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An Uphill Battle: Chris Ferriera On Army Of Two's Gameplay and Philosophy

EA Montreal's Army of Two may initially look conventional, but lead designer Chris Ferriera is convinced that its political themes and purpose-built co-op play will set it apart from the competition, and explains the game's philosophy to Gamasutra in this in-depth interview.

Chris Ferriera, lead designer of Army of Two, wants a lot of challenging concepts to come across in the game. It's not merely that the game is designed from the ground up to be played cooperatively; the game also has a political message woven deep into its storyline.

Here, he discusses how the game evolved into what it has become -- a critical look at real-world mercenaries, a compelling scenario that hopes to hook casual players into the world of co-op gaming, and the start of a new shooter franchise developed by an international team at EA Montreal. At E3, Gamasutra's Brandon Sheffield had a chance to find out more.

Let's talk about the premise behind Army of Two.

Chris Ferriera:  We based the game around PMCs. What that is, is a "private military contractor." Right now in the world today, there are tons of these guys operating abroad, for different companies. Companies like Blackwater and Dimecorp, what they’ll do is take ex-military guys from anywhere -- guys from Chile, Ex-Chechen guys, wherever, anywhere. And they’ll take them on to their force and train them. They love to have special forces guys.

And what they'll do, is other companies such as Halliburton, or even the US government will then pay Blackwater money -- in our case the company is called SSC for the game -- they’ll pay that company to send those guys to do a mission. It may be something like guarding a consulate, it may be like, "hey, we have an oil pipeline running though Azerbaijan. And we need someone to patrol it, we want SEALs to patrol it, so we’re going to get these Navy SEALs."

They’ll send them over there. And thanks to US law and legislation, anyone that is a contractor working abroad is immune from prosecution. And that includes a contractor being someone who “I’m building a house," or rebuilding a country, or “I’m a military contractor and I’m in there to do whatever mission they gave me.” It can be overthrowing a dictator, it can get into some gruesome stuff. And the thing is, that there’s that deniability, so if that person does something, Halliburton is like, “we never paid them, we don’t know them.” The money trail disappears, they do it through all these smaller companies. So it’s never a big company paying SSC to send out [operatives] to do a job, it’s someone else through a smaller company and the money disappears.

What we’re trying to do as we advance though the story in the game, we start with the characters. We take them from their days in Delta Force, and their days as Navy SEALs, and their start as PMCs and how they get trained. We unveil the corruption behind the military privatization, and we explain the problems that poses to society and to America, and the world, when you have a gigantic organization that does nothing but operate for corporations and for money.

 


You said when you started, you didn’t know much about this. You had to read up on it.

CF: I pretty much knew nothing about this. I was a fan of shooters here and there. I knew a bunch about guns, but I knew nothing about PMCs and really nothing about the military. After reading a bunch of news articles and doing tons of searches -- plus I’ve been reading a book called Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. I’ve been learning more and more information, just about how everything is run.

It’s actually kind of crazy to see just how funds change hands, and the fact that right now you watch the news and they say “Army Rangers." And [the Navy] can’t get SEALs and they’re having these big recruiting drives, and they’re upping everyone’s salary -- because, say, a guy who was a SEAL was making 1200 bucks a week working for the US government. As soon as he’s done with his tour of duty, or say he never got his tour of duty -- he’s trained to kill, these guys are trained killers, and they never get their war. So now they’re told “we’ll pay you 300, 800, 1200 dollars a day or a week to go do mission abroad, and you can bring your own gear, you don’t have to report to anyone. It’s just you and your boy doing your mission.” And they’re going to eat it up, and they’re going to do it because the money’s there.

But when you track it back through the political hierarchy it’s like, "who’s hurting who?" Sometimes it’s harmless; it's guarding a convoy of guys who are bringing food from one area to another. But other times it’s protecting business interests that are hurting other countries and stuff like that.

Are you at all concerned that people are not going to get the message, and the game might, instead, glorify this situation? Because the characters themselves do look like the ultimate male power fantasy.

CF: Well I think that obviously when you see that armor and the masks and the guns and stuff -- we need an image to get people to go into the game, right? And the world is obsessed with it. I mean how many shooters are at the show today -- eleven plus? So it’s popular. People like guns. Americans love guns. The world likes violence. It’s human nature. People enjoy war, they enjoy this stuff. It’s creepy when you look at it... a singing game [compared to a] shooter, what the sales numbers are, it’s actually kind of scary in just the amount of violence. But what we’re doing is... we’re going to try to bring this to light subtly.

I look at it like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That movie came out back when, and people were like “oh, it’s a horror movie.” And some people took it at face value -- “oh, it's a horror movie... I’m afraid of body snatchers!” But other people realized that the underlying message was McCarthyism, and what was going on in America at the time.

We’re hoping that someone who plays the game a lot and who really follows the story, and doesn’t just skip through it and pays attention, that we can spark them to say “you know what, I’m going to look into this.” That’s all. “I’m going to gain interest in this, and find out what’s really going on here. What am I doing?” In the game you’re doing all kind of crazy stuff for this company. You’re sent on all these different missions, and then you find out what’s wrong with this deniability and what’s wrong with everything in general.


How do you let people know from a story standpoint, that this has a correlation to the real world that we’re living in?

CF: If you’ve seen any of our trailers, we use a lot of news footage. You'll see a lot of real-world footage in there. We use all real-world locations and we’re current-day. There’s sort of references in there, but it’s our own universe. It’s a fantasy universe set in modern-day America with our own company, and our own government. It’s different than the way things operate, but it’s kind of scary how reality is as crazy what we’re making, what we’ve put in the game, in this fantasy. It’s to say this is what reality is -- you may not know about it and you sort of need to know.

The target audience for this is a good group of people to try to educate about that sort of thing. On the other hand, it’s definitely a tough undertaking -- it will be interesting to see to what degree it’s successful. I certainly admire any attempt to do something like that. I’ve talked to two other people at this show, who are trying to do semi-similar games -- games that either poke fun at politics, or bring in some subversive left wing stuff. It’s interesting that that’s all happening right now. I think people have gotten pretty fed up.

CF: You look at other games like Haze or BlackSite [Area 51]. BlackSite, I don't know too much about. I know that Haze is set in the future -- it’s more sci-fi. We just really wanted to be now and to-the-moment. The thing is, this is a new IP, right? We don’t want to come out with something that’s mediocre, and just rush it out on time. We want to make sure we’re making the right game we want to make. It’s also being developed in Montreal, so it’s a very international studio. We have guys from Kenya working on it, guys from South Africa, guys from England, guys from France. It’s the most diverse squad of guys I’ve ever worked with in my life.

You’re going really far forward with the co-op stuff. To me it seems kind of daunting -- I look at that, and I’m not really sure if I want to play that...

CF: You’ve just touched on our biggest challenge. We need to re-teach people how to cooperate. So what we’ve made is a cooperative game that, second, it is a shooter. Shooters have been dialed. You play a shooter and you know when the mechanics are tight, you know how to communicate things. [The audience] knows what reload looks like, they know how ammo counters work, they know how health bars work, they understand how regeneration works. All that stuff becomes common knowledge -- because it’s been finely tuned over the years, from Contra up till now, that everyone understands what happens.

Now with co-op, most games have been "I’m a single player game. I’m going to throw another player in and not really change the experience." Maybe it’s going to become easier because you have two guys doing the same thing. So what we did is we created a series of concepts. We have a concept guy, Vander Caballero, who's amazing. He just came up with all of these amazing co-op concepts. So even before we existed as a shooter, we had a bunch of white boxes with co-op mechanics, and we thought, "how could we bring this into a game?" And even before my time at EA Montreal, the game has gone through so many different co-op ideas, buddy cops and thieves, this and that...

And finally we finally settled on the politically-charged PMCs because we wanted to deliver a message. And we figured with two guys, in a situation as tough as theirs, there’s no better way to really bring co-op to the forefront -- because they have to work together and it ties into the title, Army of Two, right? It's two dudes versus an army. You’re not going to survive it if you go it alone, and if you don’t play with your partner, if you don’t communicate. We have to teach that. That’s the toughest point. We have a pretty extensive tutorial and we’re trying to simplify the way things come across, and try to keep it to one to two button presses to get into everything you need.

 


I certainly like the idea of cooperating. I just never want to have to. That’s the stopping block for me, mentally.

CF: Yeah, that’s going to make if tough to play. If you don’t want to cooperate, you’re probably going to get worked. But you never know -- you might find someone out there who has a similar playstyle or the exact opposite playstyle to you, which is even better. Because using the concept of aggro, which we took from the MMOs and are bring it into this game space, if you want be the run and gun guy and take all that aggression, and the other guy wants to to play the stealth guy and plays it better, that’s fine.

He has to take it back every once in awhile, so that you don’t die -- to take the attention off of you. And you're both responsible for death. Everything from all of your equipment, all the way to the ending, is all co-op. it’s all meant for two players, and two people to interact.

How does the single player campaign work, then?

CF: You play with a partner AI, and that partner AI has an intimate knowledge of the level and the objective, so he knows where to go. He’ll stick near you, but you can also command him. You can tell him "advance on your own," "stay and guard me," or "hold you position" and set his aggro to generate more aggro or less. On top of that he’ll monitor your health and current levels of aggro, so if your aggro's high and your heath is low, he's going to step up, pull out his biggest gun and generate as much aggro as possible so that you have the chance to regenerate.


I imagine that playing with two players is going to be a lot more rewarding, as you’ve really built it for that.

CF: I can’t argue with that. Every game I’ve played, even Rainbow Six Vegas it’s like, OK, single player story mode is fun, but I love multiplayer. I’m a co-op guy. I’m not big on versus mode. I really love playing co-op. I love playing co-op terrorist hunt and all of that kinda stuff. Even like in Gears [of War] I played co-op, I didn’t even play the single player, I only played when I could play with someone else... and I still never felt with any game, that I have to work with somebody.

Even with Rainbow Six I’ve played with guys who just run ahead, know the map, know the spawn points and kill everybody. I don’t need to work with them. Our game, you have to because, the guy who runs ahead and does that? He’s going to get all the aggro and he’s going to get slaughtered.

I feel like co-op has been really overlooked for a number of years. That last game I really remember enjoying co-op with was, like... Double Dragon II. Gears of War did do a decent job of trying to bring it back. Because if you set the difficulty to Insane, and the two of you were playing, it's kind of tough, and you're getting each other up and stuff... That’s pretty cool. But it is a simple, shallower layer.

CF: We’ve looked at all kinds of co-op games -- we looked at any kind of multiplayer thing. We even looked at stuff like MySpace and Facebook, of how people communicate to others, to say "this is who I am" and this is how they express themselves in the online space. And just take lessons from that as we go forward, of the customization of your message, to say "this is who I am." Changing the skins on that, changing all of your customizable weapons. But I’ve always played co-op games. My favorite would be River City Ransom, I love that game. (laughs)

Of course! There was actually a lot of co-op interactivity in that, where you could throw each other...

CF: And you got the moves. As you went, you could buy "Air Circus." At which point you could take the one guy, throw him in the air, he would spin and then you would do "Stone Kick" and knock the guy down... and as you actually advanced and bought new co-op moves... We thought about that for our game. But we decided that -- the possibility of unlocking new co-op moves -- we found that when the variety got too big, a lot of stuff didn’t get used. So we kind of picked what we liked best. If you look back at all the old [magazine] issues and the old movies, there’s a ton of co-op moves, stuff that even isn’t going to make it into the game for this first version, just because we don’t want to overwhelm people because we’re giving them something that is so different and so new.

 


What kind of stuff did you have to cut?

CF: Oh, wow. I’d have to think back and really dig through. But there were so many things. I think at one point we had maybe like 32 different white boxes of co-op moves. One was how to take a door. If you went to take a door, one guy would line up, one guy would actually go in an arc and choose. Then they’d both run forward and slam the door, and then there’d be an animation of them coming through the door and both aiming... we’d actually use police tactics and stuff like that. But then after implementing them and trying them we'd be like, "this is cool, but most people are just going to run and open the door. They’re not going to want to do this." So we tried to tie stuff to the core mechanics of like -- everyone’s going to open a door the way they know. We’ll put that in later on, we’ll add in something like that in the future. Let’s go with something that will affect the core, which is which is the player experience of the shooter, and how we can generate that cooperatively.

I was thinking of something humorous... these days, companies don't tend to put numbers on sequels as much as they used to. But if you did a sequel, would you call it Army of Two-Two?

CF: Yeah, Army of Two 2 would be a little weird. Well, you can't really call it Army of Three unless you made three player co-op. But you never know what the future holds. When the game comes out, we’ll see how well people respond to it. I personally think that there’s strong market for co-op now, and that people want that and I think that word of mouth will carry it far. Especially once people start playing it online and say “hey, you have to play this game with me, I want you to play this game with me. I want you to see the weapons that I’ve bought, I want to see how you play.” And then also, on the political side of like, "man, do you know what PMCs are doing overseas? Do you understand what’s going on in America right now?" And maybe people will even watch... you know, people get fed stuff from the media, right? You get fed the news, you get fed this and that but when you do your own research you get your own perspective, rather that what’s being fed to you.


Is it only co-op online or can you also do it splitscreen?

CF: You can do splitscreen with two players on one machine.

That’s good because I’m still kind of a Luddite. I don’t play games online at all.

CF: You know what? I never did up until I got Xbox Live. Once I got on Live, I started playing everything. It changed the way I play games. I played PC games online, but for console, never. Except for, I tried to play [Capcom's] Monster Hunter, which I still love. It’s one of my favorite games, and actually now I play it on my PS3, because the connectivity is better. It’s funny, I bought a PS3 and the game I’m playing is Monster Hunter. It's a pretty insane game.

That is funny. So it's the PS2 version?

CF: Yeah, the PS2 version, on the PS3, with the upscaling and all of that. Because its connectivity is actually better than the original one on the PS2. I didn't think it would work. I got one of my buddies who never played it. We always play co-op games. We went through [Rainbow Six] Vegas, we went through all of the map packs, and we were like "what do we have left to play?" I was like, "I have Monster Hunter. See if you can get it, online." And it was a search. He finally got it, and we've been playing the crap out of it. I love it... it's hardcore, though. I love that kind of stuff, too. Like monsters and fantasy... nothing like stabbing a raptor with a lance. (laughs)

So back to this! About the characters -- who is your target audience, who do you want to identify with these people? Or do you want them to identify with them?

CF: Well, they’re both older. If someone’s been in the military, I’m sure they can identify with Rios who’s an older, more experienced veteran, and then we have Salem who come from a mixed background. He came from a little bit of a criminal background. He’s all tatted up and he’s a litter more hardcore. What we do is -- if you've ever seen a buddy cop film, there’s always some sort of joking back and forth between the two characters, but there’s some grim reality they have to face. Some dire ending, like even Bad Boys, all the Lethal Weapons. It's always like there’s some greater scheme.

So that why we have this harsh reality story, we kind of mix it up with the banter between the two characters. But we also give the player the chance to make them their own, with the weapons, the armor and the face masks. At some point that gets lost -- but we keep it alive with the dialogue and the banter.

 


Do you buy weapons with real money?

CF: You earn money as you complete objectives.

No, I mean -- do you pay money on Xbox Live?

CF: We will have downloadable content in the game. As to the extent of what it is, and how much it will cost, or if it will cost anything -- I don’t know. That's not my decision to make; it comes more from the producer. Personally I’d love to see a ton of downloadable content, and a ton of guns, and I’d love to give it all away for free but... it is a business.

The reason I ask about identifying, is that increasingly with these games, the protagonists are people that I find difficult to identify with personally. Because they’re like the super macho jocks I always avoided in college. Do you think that's an issue? Actually, it probably won’t be an issue because most people don’t feel that way.

CF: I think the thing is, too, is in this sort of game, it’s what those guys are. You meet a SEAL... we have a contractor that comes in and he’s the kind if guy that I never want to mess with. And he’ll go out and he’ll party. I’m not a big club guy. I’d rather sit home and play a video game. I’m a nerd, right? I make video games for a living, and I love video games. I'd even go and play a pen and paper RPG rather than go out and party half the time. I feel that -- with any other game, it’s always a big macho guy. So we kind of have the skinnier guy and the macho guy. But, again, they’re both warriors, and they’re out there risking their life and to fit in with that story, they kind of have to be in that mindset. And we watch them change as they realize... as the climate changes within the story.

So they, themselves, are going to have that kind of arc of realization?

CF: Oh yeah, for sure!

Excellent. This might be a sort of sticky question... but it definitely seems that you can read a lot of homoeroticism into the relationship between these two characters. Is that going to be an issue?

CF: You know what? It’s an easy target. It’s such an easy thing to point out. And we’ve had guys come by today and in the co-op parachute -- “oh, it looks a little snug!” Making jokes. You know, these guys are going into war and doing their thing. If people want to make those jokes out of it, and try to get a laugh, good for them. We don’t focus on it in the game because they’re not like that. They’re just two guys working together, to make some money.

For awhile we did have some humorous stuff, where one guy would hit the other guy on the butt, like a sports kind of congratulations, and stuff. And we’ll still have some of that in there, but people take out of it what they want. When you see the story, it’s nothing like that.

I'm sure the YouTube edits will be brilliant.

CF: I'm sure it'll be like Red vs. Blue. (laughs)

On the tech side, what are you using?

CF: We’re using Unreal.

I was wondering if maybe it was some legacy RenderWare stuff.

CF: We moved through a bunch of different tech and finally ended up with Unreal. We just found that it offered us everything that we needed, especially with the network stuff for co-op.

Unreal 3 was built for this kind of thing.

CF: And that’s our focus. It has to be dialed. It has to be the best it can be, we can’t skimp on something like that.

Is there anything else you wanted to get across about the game?

CF: I think we discussed mostly all of it. When you play it you’ve just got to learn to think a little differently. You’re going to have to learn how to play and learn how to play a little differently. And hopefully we’ll be able to teach you that. I’m hoping that especially Joe Gamer, who doesn’t even check the internet that much, who just picks up game and plays it, buys it at Wal-Mart and wants to go play it... they’ll be able to understand it, and get across -- even if they play with just the AI, they’ll understand that it’s a still two-man scenario.

I think that the hardest thing -- just for me -- is the stopping block of “I have to realize this is probably going to be fun.” But it’s daunting, just to me.

CF: It’s the same thing if you hand an RPG to someone who’s never played an RPG, right? You need to understand the menu systems, you need to understand how stuff works. It’s exactly what World of Warcraft did for MMOs. It took something that was so unapproachable, and now everyone’s playing it. I’m sure it’s one of the most successful games to date as far as income.

Before that the last time you’re looking at MMOs -- like EverQuest and Final Fantasy XI were so hard and so restrictive. [Blizzard] just took this and made it for a mass market, and explained it. That’s what we’re trying to do with co-op. We’re trying to take that and explain it to everyone and say “here you go” and hopefully we’ll have as much success as they did... you've got to speak to people in a language they understand.

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