Early next year Ubisoft will launch For Honor, a hack-and-slash game that takes players on a tour through a fantastical world that visually and spiritually resembles our own. Three factions--the Vikings, the Knights, and the Samurai--have been scattered to the corners of the earth after a massive cataclysm and have just begun to spread out again. As they seek to reclaim their former territory, they find themselves butting heads, all scrabbling to fight for the honor of conquering the world.
After a recent hands-on session with the game, we sat down with director Jason VandenBerghe to talk about the work that went into creating the game. For more than a decade he's been working on For Honor in some capacity, pitching it to teams and refining his central ideas, slowly moving forward on the title that he refers to as his "bucket-list game." VandenBerghe opened up to us about the challenges of balancing For Honor's intricate combat, as well as his thoughts on playable female characters and his hopes for his audience.
GameSpot: The first thing I noticed during the demo was the art direction. What kind of research went into putting all those environments together and adapting those cultures?
VandenBerghe: I did vast, extensive research. It's essentially: each culture offers a very different problem, right? With the samurai culture, we have all this wonderful reference material, and we're also trying really hard to be sure that we have Japanese people on the team and we're collaborating with Ubisoft Japan to make sure that we don't make any of the obvious mistakes. It's really easy to screw that up. But we've got a lot of great guidance on it. What's weird is that with all of our cultures, we're not trying to be true to history exactly. We're trying to evoke your fantasy of history, right? We're trying to go, "See, this is what you wished it had been like." That's how we're trying to do it. It's wonderland. It's warrior wonderland.
It's not a historical game. It's not our world and it's not alt-history. It's like you've gone through the looking glass, and now we're on the other side, and now everything is rearranged. It's also just rearranged for warriors. We did the same thing for each of our cultures. We look at all the source stuff and we ask ourselves what makes those cultures iconic. What are the iconic shapes and the iconic stuff that makes us go, "Yeah, that's the thing!" And then we just work it, we just work it in the art, and we start to think about it in the context of our world story, which is this story about coming out of the darkness.
But it's very different for each culture, because of course the Vikings never made castles. That didn't happen, and so we were like, "Well, f*ck it, yes they did, here they go, this is what a Viking castle looks like." We have lots more examples to follow.
How about the armor and the classes you've chosen? Obviously, all of the gear is very intrinsic to that culture as we think of them. So when you were researching armor, when you were trying to decide on these are the armor archetypes that you want hooked up to this particular factions...
It's tough. The short answer is that we spent a lot of time thinking about what is it in the mind of our populace. Like, in our minds, what are the keys that trigger those associations? What are those things you see? We did a bunch of experimentation and analysis, and we found that each culture had aesthetic codes that, if you see those codes, only means knights, or a Viking, or a samurai. And we focused down, and we ended up having to come up with this bible about the things only Vikings do, and then we held ourselves to it--these things need to be here on this character to see them as a Viking. It's funny, you can take that character and you remove the fur, you're like, well, that could be a European. Put the fur on, you're like, that's a Viking! The same with the [Viking] horns. Even though the horns are made-up culture, still we expect to see them, so we see them.
We did a bunch of thinking and work around that, around what are those codes, and then being sure they didn't overlap. Because we really want the experience that you're seeing, where you go "Oh my gosh, that's the Viking in my mind."
And I noticed that you have female fighters.
When did you decide that you wanted to vary up the lineup?
Twenty-five years ago. [Laughs] And that's where we start, because this game isn't about us creating characters and imposing them on you. This game is about you. And so what kind of warrior are you, right? You can change the skin color of your Vikings, too. You want to have a black Viking? Knock yourself out. It's who are you. I want you to be able to be in that game. I play the female warden. That's my favorite character, because she's great. And it's always been, from day one, it's been the core value of the team, and we've been doing this for a while.
We have all our heroes now. We have 12 now. Each faction has four heroes each. In each faction there are two heroes that are dual gender, male or female, and then there's one hero that is male only and one hero that is female only, for all 12, so it's 50/50 all the way across.
Going back to the story and the through-line: What came first for you, the idea for the story or the idea of, "I want to have a game where it's like a cool dueling game?"
Definitely the dueling. My original pitch for this game... I was making this pitch for 13 years. I've been wanting to make this game for a long time.
Why did it take 13 years?
Because people said no. It's going to be 14 years by the time we ship it. I can't believe that, but it's true.
I took a course in German longsword. German longsword is this rediscovered martial art [in which] we've decoded how the knights fought with long swords. There's this organization called the Historical European Martial Arts Alliance, or the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts in the States, that's a research organization that figured this out. And so you now can just take classes, and it's just martial arts where you fight with the longsword. My wife got us a one-year membership to this dojo. I was like, "Oh my gosh, this is the best!" So we go, and I start learning this form, and I'm walking home one day... And I started thinking about the form and how you could take it... I asked myself what would happen if I took this shape, these cuts, and we mapped them to the right stick on the controller. I was walking down the street holding a wooden practice sword, pantomiming a controller, babbling to myself. It had to be spooky. It had to be quite a sight. But I'm getting all excited about it, because the basic controller scheme, it all just clicked into place.
So I got really excited about it. I then started pitching the game to anyone who would listen. The answer was no, no, no, no, we don't make that kind of game, no, that would never work, no, no. Until I pitched it to Yannis Mallat, who is the GM of Ubisoft Montreal, and he said, "No, but I have somebody I want you to meet." And he introduced me to Stephane Cardain, the producer, and his team. And I pitched it to them. They said yes. And now five years later, we're here and we're making it. This is it. This is my bucket-list game.
Obviously, you had to come up with a story that sort of brought all the factions together, so how did you do that?
I just invented it. I worked with a bunch of collaborators. We brought in some great writers and we worked and worked and worked it. Our big challenge was, how do we get the samurai here? How do we do that? How does that work? Because I don't know if you know this, but the Japanese never attacked Norway. [Laughs] That never occurred historically. That's a fiction. And so we had to find a way to do the thing. And so the concept of a cataclysm was always floating around as a nice way to sort of reset the board. And I loved the idea of the samurai as outcasts, as having an exodus. So we just worked that, and it produced all this great stuff about the knights in our world.
Going back to combat, with all the different styles, all the different weapons, and the cultural nuances of each faction, what is the most difficult thing to balance? What are the difficulties of balancing the combat, in general?
So balancing is extraordinarily challenging. The key to balancing is play-testing. It's just to play-test and play-test. First you have to have a theory. You have to say, here's my structure, and then you have to play-test, play-test and play-test. I don't know how to answer the question about what the most difficult thing was to balance, because the truth is once we got our core theory right... Well I guess it would be that.
It was getting the right set of mechanics. Getting to the place where we had the right mechanics, not too many, not too few, the right stuff in the right place, then balancing became straightforward. It's never easy, but it becomes a matter of doing play-tests and making adjustments until the playing gets even. Balance is impossible if you have characters that have powers that don't have answers. If one can do this, then I have to give another character a way to counter that, right?
So I'd say that was the hardest part. The hardest part is selecting your power kit, selecting your verbs. It's the most difficult part. Once you get the right set of verbs, then it becomes a lot of f*cking work. It's just working really hard. There are common pit traps. Like, too much speed is always a trap. Too much damage absorption is always a trap. Just going too far with your differences is always a trap, so you have to be moderate in your differences, but you have to keep those differences so that they're wide enough so the player really feels them and feels like they matter. It's tricky, but again once your verb set is right, then it's in good shape.
What kind of research went into creating the fighting styles?
What we did is we ended up inventing our own martial art in a way, because the way that the weapons come together and the way that we strike each other in this game needs to be a set of consistent physical rules, it needs to make sense in a 3D space. And so what we ended up doing was we would bring in people who were experts in each of these weapons. We were very lucky to find that we had a guy in the company, actually, who knew a huge amount of almost everything, and is a long-time fighter. Or if he didn't know the weapon, we would bring another expert. What we would do is we would just sit down with him and say, "Okay, tell us how you would use this weapon."
And we would have them teach us how you would use that weapon, and we would look at form and space. We would do this with game designers, with animators, myself, creative direction, game direction. We would just have this big conversation around each of these weapons. The hilarious thing, of course, is that it sounds super cool, but really what was happening was that we were programmers over here, over on this side of the room we had this open space where we're doing our play testing where it's us with sticks, yelling at each other at the far end of the room. It's just hilarious. It was super fun.
So we would just have these conversations about that, and then we would gradually start to work it into our system. The weird shit about our system is that our martial art has one fatal flaw: you tell your opponent where you're going to attack. You move your weapon over here and you telegraph it, it's built in, and that's a game design thing. That's to get you to pay attention to your enemy, and it works really well in the game. But of course that's not how martial arts works. It's in fact the opposite to how martial art works.
But it just works really well for the video game. So we would take those attacks and those defenses of how we fight and we would try to slip them into our stances, long, medium, and short range, the guard-break system, and we would just talk it through with the experts, and then we would come up with a set of proposals, and then we would go and we would look at it. And we take all the mocap, and we would put it back on the character and see how it works, and we would see how it would play. If it didn't play, we would have a conversation about it and go back and try it again.
What do you really hope players pick up on?
I hope that people pick up on how much diversity there is in this game, both in terms of your ability to customize and how much choice you have in all the styles. It's easy for people to look at the game and say, "Oh, that's ok," and brush it aside. And it's really a game for everybody, is really is, we want that to be a game for everybody. It's so easy for people to say, 'Oh, it couldn't be true, they couldn't have full gender representation and different ethnicities in a game like this.' So we put a lot of time and effort into that, and it's a core value on the team, and a list of things I'm proud of. I hope that reaches people.
But that's not the point of the game. This game isn't about politics. It's a personality test. Are you a knight, a viking, or a samurai? What is your warrior? That's what the game says. Is there a warrior in there?