Feature Article

How Quantum Break's Developers Tackled Time Manipulation Combat

While it may Max Payne may have set the groundwork, Quantum Break takes time-focused combat in a very different direction.

Quantum Break, the time-manipulating shooter from the developers of Alan Wake and Max Payne, mixes a third-person shooter with a live-action show. But how did the combat evolve when the main protagonist can manipulate time? In an email Q&A with Richard Lapington (the game's audio lead) and Kyle Rowley (the game's lead gameplay designer), we discussed the challenges in creating Quantum Break's combat.

The game comes out on April 5, but you can read our full review right here.

GameSpot: Quantum Break is first and foremost an action game but of course there are the time-bending elements--how are the levels designed to accommodate this?

Richard Lapington: Time manipulation is key to the QB experience. Basically all puzzles and combat scenarios have some kind of time connection. Whether it be you need to use time powers to figure something out or maybe manipulate an objects time to solve a puzzle or use time powers to defeat enemies. The levels can also go in and out of Stutter so you can be in the same location in both "normal time" and "stutter."

So when designing the levels we'd need to create two sets of sounds for each environment. One for normal and one for stutter. This basically means that each level had to be sound designed twice to accommodate for the change.

Kyle Rowley: Player movement and being able to manipulate the battle field are key parts of what make our time powers empowering, so we've tried to ensure the combat spaces are created with that in mind. Rather than having smaller, corridor like spaces--we've really tried to open the combat spaces up. Internally we refer to them as arenas, which I think is a rather apt way of describing them.

It's no secret that we introduce all of Jack's time powers to the player rather fast; you have three new time power abilities within your first seven encounters and we keep introducing them at a similar pace as the game progresses. Because of this, when the player isn't in combat we really wanted to remind the player that, "Hey, remember you have this power too! You're gonna need it later!" We did this by utilizing relatively simple puzzle sequences that require the player to use time powers in order to progress.

Similarly, when time starts to break down around Jack (we refer to these moments as Stutters), we've designed obstacles and mechanics that forces the player to use their time. Specifically--and you may have seen these in some of the footage we released at GamesCom--there are menacing, time distorted objects that move forwards and backwards in violent loops.

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Generally speaking, what were your overall goals for level design? And how did the game’s use of time-manipulation factor into how scenes are laid out?

RL: The scenes are laid out primarily based on how the story unfolds plus the balance and variety of combat vs adventuring vs story moments. Being an action game with a strong focus on story we wanted to build a game that paced all these elements well. The levels are also designed to allow the player to dive deeper into the story if they want or concentrate more of the gameplay. There are a lot of additional story elements for people to find.

One of the biggest goals however was to find ways that we could play with time in new and spectacular ways like crashing a boat into a bridge and then having a Stutter. Or showing a time machine being built and dismantled in seconds.

However Stutters also presented themselves as a way of telling stories in the form of "frozen scenes." You can approach some frozen people and hear snippets of their story--what was happening to them as they were frozen, looking at the expression on their faces and their body language.

KR: It's a hard question to answer, simply because level design has to take into account so many different parts of the game. Our story is quite grounded in reality, so it means our levels are based on real-life locations. This means, of course we have to be architecturally sound, spaces have to make sense--but at the same time; the spaces need to adhere to the metrics and rules that we have defined in order to make the combat and adventuring play spaces fun.

One of the big things we've struggled to communicate to people is that we're not a cover-based shooter. Not really. Yes, we have a cover mechanic (that is passive, you don't actively tell Jack to enter cover), but it's there because we don't want players to feel exposed, it's only natural that someone would hunker down if under fire. We really want the player to zip around the combat spaces, utilizing all their time powers and being aggressive towards the enemy. Trying to encourage the player to do that, while also providing enough cover objects so they don't feel too exposed has been quite challenging. We're trying to undo the gamer's natural instinct to hunker down behind cover and take pot shots and that's not been easy.

Some of the levels we’ve seen so far have been fairly open-ended, letting you tackle an objective your own way. Why was this kind of approach important for Quantum Break?

RL: Jack's time powers and allowing the player to choose how they want to use them was really important for both the combat and puzzle solving. What was really important in the design was that time powers shouldn't be an extra but should be fundamental to the core game play. Allowing people to play with time is just a lot of fun.

I've watched a lot of people play the game now and it's funny to see that everyone has their own favorite combination of time powers. And each combination you get a different type of gameplay experience. I personally like the time stop, dash, shoot combination where you constantly moving around the enemies. It keeps the gameplay very fast and fluid.

KR: Yeah, both in combat and in some of the adventuring spaces--having large areas for the player to explore has been something we've consciously looked to include in our level designs. For us, we want to strike a balance between the open spaces which encourage exploration and maneuverability, then the more confined spaces which--by the very nature of them being narrow--hinder the player and their use of the more agile time powers.

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How would you describe the differences in level design from Alan Wake to Quantum Break?

RL: The enemy spawning is pretty different and the enemy’s combat style is very different. In Alan Wake the Taken were not human so the fiction could allow them to just appear in the scene. The QB enemies in the scene need an entry point and a narrative (e.g. reinforcements need to come through doors). We also use a lot of dialogue and audio cues to explain the situations. As an example, we use the Monarch Commander radio quite extensively to explain the combat narrative.

Enemies in QB are also armed with guns--not relying on melee--meaning the combat areas need to be designed much more with cover in mind.

The adventuring sequences especially in Stutters are particularly unique to QB. Getting them to look and sound convincing was a challenge. What a Stutter should look and sound like was a big challenge and went through many iterations. Because the idea of time being frozen or broken is such an abstract concept pretty much everyone had their own take on what it should be.

From and audio perspective we ended up with more of an idea of what it shouldn't be and this got honed during production. Audio and visuals are very closely linked with the audio driving the visuals effects. This sync and synergy between sound and vision gives the Stutters a really holistic and visceral feel.

KR: I think the biggest difference is that in Quantum Break we have far less dead space, or spaces which aren't really contributing to the story or the gameplay. Every space we've designed in Quantum Break has a purpose; we don't want any areas in the game in which the player just wanders aimlessly with nothing going on. We're not an open-world game; we're a linear story driven game and as such every environment we create is almost like a scene in a movie or TV show. It's there to serve the game, not artificially inflate the game's length.

Obviously on top of that we've done a ton of work with setpiece destruction which we simply didn't have in Alan Wake. The frozen stutters in time, with ships crashing into bridges and as a player being able to direct Jack through the destruction as it skips forwards and backwards--that's all new for us. We've invested heavily in something called DMM, which allows us to realistically simulate how a ship would actually crash into a bridge. We then take this simulation and work with it in order to create our level design environments. It ensures every crashing car; every collapsing platform, every destroyed building, has a story. It came to be from something which is as close to real as can be--it has a history.

Did you encounter many challenges in terms of level design with Quantum Break’s use of time-manipulation; when Jack uses his time powers, how does that affect enemy AI?

RL: When time is bent there is quite a bit going on in the background to ensure the player understands what is happening and how time is being manipulated. The audio mix changes dramatically and focuses on elements that can communicate the change in time.

For instance an enemy's gun will fire slower and at a lower pitch, and their dialogue will stretch. Audio is a big part of the puzzle when communicating time manipulation, as it is so immediate and obvious if something sounds wrong or different. Music is also manipulated a lot based on the time scale of the game, especially during time powers.

We have special states for the enemy AI (e.g. confusion state after being frozen, or "Jack's disappeared" state). This affects the AI behavior and the dialogue. QB combat is really quick because Jack has the ability to rush around the combat area at inhuman speed.

One of the challenges we had was to be able to make logical and sensible sounding enemy dialogue. The combat situation could change so quickly. One second an enemy is performing a Flanking maneuver but is then frozen, when he unfreezes he will have lost Jack, etc. We ended up keeping all the enemy combat dialogue very short and concise so it would fit with the speed of the combat.

KR: For sure! AI was actually kinda tricky for a couple of reasons. First of all, the AI in Quantum Break was created from scratch. Obviously we had AI in both Max Payne and Alan Wake, but it wasn't sophisticated enough to do what we needed it to for this game (the AI in Alan Wake was effectively a zombie chasing the player's position).

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Monarch needed to be a believable antagonistic force; the personnel they employ needed to be believable so Monarch as a corporation can be credible. As such, we invested a lot of time and resource into a new AI system. Complete new behaviors that you would see in other third-and first-person shooters. On top of that we then had to think about how they would react to time powers. When the player uses Rush and Jack effectively vanishes into thin air, how does the AI react? They'd start searching for him. So, we built a full search patter behavior for that one single time power. That's how important the time powers and their effect on not only the environment, but other characters in the game is.

Not going to lie, we did struggle with enemy re-enforcements for a while. Traditionally, they would come from areas the player simply wouldn't be able to access while they are entering the scene. Unfortunately for us, the player has the ability to freeze time and move across the play space at a significant speed while rushing; meaning the player could get to the enemies before they had even entered the play space. We had to do some clever things with player and camera position and multiple enemy entry points to ensure it wouldn't break.

Given that Jack has a handful of time-powers available to him and the levels are fairly open-ended, do you think that will encourage players to play through the game again (and possibly again) to see how they could have done things differently but achieved the same results?

RL: I really hope this is the case. A challenge I play myself is to try to get through combat without using time powers. That is really hard!

KR: Hopefully yes! While we've not got a score system in the game, we hope people will try and encounter combat scenarios in different ways and trying to create a "perfect" run through. Internally at Remedy we'd always try and show off our awesome time power skills to each other; especially within the design team.

Remedy was one of the pioneers of "bullet-time" with Max Payne. How did that history affect or impact the time-shifting parts of Quantum Break?

KR: Honestly, we tried to not think about it too much. Obviously there is a history there with bullet time and we know that, but we don't want to put the pressure of being a pioneer on every aspect of the game onto the team. We were confident we'd be able to do something very cool under the concept of time manipulation, even if it wasn't as ground breaking as bullet time. We're super happy with how the time powers turned out. While no individual power could be called out as "that's a revolutionary mechanic right there" - how all the time powers flow together, how they work with the environment, how they look and sound; I think we created something really special there.

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Justin Haywald

GameSpot's Managing Editor and part-time stunt double for Elijah Wood.
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