There’s something strange going on in the world of the military shooter right now. Call of Duty: Black Ops has recently become the biggest entertainment launch in history. Medal of Honor made the news by virtue of being set in a current conflict. And yet there is a groundswell of feeling that the genre is becoming stagnant, repetitive, unadventurous – that the lack of bravery and conviction evident in EA’s concession to renaming the Taliban is indicative of a wider trend not just in the genre, but in the games industry as a whole, and that the tyranny of triple-A boxed-title franchises is leading us to a creative dead end.
Peter Tamte is the President of Atomic Games, the studio behind forthcoming download-only multiplayer shooter Breach, a title that he hopes will shake up our perceptions about how first-person shooters can be made and marketed. It’s also the studio that made Six Days in Fallujah, an ambitious military FPS set in the early years of the Iraq War that was famously dropped by publisher Konami because of its controversial content. On a recent visit to London to promote Breach, he talked to us about his conviction that something has to change.
Breach isn’t a re-skin of Six Days in Fallujah, redesigned to avoid offending our delicate political sensibilities with wars that are actually going on, though it does use the same engine on which Atomic spent so much time and money. What happened to Six Days gave Tamte a chance to really think about what the games industry needed, he says, particularly in terms of retail and distribution.
“One thing that concerned me is the way that other forms of media have been adopting digital distribution much faster than videogames,” Tamte explains. “When Apple launched iTunes, it was launching with content that was just as strong as you’d get in a retail store. But in the console market, games are either games out a year or more after retail, or games with a small, more niche focus, games that typically don’t have a broad enough appeal to be carried in a retail store. This seems to me a fundamental issue for our industry, because it’s easy for me to access all this other entertainment from my house, on demand, so it’s going to get more and more of my time.
“So we thought, well, we made this huge investment in the Hydrogen engine – why don’t we use that to change perceptions of what people can get via download on consoles?”
Breach is not, like Battlefield 1943 or Blacklight: Tango Down, essentially a stripped-down version of a retail game. It’s a strategic shooter designed to compete on the same level as Call of Duty’s multiplayer. This is hardly an even playing field, though, as Tamte acknowledges.
“I’m expecting that everybody who might want to play Breach has already played COD. They’ve already played Medal of Honour, they’ve already played Halo. I’ve got to give them a different experience. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s 1200MP or zero – I’m still spending money on it, so it had better give me something that I haven’t already paid for.”
Breach does that. At first it looks like just another military FPS, but it has two key differences: active cover, and universal destructibility. The way these two elements function together makes it a very different FPS from anything we’ve played before, including Battlefield.
The way you can snap to, move around, shoot over and blindfire from cover in Breach is more familiar from third-person shooters. The way that cover degrades and shatters under fire, though, is new to multiplayer shooters. Damage isn’t a cosmetic element – it’s the driving force behind matches, forcing players to change tactics as previously safe areas become unstable.
Blowing holes in things is precise. Very precise. In Battlefield, no matter where you place your pack of C4, the hole in the wall it creates is going to be the same. In Breach, you can blow a new route through a building exactly where you want it, on interior walls, too. You can blow the floor out from underneath someone’s feet, or set up an ambush from the top floor of a building, dropping down onto unsuspecting players below. You can even shoot out specific bricks to create spy-holes.
What this means is that you can’t really learn Breach’s maps. Every time you play, the choke points, cover and lines of sight will be different, depending on how people have manipulated them. The battle slowly shifts around the field as parts of the map become unusably damaged and cover slowly disappears. Bridges fall down under fire, closing off entire sections of the map and preventing teams from flanking each other.
If Atomic Games wanted to do something different, it’s definitely succeeded. Half an hour in Breach’s maps completely recalibrates the way you instinctively play a competitive FPS; it’s refreshing.
I’m not the only one, according to Tamte, who keeps blowing cover that I naively presume to be safe with missiles from the other side of the map.
“For the first 15, 20 minutes people play it just like Call of Duty,” he says. “Then they come across other players on the map using cover and destruction, and they start experimenting with that. About 30 minutes in, they start playing with it themselves, and all of a sudden the way they’re playing the game is completely different.
“It’s more realistic. They’ve using cover and destruction in a way that’s similar to how the military uses it. In essence that’s what we want to do.”
Since Six Days in Fallujah was dropped, the team at Atomic has been concentrating exclusively on Breach. Contrary to rumours earlier in the year, Six Days was never finished – only a few levels were complete – but most of its ideas come across in Breach.
Tamte is still hopeful that Six Days in Fallujah will eventually be made. “What we need is the funding to complete it,” he says. But Atomic Games will not do what EA did and intentionally fictionalise the setting and events to make it more palatable to a world that’s hostile to videogames with something to actually say.
“Six Days takes place during the most relevant event of an entire generation,” Peter asserts. “Some people suggested, 'Why not just make it Six Days in Bullcrapistan?' We could have done that, but that would have taken away one of the reasons why we made the game, which was to recreate the specific stories of some people who are our heroes – I can’t do that in Bullcrapistan because it loses its context.”
He added: “My frustration with [the situation] has grown over time, if that’s even possible. The retail sales of videogames in the US have declines in the last two years. That may be partly because of the economy, but it’s also because the games industry has stopped creating anything new, and consumers are starting to say, 'Hey, what you’re selling – I’m not buying.' I have conversations with senior people at publishers all across the world, and they’re telling me that videogames are trivial, and we’re going to keep making trivial games. Someone needs to slap them on the side of the head and say, 'Hey, guys, sales are going down.
Something is wrong.'
“We should experiment with new categories of games. That’s what we wanted to do [with Six Days]. It has to be made into a purely commercial argument, ignoring all the arguments about the importance of the medium, and the things that we can do for consumers that can’t be done via passive forms of entertainment – because most of the publishers are interesting in the economic argument. It should be clear to them that the path we are on right now is taking us downhill. And yet when I have conversations with publishers, I still get the message back – 'No, we pretty much want to keep doing what we’re doing.'
“But our goal with Breach is to do the opposite thing – to disrupt the way games are priced and to create an environment where original content can flourish.”
Tamte makes a very good point. Are scenes like “No Russian” any less tasteless or controversial because they’re fictionalised? Why do games continue to shy away from real situations and real issues, putting themselves into a perpetual circle that prevents them from gaining any real-world credibility?
“We in the videogames industry are not making our job any easier to try and convince people that we are doing anything that is not trivial,” says Tamte. “What happened to Six Days is a case example… until someone challenges that assumption, games will continue to be perceived as trivial.”
Though Breach is trying to change how FPS games can be made and sold, and how they can be played, it doesn’t have any statement to make about what they can contain – though not for want of trying on Atomic Games’ part. But there are advantages to moving from the serious content to Six Days onto a more ‘normal’ videogame.
“We’ve had a lot of fun building Breach,” Tamte acknowledges. “For those of us who’ve been involved with Six Days from the very beginning… it was tough content. To be able to have removed ourselves from that for a bit and just worry about making a fun frag-fest, that’s actually been a little bit refreshing.”
Breach will release on PC, 360 and PS3 next year.