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On The Brink Of Change

Splash Damage CEO Paul Wedgewood discusses the creative drive behind Brink and explains its execution -- sharing the secrets of the team's drive to take the best elements of multiplayer cooperative team shooters and make them work for today's console gamers.

[Splash Damage CEO Paul Wedgewood discusses the creative drive behind Brink and explains its execution -- sharing the secrets of the team's drive to take the best elements of multiplayer cooperative team shooters and make them work for today's console gamers.]

Splash Damage was originally founded by multiplayer-focused mod makers, and has been trying to find a way to turn the tight, cooperative gameplay of hardcore PC games of the '90s into polished, appealing, accessible experience for the console shooter fans of today.

The company's last attempt was Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, which featured a great deal of interesting design aimed at making team play simpler and more accessible for the player while maintaining the integrity of what it had to offer. However, that game failed to reach its potential with console gamers.

Now, the team is back with a more ambitious project with the online shooter Brink. Having hired developers who have strong backgrounds in the single player space and blended them with more recruits from the PC mod scene, the the studio blends these two sensibilities in the game. It's a single and multiplayer game wrapped into one; it's a unique experience with the DNA of a multiplayer-focused shooter.

In this interview, Splash Damage CEO Paul Wedgewood explains the thought processes behind Brink, and how the team worked to realize them in a way that would be polished and enjoyable for today's console shooter fans.

He talks about what's wrong with today's genre classifications, and also dives into how creating an experience that encourages good behavior in players will benefit the game's audience.

The big, first thing that we heard about this game was the intent to make single-player and multiplayer bleed seamlessly in and out of one another. The mission I played -- and I don't know how representative this is of the game -- is a team-based mission. I can see how easily people could drop in and out of it in co-op. Is that essentially how the campaign runs?

Paul Wedgewood: I suppose, to a degree. Without an internet connection, you can play through the entire game like a traditional linear single-player shooter. You don't ever have to complete any objectives; the AI will do it for you. You can just run and gun and watch the cinematics and pay attention to the story and treat it that way.

But if you want to, you can start leveling up and buying new abilities and tools and items and gadgets, playing through the challenges and unlocking loads of weapons and weapon modifications, upgrading your outfit and then playing cooperatively because you've got something to show off and play it that way.

Generally, I think when people play cooperatively they don't tend to play the whole game from start to finish. They'll play this mission or that mission -- their favorite moments from the game.

For us, one really important thing was that the story had to work if you play it linearly all the way through, if you play any single mission on its own, if you play the missions completely out of order, and if you completely ignore them; the environment should still have an obvious and apparent back story and be unique and distinct from every other mission such that, as the map's loading, it acts as a mnemonic that immediately reminds you what you had fun doing the last time you played because that might be two or three weeks ago.

When Container City loads, nothing else looks like Container City; you're like, "Oh! This is the map where I blew up the gate and I did this, and I know this wicked camping spot that I go to and then I camped their command post!"

Those player stories that emerge in an almost metatextual postmodernist way from that arching narrative into player stories -- that comes from (I know it's un-vogue to call it that) emergent gameplay. It's not repeatable. Your game is never going to be anything like my game. It doesn't matter if we play the same combat roles at the same times on the same levels; we're going to have different experiences.

It's that combination of fixed, reliable, linear objectives that are always the same and then all of those secondary objectives that change depending upon what everyone else is doing and the waves of combat and the choke points and how that kind of tug-of-war gameplay experience exists, which is why games like American football and soccer are so watchable by spectators. It's the same field; it's the same rules every single time they play, but no game you watch is ever the same.

The thing that struck me is that it feels like a multiplayer game when you're playing the single player game -- at least the level I did.

PW: Sure; if we put you on a minecart and play the same cinematics, it would feel more like a traditional single player game. But, to me, the definition of single player is simply a game that you can have fun playing on your own. It's the important thing that defines single-player gaming. To be single player doesn't mean you have to look and feel and breathe like every other linear, single player shooter.

I think we're quite proud of the fact that our investment is in interactivity and emergent gameplay, not in orchestrated, scripted, canned cinematics that you have no impact on and can't change and always happen and occur in exactly the same way. That type of gaming -- which I love, and I enjoy playing single-player games of that type for that very specific experience -- cannot be taken easily into a cooperative world or a versus world because adding humans into your AI single-player game is a real challenge. It's not naturally balanced that way.

A better comparison is to think of something like a racing game. With the racing genre, you can have great fun playing on your own, and you can have great fun playing against other people. Obviously, the story mode -- the campaign mode -- is a lot lighter than a traditional story-driven game. We try to be somewhere mid-point.


How do you find the balance in what you're doing?

PW: Yeah, it's different; absolutely. I think what's important is: is it fun, and does it promote loads of cool emotions? Is it really enjoyable to do? We know, from all of the experiences that we've had play-testing the game and getting other people to play the game and watching other people playing stuff, that it's just as much fun to play on your own as it is to play cooperatively or in versus mode.

Now, the thing is, RPGs don't feel like big action cinema, and yet people have really great fun playing them. RTSes don't feel like action cinema, but they're great fun to play on your own against the AI.

If you think about racing games... Most genres don't bother with that stuff. It really just seems to be third-person action adventures and shooters that are stuck in the mold of constant constraint and removal of player interactivity.

It seems like it's ever edging towards less and less interactivity and more and more on a rail and minecart stuff. It's certainly a good route if what you want to do is give somebody an experience once for nine hours where they sit on their sofa, and that's what they do.

But if you think about the value proposition of a game like Brink, where we're confident that anyone could have fun playing it for a hundred hours, it ends up being like forty pence an hour for entertainment, which just seems like such a better deal for kids over the age of sixteen or whatever the rating turns out.

I don't think Borderlands or Left 4 Dead worry about that stuff; there are plenty of games that don't worry about that anymore.

Absolutely not, but if you look at how Call of Duty and Halo approach it, they do a campaign and then a multiplayer mode. Both are robust, but they're completely divorced.

PW: Right. I think that the thing for us -- because our game is a class-based, objective-oriented, coordinated team play style game -- to play a single-player game for eight, 10, or 12 hours and then start again from the beginning, playing a game where suddenly you're being outflanked and getting headshot, and you don't have any weapons and all of those skills that you were taught in single-player are no longer valid or relevant, it just wouldn't work.

For us, it's really important that, if somebody spent eight to 10 hours playing the game, they are good at the game; if they play cooperatively, they are still good at the game; if they play versus mode, they are still good at the game -- which I think is true of a racing game or a real-time strategy game or anything else, providing the AI is reasonable and that what you've been playing against is a reasonable challenge.

Some of the funniest things, I think, happen when you watch players doing things that are unexpected, and there's this just fantastic online world for people to explore who are often put off by that initial super-hardcore elitist experience when they go online and play online. I think they would not feel this if they were given the correct introduction; if their single-player game was the game that they were going to play when they go online. Also, MMOs don't bother -- so that's MMOs, RPGs, RTSes, racing games... So they're the minority, I think.

It's very true.

PW: I don't think Borderlands worried too much about it, either.

Not at all, to their great success.

PW: You definitely need to be confident in your execution. I think if you feel like you have to play to that market and that's the thing that you are trying to promote, then you wouldn't succeed.

It seems like it's kind of an extension of some of the ideas that went into Quake Wars, and some of it is fresh. I remember when I saw Quake Wars; I was pretty impressed with the attempts to make team play really seamless. It seems like you're kind of going further with that with this.

PW: Right, and to try and make it more accessible, which might not be obvious from your play session. One of the things that we're doing [is] obviously, blurring the lines between single-player, cooperative, and versus mode... [this] means that the player [who] has made an investment in playing without an internet connection, but has been developing a character and investing time in them... Providing the co-op game is the same game, all of those experiences and all of those skills that they've learned immediately translate, with no need for any changes to cooperative play.

When they do choose to go online and play cooperatively, they don't feel like a newbie; they don't feel like they're being insulted by everyone around them. And because they're playing against AI, there really isn't anybody that you have to be vengeful towards; you can just have fun continuing to develop and advance your character.

The incredible thing we've found is that, when you then play versus, it just becomes really fun because of the kind of tactical, sporty challenge of it rather than... 'Cause the game isn't really about vengefully, continuously headshotting the same person over and over again. In fact, one of the things that we reward least in the game is just straight-out kills.

The game, in essence, bribes you whenever you do something that makes the game more fun for somebody else. If you're giving out ammunition, health, buffing people's weapons, laying down defense turrets, repairing the crane, escorting the defuser robot -- whenever you're doing things that make the game more fun for other people, that's when we give you the most experience points.

Those experience points unlock from an array of dozens of cool gadgets and items and tools and weapons and things that then make the game even more fun and add more depth; but the curve is much less steep than it was within Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, which, as everybody knows, was one of the most inaccessible games. I mean, I designed it! (Laughs) I remember.


I thought there were definitely a few nods towards accessibility -- rather intelligent concepts about accessibility.

PW: There's this kind of buzz, this satisfaction, that comes from coordinated team play -- not just from first-person shooters online, but from soccer and football and sports. I'm sure in the armed forces they feel exactly the same thing; and racing teams and relay teams and the Olympics and all of those things.

Mostly that buzz comes from working out plays in advance with your team and then it working out A-Team style when you try to do the thing that you're trying to pull off. In the best and most tense moments, it's almost heist-like, because of the failings along the way and the way you react to those things; it all feels like you had a plan the whole way along.

What we're trying to do with the new mission system in Brink -- and it seems egotistical to compare it to such lofty things as the heist genre -- but what we've tried to do with Brink is just create a dynamic mission system that intelligently understands the best thing that you could be doing at any given time.

It takes the pain away from worrying that you're not doing something that's contributing. If you just hit up with the D-pad once, it takes into account your combat role, the case on the battlefield, the states for the objectives, and what your teammates are doing, and gives you something you could be doing to contribute.

Okay, it gives you suggestions, which is something I remember very clearly from...

PW: ...from ET: QW. But the difference with Brink is that it then provides four or five other options, so it becomes an active system, and not a passive one, because, when you say, "I'm going to go do this thing," it's also a contextual communication system that lets your teammates know that that's the thing that you're now going to focus on. It never just gives you missions without your say-so, without your agreeing.

In doing that, it means that an entire team can communicate using a relatively simple input device, an analog controller, without using VOIP. For strangers playing together, VOIP seems to be the biggest issue; everybody's had that experience in going online and some racist 14 year-old is telling you your girlfriend weighs four-hundred pounds before he headshots you five times, teabags you five times, and then ragequits. That's the experience people have. We want you to be able to realize how much fun you can have with like-minded team people.

We found -- through essentially the big social experiment that is PAX, QuakeCon, E3, and everything else -- that, when gamers turn up and play, even though you've got 16 complete strangers playing together, they just coordinate; they really work together because the mission system takes away the punishment that's normally associated with not knowing what you're doing. I think that's the idea.

It's the same reason why we worked so hard on the SMART system. It's true that shooters have always suffered from these kinds of artificially frustrating constraints that center on bumping into tables and chairs and walls that are out of your view height -- in essence we're punishing you for a lack of user interface; you can't see your legs.

So what SMART tries to do is, rather than reward you for pulling off mashing six-button combos that get you over a wall and fly you through a table, we just think, "Well, in real life you wouldn't have to put that much thought into running over this chair." What we should try to do is reward you for moving and shooting. So the SMART button just tries to anticipate what it is that you're trying to do.

It's very intuitive once you get used to the concept of it. You look up, and you can mantle over a container. If you look down at a table, you'll slide underneath. If you look up as you sprint towards the table, you'll vault and slide across the top. If you walk towards it and hit the SMART button, you'll step up onto it.

It just does the thing that you expect, but since it's entirely procedural it never starts a canned animation. You can interrupt it at any point and continue to look around, shoot, reload your weapons, and do other things. So if I come sprinting down this corridor and go into a slide and turn left, I can be firing as I slide 'round the corner. This suddenly opens up a whole bunch of tactical possibilities -- and of course creates complete hell for the level designers.

I was about to ask -- did it influence level design?

PW: Oh, massively. Yeah. You have all the standard things like kill boxes and choke points and out-flanking positions and everything else, but now, because we have three body types -- we have the heavy guy who can carry half a dozen minigun-sized weapons that he fires from the hip, we have the medium body type who can do basic parkour moves, and we have the skinny body type who can't carry anything but submachine guns and pistols but can wall-hop and mantle and vault faster and sprint faster than everybody else.

So the level design is motivated by saying that they have these three advantages and disadvantages based on body type; there needs to be fun associated with that. There needs to be a route that the skinny guy can go where the other guy can't go.

All of our maps have multiple routes built in that you can discover as you play for weeks or months to your tactical advantage, and it's brilliant because, previously, if you got killed by somebody from the other side of a battlefield and you're all just on this big open area like ET: QW, you're like, "Okay, he's just a brilliant shot." But now, if you get killed by someone who drops a Molotov cocktail on your head from a bird's nest, it's like, "How the hell did he get up there?!" He spent some time thinking about playing that map and practicing stuff.

So what we did was we hired a brilliant lead level designer called Neil Alphonso. He was the lead level designer on Killzone 2, and he heads our level design team -- in fact, he's our lead designer now, so he's responsible for the gameplay scripters and designers as well. His approach was very similar to the one that we wanted for Brink anyway, because he was already capable of producing an environment that had the level of detail that we wanted; we just wanted to remove the need for tons of enemies and scripting mechanics to support movement through that environment so that it becomes more natural.

If I look at a table or a chair or a low wall -- 'Cause you know what it's like. You're a super soldier and run up to a four-foot high wall that you can't get over because the level designer didn't put an entity there. That obviously wasn't going to work for Brink. So Brink started out having a system that dynamically traced the environment, determining all of the potential routes. Now, of course, we bake it all in, and we can't place and effectively render out all of those routes; but it's still fundamentally the same system. Everything mathematically possible is there for the player to do.


With level design, were the routes all design, or did you do it through playtesting?

PW: I think you always start with a plan that covers most of the things that you need because the level designers are so experienced at what they do. I mean, the guys that we have on the project, like Dave Johnston, who we hired was well-known.

He did de_dust, which you might have heard of with Counter-Strike -- one of the most famous third-party maps in the world. Jamie [Manson], one of our recent level designers, joined us a year or two ago and was a very well-known TF2 community mapper, and most of us come from Quake III Fortress's mod makers, anyway. So we generally have a good eye for people who know good level design.

We're obsessed with spawn times and routes and distances and times; we test those and test those and test those, and a hell of a lot of thought goes into how long it takes you to travel on foot from one spawn to another location compared to the other team.

We're lucky because of the way that we have this spawn wave system that we've inherited really from the Return to Castle Wolfenstein days; we have the same mechanic for asymmetrical maps, which is very helpful.

Then, what we do though in the process is we'll do a block-out, like a low-polygon version of the map, which is scale-wise represented in a kind of silhouette form of what you'd like to see. The level designers will get that to the point where it's really good fun before we commit to it artistically.

Then the concept artist will paint over concepts; that will then be blocked out in a higher level of detail by our level designers because sometimes there's context that will have subtle changes to routes.

If you take Security Tower, for example, the front entrance to that area -- this is kind of a transit route for workers going in and out twice a day; it's really demeaning, the whole process. So the concept artist felt like it needed to feel like a cattle grid formation, not just all queuing and going straight in. It's not a rock concert; it needs to feel like people are not trusted.

Obviously, this had a gameplay impact, so what the level designers do in those situations is they then do a higher-polygon block-out of the concept-art version, play-test it again excessively -- we always get the multiplayer up before we've got...

Is that you guys testing it at work -- just the developers?

PW: Yeah, well we have our own, at Splash Damage -- we have a production testing team of about nine guys, as well, who have been full-time with us pretty much since the beginning. We've had an eight-man production team since the day we started. Then, once we're confident that's looking pretty good, the concept artist makes some tweaks to the concept art, and then it will go to an environment team that will now model in high-poly but still gray assets -- the scale version of everything that's being made.

We'll test that for gameplay, and if it's still really good fun -- because, you know, an artist might argue that, you know, there really should be a staircase; but it doesn't go anywhere, and it gives us a route we didn't want. Sometimes for artistic integrity, you have to make these kinds of sacrifices. You have to test. Can you still shoot? Do you still have visibility on a choke point?

Ultimately, it comes down to movement, concealment, cover, and fortification, the key things you really have to give a lot of thought to. So basically we go through that process; then, having now finally got a scale, high-poly version of the entire environment in black and white, we start doing the real modeling, the texturing, the lighting, the atmosphere, special effects, environment audio, and everything else.

How long does it take to take a map from start to finish?

PW: The maps that are in the game today... All of them existed in some form more than two years ago, so they all exist for a good couple of years. I think that's what tends to lead to really well-balanced maps. When you get to playtesting for not months, but at least a year or two, that's when you start to see problems.

Our fan base is going to play them for years. Wolfenstein Enemy Territory was released seven or eight years ago, but is still in the top three multiplayer shooters. It's the same six maps we did in 2003, and they've completed 15 million downloads and half a billion matches played online.

If you create a game that has great depth and good mod-making and community support -- which Wolfenstein Enemy Territory has really benefited from, particularly with tournament rules put together by the community -- the maps are only going to survive if they are also very solid and, particularly with our style of gameplay, with asymmetrical maps where the attacking team has completely different lengths and routes and distances than the defending team, that's quite a challenge.

Now, of course, with Brink we have persistent character advancement, so potentially we have a level 20 character playing against a level 1 character, and that still has to work, as well. It ends up being heuristics as much as logic; just flat-out denial and argument and passion and fights and everything.

It is interesting that you felt confident to bring on someone from Killzone, which is much in the mode of the cinematic games you talked about earlier.

PW: Oh! Our creative director is the lead game designer from Fable II! Our art director did Rainbow Six: Vegas and Prince of Persia. Our lead character artist is the guy who did Shepard and the aliens in Mass Effect. There's just this real broad range of people.

I think what Brink has is... I don't think anybody playing it would confuse it with a non-high-quality blockbuster type game because, in terms of the quality of the cinematics, the special effects, the audio, the soundtrack, and everything else, it has that feel. It just is simultaneously is also something that you can play for hundreds of hours -- and that, I think, is quite a rare combination. I think the things that are most interactive, that offer the most emergent gameplay, can often be quite low-fi because of the nature of the depth of their execution.


To return to an earlier thread, from a very nitty-gritty design perspective, you talk about giving people XP to encourage actions that are not just shooting people in the face. I want to talk about that; is that the primary way in which you incentivize these things?

PW: It sounds like that, but it's really the incidental benefit. The truth is, if you want to create a game that people can play for weeks or months, you need a massive amount of depth -- not width, but just actual depth to the game.

If you were to provide all of those things to the player on day one, they would be overwhelmed and frustrated, and they would feel like they didn't understand the route to fun. One of the great things about having an XP system is that, in essence, you reward player competence with that complexity or better reward playing skill with more fun stuff to do.

If we bribe players to do things that make the game more fun for other players with cool stuff that makes the game more fun for them, we know from experience -- and we've proved this on the floors of GamesCon in Cologne and PAX in Seattle and QuakeCon in Dallas -- that fans will queue for three or four hours and play in big groups of strangers and whoop and cheer and really enjoy themselves because it's just a different experience than the all-out, selfish, "How many people can I kill in thirty seconds?" mode of play that multiplayer shooters are known for.

To go back to your point about "could it be judged as appropriate for a single-player game," I think you could levy the argument for it not correctly being a proper multiplayer shooter in the true sense of the word, because it's not a hardcore, elitist, kick everyone's ass and take names and make racist comments over VOIP multiplayer shooter either.

By that definition, it doesn't appropriately qualify, and maybe it's just time we stopped worrying about genres. All any of these things are, really, is just different distances of camera from your avatar, you know? That's really all there is. You're either looking through their eyes or over the shoulder or a bit further back or way up as the god game looking down at the planet's surface. They're just different levels of immersion. For us, we love first-person shooters because we find them to be really, really immersive. But I definitely don't worry about what type of game it is.

I think that, ultimately, if you're truly following creative instincts, then you worry more about making a game that's creatively empowering.

PW: Right, and here's the interesting thing: you can play the game today as an engineer and not fire a single shot and just do all of the things that most benefit your team and come on top of the scoreboard. You don't have to be the guy who pulls off wicked mid-air headshots to succeed in the game. That's not to say you won't have fun doing that; we are obsessed with guns, as you can tell!

We have our lead writer who, day one at the office, took us to the Imperial War Museum nine years ago; we've been obsessed with weapons ever since. We sourced references for our audio by renting a quarry in Nevada and around a hundred semi-automatic weapons, set up twenty-one microphones, and just recorded them for two days. So it's a big deal for us, the gun thing; but it isn't the most important thing when you have fun.

You were talking about encouraging positive actions and nonviolent actions. Obviously, it's a shooter, but I don't mean that from an ideological perspective, just in terms of how you want to encourage certain kinds of interactions.

PW: Right. It's a combat game, and impeding the progress of your enemy is one of the ways you can improve the progress of your team, but playing selfishly doesn't benefit anyone. If you think about sniping as a general idea, on any given server only one person is having fun sniping. Sniping isn't a great gameplay mechanic for encouraging people to have fun. However, a medic, who's running around shooting and invoking combat but also healing and reviving his teammates, is creating a fun, less frustrating game for everyone that's playing, and they're enjoying their experience.

The guy who's running around giving everyone ammunition; the engineer who's giving people Kevlar armor upgrades and buffing their weapons and laying down defense turrets that defend them so they can pincer players and stuff. There is definitely a buzz, a satisfaction that comes from coordinated team-play that cannot be achieved in a deathmatch server or a team deathmatch server or even a very basic, objective-driven team deathmatch server.

The reason I think this is true is because, even if I go back to my clan days -- I've played Team Fortress for two years at tournament level; I've played team deathmatch at tournament level; I've played CTF at tournament level. So I've had that experience for years and years and years, and I know what the pros and cons are at those different experiences.

I think that the game that doesn't suspend your belief too often, that does everything it can to immerse you by having an environment with a solid backstory that you can believe in, a cinematic that gets you in the mood and introduces you to the theme, a series of objectives that feel realistic that you could actually be pursuing and doing -- all of these non-gameisms help you immerse yourself and have fun playing the game, but, ultimately, if it's still not fun to do something fantastical, then you're not going to have any fun, right? That's where you still come to have fun to shoot people in the face.

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