There's no shortage of war-themed games out there, so what separates them? What makes one a critically acclaimed financial success, and another get the cold shoulder? After four years of development and involvement with the research and creation of key titles in the genre, Kaos Studios is in a good position to know what works and what doesn't. We caught up with senior producer Joe Halper to discuss the challenges of Unreal Engine development, online leaderboards, and gameplay balancing in their resource-themed shooter Frontlines: Fuel of War.
GameSpot AU: The environments in Frontlines: Fuel of War seem to be quite destructible, especially in the single-player campaign. How much of it is scripted?
Joe Halper: It's all dynamic objects. The only thing that's somewhat scripted is the destructible objectives. So if you get to an objective and you see the icon of the C4 detonator, that's only scripted in that you know it's going to blow up. Everything else is pretty much you shoot it, it blows up--there's no scripting involved.
GS AU:So if I decide I want to go through a wall, can I?
JH: Not all walls are destructible [but you can] if it's brittle or it's a certain substance. But there are other ones, like the third level which has these mud huts, and you can shoot your gun and blow holes in the walls and use it to your advantage. Lamp posts, fences, Port-a-potties, drums that explode--we have water drums that explode. There's enough variety that it gives enough environmental destructive feel where stuff blows past you and stuff like that, but we don't take the entire world down. It's a certain balance we had to do because the worlds are so large.
GS AU: So if I've got a pack of C4, how do I know which walls I can blow up, or is it trial and error?
JH: Well, we have no indicators, it's trial and error. People have been picking it up fairly quickly in our focus tests. You know a fence you can blow up, you know a wood fence, or a metal fence--certain columns break up. When a player goes into a game and they see something blow up, they remember that pretty well. You really don't have to blow a column up, certain fences and stuff like that you will blow, but the world is so open and large that there's only certain areas where you have to break out of it.
GS AU: So environment objects are destructible--did you look at doing terrain deformation at all?
JH: Yeah, well, the Unreal Engine, because there are limitations, not only with the engine but the Xbox with the larger the world you have--there are a lot of things with the multiplayer where you go back and forth, client server issues that you have where you pass that back and forth there's certain walls. But we looked into it, and we tried to think about how advantageous it would be to gameplay, but it's a bit more of an arcadey feel, and we decided to pass by that. Possibly in the next title, but there's nothing really as far as deforming terrain, it's pretty much just a decal system. Blow it up and just decals on the ground.
GS AU: You've got PC and Xbox 360 code on display here at your media hands-on event. Why no PS3?
JH: It's a challenging console to develop on. Our primary SKU is the Xbox 360, we use the actual piece on development, and the cool thing about the Unreal Engine is you can go out to all three consoles. I guess it's easier as far as the 360 and PC--PS3 we're still doing a lot of balancing with the actual Sixaxis controller. It's relatively the same as the game we have now, but we're trying different things with that element to see how we can get through using the Unreal Engine. The Unreal Engine has some challenges with the PS3--you'll see with other developers--it's kind of a little late in the game with Epic, which is unfortunate. We're starting to get by it, so it starts with us for the Xbox 360 primarily in development; they're all coming out at the same time.
GS AU: So is it that the PS3's hardware architecture is hard to develop for, or that it's hard to work with the engine?
JH: Well, it's a little bit of both. In all honesty each area is a little hard to develop in its own right. I think the main reason that we're not on the PS3 right now is that we just don't have enough consoles. Xbox 360 doing 32-player multiplayer is a pretty big thing, because before you'd have a listen server, and now you have the XLSP, which is the Xbox Live Service Platform--so you dedicate the servers and they can just connect into it. Before what we would do is have system link, where you would connect into a box, and a game like this you could never get the number of players. A PS3 is a little more like a PC--you can get the 32 players easy, but the Xbox 360 is where we really wanted to show it, and then PC is a cakewalk. So the challenge with the 360 was getting the 32, the challenge with the PC is always the challenge with the PC, the hardware--being compatible with everything. The challenge with the PS3 is getting the access controller right and it's also got less memory to use, the memory is cut. So it's like you have a block, a circle, and a triangle and you have to fit it into each one. When we make a build it automatically pumps out all three. They create the builds for each one and then we have the QA teams tests each one of them in succession, and each one kicks back their own fair share of problems.
GS AU: So what kind of Sixaxis support is planned for Frontlines?
JH: Pretty much across the air vehicles. It's actually kind of cool when you're driving the actual vehicles, simple, not too complex. One of the biggest challenges we had for the consoles is that there's Halo driving and Battlefield driving--you shoot and that's where you steer. People that played Halo are used to that. People on the PC are used to driving one way and shooting with the other. With air vehicles it's a little bit better because it's a natural environment with the Sixaxis, especially the drones. It's something you pick up and you automatically feel like you can pull in and pull out, it's something you can feel perfect with but if you have just an X/Y and you're rotating on that axis on the ground, it's a little more limiting than flying like that.
GS AU: So it's going to be across all the drones then?
JH: Well, we're still tweaking them because the only drones we have as far as air drones is the track drones--the RC car drone, that's kind of like a vehicle. Track drones are like a vehicle, but tanks you have the shifting of the axis, it's like a skid-steer--it skids while it's steering like a Bobcat or any kind of construction equipment. So we're still balancing what fits the best, what feels the best, so it's unique as far as it's going, but everything is in balance right now.
GS AU: What about air vehicles like the choppers?
JH: The choppers are the most challenging thing for any of the games because you have people that want it to be noobed, like totally easy to go with, like PC when we did Desert Combat people loved their choppers. Noobs couldn't fly it that well, but guys that spent time with it could really master it and people liked that. Then games came out like Battlefield: Vietnam, and they had more up-and-down-style controls, and then Battlefield was a little more fluid. So what we did with the actual controls was you could do advanced controls or you can do simple mode, and if you're good at it you can fly it really well.
GS AU: Tell us about the perk system, unlocking abilities as you progress. Is it a persistent system?
JH: No, in the single-player game what you do is pick up elements of the roles. In the multiplayer game what it has is the three roles you upgrade through. So we're going to have it adjustable so the player can select how fast those roles upgrade, or you can start with a role [or] two for everybody. But the actual roles in themselves are over a time basis. It's actually once you complete objectives or if you use that role for a goal. So, for example, if you blow somebody up with the drone, you get more role points and it adds to the actual bar that goes across. So you go over to the next round, you'll still have that role and you can just upgrade through there, but if the map resets completely or goes to a new map then you clear everyone's slate. That happens pretty quickly, about over an hour or an hour and a half--depends on the setting. But through the single-player game you pick the elements through the game so you select those weapons and roles. It becomes almost like a load-out, but the roles are more unique and you have to scroll down even within it. But even if you die you still have those elements you picked up, you just don't flush the palette until you get to the next map. So when you get to the next campaign, if it's more of a sniper campaign, you start with your sniper rifle or you can select your heavy assault [weapons]. At the beginning of the campaigns you have less to select from because we funnel it out a little bit. The further along you go, the more weapons and roles you pick up.
GS AU: There's a lot of choice obviously, you can choose your objectives and the order you want to complete them in. Do any of them have run-on effects? Will completing one objective over another open a different branching storyline?
JH: You pick up different elements, and you pick up different weapons at the objectives. You don't need to complete one over another. We've been finding there's a lot of replay value, certain people in the focus groups have been going through and restarting the game because they realised the rocket launcher was over here at this objective, but they didn't realise around the corner was an air-support role like a cluster bomb they could use to take out the tank. So here they're hitting it with the rocket launcher at one objective, but they could've taken it out really quickly with the air-support artillery strike with the cluster bomb. So they reset and go back and they use the cluster bomb. Each objective has either a vehicle or a weapon that you can utilise to get to the other one better. So you can do it in any which way, but as soon as you advance that frontline, if you die you can spawn in any of those previous objectives you captured. So you can get your tank, your rocket weapon, and if you wanted you could pick any one of them up and go to each objective with those roles or pieces that are part of you then to annihilate whatever is at that next objective site.
GS AU: Is the single-player campaign only playable from one side?
JH: Yeah it's only playable from one side. We wanted to do both, but we also just want to get this game out. You can play the Red Star Alliance in the multiplayer, and they have unique elements on their side, and that was an advanced rock, paper, scissors. They're slightly similar as far as both sides go, but we tried to change things up a bit, a little grungier on the Red Star than the Western Coalition. We wanted to do that, but the scope was just too grand for these next-gen games. There's just so much in this game in itself in being new. But it's definitely creating good foundation.
GS AU: So we could be talking sequel here?
JH: I dunno, it's got potential! [Laughs.] You know what's really hard is developing a game, because it's pretty ambitious. The Call of Duties, the Battlefields are out there, they have a good foundation already--this was created from scratch. You develop all those elements and it's all these balances you're trying to bring up as one, all the vehicles, the levels, all the things for different consoles, and it takes so long to get to the part where you have a good demo. It would be great if we had one that was out already and just said, let's tweak something, like a Madden! Let's do a new football.
GS AU: Does it make it any easier developing new IP when titles like Call of Duty and Battlefield have gone before?
JH: Well, we did a lot of background for Battlefield--when we were Trauma Studios we did all the research and development on all the gameplay. We gave them a menu list of things, like the commander, artillery strikes, we did the medic system, we did a lot of things for that game that didn't come out. Lots of things they could select from, and even then they were like "we'll only go with this because the scope is getting too big." There's things that influence anything that you look at, it's very cool to have things out there because it's a test base, you find out what people like, you find out what people get excited about, they're military-style games. We didn't want to do a Star Wars game, and we didn't want to do an old-school game, we wanted to do something that was a mix of a Call of Duty and a Battlefield--cinematic, but open world. It's kind of a mesh of those two, but there's other games that we've pulled elements out of too. A lot of military stuff out there that's not that fun, it's cool to look at, but it's not fun to play. Like fire and forget? Who wants to forget it? You want to see that thing, you want to feel, you want a missile [whooshing sounds and hand movements]...ah, that's fun. There was a big controversy when we were doing an antiaircraft, we could just have fire and forget. No! Bullets man! Rip into that thing! It's all about what we know would be fun.
GS AU: So what are we looking at in terms of single-player campaign length?
JH: It's between 8 and 10 hours. There are eight campaigns, and it depends. If you're a noob and you're not too used to the controller it can be 12 to 15 hours. If you're very experienced, if you're a Halo addict, it can really hit between the 8 and 10 mark, it ranges. There's been a lot of replay, so we've been trying to factor in that replay, but it varies. It's almost like an RPG twist, they pick up a certain ability that lets them complete it in a quicker time, and there's a memorable moment that they know will be even more memorable if they used the other ability.
GS AU: Why fuel of all things? As far as the single-player story goes, it seems very focused around actual current and political issues.
JH: We had that experience with Desert Combat. That was basically a modification of a game that was already out there and we wanted to do everything close to Desert Storm--everything close to that niche, that realm. People can relate to it more, and they can be tied into it more, and it's more close to home. We did a hell of a lot of research on this one and we knew that the peak oil, the controversy there, we're not trying to make it a political game. All the research we did as far as the oil and military powers, they're literally building up for this...it really establishes how certain companies are working. Red Star Alliance, Russia and China, that's happening. They have the Shanghai cooperative which is every year, a military exercise. China is starving for oil, their population is exploding. Russia has a lot of oil in the Caspian territories--it hasn't hit peak yet. The United States, they're starving for oil, there's a lot of money in it, there's money because it's a hot-ticket item. It's something that influences everything, but there's so much dependency on it, so if it did collapse it would change things very quickly. It would change things to the level of what we've depicted in the game. It's an influential topic--that it could happen, we're saying it does happen, and in the game it's not an Axis and Allied, they're all desperate, they just want the last reserves and they fight it out.
GS AU: What are your plans for an online ranking system?
JH: We're still working on that. As far as having things persist and tracking leaderboards and stuff like that. We have certain elements that we're working on--there are a lot of things that are controversial within the studio about who wants to push what. Battlefield 2 made things restrictive for people just coming into the game, we want to have it so everyone can start with a fresh slate and then you build up the roles and then reset so no one is at an advantage.
GS AU: Will Frontlines be a Games for Windows - Live enabled title?
JH: No, that came a bit late on us. I remember the first E3 we went to, and we showed right out of the bag, and we created a single player demo. We were already six months, eight months into development, and that's when Microsoft started talking about Live, and we could do it in the office, but the big thing for us was the XLSP, doing the Xbox Live Server Platform it was challenging enough to do that for a big game cross platform. Keyboard and mouse compared to a controller, it can be done. We saw that people are pretty good, when they get the controller they can take a guy with a keyboard and a mouse--it just depends on how skilled they are. But we decided we just wanted to get the game out [laughs] so we had to cut that. It was too late. It's really challenging for Microsoft too now I think.
GS AU: Joe Halper, thanks for your time.