The recent Eurogamer Expo showcased a lot of upcoming exciting games; none more exciting than Brink, by developers Splash Damage. Garnering queues three hours long, we had to find Game Director Paul Wedgwood to find out a little bit more about the upcoming FPS.
Paul Wedgwood: "Hi there, I'm Paul Wedgwood, W-E-D-G-W-O-O-D (like the pottery, no E in the middle) and I'm the CEO for Splash Damage, and Game Director on 'Brink'."
Game Rant: So, Brink is a heavily multiplayer focused game, with emphasis on drop-in, drop-out multiplayer action. With a plethora of multiplayer titles coming out soon, the Medal of Honors, the Call of Dutys, what would you say truly differentiates the game from other multiplayer shooters? Why should someone buy Brink over another title?
PW: "Well, I suppose that the 'key messaging for the game', as the industry calls it, is that 'Brink' is really... I guess it has four counts; First of all, it's a world that people haven't seen before. It takes place on 'The Ark', which is this immense artificial floating city, built at sea as part of a contemporary 'green' vision. But, as a player, you enter in 2045; it's lost contact with the rest of the Earth and it's become the battleground of this isolated and horrific conflict between two competing factions. You can play as either side in that battle, with two completely different arching narratives that confusing and confounding views about who's right, and who's wrong. We have been making shooters for about ten years, and, for as long as I can remember, being frustrated by artificial constraints that are played on movements in shooters. Despite being a supersoldier, you can't jump over chest-high walls, you can't climb up on tables, you can't slide under railings, you can't vault over things. So we have a new movement system called 'S.M.A.R.T.' that solves all of that, allowing you to smoothly move across random terrain.
The third thing is that, for the first time, we're blurring the lines between single player and multiplayer gaming. So whether you're playing solo, co-operatively, or in full multiplayer 'Versus' battles, you're advancing (again for the first time), your full, persistent character. It doesn't matter how you play; you earn experience points for everything that you do in the game. As you do so, you're able to upgrade the way that you look, upgrade and modify your weapons, and to select and purchase from dozens of really cool items, abilities, tools, gadgets and skills that allow you to improve the way that you play the game and learn new cool things. I think the combination of those four areas is what really sets 'Brink' apart, and what makes it quite a distinct experience."
GR: I'm the sort of person that likes to play through a single-player campaign, and then head online afterwards. So am I correct in saying that, if I complete the game and earn all these cool items and abilities, if I go online, I'm taking the same character with me?
PW: "It's the same character. It's the same game! You could be playing the game for the first couple of days, let's say you're about two-thirds of the way through the campaign, and you're really enjoying it. Then, one of your friends comes online and he's been playing for a couple of months, since the game's launch, and he's got a really leveled-up character who's a real badass. You can just click 'Invite', and he'll just jump straight in, alongside you in your single-player campaign, and continue to allow you to experience the story and narrative in the direction that you're taking it. At any point, that same evening, you could open it up and let anybody join in, and have all of the enemies be strangers, or flood out your side with seven of your friends playing together; there's just no difference. Solo, co-op and versus are all exactly the same thing. It's the same game, it doesn't change; what changes is whether you're playing alongside and against AI, or alongside and against humans."
GR: Obviously, the 'two-team' structure is something you've done before -- Enemy Territory: Quake Wars -- so: What have you learned from your previous titles that you've applied to Brink?
PW: "Certainly, in some ways, 'Brink' is the spiritual successor to the work we've done before, because we've often -- we've always -- focused on faction-based games, where you complete a series of objectives as part of a co-ordinated team, taking on a combat role that suits your preferred playing style, and then being rewarded with Experience Points, rather than frags for your successes, that lead you to level up your skills and your abilities. I suppose, looking at the four elements, we wanted to automate the co-ordination of teamplay, so that strangers could play together, to get that same satisfaction and buzz that you get -- to quote the A-team -- when 'a plan comes together'! And I think we've been largely successful with that, and certainly going by the showfloor, and the two/three hour queues, complete strangers, without talking to each other over VOIP, are co-ordinating together to get very complex missions completed and having a great time doing it.
From the experience points standpoint, we always reset your experience at the end of three matches in the past, so what we wanted to do in this case was make sure that, you know, when you're leveling up, you're leveling up persistently, and making an investment in a character that stuck with you. So you really benefit from leveling up, getting a cool new outfit, modifying the colors and the textures, and looking really cool when you go online and play with your friends. Then they're like 'Wow! You got that cool thing!' But we wanted, because we're obsessed with guns -- it's a shooter after all -- we wanted to give you a method to modify your weapons to suit your preferred playing style as well. So now you can go into our game, and take something like an assault rifle, you can modify the upper section, you can add scopes, iron sights, red-dot sights, full scopes; on the front you can add a muzzle, a suppressor, a silencer; you can put grenade launchers or front grips on it; you can use extended magazines, duct taped magazines and so on, to create a weapon that suit the way that you want to play.
So that was kinda important too. The other thing is that, while we've always made objective-based games, the only way to really understand the story was to read the text on the level loading screen, and that was it. You know, we had AI in 'Enemy Territory: Quake Wars', and that was a pretty realistic interpretation of humans, but it wasn't AI that played strategically or tactically particularly well. So in 'Brink', our game has a full single player narrative, with full performance-captured cinematics, an orchestral soundtrack, and we think it's a really credible universe for a story, which means that, if you do want to play on your own, with AI, you're still going to have a really compelling experience."
GR: With regards to the story, I'm personally interested in games that don't focus on cutscenes, ie. you learn the story by playing the game -- Half Life is a great example -- is Brink a title that focuses on cutscenes, or...
PW: "No! In fact, our cutscenes are never longer than twenty or thirty seconds at the beginning of a mission, and we get you straight into the map. We use the environment as the narrator of what's been going on. So we use a design system that we've been developing for years called 'Instant Deep Context'. And it's a bit like the way that 'Lord of the Rings' was shot; you know, you might see this kinda tribal monster come across the screen for a couple of seconds, but what you might not realize is the family emblem, painted by the wardrobe team, on his button. People who watch the movies over and over again can learn a lot more about the story from that incredible attention to detail. We do the same thing in 'Brink'.
So on the map we have here at the expo, called 'Container City', at first glance, it looks like a Favela, like those you might see in Rio De Janeiro, but on closer inspection it's clearer that it was once a logistics facility for the Ark, where the founders used to keep their valuable and sentimental belongings, which was repurposed as habitation, and then has had twenty years of people living in it, which has turned it into slums. And on closer inspection still, there's a huge medical ship in the center that you don't notice until you've played the map three, four, five times, called 'Hope', which has its own entire backstory as well!
So we really use the environment to tell those stories, really subliminally to people, and then they'll start to pick up and notice things as they start to play those missions over and over again. What's really critical is that our mission system isn't based on a kind of 'being on a minecart, going a very specific route, and and witnessing the same stuff over and over', but you have complete freedom in the game. Freedom to choose the combat role that suits your preferred playing style, so you can play soldier, operative, medic, engineer; when playing that combat role, freedom to choose the weapons that you use, and then the freedom to choose from a selection of missions that could take you anywhere on the battlefield, not just a very specific route."
GR: I heard you mention earlier how dynamic the missions are; you can choose between them -- say, jumping over a wall and flicking a switch to open a door, or being part of the team that rushes through that door -- how does that work exactly? How does the player decide 'Well, I'm going to go do this particular mission now'?
PW: "What we do, is we have, in essence, an AI squad commander. It's all backed up by a very polished Voice Over system, for radio communications, and the squad commander will let you know when there's new missions available. These missions are dynamically generated, and they take into account your combat role, the abilities that you've unlocked while leveling up, your location on the battlefield, what your teammates are all doing, and the status of the objectives. This is to give you the most important thing you could be doing right now to help your team progress or impede the progress of the enemy, and then five or six other things that you could do alongside that.
So if I'm playing as a soldier at the beginning of the mission, my primary objective, on Container City, is to plant this explosive charge on a huge gate, so that I can blow it through. If I'm an engineer, it's my job to escort a defusal robot through the gap that's been made; if I'm an operative, in that minute of gameplay, I have the opportunity to hack into a sidedoor, open up that electronic door, to give my team a side route, around the outside of the gate, so that they can try and outflank the enemy if they're putting down a really heavy defense. But at the point while I'm playing, if I'm playing as Engineer, and I bring up my weapon system, it might also give me a mission to buff the weapon or soldier, who's trying to plant the explosive charge. If I'm playing Medic, it might ask me to escort the engineer who's escorting the defusal robot. If I'm playing as an operative, it might give me a mission to go and capture a command post, which is going to lead me through a route where, because I'm skinny, it understands I can use parkour moves in a way that other body types can't, to get to a remote location where I can capture a command post that not only allows my team to change combat role and pick up other weapons, but also gives my entire team a power or a health bonus, which acts as a morale boost for the fact that we've stolen this command post for the team."
GR: You mentioned just now that the 'S.M.A.R.T.' system will understand your body type; so, how does that work exactly? For one, how do the different classes differentiate themselves, and how does the 'S.M.A.R.T.' system really affect the gameplay?
PW: "'S.M.A.R.T.' works independently of the character classes, and is not constrained by the class that you play. We have three different body types in the games; so, starting with the skinny body type -- he's the most agile, he can do things like wall-hops and climbing over containers, he can run the fastest, he can jump the biggest gaps, but he does so with a penalty to the weapons that he can carry; he's limited to pistols and sub-machine guns. There's a medium body type that can still climb over things, vault, mantle, slide, but he can't do things like wall-jumps, he can't run quite as fast, he can't jump quite as far, but he can carry assault rifles, shotguns and small grenade launchers. Then you have the big body type, who has access to these massive fire-from-the-hip mini-guns, machine guns, gatling-style weapons, automated grenade launchers... but he has very limited agility -- he moves at almost walking pace -- he can't climb over things, but he's ideal for defensive roles or support roles.
So when you play the game, you can choose the combat role that suits your playing style -- you know, if you've got a great aim and prefer being on the front lines, you might want to play a soldier. If you want to play sneaky, stealthy, you'll go Operative. If you want to play a supporting 'Hero' role, maybe combat/medic, and if you want to do things like plant sentry, turrets, landmines, you'll play engineer. And you can then choose a body type that suits the way you want to play those combat roles, depending on whether you're attacking or defending, and then you can choose a weapon loadout that suits the combination of combat role and body type."
GR: When you spoke of the 'S.M.A.R.T.' system's capabilities, ie. Sprint, Wall-jump, etc. I have to wonder, have you taken any inspiration from any other games with parkour elements, say, Prince of Persia or Mirror's Edge? Obviously ME is another first-person shooter where you can pull off these crazy acrobatic moves...
PW: "Right, well, third-person games have been doing, you know, a greater level of movement for a really long time. The reason that shooters have had this problem is because you can't see your feet and so, in essence, we would punish you for a lack of user interface, making you fall through a gap that you didn't see, or bump into a chair that's below your view. Other games have tried to solve this in different ways, but to us, having to hit a series of buttons to carry off a sequence of moves that you would find intuitive in real life -- say, jumping onto a table, onto a chair, onto a bookshelf to climb up through a ceiling -- I reckon we could do these things in real life without any training. You certainly could jump over a three-foot-high wall if you were being shot at! Yet, playing as a supersoldier, that action is completely constrained. Even if you were playing some kind of supersoldier/parkour runner, you had to hit 'A, B, X, Y' to be able to complete a move. That's like telling somebody in a game, "Hey, you're walking up this staircase so we want you to hit 'A, B, X, Y' for every step that you take." It's pointless, and it makes no sense! So what the 'S.M.A.R.T.' system does is introduce a smart button, and what that does is contextualise; it takes into account your momentum, where you're looking and figures out what you're trying to accomplish. If I'm sprinting towards a container, in Container City, and look up, it's pretty clear to the game that I'm planning to climb up over it, so it starts that process. But it doesn't go into a canned animation, it's procedural, I can still look around as I'm doing it, I can shoot, reload, and everything else. If I'm sprinting towards a table, I'll vault over the top of it; if I look down, I'll slide underneath it."
GR: Obviously this game is being released on Xbox 360, PS3, PC; do you ever see a future in which there could be cross-platform multiplayer? Is it something that's technically possible, but is constricted by the platform holders?
PW: "I think it's always been technically possible, but ultimately it comes down to the platform holder's decisions, not the developers. Ultimately for us, it near enough makes no difference. We always have a big enough community for our games that you have enough people to play with; it's only really a requirement for a group of friends where two of them have PS3's and two of them have 360's, and they want to play together as a group. That's a fairly rare circumstance; it's changing as more people get online and more people take their consoles online, but at the moment, I don't feel like it's a great enough need that it would be worth focusing our time on that feature, instead of, say, weapon balance, polish, or making the networking smoother, supporting higher latency connections, or reducing the impact of P2P networking with host migration. It's not worth it, in my opinion, doing all that at the expense of calculating what was necessary to get two consoles to communicate with each other, and convince the platform holders that it would be worth it!"
GR: Shadowrun was a title that supported PC-Xbox 360 interplay, but the PC controls suffered heavily as a result.
PW: "That's a whole different kind of design challenge, because if you're on a mouse and keyboard, you have analogue aim, but on-off movement, and if you're on a console controller, you have an advantage for your movement, because you can control the rate at which you move forward, from very slow to very fast, but you have slightly less control over how well you are aiming."
GR: If you were to implement that cross-system communication, what sort of design adjustments would you have to make? Shadowrun was notorious for its poor mouse movement, which had been 'nerfed' to simulate the Xbox 360 controller.
PW: "To be honest, I just don't see it as a challenge that needs solving."
Game Rant: Ok! Fair enough. Last question of the day then Paul; what are you, personally, most excited about in Brink? Obviously you're the Game Director, and you have the advantage of being able to oversee everything in the game; what is the thing that most excites you about Brink?
PW: "I think, if there's one thing that we've achieved with 'Brink' that I'll really proud of, it's the notion that we'll able to take people that are new to multiplayer shooters, potentially new to shooters, and be able to get them to come online, and experience gaming at a level that we find to be so satisfying, such a buzz, that comes with co-ordination and teamplay, that we've been experiencing for years in the 'hardcore' clans, in a way that was previously almost entirely inaccessible."
Brink is scheduled to release in 2011, on PS3, PC and Xbox 360.