Digital Bruckheimer: Cameron Brown On Mercenaries 2

The long-awaited Mercenaries 2 is a key title for EA-acquired developer Pandemic - and Gamasutra talks in-depth to creative director Cameron Brown on the game's creation and influences, from Will Wright to Jerry Bruckheimer.

Mercenaries 2 is Pandemic Studios' first next generation project - and also the company's first game to ship since the Destroy All Humans! and Star Wars: Battlefront creator was acquired by Electronic Arts as part of the BioWare/Pandemic acquisition.

In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, Creative Director Cameron Brown lays out a roadmap for the game's development, speaking of how the studio's relationships with EA, its previous owner Elevation Partners, and sister studio BioWare affected development.

He also discusses the travails of developing a next-generation open-world game, and the original inspirations for the series, which was initially published by LucasArts, but for which Pandemic retained the IP - and has now brought to EA.

The game has been in development for, I would say, an extremely long time. Could you first talk about when you initially had planned to ship the game, and...

CB: Yeah, I guess a little bit -- I mean you're kind of talking to the wrong guy. I'm the creative director on the project... so frankly, it's probably my fault if we have been in development for a long time; it's probably because of all the crazy stuff I want to do.

But yeah, I honestly don't remember what the original date we released for the game was. But yeah, we didn't get it finished in time; we wanted to just make sure that the thing was a polished and as cool as we could make it. We felt that, you know, adding in the co-op stuff that we're doing -- obviously, this is Pandemic's first next-gen game, and there was a lot of work... not a lot which we anticipated.

It's just that these are huge games, open world games, and I think if you look at some of the comparable games -- like you're going to see GTA IV come out soon. The number of people, and the amount of time taken to develop these games is just -- it's not literally an order of magnitude beyond last-gen, but it's a significantly more complicated endeavor.

And again, it just takes a lot of time. I can't point to any one thing, you know. I can't point to co-op or to any specific feature in the game that really pushed us out. It's just that we got to where we could move into bug testing, we could get through submission, we could ship this thing... But it's not going to be what we originally envisaged, so we elected to take more time.

You know, it's been an interesting time for Pandemic. As I'm sure you know, during the development of the project, we went through two phases of the company. First of all, working with Elevation Partners and John Riccitiello, as an Elevation studio, which gave us a lot of financial freedom to make those kinds of decisions.

If we were under a more traditional game deal we may have no option but to ship at this point, but under Elevation we were able to go, "Oh, well, we are independently funded, we're able to hold up and keep developing." And I remember this whole big discussion between us and the Mass Effect guys, about who was going to make it first. Obviously they did.

And then once Pandemic was acquired by EA, that was another change, but it also brings a lot of economic backing, and a lot of resource backing to us. That means we really can develop a game of this magnitude. This is not a -- like I said -- this is not an endeavor to be undertaken lightly. It's been a huge and fascinating ride for all of us... the sheer complexity of these games, and particularly a game like Mercs, where you've got -- where we allow the player so much freedom.

You know, we've got all the destructible stuff, we've got just hundreds of vehicles, we've got weapons, we let players approach objectives from literally any angle -- and they could be coming in on foot with a shotgun, or they could be coming in with a tank or a helicopter. There are 18 different kinds of air strikes.

You know, this adds a huge burden to the engineering effort, to the design effort. And then you add in co-op as well, so you're adding another variable to that mix. It's just a huge game! It takes a long time! (laughs)

You talked about going through changes at Pandemic. First of all, did this game actually start before you were acquired by Elevation Partners?

CB: Um, yeah, only just. Like, we shipped Mercs early '05, obviously, and the team did a bunch of other stuff -- I personally went and worked on Destroy All Humans a little bit, some of the other guys we know worked on Battlefront II -- we made a couple of internal demos, and looked around at some different IPs before settling on Mercs 2.

And at the start of Mercs 2 we actually had primarily an engine development team for almost a year, we were just working on tech and tools, and really upgrading our pipelines to next-gen.

So the game itself, we didn't really get seriously into until probably the beginning of '06 -- and at that time, we really focused on the PS3. Spent a long time making sure that we were squared away with the PS3. And yeah, it started before the Elevation acquisition.

It's interesting to see people's reaction to EA, and the changes that had been happening at EA. What's your take on that, and how has it affected your project?

CB: Well, I have to say there has not been much... I've really said, there has been no direct impact on the day-to-day development. At least not so far. I think there's been some significant changes to -- we've had to integrate parts of it, the active side of the business, and obviously there is a huge, and very interesting, frankly, resource pool.

We're starting to talk to some of the other teams, and kind of start to share some of the techniques. It's really interesting to be interacting with the Burnout team, or the Godfather 2 team, or just reach out to some of those teams who do work that we're really big fans of -- kind of see what they're doing, and just compare notes. So that's pretty fun.

But, really, so far, in day-to-day development? I think we haven't really noticed a difference. It was kind of the same under Elevation. And that was really the goal -- we felt like we've figured out a pretty good way to, in our own kind of scratch way, to make fun and cool games. And I don't think anyone's got an agenda to really mess with that. So, so far so good.

I know, of course, everyone who works in the industry has an opinion on EA, and their reputation, but our experience has been great. For us, it's kind of interesting, because John Riccitiello was, obviously, deeply involved in Elevation, and was really, really a big advocate of that model. So, when he moved back to EA, he took back a lot of the stuff that he'd been thinking about with Elevation.

And to my eye -- and I'm not proclaiming to be a biz dev expert or anything like that -- it seems to me that he's really applying some of those principles that were behind Elevation. And so far, the kind of "games label" model, and working under Frank Gibeau, from my perspective, has been a delight. Frank's a really smart, really, really sharp guy. So far it's just been a really positive relationship and a help.

And I think for Mercs 3, and for other projects moving into the future, I personally am very excited at doing a much more thorough survey of the technologies, and tools, and information, and resources -- you know, like the usability stuff -- there's a lot of stuff that a big company like EA has that a smaller company like Pandemic just doesn't.

So, one thing you just touched on, briefly, was that you said you spent about a year working on engine and tools and stuff, as you transitioned off of the original Mercenaries.

CB: Yeah, exactly.

Do you have a full home-grown suite? You have your own engine that you're using for this game, and...

CB: Yeah, that's right. We have the Mercs engine for next-gen. We have written it pretty much from scratch, to make this game on next-gen. And we've got a completely upgraded tool chain that was designed to handle the just hair raising number of gigabytes of data that we throw around every day. Frankly, terabytes of data that we throw around at this point.

So yeah, we've got a full home-grown technology suite that runs the game, and has really developed into a really flexible game engine. And that's another part of the interesting stuff for next year: once we ship this game -- which is in the very near future -- it's going to be really interesting to look at this engine and say, "OK, what can we do with this tech? Now that we've invested this time and effort into building it, what's next?"

The nature of Mercs -- I'm not sure how familiar you are with Mercs 1, and the gameplay style of it, but -- it's a very open-ended, very flexible game, that gives the player a lot of options. You've got your flying around, you're blowing stuff up... So, the engine's got a lot of capabilities, so I'm really interested to see where we can take it next.

Are you using it on other projects at Pandemic right now? Or is it specifically Mercs right now?

CB: It's specifically Mercs. The way we work at Pandemic is, we don't do tech sharing in the traditional sense of keeping everyone on the same engine and try and pool the tech.

What we do is, we definitely share tech, but in the sense of branching off, so we have an unannounced title in development that kind of took a drop of our code at an earlier state, and then they've moved forward with it. There has been a little bit of sharing back and forth when it makes sense, but it's not like we have a central tech group and everyone uses that engine, or anything like that. Typically we tailor the technology to the game pretty specifically.

So you think that presents an advantage? Developing technology that supports a specific, let's say game type, rather than...

CB: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Well, you know, the capabilities that a game needs. I think so; that's been my experience. I'm cautious about saying "that's the only way to do it" -- I certainly wouldn't make that claim -- but in my experience, that's been a better way to do it. I think there's a lot of inefficiency around trying to keep that sharing going.

And I think, at the end of the day, what you're trying to do is move pixels in response to what the player wants to do, and I think it's easy to get distracted and really consumed by the principles of technology, and a more theoretical or abstract idea of what you're trying to do.

Whereas, at the end of the day, we're really trying to stay focused on, "It's about the game." There's no point having an engine if you don't have a game that people want to play, and want to buy, and want to enjoy on top of it.

When you branch off with the engine -- when other teams might take and branch -- it's difficult, potentially, to merge back in, if they have tech that they develop, that you might want to use.

CB: Oh yeah, sure. It can be. Yeah, but in my experience -- and again, I want to be really explicit with the caveat that I don't pretend that my experience is necessarily the be-all and end-all -- but in my experience, it's easy to overstate the difficulty of kind of reuniting the technology.

You know, programmers are very smart, and they can usually figure it out, and particularly if the code has the same DNA -- even if, let's say they took a drop nine months or a year ago, fundamentally a lot of the architectural decisions are going to be similar. Things might have changed off of that, but as a general rule, I think it's not too difficult.

Sometimes you've got to be willing to invest weeks or months into reintegrating, but that's still better than starting from scratch and taking years, or potentially spending millions to license the tech, or whatever your other options are.

Now I'm assuming it's full, multi-platform tech. This game is shipping on 360 and PS3 -- is it shipping on PC as well?

CB: Yep, there's PC as well. Then there's a PS2 version as well, which is developed out of house, and using the Mercs 1 tech.

So is the PS2 version actually basically a different game?

CB: Yeah. It has a lot of similarities, but it's really tailored to the capabilities of the PS2, much more. So, you know, it's the same basic storyline, it has the same sort of characters and setting -- it's set in Venezuela -- it has the same kind of core story.

The missions themselves, it's not like there's a one-to-one correspondence between the missions or the world layout, or anything like that. So it's similar, but it's actually its own game, to the point that, as director of the next-gen project, I'm very enthusiastic about when we ship this game. One of the things that I'm going to do on my vacation is play the PS2 version, so I can play a Mercs game that I didn't get involved in every detail of!

That's kinda cool. When it comes to generational transitions -- I guess the game I think of the most is, when the Xbox 360 was still relatively new, they shipped two different Splinter Cell games that year, and they were different games. It's kind of an interesting thing, when that sort of thing happens.

CB: Right. That's been a kind of fun part of going from Mercs 1 to Mercs 2, we're starting to see a lot more expressions of the game universe. There's a comic book now, there's a mobile game that is really awesome -- it's actually, I'm not a huge player of games on my cell phone, but the Mercs cell phone game is unbelievably cool!

It's like this really, really awesome, 8-bit kind of "Commando" Mercs, with like little 8-bit Mattias running around. It's really neat; it's really, really fun, just as someone involved in the creative direction of Mercs, to see other people starting to run with it, and seeing reflections of it in other places. That's a really fun thing.

Let's go way back and talk about -- this series started a few years ago; can you talk about where it came from originally?

CB: Yeah. Well, it's, the original idea of doing a mercenaries game, or a game with a mercenary as the central character, really came from Andrew Goldman, who is our CEO. And his title is CEO, but he really functions as kind-of -- I don't know what you'd call it, but he's the chief creative consultant of the company. He's got his fingers in pretty much everything that Pandemic's made, it has a little piece of Andrew's brain in it.

So he and I were talking, and we're really, we'd really gotten to think about, I guess what we would call... obviously we were heavily inspired by GTAIII at the time. We were just blown away by what Rockstar had done in, really, creating a new genre, and really opening up the structure of the game. We were really inspired by that, and we started talking to each other, and seeing that, wow, taking this into a more military environment -- so, you know, putting it in a war zone, and having the tanks, and helicopters, and focusing more on more epic destruction -- would really be a more interesting spin on that genre of game.

We started throwing around this "GTA in a war zone" kind of idea, and I remember Andrew just came to me one day, and he said, "What if you're a mercenary?" And we started talking about it, and it became clear that there was this really interesting freedom that came from that concept. You know, the freedom to work with whomever you wanted, the freedom to not follow orders, and it really felt like a way to not get sucked into being just another military game.

It really let us have the best of both worlds, in terms of taking stuff from a civilian world -- you know, a mercenary can drive sports cars, and can be in crazy drug lord villas, and do a lot of the really cool civilian stuff that you would associate with an action movie -- but then the merc is just as at-home on an open battlefield, with the tanks, and the helicopters, and the air strikes, and soldiers, and massive battles. So it was really exciting when we started thinking in those terms, and going, you know, you could basically turn up for the battle in your Lamborghini, or whatever, and we're going, "Wow, that's a really interesting idea." And there weren't a lot of games at the time, and there still aren't that many games, using that kind of premise.

Not really, I don't think.

And I remember at the time, I guess it was back in -- I don't remember when it was. But I guess it was in 2002, or something like that. Or 2003. And I remember, it was really like, for me, I was vaguely aware of the private military companies, and the Blackwaters, and the executive operations -- or the executive outcomes, I should say -- it's clear where the executive operations inspiration from Mercs 1 came from.

And I remember when I began to research that stuff, and read into it more and more, and learn about these very corporate, private armies, and these private soldiers. It's just a fascinating world. And once we'd gotten into that -- once we started looking into it, and started thinking about the gameplay possibilities, it just kind of snowballed from there. It became a no-brainer, you know?

The basic concepts for the game, from a gameplay standpoint came first, then you sort of fleshed it out with some basic setting ideas, then you moved forward with finding the narrative that fit that. Would you say that's a fair assessment of how you proceeded?

CB: Yeah, pretty much. You know, we definitely started from "let's make you a mercenary". And let's let you work with different factions, and let's really focus -- and from a gameplay perspective, my thing had always been, you know, I really wanted to make something partly inspired by GTA, but also equally inspired by, you know, I grew up -- I'm Australian; I don't know if you can tell from my accent -- I grew up in Australia, and in Australia, the Commodore 64, and the Commodore platforms, like in Europe, the Commodore platforms were very dominant.

So I grew up with a lot of really classic Commodore 64 games as a kid -- you know, Elite, and a lot of the Andrew Braybrook games, like Paradroid -- and they all have this kind of sandbox element to them, where they have these fairly rigidly defined game rules, and then they set you loose in the world.

Particularly Elite, which was a game I was pretty obsessed with as a kid. It's got its rules, you've got the training, you've got your spaceship -- but then you're just set loose in the universe, and you can really, you've got goals, but... you're not told, minute to minute, here's what you have to do. And those were the games I was always really attracted to.

Actually, another really formative game for me was a game called Raid on Bungeling Bay, which I was really amazed to learn many, many, many years later, I learned that that was a Will Wright game, and it was actually the engine he wrote that he used to make SimCity.

So it was... this helicopter combat game called Raid on Bungeling Bay, that, as a kid, I played on the Commodore 64, and adored. It kind of had that element too -- you had free movement over the map, you could attack various objectives at any time. It was very goal-driven, rather than a scripted kind of...

You know, I have a lot of respect for all genres of games -- I have been a game developer long enough to know that there is creativity, and passion, and skill applied to pretty much any genre -- but as my personal tastes go more to the very emergent games... So, you know, I was bringing in to it... there was a great convergence between the idea of being a mercenary, and the kind of narrative freedom, and just the freedom inherent in that role, and the kind of gameplay freedom that, really, as a game designer, I find personally exciting.

And, actually... a lot of the designers that have been on the team for a long time, I think, share that enthusiasm for that kind of sandbox-style gameplay. And, honestly, to this day, I still think that's really something unique that Mercs really brings to the table, is our commitment to that player freedom. We really take it to a level that I think a lot of teams kind of get a

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