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Thinking Brink: Splash Damage's Console Evolution

UK-based Quake Wars developer Splash Damage is making a play onto consoles with the Bethesda-published Brink, which tries completely seamless transitions between singleplayer, multiplayer and co-op while playing. Gamasutra talks to senior game designer Edward Stern about the company's plans and philosophy.

[UK-based Quake Wars developer Splash Damage is making a larger play onto consoles with the Bethesda-published, Brink, which tries something fairly unique -- completely seamless transitions between singleplayer, multiplayer and co-op while playing. Gamasutra talks to senior game designer Edward Stern about the company's plans and philosophy.]

In the last few years, publisher/developer Bethesda Softworks has become a major gaming concern -- whether through the commercial and critical success of games like Fallout 3, or via its parent company acquiring id Software.

One way in which the publisher is gaining more exposure and building excitement is by working with external developers to create games. One such game is Brink, from acclaimed UK-based developer Splash Damage (Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars). The team, with a strong PC background -- having begun as modders -- seeks, with Brink, to elevate the art of multiplayer through some interesting new tactics.

In this in-depth interview, Gamasutra speaks to Edward Stern, senior game designer at Splash Damage, about why the developers feel strongly about this topic, how they intend to go about it, and about what steps must be taken to bring a team with strong PC heritage into the age of console dominance.

Chris Remo: It looks like the main hook of Brink is that you're attempting to do away with the traditional concept of separate modes for single-player, multiplayer, and co-op.

Edward Stern: Yeah. It's ridiculous. It's one of those things where you think, "Up to this, why do we put up with it? Why are multiplayer gamers a second-class citizen?"

It's just inane. You get games shipping with separate executables, a completely different experience, sometimes a different control scheme. Why would you ever do that? It's crazy now. There's no reason to do that. It seems ludicrous that we've got this notion of completely separate online, offline, single-player, multiplayer. That's in the past. There's no reason to put up with that anymore.

There are really, really good games -- we play them a lot -- where you do just move through on a rail, and that's really satisfying, but the same guy comes out the same doorway every single time. There's not much reason to replay that except to make it harder or do a time trial and stuff.

Obviously, from a PC hardcore FPS background, we know both the best and worst time you can have playing a game is online. It can be astonishing four-dimensional chess. It can be absolutely the best thing you could be doing. It could be tactical and brilliant, or it can be just an exercise in soul-crushing frustration and homophobic, racist, misogynist abuse as well.

Now, which one of these things are we trying to get gamers into? [laughs] We're trying to get all the good stuff, and that's really our legacy as a studio. All we've ever done is take the stuff we know is great, add new elements, and try to draw new gamers in.

It is ridiculous that 70 percent of next generation console owners aren't even aware that you can connect those machines to the internet, let alone have done so. Or maybe they tried it, and their first experience wasn't a positive one. So, promise number one: the only voices you will hear in Brink are the game NPCs and your buddies. Just because you've got a voice, there's no reason to default it to on. That was not a good idea.

You could boot up Brink and see that one of your buddies is online. As far as he's concerned, he's playing solo, but you can join him and we'll swap out one of the AI players. And the AI players are really good. We proved that with our last game, [Enemy Territory: Quake Wars]. Quite often, we'd get hardcore journalists in, and they wouldn't realize they were playing bots. Generally it's the human players that fail... what's that test?

CR: The Turing Test?

ES: Exactly. We saw a write-up of the Brink demonstration saying, "Yeah, some of the AI doesn't seem quite there" -- but it was the human players in the back of the room.

And it's been really weird for us to hear people saying, "Wow, four-player co-op is really good." We know! We've been trying to tell you guys. But we've got eight-player co-op.

Take someone who doesn't think of themselves as a multiplayer gamer at all. We're monitoring everything they're doing solo, and we'll say, "Just try this online, try this competitively. We will bribe you with double the XP." It's all about reward.

This is almost more carrot than stick all the way through. We want you to play the game the way you want. It's all about giving the player the choice to do stuff. One of the biggest choices is body type. How do you want to play the game? All of the stuff that you've unlocked -- the facial scars and the tattoos and all that -- stays with you, whether you're security or resistance.

CR: Does that affect gameplay in any way?

ES: No, those are purely cosmetic. But there are certainly unlocks that do very much affect it. The stuff that really affects gameplay is body type. When you're learning a game, you might say, "I don't really know the levels that well. I'm just going to shoot stuff. I haven't learned this properly." So, take a heavy body type. You've got more health, you've got access to heavier weapons. There's not as much mobility, not as much agility. You can't make the more extreme kind of jumps and grapples.

Or you're thinking, "No, I know these routes. I'm going to go light. I'm going to have less access to heavy weapons, I'm going to have less health, but I'm going to be able to make bigger jumps. I'm going to be able to get up to high places."

And we've got four classes as well: soldier, engineer, medic, operative. It's eight versus eight -- it's bits of linear objective with one team attacking, one team defending. We've spent a lot of time over the years polishing this kind of stuff. That's the sweet spot for us.

We could have enormous player numbers, but you just tend to die. You never live very long. With Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, we had enormous servers. It was fun once, but it doesn't give the most fun for the most players most of the time.


Kris Graft: What about accessibility? You guys have a background in hardcore shooters, but I've always thought that something like Valve's Team Fortress 2, for example, is a shooter that somebody who's not good at shooters can still play.

ES: Well, that's why we hired Richard Ham. He was one of the co-creators of Syphon Filter. He put The Sims on the consoles, which as far as I'm concerned is a superpower. That is a certifiable achievement. And he just finished Fable 2. He is brilliant at taking a system and making it easy to get into.

One of his mantras is, "More carrot than stick." I've learned a lot from this. For example, in my mind, it doesn't make much sense to be a heavy body type and go operative [player class]. Surely, you'd want to be the light body type because you try to be more agile, you're sneaking, you're trying to get behind enemy lines. So I was thinking, "Should we gray that option out or just reduce the rewards?"

He said, "No, let players do that. Don't tell them how to play the game. They'll realize maybe that's not the best use of their resources, but don't make them do that."

Fable 2 is for people who never thought of themselves as gamers before, never thought of themselves as RPG gamers. Similarly, we've got a pretty major backlog of hardcore FPS experiences. We've done that. We don't want to keep making that game. The challenge for us is to make something that people who have never thought of themselves as FPS gamers or online gamers or multiplayer gamers can slide into. It's exactly the same game, whether it's solo or co-op or competitive.

CR: Was that the original concept for the game, or did you come upon that while designing or prototyping?

ES: Well, we didn't want to stay as a PC-only developer. I mean, we love PC gamers. We were a mod team before we were ever developers. We love them. We want to keep supporting them as best as we can.

But, you know, in the last five or 10 years, there are millions more people who are now gamers. And generally gamers are much more hardcore than they realize. There've been a lot of very good articles about how "hardcore" versus "softcore" isn't actually a particularly constructive way of looking at it. There is completionist or tourist. These are much more useful terms.

And we really wanted to take that [into account], which is why we had to change a lot as a company, because we only had experience on PCs. So we've hired a lot of people with triple-A, cross-platform experience. Olivier Leonardi, [formerly of Ubisoft,] is our art director. It could've looked like any other FPS, and it just doesn't. Tim Appleby, our lead character artist, did [protagonist] Shepard on Mass Effect.

We've had to grow a lot as a team. We're doing all three platforms at the same time. It's not that thing where it's just ported from the PC to the console. So, for example, on the playtest, everyone uses a controller. We go back and check that it's still working with that control thing. The level designers weren't happy at first, but eventually we all got into the habit of it.


Brink

CR: So, on behalf of the PC gamers, should we be worried about the opposite problem, that it will feel non-native to the PC platform?

ES: Oh, that's a good question. No, I mean, that is always first in our mind. The challenge for us is to deliver on all three platforms absolutely. We're very confident about that, because we have got some very, very smart technology.

You know, we've never seen this level of character customization before. There's a memory issue. It's great having all these huge source textures, but how are you going to send that over a network, particularly when there's no server?

CR: So that's all peer-to-peer on the console?

ES: Exactly. That's not an issue for PC gaming. But I can barely get the fingertips of my imagination on what's going on. The source textures are gigabytes big, and we're compressing them down to a couple dozen megabytes of video. It's really fast. No two players are alike. It's a ridiculous level of detail.

Also, it's a first-person shooter. Only other people get to see how cool they look. [laughs]

But yeah, we've got much love for the PC audience. A lot of that ties in with the publisher [Bethesda Softworks]. We're not going to forget the PC gamers, because we are them to some degree.


KG: With your smart [movement] system, you just press the sprint button and then you look at a gate or something, and then you automatically go over there and climb it?

ES: Yeah. I think some people looked at it and say, "It's playing the game for you." No, no. In real life, you wouldn't walk into a room and then climb onto the table in the middle of it. You decide to jump up on the table or over it or shelter behind it or go to the side. Your avatar has got to have that ability as well.

This is something we've been trying to have in first-person shooters for years. It makes no sense that a wall is one pixel higher, and so you can't get over it. That's ridiculous. It doesn't matter what your player model looks like; you're basically a fridge on roller-skates. We've been putting up with this for so long, but enough is enough. We need to have appropriate movement given the abilities of your character.

All the smart system does is that if you could make that jump or that leap -- plus 10 or 15 percent extra for coolness -- you can do it. That just stops you worrying about the interface. It [becomes], "Can I make that jump? Should I get behind this? Should I hang back and reload? Should I wait for another teammate?" We're just turning it so that that's the decision making process, not, "Which button do I press at what point?"

CR: Mirror's Edge doesn't strip it down quite that much, but it still has a very elegant system with the goal of achieving a similar end result.

ES: Yeah, I applaud EA for going with that. Sometimes people say, "Oh, they only go with the safe option." But that wasn't a safe option. That was a cool thing to do.

But we are primarily a shooter. We are absolutely about that. We hired Chris Sweetman as audio director. He was the guy on [Criterion Games'] Black and Burnout Paradise. As you can see already, it's a really solid shooter experience. Whatever else we're trying to do has got to deliver in terms of that.

The movement thing is just something we've been wanting to fix for a long time, and now we get the opportunity. But it's not the first back-of-the-box feature. It's just, "Well, we should have been able to do this all the time."

And it's not another North African town or a railway station. We are totally familiar with those environments now. Our goal is just that gamers have never seen these levels before or that they're completely different. We have a design goal or principle called "instant deep context." The goal of that is that as soon as you open your eyes in a level, you intuitively, immediately, without being told, can say, "I can see what's going on here. I see what the situation is."

At the airport, you say, "This is kind of futuristic. It's not sci-fi. It's a bit in the future. This place hasn't been used in years. That's kind of creepy and strange and pathetic." It isn't an NPC running up to you and saying, "Stop playing the game. I need to tell you what has happened here in the last 20 years." That is the clumsiest way of putting out that information.

The environment is always the best narrative medium. That's the interaction that you're having all the time, rather than, "Stop the game! I must tell you these things." The deep context is that the more you look, the more you will see.

All games face this problem of why you can't just walk off the edge of the map, unless you have a lethal out-of-bounds system: "Where are you going, soldier?! Bang." Or you can put it in a spaceship or on a space station or in a prison.

When I first joined the company, the first thing [founder] Paul Wedgwood said to me was, "We should really do a game on arcology." I remember thinking, "Really? Why would that be fun?" That was a while back. Then he said, "We'll look at that again after we've done the last two games." [laughs] I say "last two," but they're the only two, the first two games we've done.

And we haven't had to make anything up. We invented one thing, Arkoral, which is the kind of trademark building material. The idea is that right about now, some scientist technologist ecovisionary starts experimenting with a test bed for sustainable construction materials, zero carbon emission, all the things that are going on now -- wave farms, solar farmers, algae bioreactors to replace hydrocarbons. Our coral is a genetically modified coral. It's like concrete except it doesn't give off CO2 as it sets.

Everything else is actually being made and done. I don't know if you've heard about the Seasteading Institute. They're looking at exactly this. It's like, "There's our concept. Thank you, we'll take that and twist that." That's from a more libertarian political angle. We thought, "BioShock has really got that covered," the Ayn Rand at sea thing.

All the rest of it is basically an excuse to import every possible social tension. I fell so much in love with Deus Ex, the way in which you didn't have to put on your game mindset. Whatever your opinions, prejudices, suspicions about how the world works, you can bring them to the game.


ES: Obviously, we're a shooter. This is not an interactive documentary. We're not going to debate that. But if you're interested in that sort of thing, it just informs you of what's going on. And even if you just want to blow stuff up, I think gamers know when an environment has really been designed and thought went into it.

It's lots more work for our environment artists, but it's just cooler. And it's not a cutscene you can skip. Container City clearly was never planned to built the way it is, but suddenly the sea started rising, things went badly wrong, they moved to the middle of the ocean, tens of thousands of refugees turned up, and they lost contact with the outside world.

Or at least, that's what they're told. No more flights are coming in. There's this high-tech airport, and ever since Brangelina flew in for their photo-op and flew out again, no one has been there since. I don't want to go too much into the story of the stuff, but it's there if you want to find out about it. It is primarily a shooter. But there's something at stake.

CR: Deus Ex is an interesting influence for a Splash Damage game to have, considering your background, and you've mentioned all the hiring up you're doing to support this new game design. Has it been a big adjustment working on a game where you're creating all this fiction?

ES: Well, to be fair, id let us do what we wanted with Quake Wars. They really let us reimagine it. And this is part of the challenge as a studio. Can we create an original title? This is not based on any existing IP. It's not based on another game. We've had a lot of success with that.

I keep stressing this, but we got a lot of praise for Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. It's still sometimes in the top three most played online PC games, which is fantastic. We're very proud of it. A lot of that was down to how good Return to Castle Wolfenstein was, and the work Grey Matter did. Some of the stuff that we put in was stuff they were thinking about but weren't able to put in.

The thing that we really added was the RPG elements of character advance. I mean, it seems crazy now. Was that really the first FPS to have XP? Now, it's, "Of course you do that, and then you get to spend the XP in a variety of ways."

CR: That style has become very predominant over the past few years.

ES: And I really think this is how it's going to be with [modes]. It's going to seem crazy. In a couple years time, people are going to look back and say, "Really, there were separate single-player and multiplayer versions of that game? That's crazy. Why would you do that?"

Okay, there were some technological issues -- memory and network code and so on. Yeah, it's hard, but we're just at that point. This is what's next. This is what's next for the genre and what's next for the medium, scrubbing this stuff and turning it into a consistent gameplay experience. It doesn't matter what you call it. The difference between solo and cooperative is whether your buddies show up or not.

KG: What about the community aspect? Are there going to be some more social aspects in the game?

ES: That's a very good question. A lot of that has to do with Bethesda, so I can't answer that definitively now. Clearly, that's not stuff we're going to deliberately neglect because we can't be bothered. In every way, we want to be building on our stuff.

Also, we've had such a good time with the communities of our previous games. They've been such good company and good support. Sometimes they've been harsh critics as well, but they know the game better than we do. We would be idiots not to listen to them. [laughs]

CR: What tech are you using for this game? Is this internal, or id?

ES: It's based on id Tech 4. All our games have been id Tech. We have a lot of experience with this. It's id Tech 4, but we've pretty much overhauled every single aspect of it.

I can see why other developers aren't doing this game or haven't done it already, because there are major barriers to entry. It's hard. It's taken us a long time to get the expertise and the technological solutions to make this fly, but it seems to be working.

We're pretty bullish about it. We're pre-alpha now. We're going to be launching spring 2010. We can do it. We're very confident we can offer gamers something they haven't seen before or haven't realized they haven't wanted before, but hopefully it will just become standard. In the future, this will not be a special feature. It will just be, "Well, of course. It should do that out of the box. There's no reason games can't do that now."

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