We talk with Sierra's Chris Mahnken about the next game in the Tribes series, which will include a story-based single-player component.
Starsiege Tribes (1998) and Tribes 2 (2001) helped redefine team-based multiplayer gaming by offering a robust range of character classes, inventory choices, and vehicles, along with large-scale indoor and outdoor combat. The influence of Dynamix's creations can be seen in games like Battlefield 1942, but the developer itself was closed down in 2001, putting the future of the Tribes series in jeopardy. Then came Sierra's recent surprise announcement that not only would it publish a new Tribes game, but the game would have a complete story-based single-player element, and the publisher had hired veteran developer Irrational Games for the job.
Tribes: Vengeance has been in the works for a while, but it isn't due out until late next year. We recently talked to Sierra producer Chris Mahnken to get some early details on how Irrational plans to incorporate the Tribes and Starsiege legacy into the single-player story, what's in store for the multiplayer mode, and why the Unreal engine will benefit the new game.
GS: The Tribes series has a strong multiplayer legacy but hasn't seen much of a single-player treatment. How did you decide to move the series in this direction?
Chris Mahnken: There are three major reasons. First, when new players started playing Tribes for the first time they were thrust into a game environment where everybody else was more experienced than they were. If they picked the wrong server, the differences could be huge. This frequently led to a bad first experience. Adding a single-player element gives players a chance to become more skilled without being repeatedly crushed online.
Second, there are a significant number of gamers who simply don't want to play online. Without a single-player game we are excluding them from our market.
Finally, the Tribes universe is a fantastic place in which to tell a story. As game developers, we love to tell stories and couldn't pass up this opportunity to further flesh out the Tribes, Earthsiege, and Starsiege storylines.
GS: Can you tell us anything about the background story for the game? How will background elements from the previous Tribes or even the Starsiege games figure in?
CM: On the big timeline, Tribes: Vengeance takes place between the existing Tribes games, and Cyberstorm, about 300 to 500 years before Starsiege: Tribes. It fills in some background on how the tribes were formed. Tribes: Vengeance is definitely part of the ongoing Starsiege and Tribes timeline, and people who are familiar with that will be comfortable with this story; however, you won't need a Tribes history lesson to understand what is going on. It fits into the universe but doesn't require it.
GS: Should we expect to see new threats and new types of characters introduced in Vengeance beyond the playable characters in Tribes' multiplayer?
CM: There are certainly unique characters, weapons, and vehicles in Tribes: Vengeance. We're not quite ready to give away any detailed information yet, so I can't say much more than that.
GS: At the game's announcement it was mentioned that the story will be told from multiple viewpoints. Will you play as more than one character? Can you say anything about the main characters?
CM: If you think of your favorite book or movie--unless it's The Graduate--it is probably not told through the eyes of one character. Yet first-person shooter games, despite being some of the most compelling storytelling vehicles in gaming, still seem to be using the pen-and-paper RPG model of "I made up a character and I'm going to play him until he's dead."
Tribes: Vengeance uses an approach closer to movies and books to tell the story by giving players control of a handful of related characters throughout the game. Not only does this expose players to different weapons and equipment, it allows them to see how other characters in the story view each other.
We have often discussed how this might work in-game. A guy and a girl approach an empty enemy base. Suddenly the massive gate shuts, separating them, leaving the guy inside and the girl outside. As the enemy approaches, the girl tells the guy to find the switch to open the gate while she holds them off outside. At this point the player takes control of the guy and scours the base for the switch while a timer counts in the upper-right corner. Once that mission is complete, the player then plays the girl, who fights off the enemy while the same timer counts down. If the player took his sweet time while playing the guy, they will have a chance to curse themselves when they have to survive that much longer as the girl. If they hurried, they will be rewarded for understanding the character and playing them properly. Again, this is just an example, but similar situations are planned for the single-player campaign.
Using this approach allows the developers to create tension and consequences much more naturally than by making the player replay missions or by awarding some sort of bonus points. The gaming industry is mature, and the PC audience grows older every day. They are ready for a story closer to The Godfather than Mario Brothers. And we couldn't have picked a better team than Irrational to pull off such an ambitious move.