Pandemic on building Saboteur franchise
Q&A: Production chief Greg Borrud says to expect at least one game from his studio every year, doing six games concurrently between LA, Australia studio was "too much."
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Earlier this week, Electronic Arts and Pandemic Studios announced that The Saboteur will arrive for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on December 8. The occasion was momentous, considering the game was officially announced in March 2007, more than six months before EA purchased the Pandemic/BioWare alliance for a heady $860 million in October of that same year.
However, gamers may be understandably cautious on Pandemic's last effort, given the studio's recent track record. Having built its name on such critically lauded titles as the original Mercenaries and Star Wars: Battlefront II, Pandemic's most recent two efforts--Mercenaries 2: World in Flames and The Lord of the Rings: Conquest--were both roundly drubbed by reviewers.
GameSpot recently spoke with Greg Borrud, chief production officer at Pandemic Studios, to discuss what lessons the developer learned from its previous two games, as well as why the post-Black Friday launch presents a unique opportunity for The Saboteur.
Saying that The Saboteur has the potential to be Pandemic's best game to date, Borrud notes that the game has been built as a franchise primed for sequels. Borrud also addressed Pandemic's role in the EA ecosystem, saying that his studio will be shipping at least one game every year "for the foreseeable future."
GameSpot: You guys are coming off of two games that didn't hit EA's 80 percent Metacritic benchmark; Mercenaries 2 scored an average of 72 and Lord of the Rings: Conquest averaged a 55. What went wrong with those games, and how did you apply those lessons to Saboteur?
Greg Borrud: Not only did those games not hit EA's benchmarks, but they didn't hit Pandemic's benchmarks. Those were absolutely real learning experiences for us as our first next-gen titles. Especially as it relates to Mercs 2, open-world next gen is a challenging thing, it's a tough type of game to make.
What we've done here is we've made sure that we've taken the time to get it right. We've pushed this game out many, many times, and EA will attest to the fact that we've pushed this game out many times, specifically to make sure we have the opportunity to get it right. Not only take the time to really polish it up and make it a great experience, but also to take the time to get all the bugs out of it as well. Mercs 2 is a great game, and we're very proud of it, but it probably needed a few more months to get all the bugs out of it, and that's what we're making sure to do this time around.
We've learned quite a bit from our previous two games, and we're confident that we're returning to the types of games that gamers expect from Pandemic Studios.
GS: Pandemic has done a good mix of licensed and original games, with Battlefront and Conquest on one hand and Mercenaries and Saboteur on the other. How are the two different, in terms of development, and which does the Pandemic team prefer?
GB: We've always tried to have a very balanced portfolio. We enjoy doing licensed IP, and obviously, if you're going to be doing licensed IP, there's none better than Star Wars and Lord of the Rings--two of the greatest IPs of all time, and we were thrilled to work with that. Something else we take very seriously is creating new original IP. Full Spectrum Warrior, Destroy All Humans, Mercenaries, these are games that we created, and there's something really special about creating something from scratch and seeing it out there, and then being able to sequel and really grow a franchise from scratch. I think that's where Saboteur falls, an IP that we've been working on a very long time, probably five years now that we've been really working on this product.
I wouldn't say we have a preference one way or another. It depends on the title and if we feel like we've got the right brand and the right IP and the right gameplay, we'd be excited to be working on it. So we loved to work on the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars games, but obviously, there's something very special about working on licensed IP.
GS: Would you consider one to be more difficult than the other?
GB: Yeah, original IP is definitely more of a challenge because when you think of the risks that you're taking when you're creating an entire world alongside of new gameplay and often a new technology, it does add another layer of complexity. That being said, you're also not constrained by the IP at all. So there are pros and cons to it, but generally, there's a lot more that goes into making an original IP game as opposed to a licensed IP game--and probably why Saboteur's taken us around five years to make.
GS: Right, and it's finally coming out. You all announced the December 8 release date earlier this week. So, I interviewed Frank Gibeau during E3, and he spoke a length about the need for caution in launching new IPs during the holiday window. Specifically, he said that he thinks Mirror's Edge may have fared better if it would have launched in a different window. How do you feel about having Saboteur launch during the holidays?
GB: It's different for each game, and each game needs to find its own unique window. We see Saboteur as a big, blockbuster product. It's not a niche game, it's not an experiment, or anything like that. It's meant for a very mainstream, very blockbuster audience. There's really no better time to ship a game like that than at Christmas. And we do think that you can do very well at Christmas with original IP games, if it's the right kind of game and it's positioned well and it's something that the mass-market consumers really want, where it can rise above the noise.
Something like [Ubisoft's] Assassin's Creed, obviously. A game that's very similar to what we're doing in terms of a very unique, open-world game, which did incredibly well a couple of Christmases ago. So, we think it depends on the game. I think as a general rule, launching original IP up against massive, massive sequels is a challenge, but if you've got the right IP and you've got the right timing, I think you can be successful. And that's our hope with Saboteur. We think shipping Saboteur at Christmas is the right move, it hits the right audience, and gives it the best chance of being successful.
GS: What are you guys doing, specifically, to help it rise above the noise that you mentioned?
GB: We're getting out there a lot. We're going to be here at Comic-Con this week, our PR team has set us up on world tours, and I think over the next three to four months, we'll be talking a lot more about this game. Honestly, we've hardly shown anything of the game at this point. The game is so big, it's so broad, there's so much to talk about, that we've got a lot more that we're going to be revealing over the next four or five months as we lead up to launch. You're going to be seeing a lot more of the game, we're actually giving our first hands-on of the game down at Comic-Con to the general public, so we encourage people if they're down at Comic-Con to come by the EA booth and get on it and play the game for the first time.
Another thing is the window we've chosen is a unique one. For some reason, holiday games all ship before Thanksgiving, so we expect October and November are going to be incredibly noisy, and there's going to be a lot going on. But once Thanksgiving hits, no one wants to ship in that window. And I understand, Thanksgiving weekend is the big weekend, but after that it just drops off, and it's silent, and usually there's no launches at that time. So we think we're uniquely positioned to still hit the Christmas market, and yet to come out where we'll be one of the only things shipping at this time. We're really excited about this ship window; we think it's the right one for Saboteur.
GS: As a bit of a hypothetical, if Saboteur does get lost in the holiday shuffle, what options do Pandemic and EA have for bringing attention to it postlaunch?
GB: There's a lot of things that the marketing and sales people can do, a lot of tools they've got to be able to do that. Honestly, from our perspective, our number one focus is making sure that it's a high-quality game. We think that if we get the highest quality game out there possible, and we believe we can, we really do think we're working on what has the potential to be the best game that Pandemic's ever shipped. If we can do that, we believe the audience is going to be there.
If it doesn't do the blockbuster numbers on day one, if it's a quality game, I do think that it will continue to sell over time. And that's really our focus from a development standpoint. We can't have too much impact on what people are going to buy and what other people aren't going to buy, but we can impact the quality of the game, that's where the entirety of our focus is.
GS: How have things changed leading up to launch, given the overarching financial climate? What new considerations are there, as opposed to launching during more of a boom time?
GB: Yeah, I think a lot of those considerations have happened at more of a senior level at EA. They have reduced the number of games that are in development. One thing that you get out of that, though, is that the ones they are shipping, you know have the EA stamp of approval and quality, and this is a game that EA is really willing to back. So I think that's really where more of the change has happened--less games in development, less games being put out, and more focus on quality. As you've heard [EA CEO] John Riccitiello, and Frank, and really everyone at EA is very focused on quality and having less but much bigger, higher quality launches every year.
I think that's really where the economic downturn has changed the games industry. From the gamer perspective, it's still a very positive thing. If anything, it's a better thing. The games that are going to be coming out, especially from EA, they can pretty much know that the time and effort has been put in to make the highest quality game possible.
GS: So, Pandemic has this coming out in December. I assume there will be downloadable content sometime thereafter?
GB: Unfortunately, we're not in a position to be able to talk about DLC right now. We've got a lot that we're working on at Pandemic; Saboteur's not the only thing. And we're going to be announcing our other plans for this product in the future. But we don't have anything to talk about in regard to DLC yet.
GS: How many games do you think Pandemic can have going at once?
GB: We certainly have multiple teams here, so we have the ability to work on multiple games at a time. We started with two games as a company 11 years ago, and that was Battlezone and Dark Reign. We've always been a multiple-team company, we're still a multiple-team company. We have the ability to ship multiple games every year. Obviously, with a much stronger emphasis on quality and really pushing the overall polished experience, we're going to be shipping less games a year than we have in the past. But we'll be shipping at least a game every year, and sometimes more than one game every year into the foreseeable future, with just an emphasis on a much higher quality experience.
GS: Do you feel like there's a sweet spot for how many games you can be developing concurrently?
GB: I think, honestly, I can say we probably went too much, so we have backed down from where we were. We had six games in development between our two studios in Los Angeles and Australia. [Editor's note: Pandemic's Australian studio was reportedly closed in January.] So we've seen the full spectrum, and we've settled into somewhere in the middle in a nice sweet spot that feels very good right now.
GS: How much leeway does Pandemic have in determining its next project, operating as it does as a studio owned by EA?
GB: We have a pretty good amount of leeway at EA. We work very closely with our marketing teams and obviously the sales teams as we're developing new ideas. There are several checkpoints along the way, where we go and talk to the people at EA and say this is what we're proposing. And we'll get their feedback and we'll calibrate accordingly and we'll go forward. But honestly, they've been great and given us a lot of freedom and a lot of flexibility to develop the projects that we're passionate about.