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Interview: Red Steel 2's Jason Vandenberghe


Ubisoft's second Red Steel game hasn't been without its controversies. The sword-fighting Wii outing raised eyebrows by putting all its eggs in MotionPlus's basket at E3 last year - a move later described as a "huge risk" by the dev team - and has found itself in what conventional wisdom increasingly dictates is an area best avoided: core titles on Wii.

Creative director Jason Vandenberghe, however, is undeterred. With the game out this Friday, he filled us in on why Red Steel 2's sword-play will be the most "awesome" yet seen, why his now infamous comment on success being paramount to the IP's future wasn't quite what it seemed, and how the next Red Steel will include a Vitality Sensor-based “zen” mode.

His words, not ours. Hit the link.

Interview by Nathan Grayson.

VG247: Why jump from modern day Japan all the way to the wild west? What’s the inspiration behind Red Steel 2’s setting?

If it makes you feel any better, when we jumped, we were sure to bring Japan along with us.

Two-step process: first, the decision to change, and second, the inspiration for what came after. The decision to change all started with the gameplay, in fact. It goes like this:

1) We got the Wii MotionPlus. Wow! Awesome! Now we can make a sword-fighting game, and for reals this time!

2) Huh. To make that work, we’re going to need a world full of sword-fighting-type bad guys.

Our choices were to either stick with the strongly-realistic background of the first game, and keep the sword-fighting to a minimum for the sake of realism, or to adjust the setting to make sword-fighting the core of the game.

That was an easy choice. Took about three seconds. Let’s make sword-fighting awesome.

Now, once one cracks the seal on one’s previous setting, it becomes natural to want to make things work much better (as opposed to just a little bit better). The realism of the first game didn’t necessarily fit so well with the Wii hardware, and we also wanted to do something visually with this game that we were a lot more excited by.

So! Time to create. [rubs hands together]

The Japanese influence on the setting was always clear. I mean, the sword is a katana, not something else. And, we knew we wanted to keep the sword-and-gun gameplay. So, we asked ourselves: if the katana is a symbol for Japanese martial fighting, what is the gun a symbol of?

Well, again, not rocket science. For me, that’s Clint Eastwood in, uh, well, every Sergio Leone film he ever starred in. So, we started mixing the idea of an Akira Kurasawa–style eastern setting with a Sergio Leone-style western setting, in a modern time... and the weirder it got, the more we liked it.

Sorry, long story. But hey, you asked.

Back when Wii was first announced, people thought of precisely two potential uses for the Wiimote: swords and guns. So, in your expert-on-swords-and-guns opinion, how come so few shooters and sword-fighting games have made the jump over to the Wii? Or “mature” games in general, for that matter?

I’m going to assume you mean first-person or “over the shoulder”, 1:1 style sword-fighting games for this answer, not button-bashers or ‘wagglers’, a-la Zelda.

For one thing, prior to Wii MotionPlus, we saw exactly one first-person sword fighting game on the Wii (and that was Red Steel), and only a handful more on every other platform... ever. However, with the Wii MotionPlus available, we suddenly have two (Red Steel 2 and Wii Sports Resort), and more are sure to follow. I think this demonstrates part of the core problem: we needed the motion control data to make this kind of first-person-brawler gaming work, period.

As for shooters, I think the problem there is more subtle. There’s always been a strong connection between graphical realism and first-person shooters, and with games on other systems providing such a richly detailed experience, it’s not always clear to me what motivation the shooter gamer has to play on the Wii. Honestly, I think this is really a case of the expectations of that genre of gamer being closely associated with the big hits, and trying to compete with those experiences is going to be tough with the same hardware.

For mature games: you are referring, I believe, to an online conversation that I lovingly call The Great ‘Is-The-Wii –Hardcore’ Religious War. Someone, somewhere decided that the Wii wasn’t hard enough. Because it’s white? Because girls play with it too? Blame Mario? Not sure. And since then any data for the Wii, positive or negative. is inevitably interpreted as proving that only non-gamers play with Wiis. Which is clearly not true.

Well, kids, for the record, I have no interest in your religious war. I’m gonna go ahead and make what some of you might call a 'real game' for Wii, put a bunch of stuff in it you can’t get on other platforms, and I’m betting that one or two of you might evening be willing to try it, even if it’s on the Wii. See if I don’t!

Back when Wii first launched, Red Steel was positioned as a sort of proof-of-concept game for the console. Now Red Steel 2’s in something of a similar position with Wii MotionPlus. Has this put any extra pressure on you to, say, make MotionPlus-centric activities the star of the show?

Well, we actually did that to ourselves by deciding to make Wii MotionPlus required to play: we’re bundled with it at launch, and you can get it separate too. But I think I get the gist of your question, and the answer is no, no one - not Nintento, not Ubisoft, not my mom - made any unreasonable demands on us on how we used or didn’t use the Wii MotionPlus, beyond what was clearly interesting to the players. Everyone was clear about one thing: the game needed to be fun – everything else was secondary.

How about pressure in general? Red Steel 2’s a reboot, and – based on a recent comment from you – it’s a do-or-die situation for the series. On top of that, you’re one of the first non-first-party games to require Wii MotionPlus. What kind of effects have those factors – and the associated pressure – had on Red Steel 2’s development?

At last! A chance to respond to that! That comment was, perhaps, given some extra emphasis that I didn’t really intend at the time, so it’s awesome to have it come back. Volley!

Red Steel 2 isn’t really a “do-or-die” situation. What I meant by my comments was that the desire to make another game in the series will depend on whether or not Red Steel 2 is a success (by several measures, not just sales).

Fact is, that’s always true. If the fans don’t want us to make a sequel, we generally won’t. See, because we know they won’t buy it. Which is sort of the point. So, in that way, this situation isn’t really all that different from any other first or second releases in a franchise. We either prove that the idea is cool enough to keep chasing, or we call it and try something else.

As far as pressure goes, believe me when I tell you that the pressure here at Ubisoft is a light, airy breeze compared to the kinds of pressures I grew accustomed to at other companies I worked for. The pressure was all focused in the same place: the game had to be fun. We knew that, and so it led to us shaping our dev process around iteration, playtest, and gameplay. That’s a good thing.

Generally speaking, swords draw blood. In Red Steel 2, they don’t. Why is the steel still red? Where is the red coming from!? In all seriousness, though, why did you choose to remove blood from the equation?

This bugs so many people. It’s actually great fun – I’m tempted to take all of the blood out of every game I ever make, just to bug you guys more. I love it! Kidding. Maybe.

For me, it was a question of matching the graphic-novel-style look we wanted, the background and setting we wanted, and the kind of hero I wanted the player to be in the game. To me, if you add blood to this game, suddenly I feel much less like a good guy making the world a better place, and a lot more like an anti-hero slicing up badguys for kicks.

Is that true? Maybe not for you, but it is for me. Ask yourself: would Zorro be a better story if it was true-to-life with blood and gore, and the men he impaled slowly bled out on the ground, dying miserably? Would Robin Hood be a better hero if he decapitated the Sheriff’s men?

I think the answer is “no”. Lots of people disagree with me - including people on this team - and when they get their chance in the Big Chair, they can, perhaps, make a different decision.

Red Steel 2’s sword-swinging is, from what we sampled at E3 last year, far more accurate. But it’s still not 1:1. Gamers have been clamoring for 1:1 sword-fighting on the Wii since day one. Why not grant their wish?

We tried it. It sucked, and it sucked hard. We looked carefully at what the problems were, and decided that with the time and resources we had, it couldn’t be done. And, worse, it wasn’t clear that it could be done in first-person at all.

Now, time may prove me wrong – someone may go ahead and make a most awesome first-person sword-fighting game with true 1:1 motion, and make it totally satisfying, learnable, powerful, and fun. I wish them luck!

That said, we’ve learned a lot from this experience. Let’s just say that if we get another stab at the task, we might be able to push things quite a bit further. But that’s a big “if”.

The Wii’s a great little console, no doubt. But let’s be honest: it’s starting to look a little rusty under the hood. Has the Wii’s lack of technical prowess limited you in any significant ways? Were there ever times when you thought, “Man, if we had access to Xbox 360- or PS3-level tech, we could do so much more with this aspect of the game”?

Only with the obvious technical stuff, like sheer memory usage, render capacities, real-time lighting, and such. The game would certainly look more detailed if it were on a higher-level console, but I gotta tell ya, between my art director Stephane Bachelet and myself, you’ve got two great big nerd-fans of graphic novels. We’d probably do something very much like what you see with the visuals, even if we had more power.

So what about more enemies, you say? Well, think about this: how much more interesting is a fight with ten guys than a fight with five? To a first-person player, in melee, remember, they are almost indistinguishable. Except that one lasts longer.

Even things like character limits weren’t really a hindrance on the gameplay. It comes down to things like view distances, streaming systems, texture detail, lighting, and so on. And that’s stuff that you always have limits on, regardless of what system you are on.

With Red Steel 2, you chose to eschew multiplayer in favor of a focused single-player experience. Which is great! Shoehorned multiplayer modes are almost never worth the time or effort. Having said that, however, would you ever consider developing a multiplayer-focused extension of the Red Steel franchise?

Are you kidding? Dude, I’ve been considering almost nothing but that with most of my free time for the entire duration of this project. I want nothing more than to beat my lead designer at his own game in multiplayer. Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. Yes. Yes.

With the motion control wars about to heat up, how do you think the landscape of games will change? Is motion control the way of the future? Or do you think certain types of games just aren’t suited to motion control?

I think the answers to these questions can be made obvious through example. Ask yourself: will motion control revolutionize the RTS genre? I’m going to go with “no” on that. Accurate, small movement pointing devices will probably be the best method for playing and RTS for a long time to come.

However, I will say that any game where the player is holding something in their hand and swinging it will be permanently revolutionized by motion controls, and I hope this stays true. Golf, tennis, cricket, baseball... and sword-fighting. I think there’s enough interest in there - and in any other future discoveries we make as an industry around this kind of input - to insure that motion control will be something standard from here on out.

But, no, it won’t change everything. Just some things.

Finally, the question that’s on everyone’s mind: as a sort of unofficial ambassador to the hardcore for Wii products, will you include Wii Vitality Sensor Support in the next Red Steel?

Duh. I intend to include a “zen” mode where if you can keep your heart-rate low, your spirit (re: mana) will regenerate faster, and, to the contrary, if you maintain a high heart-rate, you will generate more rage with each strike, which will allow you to unleash ultra combos.

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Patrick Garratt


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