Tribes: Vengeance Q&A

We talk with Sierra's Chris Mahnken about the next game in the Tribes series, which will include a story-based single-player component.


Starsiege Tribes (1998) and Tribes 2 (2001) helped redefine team-based multiplayer gaming by offering a robust range of character classes, inventory choices, and vehicles, along with large-scale indoor and outdoor combat. The influence of Dynamix's creations can be seen in games like Battlefield 1942, but the developer itself was closed down in 2001, putting the future of the Tribes series in jeopardy. Then came Sierra's recent surprise announcement that not only would it publish a new Tribes game, but the game would have a complete story-based single-player element, and the publisher had hired veteran developer Irrational Games for the job.

Tribes: Vengeance has been in the works for a while, but it isn't due out until late next year. We recently talked to Sierra producer Chris Mahnken to get some early details on how Irrational plans to incorporate the Tribes and Starsiege legacy into the single-player story, what's in store for the multiplayer mode, and why the Unreal engine will benefit the new game.

GS: The Tribes series has a strong multiplayer legacy but hasn't seen much of a single-player treatment. How did you decide to move the series in this direction?

The first screenshot of the game suggests the sort of huge outdoor environments we can expect from the upcoming Unreal-powered Tribes game.
The first screenshot of the game suggests the sort of huge outdoor environments we can expect from the upcoming Unreal-powered Tribes game.

Chris Mahnken: There are three major reasons. First, when new players started playing Tribes for the first time they were thrust into a game environment where everybody else was more experienced than they were. If they picked the wrong server, the differences could be huge. This frequently led to a bad first experience. Adding a single-player element gives players a chance to become more skilled without being repeatedly crushed online.

Second, there are a significant number of gamers who simply don't want to play online. Without a single-player game we are excluding them from our market.

Finally, the Tribes universe is a fantastic place in which to tell a story. As game developers, we love to tell stories and couldn't pass up this opportunity to further flesh out the Tribes, Earthsiege, and Starsiege storylines.

GS: Can you tell us anything about the background story for the game? How will background elements from the previous Tribes or even the Starsiege games figure in?

CM: On the big timeline, Tribes: Vengeance takes place between the existing Tribes games, and Cyberstorm, about 300 to 500 years before Starsiege: Tribes. It fills in some background on how the tribes were formed. Tribes: Vengeance is definitely part of the ongoing Starsiege and Tribes timeline, and people who are familiar with that will be comfortable with this story; however, you won't need a Tribes history lesson to understand what is going on. It fits into the universe but doesn't require it.

GS: Should we expect to see new threats and new types of characters introduced in Vengeance beyond the playable characters in Tribes' multiplayer?

CM: There are certainly unique characters, weapons, and vehicles in Tribes: Vengeance. We're not quite ready to give away any detailed information yet, so I can't say much more than that.

GS: At the game's announcement it was mentioned that the story will be told from multiple viewpoints. Will you play as more than one character? Can you say anything about the main characters?

CM: If you think of your favorite book or movie--unless it's The Graduate--it is probably not told through the eyes of one character. Yet first-person shooter games, despite being some of the most compelling storytelling vehicles in gaming, still seem to be using the pen-and-paper RPG model of "I made up a character and I'm going to play him until he's dead."

Tribes: Vengeance uses an approach closer to movies and books to tell the story by giving players control of a handful of related characters throughout the game. Not only does this expose players to different weapons and equipment, it allows them to see how other characters in the story view each other.

We have often discussed how this might work in-game. A guy and a girl approach an empty enemy base. Suddenly the massive gate shuts, separating them, leaving the guy inside and the girl outside. As the enemy approaches, the girl tells the guy to find the switch to open the gate while she holds them off outside. At this point the player takes control of the guy and scours the base for the switch while a timer counts in the upper-right corner. Once that mission is complete, the player then plays the girl, who fights off the enemy while the same timer counts down. If the player took his sweet time while playing the guy, they will have a chance to curse themselves when they have to survive that much longer as the girl. If they hurried, they will be rewarded for understanding the character and playing them properly. Again, this is just an example, but similar situations are planned for the single-player campaign.

Using this approach allows the developers to create tension and consequences much more naturally than by making the player replay missions or by awarding some sort of bonus points. The gaming industry is mature, and the PC audience grows older every day. They are ready for a story closer to The Godfather than Mario Brothers. And we couldn't have picked a better team than Irrational to pull off such an ambitious move.

Jet Packs and Spinfusors

GS: Irrational Games has an established track record, with System Shock 2 and Freedom Force under its belt. Yet Tribes' emphasis on fast-paced action seems like a very different direction. In what ways will the studio's experience carry over to the new project?

We can expect armor types and weapons reminiscent of previous Tribes games, plus plenty of additional creations.
We can expect armor types and weapons reminiscent of previous Tribes games, plus plenty of additional creations.

CM: The people at Irrational have a world-class reputation with titles like Thief, System Shock 2, and Freedom Force on their resumes. The reason Irrational can draw talent like that is because above all else they have the ability to understand a project's needs. They had never made a superhero RPG, but they handled it with aplomb, showing that they are more than a one-trick pony. Having them make a fast-paced shooter is completely within their scope and experience. This is evidenced by the fact that one of their first steps was to hire someone intimately familiar with Tribes gameplay, design, and competitive community--Michael "KineticPoet" Johnston, the maker of TeamRabbit and TeamRabbit 2--to help keep the spirit of Tribes authentic in this new incarnation.

GS: How long has the game been in the works?

CM: Planning began in late 2001. Irrational has been working on the game for just about one year.

GS: How did you settle on using the Unreal engine? What sorts of modifications are you making?

CM: The team at Irrational reviewed every major engine on the market (as well as some that haven't been released) and selected the one that gave us the most flexibility and power. The fact that the gaming community already has a lot of experience with the Unreal engine was another plus.

As far as modifications to the engine go, we are adding normal mapping and volumetric shadows, we've rebuilt the physics system from the ground up, and we're making some major improvements to the outdoor rendering code. We're also doing a ton of little optimizations and refinements to speed things up as well as help our designers be more efficient.

GS: What are some of the most impressive visual effects you have planned so far?

CM: Certainly the normal mapping on the characters makes a 2,000-polygon model look like it has 200,000 polygons. The volumetric shadows are also quite impressive.

GS: Do you expect the campaign to be more linear or dynamic?

CM: In terms of gameplay the story is linear; we don't have branching points where you head off in a new direction and miss a whole bunch of the content. The way the story is told is anything but linear, moving back and forth between two timelines separated by about 20 years.

GS: Will the weapons from Tribes 2 carry over? Are there any new ones in the works?

CM: Since Tribes: Vengeance is a "prequel," you have to think of predecessors to the weapons in Starsiege: Tribes and Tribes 2. There will be some of the old favorites and some that players haven't seen before. Certainly, the spinfuser will play a prominent role.

GS: Will Vengeance have the same types of armor suits as Tribes 2? Can we expect a return of the signature jetpack?

CM: If there weren't jetpacks and armor it wouldn't be Tribes! Nothing will be exactly the same as previous Tribes games, but it will be familiar to the existing fans.

GS: How do you plan to support the existing Tribes 2 player and mod-making community? Will previously released mods be integrated or supported by the new game's multiplayer?

CM: Tribes: Vengeance will fully support both mods and mutators. We expect the community to be able to produce some really exceptional stuff using this engine and our modified Unreal toolset. A group of community map designers have already started working on Tribes: Vengeance map ideas, and we expect that the community will have many maps and perhaps even some mutators or mods complete by the time we ship. They're very excited about the possibilities.

GS: What new types of multiplayer modes can we look forward to?

CM: The full scoop on the multiplayer modes is still under wraps to some extent, but you can count on lots of the old Tribes standards to keep people happy, all with a bit of a twist. As we move forward with our designs I think we'll have a few surprises in store as well.

GS: Will the game take place in the types of outdoor environments we've seen in previous Tribes games or will there be more emphasis on indoor locations?

CM: The weapons and jetpacks of Tribes: Vengeance scream for wide-open spaces. There will be some interior areas like in past games, and the single-player story will take us into some very impressive interiors, but the majority of the game will continue to take place outdoors.

GS: When is the game due out?

CM: Late 2004.

GS: Anything else you'd like to add?

CM: We are planning additional community events and an open beta test period prior to release to make sure we don't leave behind existing fans as we pursue a bigger audience for Tribes.

GS: Thanks, Chris.

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