Brink 'strayed too far from convention,' says designer

GDC Europe 2011: Designer Neil Alphonso on why players didn't use Brink's parkour system and why its objective-based play was better received in Europe than in the US.

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Who was there: Neil Alphonso of London studio Splash Damage, lead designer on team-based shooter Brink

What they said: In a postmortem session on Brink, lead designer Neil Alphonso discussed his game's blended online and offline modes, how story "had to take a backseat," and the mixed response to its parkour-like SMART system and objective-driven play.

According to Alphonso, the studio's intention was to merge single-player and multiplayer into "one coherent experience," eliminating the "drastic difference" in offline and online experiences found in other first-person shooters. Brink, he said, plays "in almost exactly the same way" across modes, thanks to scaling bot difficulties and "rubber banding," with which the spawn timing for each team is based on how each team is performing.

In addition, AI priority scripting determines how the computer-controller characters prioritise their team objectives. The latter can give rise to some odd behaviour, though, and Alphonso admitted it wasn't warmly received in all quarters. "Gamers are smart," he said. "This became really transparent to a lot of them, and they found it frustrating. We got a lot of hate for it."

As a game without a discrete single-player campaign, storytelling in Brink was tricky, said Alphonso. A traditional three-act structure, as found in movies and literature and other video games, couldn't be applied to a level timeline because Brink's action was unpredictable. "In a way, [narrative] had to take a backseat," Alphonso said. "Some would say there's no story to speak of. I would beg to differ. Some loved the setting and the context given to the action." He speculated that some players were expecting a more conventional, direct kind of storytelling: "We don't really spoon-feed it to people, which is maybe what some people were looking for."

Alphonso explained Brink's non-specific introductory cutscenes, and the gulf between the cinematics and the action itself, as the result of prioritising multiplayer balance over storytelling concerns. He said cutscenes couldn't be very specific about the action to come, because objectives would have to be changed and tweaked for balance over time. The outcome was Brink's light-touch, deliberately vague story moments. "As a cinematic single-player experience, it doesn't really hold up," the designer admitted.

The action at the heart of Brink, based on completing objectives and class-focused team play, grew out of the philosophy on which Splash Damage was in part founded: that team play is more gratifying than a single-player experience. Key balancing mechanics included variable objective timers per level and the strategic positioning of command posts to confer an advantage on the attackers or aid flow around the map. The need to keep maps small was a priority, too: "One of our goals was to create a really intimate environment, without long traversal times," Alphonso said.

Upon the game's launch in May, the response from some players to the deeply team-focused, objective-driven gameplay was lukewarm. "We got pretty different responses across the globe," said Alphonso. "It was far more accepted in Europe than in America." He ascribed the internationally mixed reception to cultural differences. "Americans prize individualism a lot more; this didn't catch on as much over there as it did here [in Europe]."

According to the designer, SMART, Brink's parkour-like system for jumping and vaulting obstacles wasn't embraced more fully by players because of the distraction of many concurrent events, with "a lot going on in Brink at any given time." SMART, short for "smooth movement across random terrain" (Alphonso: "Thank you, Bethesda"), gets lost "if it's not the first thing in your mind," said the designer. He noted that this is why games with parkour systems "tend to isolate it from the rest of the gameplay."

Another issue holding back SMART use was that "people are lazy." They will pursue "the path of least resistance and perceived effort." The final obstacle to SMART uptake was ingrained first-person shooter movement patterns. SMART wasn't forced on players, which often led to them roaming the map in familiar first-person shooter style. "Players will go with what they know when that's a viable option," he said.

Quotes: "Americans prize individualism a lot more, this [kind of class-based team multiplayer] didn't catch on as much over there as it did here [in Europe]. I don't mean to slander them all, though. Some absolutely love it."

Takeaway: Alphonso speculated that, in places, Brink's innovations took it too far from what players were accustomed to. "In hindsight, we perhaps strayed too far from convention in some key areas. We're taking a lot of these lessons on board for our future projects."

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