‘Darwin Project’ Has What ‘Fortnite’ Is Missing

Jeremy Ray
Games PC Gaming
Games PC Gaming Xbox

The Battle Royale genre is just beginning. There’s a duopoly at the moment, but neither Fortnite nor PUBG has fully explored the format. It’s up to indie upstarts like Darwin Project (PC and Xbox), and its new Show Director idea, to fill that hole.

From the very beginnings of PUBG’s phenomenal rise, we’ve felt that if the formula were tweaked and added to, this could be the Hunger Games-style battle we really wanted.

So far, that hasn’t happened.

PUBG has one main hazard: the Circle. Players don’t know where it’ll be, but once it starts shrinking, they’ll need to be inside or die. In addition to the safety circle, and a red zone circle that you can’t enter. There’s a lot of strategy involved with the Circle, and we’re not throwing shade. But it’s just one hazard.

Look at how many awesome hazards are in The Hunger Games series. You’ve got massive waves crashing around a point of interest. An unknown beast. Carnivorous monkeys. Forests riddled with traps. Risk/reward scenarios and challenges.

Fortnite brought its own, strange ideas to the table. The ability to build is certainly unique, but not quite what we’re talking about here.

Of course, there are all sorts of questions about how to do that. How do you make it fair? How do you make it replayable and interesting, many times over? We’d need a way to preserve the “no rules” philosophy, while also kinda having rules. Such a thing probably can’t be achieved with scripted events.

What we really need, is a Show Director.

The Show Director watches a Darwin Project player
You'll know the Show Director is watching when you see this floating robot.

Darwin Project’s Show Director is You

In a genius move, Darwin Project lets the player solve this problem. Each match, someone can be the Show Director, with a few different abilities to keep things interesting and fun. Far from feeling like they’re stuck with extra work, players want to be the Show Director. It’s fun. It’s almost a shame there can’t be more per match.

The Show Director’s abilites are as follows:

  • Providing heat to cold players
  • Granting a speed boost
  • Communicating with players
  • Closing off areas
  • Dropping special items
  • Shutting off gravity for an entire zone
  • Trigger a “manhunt” on a player, revealing their location

The “manhunt” can be used to flush out a camper, or just to make the match more interesting if there’s one dominant player. Shutting off gravity is kind of like a superpower, and we expect a lot more of those to be introduced. It’s fun, it’s interesting, and it’s actually fair too. All of a sudden, everyone has the same strange conditions to deal with.

All of these can be used as incentives. But there’s no way for the Show Director to directly damage a player. They can make someone’s life as hard as possible, but if they overcome the challenges, they still win.

A player loots an electronic, dropped by the Show Director
The Show Director can drop resources like this electronic, used to make powerful items.

Can this be abused? Sure. But Show Directors get a rating after each game, so you’ll know what to expect when you see a one-star gamerunner. We expect ratings to play more of a part in matchmaking as the game grows.

The Show Director’s abilities do have limits, though. They cost points, so they can’t be spammed. They’re also timed, so players can potentially avoid a fight against someone being buffed by their friend playing as Show Director.

The Player Becomes the Designer

Because it’s in the hands of the players, that frees up the Darwin Project developers from making a catch-all, works-in-every-circumstance hazard. The Circle is great because it’s so vague, so simple, and yet so much strategy is attached to it. We haven’t succeeded in coming up with anything else like it since.

But in Darwin Project, the doors are wide open for adding new kinds of buffs, nerfs, utility effects, and otherwise interesting hazards and points of interest. The sky is the limit. If they see something isn’t popular, they can remove it from the list of available effects. They can try out new things all the time.

Really all they have to do is add an interesting effect into the game. As for whether it’s “fair,” or whether it’s used at the right time, or whether it’s fun to spectate… all of that is the Show Director’s job.

Show Directors Are Also the Star

Expect players to build up their own “brand” as Show Director. We’ve already seen a few different styles.

Some will aim to create the most fair play environment possible. They’ll relish giving a hard time to campers — long a scourge of this genre. They’ll balance engagements. They may even interfere in 2v1s to help the underdog.

A player warms themselves by a fire
Fires are necessary to stave off the brutally cold environment.

Then there’s the spectator-friendly Show Director who really only wants what’s fun. They’ll troll some players, ridiculously buff other players, and even make deals with people. Someone on the verge of death might do anything for a bit of heat or some other resources. These Show Directors will instruct them to perform some deed in exchange for what they need. They’ll renege on that deal at their own peril.

Communication is allowed between Show Director and player, help can even come in the form of information. Letting contestants know the location or direction of others could speed up the game. In that regard, Darwin Project’s Show Director is also a safeguard against slow pacing.

Five, Six, Pick Up Sticks

Arrows are rare in Darwin Project. This isn’t a game in which you’ll have enough ammunition for a full fight. Even if your aim is amazing, arrows have travel time and are avoidable at long range.

You can, however, pick up those arrows from the walls and snow patches that got shafted. It doesn’t matter who made them. Ammo is ammo. This inevitably leads to jostling for position as players try to regain the ability to deal damage at range, while avoiding the enemy’s melee attacks.

The crafting wheel displays options to spend resources.
After collecting resources, items can be made on the crafting wheel.

There’s a lot of consequence attached to firing an arrow, and a lot of footsies, distance management, and area denial attached to trying to get your arrows back. Fire an arrow past someone, and they can easily backpedal to pick it up.

We’ve seen entire, successful games based around this dynamic. Towerfall Ascension is probably the most notable. It’s just one part of Darwin Project, and it’s fun without even being touched by the Show Director.

Information is Everything

Every Battle Royale game has its own way that it plays around with information between players. We recently wrote about how Radical Heights is strongly emphasising noise as a risk/reward system. Here, it’s the concept of the hunt.

Every time a player harvests a resource, that item can be investigated by other players. They’ll effectively pick up the tracks of the other player, whose location will be shown for a limited time.

A Darwin Project player sees a map with locations of rivals
It's a handy map, but you'd better move before the Show Director finds you camping.

Going inside buildings, you’ll find holographic maps which also display the location of surrounding players. Then of course, you’ve got your usual Battle Royale information tactics — when a zone next to you is about to be closed off, you can expect a few rivals to be running in your direction.

Combine that with the Show Director’s ability to inform – or misinform – players as they wish, and you have a few different fun ways information can be played with.

A character in the dressing room tries on armour.
Limited customisation is available for player cosmetics.

There’s still some way for Darwin Project to go. The game is lacking in customisation options, and it’s a little funny how many old chairs there are around this frozen wasteland, just waiting to be stripped of leather.

But this is exactly the kind of influx of cool ideas we want to see in this genre. Maybe Darwin Project will evolve its Show Director concept to provide the Hunger Games hazards we’ve wanted since day one, or maybe it’ll come from somewhere else.

The most important thing for us is the genre is healthily growing beyond a duopoly, and we like where it’s headed.

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at FANDOM. Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.
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