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Life In Vegas: Surreal's Alan Patmore On Open World Innovation

Surreal's open-world title This Is Vegas is a vital game for publisher Midway - and studio head Alan Patmore talks in-depth to Gamasutra on code sharing and the art of designing sandbox games.

As the gaming industry begins to test the boundaries of what subject matter works in a shifting marketplace, the Seattle-based, Midway-owned Surreal Software -- known for gritty horror action like The Suffering and fantasy like Drakan -- moves to This is Vegas, a permissive open-world game for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 that features activities from racing through gambling.

The title, which has the player trying to stop a powerful businessman from converting Las Vegas into a family-friendly resort, and is intended as the next evolution of the genre pioneered by Grand Theft Auto, is described as follows by Midway PR: "Where you go and what you do is your call whether counting cards, seducing dangerous women, cruising the strip or starting bar brawls, there’s lots of excitement on the way to the top."

Here, Alan Patmore, the studio head, discusses the design efforts required to pull those disparate ideas together, including its custom tools, as well as Midway's company-wide tech sharing solution (based on Unreal), and how that is affecting the development of this title and the roadmap it provides to future collaborations among the company's studios.

So you guys are working on This is Vegas -- what was your last project before that?

AP: It was The Suffering: Ties That Bind, which was the sequel to The Suffering.

So this is a bit of a departure. You went from a horror action series, to this This is Vegas concept, which is a little bit fresh, I think, for games. Obviously, there are certain influences in it, but I think it's tying things together in a different way.

AP: Definitely. One of the things that we looked at when we were first wrapping up with The Suffering is, we wanted to work on open worlds. But then we were looking at the games that were coming out, and they were all sort of derivatives of each other. It was crime games, you know?

And I love open world games, and thought there was a lot of space to explore. And then, around that point in time, I did a, I believe it was a DICE trip, down here, and had a pretty crazy Vegas experience, and kind of put two and two together. I'm going, "Wow, you could do an open world game, set in Vegas!" It's definitely not GTA; it really feels like Vegas, and captures the feeling of Vegas. And so that's what inspired us.

Vegas has become increasingly culturally relevant, I think, also. Over the past few years, there's more and more construction, more and more hotels, more and more glitz and glamour...

AP: Yeah, definitely. This game is definitely relevant, and that was one of the things that -- for us, if you look at what we've worked on, it is fantasy -- you know, where you're a chick riding a dragon; which was cool, but not necessarily really part of pop culture -- and The Suffering -- again, that was a little bit more tied to urban culture and things like that, but that's where we started heading.


Midway/Surreal Software's The Suffering: Ties That Bind

And looking at the core competencies of our studio, we really felt that we did a good job building worlds. You know, Drakan had a very rich world, with its own history, and its own characters -- same with The Suffering -- and we wanted to do that with Vegas. To really capture the hip, cool vibe of Vegas, but put our own slant on it, and create our own version of Vegas, with its own cast of characters. So that's what we did.

When you came up with the concept of this game, inspired by a trip to Vegas, and you said you were interested in increasing the cultural currency of the games you are working on, I guess is one way to put it... Is that some personal artistic drive for the studio, or is that also a marketing-derived angle?

AP: It's a little bit of both. I mean, as a developer, Midway has been really good in allowing us to work on new IP, and pretty much do what we want. I mean, no other publisher has as many new IPs coming out as Midway. And so they gave us pretty much free license to do what we want.

And so from as a studio standpoint, we really wanted to look at what we do well as a studio, but then also what's going to sell well. We want a monster hit like GTA. But then, you know, ultimately, there are so many interesting, cool things we could do in Vegas, and like you said earlier, it is pretty fresh. We are doing things no game has ever done before, and from an artistic standpoint, and from a game development standpoint, that's what you want to do. You want to strive for being innovative and cool.

So I think it's a good balance, you know; we have the hip, cool, relevant aspect of Vegas that is very appealing to a broad audience, but then we're doing some really cool, innovative things from a gameplay standpoint that are, quite frankly, going to challenge players; and hopefully people will embrace it, and enjoy them.

We're doing a lot of game testing to make sure this stuff is fun, but it's tough sometimes to go, "Hey, look, open world gamer guy, you're gonna party!" It's a new mechanic that no-one's ever done before.


I have to admit to a certain unfamiliarity with the game; certainly this was the first big presentation I've had on it. I see the game -- at least from what I saw -- there's a synthesis of a lot of things -- a picking and choosing of things that work, maybe. To an extent it reminded me of The Sims, in the dance party. It's a sort of social interaction gaming. But then, obviously, you have the fighting, which is, you know... A more core-gamer oriented thing. And there's, you know, obviously driving and stuff like that. Is it picking and choosing the different elements...

AP: Yeah, it's interesting you said The Sims element, because a lot of people have been kind of pulling that, OK, there's a little bit of The Sims in here; and conceptually there is, in terms of, you know, Vegas is social, partying is social.

But what we've had to do, and the challenge we've had, is how to translate that into an action experience. So dancing is high action, I mean you have to have timing, there's coordination, there's a lot of second-to-second gameplay where you are busting the controllers.

We based it off of Tony Hawk, where literally there is a series of combos based on the beat, that will get you your score. So, in its core essence, it's action, but it definitely has a social element, and feels social. So it's definitely been an interesting challenge to combine those elements, because at our core, it's an action game, an open world action game, but ultimately, what it really comes down to is player choice.

It's really up to the player, we've staged [the presentation] out in a very staged way, but if you played it, you could dance the entire time to get the party going, and just ignore the [enemy type] Cheesy Bachelors. Or you could just beat up Cheesy Bachelors, if that was your thing; if you just want to fight the whole time, you could do that. So it's really up to the player to choose how they want to play.


Midway/Surreal Software's This is Vegas

I've heard it said that open world require 30% more that goes into making one, compared to a traditional, linear game. So it's a big challenge. You're trying to raise the bar; you're trying to put in more and more different stuff in the game. How do you manage that? How do you get the right people on the right things? How do you prioritize what will go into the game?

AP: Well, the first thing we did is really figure out what the focus of the game was, and that's where we came up with the Vegas pyramid. And that was really kind of funny, that we showed this at a press event, but it's really what helps synthesize the vision for the team, and help keep us on target, and to help set the priorities of what we're going to work on.

One of the challenges with an open world game is that it's all about breadth. You want a large amount of breadth in the game. In Vegas, God, the possibilities are endless; when we were in blue sky design mode, it was like, "You can do everything!" because you literally can do everything you want in Vegas.

So we really had to narrow it down to the four core pillars of the game, which are: fighting, racing -- which includes driving, gambling, and partying. So, really, those are the core elements. And then from there, once we had those core pillars, we had a writer come up with the story... Actually, the story is incredible; it was Jay Pinkerton, who is the editor of Cracked magazine, who wrote the story. We really wanted to balance out those mechanics across the course of the narrative, and that's really what kept us on-target as well.

One of the interesting things we're finding is that, with open world games, you'll be playing, and you'll discover something new. Like, "Oh, we didn't intend for this to happen in the game, but it's fun, and cool, so how do we support it?" And that's where you start getting, I think, into the 30%, and that's really the magic of open world games; how those four pillars of your game interact, and how players can use it as a tool in this simulated space to create emerging gameplay.

And that's something that we really want the players to be able to do in Vegas. We literally want you to be able to pick up the controller and just screw around; just mess around, and not have to do the narrative if you didn't want to. And that was one of the appealing things when I first started playing GTA.

I think it took me maybe two or three weeks to get to the narrative, because I was literally just messing around in the world for so much. So we really want to support that, and reward the player for doing that.


It's interesting you said that the four pillars are the gambling, racing, fighting, and partying. It's like one of these things doesn't quite fit, right? And so it seems a bit risky.

AP: Definitely. You know, one of the things that we have actively worked on is how to make these disparate features work together. And, you know, how do you make a fight in a party work? So that's where we introduce the Cheesy Bachelors.

And the interesting thing is, you can get into a situation where you miss a punch and you punch somebody else, and he gets pissed off at you, punches, he misses, hits a Cheesy Bachelor, and all the sudden a bar-room brawl starts, and that still affects the party, and still achieves your goals because it's getting rid of the Cheesy Bachelors. So, I mean, there's different ways to poke the sim.

So it's figuring out unique ways to have these different pillars interact. And then it's also putting a very distinctly Vegas wrapper on them; so you can have carjacking missions that are not in the Grand Theft wrapper, you know, and you put a Vegas wrapper around those, where you have to commandeer a car to go rescue somebody. You know, that sort of thing. So a lot of it is that the tone, style, and writing helps us integrate those features.

One thing that I thought was interesting as you were giving your presentation -- and I can't remember exactly what you were referring to, but you said, "This is one of the grindable parts of the game." And I thought, "That's an MMO term," or an RPG term, anyway. How do these traditional design ideas filter down into this non-traditional wrapper?

AP: Right. Well, it's interesting, because RPGs really, in a lot of ways, were the first open world games. They had large open worlds, non-linear mission structure, ability for the player to cruise around, and yeah, as time went on, they really became about the stats and all that sort of stuff, but some of the core fundamentals -- you know, being able to reward the player for exploring.

That was something that, with Drakan, we have a really large open world, and we reward the player with side-missions and things like that, and ultimately that was a light RPG.


Psygnosis/Surreal Software's Drakan: Order of the Flame

So we're taking some of those things that we've learned from that large, non-linear mission structure, and applying them to this open world -- you know, and also just looking at other open world games. You're building this huge, beautiful world for the player to play in, and we want to reward them for exploring, and for doing cool things in the environment.

So that's where the gigs come in. And, again, they're repeatable, grindable, they allow you to earn reputation within the various communities, you unlock rewards, new locations, new missions, that sort of stuff; and then also they're just fun.

I mean, we have -- just to give you an example of one of the gigs we have -- it starts out as a vigilante game. So you have to go, and there's a series of muggings along the strip, so you have to find them, and take out muggers, and you get paid two hundred bucks, and you get five reputation points within this certain suit.

The next level of that mission is to become a bounty hunter, where you're actually chasing down hardened criminals. Eventually, through the series, you become Vegas Man, who is basically a crime-fighting superhero who's cruisin' around, like, "I'm Vegas Man!" He's got super powers, so to speak, and is taking out crimes. So we're doing lots of fun, cool stuff like that, and it's all to reward the player for playing in the open world.


Open world games have so much content, but do you ever worry that you're working on this content that no one's going to see, necessarily? Someone doesn't go all the way down that tree?

AP: Yeah. A large part of working on an open world game is making sure that you have enough experiential density at all areas. And with This is Vegas, it's not such a huge geographical location that it's unmanageable. You will be able to explore it in a couple hours, in terms of driving back and forth, and things like that.

Now, obviously, one of the unique features that we have is really detailed interiors, and big interiors; about 40% of the game takes place inside. So there's tons of areas to explore... But yeah, that's always the risk with open world games; that's why you have to make it fun and engaging enough that people continue to play.

But one of the fears of open world games is, in some of the failures of open world games, that they don't have the level of experiential density necessary to reward the player for going around the world and exploring. And that's where, again, to tie it back to the gigs, where the gigs are all over town.

And we've also made it a very big point for design, to make sure that the missions were covering -- we literally have coverage graphs all over the map, how much time you spend in any given area, and when. So it's all paced so that you're going from location to location, and really utilizing the game environment.

It's literally a tool that we've used behind the scenes, so that we can tell how people will play the game, basically, so we can tune the missions to make sure people are using the world appropriately. It's completely transparent to the player.

The toolset that you're using to design the game, you have this tool, so that when someone's designing that mission tree, it will encourage them to place the missions in different parts?

AP: Yeah, exactly. So, when the designer is literally placing the missions, first we make up, "OK, we don't really go to the Fremont area, you know, for the first two hours of the game, so let's put a vigilante gig there that's going to reward the players for exploring that area."

And then, within the vigilante gig, we may go, "OK, in this area, no one's really hitting that for another two hours, if people played linearly through the game, so let's reward the player from that." So you're really making sure that players are hitting all locales within the open world, no matter how they play; whether it's just going off the rails, doing gigs, which again are optional missions, or doing the narrative.

It is a challenge, right? And it's not just a challenge creatively; the resources you spend on making this game are deeply relevant to the company, and to your publisher, so you don't want to waste those resources. Games are expensive to make; the idea of wasting significant effort would be kind of terrifying.

AP: Yeah. We're really trying to use the terrain we've created. And not only is it a cost issue, it's even a creative issue. To have an art team that has spent four months, or whatever it is, to build, say, a casino, and if no one's going to go in there, no one's going to use it, you know, why did we do that? And then they get all bent out of shape because we're not using that.

And again, that's just bad design, so it's really up to the design team to make sure that the distribution of activities is properly set up. And again, it comes all down to experiential density, and making sure there's enough to do at any given area, to reward the player for going to that place.

With open world games, there's a certain -- and I'm not saying this is the case with your game, but there's a certain "jack of all trades, master of none" when you come to the play mechanics. How do you combat that?

AP: Well, it is challenging. Because there's basically open world games which, the way I look at it is "seeing the forest, not the tree," and then there are games, you know, very cinematic games like Gears of War, for example, where you see a very small field of view, you're seeing what the designers want to show you.

Great game experience, but they're two totally different game experiences, and I think the consumers are starting to figure that out; that the game experiences I get with GTA or Saints Row are much more of a breadth experience, and people's expectations are not going to be fighting game level of mechanics.

Now it's interesting because we've actually gone pretty deep in a lot of our mechanics -- probably deeper than other open world games -- and we did that just more to support the Vegas vibe, and, quite frankly, I think you can go deeper.

You don't need just to have an open world game with just one kick or one punch, you can have a more fun, robust combat system; especially when combat's such a pivotal part to these open world games. So it's really just a balancing act, just like the size of the world is balancing your resources in how deep you want to go on certain mechanics, and how important those mechanics are in the open world.


I was talking to Matt about the shared tech, and obviously the investment that Midway has put into this shared tech -- which is built around Unreal. What do you think is the advantage of that, for your studio?

AP: It actually has had huge advantages for our studios. Unreal gave us a great head start. It allowed us to start prototyping, and building next-gen content really early. As a matter of fact, some of the casinos that are in the game were built three years ago, when we were first speccing it out; so the art team can jump right in.

Now, obviously, since we're an open world game, we had to heavily modify the engine. We had to add streaming, for large environments, and actually the AI system, the nav meshes for character pathfinding, and that kind of stuff.

We had our own systems to support open world, but since it was a shared technology effort, we gained from [Midway's Newcastle, England studio] -- we got a lot of their driving physics.

And it's cool, because you can pull what you want. So, just most recently, we got, basically, their attack systems. Ours are not nearly as deep in car combat as they are, but they had some really cool physics systems, on how you bounce off objects, and just make driving feel really good. We also had a bunch of their designers tune our cars.

Really.

AP: Yeah. The cool thing about the shared tech initiative is that you're all working on the same technology platform, so it's very easy to share resources. So we've had team members help out other projects -- Stranglehold -- and then we've had team members from other projects help us out.

And they can just dive right in, and we're all using the same stuff, so they know how to tweak the physics parameters. And yeah, each game has its own particular weirdnesses, but it's really easy to get an advantage from other people in sharing resources.

I'm interested to hear that about that process with Newcastle. Because they're deep in development in their game, and you're shipping this fall, so... It seems it's too altruistic to believe.

AP: There's always grumblings here and there, but they get something out of it. We worked on the streaming system, so we're the ones who basically built the streaming system that allows them to stream their beautiful world.

So they got that, and it's just sort of a trade-off, and we strategically figured out who's going to do what; we had expertise in streaming, from The Suffering, and Drakan, so we were the guys that were tagged to do the streaming tech.

But, overall, it has really had an advantage. And I'm looking at the next round of games, and that's really where we're going to start paying off in dividends. I mean the ability to pull resources, and to use tech from all the different projects, is just going to give us a tremendous head start.

You worked more on the streaming, and they did more of the car physics and car combat. When you're planning the next slate of Midway games, are you talking to different studios? "You're focusing on this element of your game, and we're planning to have an exchange."

AP: Well right now we've gone from tech sharing, to everyone's finishing their games off, and we haven't really, we're not focused on the next round of games. But we are going to meet back up once we get these games taken care of, and we'll start going through that process again.

You guys all shipping --

AP: We're shipping near each other.

Then you'll have meetings?

AP: And go, "OK, we need to make improvements on the streaming system; Surreal, why don't you guys do that." Or, "We need to make some improvements on the vehicle damage system -- or whatever it may be -- hey, Newcastle, you're good at that..." So it really goes to the core competencies of the studio; really leveraging off that.

And the cool part is, when you have a shared studio approach like that, not only do you get the core competencies of your individual studio, if you're a multi-project studio, but you get the strengths of the other studios. So I can go to Brian Eddy and go, "Hey, the way you do damage in Stranglehold, that was cool! Let's take it from your game; show us how to use it, and how can we make it better?" That sort of thing.

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