‘Scavengers’ is a Rare Game That Actually Uses Game Theory

Jeremy Ray
Games PC Gaming
Games PC Gaming

Imagine how many students have walked into the wrong lecture, thinking Game Theory is anything to do with games. It is of course worth theorising about games – they’re worthy of deep thought – but they often have nothing to do with game theory, the complex mathematical field that explains everything from geopolitics to microbial behaviour.

That’s because videogames are usually either PvP (player versus player) or PvE (player versus environment), and game theory requires there to be a choice between the two. The normal example is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which you must independently choose whether to betray your accomplice or trust they’ll stay silent too.

Mapping out those kinds of choices mathematically can get… intense. It’s a space not touched by the Battlefields and the Uncharteds and the Destinys of our industry, although the board game scene has dabbled in it moreso with games like Secret Hitler, Dead of Winter, and Betrayal at House on Haunted Hill.

Scavengers is using the battle royale format to introduce game theory concepts to FPS. With so many people in one match, the game aims to force squads to choose between server-wide goals and squad goals. We sat down to play a match and chat with founder and CTO of Midwinter Games, Frederick Persson.

Scavengers SpatialOS Improbable
A drop pod lands for a squad to start scavenging before allowed back up into space.

Putting a Cold Face On

Each Scavengers match involves squads trying to collect as many “shards” as possible. You can’t go home until collectively enough shards are brought in — but rewards are there for the squads that bring in the most. PvP is always on the menu, but it’s up to you to walk that line between helping, hindering, or simply waiting while other parties take each other out. Or, as Midwinter calls it, “co-opetition.”

“If you go out and just kill the others, you will not make the final goal.” According to Persson. “So everyone has to sort of work together to earn the maximum from the session. It becomes super interesting. You always have to think, should we kill these guys right now? Get the resources and leave?”

Whether intentionally or not, some of its ideas reminded us of the recent battle royale Darwin Project. Set in a freezing, post-cataclysm Earth, this is a battle royale in which your biggest enemy can be the cold. You’ll start matches with your favourite item blueprints, and scavenge for materials within the arena to craft them. The need to create fire for warmth is at odds with the need to remain inconspicuous.

Scavengers puts a survival spin on this — a bit like DayZ, but without having to worry about breaking your leg if you fall a metre or two.

“There are three hazards right now,” Persson tells us. “Cold is the biggest one, that’s the one you notice the most. You can get infected by the Scourge, and you probably were infected at some point. So infection is a big one. And you also have hunger. So you have to make sure you hunt to stay alive.”

Foregoing the usual “circle” that battle royale games use, Scavengers generates these challenges around the map dynamically. There will be freezing storms that force you in certain directions. There will be infested compounds where collecting shards triggers waves of AI attackers. And everywhere you turn there will be either a PvP or PvE challenge that’ll force you into that decision of helping or hindering others.

As for how big the arena is, that depends entirely on how many people want to play — Scavengers is capable of scaling up into the hundreds.

Scavengers SpatialOS Improbable enemy outpost
Will you clear the outpost yourself, or will someone else do the hard work for you?

Improbably Big Matches

We’ve covered the SpatialOS/Improbable technology before when we looked at Mavericks. It ties multiple servers together to assign CPU functions in an efficient, scalable way. Want to add some terrain to the map, or add more packs of AI enemies? It’s just a matter of increasing the amount of servers working within one match.

Mavericks has been a bit slower to release than planned, though it boasts the potential to host a 1,000-player battle royale.

Based on the same tech, Scavengers can scale these matches up to size that are just silly. The server-wide goals and the squad goals can easily increase too, and all the storms, enemy compounds, mutated animals, and other hazards can scale right along with it.

“So that means multiple instances of the Unreal Engine are running,” Persson explains. “And they all connect through Spatial and then back to the client. We want to start out with a small playercount and in season 2 and season 3 we can add on more and more servers, and basically make the map bigger and bigger as we go. And that’s something you can’t do with a single server.”

While Midwinter (and Persson personally) worked on triple-A FPS games like Halo 4 and Halo 5, the studio seems to have scaled down somewhat for projects like Scavengers. With only 29 people in the studio right now, it’s relying on tech like SpatialOS, as well as outsourcing for things like audio and code, to execute projects that punch well above its weight.

One thing that’s stayed in-house though, is the AI. Persson was responsible for the AI in the latest Halo games, and he explained why that kind of complex information sharing and flanking maneauvers just aren’t possible on the scale of a large online game.

Scavengers SpatialOS Improbable infected scourge
Infected areas yield lots of resources and trigger events with waves of enemies.

“These AI routines are very complicated. And those ideas are something we’ve built on and made more open world, and we can expand it fast. But it does cost a lot of CPU.

“If you look at other open worlds that do PvP, there’s basically no AI in them. So it’s just player information that’s shuffled back and forth. We have, in this game, a few hundred AI running a full tree at any time on the server.”

When an AI witnesses your behaviour, you can bet its friends know about it too. They’ll try to align themselves to ambush you. But running a few hundred of these at once costs a lot of CPU power.

“We can spread out among tonnes of CPUs, which means we can have smarter, and much more AI in the game. And a higher player counter. Because basically Spatial will allow us to divide the world up into different areas. And each area is run on a different server.”

Scavengers SpatialOS Improbable
Squads will have to choose to work together or against each other before they head back.

Scale Like a Snail

The ability to scale up so massively is exciting, but entering the crowded battle royale space as a smaller project will be challenging. Before we can really think about hundreds of players in one match, we have to see if Scavengers can hit a critical mass of players for it to have a sustainable community.

That’s a tough task in an era when so many games are coming out, curation and discovery are the main problems platforms are thinking about. It’s all well and good for a singleplayer game — but if a multiplayer game falls below a certain threshold, no one can enjoy it.

Scavengers SpatialOS Improbable
Survival elements similar to 'DayZ' are present. Be ready to shift through many pockets.

Time will tell if Scavengers‘ “co-opetition” hook will bring in the numbers, and Persson says the exact design is still changing quite a bit. It’s possible the game theory aspect could increase, and Midwinter is experimenting with features along those lines all the time.

“Something we’ve been playing with… This is nothing that will probably make it into the game, it’s just a play around. Whoever carries the most samples on the team, he’s the one who shows up on the map.

“So whoever has the most samples. We’ll send that guy off somewhere — it’s like bait. We will be playing with lots and lots of ideas like that. That’s nothing that’s like in the game definitely, but we’ll be playing around.”

Scavengers SpatialOS Improbable
Snow deformation is real, and can also give away your position.

We’d love to see a double-down on the game theory aspect. According to Ian Schelling, a valuable tool in situations like these is to think rationally while appearing irrational. It’s the equivalent of playing a game of chicken in cars, and visibly detaching your steering wheel so your opponent has no choice but to turn first. Some sort of equivalent abilities (or perhaps even bluffs) could be a great fit.

Either way, we’ll be keeping an eye out for more news about when the beta will drop.

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at BLOGRR. 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.