TGS 2013: Titanfall Interview - Abbie Heppe Talks Futurised Fun
Written Saturday, September 21, 2013 By John Robertson
Titanfall has been nothing but impressive so far based upon first impressions at E3 2013 and a chance to actually play th thing at Gamescom last month. It's more than apparent that Respawn knows how to craft an interesting multiplayer shooter, and with guns, guns and more guns, hulking stompy mechs and more than its fair share of invention, Titanfall is undoubtedly one to watch.
But purely multiplayer-based fare has something of a chequered past, particularly on consoles, so how is the studio looking to sidestep a sink into obscurity. Just look at what happened to the multiplayer Brink, for instance. No one plays it any more. How will Respawn avoid the same fate for Titanfall?
Is the studio feeling the pressure post-Infinity Ward? How will the dev keep players hooked? What gameplay rules are being set for Titanfall? We took some time out at TGS with Respawn's Community Manager Abbie Heppe to ask all of these questions, and a load of others, of course. Read on.
The reception to Titanfall thus far has been extremely positive. Combining that with the Infinity Ward background of certain key development staff, is there a sense of extreme pressure to deliver a particularly stunning game?
We put a lot of pressure on ourselves no matter what. Before we announced, there was the pressure of what we were going to produce and how we were going to come up with a brand new IP. I don't know if we could actually feel any more pressure than we already did before we announced.
The reception so far though has really inspired everyone on the team to go that extra mile from here until we ship. It's exciting to get that kind of positive reception coming out of shows as big as E3 and Gamescom.
How long had you been working on it before you got around to the initial announcement?
The company formed in Spring 2010 and I joined in January 2011. For a long period of time there were no desks and computers in the office, with people sitting in lawn chairs or on the floor. Then we got the internet, which was very exciting. During that time everyone was trying to figure out what the game was going to be.
Once we got to around 40 employees was around the time we got a proper office and our designers started to spend a really long time prototyping and experimenting with motion in-game. Our goal was to always have a cat-and-mouse style gameplay, which then evolved into pilots and Titans. It was various iterations of that that finally ended up at what Titanfall is now.
So you built your theme around a set of gameplay principles that you wanted to achieve?
Yeah, our goal is always 'fun'. We start with the mechanics and make sure we have something that is compelling to play and something that people want to keep playing. Being multiplayer it has to be fun.
Movement is extremely important as far as the gameplay goes. Our art team looked at exoskeleton suits and other modern military stuff and then 'futurised' that, which eventually became what our Titans are. So, yes, our design is dictated by the kind of gameplay we want to achieve, but our art team also has a big influence.
Aside from the exoskeleton inspiration, what others elements have the art team drawn upon to create the visuals?
The art team are really big fans of 70s and 80s science-fiction, so a lot of Ridley Scott and Bladerunner kind of stuff was an influence. In particular, a lot of the scale models built for those movies had a big effect on the design. Building our own models is extremely helpful in terms of understanding the space that they operate within. It also helps us with how the animation should work as all of this stuff in Titanfall is something you could theoretically build in real life.
Could you explain a little more about the narrative elements that bookend missions?
The campaign multiplayer missions all have intros as well as these crazy escape portions at the end to give a sense of something beginning and ending. During the match there are characters that help you through and tell you what is going on in order to provide even more context about the world and what's going on around you.
More than just that, though, we wanted to give gamers the crazy moments that you would have if you were in these situations. I guess these are the kinds of moments in single player games where designers would wrest control away from you and force you to look in a certain direction. We don't want to do that because we don't want to break the gameplay experience that you're having.
Any examples of what those moments are?
Well, you can see the care that is put into the animations for when you slide under the legs of the Titan as it's scooping you up and putting you into the cockpit. These kinds of big dramatic moments are way more single player traditionally, but we're just trying to go that extra mile.
So these dramatic in-game moments are not pre-determined events that will happen each and every time you play the same map?
They're not. One of the things I'm most excited about is that we've given players the tools to make some really crazy things happen. You could eject into the air, land on the back of a Titan and rip bits off of it, then jumping back onto your friendly Titan before running along a wall - you just can't predict some of the crazier stuff that is going to happen.
We wanted to give people the tools to create real dramatic moments that occur in real time and are never scripted. We want you to create the best moments yourself.
The story elements didn't really work for Brink, which tried to introduce a bigger narrative into a multiplayer shooter. Why will they work for Titanfall?
The intro is about giving a context for the level and telling you about what is happening. All of this is happening in real-time, so you can move around and do whatever you like while it's happening; you can simply ignore it and take off into the battlefield if you like.
The ones at the end [of the level] I love because there is a winner and a loser but no matter what you get a chance to escape to the dropship (in the Angel City level we've shown). It's creates this tense atmosphere with people trying to escape and earn more points for escaping. So even if you lose, you don't really lose because you can still escape at the end.
We see a lot of dramatic finishes with people chasing each other to the ship. It just makes you feel like you're really part of the world, rather than simply losing and trying again.
Was any part of the decision to go for a sci-fi vibe influenced by the fact that the market is saturated with shooters going for a more realistic tone?
Well, sci-fi just lets you do a lot of things that you wouldn't be able to do if you're sticking with what's real and what's modern military. It also lets us have more fun with locations, characters and technology.
So, yes, it was a way to get away from being one thing, but it was just as much a way to facilitate a lot of things that we wanted to do.
With so many different elements, how difficult has it been to balance the game?
It's been difficult. Not only do you have the pilots that move very quickly and can access crazy areas on the map that you wouldn't normally expect to be able to reach in a game, but you have to balance that against the skills and abilities of the Titans. The Titan versus pilot gameplay, along with all the different weapons and maps need to be balanced. The maps kind of have smaller maps within them to accommodate those playing as pilots.
As a studio, we play every day and everybody gives feedback and talks to the designers who then change stuff every day. We're a multiplayer game, so balance is the number one most important thing.
Any gameplay differences between the Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC editions of the game?
In terms of the gameplay it's the same, and we have dedicated servers for all three platforms - not cross-platform servers, each has its own. We're having another company develop the Xbox 360 version of the game - we've seen it recently and it looks awesome. We really are striving to have it as close as possible between all platforms, but as we're still in the process of developing it I can't tell mention any specifics that might or might not be different.
Any concern about not being a launch title for the Xbox One? That others games might steal your thunder?
No, no worry. It's great to be a launch window game because you get to see everything happen in front of you. It's tough to be one of the first one's out of the gate as you're effected by any problems there might be on the Microsoft or the server end, but anything like that will be fixed by the time we're out.
How has the reception been here in Japan? This country hasn't always had the best relationship with shooters...
You're right, it hasn't. But it's been great. Some Japanese friends have been translating Japanese message boards and I've been getting a lot of feedback on Twitter (that I've been having my translator read for me), and it's been really positive.
We came to TGS specifically to see what the reaction to Titanfall would be like in Japan, and it's been encouraging so far.
Titanfall is out for Xbox 360 and Xbox One in 2014.