Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 Q&A - Final Thoughts
With the Xbox version of the game hitting stores and the PC and PS2 versions due out soon, we get some thoughts from Gearbox president and game director Randy Pitchford.
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Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 is already one of the more anticipated first-person shooters of 2005. Like HBO's acclaimed miniseries Band of Brothers, Brothers in Arms follows the true story of American paratroopers during the Normandy invasion of 1944. But what makes the game so intriguing is that in addition to its attention to historical detail and authenticity it is a completely new kind of shooter, one where your brains are just as important as your reaction times. The Xbox version of Brothers in Arms actually began shipping to stores this week, with the PC and PlayStation 2 versions set to follow next week. So with the game in the process of hitting shelves, we caught up with Randy Pitchford, the president of developer Gearbox Software, as well as the executive producer and director of the game.
GameSpot: Now that the Xbox version of the game is out, tell us how you think the game turned out. What will Xbox players most enjoy about the game, online and offline?
Randy Pitchford: Brothers in Arms is probably the best game I've ever worked on. There are a few things that make it stand out above all other games like it. First of all, the game is based on a true story, so the authenticity of Brothers in Arms is really unparalleled. The development team rebuilt Normandy as it was in 1944 to the level where you could go to the real places and everything will be familiar. You can recognize the houses, the roads, the battlefields. It's quite remarkable.
Another reason that I think resonates with people are the characters and the story. There's a real brotherhood between soldiers, and Brothers in Arms captures that like no other wargame before it. Other games tend to emphasize duty and honor, and those are important concepts, but when you really spend time with veterans who were in the thick of it and you talk to them about what mattered, they tend to come back to the same kinds of sentiments about how important it was for them to have the respect of the guy next to them, to not let them down. That concept of brotherhood became a really consistent and important theme as we became immersed in this stuff. So, in Brothers in Arms, you really get the sense that you're "one of the guys" in this real squad of 101st Airborne paratroopers. The technology supports this effort when you see the expressions on these soldiers' faces and how their eyes track you when you meet with them or how you can almost see the pain on their face when they see a buddy get hit and go down. The other thing that helps is how much these men have to say about each other and what's going on around them. Their personalities really come through and they become memorable.
Also, the gameplay is very unique in that Brothers in Arms successfully transcends the standard run-and-gun approach most shooting games offer. Brothers in Arms integrates actual fire-and-move tactics with a unique, easy-to-use, and fun squad command system. The system is very natural and very strong, partially because it was created under the guidance of Colonel John Antal, US Army, retired. We've played a couple of the other games that have attempted some kind of squad command, and it's really obvious when you play those games that they were designed and implemented by game makers, without any meaningful influence from real soldiers who know what real squad leadership is all about. Colonel Antal helped us make it authentic and natural, while our game developers were able to make it accessible and functional. It really turned out amazingly, and I'm quite excited to release this new design with the game.
GS: How did focusing the game on tactics and squad artificial intelligence change the development process from a typical, heavily scripted single-player game that relies on triggers and special events? How do you feel this approach--a focus on tactics rather than on being guided through the game--has worked out in practice?
RP: The development process was expensive and time consuming. It took several prototypes and lots of attempts that didn't work out. When we finished them, we had to have the courage to acknowledge that the failed attempts were not good enough so we could throw them away and start again. That is really difficult, not just because of the cost, but because when you start with ideas, you believe in them, and that makes them harder to let go. It took a lot of discipline and experience to keep trying until we got it right.
Of course, we could have pumped out another standard shooter like everyone else is doing. But our objective was to put you in the boots of one of these squad leaders and to make it feel right. We didn't want the experience to feel like taking a ride on "It's a Small World," where you basically are on a rail and all these automatons move and talk around you. I like other World War II shooters, but we all have to acknowledge that they're basically as scripted as a Disneyland ride and not as interactive as we dream about.
For Brothers in Arms, we insisted upon having a dynamic and plausible system--one that was not scripted, but allowed the soldiers on both sides to care for their lives, act and react to the interesting and real combat puzzles. To do that, we had to come up with a system that was consistent with real-life fire-and-move concepts, but very easy to use. The system had to respect the chain of command so that you're not micromanaging each guy but giving general intent to your fireteam leaders about where you want to lay down a base of fire to suppress the enemy and on which flank you want to hit them with another team.
The system had to assume that the men behave like real, trained soldiers. They had to be fully capable of engaging the enemy, covering each other, finding cover for themselves, and getting good firing positions to engage from. We programmed them with logic that respects the standard operating procedures and battle drills these men were actually trained with.
Devils in Baggy Pants
GS: Looking back, how has the extensive research and the consulting work with Colonel Antal helped shape the game? Have you found players or testers re-creating actual engagements as they happened, since the environments and weapon loadouts were modeled after the historical battles?
RP: Colonel Antal helped us understand what fire-and-move tactics are all about. He taught us in the classroom and in the field about real soldiering and helped us get a glimpse into the real decisions battlefield leaders have to make. Once he retired from the Army, he joined our team full-time to help push these concepts. This was really important for us because I am not a soldier. The people on the team are not soldiers. We're game developers. To have a soldier on board to help us understand and "do it right" was really, really important.
He taught us about these real fights and showed us where to study deeper for ourselves. We started re-creating all the real places and the real battles as close to how they happened as we could. Look up Sgt. Summers and Objective XYZ. It's an amazing story, and we re-created it in Brothers in Arms. Look up Exit 4 Utah Beach. Look up Dead Man's Corner. Look up Purple Heart Lane. It's all there and it's real. But it's more than just the places and the battles. It's the system.
Colonel Antal's influence and teachings helped us develop this command system that is natural, simple to use, and a really great virtual representation of real squad leader command and control. And it all works very elegantly. You issue a simple order. Just look at an area that looks like it might make a good firing position, and hit the command button. You'll see yourself automatically give the hand signal and yell out an order to the team leader, and that team will move to where you ordered, take cover, and fire on the enemy. Then you can pick out a target for them to focus what they're shooting at. Just look at an enemy position and press the command button, and you'll give the right-hand signal, and the team will just unload on those guys. The enemy will hit the deck; they'll cower behind cover, fully suppressed. This is your opportunity to find a flank and hit from the side or the rear. You can take another team with you and move around to one side or another looking for a good flank. Once you find a flank, you surprise and destroy the enemy that your other team has kept suppressed.
Because the battlefield is now opened up a bit, you have a lot of options about how to tackle each combat engagement. One of the phrases we used to guide us during development was that we wanted to "take you out of the corridor and into the real world." Of course, we don't want you to get lost or be unsure of your path. So you can go into situational awareness view, which is sort of a stop-motion, bird's-eye view of the battlefield, and you can get a sense of where the good flanks are and how to move through the wide areas. The real soldiers had trained for months studying aerial reconnaissance photos and maps (the same stuff we used to help us re-create the environments). Instead of making you memorize this stuff before the fight, we give you situational awareness view that you can refer to, to help make good tactical decisions about any given combat problem. It's all very neat and works so well with the game.
GS: To what extent does the game cater to different playing styles? How well does it accommodate players that favor aggressive tactics, sniping, or support tactics? And how does it put the kibosh on players that prefer to try to take the fun out of the game with team-killing, exploits, and other disruptive behavior?
RP: In the extensive testing we did, we have noticed a few distinct types of players and had to take pains to balance the game to be enjoyable for all types. One type of player is what we call the squad leader. He uses situational awareness view a lot. He tends to give a lot of orders, and his fireteam and assault team tend to get a lot more kills than he does. The game works very well for him.
Another type of player is what we call the suppress-and-snipe player. This player will use his team to help distract and pin the enemy, but the player will find a nice vantage point to snipe the enemy from. This player tends to really enjoy the game, but he plays it very patiently. He gets a lot of hours of game time out of it because he has to play so patiently.
The last type of player is who we call Rambo. He tends to die a lot. When he succeeds, he feels really good, but he fails often because Rambo just doesn't work in real life. (This kind of player probably doesn't do very well in Counter-Strike either.) But it can be done; you're just surrendering a lot of your odds to pure luck. As the Rambo player learns to use his squad just a little bit to harass and suppress the enemy, his success multiplies.
In the multiplayer game, the player who uses his team with fire-and-move tactics is really the best player. Just about every first-person shooter out there rewards the player with the best reaction times and the best aiming skill above all other skills. Brothers in Arms, however, really amplified the importance of tactics because of the squad. If you attempt to play it alone, without using your squad, the opponent who knows how to direct his team on your flank will destroy you every time. This is really neat because the Brothers in Arms multiplayer game is no longer a competition about twitch skill. It is also a battle of wits. And because there are so many ways one can use a squad to engage the enemy, there are infinite approaches.
Death From Above
GS: We know that if nothing else, the PC version of the game includes better graphics and affords players mouse-keyboard control. Tell us about the differences between the different versions of the game and what PC and PS2 players can look forward to.
RP: All versions support online multiplayer. The Xbox version is very elegant in this regard with Xbox Live and split-screen support. The PC, of course, is always a great place to play online games. The PC can support the crispest graphics and high-resolution textures. The Xbox version was a focus for development, so the graphics and polish are just top-notch. Some games build for the PS2 and just port to the Xbox. In this case, the game was built for the Xbox and PC, and we had some help from Ubisoft's team in Shanghai for the PS2 version. Those are the same guys who managed to bring Splinter Cell to the PS2, and I think they did a great job. They had to rebuild most of the art and game specifically for the PS2 platform, and their attention makes the PS2 version one of the best-looking PS2 games I've ever seen.
If you are typically a PC gamer, go for it. If you are a console gamer that has a choice of platforms, you'll probably want to go with the Xbox version. It's no secret that the Xbox is more powerful than the PS2, and Gearbox utilized every ounce of that power to make one of the best games ever on the Xbox. If you have only a PS2, I do not think you'll be disappointed; it was a dedicated and amazing effort, and the results speak for themselves, and it certainly raises the bar several notches for games of this type.
GS: We have to ask this: Now that Brothers in Arms' development is done, are there any future plans for the game as a possible series or as the basis for PC expansion packs? Any plans for additional updates to the core game, via Xbox Live downloadable content, tournament rankings or clan setups, map packs, or editing tools for the PC version? What's in the future for the game?
RP: Brothers in Arms is definitely a long-term commitment from Gearbox and Ubisoft. I'm really excited about the future of these characters, and we have some amazing surprises for fans soon. E3 2005 will be a very good time to look for more about Brothers in Arms.
GS: Finally, is there anything else you'd like to add about Brothers in Arms?
RP: I've worked on a lot of games, from Duke Nukem to Half-Life to Halo. Brothers in Arms is a labor of love, and although it's still too early for me to be totally objective, it feels like the best game I've ever worked on.
Brothers in Arms is the most authentic game of its type based on a true story. It is meaningful and important not just as a piece of entertainment, but as a reference piece. The technology featured in Brothers in Arms allows us to bring you real characters that matter both to the story and the gameplay. This is supported by an amazing script and an unbelievable orchestral score. And the squad command system invents a new type of gameplay that is very fun and is totally innovative and amazing. It's the only thing like it in the world.
GS: Thanks, Randy.