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Exclusive – Knockout City boss on crossplay beta, and the “really hard problem” he faced in development

Ahead of the Knockout City crossplay beta, developer Karthik Bala talks us through the game's journey so far.

Knockout City is a dodgeball game with a difference.

The upcoming game Knockout City is holding a crossplay beta test over the Easter weekend, with players on all platforms coming together to try out this new dodgeball-inspired experience from Velan Studios and EA Originals.

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Ahead of the beta going live, RadioTimes.com chatted via Zoom with Karthik Bala, the CEO and Founder of Velan Studios. We spoke about the crossplay beta, how COVID-19 affected the studio, and the reasons why Bala and his team decided to build a whole new game engine to power Knockout City.

Bala is a veteran of the gaming industry, having founded Vicarious Visions (the company behind Crash Bandicoot) back in the 1990s, before going on to work at Activision for many years. In 2017, Karthik Bala launched Velan Studios with his brother Guha Bala, and they could sum up their business plan on a small index card.

“The philosophy behind the studio wasn’t specifically about any particular game,” Bala told us. “It was really [about] bringing together brilliant people. Build an awesome team, and have the team go find the magic in something new that they were really passionate about. And then once we kind of find that breakthrough magic, where it just feels great to play and something really new that hasn’t been done before, then we figure out the go-to-market strategy, who the partners could be, and then build it, ship it, and evolve it with the player community.”

After successfully sourcing funding, Velan Studios began building its team, with the studio’s staff doubling in 2019. And then, of course, came 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Bala reflects: “Obviously, for everyone, it’s been a really challenging year. For Velan Studios, we’ve had some really interesting challenges. We’re a studio culture based on discovery, and so much of it is serendipity, and organic in nature, as we collaborate together. So doing it in a distributed and remote fashion certainly became more difficult.

“You couldn’t just pass the controller, ‘Hey, try this out, see how it feels’. Iteration time is a lot slower as a result, so things needed some more time. And we had to figure out new ways of staying connected digitally and continuing to foster and build the culture, especially as new people were joining the team. But we’ve been able to manage. I think we’re all looking forward to the day that we can be back together, because there are some folks who’ve never met in person, but we’ve been through thick and thin together in the past year.”

Welcome to Knockout City.
Welcome to Knockout City.
Velan Studios

Velan Studios has worked on two huge projects since its launch in 2017: first came Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit, an innovative mixture of a game and a physical toy, which launched in the autumn of 2020; and now it’s all about Knockout City, a competitive online game that takes cues from the classic playground activity of dodgeball. Was the game inspired by memories of overzealous teachers and coaches hurling balls at us?

As Bala puts it: “Everybody knows dodgeball, and it’s amazing how it crosses all cultures as well. We all played it growing up. And whether you have fond memories or night terrors from getting smacked by the ball, or you want to get that one kid back, you know that sound is unmistakable, of getting hit by that ball. And that sound, that signature sound, is part of the game as well. It’s something that everybody gets. And we realised, there have been a few dodgeball games in the history of video games, but not like this, and not like something that’s scalable online. And so we knew that it was something that people would immediately get, but how can we really heighten that fantasy [in ways] that only a video game could do? You know, how can you feel like a God when you perfectly catch that ball, and when you return that and get into an intense rally until one person flinches?”

To create a game based on dodgeball, you have to start with the basics. Bala recalls, “One of the ideas was this fundamental notion of throwing and catching a ball, and the relationship that you have between players. And arguably throwing and catching a ball is humankind’s probably first-ever multiplayer game. And it’s something everybody understands, right? It’s universal. We were thinking about that as an idea for an online multiplayer game, and as the concept evolved, and we were experimenting with play mechanics, it took us a long time to really refine and develop it. And it actually took us 18 months to actually find the core play pattern that really worked, that was super fun and scaled. But as we were developing it, we realised, ‘Wow, there’s some fundamental technical reasons why this has never been done before’. Turns out, throwing and catching a ball over the internet is a really hard problem, and primarily due to internet latency.

“And it required us to just rethink at its core, how we were going to approach it. Because a lot of the tricks that [are used in] established genres like shooters, and racing games, and so on, those tricks don’t apply to a game like this, where these physics objects are inherent. And that split-second timing, that’s important. And especially if you want to have that precision play, that is very competitive and fair. It’s really, really hard, and it required us to just kind of rethink our approach to technology, and how we’re going to go about doing this.”

Karthik Bala (left) and his brother Guha Bala.
Karthik Bala (left) and his brother Guha Bala.
Velan Studios

The solution to that problem ended up being the Viper Engine, a brand-new game-making software that Bala and his team built from scratch for the project. This was no small feat, Bala recalls. “I’ve been making games for about 30 years now and built a lot of engines and tech, but these days, it’s a huge undertaking, because the technology is so complex, and the level of effort and resources that you need is large.” Bala explains that established game engines have hundreds of people working on them, but the Viper Engine had to make do with a core team of just ten developers, “So we’re taking an extraordinary level of creative and technological risk going after it.”

So how did that team solve the issue of latency, when there are multiple balls flying around at any given time, and players can even transform into balls themselves? “The solution was actually developing a whole new programming language that the engine was built on,” Bala explains. “And what’s unique about this language is that every line of code can run backwards as well as forwards. And it’s a very novel approach. It’s pretty mind-blowing.”

This means that the game is always “running the simulation [of your dodgeball match], and when there’s packet loss, or there’s significant latency, it tries to predict what’s going to happen next. But it may not get it right every time. And so what happens is, it actually rewinds the simulation, we actually turn back time and fix it, and then fast forward and catch up on the next frame. So we’re constantly rewinding and fast-forwarding the game, unbeknownst to the player, and it’s running buttery smooth. And so this concept of rewinding and fast-forwarding the simulation, to get around the inherent laws of physics of data travelling across the world, was our solution.”

With that problem solved, Velan Studios built the game and began looking for a partner to publish Knockout City. “We were finally at a point where we felt really good about putting it in other people’s hands,” Bala remembers. “And we took it to E3 2018 and rented a hotel room and started showing the game to potential publishers. And right off the bat, in the meetings with EA and the EA Originals team, we were just clicking. And what I found amazing was that every executive played the game, put their hands on the controller, and they’re playing the game, and they were having a lot of fun playing. And they wanted to sign us because it was so much fun.”

Flash forward a little bit further, with EA Originals confirmed as the game’s publisher, and now players have had a chance to try out Knockout City for themselves. Bala recaps, “So we had our first PC beta last month, and it was a bit of a hold-your-breath moment. And we were able to get a really strong core group of players. It was designed as a small-scale technical test, to see how the server and infrastructure would hold up, but more importantly, get quantitative and qualitative feedback from our players.

“And I’m really pleased that the players that came in, that weekend, and really had a great time. And, you know, the Discord [server] is growing, and people are like, ‘When is the next beta? When’s the next beta? I can’t stop thinking about this game’. And so it’s really nice to see that, but also [we got] some great insights, in terms of wishlists and features that they would like to see in the future. And we’re growing that community and dialogue, which was step four in our business plan, you know, to evolve it with the player community, and have that be an ongoing process.

“So now we’re getting close to our crossplay beta, that we’ll be doing Easter weekend. And it’s going to be a lot more players, because we are doing it across all the platforms. And so we’re really excited to see what happens next. And it’s incredibly fun watching these games – I was on Twitch, watching other people play and talking about it. We’ve been playing this game for four years now, but I saw some things happen in the game I’ve never seen before. That was amazing. So we’re just really excited to see what players do with the game next.”

The Knockout City crossplay beta takes place from 2nd April to 4th April on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Nintendo Switch and PC. You can sign up to take part on the game’s official website.

The full release of Knockout City will reach all of those same platforms on 21st May.

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