When Splitgate broke 100,000 concurrent players in July, it may have looked to some like the game was an overnight sensation, another to be filed next to Valheim or Fall Guys. But that success had been a very long time coming for the team at 1047 Games, which first released the game over two years earlier, for most of which time it was played by an audience a few orders of magnitude smaller than this fresh peak.
For the studio’s co-founder and CEO, Ian Proulx, the Splitgate story goes back further still – all the way to the early 2010s, in fact, when he was still in high school, and landed on the game’s winningly simple premise: what if Halo, but with portals?
But it hasn’t taken long for Splitgate’s player explosion to completely rewrite the studio’s fate. In May, as the game was gearing up to its second launch, 1047 raised $6.5 million in investor funding. In July, just as the game launched its open beta, there was what Proulx rather modestly calls “a quick follow-up round,” raising somewhere north of $10m. Eight weeks (and 13 million downloads) later, the studio raised a further $100m, valuing the company at $1.5bn. “Obviously, we would not have gotten this funding if we didn’t have the explosion of players,” Proulx says. “At least, not this much.”
It’s a strange situation for a small studio, whose first game (depending on how you count) isn’t even out yet, to find itself in. And potentially a precarious one, too. But however you look at it, it’s certainly a long way from Splitgate’s humble origins: as a moderately successful free-to-play shooter with just enough players to cling on, and before that as a university project. And even before that, with a teenaged Proulx putting down the controller after finishing Portal 2 and thinking, “Man, I’d love to see this in a competitive first-person shooter”. It’s now pretty clear that he was onto something.
Putting aside the game’s huge quantitative success for a moment, the portals help Splitgate – a game that wears its inspirations right on its sleeve feel singular. They can act as a shortcut in the trek from respawn to action, let players pull off quick flanking manoeuvres, or simply double as cover. Opponents can’t see through portals you’ve placed, letting you backpedal to safety or snipe with impunity, knowing you can’t be shot in return.
It’s unclear how much of this tactical complexity was there from the first spark of inspiration, but it certainly had time to bed in. “I had that idea lingering in the back of my head for years,” Proulx says. It followed him to Stanford University, where he studied computer science with the hope of one day working in the game industry. “But Stanford doesn’t really have gaming classes. I learned how to code really well, but not how to make games.” Still, Proulx took the chance, and approached his advisor asking if he could learn Unreal Engine 4 as an independent study, and create this long-gestating game as his senior project. “He was super supportive,” Proulx remembers. “He actually put me in touch with some folks at Epic Games – like: ‘Reach out to these people if you get stuck.’”
And so, in 2015, Proulx made a basic prototype that fulfilled the premise, if not much more. The weekend before he had to present the game at a project fair, where it would be played and judged for the first time, he realised something: “At that point, I had only playtested by myself, on my own two laptops. So I had no idea if it was fun – I didn’t even know if it ran on more than two machines.” He asked seven of his friends to help him playtest. “And nobody wanted to. Everyone’s got their own finals to study for and their own final papers, but I got them to agree to come over and test for 45 minutes. And that day, we ended up playing for five hours straight.”
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