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Q&A: Behind the new open-ended design of Wolfenstein: Youngblood

Wolfenstein: Youngblood executive producer Jerk Gustafsson explains how MachineGames teamed up with Arkane Studios to create a co-op Wolfenstein experience.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

July 26, 2019

10 Min Read

This week, MachineGames and Arkane Studios launched a pair of new Nazi-hunting slaughterfests. In VR, the pair teamed up to make Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot, and on traditional platforms, they've launched Wolfenstein: Youngblood, a co-op first-person-shooter that puts players in the shoes of BJ and Anya Blaskowicz's twin daughters. 

Casting a pair of teenage heroes and setting up a two-player story means the game is a less solemn affair than its predecessors, but it also means everything from the gunplay to the levels has been recreated and re-imagined to be more cooperative and more replayable. 

To learn more about how MachineGames and Arkane took on the task of reinventing Wolfenstein for a co-op playstyle, we reached out to executive producer Jerk Gustafsson. 

What’s been the foundation for building “a more open-ended Wolfenstein?"

A lot of it has to do with the decision to make Youngblood a cooperative experience as that has forced us to think in a much more non-linear fashion, not only when designing gameplay and levels, but also how we approach the game narrative. 
The foundation was however laid a few years earlier when we began development of New Colossus. One of my main “we should’ve done that differently” from the New Order development was that we didn’t allow players to revisit locations for completion (to find missed secrets and collectibles etc.) without having to restart and play through the game from the beginning.

This led me to adding the “complete the game within the game” statement to the key focus areas of New Colossus game design. But this came with a price, and a rather costly one too, as our primary focus continued to be on story and the campaign that guided our player through that narrative. Everything related to “complete the game within the game” became secondary and we ended up with scope cuts that forced us to make design decisions that were more focused on timesaving than good user experiences.
A good example is the wheelchair ride at the very beginning of the game. In the fiction, this map was part of the submarine hub, but there was no way we could make it fit into memory (to easily allow for players to revisit the area for missed collectibles) and at the same time we couldn’t justify the work of adding a separate loading into the map as there was basically nothing for players to do there (re-adding Nazis for combat wouldn’t have made sense in this specific area anyway).

The design solution to this, to avoid removing collectibles altogether from the wheelchair ride, was to double-up on those collectibles inside the vault of the submarine so that players at least could go there to find their missed out collectibles and “complete the game within the game.” This is just a small example, but all the problems we encountered with the revisited location design shows a lot of the complexities of the business we’re in - the solution to one of the problems we had with New Order basically became one of the main concerns when looking at New Colossus post-mortem.
Even if the ability to revisit locations provided value to the game, we still had to ask ourselves if it was worth the work required or if it would have been better to put all of our efforts into the campaign for a more polished and potentially even longer core experience, especially considering the fact that the majority of our players only experience that part anyway.

Youngblood draws a lot of learnings from this and we have added systems to the game that not only accommodate collaboration between players, but also gives players the freedom to tackle missions in any order they want. And this time both the game and the narrative design supports that freedom.
The open-ended structure is part of the core experience of Wolfenstein: Youngblood and yes, you can “complete the game within the game”.

You’ve described Youngblood as having a shorter production window than the last two Wolfenstein games, how have you navigated designing co-op-friendly levels while working on that shorter timeline?

To be honest, a lot of our level design has been based on assumptions. We’ve been quite time-sensitive too as the production window for Youngblood has been shorter and it took us about half a year to properly get the second player into the game. Basically, all level blocking was done without the ability to test with a second player. Of course, we’ve had the advantage of parts of the team being world-class experts in the field of level design, which has been tremendously helpful. 
Going back to those assumptions, the two main starting points for us were 1) to rework our enemy spawn system to accommodate two players existing within different locations of the map and 2) focus on the possibility of collaboration with alternative routes and different ways of approaching combat scenarios. This led to slightly larger and more complex combat spaces than we’ve done previously as well as necessary gating methods to allow enemy spawn/de-spawn between areas.

And while there’s been lots of improvements made to the maps over the course of development, our assumptions proved to be fairly accurate as the co-op combat experience within our maps worked surprisingly well and was fun from the very first time we had the ability to play together. 
While there will always be things that could have done differently with the knowledge you have at the end of a production cycle, I’m happy with the result and what the team has accomplished to provide an enjoyable co-op experience.

Will MachineGames be focusing on longer, activity-driven single-player games like Youngblood going forward? Do you think this design approach offers any more appeal than the level-driven structure (with a hub zone) of the last two Wolfenstein games?

Most likely, I would say. For several reasons. First and foremost we need to adapt to how the business is changing with this new generation of gamers that consumes content in other ways than just playing. People participating through viewing, as an example, has been growing quite significantly over the last few years. Which means we as developers need to deliver experiences that are not only fun to play, but also fun and engaging to watch. A more open structure with an emphasis on player choice provides better opportunities for us to achieve that.
Another change that will have a big impact is streaming - as games will become a lot more accessible and reach a wider audience when streamed directly to tablets and TVs without the requirements of additional and expensive hardware (with the exception of controllers).  
For us, the more open game structure of Youngblood is a step in a new direction. And yes, I believe we can achieve experiences with a strong focus on player freedom while still maintaining the high-quality narrative we’ve become known for. A combination and a design approach I definitely think is appealing for gamers.

As a designer, what’s been a source of inspiration for differentiating Youngblood from the last two Wolfenstein adventures?

A number of different games. I probably draw a lot more inspiration from other games than I’d like to think. As game designers and creative developers we always want to create something unique, but what I’ve learned over all of these years is that it will happen regardless. I very recently talked to Marty Stratton from id Software about this - as I find it quite interesting that both of our studios have reimagined these classic first-person shooters with DOOM and Wolfenstein in a very retro fashion and yet they are so extremely different from each other.
One of the main reasons for that is of course that we are two completely different studios with different cultures and design approaches. If let’s say, MachineGames would develop a DOOM game, even based on the very same design documentation, it would still be a completely different game than the one developed by id Software. And this is important - today we feel confident and comfortable enough to know that whatever we do and whatever inspiration we draw from others, we will always deliver a unique MachineGames experience. 

Youngblood is such an experience, but at the same time it’s also the game that differs most from all other games we have in our catalog. We’ve been developing these story-driven single-player experiences for almost 20 years now and it’s not only the co-op of Youngblood that makes it differ, it’s the female protagonists (we’ve been working with only male heroes and anti-heroes since the first Riddick game), the open-ended mission structure, level progression and character customization, real-time cut-scenes and an AI companion that accompanies you while playing solo. There are so many things we do differently, but still, in its core it remains an over-the-top, kick-Nazi-ass Wolfenstein experience.
While we’re on this inspirational subject I would like to add that I’m a big fan of Ubisoft titles like The Division, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon and I love to play them in co-op, something I definitely have used as a source of inspiration for Youngblood co-op. When it comes to solo experiences my game of the year, and I believe one of the best games I’ve ever played, is Metro: Exodus. It's an incredible and overall very inspirational game. I also have lots of internal favorites that I draw inspiration from - specifically Arkane titles like Prey and Dishonored. Working with the Arkane Lyon team on Youngblood and Cyberpilot has been a wonderful experience and a great privilege.

Are you able to break down the practical process of collaborating with Arkane on a project like this? When sequels rope in adjacent studios, it’s often considered a handoff role, what do you think was a key part of making cross-studio collaboration functional?

This is one of the great benefits of being part of the same organization. The ability to share experiences with and learn from the creative talent of our sister studios. Something that we’ve done quite a lot over the years, but never before as extensively as the collaboration with Arkane Studios Lyon on these two new Wolfenstein games. 
We started talking about doing something together as our French colleagues were releasing Death of the Outsider and we were in the very end phase of the New Colossus production. Basically, it was good timing and we also had full support from the production team over at Bethesda. 
To both of our teams, this was a truly great opportunity that would allow us not only to draw learnings from each other, but also to broaden our respective expertise with gaming experiences outside of our comfort zones. Co-operative gameplay with Youngblood and virtual reality with Cyberpilot
And even though we, from the very beginning, had clear ownership of respective titles - MachineGames was running Youngblood development and Arkane Lyon was heading the Cyberpilot project (they have several VR enthusiasts in the studio who were really excited to work on a Wolfenstein VR title) - both of our teams have been well-integrated in the combined efforts of developing both of these games. This means all aspects of game development from start to finish – from production and design, to content and code. 

Machineames and Arkane Lyon also have the benefit of operating within the same time zone, which definitely is one of the key parts of making the collaboration run smoothly. In addition, as two European studios, we do share a lot of cultural similarities and the way we manage our teams, as well as our production pipelines, are also quite similar - and now, as the collaboration on these two Wolfenstein titles are coming to an end, we are probably even closer in the way we approach game development.

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