Q&A: Volition Inc.

The developer of Summoner and Red Faction talks with GameSpot about its experiences with PlayStation 2 development, its revolutionary Geo-Mod engine, the Microsoft Xbox, and the Nintendo GameCube

Volition has just finished development of Summoner, the only PlayStation 2 launch RPG, and is currently polishing its first-person shooter Red Faction for a PlayStation 2 and PC release early next year. Red Faction features Volition's Geo-Mod engine, which allows for completely destructible environments. We had a chance to talk with Philip Holt, director of development at Volition, about the development of its revolutionary Geo-Mod engine, the company's experiences developing for the PlayStation 2, and whether it will develop games for the Microsoft Xbox and the Nintendo GameCube.

GameSpot: What sort of challenges did you run into while trying to get the Geo-Mod engine up and running?

Philip Holt: There were some modest challenges in terms of getting that technology up and running quickly. There really isn't a lot of stuff out there coming out like that in the games industry. The real challenge was integrating the gameplay around it. And it was a lot more difficult than we expected. While just blowing a hole in a wall is cool and certainly entertaining, we wanted to do it in such a way that it didn't seem scripted.

GS: So, how did you avoid making it all seem scripted?

PH: Blasting a hole in a wall is very fun. Every time we demo [Red Faction], people ignore the directives and just start busting stuff up. The very act of that is enjoyable, so just about anything you can stack on top of it makes it even better. It goes a long way to making the game much more immersive. There are a lot of strategic things as far as discovery is concerned. We just ran a demo where we showed a bridge going over a canyon. There is an APC [armored personnel carrier] with guards behind it on the bridge. You are sort of up on a ridge above it and are able to bust out the bridge in front of the APC, stopping it, and then blow out the bridge behind it. Once the bridge is severed on both ends, everything in the middle falls into the canyon. There are a couple of levels where you fly a fighter and you're in an open courtyard with a number of guard towers with snipers inside. Firing a missile in the top of the tower just busts it all up. It usually kills the guy inside, and if not, you can take him down with the machine gun.

GS: Would you have been able to do this with the last generation of consoles like the PlayStation or the Nintendo 64?

PH: Absolutely not.

GS: So the polygon pushing power of the PS2 has been able to make this possible?

PH: Oh, it's a total workhorse.

GS: How has your development experience with the PS2 been so far? We've heard a lot of feedback from developers saying that it's difficult to work on.

PH: Any lead technology is difficult. We were fortunate that we were one of the first developers to start work on the PS2 in August of 1999. We had the early revs of the development hardware and were working on Summoner. Most of the early work was done on a low library level, where we were getting some old Volition code to run, and that had a huge benefit for Red Faction because a lot of it was shared. So the experience the Summoner team's gone through of going up a very steep learning curve on the hardware directly goes into Red Faction. The guys on Red Faction have the benefit of that experience. We're basically looking at a second-generation PlayStation 2 title that's close to being completed.

GS: So you're a step up already?

PH: I think we are. I think Summoner is a spectacular looking game, but we already know hundreds of ways to improve it. Much of that knowledge is going straight into Red Faction.

GS: Do you think you've neared the ceiling on PlayStation 2 development? Is there still plenty of room to expand?

PH: The interesting thing about consoles is that the very latest PlayStation games are spectacular. If you compare them to a first-generation title, it's almost unbelievable. And what's interesting about that is that it's closed. It's not like the hardware is getting better. I think the case is that developers are learning to squeeze every last inch of performance out of it. Of course there's a ceiling, because it's a fixed platform.

GS: Will Red Faction feature split-screen multiplayer support?

PH: Yes it will.

GS: For four players?

PH: Two. I had a conversation with someone not long ago who asked why we were only doing two players. He was sort of disappointed in that. My response was that, since day one, we planned Red Faction to be a great single-player game - that's our focus. We're not trying to compete directly with Unreal Tournament. Our goal is to create a really compelling one-player experience. That's been our goal. I'm sure we could go after four-player support - it's really not that challenging in terms of implementing it. The problem lies in trying to get your game to run fast and the sacrifices that have to be made. We could go in that direction, but we would likely have to cut a lot of things that we'd like to do. So instead we focused our vision on creating this stunning visual game. We have some really good content going and a great story. We have a writer who has been on staff from the beginning.

GS: Have you had to make any sacrifices for the PlayStation 2 version versus the PC version?

PH: No, we haven't made any sacrifices. In some ways the PlayStation 2 is more capable, and in other ways the PC is more capable. I think the trick for us has been that these two things are shipping pretty close together, but both platforms have significantly different architectures. So we have to write the game in such a way that it will take advantage of the architecture in each one.

GS: Do you fear that Summoner might get lost in the shuffle at the PlayStation 2 launch?

PH: I don't really think that there are a lot of games coming out at launch. Summoner is really the only RPG. It has a really interesting story, it's totally 3D, you are capable of summoning many different creatures, and it's North American developed. In Red Faction's case, it isn't due until next year and a lot of companies are still in development of their first titles. Again, I think that we have truly compelling technology that no one else will have.

GS: Do you think that the short shipment of PlayStation 2 at launch will have an effect on the sales of Summoner?

PH: I don't think so. We have had excellent support from the buyers. Obviously if there's shortage in hardware it's going to affect how many people actually go out and buy it. I think that shortage is going to be a temporary problem.

GS: Now that Summoner is finished are there any projects in the work besides Red Faction?

PH: Nothing that we have publicly disclosed.

GS: Has Sony given your company any indication of when they think their broadband network will be in place?

PH: Not that I've heard, but that doesn't mean we haven't talked with them.

GS: What about Xbox or GameCube? Have you thought about developing games for either of those consoles?

PH: I think both of those consoles look great and certainly we're currently looking into development for one or both.

GS: Have you received development kits for either yet?

PH: I'm not sure about that.

GS: How have things changed since THQ purchased your company?

PH: It's funny. The day we announced the acquisition of the company, one of the guys here was away on his honeymoon. And we laughed that if no one actually told him he would never know, and then I think we forgot to tell him. It took a day or two before it occurred to us that he didn't know. Things haven't changed. There used to be this conflict between publishers and developers. But now that the budgets are so much higher for these games, it makes a lot more sense for the developers to have a closer relationship with the publishers. It allows us to go about making games rather than shopping our games around.

GS: Thanks for taking the time out of your day to talk with us.

PH: No problem.

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