Velan Studios is celebrating a major moment for its arcade dodgeball game Knockout City. Not only does its sixth season launch today, June 1, it also marks the first season as a self-published and free-to-play game. A lot is changing very suddenly for the arcade sports game in the real world. However, major upheavals are commonplace within its fictional, dodgeball-obsessed city. As a live-service game building story content directly into a multiplayer environment, Velan is continuously experimenting with making space for a narrative where you maybe wouldn’t expect to find it–and the results are as out-there as they are delightful.
Incorporating stories into live-service multiplayer games is not uncommon in games today, but it’s still early days for such experimentation. From Fortnite to Destiny to Sea of Thieves, no two teams are really handling it the same, which is part of what makes these games so engaging. GameSpot recently caught up with Velan Studios to discuss the studio’s approach to live-service storytelling–and, to more simply ask, what the heck is going on in Knockout City?
As of the June 1 launch of Season 6, Knockout City is a free-to-play game.
“That’s Knockout City, baby.” Narrative director Eric Feurstein introduced me to this phrase early on in my conversation with the team. As he described it, the slogan began to come up within the studio long before the game came out as a way to explain the weird stuff developers were adding to it. “When you create a place like Knockout City and you make it unique in certain ways, the location starts to give you permission to do whatever you want.” It was described to me like a feedback loop: The city is weird, so weird things happen in it. As weird things happen, it invites further, farther afield weirdness.
The slogan, thus, became a shorthand explainer for the city’s chaotic string of events players have seen through five seasons to date. A rogue AI hacking the city, an alien invasion, the moon inching ever so closely to Knockout City’s homeworld–that’s all just Knockout City, baby. “Anything is possible in this city because that’s how we designed it,’ Feurstein said. “And every little idea, we’re just like ‘yes, and…'”
Game director Jeremy Russo elaborated on how that story and other elements all feed back into what is arguably the most important aspect: how it plays. “The art style, the narrative choices that we make, all that stuff is there to help support the gameplay, so it all ends up being very cohesive.”
This approach has proven to be so liberating that Feurstein has developed a reputation for coming up with answers to lore questions on the spot. When someone on the team asked him why, in a narrative sense, do the characters curl up into balls–which the game uses as a type of team-based super move in matches–he said he was going to defer to the catchphrase, but suddenly pivoted. “Oh, because they evolved from armadillos,” he told them instead. And so it became canon.
This helped bring the game’s unofficial mascot into the spotlight, too. Chonky, an armadillo who today can be seen in street art, crew vehicles, and more of the game’s colorful world, has emerged as a fan-favorite character. Feurstein and Russo said the fans took to Chonky right away, and the team was relieved they did. “We fell in love with him first,” Feurstein said. “We were leaning into this armadillo thing, but we didn’t want to go too far, just in case no one liked it[…]and when the community latched onto him, I said ‘Oh, thank god. We have so many other ideas to do with him.'”
In Knockout City, weird science is just part of the neighborhood.
Feurstein calls these hints of story or characters “seeds” and said the team will plant a few with each season and see what blossoms into the next Chonky. In Season 6, it may very well be Potatobot, a potato with mechanical limbs and a power supply which was designed to do manual labor in place of humans. But that’s for the community to decide.
In a story universe as malleable as Knockout City, one might think there’s room to bring fan theories into the game directly. On the contrary, the developer said the story is pretty well laid out far in advance–the next year of broad strokes is already accounted for. But where the fans do get involved is often by demonstrating similar interest in one thread or another, which in turn gives Velan the confidence that the team is going in the right direction. “Well it’s like, if I had the idea, and they had the idea, then it must be a good idea,” said Feurstein.
‘We don’t necessarily get specific ideas from the community,” added Russo. “But what they do influence is where we put our attention. We see what they respond to or don’t.” He explained that the game’s Deep Space Dispatches–story-heavy audio logs found in each of the last four seasons–were born out of the community’s longing for more information on the game’s DJ, who watches and comments on games of dodgebrawl from the moon orbiting the city’s planet.
Knockout City doesn’t take place on Earth. It’s on another planet we aren’t familiar with, though Russo seemed to know where and chose not to say. As such, Velan isn’t bound by any of our science–not little things, like the physics of a low-gravity “Moon Ball,” and not big things, like from which species the city’s dodgebrawlers descended.
A lot of the game’s mad science comes from Perennial Labs, the in-universe organization that likes to use the titular city as a Petri dish. That faceless company, along with the DJ and the local uber-rich land developer Malcolm Magpie, make up the game’s main characters, but Feurstein stressed that none of them are the de facto heroes or villains of the story, even as they each possess certain qualities that would land them somewhere specific on an alignment chart. It seems to me that, if there is a Big Bad in the story, we haven’t met them yet.
The new Boomerang Ball is the latest experiment sent out to the rooftops by Perennial Labs.
When you have a city like this and you combine that with characters like these, it winds up being the case that everything sort of fits, like the Season 6 Among Us crossover. Earlier in the game’s lifespan, we witnessed the DJ get up to speed with what it means to host an audio show. This served as an intro for the team as much as it did for the players, as players learned how to uncover story material while the devs learned how to include it, and whether to do so discreetly, overtly, or even by misdirecting players to keep them guessing. Later, when aliens arrived, the tone of the DJ’s show shifted to something akin to Coast to Coast AM to fit the theme of conspiracies, little green men, and other oddities you’ve maybe heard on the radio show over the years.
In Season 6, the DJ’s show, and thus the story, is getting another major makeover. This time, it borrows from Serial and other popular audio docu-mystery podcasts. With a host of bizarre experiments on display and a range of people presumably from all over Knockout City’s homeworld coming into town to showcase their inventions and discoveries, the city will undoubtedly plunge into chaos once again–but it’ll do it all splashed in color, stenciled in armadillos, and packing the ever-present exciting dodgeball gameplay that allows the team to plan the story far ahead. Now going free-to-play, Knockout City is open for everyone, and though you might have to deal with the occasional alien invasion, rogue super AI, or mad scientists, well, that’s just Knockout City, baby.