Founded in 2011 by former Ubisoft Montreal development trio Philippe Morin, David Chateauneuf and Hugo Dallaire, Red Barrels are an independent studio out of Montreal, Canada.
In 2013 the studio released its debut breakout title, Outlast for PC, followed by releases on Xbox One and PS4 in 2014. Fast-paced, violent, bloody and terrifyingly unnerving, Outlast saw players walking, running and hiding within the tight hallways and darkened rooms of Mount Massive Asylum as unfortunate investigative reporter Miles Upshur.
Such was the success of Red Barrels exciting debut game (Overwhelmingly positive on Steam) that it was a nailed on certainty to return with a sequel at some point. In October of 2015, the studio announced Outlast 2, scheduled to launch on Xbox One, PS4 and PC simultaneously in the fall of 2016. Outlast 2 will continue the trend of placing journalists in horrific situations as players control Blake Langermann, who along with wife Lynn find themselves deep in the Arizona desert, following a trail of clues that began with the mysterious death of a pregnant woman known only as Jane Doe.
Despite being recently delayed, with Outlast 2 now slated for a 2017 release, Red Barrels have proven themselves to be one of the brightest, upcoming development studio’s in the industry today, a studio full of vision and boasting veteran developers whose previous work includes the likes of Splinter Cell: Conviction, Dead Space 2 and Assassin’s Creed. We recently caught up with Co-Founder Philippe to find out more about the studio’s creation, its development process, growth and progression since 2011 and influences in our latest edition of Developer Focus.
“Working at Red Barrels is about passion and commitment. Players pay to play the best of what we have to offer and we want to deliver. So, if you want to join a team of experienced and talented devs, if you’re ready to shake things up and if you want to work at a studio where you can use the full scale of your talent, then Red Barrels is your home”. This is the hiring pitch offered to us by Philippe Morin, one of the three co-founders of Red Barrels, the studio behind Outlast. They take a more relaxed attitude to their development process than other studios we’ve covered, but it seems to be working out for them: “During development, we often use the word jazz. Nobody’s working with a music sheet they must follow note by note. We like to jam. It may sound chaotic at times or feel too improvised, but, hopefully, by the end of the tune, we’ll have crafted something unique. You can’t plan creativity, but sometimes you can ignite it.”
Of course, this attitude is also reflected in much of their day-to-day, as employees can arrive when they please in the morning and leave whenever their day is done. “Of course, depending on the production phase of the project, hours can vary. During the day, we try to work things out on the spot and do meetings as little as possible. We’re a small team, so we just need to raise our voice if we need to poke someone.” Philippe tells us.
Red Barrels was founded in 2011 by three people, but they also had the help of several former colleagues of the founders. Things have certainly changed since, as Philippe recollects: “Outlast 1 was made by a team of 10 people, plus a few contractors. We were working in an office that was on a 2nd floor but still felt like a basement. In September 2014, we moved to a new space. Finally, we got windows. We’re currently 19 on the floor. We always wanted Outlast 2 to be better and bigger, with a lot more production value, so it meant increasing the team size.”. While there are no certain plans to expand the company yet, Philippe seems to prefer to not dive into outlandish statements before anything is set in stone: “Right now, we’re so focused on shipping Outlast 2, that we can’t say for sure what we’ll do in the future. We got ideas and options on the table, but since nothing is forcing us to commit to anything right away, we’ll finish our game first, then go on vacation and after that, we’ll see. The studio is fully independent. All the shareholders are on the floor working on the game. We don’t owe anything to anybody, so we’re going to take full advantage of the situation and see where the wind blows.“
Philippe and the other co-founders – David and Hugo – started out working in Montreal for Ubisoft and Electronic Arts. “We all started at Ubisoft Montreal back in 1997-98. Hugo worked on Splinter Cell. David and I worked on Prince of Persia: The Sands of time.” Philippe tells us. “In 2010, we got together at EA Montreal to work on a new IP, based on an original idea from Hugo. For various reasons, mostly the wrong ones as far as I’m concerned, our project got cancelled and that’s when we decided it was time to move on.“. Already, Red Barrels’ story sounds like so many others we’ve heard, as AAA studios so rarely like to gamble when there is a tried and true formula. The three decided to part ways with the industry giants and form an independent studio. “It was awesome and still is. We certainly have no regrets about quitting our jobs in 2011. It was risky and 18 months without a salary felt like forever, but it was worth it.” says Philippe. “In 2008, David and I had tried to convince Ubisoft Montreal to let us make a horror game, but we were told that market wasn’t big enough. But when we started Red Barrels, we reasoned that since we were going to make Outlast with a small team and a small budget, we wouldn’t have to worry about making revenues like Assassin’s Creed in order to be profitable.” and it definitely seems to have worked out well.
We wanted to know more about the name “Red Barrels”. It’s simple and catchy and we were curious where it came from: “Actually, coming up with the name was one of the hardest things, a lot harder than coming up with the title Outlast. We had to do lists and votes and stuff like that. Eventually, it just came down to what everybody was cool with. And also I guess we thought that it would give us an opportunity to do something cool visually. So it was basically going through a list, voting and what everyone felt comfortable with, we went with that.”
Philippe told us that managing the scope of Outlast was the biggest challenge with going indie. Resource management was far more crucial and a focus on efficiency was required. It seems to have been a success and Red Barrels did not stray from their horror-focused vision even in today’s multiplayer shooter-saturated market. “We first and foremost make games to please ourselves as gamers. Part of the reasons for starting our own company was that we were tired of having management people coming by once in awhile to hijack production because of some new flavor of the month.”, asserts Philippe, boldly. “Now, we can be entirely focused on making the kind of games we like to make, without having to worry about some dude disrupting our gig. That being said, I am myself a big sucker for COD online, but I prefer to make single player story-driven games.”.
While the team has had a deadline of sorts for Outlast, i.e. finishing the game before the money ran out, Outlast 2 allowed them to work on a more flexible schedule. They’ve even decided to delay release by almost a year rather than compromise the experience that they’ve envisioned. That being said, no game developer is safe from crunching time every now and again: “At some point, you have to ship and a date gets locked, but new and better ideas always emerge. So, if you want to make the best game you can make, then crunch becomes inevitable. Of course, you have to balance it and there’s a point when it becomes unhealthy. It’s not worth it to work 100% more to make it 1% better. But then again, sometimes the best ideas arise when you’re under pressure. As they say, Necessity is the mother of invention.“. And while they do try to make as much of their games in-house, Red Barrels, like many others, occasionally outsource things like music or voice acting.
We think it may be a first, but rather than listing Naughty Dog as one of their influences, Philippe had something different to tell us on behalf of Red Barrels: “I think, overall, we like to create emotional rides. We want to provoke and take players out of their comfort zone. We like the idea of being a studio who dares to do stuff others avoid. We owe a lot to Frictional Games because Amnesia: The dark descent paved the way and brought back the horror genre.” as for other, non-game influences, the answer was more nuanced. “I think you must first define what’s the experience you want to create and then take what’s useful from other medias and hope everything gels together to create something unique. So, it’s not like we set out to do the game version of Children of the Corn or The Shining, but we use those references for guidance. Take Shelter is also an important one.”. Additionally, the team did meet up and watch several horror films at the office or at the theatre. As Philippe puts it “Having common references helps communication.“.
One question we really felt like we needed to ask of someone versed in creating horror was whether the genre’s effect increases or decreases for someone that works on it. Philippe is definitely on the diminishing returns side of things: “The impact varies from one person to another obviously, but in my case, it does diminish the effect. Amnesia: The Dark Descent scared the shit out of me when I played it 6 years ago, but I doubt it would have the same impact on me if I played it today for the first time. And that saddens me because it’s a great game, but that’s the downside of becoming a maker of horror games.”
When not working on Outlast 2, the team likes to play other multiplayer titles such as Borderlands or Left4Dead and being Canadian they play more than their fair share of NHL, or in their words “Hockey is our religion.”. As for upcoming titles… “We check out every horror games released and of course, we’re eager to see the next Call of Cthulhu. There’s a wide range of taste among the team, so the list would be pretty long. We got fans of Call of Duty and Battlefield. Some were eagerly waiting for Inside. Some are waiting for The Last Guardian.“.
Employees at Red Barrels also enjoy some leisure activities such as going out for drinks every once in a while, Christmas parties and complimentary hockey tickets. They also enjoy a bonus when reaching the Gold Master for a game and another one if the game breaks even. Other than that “nothing too formal, we like to improvise. “. This seems to be the general philosophy at Red Barrels. It seems to have worked out well until now and hopefully will for years to come.
Huge thanks to Philippe Morin of Red Barrels for taking time out to chat with us.
Red Barrels, Outlast 2 is slated for a 2017 release on Xbox One, PS4 and PC.