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Entering the Battlefield: Building Homefront To Compete

THQ's creative director discusses the team's approach to raising the bar on single player narrative in its new military shooter Homefront -- and why he feels confident about entering the competitive genre.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

November 12, 2010

19 Min Read

Sean Dunn, creative director at THQ on Homefront, has his work cut out for him. He has to help shape the vision of a game which is poised to enter the most competitive segment of console games -- the military first person shooter, currently still dominated by Call of Duty.

With a longtime background in the industry, Dunn has served as publisher producer on games like the Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series at THQ's offices in Los Angeles.

In this latest task, the possible rewards are huge, but the chances for failure are also tremendous given the cost of entering and the state of the competition -- and an audience which seems happy to continue to buy and play a Call of Duty game for a year.

Here, then, he explains what he thinks will make Homefront stand out from its competition, and how the decisions were made by THQ and its developer, Kaos Studios.

The discussion takes in the successful creation of narrative in games, the need for perfect multiplayer, the lessons learned from the studio's last game, Frontlines, and more.

You're a creative director on the publisher side. It seems like most publishers have slightly different arrangements about how they oversee these kind of projects. How do you guys handle it?

Sean Dunn: So we take that classic publisher producer role, and we break it up into two different roles. There's a creative side, and a project management side. So project management side deals with contractual issues, dates, budgetary issues, things like that. And so they have the sucky job.

The creative side, we get the fun stuff. We are basically there as primarily editorial, so we take a number of tools that we have at our disposal and generate feedback on the title. We do usability testing, control testing, things like that, comparative analysis of competitive product.

We really try to help the developer polish the product as much as possible. And so, we just provide as much data as we can. We're not so much directing as just assisting in getting rid of those sharp, nasty corners and making it nice and smooth.

From a publisher's perspective, it's important to try to grab a slice of the military shooter pie. That seems to be the biggest pie right now. When you guys sat down, did Kaos pitch Homefront?

SD: Yeah, it's been a joint effort, really. You know, Kaos had the core idea for Homefront and it really resonated well. It wasn't the classic take, on whether it was WWI or WWII or random Middle Eastern country. That idea of the U.S. being invaded was just a different piece.

The head of our publishing, Danny Bilson, comes from the Hollywood industry; he was writer on Rocketeer. And his teacher was John Milius, so that's how we got Milius involved with the project and it was this perfect kind of synergy of getting the right kind of narrative talent involved with the right developer. So it's been a really nice kind of collaborative process with this game.

Do you think that as a publisher that you do have to go for that? Or is that not your personal concern?

SD: It's not really my personal concern. I'm charged with making sure that the game is highly polished and very palatable and very accessible. But also it's not really THQ's concern; we're more towards the idea of making awesome games and awesome games will sell well. Really, trying to be representative of some portfolio is not kind of where we are at this point.

Kaos came from a military shooter background, so it's a natural progression for them. But we didn't really want to be kind of a "me too" in that area, so… It's more about taking the product ideas the studios come up with and just insuring that they had really high quality marks.

There have been a lot of words between EA and Activision lately. They're each pointing to the other one and saying, "You squelch creativity!" "No, you squelch creativity!" And that's kind of the hot button issue, really -- enabling creativity in these kind of organizations.

SD: It's very difficult. I mean, in the past THQ has squelched creativity. It's difficult for a publisher not to impose some type of will upon development. At THQ, we're really trying our best not to do that. We're trying to bring in really high quality design talent.

You know, our creative directors are not owners of the product -- really they're there to collaborate with the teams. Again, it's difficult when you have sales and marketing entities and people, you know, there's millions and millions of dollars invested in these projects and sometimes there are pushes being made that can be seen as squelching creativity. But we really strive to make that as painless as possible and do that as little as possible.

The obvious thing that stands out about this game is the drama of the invasion of America scenario. Is that what attracted you to the project as a publisher, when you saw the proposal?

SD: Well, yes it's a unique take. One of the really attractive things was the method that they wanted to approach from a narrative standpoint. They didn't want the jingoistic, rah-rah, kill 'em all attitude -- it was about characters -- real characters within this world that may have been gas station attendants, or teachers, or whatever.

They have very real humanistic views on what's happening within this space. I don't know if you saw the E3 demo, but there's a part where, as the resistance, you get a hold of some white phosphorus rounds and you drop them on a Korean placement that they've taken over -- lumber liquidators -- and kind of in camped in there. One of the characters that you're with is horrified by these human beings who are basically being burned alive.

And we're really taking care to try to present that human cost without getting too preachy about it. It's a fine line, and it's not something that we as game writers could do really well without the assistance of people that have been doing it for a long time in Hollywood.

Sometimes Hollywood writers come in and it makes it "written like Hollywood" and it just doesn't play right and it doesn't feel right as a game. And sometimes you get game writers that just have no idea what they're doing and dialogue goes on and on and on interminably. And I think we've struck a really good balance, so there's a lot of collaboration between the two teams, and there's some really interesting emotional points within the game.

It's interesting that you talk about the fine line, because I think that that's what we're finding right now. Obviously there was some controversy recently about Medal of Honor and playing as the Taliban.

You guys obviously sidestepped that by being a bit of a fantasy scenario, but as we reach this point where there's a creative drive to have realistic, emotional characters and there's also tremendous visual fidelity that allows us to create realistic visual scenarios... Then suddenly we do, whether we want to or not, intersect with reality.

SD: Yeah, and, you know, it's played both to our advantage and disadvantage. By creating such realistic scenes and such realistic visuals, there's this consumer expectation that it's going to be as good as film, it's going to be as good as television. And there's been so much iteration on the styles of writing through both film and television that, as an industry, games have not had… that we really are needing to play catch up very quickly just because there is that expectation that games should be written well.

We were fine with massive plot holes, super shallow characters, no arcing of the story and things like that for the longest time, but now there's an expectation. We've created a semblance of tools that people are used to using; it's not about the interface or the features anymore, it's about the content and the setting. And so, we have to execute a lot higher on those content and setting areas.

As you said, some game writers are clued in; some aren't. Some Hollywood writers are clued in; some aren't. How do you actually engender this, hitting that point with the writing -- both in how you select talent and how you get the process going?

SD: It's almost voodoo, really. It sometimes just works and sometimes it just absolutely doesn't work, no matter what type of massaging, and then it's just time to change [who's] just doing that portion of the job, and we've been very lucky.

You know, Milius has no interest in writing the entire thing start to finish -- he's about crafting these settings, these scenarios, and really building that emotional depth of the scene and the area. And we've got people that are great at writing dialogue, people who've worked in TV for years and years and years and are able to create good pieces of dialogue that don't sound ridiculous and cheesy and they don't go on and on and on like I do. [laughs]

I've noticed the same thing -- game dialogue, if it has a really obvious weakness, is that people don't seem to know when to shut up the characters. I've definitely observed real, obvious attempts to remedy that, and sometimes they fall as flat as the old style of endless talking.

SD: Yeah, I mean it comes down to... Just like art, and code, and everything else, it's a craft and there's a level of execution that has to be hit. And part of it is -- at least from the things that we can affect as a publisher -- one of those things is insuring that the time is there to iterate upon those things. A lot of time people leave dialogue and things like that till the end, because it's easier to drop in. But you stick yourself in horrible pacing holes and things like that that are very difficult to remedy.

So we've been working on the story and the writing for this game from the start. We've done huge amounts of rewriting and lots and lots and lots of iteration on every single piece and every single scene, and we continue to do that.

Very often it's like, "Well, here are all the missions. Now string them together, please." Which I gather was not your approach.

SD: No, absolutely not. Really the narrative structure for the game came first. We did pay heavy attention to what players like to do, and the types of variances that you need to have in place so that players don't get fatigued.

In a shooter, you're generally doing the same thing over and over and over and again, and that's shooting people in the face. So you try to provide the variance in how you approach that, the styles and the visual style of an area, the paces of an area, the number of enemies -- different approaches, whether they're stealth, or balls-out, or things like that.

But within that is the importance of getting actual characters' arcs in correctly, and getting the acts of the story in, and making sense, and having meaning, and whatnot, so we really feel the drive to play it out.

I'm one of those players that rarely pays attention to story in games. I've got a lot of opinions about it, but when I play, generally I'm used to not really caring a whole lot about the story and really putting gameplay first.

And for those people, there's a lot of fun to be had and a lot of different visual settings. There's a lot of work been going into really visually style the narrative so that you really feel like you're in the U.S.; you're in that very familiar setting.

I mean, down to like, you know, the type of plastic buckets that we put on the corners of the houses to catch snowmelt. If you've lived in the Southwest or whatever, it's like you recognize all these different pieces. And that's been really important that that kind of detail, crafting of that visual space that we've taken.

To return to the discussion of making sure you set the pacing of the story fed through the game so it'll work. Did you ever reach a point where you have this plan of how the story needed to hit the beats, but from a game design perspective the way things where shaping up wasn't working with this?

SD: Yeah. There're always points where you have an idea of how you want something, that turns out to not be fun. Or, if you have a gameplay piece that turns out to be just piss-poor fit in the story. Those things just don't make the cut.

So it's just a balance of finding the ones that work and the ones that don't. There are parts of the game where a portion of gameplay was just too good, and really we just kind of shut up for awhile and let people enjoy it and play, and then pick up the story.

Did you do a lot of user testing to determine how it was going? Did you do it with internal or external people?

SD: Generally, we try to keep the narrative pieces and the kind of the overarching gameplay pieces with a few trusted, talented people. We have tons and tons and tons of input that's given on things like controls and pace and feel and the feel of weapons, and so the multiplayer there's a daily test every single day, 60 to 70 people are in.

We're doing data collection on all of that, we take feedback from every single player on those things. But from the narrative standpoint, too many people just create a very genercized and bland setting. So a lot of it is putting trust in people that are in place.

If you're talking about film, the industry generally wouldn't really bring in the external focus groups until the end, right? You'd leave the creative process for a long time, but in games we are getting to the point where we're very much doing it earlier and earlier and earlier.

SD: I'm a huge fan of external data, but in certain areas. I don't want to know really what the player thinks of the story as we go through, just because there's so many disparate ideas of how that works.

But when you get 3 or 4,000 people's hands on the product and you get their feedback on controls, whether it's vehicle controls or infantry controls and responsiveness, and you watch people play and you watch and find the areas that are causing them not to be able to enjoy the game in a certain way. Or it just allows you to get rid of those blockers, those things that are in the way of people enjoying. So a lot of it is about removing the crap that gets into people's way.

I'm curious about the multiplayer. That is the core the hardcore of this generation; that's where all the fans are. It's a very, a very competitive landscape. How do you enter that space, confidently?

SD: Well, you have to put a huge focus on that for your product. I mean, if you go out and you throw 10 percent of your development time into just pasting in multiplayer, you're just going to get your ass kicked.

You know, we've seen it in the past with games that have had great response from a single player perspective, but just absolutely ignored from a multiplayer. Homefront… actually, probably the majority of the focus for this game has been on multiplayer. It's been in development for a really long time; it's an iteration off of Frontlines from a certain aspect.

You notice the drones and things like that, and some of the ground control aspect of the play. We've taken huge pains to polish up the control scheme, the responsiveness, the weapon feel, aim assist systems, you know, that you teach in friction systems, within the aim assist. Just everything we can do to make it feel right, and that I'm confident we've hit on it.

You have to go in with an expectation that you have to compete. You know, you can't say, "Oh, this is our first try" or "This is our first time" or "We don't have the budget that the competitor may have". The consumer really doesn't care; they don't care who spent more or who's had more time. It's really whatever's more fun to play.

So you just gotta go with both feet in and, you know, if you're dedicated to it and you're willing to spend the money and the time that's necessary, then I think as long as you just execute on those pieces of polish, polish, polish and iteration and iteration, then entering the market is just about putting out an appropriate product.

I think you're quite right about pointing to some games that didn't emphasize multiplayer enough but still felt like they had to have it, and I felt like that was a waste.

SD: [Incredulously] You stole that much polish? From the single player game that was awesome before?

If you're not going to actually go for it, then you'd probably be better off spending that money on making the single player campaign better. I'm glad I'm not the only person who thought of that. [laughs] And you have more perspective on it, I'm sure.

SD: Well, then again, this is where we as publishers can really screw things up sometimes. It's like you get that idea of, "Oh, we have to have multiplayer." And in this market, it's shown that having multiplayer can be extremely advantageous to the sales -- but not half-assed multiplayer.

I mean, half-assed multiplayer is worthless, and it probably degrades the quality of your product. We're very careful about that. There are certain games that just don't warrant multiplayer and we won't put 'em in. And games that do, we make sure that we go the full mile, make sure it's of very high quality.

You briefly alluded to Frontlines. It sounded like an interesting game but it seems like it didn't quite come together. It does not appear to have become a franchise.

SD: No, it was a game with tons of potential. I mean, it had instances where there were things that were fantastic about it. The drones were great, the progression of the maps, the size of the maps, those things were really cool. The vehicle play was cool, the only problem is that the barrier to entry was the whole control scheme. Sluggish, not very responsive, it didn't have a lot of the base control features that the competition had, and it just wasn't something that we focused right and so just kind of missed the bar there.

So we took great pains that in Homefront multiplayer, we really focused heavily on the controls and the accessibility of the game and all of the features of every little bit. Whether it's jumping to sprinting to going prone to throwing the grenade, the cycling of all those things, so it feels like you are in absolute full control of it.

As the audience for games like this expands, you can say there's probably a casual shooter player and a hardcore shooter player, right? So how do you correct for that?

SD: Well, that's a huge part of what we've focused this game on -- is being able to capture a wide variety of player types. And one of the ways that we do that is we provide a number of different tools. So when you're driving a jeep, you have a certain amount of relative safety, you know, in quotes, from like assault rifle fire.

So you feel empowered in a certain way, you may live longer than you would if you were a very casual player, trying to play on a pure infantry shooter where it's enemy recognition, shot, someone's dead, and you have no idea where you died from.

So things like the drones, it's an out of body experience. If you lose a drone, it's not a total negative experience. There is a risk/reward involved in it, you standing in the back with a remote control, someone could sneak up on you and stab you in the back of the neck. But that's a semi-rewarding experience in and of itself.

The controls that we put into the vehicle -- some other games you get into a vehicle, get into a helicopter, and the first 35 times that you try to fly the helicopter, you flip it over onto its rotors because it's just super hardcore. And we want players to be able to execute on that fantasy of being an expert helicopter pilot.

And so we transfer the ease of controls, like in a racing game -- they don't try to make the method of racing into this extremely complicated system like a real race car is; having to worry about understeer and oversteer. We want that idea of all the things that you can do.

If you're unsuccessful on one part, in your next spawn, or even in the middle -- if you're getting owned by some sniper up in a bell tower and you can't pop your head out, you sit back there, you pull out your air drone, you fly up and you sick a missile on his face. And that's extremely satisfying.

But that hardcore player, it's really important to cater to them as well. So getting the counters for those types of things, being able to shoot javelins at the missile drones, having really, really tight response of controls so that they feel like they're gaining a mastery over the systems.

Providing progression choices that they can execute to min-max to their play style, and therefore make themselves more effective. That's all really important. We think we've hit on a nice balance where we can cater to all the different play styles as well as the different kind of casual versus hardcore players. We'll see on that one.

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About the Author(s)

Christian Nutt


Christian Nutt is the former Blog Director of Gamasutra. Prior to joining the Gamasutra team in 2007, he contributed to numerous video game publications such as GamesRadar, Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Official Xbox Magazine, GameSpy and more.

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