‘Hell Let Loose”s lead developer on how hardcore games can do more to welcome new players

Max Rea, lead developer on Hell Let Loose, speaks about the challenge behind bringing new players to hardcore games.

There’s no easy way to jump into games like Hell Let Loose. Before coming to grasps with the hardcore shooter, new players will die. Lots. Whether it’s through a hail of gunfire from players they never see, shells from seemingly invincible tanks or screaming hails of artillery fire, they will die. And then, most likely, they’ll die again.

There’s no straight road to learn how to play games like this. It takes gritted teeth and patience to get through those early days, because they can be an absolute nightmare. It’s not limited to Hell Let Loose, either – plenty of games across the multiplayer genre have too much going on for new players to catch them up to speed quickly. The weapons may change, but the learning curve stays the same.

When the learning curve is so steep, it’s to be expected that would-be players will fall to the roadside in exasperation. It’s a shame – specifically for Hell Let Loose, because behind those nightmarish early days lie a game that we said in our review is “a near-unparalleled experience as a gritty, hardcore WW2 shooter.

My own experiences, as a new player across many hardcore games, are best left unsaid. I was a team-killing liability during my early days of Red Orchestra 2, while my first Escape From Tarkov raids were heavily punctuated with one-sided gunfights and death screens. And learning League Of Legends? Er, let’s just move on.

escape from tarkov
Escape From Tarkov. Credit: Battlestate Games

It’s why some of the most hardcore shooters have niche – but dedicated – communities, awash with privately hosted servers and massive clans. But like any game, introducing new players to these communities is at the centre of keeping a game alive – and there lies the challenge.

To take a look at the issue from the developer’s side, we spoke to Max Rea – Black Matter‘s lead developer on Hell Let Loose. Hell Let Loose is a particularly interesting case because despite most hardcore shooters sticking to the PC market, Black Matter plan to launch the WW2 shooter on PS5 and Xbox Series X|S later in 2021.

It’s particularly important that Hell Let Loose makes itself accessible for a whole new market, but even Rea – who helms the game – recently found HLL‘s latest maps (Stalingrad and Kursk) difficult to play at first:

“I needed to play them four, five or six times before I felt like I had a rhythm of battle and I knew where people were going to be – they’re going to be over there, most likely their push is going to be here, all that sort of stuff. I felt for everyone involved when we were playing and I was just like, “Oh man, this is a brutal game”.

If the lead developer himself struggles to get to grips with the game, it’s understandable that completely fresh players are going to face an even more challenging learning experience. Hell Let Loose doesn’t have features from more casual FPS games that tend to help players learn the game quicker (such as killcams in Call Of Duty and Battlefield) but these simply aren’t feasible options in a hardcore shooter.

Hell let loose tanks
Hell Let Loose. Credit: Black Matter Games

Rea considers problems with onboarding new players as one of the two “weakest” parts of Hell Let Loose, and explains that it’s not something that Black Matter knows entirely how to solve yet:

“It’s by far the hardest thing that we’re dealing with from a game design perspective. How do you tutorialize this experience? And then once you get through the nuts and bolts of it, how do you teach intangible things like leadership or following?”

“We’ve thought a lot about doing a tutorial and then a lot of that gets into, well, what aspects of the game do we need the tutorial to cover? Is it stuff like W, A, S and D and crouch or is it kind of individual equipment, or then does it push into the intangible? Like communication with your team, and things like that”

If you ask many veteran players how to get into a game like Hell Let Loose, you’ll be told to persevere and bear with it, or follow someone else who knows how to play. To be honest, I’d struggle to offer any better advice myself. Most of my own time spent learning Hell Let Loose involved following long-time players like a drafted puppy, telling myself everything would eventually be fine as pieces of my body were, again and again, spread through every map in the game.

Hell Let Loose gun fight
Hell Let Loose. Credit: Black Matter Games

But is that really the best it can be, when a larger and more informed playerbase would be good for everyone? As Rea puts it:

“The lazy answer is just to say, “Look, either they’re going to go through the greenhorn to Tom Hanks level veteran journey and they’re going to love it and they’re going to have 2000 hours, or it’s not for them and that’s okay.”

“That’s kind of the lazy answer, but I think the more detailed answer would be that we need to keep asking the questions and we need to keep being with people as they first start playing – nailing down that stuff that we think is obvious and the people who have hundreds or thousands of hours hours think is obvious, and then actually do a proper explainer there.”

“So I mean, whether that’s taking people out to a bit of YouTube or an in-game YouTube video player that can maybe explain, I think even something as basic as the meta game, I think all that stuff is a real big kind of learning point.”

Trying to land on a tutorial that does right by new players is a tough game design issue. Trying to throw too much on players at once – or keeping them locked in a boring tutorial for ages – will put off newcomers just as quickly as becoming all too familiar with a respawn timer.

Over in the MOBA genre, League Of Legends has spent a decade burning through various versions of a tutorial before landing on three mandatory stages, after which the learning experience is integrated into PvP through helpful missions. Even these aren’t perfect – these tutorials have the same problem that Rea mentioned, where the larger meta-game is largely untouched.

League Of Legends; Credit: Riot Games

Mechanics are the easiest thing to teach – what buttons to press, how to move, roughly where to go – but the unspoken big-picture meta that drives these games to victory or defeat is pretty much unaccounted for in most tutorials. In all of these games, this is probably the biggest problem – when players are running around like headless chickens, it doesn’t take much for some veteran enemies to make their time truly unpleasant. On the other hand, as it stands the community is probably the most likely route that players will learn how to play through.

Interestingly, almost every hardcore game I can think of revolves around some form of teamwork or another. Learning your role within a team – and what’s worth communicating – is integral to succeeding in these games, but it’s rarely covered in any tutorials. From his own perspective, Rea agrees:

“We need to figure out a way to onboard players better. I think part of that is obviously trying to introduce them to other players and community – I definitely think that Hell Let Loose is best played with people who are communicating.”

As Rea says, helping to onboard new players is by no means an easy venture. It’s a lot of work just to understand how and what to teach a player, let alone actually implementing it. There is absolutely a line where hardcore games really aren’t for everyone, but at the very least, can they do more to let players try them?

It’s clear that Hell Let Loose is aware that new player onboarding is an issue that must be tackled, and perhaps more games should take another look at whether they can challenge the perception that hardcore games “shouldn’t” be for everyone. You can make a game more accessible without taking anything away from communities that demand challenge, and as Rea has outlined, there’s plenty of unexplored avenues for doing more in this regard.

Hell Let Loose is an incredible game – as are many in the hardcore genre – and while there’s no easy solution yet, hardcore games should do everything in their power to help fresh players see this from the same perspective.

There’s gold at the end of these bloody rainbows – why not help more players reach it?

Additional reporting by Jake Tucker

Hell Let Loose is available on Steam now, and plans to launch on Xbox Series X|S later this year. 

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