Matt Gardner: We got a little bit of a chance to get hands-on with Brink at Gamescom and it everyone started running around attempting to play the game like a standard deathmatch FPS but it became quickly apparent that Brink isn’t simply trying to be just another shooter. How do you feel your game is trying to bring something new to the genre?
Paul Wedgwood: Well as you know, here at Splash Damage we’ve been working on shooters for about ten years now. We started out as a mod team and we did Quake III: Fortress, which became really quite popular as this kind of autonomous game in its own right. Then, when we became commercial, our first game was Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, which was obviously a pure multiplayer shooter so if there was no one else there to play with, there was really no game. Enemy Territory: Quake Wars shipped with some fairly decent bots but that was basically it, with no story or arching narrative. Really what’s new in Brink, for us, is this notion that we’ve got this brand new world that no-one’s ever seen before that players can explore and become part of this big story, but at the same time make this seamless transition between that singleplayer solo game, a co-op experience and fully blown multiplayer versus.
The idea really was that you could have one seamless mode rather than having to run two different executables. To achieve that, of course we wanted you to have some investment in your character. So we have persistent character advancement and an XP system. Instead of simply awarding you points for your kill count or ticking off arbitrary objectives that are the same every time you play, we wanted to give the player the freedom so that they could level up at a rate that they choose, taking on a combat role that suits their own playing style and then rewarding them with XP points for doing things in the game that make the experience the most fun for the team as a whole. Even when they’re playing in singleplayer, if the player co-ordinates with their squad of AI they’ll find they level up much quicker. We have all of this new ground for us, including a movement system that we feel revolutionise how you’re able to get around a battlefield, but at its core, of course, it’s still a good fun shooter!
MG: Is it completely drop-in, drop-out? So, say I’m playing through a level, a friend or two could come online and immediately join me?
PW: Absolutely. If I buy the game and I find myself at home playing through a mission, and say I’m about a third of the way through and you come online, a notification will come up and you’ll be able to drop straight into my game, in my mission, however far along in the campaign I am, with your character, levelling up alongside me.
Later on we could get joined by two or more other friends, and we could choose to continue co-operatively or we could go into a full multiplayer mode battling against a bunch of strangers. There’s complete freedom, but the big difference is that you don’t have to go into a lobby or work your way through a whole bunch of menus and have to load up a map pack to do it. We come from a PC background, where you drop in and out of servers all the time, and we thought ‘Okay, it’s got to be peer-to-peer and have close server migration, but so what?!’ You should be able to jump in and out whenever you feel like it and that’s exactly what we’ve done with Brink.
MG: Having seen the game in action, another one of the new, much vaunted features of the game appears to be this new moment system you mentioned earlier: SMART. We’ve seen other games try and incorporate free running elements into their engines with some mixed results. What was the idea behind bringing elements of parkour into Brink?
PW: Well SMART stands for Smooth Movement Across Rough Terrain and it really came out of all of these minor frustrations we’d found when working on other shooters. We’d constantly be defeated by objects like, say, a bin. Or there’d be a table you couldn’t quite jump onto, you’d certainly never be able to slide under it. There’d be walls that I’d look at and would probably have been able to scale in real life – certainly if I was being shot at, right! – but that wasn’t possible in the game. As a super soldier in a video game I’m constantly defeated by all of these little things that I wouldn’t even think about in real life.
So we looked at stairs. When moving up stairs in a video game we never have to hit a bunch of buttons for each step so we wondered why it wasn’t simpler to do other things like jump on top of a crate, hop across a gap or vault over a car bonnet and slide under a table – things that should be intuitively easy to do in a shooter. So that’s what we’ve done, we’ve developed a new movement system. We hired a great technical designer called Aubrey Hesselgren, who’s a parkour enthusiast, and he basically strapped a camera to head and went off and got loads of awesome game footage of himself jumping, running and pretending to shoot, leaping off of fifteen foot ledges at his farm and beating up his dad, skulking around our basement pretending to lay explosive charges and it was excellent. And looking at the footage we realised that doing all of this without impeding the camera or making everyone feel sick was possible, so we started prototyping like crazy.
It was actually our creative director, Richard Ham, lead designer on Fable II, who realised it needed to be on a single button. So he basically came up with the necessity for a contextual button for all of this. So if I’m sprinting towards a container and I look up, I’ll vault over it; if I’m running at a table and I glance down, I’ll slide under it. It made no sense to have a fiddly interface and we think it’s all the more enjoyable for that streamlining.
MG: How seamless are these elements, though; I mean are we looking at canned animations?
PW: No, not really. The entire philosophy throughout development is that we’re concerned with moving and shooting, not moving and then shooting. It’s important to us that these elements are a fluid and natural as possible.
MG: One thing I have noticed about the game, and we’ve seen it a lot from studios like Irrational, is that there seems to be quite a distinctive art style to Brink, reaching out towards near-hyperrealism. Was this a deliberate design choice from the start, to set yourselves apart from the more ‘realistic’ competition?
PW: Well when you get up close to the characters, there’s a lot of photo-realistic detail, but you’re right to call it hyperrealism. The idea’s been to exaggerate the proportions and also exaggerate the colours. We really wanted to put the colour back into shooters. To do that we hired a guy called Olivier Leonardi who was the art director on Rainbow Six Vegas, and when he came onboard he made the point that this was an entirely new venture, an unseen game world – it’s a massive artificially constructed floating city, it hadn’t really been explored much in video games or television – so it was an opportunity to play about with things. As people wouldn’t necessarily be coming in with preconceived expectations about how the game should look, it freed us up in the design department. Additionally, being a very action heavy, fast-paced game, it’s important to understand who’s under your crosshairs.
PW: (Laughs) Things can get quite frantic!
MG: Indeed, but I like that squad-based and class-based games to have a certain structure to them. That said, on too many occasions I’ve found myself playing a class-based game that’s totally unbalanced and even on those games that do have a fair spread of different players and playing styles, some classes appear to be rewarded more easily than others. What’s been done differently with Brink to make support classes more involved, more kick-ass, and more noticeable than before?
PW: Well, with Brink, we had this notion of buffing your teammates. In our previous games, the roles were a little more limited. Really only the medic could give out health, and the field operative ammunition and even then you just scattered it around the floor like crumbs and people would just run over it. Of course if you actually wanted to give it specifically to someone you had to aim at a person to throw it at them (laughs) so we were kind of punishing the player with a bad interface there.
In Brink what we’ve tried to do is make it so that the three combat roles – Soldier, Medic and Engineer – can all help out their teammates, and as they level up the level of depth and complexity grows and develops. When I first start out, as a Medic I can give out health, as a Soldier I can give out ammo, and as an Engineer I can buff my teammates’ weapons. But as I develop, so too do my skills. Later on the Engineer can buff armour, build things etc., the Medic can start giving regenerative boosts and adrenaline, and the gameplay depth really broadens out. You can combine these skills too. The Operative can hack things and later on scan enemies to reveal enemy positions.
All of these collaborative, teambuilding activities earn you more XP than simply being on the frontline. In a way I suppose we’re kind of bribing players to organically build a more diverse, co-operative experience.
Tune in tomorrow for the rest of my interview with Paul as we talk customisation, objectives and story!