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Dissecting the dual-genre design of Disintegration

V1 Interactive CEO Marcus Lehto discusses the hybridization of first-person shooter and real-time strategy design behind Disintegration.

After years at Bungie art directing the Halo series, V1 Interactive CEO Marcus Lehto stepped away to find a new path in game development. When his team publicly resurfaced at last year's E3, they did so with Disintegration: a hybrid first-person/real-time strategy game that pits a small squad of robotic heroes against an array of armies in a bid to save humanity. 

While Disintegration's not the first game to take a swing at the FPS/strategy hybrid (the Natural Selection series beat it to the punch), it has a particularly unique take on giving players control over its troopers: the grav cycle. 

Instead of taking on the role of an omniscient, top-down general, or a trooper on the ground, players hop into the seat of a grav cycle, flying over their units and participating in combat while giving orders and chaining unit abilities together. It's a unique setup that, according to Lehto, emerged out of the game's setting, where most of humanity has had its consciousness uploaded to robot chassis. 

And to top it off, like many other developers out there, Lehto and his colleagues at V1 had to ship Disintegration while the world was grappling with a global pandemic. Instead of banding together at an office, V1 Interactive had to get Disintegration ready for release from the comfort of their home offices. 

With Disintegration finally ready for launch, we took a moment to catch up with Lehto and discuss what he and his colleagues learned blending two unique game genres together. 

Can you walk us through the start of Disintegration's development, and what was the tipping point for thinking this first-person/strategy hybrid could work? 

I had been working on the fiction of Disintegration for the game for quite a while and to the point where I was getting excited enough about it to start forming a small team to build a prototype. I knew at the early stage that I didn't want to just go out there and just pitch an idea in a PowerPoint presentation; I wanted to have something that was actually a hands-on demo of what our real design intent the vision for the game would be. 

So I hired a couple college students who as contractors who could help me build this prototype, and we spent probably almost two years working on a prototype in Unity to construct this vision for the design of what we wanted to do with the game. It took a long time because we went through several different iterations, and the evolution of that prototype changed dramatically over the course of that time, to where we landed on this hybrid of first-person shooter and real-time strategy elements that we're ready to unleash to the world soon. 

That process was slow. Like I mentioned, I wanted to take our time to make sure we got it right, because there were a lot of things to try to solve along the way that were super challenging for us. 

Disintegration started out as a traditional RTS, and we moved to actually combining those first person elements and making that "hero" element the guiding force of the game. Then we added those real-time tactical elements into it in a way that was appropriate, like positioning the player in this vehicle we call a grav cycle over the battlespace and giving them omnidirectional movement, and having to really come up with brand new ways to command ground units that didn't overwhelm the player. 

That whole iteration phase and that whole prototype period took about two years. It wasn't until I was sure that we had gotten it mostly right that I was comfortable actually getting out there in front of publishers to start pitching the game around.

Disintegration isn't the first time developers have tried to merge first-person movement and real-time strategy. What convinced you this hybrid approach could work?

Disintegration started out as a real-time strategy game. We realized that as an RTS by itself, it just wasn't going to be interesting enough to stand out in the crowd of all the other games like it. So that's when we turned the game camera into an active participant in combat. Our goal the whole time was to keep that first-person fluidity of real time action constant throughout the entire experience. None of the actions that you take as a commander in the sky require you to pause or or have any kind of stilted cadence in the midst of combat, so you can really do this fluidly. 

That required us to completely rethink "what are the most important parts of an RTS for us in our game?" and "what are the most important parts of an FPS, that actually work in this case and don't overwhelm the player with asking them to do too much at the same time?" We took a very deliberate approach to the way the grav cycle moves through the environment. It has omnidirectional movement: up, down, left, right, front, back. We give you a boost so you kind of have that first-person jump kind of feel, so you feel like you've got agency to evade enemy fire when you need it. 

But then also we really spent a long time creating a brand new mechanic as to how you can interact with those ground units. Initially, you would select individual units and you would give them facing angles and a lot of complex stuff that was out too much in the micromanaging area. We decided that we had to let go of all that. We had to just step back from things and really just look at the bare essentials: what is the most important parts of RTS and FPS that would blend together and play nice together? Because it's not an easy problem to solve. 

We ended up we ended up treating the ground units as a singular entity, so they behave contextually based on your commands that you give them. You can fire pulses from your grav cycle down onto the ground, and it will move your ground forces to that location and they will contextually take up positions of cover, or engage in combat with enemies nearby based on where you put them. 

It's up to you as the commander to put [your ground forces] in smart and safe places or strategic places to flank and that type of thing. We also give them the ability to prioritize target enemies or choose a specific objective in the environment to interact with in order to achieve a certain goal. And then in addition to that, each one of those units has a special ability. So they're kind of like chess pieces on on the combat field; you can use them to, you know, fire off a mortar strike or a slow field or a concussion grenade.

How do you create spaces that accommodate both the player on the grav cycle floating above, and the kind of jungle-gym like arenas that the units fight in?

It's about building a space that allows for movement of characters throughout it in very interesting ways and gives them plenty of opportunity for cover. That cover can be modified often in the midst of combat so you can destroy cover, deny enemies their cover, and force them out of those areas to flee to other locations within the environment. You need multiple routes for the characters and [we designed] those routes so they can have interesting micro-battles by themselves in each one of the major combat pockets. 

That's the first layer of things with ground battle. And then of course your there's your grav cycle. You need to create a space that's interesting to navigate that gives you good sightlines, but also gives you good cover elements. So you can fly behind a section of trees or behind a rock, or a building that you can peek over it and fire down from above. Or you can flank around it while you set the enemies up with your units attacking them on the other side of it. 

Once you start to understand that the grav cycle and its onboard abilities, its weapons and support abilities are just one part of very important equation. Your ground units are like your grenade that you throw in a first-person shooter, so think of those two things as one whole. They are an effective crew together when you start thinking of it like that from a design perspective. 

It usually takes a player, I would guess, 5-10 minutes to start to wrap their heads around, you know,  "oh, I can find this grav-cycling around, that's really cool." There's this major component here to this game, these ground units that in some missions, you'll have as few as two in some missions, you'll have as great as four. 

And then you can, even in later missions, liberate other friendly units and they will temporarily join you. So you can amass kind of an army along with you as well, in some of these missions. So it's important to understand and to really embrace that Disintegration is a totally different game, not just this first person shooter or an RTS, where these things are combined in this unique space.

Is there anything in normal level design logic that doesn't work for this hybrid sort of space? 

The toughest part actually was sightlines and what we can actually render from those perspectives, because oftentimes, players can get up to 16 to 20 meters high in an environment if you're flying up over something. In traditional shooters, we rely on the fact that the player is at a fairly constant sight line at ground level, and that we can include things in the distance more reliably and predictably. In this case, we have to scrap a lot of that and we had to rethink how we design the space as a result. 

So that controls what our budgets are within a much greater sightline distance. It affects how AI react and behave at those greater distances as well. If you happen to fire out and shoot at those distances, it affects the lethality of each one of the the projectile rounds from our weapons. At what distance do we start decaying their their lethality so we don't encourage players to sits from a distance and try to pop shot enemies from afar? 

So we constantly tried to also keep the grav cycle and the ground units as close together as possible throughout gameplay. So those ground units can fluidly move to your location and you can get down close to them as well and take advantage of some of the ground cover that they also use. It was a really challenging kind of way to go about building environments. Especially natural environments proved to be some of the tougher ones for us to actually lay out in ways that was compelling for both level design and then for flow in the player experience.

It's been a few years since most games shipped with simultaneous multiplayer and single player modes. Most developers now are making camp firmly in one field of design or the other. Why did you choose to embrace the kind of single-and-multiplayer design that used to be so commonplace?

We started out single player only when we were initially designing in the game. It wasn't until we had solidified those core combat mechanics and that gameplay loop that we understood the multiplayer potential with the game.

It's true that a lot of games are multiplayer-only, especially nowadays. And we realize there's a huge void there as a result. It's an important void; I personally believe that games really benefit from having a solid narrative of a single player campaign that players can take at their own pace. It builds a a much deeper and a richer universe for the players to invest themselves in [that] carries not just through the campaign but well into multiplayer as well, giving legitimacy for everything that lives within the game world. 

So it's real important to me, first of all that, that games have a story. I love that aspect of it. And we love telling the story. The campaign has no shortage of awesome things to take the player through on a rollercoaster ride of missions. And some players, you know, had been really begging for a campaign to finally come out that they can sink their teeth into, and I think they'll be pretty excited about what we're offering them.

So it seems like you and your team wanted to tackle all the challenges multiplayer offers? Server management, matchmaking, etc.? 

Well, we cautiously tread into that because we were a small team. For most of the game development cycle, it was only 12 to 20 people. It's not until this last year that we've grown to about 30. So we rely heavily on the technology available from third parties. There's the Unreal 4 engine for the foundation of our game in general, for networking, and making sure that we can actually, you know, produce a game that's viable on Xbox, PlayStation and PC. 

We're using third-party tools like PlayFab for the back end, networking, and matchmaking and all that. It was also essential for us to[...]make sure that we could make a solution there work. 

It's because of those things like that, that I think we, as a small team, actually could do this. I mean, another big part of it too is that as 30 people we can really remain efficient. And hey, we're making games, we love making games and we're just having an awesome time making what we're building and, multiplayer was just a natural progression for it. We all loved what we were doing and the more we got excited about it, the easier it is to kind of continue to expand.

So we're talking over Zoom right now, each in our home offices, because a global pandemic happened. What's it been like finishing up development and releasing a game from home? What's changed working on games this way, compared to your long years working in offices?

This has been unprecedented. We have now been working from home for over 14 weeks. And it's been during the most difficult part of development cycle which is that end cycle where you're really honing in on performance on your individual platforms and solving some of those toughest to solve bugs, where you really need to be at the office plugged into special hardware that needs like IP addresses specifically for that location. And here we are like, "alright, now we all got to go home, how are we going to make that work?" 

So for about a week, we were just scratching our heads: "I don't know how this is, I don't know if we're going to be able to make this happen." But we took one step at a time, we got up to maybe 30 percent efficiency by week two and 50 by week three, and then by after about four weeks, I think we're pretty much hitting on all cylinders again.

I'm real proud of the team to to see how they've kind of adapted to this new life that we're living right now and it seems like it's going to be quite a long time that we're going to be in the same situation. Through this we've actually been able to submit to certification for each one of the major platforms and pass through that and get ready for launch now. So it's crazy. This is definitely the most memorable dev cycle I've ever been through, and one I will never forget.

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