Brute Force Q&A
We talk to Digital Anvil about its upcoming Xbox first-person shooter.
See it in Action!
One of the most promising games on the horizon for the Xbox is Brute Force. The squad-based shooter is being developed by Austin-based Digital Anvil of Starlancer fame. The game will feature four characters who possess disparate abilities ranging from combat to stealth. The game's heavy emphasis on squad-based play mechanics will require you to make the most of the team's skills to succeed. We talked to producer Erin Roberts to find out just what Digital Anvil is cooking up on the Xbox.
GameSpot: Hi Erin. How long has the game been in development?
Erin Roberts: Brute Force began development on the Xbox in March 2000.
GS: How big is the development team?
ER: The core team is made up of 30 people not including testers and outside contractors. Altogether probably more than 100 people have contributed to the making of Brute Force.
GS: What have you guys worked on before?
ER: Wing Commander, Strike Commander, Privateer 1 and 2, Starlancer, Crusader, plus a bunch of other games.
GS: What games did you look to for inspiration? How much of an influence was Halo, especially on the game's multiplayer?
ER: I think we were very influenced by a number of different games. We played a lot of Rainbow Six and Counter-Strike in the early days and wanted to have an intensity of action somewhere in the middle of those two games. We also wanted to add a strategic element, influenced by games like X-Com, where you had to use a team of shock troopers to overcome the obstacles put in your way. Halo has had an influence on Brute Force, but not so much in story or gameplay mechanics, but through our interface. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we decided to stay as close to Halo's controller layout as possible, as well as pulling from some of the lessons they learned in balancing their combat so that Brute Force would be very accessible to Halo players.
GS: What were the key gameplay elements you wanted the game to have? How challenging were they to implement?
ER: The most important gameplay element was the use of the squad in missions. We wanted the player to really think about the strengths and weaknesses of each squad member and use them accordingly. Players can of course go in with guns blazing if they want, but a player who really uses the squad well will do better. This was very challenging, as it is extremely difficult to create an interface and supporting AI which allows players to control more than one person effectively. While controlling one of the characters, the others need to be acting properly and must play a support role to the player-controlled character. You don't want the squad to be useless when not controlled, but also you don't want them to be too good either, as the player must feel like the hero. After squad control, enemy AI was a close second. We wanted to make sure that the enemies you fight really feel intelligent. They take cover when being fired on. They jump out and ambush. They work together when in groups. A lot of this tied into work we did on the squad AI, so tactics your squad uses can also be used against you.
Challenges and Inspiration
GS: What did you set out to do with Brute Force? What inspired you to make a game like it?
ER: I think the main inspiration for Brute Force came from wanting to try something new. We had worked on a lot of space combat games and wanted to work on a ground-based game. We always had a ground-based combat game in our plan, and so we decided to make Brute Force. We wanted the game to involve a squad of characters, not just one player character, and we wanted to be able to put the player in many very different environments that would really show off the technology behind the Xbox. From these general ideas we created the story of a small elite unit of specialists who are sent anywhere at any time to take care of the confederation's problems, legal or illegal.
GS: How do you feel about the game's reception at E3?
ER: Going into E3, people had seen our video and some screenshots but did not believe the stuff was in-engine. I think at E3 we demonstrated to people that the graphical quality was real and possible on the Xbox. Last month at X02 in New York City the game was farther along, and people really got to see what makes the game so cool--the squad-based gameplay. So between those two events, I think we have been successful in starting to get people to understand why we're so excited about the game.
GS: Has any feedback you received from the show affected the game's development?
ER: As a team we go out of our way to gather as much feedback about gameplay and features as we can. If we are doing something that is not fun, or too complicated, we can act on this information and fix our issues. Of course we have a plan we execute, but it is always good to have qualified people come in and play the game and give us their opinion. We received a lot of feedback at E3 and have acted on much of it. We also run regular play tests with gamers and have brought in the most vocal posters on the Net communities so they can give us feedback. A lot of feedback we received from these hard-core gamers has been addressed in the game.
GS: What have been the biggest challenges in developing the game?
ER: The biggest challenge was firstly creating the technology for Brute Force. At the beginning we had no real idea of the final Xbox performance numbers, as we were working on alpha kits. Only in the last 12 months have their been final development kits to work on. We also are trying to really push the limits of what the GPU can process, so we can give interesting and graphically diverse environments to the player. After technology, making a third-person squad combat game was the next biggest challenge--making combat effective from third person, as well as making players feel fully in control of their squad at all times.
GS: How is the graphics engine using the Xbox hardware? What was your biggest challenge in doing the game's graphics?
ER: At the moment we are really wringing a lot out of the GPU with Brute Force. We didn't want to make a game that could be made on any console, just the Xbox. So we aimed really high. Because we didn't know exactly what the end specs would be, we created all the game's objects at very high levels of resolution, with very high resolution texture maps, as we felt it would be easier to downgrade our models and textures than upgrading them if the Xbox could handle more. This meant that we had two stages of development for art--first was the high concept stage, and when we knew our final specs, we de-resed our artwork and made detail levels so as to optimize our performance on the GPU. Also as we are doing a number of render passes on all objects and terrain, we have to be very careful on the original poly counts, as adding layers, shadows, and lights can start getting very expensive with each new render pass.
Campaigns, Co-op, and Characters
GS: How are you approaching the AI? How much of a challenge was it to implement everything you wanted?
ER: The AI was definitely one of the more important parts of the game, and we took its development very seriously. We needed AI that would not only make the enemies look and feel very intelligent, but also we had to go one step further and make sure your own squad had all the intelligence of the enemies, but also knew how to work together and support the player-controlled character. Also, as we have four very different command modes, the AI needed to change to adapt to the orders the characters were under. In weapons ready mode, the squad characters take up flanking and point positions around the player character and are ready to engage enemies on sight. In follow mode, the other characters will follow behind the player character and will only engage if they or the player is fired on. Guard mode tells the character to stay put and fire on anything in his LOS and allows the player to order other characters to move to different points on the map. We really needed all these modes so the player can set up ambushes, guard entrances, and be able to reconnoiter up ahead without other characters blowing the squad's cover, or if the player is inclined, go in with guns blazing with the whole squad. Once we had the squad AI working to this level, and once you add in the AI's knowledge of cover points (behind boulders, trees, and so on), hide points (get clear and heal self), snipe points (characters with sniper rifles will go to these vantage points so they can rain down fire), we simply opened this up for enemy AI to use as well.
Enemies in Brute Force act very differently when in groups or by themselves and even depending on the lay of the land. It'll get very interesting when you run into a squad of terrorists who know to lay down covering fire, while others move from cover point to cover point trying to outflank you. Also, since there are over 25 different character types in the game, each with different abilities and tactics, the player will have to learn how to best overcome each new opponent he or she encounters.
GS: Could you take us through the game's modes and give us an idea of what they're going to offer?
ER: Brute Force has one campaign, which can be played either single-player or multiplayer with up to three other people on a split screen. The great thing about the campaign mode is that you never have to start again or reload if more people want to join. You can play the first two missions by yourself, and in the middle of the third, two friends turn up. If they want to join, all they have to do is plug in a controller and press start. The screen will immediately split to incorporate the amount of players who want to join, and the new players will take control of one of the AI-run squad members. The same goes if you are playing with a bunch of friends and they want to leave--the screen unsplits, the characters they were controlling go back to AI-controlled, and you can carry on by yourself. We also have squad deathmatch where you can take your squad against another player's squad and see who is the best tactician. There are also the usual modes such as team deathmatch and every man for himself.
GS: Could you give us an idea of the game's structure? Is it going to be linear?
ER: There are 22 missions in the full campaign. Each mission must be played in order, but remember that because of the options the team provides, there's no one way to approach each mission. We do make sure that players can get through each mission and carry on through the campaign if they have trouble winning a mission, but if they decide to take this option, that mission is marked a failure. Players can also go back at any time and play a previous mission by just selecting it.
GS: Is online play on tap?
ER: Brute Force does not support online play. We're really trying to do something new and innovative here in the shooter genre. The type of squad-based play that we have is unlike anything people have seen before, and we really wanted to focus on nailing that as well as nailing an incredible co-op experience. Brute Force was designed from the ground up with the co-op experience in mind. It's a team-based game, so playing as a team should be a fundamental part of the game. It paid off when we saw how much people got into playing co-op in Halo. Actually, we're really excited about our instant co-op feature, which allows up to three additional players to jump into the game at any point, in any mission, at any time. As far as online play, rest assured that online will be a key part of Brute Force's future.
GS: What are you currently working on in the game?
ER: We are currently fine-tuning and balancing the gameplay while polishing the final content in the game.
GS: Thanks for your time, Erin.