first console game], and I don’t want to play the indie card, but resources-wise there’s 500 people at DICE and even The Farm 51 with World War 3, there’s 90 of them. There’s 35 of us, and a lot of us are contractors. This is our first console game, so it’s been a bit slower and we’ve focussed on the PC version, but stuff does translate.

“I remember at E3 last year, you could play the game with a controller and I was asking players who didn’t know our game how the game felt, and they were like, “Yeah, it’s fine. It’s just an FPS on a controller!” So that was validating and good to hear, but still there’s TRCs, there’s Microsoft, there’s Sony and there’s a lot that we need to figure out.”

In a lot of ways, Insurgency’s particular pseudo-realistic take will sit nicely on console, just as something like Rainbow Six Siege does. Despite just one of two hits taking players down and limited wave-based respawns, in my experience, people will rush in almost like an arcade shooter.

“I like to say that Insurgency’s gameplay pace is ‘medium-fast’,” Michael said. “We’re in the middle between the slower Squad, Arma III, Escape from Tarkov, etc. versus the faster Call of Duty, Battlefield, Quake, Overwatch etc. Because we kind of straddle the line between the two styles, when it comes to designing new game modes, we can lean one way or the other. We added a Team Deathmatch mode back in February, which obviously has that fast paced appeal, and it worked surprisingly well even with our realistic gameplay elements.”

One of the interesting elements is the wide set of classes to choose from, offering different weapon selections and some interestingly different roles. Considering the wide spread, I asked Michael how that has panned out in the released game on PC.

“I think we’ve seen on PC that [the roles are OK],” he replied. “The way that we designed our class system is that everyone is specialised, but they’re not that specialised. It’s not like Team Fortress 2, where you have the heavy weapons guy and the medic; you have the guy with the longer barrelled assault rifles and the guy with the shorter barrelled submachine guns. At the end of the day they’re both running up to the enemy and shooting them!

“The only really specialised roles are the Commander and the Observer, where the Commander has the binoculars and can call in an air strike, but they can only do it while standing next to the Observer. The interaction itself is actually pretty simple, […] One of the things we’ve got feedback on is how we can incentivise the Observer, maybe by giving them more weapons, and here’s where it gets tricky. If we make the Observer a better fighter to help Commanders, then they just go off to fight and don’t help the Commander. So we had to keep their loadouts restricted so that the people playing them were playing to help them.”

Still, there’s plenty to do to make it fit better on controller. Michael admitted, “The controls are a bit of a challenge, where we’re looking into systems like aim dampening, maybe auto aim but probably not,” but did also note that, “With performance, as we optimise the PC version, we’re also optimising the console version. That translates, and it’s the same thing with bug fixing and even adding content like new sniper rifles.”

The console version of the game isn’t necessarily their primary focus right now, as they try to address some of the feedback from the PC community and, somewhat ironically, are bumping into the very same issues that bigger games and studios are facing. There’s an emphasis on communication with the community, and oh-so-familiar problems with hate speech, or at the very least dumb and insensitive attempts at humour.

“It’s true. Just because of the setting of the game we are in, it reinforces that kind of thing,” Michael admitted. “It’s unfortunate and it sucks. The thing that we try to do is to empower players in simple ways. Just having a mute button to mute everybody or individual players is really important and that’s how we address that. We also had people ask if we could do a reporting system or downvote players, and that is stuff that we’ve explored and talked about, but at the end of the day we’re very small, our community team is like 3 or 4 people.

“I used to be the community manager on Insurgency, and I care about our community and it breaks my heart a bit to hear people acting like that, and to know there’s people playing the game that will play with them and get upset. You get the emails and it’s tough, it’s a really difficult problem to solve – it would be nice to have a really good reporting system, and I think Siege has said that’s worked better for them, League of Legends has to have a really extensive one, but it’s just not really realistic for us at this time and we’re not even sure how effective it will be.”

The main focus is instead on trying to continue to build and grow the game on PC (all of which will also be there for consoles). “We have a lot of free content planned for post-release,” Michael revealed, “including new maps, weapons, cosmetics, and game modes. We’re working on a new map called Compound which is a departure from our typical Middle Eastern rural and urban aesthetics. Compound takes place in a construction site and has a very diverse layout, with half built buildings, destroyed buildings, and makeshift fortified structures. It has this curious quality where one minute you’re in a tall, dark, congested, unfinished building trying to make out what silhouette is an enemy, and the next minute you’re in a wide open ditch squeezing through narrow pipes trying not to get noticed by snipers overhead.”

There’s also a new mode twist on the game’s co-op called Hardcore Checkpoint in the works, coming off the backs of the community, modders and YouTubers who were fiddling with settings. New World’s mode changes the pace of the game itself: “Movement speed is nearly cut in half, the HUD is even more limited, and you respawn without your normal equipment and need to reequip at randomly spawning supply crates. Enemy AI will cower behind cover when shot at, retreat when outgunned, and set up ambushes.

“The idea that you’re slow and can’t just sprint like a madman across an open street without getting picked off changes the gameplay in a big way. And the fact that if you die you lose your equipment save for a weak pistol and a bolt-action rifle until the game graces you with a supply crate means that every move carries weight and risk.”

Despite having just a small team, Insurgency: Sandstorm feels like it’s in a good place right now. The new content and ideas are definitely interesting and, if they can make the jump to consoles soon, they can capitalise on an appetite for something that most big budget shooters aren’t sating at the moment.

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