Last month at E3 2011, Ubisoft talked about two different shooters from Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon franchise: Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and Ghost Recon Online. The latter title's striking feature, apart from using the free-to-play model, is that it aims to hit both the casual and hardcore market with its eight-versus-eight team-based gameplay, with the option to choose from three soldier classes and expansive customization. GameSpot Asia made a trip down to Ubisoft Singapore's office to find out more from senior game designer Christopher Roby alongside brand manager Christopher Goh.
GSA: What's the concept behind this iteration of Ghost Recon?
Christopher Roby: My clan friends and I practiced a ton of Quake 1; every day and every hour of the week. It's one of the greatest moments you have in a shooter when you feel this kind of teamwork and cohesion with your teammates in any tournament environment. My feeling is that none of these shooters right now have replicated that feeling. When I was given the opportunity to work with the Ghost Recon brand, my team and I felt that it fit with that "cohesion" concept. This gave us the opportunity to push that idea and make it into the core experience.
The fact that Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter has all this kind of cross communication via the Integrated Warfighter System and with Ghost Recon Future Soldier being an upgrade to that...when you're supporting your teammates and moving your soldier, as well as thinking what a soldier would do in a situation.
The concept here is "Can people play as a team without trying to?" [For Ghost Recon Online], you don't have to practice every single day to achieve that cohesion and feeling. The abilities you get to use for three of the classes are part of it, but the cover system is the main foundation here. When you walk out of cover, bullets would usually start flying and you have to go back into hiding. You see another guy who's suppressing.
The augmented reality bit--where the blue lines pop up while playing--help show where your teammates are around you and lets you know that they're around to have your back especially when you're in cover. When you see that, you instinctively take another action and that actually starts to stack and become cohesive movements you take as you keep moving back and forth on the map.
With the hardcore market, they can choose to be more tactical with the options given to them, but the abilities make the system more accessible. If the match is in a stalemate, the abilities are the trump cards. They have cooldown periods, so you can't just spam them. You have to play them at the right time and moment. They're also symmetrical and also counterintuitive against other abilities at the same time, much like a rock-paper-scissors metagame. One can't overpower the other, of course.
There's no right way to use them, but there's a lot of ways to use them. One guy blitzes in with the shield, while the other can help clean up the mess if the point man misses a spot. If you delay one second, the guys who got knocked down can get up and counterattack. It's important to have someone watch your back; the blue lines help you coordinate better with your team.
GS: How did the project get started? Why did Ubisoft assign Ghost Recon to the Singapore office?
Christopher Goh: We see a lot of potential in the online market. That's how Ghost Recon: Online came to be: putting two and two together.
CR: Theo Sanders, the executive producer for the game, had this vision and saw the PC market as a viable commodity. Conversely, the PC market also has high piracy rates and DRM restrictions that punished people for paying money for their games. We can't pirate something we give to you for free.
It's safe to say that Ubisoft hasn't made the strongest brand of shooters and multiplayer experiences when compared to other shooter-focused companies. You don't think Ubisoft and go, "I remember they did that awesome multiplayer shooter." To declare your game free to play using a major brand means that I can't lie to you and take your money by doing so. I have to make it an awesome experience. We are investing in a brand for a long period of time that's multiplayer focused where we are as invested as players are invested in us. It's a tight relationship between us and the gamers since it's up to them whether they want to spread the word. But that all starts with a great gaming experience.
GSA: How many people are working on it right now?
CG: We can't reveal real figures, but we have more than 50 people working on Ghost Recon Online.
CR: [That is] a pretty small group since a typical big Ubisoft game has hundreds of people making it. The problem with a free-to-play title is that to be profitable; we have to be light and small. We have to be tight and smart with our schedule and whatever we do, whether to create content or figure out what to monetize in game or find out ways to keep the community engaged. We can't afford to have 300 people working on the game and rely too much on additional resources if we want to be successful and efficient.
GSA: As with all games using the free-to-play scheme, microtransactions are usually involved. What kind of things are on tap for Ghost Recon Online in this regard?
CR: There isn't any at the moment, and the business model has yet to be developed. Our focus is to make a great experience and through that, we have the flexibility to figure out how to monetize it in a way that works with the game and the players.
GSA: Are we looking at weapon paint jobs or unique gear that only affects your soldier cosmetically?
CR: I will say this: There's no pay-to-win scenario and no purchases that will make you more powerful. Anything that you earn that makes you better is all in game. Fairness is what we're looking at because it's about that positive emotion. If your buddy pays $5 and is now better than you, it's not a good feeling.
GSA: Is there a leveling up and rank progression system for Ghost Recon Online?
CR: Yes and no. The levels have a lot of weight carried in them. You get significantly more powerful, thanks to requisition points that let you modify your weapons.
To rephrase, one of the constraints we have is that a level one player can kill a level 50 player. But what does a level 50 player get? More breadth and tactical flexibility. I obviously can't have the level 50 player run around with a million hit points, so he/she will get more options for gun switching and tweaking, more skills to pick on, and more options for the armor system, which I unfortunately can't talk about at the moment. What I'm revealing here is just a small piece of what's to come.
That's the theme; we're focused on leveling up. You will have access to more powerful weapons, but at the same time as you're getting experience and more access to tactical strategy, you get more access to different types of armor inserts that mitigate this kind of increasing damage level. It never actually changes the game in a huge way, but if a current loadout isn't working for you and your team, you can switch out.
The final progression and structure when the game starts for new users are still being tested, honestly. You'll have access to all three classes and their main abilities from the start. Each of these classes are different in their play styles. I assume that different players will find the niche they want and want to reinforce that play style by the decisions they're making for their character, based on the hours they've invested. At the same time, a player will not go "Oh, I leveled up this class a bit; I'll go play the other class." You can always play with your buddies no matter what level you are. You just have more tactical breadth.
GSA: Compared to most other free-to-play shooters in the Asian market, the Ghost Recon Online build (from E3 2011) looks good. What are the requirements to run the game though?
CR: Ghost Recon Online is actually running on low specs.
CG: We haven't released the final details of specs because we're still optimizing the engine on our end, but the basic objective is to make it accessible as possible. You don't need the latest rig to play the game.
CR: We're actually designing the shader model one, two, and three, with three being the latest. We're designing the ability effects to work on lower shader graphics so that they don't actually break. For the higher-end users, we've got shader models two and three ready. The tech guys are focused on testing it on both lower-end machines and making sure players have a smooth experience.
GSA: What makes this game different from a team-based title like the SOCOM series?
CR: I've been watching forum posts and comments related to the recent Ghost Recon builds [Ghost Recon Online and Future Soldier]. I see these two different trends in player reactions. People who see the videos don't get the same feeling as the people who play it, who said how awesome the team play experience is. While other games are saying that they're doing team things that either state "Yes, you could play a competitive game and try your best to play as a team," or "Yes, we'll be heavy-handed and force you to be a team," what we're doing is different. Whether you realize it or not, you're playing together as a team.
A player who uses the recon class's oracle ability will help other players nearby know when an enemy's coming, regardless of how selfish he/she is. Every time that recon player uses it, it felt awesome. That kind of stuff, together with the cover system, experience, and damage modeling creates that experience. Yeah, I say that it's a team-based game, but as a designer who has been driving and pitching this vision...to see 12 pages of posts about the things that people liked and don't like...but all coming into agreement that it's a great team experience, I nailed it. That's the bet I'm placing for you. The best part is that you don't have to pay anything to experience it. I'm putting my money where my mouth is. There's no barrier of entry for you to go out there, download it, and see it for yourself. You can call bulls*** on me. At this point, I'm confident enough to say that we've got it.
There's also a lot of these "third-person versus first-person" debates. It's the same thing. When the camera is on third person, I get better situational awareness. But I still have the awesome flexibility from a first-person perspective with the aiming and iron sights view; I'm not losing accuracy options. When I go to cover in third person and if an enemy slides to cover, I can definitely spot him and keep track of him better. When I'm in first person, the perspective is a little blocked out.
I've worked on a lot of military games and simulations in my career. There are things in real life in the United States Special Forces that are reflected in those games. Usually when a soldier's recruited in Special Forces, they're more or less in the army for 12 years. You're in a group of 12 guys that split into groups of four, and all you do is practice and know your buddies in the squad. If I'm out in the field, I will always know that the guy who's supposed to cover my left will always be on my left. I depend on him because I know where he's at. The team element between these squads does not come in naturally. In game, I have these "blinders" on and my field of view is restricted, but in real life, I don't need to look because my squad buddy is there. I get this sixth sense that he's there; it helps that this sort of team element is forged within 12 years.
For me, the augmented reality system in Ghost Recon Online helps reinforces that. The cover system, the camera system, the ability to see these guys--all these things are abstractions of that real-life perception that you have as a person into our gameworld.
GSA: What about the old Ghost Recon fans?
CR: The old fans will definitely have expectations on what a GR game should be; be it the War Fighter or Future Soldier fans. The hardcore guys would be very skeptical--I know they are--but hopefully they'll play it and go "Wow, this really is the tactical shooter of this decade." Hopefully, the GRAW guys share the same sentiment; I've seen a lot of this on the forums, with some of the fans even asking for Xbox 360 controller support for the game.
That's the one thing about game designers: We have all of the responsibility and none of the authority. If a game sucks, everybody blames me and I can't do s*** about it. We're tasked with taking the best of what the franchise established, keep a cohesive vision, and make the team a part of the development cycle. But at the same time, there are deadlines and technology things to deal with. At any given time, if the game is not fun, there's only one person everybody looks to. A big part of what I enjoyed here is fighting for that vision and bringing this thing to reality and have everyone go "That's what [the developers] are talking about" in the end.
GSA: What are your thoughts about working in Singapore?
CR: It's actually quite good. I've been in the business for 16 years, and it's a volatile industry. The thing is that moving my two kids and two dogs to another country is a big risk, but I knew Ubisoft as a company and am very familiar with their brands and the shooter genre inside and out. It's not like I'm doing another start-up, so that's a plus. I came in the project with guidelines, but getting the chance to take it, reshape it, and see it come true is a really great experience.
GSA: What are your opinions on the Singapore game industry?
CR: In 1994, there was a team called Interactive Magic from Raleigh, North Carolina, formed by former MicroProse founder "Wild" Bill Stealey. Ever since, there were quite a lot of companies that formed over there: Red Storm, Epic Games, Gamebryo. As a developer who started his career there, to see that place grow...what happens is that companies come up, they form, they split, have talent that get recruited to other companies and even have said talent form their own thing. The industry here is in its infancy, honestly, and it's like "Raleigh 1994" all over again.
What I suspect will happen is that Ubisoft will be here for the long term and hopefully put the Singapore studio on the map, thanks to Ghost Recon Online. Ubisoft Montreal has always been the hub for the cool ideas, so hopefully we can establish here. There will be other opportunities where talent from here will go elsewhere, but the industry will still continue growing and people's expertise will get better.
The coolest part is what the Singapore government is doing: They're really interested in developing the industry here. Most countries and cities don't do that, and it's very difficult because you can't attract the people. Whenever there's a little talent base, that base will grow. Austin, Texas is the US massively multiplayer online capital; a lot of the development studios are centralized there. Speaking of which, it's amazing to see how much has changed from having games charging you $2.99 per hour for an MMO-style game to the free-to-play model implemented in most games.
GSA: So when will the open beta be out for the public?
CR: We're shooting for fall 2011.