x360a Meets: Randy Pitchford, Brother in Arms: Hells Highway, Part 2

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Well, as promised we are back for the second part of our interview with Randy Pitchford, President of Gearbox Software. This part focuses on characters, the engine, and more importantly....achievements!!
Back in the day you used to be a magician in Hollywood, so you obviously love to entertain people. The story aspect has always been a strong feature in Brother in Arms. Do you come up with the stories for the characters before the gameplay, or do you work out the gameplay and then add the characters in around that?

We have a couple of things we think about when we’re developing stories for these games. We first imagine a theme and then we imagine the sort of entertainment theme we want to have. We also explore how we want to sum up the experience based on the information and the research, as well as the experience of the Veterans. So we’re not just trying to entertain you, we’re also trying to entertain you in a way that’s very authentic to a summing up of the typical experience of a paratrooper in these battles and this war. So it’s a pretty challenging task in terms of story development. So we start with some intent and we develop some characters.

At this point it’s very different from when we developed the very first Brothers in Arms, where we started creating the characters. Today these characters have personalities to us. It often starts to work itself out. We put these characters in a situation and our writers and other creative folk can just kind of know how they’ll be. Like sometimes you get these collision courses between some characters because of the way their personalities have grown, and other times you’ll get things that you expect, or sometimes not expect, but things that are very real to who these characters are- with how they’re going to surprise you with who they help, or who they don’t. And all with the tests that might be happening- one of the guys in the team might get killed, or something unexpected happens from the environment or the situation of the enemy. And they have to deal with that, with how each character reacts. At this point, we have our theme, our plot and our intent, but the specific story almost emerges with a life of its own because the characters now are so well developed.

Are any of the characters based on people in the office?

(Laughs) You know, not in personality, no. There’s a couple of times where we’ve used folks we know as living models for the look of the character. For example, a lot of the Germans are modelled on the Gearbox people- so a lot of the time we’re shooting at ourselves. So there are a couple of people that look like Gearbox people, but the personalities are completely unique. Some of the things that happen when we develop these guys and write the story, some of the things in our personalities emerge, but these characters are their own people. They feel very real and very plausible, at least that's the aim anyway, and we put a lot of effort towards that.

So sometimes we see some of ourselves, and sometimes we see someone and say “I know a guy like that”. When that happens, that’s cool, that feels really good. But yeah, sometimes there are a couple of people that look like guys in the office. One of the guys called Connor, who’s the loader for Jasper the Bazooka guy, who is based on one of our level designers, Carl. When we play the game we’re like “There’s Carl”! It’s kind of weird. One of the models is actually a Fed-Ex delivery guy that showed up/ we we’re like “Oh my God, that look! Would you mid signing a model release and can we photograph you?”

The game’s using the Unreal engine, and it’s basically pushing it further than anyone that’s pushed it before. Can you tell us some of the major enhancements that we’ll see on the engine for this game?

Yeah the technology is incredible, we’re really happy with it and with Epic. One of the neat things about Epic and the technology, is that after they shipped Gears of War, they didn’t stop working on it. So there have been a lot of new things that Epic have added to the technology, that you’re going to see first in Brother In Arms because they haven’t shipped GoW 2 yet. Then there are other things that we’ve done, and other technologies that we’ve invested in. In fact, we have a few games in development at Gearbox that use Unreal Engine 3, so we’ve been able to spend a lot more on technology than we could have afforded to if we only had one game. Some people know we have Borderlands in development, we also have Aliens: Colonial Marines, and each of these use the engine. So the technology budget for one of those games has now been combined to create a much larger project. We’ve been able to do things like improve the shadow rendering. A lot of the time you’ll see a little jagged look to the shadows, they’re not quite as high fidelity as our HD screens can present to us. We’ve been able to find clever ways around that because of our investment in technology.

In BIA we also care a lot about the cover. You’ll see a character dig into cover, or hug a wall or a fence he’s hiding behind and he’ll lean over the edge, or around the side, and he’ll shoot from there. And then the enemies doing the same thing. And some of these things should be impenetrable to bullets. Like most games, when you shoot a piece of wood with a rifle, it may make a little mark on it but nothing major happens. In BIA you can shred that wooden fence splinter by splinter. The destructible cover system really works well with the game design of fire and manoeuvre with these small arms skirmish situations which are so integral to a FPS experience. So shredding cover, and blowing apart sandbags with explosives- that sort of stuff just wasn’t possible without some technology that we developed. The other thing is that there are some really wide, expansive areas in BIA and the default GoW/Unreal Engine 3 wants to perform in more corridor style environments. So we developed technology to bring the foliage forward, to allow big vistas and big environments to morph together that you can explore. It’s not an open world game, but it’s not a corridor either. It’s a very wide experience compared to your typical linear shooter experience.

You’re keen on the Achievement points like most of us. Has the Achievement list been finalised for the game?

Yeah, I’m addicted to them! The list has been finished for a while now I think. We made a couple of adjustments at the end. Like some of our experiences of other games is that multiplayer achievements actually injure the multiplayer game because you get people that aren’t actually interested in playing the game they just want the points. So we removed a couple of those and we moved some of the points around, I think we have some zero point achievements for multiplayer. We wanted them to be a “look, that happened” event rather than a motivator. But yeah, the achievement design has been done for a while and we haven’t made many changes for a couple of months now.

How do you go about designing an Achievement list? Is it just something that you just make the game and then think “Right, what can we do to give achievements?” or do you think about that when you’re actually designing the game?

Both. We’ve got 50 that we can allocate. We left some open so that we didn’t consume all 50. We also have 1000 points that we can spread around, so you’re thinking about what you want to do when you’re making the game, and some of it is you’ve made some things and go “How does this affect the achievement design?” and the achievement design comes after the core loop. Both happen. I think I’m up to about 72,000 Gamerscore, I’m totally addicted to the system. All I do is play Xbox! I totally get what it’s like to go for them. I think that when I play as a gamer, I like to have some things there that maybe show me some things that are neat and cool, but I also like to have some things that I’m reasonably happy that if I invest some time in that I’m going to be able to get them. There are some achievements there that are not really possible, there are some that aren’t that fun to get. So I think that Achievements need to be fun to get, and I also feel that they need to be achievable. There’s a couple of times when it’s nice to give a touch to the super hardcore, crazy fanatic- but you don’t want to put too many points in those because most people just want to have fun with the game.

We put a lot of points into consuming the campaign. Each step you take, there’s more value for you to take the next step. We put a lot of points towards that. That's why you wanted BIA, and that's where the value is. We didn’t try and stack all the difficulties and go “We’re going to make you play it 3 times to get all the points!” I think that’s just dumb. I don’t know why designers think that’s a good idea. So you can play the campaign on casual and that’s fine. But you finished the campaign, and you probably enjoyed it, so here’s the reward. And here’s the credit for it- you get the little mark that says you did it. We’re not going to say you’ve got to play it again and again. If you enjoyed it, you’ll probably play it again anyway, you don’t need me to friggin bribe you into doing it!! I hate it when games do that. If I want to play it again, but if you’re bribing me, that’s like grrr!! I actually get mad as a designer when you do that.

So what’s your favourite Achievement on the game?

There’s one called Crunchie, which you have to roll some infantry squads with the tank. Operation market Garden involved the paratroopers, but it also involved the 30 Core Tank element rolling through as well, so there’s an interaction there. We haven’t really talked about this much as we want it to be a surprise, but there’s a few missions where you can actually get in a tank and there’s some cool stuff that happens there. There’s this neat system in the game called “Action Camera”. It activates when pretty wild stuff happens, like if you get a bazooka grenade somewhere and you’re just blowing people apart. You can see arms flying off, pieces of debris flying. We’ll push the camera in there and watch that simulate in a slower speed. It’s pretty cool, but you can turn it off if you want. No-one’s really done anything like that in a FPS game before. It’s kind of like Burnout, where they broke all the rules of a racing game. The rules used to be “Look man, you’re going 150 miles an hour- do not take the camera out of the car!” They said, “You know what, it’s a racing game. You’re driving 150 miles an hour and you can’t even enjoy it because if you crash you’re a mile down the road by the time the camera moves – so we’re going to slow it down for you to enjoy”. That was really cool.

The way it emerged for us was, as developers, whenever we get a sweet headshot, they’d use the developer tools to pause the game, go in and play around with the camera and zoom in and slow it down. We have this crazy gore system where you can break off skull chunks etc- I mean, nasty stuff can happen! But there’s something sort of gratifying watching it in a weird way. So we were just doing it because it looked so cool, and we decided that we had to come up with a system where this became a feature that everyone can enjoy. So.... there are some achievements about action cam moments, and getting some pretty cool headshots etc. There’s also some achievements for doing all the different fire and manoeuvres skills and stuff. Most people will get those in the first third, first half of the game. There’s a couple of scavenger hunt achievements too.

Every level has these things called Recon Points, where you can get a better view of the situation. You can tap a button and it will give you a sort-of mini cutscene that gives you some information, but they also unlock historical information you can look at. There’s also this thing that the soldiers used to do, and that was to draw a man peaking over the wall and write ‘Killroy was here’, and the Allies started to paint this in areas that they’d cleared so folks would know they’d been there before. So there’s some of these hidden about. So both of these serve for a little bit of scavenger hunt gameplay, but we don’t overdo it where you have to collect all of them or you get no credit. We’re like “Oh here’s your first one, have some points. Oh, you’ve got a couple now, here’s some more. Oh, you’ve got half of them, good for you. Oh loo, you have all of them, well done!”. I hate it when scavenger hunt gameplay is just there for the sake of it, and I hate it when there’s like a hundred, they’re scattered everywhere, and you don’t get any credit until you’ve found them all. It’s just like “ARGH, kill me!”.
So that concludes part two of the interview, and hopefully you've enjoyed the insight into achievements by someone who is key in the development of the lists. Keep your eyes out for part three tomorrow, where we talk about downloadable content, the multiplayer aspect, and as promised.....Star Wars!!


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