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Mixing movie magic and MMO design theory to create Aliens: Fireteam Elite

Cold Iron Studios' Craig Zinkievich and Creative Director Matt Highison discuss what it took to translate the film Aliens for the co-op survival shooter genre.

The impact of the Alien films on the world of video games is so large as to maybe be outsized. Its dialogue and visual references are so iconic, they creep into game design and game dialogue in all kinds of different ways.

But when it comes to games based directly on the films, it's only been recently that developers have been able to stretch their wings in the world originally birthed by Ridley Scott, Dan O'Bannon, and Ronald Shusett (to say nothing of H.R. Giger's overpowering visual design). Creative Assembly won critical acclaim with the release of Alien: Isolation, and now the team at Cold Iron Studios has gone after the "S" tacked on the franchise name with Aliens: Fireteam Elite

In Fireteam Elite, players take on the role of their own customized Colonial Marine, and join up in teams of three for a survival co-op adventure that builds on the popularity of games like Left 4 Dead. The game does a solid job marrying the film's skin-of-your-teeth survival story with an array of interesting Xenomorph types types and encounters that feel at home in this more relaxed, social genre.

With the game now out in the wild (and hunting you in the air ducts) studio co-founder Craig Zinkievich and Creative Director Matt Highison were down for a chat about Cold Iron Studios' Alien-focused inspiration, and how they built on years of experience in MMORPGs to translate one of the biggest Science Fiction films of the 1980s into a successful game.

This Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity

The Alien franchise feels like a touch franchise to crack in video games. You're trying to balance different experiences that come out of different movies, and you have this iconic monster that either has to be overpowered or underpowered depending on the experience. How did you balance how strong the Xenomorphs should be versus how much power you want players to feel in the fantasy?

What was your guiding star for making this game feel true to the movies that people are here to experience?

Zinkievich: A great question that has like 18 different complicated answers to it.

At its core, it's about going back to the movies and picking the fantasy that you want to have exist within the game. Ridley Scott's Alien is very much a horror movie, and Alien Isolation did a fantastic job of getting that kind of—mano a mano, Ripley against Xenomorph sort of feel to it.

For us, we were really excited because of our background and the games we like to play---we like to have those co-op online experiences. And for us that means you go to Aliens, the Colonial Marines, tons of Xenomorphs, tons of firefights. Cameron's movie really is an action film, so that was where we gravitated as gamers. As much as we loved Isolation and played that because we're huge fans o the franchise, we want to be Colonial Marines in this universe.

That was the initial guiding star. Picking those scenes in the movies where the Marines have their back against the wall and Xenomorphs just pouring in—that was our touch point within the franchise itself.

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The franchise is vast. We're not trying to make all the fantasies that exist, we're doing that small sliver and trying to make that fun.

The Xenomorphs drove us to actually expand the co-op survival shooter genre. You're demanded to make sure that these aren't just zombies running at you. They're crawling on the walls, they're coming out of the ceiling and jumping youf rom the side. They have more AI flavor to them, they have those personalities. So I think at the same time you could say the franchise is hard to work with, but it also give you the mandate to push the genre yuo9're working in, and make it more cooler, and more fun.

Highison: It's definitely "Aliens" with the underline. I'm sure Disney would be mad if we put that in the logo—the underlined "S." *laughs*

We get an opportunity to play with a lot of different Xenomorphs right? We don't just have to have the one that's the be-all end-all. If you start from the place of "how do we make this fun," but also we get to use the license to the fullest, we have all sorts of different types of Xenomorph horror in the game.

There's the drone, that gives the fantasy of being hunted and chsed throughout the level. Spitters give the fantasy of being attacked from anywhere. Praetorians are just a beast that's invincible to bullets, and eggs give us the horror of watching your step and slowing down, carefully looking around every corner.

We didn't have to pack all of that into one singular being. It really let us separate that out and make each part something fun for people to experience.

Zinkievich: Maybe we're stepping around the question about what the guiding star is, I think, because maybe we are it. We are huge fans of the franchise—the movies, the comics, the novels, the action figures, the RPG, the other video games. We loved it before we started working on it. The co-op survival shooter genre is something we as a studio, we play on lunch breaks.

Maybe the guiding star is us. We're making a game that we really want to play as Aliens fans and co-op survival shooter fans. That might be the egotistical answer, but as game developers, this is the game we want to play. Hopefully other people feel the same.

I think there's something important about having faith in more than the license—in having faith in the sort of people you're working with. And it goes beyond game design, doesn't it? When we're talking about improving quality of life at game studios, when we're talking about improving workplace conditions, that's always part of the answer. It's not just a brand, it's the people

Zinkievich: I think it's partially on the license, but I think it's also that it's a mistake to take a license that you yourself aren't a huge fan of, or your team. We had to make sure that the team was excited before we signed up to do it. Because in the end, fi you're not building something that you want, or something that you're in love with, it's going to suffer.

We've been lucky. I realize that most game developers don't get this opportunity to get to work on something you want to play and want to experience. But this is something that is pretty core to Geekdom, and I think a lot of game developers would be really excited to work on this.

What went well in adapting the franchise for the co-op survival shooter genre? It's one thing to have a single-player Alien game, it's another to have a game that balances networking, where you can't be sure of where players will be standing, etc.

Zinkievich: A lot of the founding team at Cold Iron Studios comes from MMORPG design. We have a long, long background of doing that. The MMOs we've worked on have been action based and pushed the limit of what you can do there. So I think when we came to co-op, and co-op being smaller than what we're used to, as opposed to being solo developers and going to co-op in terms of AI design.

It goes back to the experience that you want, right? It cannot be about individual AI considerations. If it was a fighting game where you had one enemy, and the player, that's very much individual AI.

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But once you get into the co-op survival shooter genre, it's the AI, it's the pathing, it's the whole encounter. The questions become "who is coming? What is coming? How many are coming at you? Where are they coming from?"

And then it's the room. It's the environment where that's happening to make sure all of it works well, and then allows for the emergent, cool, chaotic behavior that co-op survival shooters really thrive on.

I think my game design advice would be "don't get myopic—don't focus on one little part, like one individual AI." To be honest, whenever we did that—and there were times we got lost in that trap—it didn't matter. We would have the enemies be doing things in a very sterile situation and be like "oh this is awesome." And then you take it into the actual encounter, and it'd either be antithetical to what we were trying to do, or non-existent. You just wouldn't notice it.

Highison: There were so many points where we were looking at AI and enemy design, and making changes there to make the guns feel really good. And then we'd change the guns to make shooting the Xenomorphs really good.

Good design is really everything—it's adjusting all the ingredients in the stew at once, as you're eating it. You come up with a recipe that starts to click and all the other decisions start falling into place. And then we give it to our best players, they break it, and we redo it again, and balance it again. And again, and again.

Zinkievich: I think it's a bonus that we're a small team too. Being developers, you can't get insular. We don't have an AI team, we have somebody who's doing AI who's working really closely with the combat designer who sits right next to them.

Well, in a pre-Covid world… *laughs wryly*

Okay, I don't get a chance to be a film nerd this often, but I want to go back to the films. I've only really seen the movies as a film lover, not so much as a big nerd property you buy action figures for. The second Alien movie—Aliens—is this movie where the Colonial Marines, your protagonists, they're gung-ho and action heavy at the start of the movie, and then shit hits the fan so fast. The command structure fails, the most braggadocio characters are picked off…

Highison: They essentially lose their weaponry, they hand over all the ammo.

Yeah! And then there's Michael Biehn's character, who's quietly chill, supportive, and this example of non-toxic masculinity. He's the Colonial Marine who makes it through the movie. As fans and creators, did you see any opportunity to explore how the movie is also messing with conventions of power, and military power?

This is the most loaded question for a multiplayer game—you normally get this out of single-player games—but this is what the movie gives me as a viewer. Did that ever inspire you as a team?

Zinkievich: Well you mentioned Michael Biehn's character and I don't want to gloss over the big elephant in the room—Ripley! Ripley is the archetypical badass action star right? Smart, driven, doesn't make the wrong decisions. She puts herself out on the limb for everyone else around her and drags whoever is in the movie through it.

I think you can't undersell what that meant when the movie came out. She was great in Alien, but Aliens felt "oh my god, you can have female action stars." I think taking that cue, and taking the idea of belonging, and diversity, and inclusion, and making sure that exists in the franchise—that's been something that's been very strong throughout all of the movies. We were making sure that existed in the game too, that was something we identified early on.

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And just to clarify, you're referring to the character creator and the non-playable characters you meet?

Highison: Yeah, we're firm believers in letting players who you really want to play. There's some subtle features in there—you can change your physical appearance at any time for free back in the character hub. We hope that becomes super common with every RPG that has character customization.

We also don't lock you out from having a masculine voice with a feminine character, or feminine voice with a masculine character. It's not super face, but it's something you can find in there.

Our main handler, Herrera, voice by Melissa Medina, is just a fucking fantastic female character in our game, and we really tried to get that same feeling you get when Ripley takes on a leadership role in Aliens.

Weirdly, when somebody says out loud "a badass marine from Aliens," Ripley pops into my head. It's not just about her standing there with a gun, it's her presence she has through the entire film that lets her fill that role.

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