Original ideas are hard to come by in an industry built on familiarity. Game publishers often rely on recycled concepts to ensure profitability, while developers find that they have to step outside of traditional business models to create something unique. But that's not to say that it can't be done.
Australian studio Defiant Development is currently developing a first-person shooter that relies on plenty of recycled concepts: a first-person view, a standard cover mechanic, and a realistic military setting. Yet, what this first-person shooter is missing is the genre's main attraction: shooting.
Warco is a game about war correspondence. Players take on the role of reporter Jesse DeMarco, who must make her way through a third-world civil war, recording images for her nightly news reports. Instead of a gun, players will be staring down the barrel of DeMarco's camera, capturing and recording footage of different objectives throughout the campaign. The gameplay itself is nothing new--Pokemon Snap did much the same thing on the Nintendo 64 back in 1999--but the idea of building a military shooter explicitly to highlight the impact of social, political, and technological change in third-world countries is something of a rarity.
The idea for the game was originally conceived by former ABC and SBS television war correspondent Tony Maniaty, who wanted to create a training game for potential war correspondents that would allow players to develop skills of shooting video in hostile environments while learning to avoid injury. Maniaty then brought the project to film director Robert Connelly (The Boys, Romulus My Father, Balibo), who saw the potential to create something that stretched far beyond a simple training prototype. He asked Defiant for help.
"The military first-person shooter genre is completely filled with games cut from the same cloth," founder of Defiant Development, Morgan Jaffit, says. "If you want to play those games, then there are plenty of studios making them for you. If, on the other hand, you want an adult narrative, complex decision making, a new perspective on war, and a tale that puts black and white morality aside in favor of a realistic viewpoint, then you are our audience."
Defiant has spent the past two years honing the game's concept, fleshing out the interactive elements, and building a playable prototype with the aim of arriving at a full-length, single-player game for consoles and PCs. The development team--made up largely of former Pandemic Studios employees--soon realized that the game would need to do a lot more than simply allow players to be idle spectators in a civil war. While there's strictly no shooting (you can't pick up a gun no matter how hard you might try), the game does allow for other types of interaction within the gameworld, from interviewing civilians and searching military a commander's desk to sneaking into the camps of local warlords.
"The game covers a broad range of action, from being embedded with local forces to covertly attempting to cover arms deals," Jaffit says. "Over the course of the game, players will witness a city under siege and move across both sides of the battle. There's also a chance for quieter moments, visiting civilians at their homes to ask about the war and engaging with other journalists at the hotel."
Jaffit says that the game is aimed at the subset of first-person shooter players who appreciate a different take on the genre. Traditional methods of defense are completely done away with; the emphasis is on vulnerability and uneasiness. The best example of this is the way the game handles moral choice. On paper, a war correspondent's only task is to objectively observe the conflict and report the truth. However, things are rarely that black and white. If a journalist stumbles upon a wounded civilian, does he or she have the right to interfere? Should the journalist risk his or her own life to save someone else's?
"We're keen to provide players the opportunities to go places they've never been in games before and experience things they've never experienced in games before. I believe that it's hugely important that games provide choice and that those choices have consequences. The key factor for us is that it's not about getting the right choice or winning. In fact, in these scenarios, there's rarely a clear right choice, and for the players, it's a case of seeing where their actions lead through the unfolding gameplay."
Defiant doesn't shy away from the realities of war. That's why Warco is not about killing but about surviving. The game is an unglorified depiction of what hundreds of war correspondents around the world face each day. It's also the reason why Warco's protagonist is female.
"It's increasingly common to see reports from female war correspondents in the field, and as we fleshed out the characteristics that were important to us in a protagonist, Jesse emerged as a natural choice."
Convincing international game publishers to back a game whose aim is to teach rather than entertain is not an easy task. There's no track record of success, no previous projects, and no guarantee that anyone will even find the idea of a first-person shooter without guns appealing. But Jaffit remains unperturbed.
"New is always harder than a simple rehash of an old idea, but that's one of the things that makes it worth doing. I hope we have built an experience that people enjoy, precisely because it offers them something new."