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Behind The Scenes With People Can Fly's Bulletstorm

In an in-depth postmortem in this month's edition of Game Developer magazine, People Can Fly offers an exclusive look at the development of its over-the-top shooter Bulletstorm.
The October issue of Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, now available via subscription and digital purchase, includes an exclusive, in-depth postmortem on Epic and People Can Fly's Bulletstorm, written by the game's creative director, Adrian Chmielarz. The game, which debuted in February 2011, was a collaborative effort between Unreal Engine creator Epic Games and Polish developer and Epic subsidiary People Can Fly. The game combined over-the-top action and foul-mouthed, tongue-in-cheek characters that poked fun at the FPS genre. In this recent postmortem, Chmielarz reflects on People Can Fly's experience working on Bulletstorm, and outlines various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from through the game's development. Along the way, he reveals how the team stumbled upon the game's "Skillshot" system, the multiplayer modes left on the cutting room floor, and the problems with the game's playable demo. The following are but a few highlights from the October 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine. Finding The Fun Through Early Focus Tests Bulletstorm built its gameplay around its stylish "Skillshot" system, which awarded players for killing enemies with creativity over sheer force. While in the end this system came to define the Bulletstorm experience, Chmielarz admits that the mechanic only came about after People Can Fly conducted its first focus tests. "We never planned to offer a unique gameplay hook. We just wanted to evolve the genre a tiny bit. Maybe we’d do it by unmuting the main hero, even though it’s a first person game. Maybe we’d differentiate by making sure that the sidekicks are not automatons spewing context-sensitive comments, but actual people that we can have strong feelings about. Our intentions were nothing more than that. We just wanted to offer a fun high adventure, that's it. However, the aforementioned focus on the core combat loop, constant iterations, and -- most of all -- internal focus tests led to the invention of Skillshots. I am a big fan of games that offer multiple pseudo-independent systems. That is the core of any emergent gameplay. Bulletstorm has a few systems like that: multi-functional weapons (e.g. the flail chain can wrap around enemies or objects), an interactive environment (e.g. the explosive trashcans of the future can be moved around) and the tools of war (kicking, sliding, leashing). Players can manipulate and use these systems any way they want. That leads to a lot of emergent gameplay moments. You can kick an enemy into a trashcan, which then explodes, which causes another enemy to go airborne and get pierced by a rocket fired by another enemy positioned on the rooftop. But I would never have thought of naming these crazy actions - and indeed, I would never have thought of Skillshots at all - if not for internal focus tests. To some developers, the 'focus test' sounds like something to dread. They think: 'There’s a reason why I’m the creator, and they’re the consumers.' That’s fair enough, and there is some truth to it, but on the other hand there’s also a reason why Blizzard wins so big after spending insane amounts of time play-testing and fine-tuning. Our early focus tests were nothing official. We were just watching each other play. In casual conversations we debated what was fun and what sucked. But it was during these monitored play sessions that I noticed people were using Bulletstorm's emergent combat not to be efficient, but to have fun. A headshot is a much faster kill than leashing an enemy toward you, then kicking him into a cactus. And yet still people kept on doing that, and much more elaborate things, besides. They were experimenting. Testing theories. Having fun. 'Hey, why don't we actually reward people for being creative?' I thought. 'How about we call it a Skillshot system?' And one of our core selling points was born." Wrong Choice For The Online Mode While Bulletstorm debuted with its own take on cooperative play with its "Anarchy Mode," Chmierlarz says that the game originally featured a competitive multiplayer component that the team eventually decided to cut from the game. "I’m going to tell you a secret. We had a working, playable player versus player mode in Bulletstorm. It was only a basic deathmatch, and it was a mere prototype, but it was playable. And it was tons of fun. But we felt that the PvP space was too crowded. Ignoring the fact that our PvP was unlike anything else out there (thanks to the Skillshot system you could win with less kills than the opposite team), we felt we needed something different. That’s how the Anarchy co-op mode was born. That, in itself, was not a bad choice. The problem was that we decided on Anarchy too late in the development process. We managed to make the mode really fun for the hardcore, advanced Bulletstorm players, but everyone else struggled. Anarchy requires tight cooperation, and is not bulletproof. If you don't work together, the mode is just not fun. That’s quite unlike PvP, where most of the time both teams and individuals can enjoy the carnage. You only have one chance to make the first impression. It's better to release a fun and polished bare minimum than unfinished experiment, no matter how unique." Lack of context in the demo Around the game's launch, People Can Fly released a downloadable demo for Bulletstorm, but Chmielarz admits that the demo the team created did a poor job teaching players about what made the game unique. "In the game industry we often debate whether releasing a demo makes sense. It’s a controversial topic. But you know what's not controversial? Bad demos. I wouldn't say our demo was text-book “bad,” but it just wasn't the right demo. Demos should be about emotions, about the atmosphere, about the vibe of the game. Remember the Batman: Arkham Asylum demo? Perfection. With the Bulletstorm demo, we wanted to show people how fun the Skillshot system was. We wanted the players to fight for the best score, and thus replay the demo over and over again. So we took a very short, story-less fragment of one of the levels, stripped it of any story-related dialogue, and focused the gameplay flow on core mechanics. And because our mechanics were new in the FPS world, we added a tutorial movie. EEEEK. Wrong. In the full game, we take it slowly. We still have elements of the tutorial two hours into the adventure. Why did we expect that people would learn all that from a three minute movie? Why did we expect people to watch these movies anyway? Gamers were confused. So is this game a time attack arcade kind of game? There’s no story, right? How can such a shamelessly short demo be so boring, all I had to do to finish it was kick, kick, kick! We should have chosen the opposite: A story-driven “blockbuster” fragment of the game, focused on mystery and visual appeal." Additional Info The full postmortem of Bulletstorm explores even more "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong highlights form the game's development, and is now available in the October 2011 issue of Game Developer magazine -- both subscription and single-issue digital purchase available. This issue also includes a handful of other exclusive features, including a comprehensive breakdown of reactive programming, a look at Game Developer's picks for the top 20 companies, processes, and concepts changing the industry, and a lengthy interview with Tekken creator Katsuhiro Harada about the classic fighting series' origins. Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months' and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of October 2011's magazine as a single issue.]

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