Chatting with Splash Damage CEO Paul Wedgwood is always a treat – even if it comes shortly after the disappointing news that Brink won’t see the light of day in 2010.
We sat down with the lord of all things multiplayer and shooty during last week’s QuakeCon, where we talked shop about why Brink held down its S.M.A.R.T. button and sprinted out of 2010, what form the game’s DLC might take, the difficulties of multiplatform development, putting the color back in shooters, how a truly cross-platform multiplayer game might work, and tons more. Seriously, if you crawled out of bed this morning and thought to yourself, “Gee, I sure want to hear Paul Wedgwood talk about everything ever today,” then you came to the right place.
Read the full interview after the break!
[Interview by Nathan Grayson]
VG247: Brink was recently delayed into 2011, which is kind of a bummer, because I want to buy it. Could you explain why you felt like the game needed a little extra time in the oven?
Paul Wedgwood: We’re not adding any additional things to it. Essentially, we’re gonna spend longer in the beta phase. Because it’s a really ambitious game, and now that people can see what we’ve done with weapons – the number of weapons, the number of weapon modifications, the number of abilities, the number of items and gadgets – they can see the interrelations between those many components sets up some very specific balancing challenges.
And for Brink, we want to make sure people enjoy playing months after they’ve started playing – or years after they’ve started playing! I think in order for us to achieve that well, we want to have the best possible period of balancing and polishing.
What kind of post-release support do you have planned for Brink? I don’t imagine you can go into specifics just yet, but can you paint us the bigger picture? Are you planning a few scattered DLC packs, or something more dedicated and long-term along the lines of Team Fortress 2’s ever-evolving update system?
Well basically, we –as developers – have a reputation for supporting the community long after release. We still manage the wiki for people who are still editing Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, which was released seven years ago. We’ve released the source codes for both our previous games. You know, the SDKs to allow people to make mods and fool with the design tools and everything else.
Bethesda have a great reputation for DLC as well with Fallout 3. They’re one of the most prolific DLC developers. But we’re in alpha at the moment. We’re pre-beta. We haven’t made any final decisions on how to support the game after release.
We have loads of ideas, but our focus – as far as Brink is concerned – is just on Brink 1, and that’s it.
Brink’s got a very interesting universe, but your lead designer was telling me that he was absolutely adamant about a focus on multiplayer game design first. Would you ever consider designing a more story oriented Brink game? Maybe something that’s single-player and a bit more scripted?
Games are about interaction – first and foremost. There are plenty of other entertainment mediums if you just want to be told a story. You know, books, DVDs. If you don’t want to read the book, you can get an audio book. [Laughs].
In Brink, I think we have a great narrative with a big arcing story. I love the way it starts. I love the way it ends. We tell the story of two factions really well, and we confuse and confound the views of the two – who’s right, who’s wrong. And then you have the interaction between the squadmates, and you’re actually one of the people in that cinematic, because we even want that to be interactive. So as your character becomes cooler and cooler looking, he’s in the background of those cinematic scenes – you know, just turning into this crazy monster, or this super-slick preppy looking guy. You know, however it is you want to look.
So Brink is a true single-player game and a true multiplayer game. It just happens to be one game. And that [non-Brink] way, when you play the entire game on a mine-cart – the orchestrated, heavily scripted experience – you get to play once, and then play a completely different game when you go online. You need a different set of skills. So, for us, right down the center of the line is co-op play. And to support co-op play, you need both a cinematic, colorful narrative and you need high replayability and a high level of action and a great level of freedom. So with Brink, I think that’s a better way to think of the game.
So do you think co-op actually lends itself well to story-telling? Have you ever felt hampered by your decision to integrate competition-based multiplayer into your storyline?
Well, no. I think the thing is we’re not precious about the story. As far as we’re concerned, if you play, say, racing games just to race cars – you don’t do the career mode or story modes or any of that stuff – that’s fine. And it’s the same with Brink. If you’re not interested in the story, you can skip all the cinematics. Or you can use that time that the cinematic’s playing. We let you bring the deployment menu over the cinematic. It’s kind of crazy, but we let you do it so you can re-configure your weapons loadout. If you like the ambience of the cinematic stuff, but you want to be configuring your character before he starts, we let you do that.
We have closing cinematics for all outcomes – failure and success. Which is different from a single-player game, because a single-player game doesn’t have mission failure as a potential outcome. They don’t have to do a big ending cinematic for things going wrong.
So, you know, for us, if a player is interested in the story, there’s a ton there for them to discover. We’ve long thought that the environment is one of the main characters of the story. Even in the city you just played through, you probably didn’t notice that the whole center of the map is a huge medical ship called “Hope.” And there’s a big story about why that ship’s there in the center of Container City. And there are lots of things we do with the environment for people who are interested. They can find out a lot more about the history of the Ark and how it came to be. We’ve written a 40-year backstory for the Ark to support all of the work that’s gone into creating the environments that reflect that approach.
It’s a design approach that we call “Instant Deep Contact” – this idea that you can look at something, and from that thing you’re looking at, you can tell a lot about its history. Its past usage, its current usage, its state, and everything else.
During his keynote, John Carmack gave a spiel about how PC and console technologies have diverged quite a bit lately – versus how they’d reached parity for a bit at the beginning of this console cycle. Coming from a PC background, what do you think is the best approach to PC development these days?
We certainly found the transition from PC to console development to be a challenge, because when you’re developing for something like a PlayStation 3, it’s almost an alien language that you’re trying to decipher as a PC developer. So we hired a lot of very talented console developers to join our team to help us make that transition.
But I think, really, the most interesting thing about the three different lead platforms for our type of games – the Xbox 360, the PC, the PlayStation 3 – are the design challenges in achieving gameplay parity and visual parity. Because with the PC being further ahead now in visuals, getting a PC to look as good as a console or better is a particularly tough challenge anymore. The challenge is how do you get a good framerate, a really good rate of physics processing, and efficiently use the network bandwith you have for each player to develop a presentation that supports excellent gameplay no matter what platform you’re playing on. How do you make sure that the S.M.A.R.T. movement system – with its intricacies and people jumping and sliding and turning and shooting and sliding into cover – how do you make sure that works just as effectively on an analog controller when you can’t rebind every key on the keyboard for all of those functions.
So there’s a really interesting challenge to create a control schematic and an interface that works effectively for everything, so that nothing is a port. Nothing is a compromise to make it almost as good as the other platforms. That’s one of the things I’ve found most enjoyable about Brink, and I think we’ve largely succeeded. Now the way we achieved it as an approach was to be truly platform agnostic from the start. So even though the very first prototype was brought in on the PC because it was the quickest thing for us to do, we played on console controllers connected to the PC. So, you know, at E3, we played on PS3s. This time, we’re using PC boxes, but we’ve got the 360 interface and 360 controllers. Sometimes, we have a mouse-and-keyboard. And we’re not really dictatorial about it in the office. We just like people to switch around and play with different controllers and see how they feel.
And I think you can see in some games that the interface isn’t as effective on one platform as it is on another platform. And that’s something that’s a real goal for us: visual parity and gameplay parity.
A rumor circulated recently that Microsoft was developing an extremely comprehensive cross-platform setup for PC and Xbox 360, but then scrapped it because mouse-and-keyboard users were making even the best console players look like amateurs. Is that disappointing to you? Given the opportunity, is that something you would have been gung-ho about since your game is all about parity between platforms?
You know, Kevin Cloud from id Software, who mentored me in design for pretty much the first six years of my career because he was the executive producer on Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, he and I used to talk a lot about cross-platform and how you would do it. You know, should it be people controlling vehicles on analog controllers, and people shooting and running around in first-person on keyboard-and-mouse, and them working together cooperatively to complete a series of complex sections and stuff?
I think that if anyone ever does achieve that level of inter-operation between different platforms, it would be because they found a way to play to the strengths of the different interfaces and have them work together in ways that the other people can’t do. A keyboard is not analog, and so you don’t have degrees of input. And so, the analog controller in many, many ways is better than the PC controller, the mouse-and-keyboard, but at different things. Racing games are a perfect example. You’ve got analog acceleration and analog brakes.
I used to be a really PC-centric gamer. And I’ve changed my own character over the past few years to play a lot more console games. But one of the things we wanted to achieve with Brink was that feeling that you could run, jump, turn, shoot. We looked at vertical combat – which is normally avoided in console shooters – and added fluidity to the way you move and shoot that works just as effectively on an analog controller as it does on a mouse-and-keyboard. I think that aiming in a shooter will always be – because of the size and surface you can use with a mouse – the accuracy that you’re able to achieve can’t be matched by a console controller. But your left hand on a keyboard can’t give you degrees of acceleration or reverse or levels of strafing.
So do you think that – if a true cross-platform game were ever designed – it would essentially have to be two separate games for the two different platforms?
Like I said, despite the fact that Kevin and I talked about the design challenges, I don’t think we ever talked about seriously doing anything cross-platform. There’s just no real need. The communities for our games are always big enough to support the single platforms.
Brink has a really interesting architecture and style to it. In a shooter landscape that essentially looks like a bowl of mud and gravel soup, do you think developers are underestimating what good a unique style can do? How much of a role do you think it plays in attracting players?
When we started, Olivier and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on that stuff. When I showed the first concept for Brink, I imagined a photo-realistic environment. When we hired Olivier Leonardi, he was the art director behind Prince of Persia. And when he came on board, he wanted hyper-realism; he wanted exaggerated characters and proportions. He wanted to put the color back in shooters. It’s what he said: “I’m going to put the color back in shooters.”
And, you know, we disagreed about that stuff. And then, recently, Bethesda posted a blog of mine, and I had to admit I was wrong all along. Olivier had always been right. Our studio director printed out my quote – “I was wrong all along” – and stuck it on the back of Olivier’s [computer] screen. So now, Olivier’s got this thing on the back of his screen saying that I was wrong. [Laughs].
But, you know, Olivier’s just a genius about stuff. And I think what he’s done is – like a good music studio or something – it’s not truly pop. But because of that, you can listen to it for years and years, and there’s always a greater level of depth and interest you can discover when you look at something. You know, “Oh, I didn’t notice that! I didn’t notice that! Wow, look at that!” I get that when I look at great pieces of art, look at beautiful architecture, listen to a great CD, or watch a movie I love for the sixth time.
And having a unique exaggerated type of realism with this colorful art style gives us that. And then, of course, it has the added benefit for marketing of meaning that every screenshot, every piece of gameplay footage, every video for a website, everything – you just know it’s Brink from a distance. It’s very easy to tell.
Your lead designer was talking about how you’ve taken a lot of inspiration from World of Warcraft. Sounds like you’ve got something similar going on here, since WoW’s art style is also very stylized, and – as a result – long-lasting.
Right. But when you get up close in the character customization interface, it’s actually all photo-realistic texturing. But, from a distance, it looks almost like a cartoon character.
We’ve done the same thing with the accents. You can choose an accent – I think we’ve got, like, eight or ten – and they represent ethnicities from all around the world. But we don’t take any of them seriously. We have 22 nationalities at Splash Damage, so we have complete irreverence for everyone. [Laughs]. So whether it’s the most stereotypical British guy, or American, or Arabic, Asian, or African, none of the actors took themselves seriously during the reads. So it’s really great, because it adds an amazing level of comedy. And so you’ll be leaving the store in your new outfit where you just look like a nutter, and one of your squadmates will say, “Do you know what you look like?” And there’s just that sense of having a little bit of fun.
The story of the game is serious. It’s a serious consideration about sustainability and a green vision, and this kind of unavoidable conflict – that people just need an excuse to fight, and that becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy endless cycle [type of thing]. And man’s inhumanity to man and so on. And that’s all a very interesting concept, but the fact is that three soldiers running about will just take the piss out of each other, because comedy relieves the stress of a combat situation. So I think, in that way, it’s quite believable. The banter between squadmates is really quite silly at times, but the story – the reason everyone is fighting – is quite profound.
Are there any plans for a pre-release demo or open beta test of Brink?
You know, at the moment – because we’re pre-beta – we’re just focused on polishing the final feature set. Once we finish this period of mulling, the final feature set is going to be stable. Because we’ll cut things that aren’t fun. If we have 100 things and 20 of them aren’t fun, we won’t leave 100 in for the number. We’ll ship with 80.
With Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, we had ten maps in production. We cut four before we released. One of them was full-scale replica of the [inaudible] prison of war camp. All of the art was done. We’d put months and months and months of work into it. But it just wasn’t fun. It didn’t end up being fun. So rather than just include it for its own sake, we just cut it. We didn’t release it. As a result, those six maps have been played to death for the past six or seven years, because every one of them is good. Every one of them is different, unique, and presents a different experience.
With Brink, it’s the same. Every map is a unique district with a unique series of gameplay elements and geography to fight within. Although we have consistent objective types; you don’t have to re-learn how to do stuff. You always feel like you’re somewhere completely different and the gameplay is always refreshing.
What’s Splash Damage’s take on 3D? It’s The Next Big Thing right now, but do you think it’s here to stay?
It’s difficult for a developer, because the investment that you need to make in supporting different types of technology is really [inaudible] once you have a large enough audience to benefit from that focus. In the past, we’ve worked with Nvidia to include high-end support for specific graphics cards – to make the best use of the feature set for those. And, you know, we’ll continue to do our best to work with vendors to get support for things into the game.
But at the moment, the 3D thing isn’t something that’s on the table – not during pre-beta.
What about in the future? Is 3D something you might focus on for Splash Damage’s next game?
I don’t know. I think with 3D, the best examples of its use are those that are designed with it in mind – particularly movies where they knew it was going to be a 3D movie. And in that sense, it’s like designing a rollercoaster ride or any other form of entertainment that’s all about shock and stuff. You’d probably want to design a game that was focused on that.