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LONG BLOG

Brazil of Games: Outlive Was More Than Just a StarCraft Clone

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The invasion of Brazilian games on the global market is still a recent phenomenon. Being a developing country, access to technology and resources is naturally behind the rest of the world, with our historically stupidly protectionist practices, and a cultural misconception that any product made locally is worthless, further aggravating the issue. It took until the 2010s, when the popularization of digital storefronts and the advent of more accessible development tools lowered the cost of entry considerably, for anything resembling a Brazilian game industry to take its first, tentative steps. The fact that most of the popular games developed here are homages to the past is a reflection of that youth. 

As it stands, Brazil is yet to produce a “Triple-A” title, and right now, we are mostly known for a few competent indies—some of which I’ve already covered, like Dandara or Horizon Chase—or for our involvement in other successful products (studio Miniboss worked on the art for indie darling Celeste, for example). Considering the abysmal state of the Triple-A industry, this might just be a blessing in disguise, but that doesn’t mean there were no attempts. Two decades ago, there was a game that dared to try and be that first Triple-A title: Continuum’s RTS Outlive. Let me tell you its story.

Wildest Dreams

The year is 1997. The anime adaptation of Pokémon just debuted in Japan, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated a world champion player in a game of chess for the first time, and CAVE codified the tropes of the bullet-hell shooter with DoDonPachi. In Brazil, the locadora parlors are still swinging at full force, and PC gaming is still somewhat of a niche for adults that have the money and the knowledge to assemble a machine. Like every story worth telling, this one starts in a suburban house and involves a group of friends dreaming big: Rafael Dolzan, Rodrigo Dal’Asta, and Alexandre Vrubel. Fresh out of graduation in computer science, the three amigos wanted to make a computer game, and by the end of that year, they had a working prototype. With that seed firmly planted, at the beginning of 1998, they founded Continuum Entertainment, with five other members that ranged between family, fellow graduates, and strangers-soon-to-be-friends. The goal was as simple as it was ambitious: create an RTS that could stand tall and proud with the greatest of its ilk. It also was as bold as it was insane. Even back then, making a game that rivaled the likes of Command & Conquer or Warcraft with only a fraction of the manpower and budget was brave, to say the least. I suppose that’s simply how pioneers work. You either go big or go home. 

Still, that is the sort of determination I can respect. It takes a special sort of intrepid attitude to look at some of the finest examples of its kind—during the heyday of the genre no less—and say “I want to create something better.” It's the sort of mentality that threads the needle between genius and foolish, something that could only come from a place of love and respect for the genre, and it is reflected in the final product. Short on cash but high on enthusiasm, Continuum had an uncharted mountain to climb, and by Odin, they would reach the peak they sought. In that sense, I can’t help but think about how appropriate that they chose the name Outlive—a result of Rafael’s search for a synonym for “survival.”

When you’re doing something ambitious, word gets around whether you want it or not. Sure as clockwork, it didn’t take long for the media to catch on. Dedicated gaming outlets were still rare, given that the internet was still in its infancy, so when news of a Brazilian game company surfaced, everyone jumped in to report it. Eventually, that buzz reached the ears of traditional media, and that’s when the name Outlive started making the rounds. Pretty much every popular magazine took an interest in the game’s development. “People’s Gazette,” then the biggest journal of Paraná (the state where Continuum is based), dedicated a page to report on the game monthly. Towards the end of the game’s development, it even appeared in The New York Times, with an article that paints the game as a bold and hopeful first step, both for Continuum and the Brazilian gaming industry.

All this attention wasn't because Outlive was set to be the first Brazilian game—as that honor was already taken nearly two decades before. It captured the public eye because it was the first game that resembled the standards of Triple-A studios at the time. This becomes especially impressive when you consider the circumstances behind its inception. When I said Continuum was short on cash, I meant it. The game was funded with the help of the associate’s parents, and each of the eight members did a little of everything. Except for the music (which was outsourced), the team worked on every aspect of Outlive themselves: graphics, sound effects, the story, even the unit voice lines were all collaboratively created between the eight of them.

In total, they spent around 190.000 USD developing the game (converted for time and inflation to the best of my ability). Video game budgets were already surpassing the million-dollar mark back then, so Continuum was working with 1/10th of the budget and maybe 1/4th of the manpower, and that’s a generous estimate. According to Rafael, this was possible because they were enrolled in a technology incubator program offered by Paraná’s Institute of Technology, which drastically reduced their costs. On top of that, there was no salary paid during the game’s development. The last time I heard about something like this happening was during the development of ill-fated hero brawler Gigantic, and that was 2017! I told you this was a labor of love.

Despite the difficulties, development on the game continued along for the next two years. An early demo was distributed online and generated some buzz (the developers even heard back from European players). As the process drew to a close, Continuum started to look for a partner to distribute the game internationally. That’s right, Outlive was also the first Brazilian game published outside its home country. They sent demos to multiple publishers, and all answered with silence. All but one: Take-Two Interactive, and yes, this is going to end exactly how you think it is. In a 2001 interview with the national gaming website “UOL Jogos,” Dolzan said: “The big problem we faced was prejudice, not for being Brazilian, but for never having developed a product before. Despite that, the negotiation with Take-Two was interesting. We sent them a demo version in January 2000, and the next day, they called us to say that the game is incredible, and they’re very interested in publishing it.” It would take 11 months of negotiation before Outlive reached the international market in March 2001, with local distribution to be handled by Continuum in December 2000.

Déjà Vu

Before we continue, I’d like to take a moment to look at some reviews Outlive received at the time. GameSpot gave the game a 5.2 out of 10, with an excerpt that read: “While it may appeal to nostalgic Starcraft fans, there isn't anything in Outlive that isn't done much better in any number of recent games.” GameSpy’s review rated it a 65 out of 100, and it concludes with: “Outlive won't win any awards for innovation, but it may be worth playing through if StarCraft has lost its challenge.” Another review from Game Over Online reads: “I don't think it offers anything that wasn't done or couldn't have been done when Starcraft came out in 1998 [...].” They gave it a score of 67 out of 100. GameZone’s review is the one with the highest score I could find and it ends with “It is a StarCraft clone, plain and simple, but easily the best I've seen to date.” 7.5 out of 10. Can you spot the pattern?

It's not just StarCraft on Earth! It's much more sophisticated than that!

Reading these reviews, I felt a sudden urge to find their authors, slap them in the face, and ask what the hell is wrong with them. I’ve intentionally avoided namedropping StarCraft until now for a reason. You’ve seen the screenshots. I’m sure you can see the resemblance between Outlive and Blizzard’s seminal title. That's not what I’m questioning here. StarCraft changed the genre forever. It’s a game with such gravitas that not even its own sequel managed to escape its shadow, so it stands to reason it became a benchmark to judge all future RTS games. If this is your first time seeing the game, it’s okay to think it looks like StarCraft. What I want to know is how that first impression became everyone’s conclusion.

The stigma that Outlive is nothing but a StarCraft rip-off is something that has stuck with the game. Find any discussion about it and that opinion is bound to show itself sooner or later. And I don’t understand why. This isn’t like with Doom in ‘93 when the term “FPS” wasn’t widespread and “Doom clones” actually did run on the same engine. The two games play fundamentally differently, and it’s not simply because of the massive difference in experience and resources of their developers. The setting, the pacing, the rhythms of micro and macro, these elements have such distinct intentions that comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges. The 2D graphics and early 3D CGI greatly resemble Blizzard’s title, but if you try to play it like StarCraft (or any other RTS for that matter) you’re going to get fucked. Outlive has a different set of cards in its deck, and in some aspects, it manages to outplay its peers.

The first card in Outlive’s hand, and most likely to be ignored, is espionage. Continuum probably understood that information is power, doubly so when it comes to RTS, so they weaponized it. All players have access to an Information Center that has quite a few tricks up its sleeves. It starts simple enough, with the ability to steal general information like the amount of credits and units a player currently has, or a simple scan of a small area of the map. Then it gets funky, with the ability to sabotage buildings (that sometimes can make or break an attack), monitor entire armies for a short period, or steal a piece of research from a player of the same faction. You can even straight up return nukes back to their senders! A late-game option for the Humans is the ability to launch ICBMs, and this can be countered. I’ll never forget the moment I watched as my own nuke went straight back to my base, obliterating my economy, and instantly murdering the one hero unit that had to survive. Needless to say, saves were loaded that day.

Scanning the map. Also, notice the number of turrets...

Feeding into espionage (and all other aspects, really) is research. Unlike more traditional RTS, where having X, Y, or Z structure is the only requirement to progress on the tech tree, everything in Outlive needs to be researched. It is almost 4X in its execution: only one item may be researched at a time, and nearly every unit and building has several upgrades associated with it. What impressed me the most is how intuitive the whole thing is. You can filter upgrades by building or unit, making it easy to see exactly what your upgrades will affect. If you cancel or change your research, progress isn’t lost: upgrades drain your resources gradually until completion, so returning to incomplete research puts you right where you left it off. Another quality of life feature is the ability to do targeted research. If you ask for something way down the tech tree, the game will tell you how many prerequisites you’re missing, and the combined time and resources it will take to reach your goal. If that wasn’t enough, after every research, your advisor will suggest another, and more often than not, it’s a sensible suggestion. Having power problems? Upgrade your generators. Approaching the late game? Better research some high tier units. You can even let the computer decide on its own if you're so inclined. I wouldn’t do that, but the option is appreciated.

Playing into the research system is the way the game handles the economy. Outlive uses two resources: energy to power buildings, and credits for everything else. If you’re playing as the Humans, your base must be connected to a power grid to function—the Robot faction doesn’t share this weakness but uses more power to compensate. If there’s not enough juice in the system, everything will be less efficient in proportion to the amount of missing power. Turrets will shoot slower, production facilities take longer to build, and research slows down to a crawl. The actual resource gathering is where things get interesting. They are infinite, but the iron/uranium deposits you extract lose purity as time goes on, making collection slower as the game goes on. Not only that, but your income is directly tied to the size of your army. Outlive uses a maintenance system, where units require a steady flow of cash to stay in shape. Similar to power, if you can’t afford to maintain your units, they’ll become less efficient in combat, and the difference between a unit at peak performance to one operating at 50% is glaring. What’s interesting is that the game gives you full control over the rate at which you spend resources on both maintenance and research. There’s a menu located on the top right of the screen where you can adjust how much you want to spend on both, and knowing when and how to spend less is an essential part of this game’s macro.

The full UI

All of this is to say that Outlive is far, far removed from the realm of “StarCraft clone,” and I didn’t even mention some advanced functions like an intuitive and easy to use waypoint system, or the option to set automatic escape points for units—that incidentally, can be combined with waypoints to create exact escape routes for your damaged units—or even how units can be set to automatically use their special abilities. At the time, some people rightfully pointed out that many of its mechanics appeared in other games, but what they all failed (or refused) to acknowledge is that the design isn’t imitative, it’s iterative. Outlive is not just copying the homework of other games, it goes the extra mile to improve and adapt them to fit its vision of RTS. One with an increased focus on controlling smaller armies, while emphasizing good map control and informational warfare through espionage, making for a more deliberate and slower-paced experience. I’m not saying it’s a great game, but I am saying that whatever cracks it does have (and there are quite a few of them), they’re not at the foundation.

2 Minutes to Midnight

In 2035, Earth is in a state of crisis. Natural resources are rapidly dwindling and an increase in terrorist activity—most of them fighting for the pockets of the remaining resources—has put humanity on a one-way trip to extinction. To avoid that destination, the major nations join forces and form the World Council. Deciding that our future lies in the stars, the Council spends almost a decade probing the Solar System for a suitable planet, settling down on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. There's just a tiny problem: the atmosphere is not exactly what one would call hospitable. Two groups arise to solve the issue: one led by Dr. Joseph Taylor, a geneticist trying to create genetically superior humans. Dr. Mary-Anne led the other, and with the sponsorship of Mechatronics Inc (really), her solution was to build hyper-intelligent, independent robots. Each was given a year to present a working prototype, with the winner being selected and sent to Titan.

It’s with that set-up that the campaign begins in 2045, as the one-year time limit is about to end. And because this is a video game, the genetic experiments are sabotaged, resulting in an outbreak of mutants known as “Abominables”—neutral monsters that roam the map and can randomly become hostile to any player. It’s as annoying as it sounds—and it later turns out that the robots were secretly programmed for war, giving us our second and last playable faction. The story is told in three campaigns that go in linear order. In the human campaign, we follow the exploits of Lt. Brad Maxwell, leader of an anti-terrorist force under the wing of the World Council, as he fights against the global terrorist organization known as the Liberty Army.

You’ve seen this dance before, so it probably won’t surprise you to know that Maxwell is betrayed by the World Council after learning that they are in cahoots with Mechatronics, joining the Liberty Army soon after. The campaign ends with Brad’s new posse overthrowing the Council and establishing the Confederation. In the robot campaign, you crush the Confederation and take over the world. The final campaign is about a ragtag resistance group formed by scattered remains of both factions, and it ends (I shit you not) with the reveal that the whole ordeal was orchestrated by aliens, in what has to be the most convoluted invasion plan ever conceived. They must have realized the same because the last shot teases a full-blown alien invasion for a sequel that will never come.

This is a gross oversimplification of the plot, but I don’t want you to have the impression that there was no effort put into it. There are plenty of betrayals and twists to go around, but because it’s mostly delivered by a narrator in between missions, it can feel like it isn’t there. It’s not bad, it just feels amateurish in a B movie kind of way, which shouldn’t be surprising given their budget. Despite limitations, there is a genuine attempt at plot and world-building: hero units have unique lines to reflect story developments, and the manual dedicates no less than four pages explaining the setting, complete with in-universe interviews, newspaper excerpts, and a manifest from the Liberty Army. In that sense, it reminded me of Homeworld's manual and if you know that manual, you know that this is high praise. 

What will likely keep you from finishing the campaign are the missions themselves.

Can I Play With Madness

When it comes to single-player content, this is where the inexperience of Continuum is most obvious. For story reasons, there are a lot of mirror matches, which against a human opponent might be entertaining, but with an AI this competent, later missions became a battle of endurance, rather than attrition. Enemy bases are frequently built on high ground and filled to the brim with turrets—which got buffed in a balance path, something I suspect completely broke the intended balance of the original release. Some bases are also inaccessible by land, forcing you to rely on drops, and with later missions lacking a clear weak point to launch your assault, it’s not uncommon to get stuck in a cycle of pointless skirmishes, since the AI is Bob the Builder when it comes to replacing the shit you wrecked. The issue here is obvious: the campaign uses the same AI from skirmish mode, and oh boy, does it show! They actively scout your base, circumvent your static defense with drop-ships, and expand aggressively. They’ll even take potshots at random buildings as a distraction tactic. This fact makes the few “defend this objective” missions a complete pain in the ass. Without clear chokepoints to hold the enemy, they devolved into a series of “how can I manipulate the AI into dropping where I want it” and that is never fun.

Defending this portal took me way more attempts than it had any right to...

The cherry on top of this is the frankly absurd amount of health these buildings have. I think the weakest building I found was the anti-air turret for the Robot faction with 750 HP. Now consider that most of the units don’t do damage past the double digits, and it’s easy to see that Outlive has a balance problem. I’m not ashamed to admit that there were a couple of missions where I cheated my way through—and by the way, all the cheat codes are references to Iron Maiden songs, hence the naming scheme for these headers.

The biggest issue I have with the campaign is how it doesn’t take advantage of its systems. Take the Diplomacy tab as an example. With that, you can quickly and intuitively either ally, go neutral, or hostile with a different faction, with the possibility of sending them cash to sweeten or seal a deal. Neutral is particularly fascinating—you don’t share vision or enemies, but both armies won’t engage each other in combat either—as it’s kind of an uncommon option in the genre, at least for players. It’s something the tutorial teaches you, and it comes into play fairly early into the second mission of the Human campaign. The first part is an escort mission (don’t worry, the convoy will stay out of enemy range until you clear the way) and halfway through you meet a group of mercenaries. If you pay them a small fee, they’ll allow you to use a little shortcut, and will remain neutral for the rest of the mission (provided you don’t attack them first). If you refuse twice—after the first one they demand double the money—then you have to fight. It’s a beautiful and straightforward interaction that gives this mechanic a purpose and should be the first taste of what’s to come. But it never comes back. Future missions will have your enemies and occasional allies set in stone because the plot says so. A similar opportunity was missed with the Marketplace. This is a building exclusive to the Humans, allowing a player to buy or sell units, and it works exactly as you think: prices go up or down depending on the offer, and the stock is shared globally. There is exactly one mission in the campaign where you have to rely on this, and even then, it's only for the early parts of it.

The Merc faction in question

It's likely Continuum had plans to use those mechanics more deeply, and it's even more likely that their budget didn't allow for it. This is a shame because I can easily picture how it would've made the game much better. You could've had missions with disparate mercenary groups for hire, or one where a massive third party controls most of the expansion areas of the map, requiring you to outbid your actual enemy for the right to set expansions. There could be an off-screen group of scavengers that periodically audit random units on the Marketplace, creating a cool and engaging way of maybe getting your hands on some late-game (or even a different faction's) unit. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to criticize the game for what isn’t there. It's just me trying to demonstrate how much potential there is in these mechanics.

Flight of Icarus

It probably won’t surprise you that Outlive was a commercial failure. Locally, it was hard to find a copy for sale. There was no structure for distributing a local game, so copies were hard to find and not exactly plentiful. Combine that with a strong piracy culture and the aforementioned disdain for local goods, and you have a recipe for disaster. For the rest of the world, you know how that went already. Poor reviews and the consensus that the game was “just a StarCraft clone” destroyed any hopes of profit. Take-Two distributed 40.000 copies, and for that, Continuum received the equivalent of 30.000 USD. Needless to say, it was a bad deal.

Continuum ended up becoming known in the local market, and there was a certain demand for their games. However, they were all either shovel or adware, enough to keep the lights on but far from funding their next big project. In 2004, they tried a comeback with an isometric RPG called Inferno, but without anyone to invest in the project, it never went anywhere. Continuum closed its doors on January 15th, 2005, with debts to pay and dreams unfulfilled.

I’m looking at Outlive with the benefit of two decades of hindsight, and admittedly, a bit of bias, both because of its origin and my nostalgic memories from playing it as a child. It’s not a perfect game, far from it. It’s unbalanced, there are not a lot of units, the music gets repetitive really fast, and there are only three tilesets to build terrain. Yet the potential behind its triumphs made it infinitely more amusing to me than many of this year's Triple-A games. It’s hilarious to me that some of its ideas would later appear in Blizzard titles, like “upkeep” in Warcraft 3, or “Archon Mode” in Starcraft 2. Yes, Outlive supports co-op campaigns where both players control the same army. Those accomplishments, the potential and passion behind it all, that’s something I wish it had been rewarded for. Continuum’s flawed diamond was mistaken for dirt and tossed in the trash bin of history, and it didn’t have to be that way.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Outlive’s release. Out of Continuum, only one of its  former members remains connected to the gaming industry. The whole affair left them disillusioned, and who can blame them. But what they attempted to accomplish is not something to be forgotten. They took the first step towards something great and tried to soar to the skies. It’s something they take great pride in, and in the interviews I found, it shows. Many of them say jokingly that when they’re old and crazy, they’ll finally work on the sequel.

I would love to see them try to reach for the Sun again.

- Wine, videogames and top hats.


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About Niorone of us since 5:29 PM on 12.15.2014

Writer for fun, professional amateur and 16-bit dreamer.

Brazilian man born and raised, under the hot sun where I spend most of my days. Currently working on a series dedicated to the documentation of the local gaming culture and landscape, that I call Brazil Of Games. I took the name from an old TV series that aired a long time ago here but no trace of it exists on the Internet.

The Brazil Of Games:

[*] The original blog about Nintendo's departure from my country that planted the seed for everything that's to come, all the way back in 2017.

[*] The first real installment, where I explore the origins of the world's first digital-only console, the Zeebo. And why it failed.

[*] Meet the Locadora, the parlors where we got our first contact with gaming!

[*] A follow up of sorts to the previous blog, where I explore Brazil's most revered game: Top Gear!

[*] The SEGA Genesis might have been born in Japan, but it was Brazil that made it its home! Here's how it happened.

[*] It's no secret we love soccer games. So here's a brief history of the Mod that forever changed how we played them!

[*] Folklore is not something many games explore. Here's a game based on a local folk tale from my hometown.

[*] Everyone knows that gaming really started in the days of the arcade parlors. Brazil's history with them was a very curious one, thanks to legendary company Taito and their many, many bootlegs!

[*] Every story has a beginning. Here's to the game that created our whole gaming industry, AmazĂ´nia! May your legacy be remembered for all eternity!

[*] Happy 20th anniversary PlayStation 2! This one is dedicated to the console that changed everything!

[*] A mini review of the cute little indie platformer Out There Somewhere.

[*] What do you get when you mix history, culture, and Metroid? You get the little hidden gem that is Dandara!

[*] On December 2000, one RTS almost put Brazil in the Triple-A gaming market. This is the unfortunate story of Outlive.