The German developer Yager has been around for just under two decades. In recent times it’s been known mainly for 2012’s Spec Ops: The Line, then the studio was badly burned by Deep Silver and Dead Island 2 (Yager's version was cancelled, and now Dead Island 2 is being developed elsewhere) before releasing Dreadnought in 2017. All of the above share something in common: a publisher.
“The Cycle is the first game that we would like to run and take more responsibility of,” says Timo Ullmann, president of Yager. “We have been developing it on our own in the studio, and so probably also… we’re going to face a lot of challenges in getting the game out and presenting it to players and so on, but yeah – this is exciting for us to work on.”
Ullmann got in touch about The Cycle a few weeks ago, and what immediately struck me about it was the focus on balancing co-operation and competition, which so many games try to do but can't quite manage. Games are always on a learning curve in terms of player behaviour, because you can’t predict human ingenuity, yet Yager thinks it has hit upon a new approach to corralling us tricky fleshbags.
“It’s ambitious in some ways and we hope it also brings something fresh,” says Ullmann. “So our term for it is a competitive quester, which means we allow players to interact with one another in a competing but also a collaborative way. We’d like to have social dynamics in the game that arise: so a simple example, whenever you meet a player, you can choose to offer a pact and share progress for a certain amount of time, or you can go head-to-head with one another.”
So the idea is temporary alliances, helping each other out on an ad-hoc basis, and an in an environment where doing so makes a lot of sense. The Cycle is a firstperson game, and involves guns, which may all seem very familiar. We’re all hardened by Destiny, a series that never remotely lived up to the promises, along with a hundred other contenders and the recent phenom of battle royale. Yager reckons everyone else has missed a sweet spot, and there’s a balance of players, objectives, and AI that feels dynamic every time - but you always start solo.
“It’s a match-based game at the moment, right now we’re looking at 20 people,” says Ullmann. “You start alone, we’re looking at co-op and we intend to do that at a later stage. But right now it’s just you, alone, and then the opportunity to pick up with another player once you meet them in the match.”
The Cycle has a good idea about how to stop player-killing, at least in the initial stages. There’s just no benefit to it. You’re in an escalating and hostile environment filled with threats, other players are helping take out the threats, and if you choose to start a fight with other players there’s no ‘reward’ and things overall just get tougher.
“The game is not incentivising you to kill other players,” says Ullmann. “You will not get any scores, I mean, you could still do that in order to prevent somebody from progressing, but the main idea is that you go about the objectives the game is setting you, and of course – especially in the later stages of the match where you see who’s on top – you can then try to hinder somebody’s progress.”
It’s a classic structure: everyone gets together for the heist then, when the loot’s on the table, turns around and betrays each other.
“This might be – at the last stage of the game, this might be the case,” laughs Ullmann. “So when there’s just a few people left on the map. But in theory you could also win the game if you have achieved goals that are providing a lot of score without being the last one alive.”
It’s probably worth spelling out a little more of how The Cycle works. You have one life in a match, so “all of a sudden everyone behaves a little more cautious and looks out after themselves,” says Ullmann. “We’re obviously aware of all the royale titles and we think we’re going to stand out by being able to let players choose according to their playstyle. You can be collaborative, or more competing with one another, and it’s not about last man standing.”
“It’s really – what we had in mind is we wanted to have an offering for players that are not super skilled and headshotting each other, so the game should be forgiving enough or present you with a number of alternatives to come out on top when playing a match. So that could be really basic – running through the levels and harvesting minerals or whatnot – but a lot of different activities that you could combine in order to make a win.”
Despite the non-royale focus of The Cycle, you enter the first map in a drop pod. This is the focus of the alpha test going on now. “We really want to bring across the idea of there’s a huge universe that you’re dealing with,” says Ullmann. “So you will have different biomes, different planets, moons, and structures to provide you with a variety of gameplay options and not just the look but the feel is different.”
What caught my interest about this setup is the thing I loved most about The Division. Essentially, you may enter the zone by diving in but, as this is such a hostile environment, you have to get out of it too. “Especially alone [it’s tough]” says Ullmann ”getting out is via an extraction point where a ship is landing and that’s also then the point where you are able to deliver your gear…”
By this kind of stage in the game, obviously, there'll be a tonne of beasties red in tooth and claw trying to stop your evacuation. You'll be such a plum target, just as any group in The Division is. Thing is, players always work against you when developers are trying to make them do ‘good’ things. A lot of the time it feels games have these arbitrary rules but all players want to do is shoot each other, and they do that regardless. I put it to Ullmann that The Cycle sounds fine in theory, but contact may break things they don’t expect.
“We’re actually thinking exactly that as we are tracking and seeing what players are doing,” Ullmann says. “We have a way with the matchmaking to make sure that, for instance, player – if there are a lot of them around – we can bind them and get them into one match, whereas we have more peaceful players that we may put in a similar or different batch where they just go about their way. And then there’s also ways in-between where we can spice it up with a visual representation…”
Ullmann trails off here because he’s talking about what he wants to be in the final game, and not what’s in the alpha. But the thinking is that “we would like to have [visual cues] so OK, you know this is a dangerous dude, but we’re also thinking about handing out contracts on players’ heads. If you become toxic, there might be a faction that’s just about ensuring you shall be taken down.”
This is what first interested me in The Cycle. As soon as Ullmann described a PvEvP system where things could get asymmetrical, I thought of two of my favourite games: EVE, where once when I killed someone they took out a contract on me, and a few days later I got nailed and knew they’d received a ‘contract complete’ mail. And the Souls series, which is all about surprise and taking advantage. I adore asymmetrical multiplayer, because it always keeps me guessing.
“Yeah, yeah – absolutely,” says Ullmann. ”It’s a delicate balance because if you put too many complex things or put them on offer, it might be also confusing for players so that’s why we also would like to engage in the alpha. We’re looking conservatively at 500-1000 people, so hopefully we can get those numbers, and the feedback that we would like to see is everything from the server – is our backend good enough? Is it stable? Are we able to provide the service for these days?”
“But also are people engaging in a way that we intended them or wanted them to engage? Or were we just so blind, and soon we’ll see everything is just too easy or too complex – also we are very keen to test our gameplay mechanics and how players progress through the game and how they are interacting with one another. But having players looking at the game with fresh eyes and giving us the straight feedback that we’re looking for is the main purpose of this alpha test.”
There are elements of The Cycle that may seem familiar, but at the concept's core is players. The ones that want to team up, the ones that want to focus on objectives, the ones out to take down some trophy monster and of course the ones who - despite everything - will go around trying to blow away other players. Ullmann mentions several times that "there's a lot of stuff that we are still actually trying to figure out" about a game that only entered full production at the beginning of the year. We'll soon see whether The Cycle can bear the repetition and withstand the worst that players can do.
The Cycle is looking for players for its closed alpha, and you can sign up here.