"If we'd have known it would have taken 6 years then maybe we would have done Outlast 3 first" The Outlast Trials creators reflect on their journey in crafting their first multiplayer game

The Outlast Trials
(Image credit: Red Barrels)

Most gamers will know of Outlast, even if they haven't had the pleasure (or terror) of playing it—a title acclaimed as one of the scariest games of all time by several publications and credited with undeniable influence on the indie horror genre. The Outlast franchise has been synonymous with heart-pounding fear and a testament to solitary terror, where grotesque enemies roam freely, often sans pants (because why not?). But now, at the brink of a new chapter for its studio Red Barrels, we face The Outlast Trials: a co-op nightmare set to haunt Xbox screens on March 5.

Red Barrels, a studio not traditionally associated with multiplayer endeavors, has embarked on the daunting task of bringing its signature brand of horror and gore to a collaborative gaming experience. The challenge is clear: how to preserve the bone-chilling intensity of Outlast while infusing it with the camaraderie and thrill of multiplayer gameplay.

Having been kindly invited to the Red Barrels studio in Montreal, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the terrifying world of The Outlast Trials firsthand. Alongside experiencing the game, I had the privilege of chatting with the brilliant minds behind the scenes and got to delve behind the scenes into their latest horror adventure and the development process. 

What is The Outlast Trials?

The Outlast Trials is a first-person survival horror set in the Cold War era, serving as a prequel to the acclaimed Outlast and Outlast 2. Here, the sinister Murkoff Corporation, the notorious antagonist of the franchise, detains you within a clandestine testing facility, subjecting you to their twisted experiments as they observe your every move. Whether braving the horrors solo or enlisting the aid of friends through co-op or online matchmaking, you must endure the harrowing Trials imposed upon you.

Staying true to the Outlast legacy, the game reintroduces the iconic night vision in the form of goggles, while introducing new elements to the formula. Equip rig devices to enhance your chances of survival and purchase Prescriptions to bolster your physical and mental abilities. Though confronting your foes head-on remains futile and you'll never be given an actual gun, strategic upgrades offer a glimmer of hope that you will finally escape this awful place.

A journey through Early Access 

The decision to embrace Early Access for The Outlast Trials has proved pivotal in its evolution. In current times where titles like Palworld and Baldur's Gate 3 have thrived in this developmental phase, the benefits of an Early Access period are undeniable. I sat down with Phillipe Morin, Senior Game Designer and Co-founder of Red Barrels, and Alex Charbonneau, Game Director, to unravel the journey of The Outlast Trials—a labor of love six years in the making, with its Early Access debut on PC in May 2023.

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As the countdown to the console release on March 5th loomed ever closer, I asked Morin about the rationale behind opting for Early Access over a more grandiose launch, pondering whether this approach held greater merit in 2024.

Morin responded "Really because of the type of game that we need and the phase development involved to refine some of the concepts and tools and balancing [to multiplayer games] we wanted to be transparent,"

Charbonneau added "There's also the technical aspect, it's the first time for Red Barrels to be making a multiplayer game, which involves like a huge aspect that the guys here have never tried before with working only on Outlast 1 and 2, which were only solo. And servers, we needed to make sure that everything worked good, for a massive amount of players, at the same time. So we did learn a lot during Early Access, especially at the beginning we had a massive amount of players at once."

And Charbonneau isn't exaggerating; when The Outlast Trials entered Early Access, it sold over 500k copies in its first week. It was a nail-biting time for Red Barrels, whose devs gleefully shared with me how surreal it was watching so many streamers play the game, and how they secretly checked their phones to keep up with the latest reception. The quality of Red Barrel's games belies their actual size; their office is modestly sized, with a team of 40-50 people working both from home and on-site to craft The Outlast Trials. Despite The Outlast Trials already being seen in Early Access, everyone I spoke to gave me a sense of bubbling anticipation for the console release of the game. The blood, sweat, and tears that have gone into the Early Access period are giving us a more polished experience on the console, and it will be the first time the game terrifies the masses from the comfort of their couch.

Early adopters have reshaped The Outlast Trials

(Image credit: Jennifer Young - Windows Central)

Early players have played a crucial role in shaping the future of The Outlast Trials, as Morin and Charbonneau shared insights into the feedback received during the Early Access stage. They expressed surprise at the game's enthusiastic reception and fans appetite for more—despite its intense horror themes.

"We are very open to receiving feedback," Charbonneau emphasized. "People have been very vocal about what they would love the game to become over time. We didn't know what to expect, you know. And we made this survey, just to ask people, if they liked the game and also what they would like to see in the future. Would they want to play once a day, once a week, once a month? My expectation was that well, it's a very intense game. I don't think people will want to do everything [at once]. But I was wrong."

My expectation was that well, it's a very intense game. I don't think people will want to do everything [at once]. But I was wrong.

Alex Charbonneau — Game Director

Charbonneau elaborated on how the game and survey data revealed that, despite its grim setting, players enjoyed socializing in the waiting areas and relished checking their progression and rewards after each trial.

"There's something magical happening there," he noted, referring to the waiting area where players could purchase cosmetics and engage in mini-games like arm wrestling. Despite being supposedly held captive by The Murkoff Corporation and potentially drugged out of your eyeballs, the environment fostered surprising camaraderie. There's also a competitive element, where players receive grades upon completion. Whilst playing myself I had a dopamine hit seeing my D grade jump to a B on my second attempt at a Trial, so I can imagine how that system feels rewarding in a setting with friends and frenemies alike.

"So it was a big revelation for us" Charbonneau admitted, "Okay, this game cannot just be five trials." This realization has shaped the frequency of Red Barrel's content plans for The Outlast Trials. "Now we have our foundation, it's really just the beginning of the journey. We have so many ideas and stuff we want to do in the future. And really, the players are shaping the way we are doing this." 

A group of friends explore the Trials (Image credit: Red Barrels)

For die-hard Outlast enthusiasts craving the solo experience, fear not—The Outlast Trials offers a solo adventure within the clutches of The Murkoff Corporation's experiments. The game has been made to cater to both playstyles. I delved more into the challenges the developers faced in transitioning from solo to multiplayer while preserving the spine-chilling essence of the Outlast universe.

Morin replied "We didn't want to do a pure action game. We did a good job of keeping the older flavor, but by definition, the game does become more action-orientated when you have the communication back and forth with real people. That can make it less scary, but more fun."

It's very intense on the gore, the imagery and everything is still very Outlast-ish but I like that people are going to be laughing

Alex Charbonneau — Game Director

Charbonneau added "There's also the fact that for our other games they can be too intense for someone to play alone for long, they may need to take half an hour. Whereas the multiplayer aspects have the benefit of sharing the experience. If you play solo, you will feel like you're playing a regular classic of ours but as a group people are more willing to persist. Our biggest discovery is when you're three or four players, it becomes like a party. It's very intense on the gore, the imagery and everything is still very Outlast-ish but I like that people are going to be laughing, being jump scared, it changes the experience completely [in multiplayer]"

Plans for the future of The Outlast Trials

(Image credit: Red Barrels)

When The Outlast Trials finally arrives on Xbox and PlayStation on March 5, it's already dropping with a bunch of new content. With additions like a fresh trial, new evidence documents to uncover, expanded character customization, more cell decorations, and an increased level cap, there's ample reason for anticipation. I asked Morin and Charbonneau what their content plans are for the game going forward.

Morin outlined, "We'll have several updates within each year, including new trials and key challenges as we're growing the game." Before continuing, Morin spoke of inspiration from the classic British 60's thriller series, The Prisoner, where an agent struggles to escape a seemingly tranquil village, an echo of the trials players face within the game's confines.

"Our goal when trying to create this game, is that the players [in the story] feel trapped inside, spending time as prisoners, completing the Trials and co-operating but with the feeling of 'No, this is wrong. I shouldn't be here I should be getting out of here' so there is maintaining that." he explained, alluding to The Prisoner's influence, "We want players to spend more time in this world, and maybe sometimes when you go into the lobby you notice a door that has been locked forever is now slightly open. You can interact with things that you couldn't before."

Morin's emphasis hinted at their intent not only to introduce new trials and activities but also to enrich the game world, and give players a sense that someday they may be able to 'escape' the experiments, but escape to where I wonder? While the destination of this potential escape remains ambiguous, one can't help but speculate—a journey that might lead to Outlast 3! (A personal theory, not an official statement from the developers.)

So why not Outlast 3?

The inevitable question arose: Why did the developers start working on The Outlast Trials instead of diving into the eagerly awaited Outlast 3? Was this strategic move driven by a quest for the more sustained revenue of a multiplayer title?

Morin provided insight: "Well, we would have been able to ship out Outlast 3 much quicker than this." he said reflecting on the six years it's taken to develop The Outlast Trials. "No, we were actually a bit fed up. So we took maybe four to five months, the guys were switching to Unreal 4 so they needed to use the new tech. We were brainstorming ideas, and eventually because with every project we like to try and give ourselves new challenges, like trying to be more narrative with Outlast 2 than 1, this time it was multiplayer."

If we'd have known it would have taken 6 years then maybe we would have done Outlast 3 first, but then again we're super happy with what we have today so I think it was worth it.

Phillippe Morin — Senior Game Designer

In Outlast, players assume the roles of investigative journalists like Miles Upshur and Blake Langermann arriving at suspicious locations to get to the bottom of The Murkoff Corporation's misdeeds. Morin gave me more info on how the concept of The Outlast Trials was born. "The premise we had, was what if instead of one journalist going to an assignment, you have a group of reporters and then you're stuck inside and you have to work together to try and survive, can we make that work? And that's how that idea came about for multiplayer. If we'd have known it would have taken 6 years then maybe we would have done Outlast 3 first, but then again we're super happy with what we have today so I think it was worth it."

The Outlast Trials — what did I think?

The Outlast Trials comes with a hefty warning that gameplay will include frequent violence and gore, disturbing visuals, blood, carnage and offensive language. (Image credit: Jennifer Young - Windows Central)

As I sat down with the developers for our chat, I had already spent considerable time immersing myself in the eerie world of The Outlast Trials, both in solo play and alongside the developers in co-op mode. While our full review will be forthcoming, these are my personal reflections from my time with the game.

I'm a huge horror nerd, but my tastes lean toward the realms of witchcraft, vampires, and the supernatural. Gore has never been my favorite category and admittedly I was pretty nervous about if I would enjoy it. Not because the previous games haven't been fantastic, but because I'm a wimp. I knew what to expect having played through Outlast 1 and 2, both of which are so intense I have had to take breaks exactly as Alex Charbonneau mentioned when discussing the vibe of their games. I can't remember now why I didn't finish Outlast 2, perhaps I ran out of valium? But I was already aware I was going to spend most of the game hiding and witnessing unadulterated gore.

Red Barrels has gone all out with The Outlast Trials when it comes to gore and shock value, and from a pivotal scene where a prisoner gets his face drilled off with a sock puppet, I was grateful that I'd had a light breakfast. 

from a pivotal scene where a prisoner gets his face drilled off with a sock puppet, I was grateful that I'd had a light breakfast.

Beyond its visceral horrors, The Outlast Trials improves on the formula of its predecessors with one crucial element: the illusion of control. No longer confined to hiding in closets, players can interact with environmental objects to aid their survival—be it creating distractions with bottles or stunning enemies with bricks. The introduction of psychosis, a terrifying gameplay mechanic where players must outrun the Skinner Man or find a cure while trapped in a basement, adds layers of tension.

In solo play, the terror remains as palpable as with the previous titles. Despite the assistance of environmental aids, like glass bottles, I didn't manage to complete a trial successfully, hindered by my own panic. It became evident that I needed assistance, that I required friends to navigate this nightmare.

When do I unlock the clown outfit? (Image credit: Jennifer Young - Windows Central)

After braving the game alone, and much screaming. I got to play both 2-player and 4-player co-op with the developers. They say a problem shared is a problem halved, but in The Outlast Trials, it's often multiplied. The multiplayer experience oscillates between comforting camaraderie and absolutely hilarious chaos.

At one particular point during a mission to punish some children (don't worry, mannequins only) I ran across the map squealing after being the reason we were spotted in the first place. The Outlast Trials will test friendships, you'll help and hinder your friends, and you'll find yourself laughing hysterically about having to retrieve a key from inside a cadaver stomach. And therein lies the magic in the multiplayer aspects of the game, there is more gore in this game than the first two games combined, but somehow in multiplayer it becomes hilarious. You'll laugh, cringe, and feel guilty for laughing, but everyone will have a good time

You'll laugh, cringe, and feel guilty for laughing, but everyone will have a good time

At the end of the Trial, you are scored appropriately depending on your performance and rewarded in kind. Adding a little competitiveness to the mix as you see how you stack up against your friends. The post-trial report card becomes a source of amusement, separating the cowards from the courageous. I'll leave you to guess which camp I fell into.

Better yet though after a grueling trial, you can get some upgrades to make your next journey a little easier. You can also get cosmetics and even slippers to make less noise when moving around (I really look forward to getting my first pair of slippers). 

It's already clear to me in my short time that The Outlast Trials will be a hell of a multiplayer experience on Xbox. I played on an Xbox One X and it ran seamlessly, I anticipate exemplary performance on Xbox Series X|S. I genuinely cannot wait to play this game with my friends, not that my preview time will give me any smidge of advantage, I am always going to be the friend that runs.

The Outlast Trials launches on March 5, 2024 on Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Windows and PlayStation Consoles and will retail for $39.99. Our full review is coming soon.

The Outlast Trials

The Outlast Trials

Journey into the darkness with The Outlast Trials, the ultimate test of survival horror. Uncover the secrets of the Murkoff Corporation's secret testing facility, armed only with your wits and a desperate will to survive. With heart-pounding gameplay and an immersive multiplayer experience, The Outlast Trials awaits. Are you ready to face your nightmares? 

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Jennifer Young

Jen is a News Writer for Windows Central, focused on all things gaming and Microsoft. Anything slaying monsters with magical weapons will get a thumbs up such as Dark Souls, Dragon Age, Diablo, and Monster Hunter. When not playing games, she'll be watching a horror or trash reality TV show, she hasn't decided which of those categories the Kardashians fit into. You can follow Jen on Twitter @Jenbox360 for more Diablo fangirling and general moaning about British weather.