[Much has been made about how Splash Damage's Brink integrates multiplayer and single player modes into a seamless whole -- and creative director Richard Ham explains the team's approach, alongside comments from Irrational's Ken Levine and Kaos' Rex Dickson.]
The differences between first person shooter audiences who only choose to play single player campaigns, and FPS audiences who eschew story altogether and only delve into competitive multiplayer modes, feel very distinct to me. One side prefers narrative and a self-paced experience, while the other prefers virtual sport and the breakneck pace that goes along with it.
With that in mind, when I saw the Brink developer diary entitled "The End of Genre as We Know It," which talks about bridging the gap between these two kinds of FPS experiences, I was extremely dubious about the idea conceptually, much less how the London-based development studio Splash Damage would pull it off.
My feelings about a divide between the two audiences are predicated more on anecdotal evidence than any concrete studies of player behavior, and so I reached out to some first person shooter developers to get their thoughts as to how they conceived of a divide, if any, between single-player focused FPS gamers and multiplayer-centric FPS gamers.
These were general questions about the audiences, unrelated to any specific queries as to the potential success of other studios' titles.
"I don't know that it's a divide... I don't think there's a divide between people who like action movies and people who like comedies," said Ken Levine, creative director at Bioshock house Irrational Games.
"I think some days you feel like going to see a comedy, and some days you feel like seeing an action movie. And some days I think you feel like getting into a very intense, single player experience, story-driven, and something you can do as a solitary exercise, and some days you just feel like going out there and doing something much more social.
"I think obviously there are some people who really focus on stuff, but I think in general gamers are pretty broad in their tastes."
Rex Dickson from Kaos Studios, the lead level designer for Homefront, put some stock in the idea of a concrete divide. "I have many friends and co-workers who spend almost all their game time playing competitive FPS and rarely play the single player campaigns," he said.
"Others I know, myself included, primarily play games for the single player experience. I can think of quite a few games I owned with a multiplayer mode I never even tried. The bottom line is that the multiplayer audience is more competitive, while the single player audience is looking for a crafted experience. So, while I believe the divide exists, there is a lot of crossover. I would say the majority of the FPS audience plays both the single player and multiplayer modes, although it seems it is shifting towards the multiplayer side over the last few years."
Dickson broke down how he understands the divide between the two audiences in terms of their psychology. "On the multiplayer side, having another player in control of the other characters in the world is something single player can never emulate. It drives the entire experience. That social aspect, the conscious realization that there is another human being controlling the characters on screen is very powerful.
"[A] single player game's big draw is that it makes us feel like the hero, the absolute center of the experience. Everything in the world revolves around our actions. [There] is something really appealing about that to people and is a lot harder to achieve in a multiplayer experience, if at all. I don't want to go so far as to say that divide is irresolvable, but I do think it represents a significant design challenge."
There are ostensibly three different sorts of first person shooter audiences, then: those who prefer campaigns, those who prefer multiplayer, and those who appreciate both. Inasmuch as we could still delineate the differences between campaign and competitive play, I also wanted to know whether these developers thought it was possible to create a unified, core experience that would satisfy both ends.
"I think it can be done, but you have to set out with that as a goal, and you have to be respectful of what you're getting into. I think that's the biggest challenge," Levine said. "Most of the mistakes I've made in my career have come out of not appreciating the challenge, not dedicating the time, energy, and resources appropriate to the level of challenge. And I think if you have the right people and the right time, you can do almost anything. You have to make sure you gauge the challenge level, and the challenge level you're describing is a gold level challenge. It's not a silver or bronze level challenge."
"I'm sure it's possible, but as I said, it's going to be tough," Dickson said. "There is a good reason that most developers create separate single player and multiplayer game modes. It allows the two teams to create features, systems, tune, and make design decisions that cater specifically to the type of experience they want to create. The more those games are the same, the more interdependencies you create. Now, all that said, I believe it can be done."
What Brink Attempts
What I took away from these conversations was that perhaps this is better looked upon as a divide between expectations of FPS single player campaigns and multiplayer experiences rather than a concrete divide between their audiences. Viewed from this perspective, it seems theoretically possible to fulfill both sets of expectations simultaneously in a unified, core experience. It was with this idea in mind that I reflected on my conversation with Splash Damage's creative director Richard Ham.
The design scaffold that supports Brink doesn't sound like a hybrid design, but rather straight-up multiplayer. The story concerns a civil war between two factions, the Security Forces and the Resistance, on a floating city known as The Ark. The class-based shooter consists of a series of maps upon which the two factions fight to achieve a set number of objectives in order to achieve victory. The single player/multiplayer division is achieved only by the public or private status of the player's matches.
"The actual, raw, gameplay experience you get, the moment to moment actions you're doing, the weapons you're using, the abilities you're earning, everything is consistent whether you're choosing to play this by yourself with your friends or competitively with complete strangers. The game never really switches modes," Ham said. "It never changes the rules on you."
The rules he's referring to, of course, are the mechanics of gameplay itself, but when it comes to single player campaigns we could also discuss narrative rules like linear structure and character-building. With Brink, Splash Damage is attempting to present a recognizable campaign experience while also throwing some of those rules out the window.
"The first thing that happens, when you first start playing the game, is you choose a side in this civil war," Ham said, "and then you are presented with, I'm going to call it, the table of contents. Or the chapter section. When you get a DVD you can just choose play, and it will start playing the movie, or you can go into chapters and you can see a breakdown of all the chapters.
"What we do is we take you to that table of contents, and you can see that [the first mission] is the first level of the game. We don't hide anything from you. We list out all the other chapters of the story you're going to go through, and further you can see all the chapters of the other side's story as well. Because, you know, books don't hide their table of contents. DVDs don't hide their [chapters]. And so all that's there for whatever reason you want to explore it."
Players will be able to start anywhere they choose, and even jump back and forth between Security and Resistance campaigns as they see fit. This narrative design may be the biggest risk that Splash Damage is taking.
"Now, since we've given players that level of freedom to see everything there is, we had to be really kind of clever about how we did our storytelling," Ham said. "Every chapter, every mission, every level, every 'episode', I guess you'd call them, every mission you're going to go on is a self-contained, stand-alone story.
"So, the storyline can either be experienced in a traditional, linear narrative where there's a very clear series of cause and effect that leads you from one mission to the next, or you can jump all over the place and it's more like a jigsaw puzzle, almost like an episode of Lost, where the whole picture comes into focus over time. And you get to have the experience a different way."
Brink's campaign structure could easily be viewed as a concession to single player campaign audiences injected into a multiplayer title rather than an attempt to actually create a unified product, and Ham makes no bones about the fact that he considers this a multiplayer game. "We had to write the story that way because, you know, we couldn't worry too much about spoilers; because we knew we want players to be able to jump around wherever they wanted, because this is a multiplayer game."
Brink's narrative structure bears a strong resemblance to the episodic content employed by Left 4 Dead. "We are the biggest Left 4 Dead fans in the universe," said Ham. "We're so thankful -- I mean, we've been working on Brink since before Left 4 Dead came out, but when the first one came out there were so many things in that game that validate and legitimize the kind of stuff we're doing."
The question, then, is whether the first person shooter audiences who prefer a scripted, linear narrative are going to accept Brink's version of a campaign. That decision is going to rely heavily on how players decide to tackle it. "We fully expect most players will just play through linearly, because [after a mission is completed] we offer the next mission, [they'll] say 'Yes, I'll take the next mission.' They don't really jump around. Maybe they jump around a little to play with their friends, but for the most part they experience it normally."
Equally poignant to this question of whether Brink can serve two very different sets of expectations is how the game handles its presentation of characters to flesh out the narrative. Each faction's Commander, who gives the player their objectives prior to each match, is the strongest narrative tie between missions. "We've worked very hard with our writing process, our casting process, to wrap really strong, distinct voices that carry a lot of weight and authority and are immediately -- hopefully, if we've done our job right -- likeable and personable."
Once the Commander is finished briefing the player, they are given a 30 or 40 second cutscene featuring three characters Ham referred to as "Moe, Larry, and Curly" who accompany the player from mission to mission. "The opening cutscene starts with these three guys who [you get] to know. You know which guy is the hothead, which guy is the quiet, thoughtful one, and make no mistake, they are kind of stereotype characters.
"Stereotypes, we think, are great shorthand for letting players immediately invest themselves into the story. They do have dimensionality. There are subtle things about them, but on the surface you immediately know 'Oh, there's the grizzled veteran, there's the idealistic newbie,' because players can immediately understand who that is, immediately understand what the structure is, and start getting involved in the story."
The player will never be given the names of these supporting characters. It's a potent symbol of the sort of concessions Splash Damage is making in their attempt to create a unified first person shooter experience, when we consider that campaign-oriented shooter fans have games like BioShock and Half-Life 2 which provide strong supporting characters to help create their vibrant stories.
The Squad Commander
The chief gameplay element that serves to bridge the gap between single player and multiplayer FPS experiences is the Squad Commander, an AI routine that generates objectives for individual players based on their physical location on the map and current victory conditions. A radial menu displays potential objectives and experience values relative to the overall contribution to victory which fulfilling that objective represents. The Squad Commander is meant to elicit the tight, coordinated gameplay that veteran competitive FPS gamers take for granted as a prerequisite for success.
It is also used as method to eliminate the necessity of voice communication between random groups of players. "We don't want all the traditional problems that get people to stop playing multiplayer like being called terrible names. We want to eliminate all the bad stuff and just leave the good stuff. So one of the things we have to do is have VOIP off by default so that no one can ever call you, I'll just say 'asshole,' but as you know they'll call you much worse things."
Ham explained how players can form Fire Teams to turn voice communications back on. How, then, does the Squad Commander play into the dynamic of a tight group of friends, organized into Fire Teams, who are used to playing multiplayer, competitive shooters together and giving out the orders themselves?
"We've found in those sorts of situations the Squad Commander takes a back seat to players communicating directly, which is totally fine with us," Ham said. "The Commander is primarily a tool to help coordinate strangers who may not be able to work together effectively.
"But once you've reached that level of socialness with others in Brink, you can get everything you need from them directly, and in some cases, the HUD." This makes it sound like the FPS audiences who value multiplayer experiences first and foremost have little to fear in the way of interference from a major design element intended primarily to serve their singleplayer-campaign-favoring counterparts.
The mission intros and cutscenes might seem like a potential annoyance to multiplayer-centric shooter fans, but they mask the matchmaking processes which keep the game flowing smoothly. "You and seven people [playing as] Security just lost. This other team on Resistance, they just won. That means if you look at it from their perspective, they get to move on to the next mission, the next chapter of their story, but you guys need to try again to win the mission so you can move forward in that traditional, narrative, single-player style.
"When you get to the end of the level and everybody's watching the final cutscene that wraps it up and explains what happens, we are already invisibly doing matchmaking for you and everybody on your team, to try and find another server out there on Xbox Live or PSN or in Steam, that just started up [the mission you need to repeat] and has spaces for you on the Security team.
"And when you try again, unbeknownst to you, you're now moved to a completely new server where the system is set up exactly for what you need to keep on playing the story. And that's really the trick that makes the single player/multiplayer hybrid work. Really clever matchmaking."
The AI Squad Commander can be ignored by tight multiplayer teams, and the narrative structure, from a multiplayer veteran's point of view, simply serves to eliminate the team assignments and other pre-match activities which otherwise take place on static loading screens. Therefore, the question of Brink's success in bridging the gap between single player and multiplayer FPS experiences would seem to lie not in how well multiplayer-centric audiences take to the title, but how well the campaign-preferring audiences accept Brink's disjointed narrative structure and relative lack of characters.
Differences in Perspective
It's impossible to make even an educated guess as to their reaction, especially without details as to the storyline's ending and how the two campaigns relate to one another, but Splash Damage has tried to capitalize on that narrative structure as a tool for conveying the game's theme. "For almost all the missions, when you see it from one side or the other, it is a radical, night-and-day difference as to the motive for what you've gone to fight for," Ham said.
"Conflicts exist in our lives because people don't see things from the other point of view. People only see it from their own myopic vision. And that's what's happening to you when you're playing through this storyline. You're only starting one side of the story, and when you get the other side of the story you're like 'Wow. It's not that sample. It's not as black and white as I thought it is.' There are shades of grey. There are misunderstandings here. There's a bigger picture that is really the cause of all this conflict." Perhaps that juxtaposition of motivations and whatever twists it provides will be refreshing for shooter campaign fans used to good-and-evil dichotomies for the most part.
I'm reminded of one of the last things Ken Levine told me when I asked for his thoughts on this question of a divide between the two audiences. "I think the problem is that when you're a filmmaker, and you're going to make a romantic comedy, you don't also have to include an action movie in your romantic comedy necessarily, and you don't need to have both those skill sets," he said. "When you're a game developer, quite often you're asked to expect to have both these very different skill sets, which are to make a really compelling single player experience and a really compelling multiplayer experience in the same package."
Levine was referring to creating two separate halves of a single package. What Splash Damage is trying to do is erase the distinction. Genre classification has already been breaking down for years, but if Richard Ham and the rest of Splash Damage can pull off the creation of a first person shooter which equally satisfies campaign-minded and competitive-leaning FPS audiences, then rather than ending genres, they might just be creating an entirely new one.