Narrative designer Patrick Redding and the team behind Far Cry 2 at Ubisoft Montreal have worked for several years to produce a game that operates outside of the strictures of genre -- in fact, to deliver a game that operates outside of the strictures of expectation, period.
With great attention paid to dynamic gameplay systems and expansive design, the game has won plaudits from many progressive-minded gamers, but has not satisfied all audiences.
Here, Redding looks back at what the team learned over the course of its three-year development cycle, reflects on current industry trends that informed its development and those that will affect development in the future.
As he moves from this project into a new, unnamed and unannounced inheritor to its innovative design at the Ubisoft Montreal studio, Redding takes the time to reflect on what the team truly accomplished.
Far Cry 2 has been out for a couple of months now. How do you feel about it at this point, having completed the cycle?
Patrick Redding: Well, there are obviously lots of mixed emotions on a game that you spent upwards of three years on. There's the weird postpartum depression that comes from having finished the thing and having a hard time believing that you're not actually working on it anymore. I think everyone in the industry has experienced that at some point or another.
Then obviously, we're dealing with the more specific emotional rollercoaster of seeing reactions to it and hearing what people say about it, what they like, what they don't like. Obviously, there's seeing the scores come through in your sales figures -- all that usual stuff that in one moment either validates or crushes your dreams, right? [laughs]
What do you think of the reaction to the game? Compared to most of the big triple-A games that are in the same market category, it seems like there's more of a gap between people who understand what the game's going for and those who don't.
PR: Sure. I think we're coming to grips with the fact that there are a few challenges that a game like Far Cry 2 is up against. One is when you create a game that is ostensibly a first-person shooter, we have to understand that that market encompasses an awful lot of people who are not particularly hardcore. There are guys that are going to get a fifteen-second or ten-minute impression of a game by watching their buddy play it, and say, "Yeah, okay. This looks cool. This is a game I want to try."
And I think that when people hear that you're releasing a first-person shooter, they're kind of thinking in terms of this very accessible type of experience that is going to be at least sort of similar to what they've played if they've played Call of Duty or Half Life 2 or Halo or Gears of War, even.
The reality is that we certainly have struggled with accessibility issues with the game because the openness of it made us take a much more systemic approach, for one thing. But also, it has a rhythm -- the rhythm associated with the game is really different, because of the amount of objective-to-objective movement, and the way the player is invited to use the training, use the landscape as kind of a game ingredient.
And that's not something that most players have necessarily done. But at the same time, there's also the part of the market that's totally fine with that, and is totally anxious to see something that's new and different -- a new wrinkle in the treatment on the first-person shooter.
For them, I think our challenge is to not mislead those people by making them think that what we've given them is some kind of RPG/first-person shooter hybrid. There are folks who kind of compared it to Fallout 3 -- that tendency to view it as a first-person experience that involves a lot of like exploring the world, meeting people, having conversations with them. Players hear things like that.
Managing an inventory.
PR: Exactly. Like resource management. They hear there are factions in the game -- that immediately implies a different kind of dynamic, right? They're like, "Oh, why is everyone shooting at me?" [laughs] Well, it's still a first-person shooter.
So, communicating those differences to those different parts of the market is something I think we contended with. That's something that we're still trying to do.
I think the reviewers who had an opportunity to take their time with it -- not just kind of blaze away through the critical path, but got to know the dynamics of the game world -- tended to end up giving us a very positive reaction because they went, "Wow, okay. I understand after a certain amount of time, this thing kind of clicks, and then I understand how to maximize my enjoyment with it."
Obviously, some reviewers have five games they need to get through that week, they're going to try to play it and think, "I'll sit down for a couple of days and play Far Cry 2." And they may be left feeling a little frustrated by it. That's something I think we dealt with. We're learning a lot about how better to communicate.
It's an interesting game in that respect, because the movement of a lot of shooters these days is more of a linear progression, and structuring Far Cry 2 like that would basically make it pointless.
PR: Yeah, I think there's an agreement there with the player, and the player has to be willing to commit themselves to that idea, and that's fine. I don't think there's a problem with that. I think there are players out there that are willing to.
But then the onus is on us to make sure that that commitment is clearly spelled out in advance, right? [laughs] You know, we can't mislead them or make them think, "I can play for fifteen minutes at a time and be fine."
For me, a huge part of the value and quality of the game came out of simply investing myself into the African savanna and just letting interesting things happen as I tried to get the most out of the game's systems. It's not only different to the "play for fifteen minutes at a time," it's basically the opposite of that mentality.
PR: I think a good way to think of it -- or at least the way we thought of it -- is that a lot of what you're describing grew out of necessity, as soon as we realized that we were going to be supporting an open world and having to support a certain amount of exploration and a certain amount of non-linearity.
What you're describing, that sense of being in the environment and letting the environment kind of drive the experience, is a function of us building that foundation. We needed to build an infrastructure, a framework for supporting the player moving around the world kind of at his own will and using whatever resources he wants -- whether it's vehicles, boats, on foot, or what have you.
That's kind of like the base layer of the gameplay experience to a certain extent, because in the absence of anything else, that's what the experience is going to default to. Then, subsequent efforts and other iterations of the game's development were about adding these additional layers of experience on top of that.
So I think players may find that there are circumstances in which some of those other layers have been throttled back a bit and they're experiencing just the basic undistilled physical sense of being in that world.
I think that's something that we executed on well. And I think that it's good to have a strong foundation, right? The game becomes a lot more unpredictable and dynamic, obviously, when these other layers have an influence and an impact on the experience. But they kind of come in and out at different moments in the game, depending on the player's style of play.
One of the most interesting things about the world is how subtle it is. How much did you feel you needed to maintain a sense of restraint in the setting? Very few video games have absolutely no supernatural or science-fiction elements -- the original Far Cry did, but this game doesn't. Even the art direction goes for naturalism over exaggerated bloom all the time or extreme rim lighting and shaders.
PR: Yeah. That's actually one of the easiest things to answer, because we identified a certain number of pillars that were going to be like the core values of the game. Those were identified even before we knew it was going to be set in Africa or that it was going to be this style of game. Realism was for sure one of them.
Our take on what realism needed to be was very heavily informed by the experience in the original Far Cry of making that transition from the first third of the game -- which is pulpy, but still exists in the realm of kind of like high adventure -- to the point where suddenly you're dealing with the Trigens, and suddenly it's a corridor shooter with cyborgs and all that.
I think that was pretty widely agreed to be a poor shift.
PR: To me, it always felt like an unnecessary switch. At the same time, I'm not going to sit here and slam the game for its decisions. There were a number of things that probably motivated the decision to add science-fiction elements to the game, some of which probably had very little to do with the game itself and more to do, maybe, with the engine.
But I think that, nevertheless, there are folks out there that liked the science-fiction parts of the original Far Cry. I just don't happen to be one of them. And I think the core design team on Far Cry 2 felt pretty comfortable saying that we didn't want to go down that path.
To a certain extent, we did toy, not with the idea of adding anything that was science fiction-y or supernatural -- but rather with toying with things that were more surreal or impressionistic, if that's a term I can use in this context.
PR: We talked, at various points, about messing around with player perception and exploring -- playing around with memory and hallucination and some of these other ideas.
Some of that seemed to remain for a few key narrative moments.
PR: Yeah. I mean, part of it was part of a larger discussion about how to use filters and kind of dynamic art direction, sort of in response to player actions, and doing things like altering the weather dynamically in reaction to how the player's doing, or even having filter effects on saturation of the screen that would kind of communicate some aspect of the player's infamy. This was at a point when we were thinking of infamy in much more low-level, mechanical terms as well.
It's not like that we threw it out for being unrealistic. I think it's more you have to make sacrifices in order to enhance the clarity of the game. And I think we felt that, in general, we weren't really necessarily adding anything to the realism and the immersion of the game by doing it this way, but we also might also be muddying things up so it's harder for the player to see what's going on. [laughs]
That principle, that was more of an aesthetic position that we took early on, and it dovetailed with the realism goal and the immersion goal. But very quickly, it just became kind of the style of the game, that we would keep things very muddy and visceral and earthy.
It's also not typical for a game to paint the player as someone this vulnerable. At the beginning, you're put in a literally unwinnable situation. Then you're keeling over from malaria, you're pulling crap out of your arm, your car breaks down, your weapons break down. It's a very clear signal that, "You are in a dangerous place, and you're possibly screwed." From a design standpoint, that seems risky.
PR: Hugely risky, because you don't want the player to be feeling punished. But you are trying to create a feeling of vulnerability.
I think that's a facet of the game that demanded a fair amount of iteration, just to be able to go through and check it and play it out and see whether it was working the way we needed it to. Especially in the early part of the game, that was combined with a requirement that we offer tutorial content to the player and sort of instruct them in the mechanics of the game.
That turned out to be very challenging, because we're trying to do two things simultaneously: We're trying to make the player feel vulnerable and at a disadvantage initially -- to set the ground rules of the world and the moral universe of the game -- and at the same time we're trying to give them useful and practical information that's applicable to play, and not do it in a way that's completely ham-handed. [laughs]
I think that that's something we could have had more iteration time on, just to maybe either pace things out slightly differently or try to use fewer obstructing, pop-up-type interventions in order to teach things to the player. It's a lot to absorb. It's kind of sensory overload.
At times I think we succeeded, to an extent, in managing it. And at other times, it fell short of what we probably would have wanted in the long term.
On a purely mechanical player-empowerment level, as the game continues, you start getting more guns that are more reliable, and you can upgrade them, and the enemies start to respect you more. It's not as sharp as in a Metroid game, where suddenly you've got all this crazy equipment, but there's that curve. But you have no idea that's coming when you start the game, which might frustrate some people.
PR: Well, something that we did -- and this is something our lead level designer Jonathan Morin figured out and I thought was a really important, major development -- was to identify that the weapons progression needed to be altered slightly during the first third of the game.
This was in order to give the player a bit more of a tease and a bit more visibility on the kinds of weaponry that would be available to them if they played ball with the whole diamond economy, and used the weapon shops and actually tried to push the progression forward. While we don't force the player to do it, it's a good idea to do it, right? And we try to communicate that.
The great thing about the reliability system in the game is that it gives us a tool for putting crappy guns and crappy weapons into the world [laughs] that the player can look at and go, "Oh, my God! That looks awesome! I want that!" And we don't have to have any kind of weird, hokey reason why the gun vanishes on him. He can use it until it breaks.
That turned out to be a really cool way to reassure the player, "Listen. You're not going to be stuck running around shooting rusting Belgian assault rifles. And you're not going to be stuck with a crappy sniper rifle. You are going to be able to get access to some stuff that's pretty cool. But if you want that, you should make sure you go and pay regular visits to your local arms vendor and get involved with what he's doing."
I had actually been playing for ages with the bolt-action sniper rifle, not doing gun missions, and I eventually found a better, more modern one in the world, which prompted me to start actually doing gun missions once the one I found broke. I didn't realize at the time that the reason I found the better one was because the game was hinting to pay more attention to the gun missions.
PR: Yeah, and it has a huge impact on your survivability. If anything, one of the challenges is that we needed to find a way to tie the player's understanding of weapon reliability and weapon jamming and the difficulty that that introduces into firefights, to tie that to the opportunity to go and get good guns and have a steady supply of good weapons.
It's like, "I'm going to go buy all the stealth weapons, " or "I'm going to go and focus on explosives," or some combination thereof. Getting that foot in the door was important, in helping the player to understand why it's related to the fact that the guns that the AI is dropping on the ground are typically about half as good as the ones that they can buy at the store.
Regarding player expectations, how much of that do you think needs to be messaging from the developer end, and how much is a simple function of people not wanting to deal with a certain level of information and mechanics?
PR: That's hard to say. I think you can only compensate for so much. You can communicate and market a game that has weaknesses, to the point where people are willing to overlook it and just simply believe that it's going to be better than it is. I think it does happen. And I don't think we do that very well, frankly. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. [laughs]
I think Ubisoft tends to try to let their games speak for themselves, for the most part. That's not always easy to do, either. That's something our marketing people and our communications people wrestle with, all the different ways of doing that. Certainly, some of our most successful games went through periods where they had to find out how to combine these messages, whether it's Assassin's Creed or any of the Clancy games.
I remember speaking to you and [creative director] Clint [Hocking] back in March or so, when the game was getting delayed. One of you was saying, even from a marketing perspective, it was a good thing the game got delayed, because it felt like you were only starting to hit a certain level of awareness that you wouldn't have had if the game was shipping right then when it was originally going to.
PR: Right, yeah. Honestly, it's very hard for me to judge that, though. I mean, we have such a skewed view of the awareness that people have of the game. [laughs]
If we talk to people in the industry, of course, they're aware of games that nobody has heard of. And then, simultaneously, sometimes we get really strange impressions of how well the game is known, just by talking to folks that are focused on one very specific genre. Maybe they only play military shooters and so it wouldn't even occur to them to look at a Far Cry.
I try to focus on the stuff that I think we're responsible for as designers, and I think the thing that we're responsible for as designers is accessibility. And that's subjective enough. I mean, an awful lot of us are of a generation who kind of grew up learning to accept that games were going to be kind of abusive, and eventually you'd overcome that and master the controls and get used to it.
So there are probably times when we feel like we're the absolute paragon of accessibility in the way we're handling a particular problem. But we're not necessarily putting ourselves in the shoes of somebody who's used to just grabbing a controller off their roommate's desk and playing the game for 15 minutes, right?
I think we're constantly challenging ourselves to be better at that. We have to, because that's who we're selling games to now. We're not selling games, necessarily, to the guys that I used to play games with when I was in university or high school.
But don't you think that's a different kind of abuse, so to speak? I think, fundamentally, there's a difference between literal trial-and-error -- "This block will disappear if you don't remember where it is" -- and an inaccessibility that is more due to the game's dynamics, where there's a system you eventually understand holistically, as opposed to just remembering every pixel.
PR: Yeah. We don't want to be necessarily spoon-feed everything to people, because that gets insulting. It's also tiresome if you're constantly interrupting them to remind them things about that system. I like to learn things through trial and error, and I know a lot of players are like that. But accessibility isn't just about it being easy to pick up the controls. It's also making sure that you're supporting a certain kind of readability, giving the player a certain kind of feedback.
Maybe the way to put it is that it might be less a function of the kind of low-level mechanics of the game at the control level, and more about how you're using the output of the game as good feedback for the player, so they at least are clear on the causal link between what they're doing and what's happening.
That's just proper game design, right? Our opinions will shift. As we have a chance to prototype things, we'll be pretty sure that something's going to work on paper, and then we get it into the game and realize that we've got a readability issue with it, either by getting feedback from testers or even just trying it ourselves.
There's nothing wrong with that. I never feel disappointed at failure. I always just feel disappointed if I fail too late to do anything about it. I think that that's a value. That's a core, cultural value that is present at Ubisoft.
We try to take some interesting risks with things, as long as we're sure we're going to have enough time to go in and iterate on it. With the core gameplay in Far Cry 2, that happened. I think we were able to iterate on things, with enough advanced warning that we were able to try some kind of cool and different and innovative stuff.
But it's always a challenge, in any production, to make sure you have enough time to do that with your important systems.
A lot of that still feels like unknown quantities, compared to how streamlined the creation process in other entertainment forms is at this stage.
PR: The reason why it feels that way relative to other entertainment forms is that we've got to occasionally remind ourselves we're still in the software business. That is the methodology of the technology and the practice that we are engaged in. We're certainly in the entertainment business, but the actual building blocks of what we're creating are subject to all of the same risks and considerations and best practices that any piece of software is.
This is why you come to an event like GDC or MIGS and hear so many people debating the relative merits of Agile versus some more traditional style of production. We're still figuring it out, because otherwise people wouldn't be talking about that so much.
But I think there's one kind of unifying core idea here, which I don't think is really debatable anymore, which is this: as games grow in complexity, our ability to manage that complexity is going to be placed under greater and greater stress.
We are always going to be dealing with a succession of low-level, non-critical, non-fatal failures that we can then kind of attenuate and make less frequent and make less severe. And the only way that I can think of at this stage to kind of manage that problem is to embrace it and say, "Great. Let's make sure that we're prototyping things. Let's make sure that we're putting stuff into the game as fast as possible so that we can see if we're even on the right path with it."
Because sometimes we won't be. Sometimes we'll think we're on the right path on paper, and then we'll get it in and we'll realize, "Nope. That's a non-starter. Let's go with plan B." And I think that's fine. I think we need to be more comfortable with that. And at the same time, we need to find creative ways to economize and make sure that we're not kind of breaking the bank during that initial prototyping phase.
Your colleague Dominique Guay made an interesting point, which was that we have to avoid becoming too much like the film industry in terms of how structure and streamlining. He said it's important to preserve the property of game development that real iteration on design can be done even well into production.
PR: I think, honestly, he's absolutely correct about that. I don't even think that that's something that should be in dispute. Because, yeah, while I'm sure there might be some kind of very superficial comfort and certainty in saying, "We've pulled our budget and schedule from the last game, and we know exactly how long it takes to do this thing," it's a completely false sense of security, and it's not going to actually help you run your business well.
I think where there's plenty of room for debate, and will continue to be a lot of lively debate, is how much of that design and development process is going to be driven top-down versus bottom-up.
There are obviously still lots of folks out there who are coming at game development more from a technology side of things and are interested in kind of exploring different kinds of features -- "finding the fun," as they sometimes say -- and then building upwards from that in order to encompass the full game.
Whereas there are still an awful lot of us that feel like there's real merit to considering what we think the aesthetic experience of the player ought to be initially and then kind of working backwards to determine what game dynamics are going to produce that.
More of the MDA [mechanics-dynamics-aesthetics] approach.
PR: Exactly. Precisely that. But it's not an auteur model. We're not passing down our wisdom as designers to the engineers to then implement it. [laughs]
It's about a certain kind of collaboration between art and design and technology, between content and process, that allows us to very quickly iterate on a set of features that we feel support a certain aesthetic direction and try to get those things into some kind of engine. This is true whether it's the engine that we're going to ship or something that's tailor-made for prototyping. You use these small little teams, where maybe you've got a programmer and a modeler and a designer working together to kind of focus on a particular feature.
I think that kind of thing is really powerful. People will debate the merits of doing it that way versus something that's more bottled up, but I think there should be no question that that flexibility -- the ability to alter and change the design, the ability to alter and change kind of your understanding of what the final product needs to deliver -- is something we need to hang on to at all costs.
That debate you mentioned does illuminate a lot of what's so fundamentally different with games compared to other forms. Often, you come to conferences and there are soaring panels about, "We need to make games that are more ambitious, that tackle social subjects." But it's still really difficult for people to get a grasp around the framework of how to do that. Other non-interactive forms can do that using a derivative of what literature has been using for centuries.
PR: Yeah, I know. It's funny. I think part of it is people maybe have been rendered oblivious to just how dependent most mass-market games are on the genre conventions and mechanics that came before them.
Because the thing is, I can write a novel, and I'm using the same fundamental building blocks to deliver information, regardless of whether I'm writing a complicated psychosexual drama involving two characters sitting in a room, or a techno-thriller about a weather-modification satellite or something. [laughs] You know what I mean? It's the same building blocks: it's words.
We need to remind ourselves that, for all of the kind of superficial similarities we may have to some other genres, at our beating heart our currency is interactivity and interaction. For the player, that consists of a set of verbs. And on the developer side, it consists of creating the necessary logical framework and the content to be able to support those verbs in an interesting way.
One of the problems is, if we want to make games that are tackling broader topics that are a bit more adult or mature or more meaningful, we need to realize that that means that those verbs, that verb set that we're working in, may not be adequate at this point.
It may mean that you don't really want to talk about doing, necessarily, a platformer about the pain of lost love, unless you're going to be prepared to support the pain of lost love in some kind of mechanic. [laughs] Because, otherwise, it is doomed to just being a kind of narrative window-dressing.
Are you commenting on the success of Braid? That's sort of what that game is.
PR: Oh, Jesus. I really wasn't intending to. [laughs]
It never fails. Once per interview, I will end up saying something inadvertently snarky about somebody else. No, that's absolutely not what I meant.
What I mean is--well, in fact, okay, let's talk about Braid. I think Braid succeeds precisely because it has a mechanic that supports those feelings. That is the whole point of it. And I think it's very interesting that those kinds of games are by and large right now the sole purview of the independent game movement.
But I think, as a few people recognize, including Warren Spector in his MIGS keynote, it's not going to stay that way. It doesn't have to be that way.
What we need to understand is that, for example, if we want to break through the "fun" barrier -- this idea that somehow, dogmatically, we are obliged to make the player always feel like they're having stronger and stronger or more positive rewards for their actions -- I think we need to understand that that means we're talking about introducing mechanics that are not based on positive rewards. That's literally what that means.
And so, if I make a first-person shooter, and I want it to be less about fun and more about meaning, then that means I need to make sure there are mechanics in there, fundamental core mechanics of the game, that aren't just about that reward structure, about giving points to the player for hitting targets or giving some kind of boost to the player for obtaining a particular gun.
There need to be systems in place that offer not punishment but offer kind of ambiguous results that are still valid outcomes for the player, that he can still survive the experience and think about, that don't make him just immediately reload his last saved game.
That's certainly something we wrestled with on Far Cry 2. And, of course, we didn't get the answer to those questions, but we did notice some things, and we certainly were able to figure some things out in the course of doing it.
That's going to be a tough sell, because the way that core games are marketed and sold -- on every level, from the advertising to the retail -- is that they all get lumped together in one big pile that the same audience discusses on web forums, even despite people's different genre preferences.
PR: Yeah. I think part of it is that, again, we still tend to view genre distinctions [in terms of] that obvious clustering of kind of market segments and the types of games that they play. But it's all the more obvious and evident that it's something that we can actually do something about.
You look at the success of a game like Rock Band, or Guitar Hero, right? It is so blindingly obvious that games like that that do not fit the interaction model of games that have come before them have a huge, broad-base appeal.
And it's not about making wussified games that my girlfriend will like. It's about the fact that I like to play Guitar Hero because I get the same value out of it that I get out of playing a game like, say, Gears of War, on its own merits, even if I'm playing by myself. My girlfriend gets the same buzz out of playing it that I do, whereas she wouldn't necessarily get the same buzz out of playing Gears of War because it's an adolescent-male power fantasy, right? [laughs]
PR: And not to say anything bad about adolescent-male power fantasies, but let's not kid ourselves. That's what we deliver.
So I think the key is, we've got to not get too fixated on kind of the role of the aesthetic choices, in terms of saying that, "Okay, we're going to make this first-person shooter slightly more meaningful by setting it in a historical context." Does that mean that, automatically, all World War II shooters are somehow more meaningful than science-fiction shooters? No, of course not.
Instead, what we need to be saying is: what is it that's different about the interaction model of this game that makes it feel more meaningful, or has it delivered a message to the player? Because interactivity is the substance of it. That's what's going to succeed or fail.
Do you think it's a dead end to propose games like Far Cry 2 or Gears of War -- any game in that very broad category -- that use that style of interaction but which aren't necessarily the same adolescent power trip?
PR: No. I don't think it's a waste of time to do it. I just don't think we should kid ourselves about how aggressively those efforts are going to alter the landscape of gaming. I don't think we're pushing the frontiers of that as aggressively as we do when we see games come along that introduce these kind of fundamentally different interaction models. I really don't.
Is that a self-fulfilling prophecy?
PR: Probably. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy to the extent that the people in the gaming industry are by and large people that play the games that are out there. So, unfortunately, it starts to get a little incestuous. We're all drinking the same Kool-Aid.
If we could take one valuable lesson from the film industry, it's that we need to co-opt and appropriate all the more cerebral work that's being done by the guys in the independent game movement, right?
We need guys like Jonathan Blow and Jenova Chen to be assimilated into the Borg collective and have their genius and their talents turned to the forces of money-making in order to be able to really see a transformation of how the industry views genres and views kind of meaning and all that. [laughs]
Do you see that coming?
PR: Oh, I don't know. I'm speculating. I think a lot of those guys are going to sidestep that by discovering that they can control their own entrepreneurial destinies.
That seems to be increasingly the case in the last couple of years.
PR: Well, they're in a medium where they don't need bricks-and-mortar distribution. In fact, they may be the guys that ultimately put the final nail in that. We've been trying as an industry for the last little while, kind of half-heartedly.
I don't think it's necessarily moving at the speed at which it should be. But I think the guys that are saying, "Well, you know what? I have my website, and this game will run in Flash, or it can be downloaded easily and run on any Windows machine. It's a small exe. I can set up PayPal as easily as the next guy."
If those guys can make it happen, if they can kind of get that critical mass and a certain amount of momentum and the necessary capital to do it, why wouldn't they just set up shop and handle it themselves?
There are going to be lots of people inspired by those guys who are in school now. They're working on their little games on the side, and doing that garage-level development, who are going to turn out to be brilliant but are also going to be in a great position to take advantage of the resources of the larger established development shop.
I'm hoping that when folks like that start coming into the fold, that they're going to tend to at least evolve or potentially revolutionize the way in which the mainstream developers think about games.
One of the perceptions issues, I think, with Far Cry 2, is that there is a lot of attention to detail, but the nature of that attention to detail is that most of it is systemic in a really subtle way. I suspect it could be easy to play the game, and think, "Okay, this is a very typical shooter."
PR: It's the way it's scripted. Yeah, absolutely. That was a possibility we identified relatively early in working on the game. We knew, trying to go down on this path, that there might be a certain amount of invisibility to some of these systems, and we would probably just have to accept that.
At the same time, I think we also realized that, closer towards the end of the development, there were other systems and elements of the game that had better readability and stronger visibility -- just intrinsically and intuitively to the player -- that we probably could have tried to incorporate more strongly into the narrative system.
Can you elaborate on that?
PR: I think the most obvious one is that investment in characters -- your history with your buddies, but also maybe even your history with all of the other NPCs, is something that is actually trivial for us to track and very easy for the player to understand.
If that's something as a human being, assuming that you're someone who's been moderately socialized, you're going to be able to grasp the fact that you've spent time with this character, you've done missions for this character, and you've saved this character's life. We have systems that look at that stuff already, but we could have pushed it.
More to the point, I think, that particular example is something that's pretty concrete. It's not as abstract, for example, as reputation, nor infamy, for example. I think that was something that, looking back in hindsight, we now know. Certainly Clint and I have talked about this extensively. With the benefit of hindsight, we probably would have tried to make a much stronger emphasis on that.
Though obviously you stressed they're totally different games, Fallout 3 and Fable II both also have systems that modify NPC reaction to the player based on in-game actions. But In those games, they explicitly set a plus or minus score that occurs at the time you perform an action. In yours, the player isn't really aware of it unless they look for it.
PR: Yeah, absolutely. We tried to make everything in the game as transparent as possible. We really didn't want a HUD. The only concession for having any kind of onscreen information was that if you get shot, your health shows up and eventually fades away. You reload your gun and it shows how much ammo you have, and that eventually fades away.
Those are like core mechanics that we didn't want to have present on the screen. We fought really, really hard to do it that way -- like having the map that the player carries around with him be in the game world, as opposed to being a full-screen map. Those were choices we didn't want to compromise on because it was part of that core value. We definitely tried to make sure that if the narrative respected that.
There are other things that we probably could have done. We might have been able to take a slightly gamier approach towards it by having little stars and plus signs appearing when you have interactions with characters, or even having an info meter onscreen. I think there are any number of things we probably could have done slightly differently.
But it's not clearer that any one of those measures would have significantly improved it. I think that maybe it's the wrong issue. For us, it would have been asking the wrong question, because instead what we should be trying to do is seek out those values, those metrics, in the game that are easy for a player to parse just by using their senses. Just by hearing, you'll see the way the AI is behaving -- just by hearing the dialogue, and just by seeing the way the game world alters itself.
There are some things that, psychologically, humans are predisposed to understanding very easily, and other things that are just too abstract. Since we were trying to do some things that hadn't really been done this way before, I think we were doing primary research in that department, and just starting to figure some things out at the point where we were at beta.
If you're going to do something this risky you'll understand that there are going to be some lessons you're going to learn probably a little too late to take full action on them.
Are you looking to take what you've done to this game, and applying it to whatever your next project is?
PR: Oh yeah, and I don't think I'm giving anything away. Yes, there will be a next project for me and for a few of the guys that I worked with. I'm absolutely not going to say at all what it is, or when I'm starting work on it or how long we think it's going to take or what it could be.
At this stage it would just be way to premature to discuss, but to be sent in my role on any project is likely to carry with it a certain amount of interest in narrative systems. It's safe to say that we're going to be taking a lot of valuable lessons out of Far Cry 2.