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Interview: A2M's Fortier on Wet's Acrobatic Shift

A2M's acrobatic console action shooter Wet, formerly at Vivendi, has found a publisher in Bethesda, and Gamasutra discusses its genesis and publisher change with A2M creative director Patrick Fortier.
A2M's acrobatic action shooter Wet has found a publisher. One of the last titles left in limbo by the Activision-Vivendi merger, it's now been officially picked up by Fallout 3 and Oblivion publisher Bethesda Softworks. Wet will ship in Fall on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. At Bethesda's press event in London last week, Gamasutra had the opportunity to sit down with A2M's Patrick Fortier, creative director on the project, who talks working with Bethesda and the studio's creative shift from primarily licensed titles to original work. Fortier also discusses and the challenges presented by the game's main mechanic -- it's a third-person action shooter, but at its core is a complex acrobatics system (view a trailer here for reference). Wet was one of many, many games dropped from the Vivendi slate -- how did you guys end up with Bethesda? Patrick Fortier: Well, I'm from the production floor, and from our point of view, we were really blessed that our company was willing to buy back the rights from Activision. They didn't want the title to get lost in the shuffle, and they wanted to take the time to find the right publisher, someone who shared the same vision that we had for Wet. So, that allowed us to continue work on the game while they were looking around and taking their time finding the right partner for us. We eventually met up with Bethesda, and we just clicked right there. They really understood what we were trying to do through the dynamics of the game, this whole meld of swords, guns, and acrobatics, the kind of energy we were going for there, and also the whole grindhouse retro 70s action movie signature. They were really keen on that, too, in terms of the flavor it gives to our universe. It's been great working with them. A2M is known for doing a lot of licensed material, so has your process had to change at all internally to work on an original game? I worked at Ubisoft for Montreal for ten years. So, I've had some fun working on some titles there, and I actually came to A2M to work on Wet because it was an original creation, and it was trying to do something different in the action genre. For the people on the Wet team and all that that came from A2M, they do feel very lucky, and they've been looking for that opportunity for a long time, to take their expertise and their knowledge from working on more family oriented titles and apply it to a more mature kind of game. That's one of the ways in which the company grew, and certainly not with the intention of turning its back on its more traditional genres, but I wanted to expand to other territories. I just attracted some people at A2M, and a lot of other people from other companies. I have the Ubisoft background, Splinter Cell and things like that, but we got people that came from Skate, people who worked on that, some people at BioWare, and some people all over sort of helped make that team grow, so we have a lot of different influences within the team. It's a good dynamic. How big is that team? The team is approximately 90 people right now... It's pretty big, and it is something different for A2M, so it is stretching. Even physically, the layout isn't the most ideal for this kind of team. It is the first kind of project of that size that A2M does. You know, things are pretty good. How long have you guys been developing it? In its current iteration, I guess Wet has been in development for over two and a half years. There were earlier concepts when A2M decided to expand to a more mature genre. They came up with different prototypes. It wasn't Wet per se, because it was set in different universes, and some of the mechanics were a little different, but there was always that intention of mixing guns and acrobatics. It's really when the character design of Rubi came along that it really became Wet as it is now. She really brought life to the universe, so to speak. And you guys are using an internally-developed engine? Yeah. All the technology is internally developed, which is another staple of A2M, it's traditionally known to use its own engines, and we're continuing that trend. As far as the game itself, it seems like the big focus for the game is keeping the sense of acrobatics fairly constant throughout the whole game. How did you design a system that feels like you can just keep on doing that without being disoriented? We actually iterated quite a lot. The vision was there. We wanted to combine those aspects, and we wanted that fast-paced action, but working out the mechanics was something else. We went through different trial and error. We tried to make everything manual for a while, control both arms independently and both triggers. And then it just became a little too... It distracted too much from the kind of rhythm that we were looking, because then you had to concentrate what you were landing, and all that time you're spending concentrating on your targets, you're not really paying attention to the environment. Or even simple things, like just finding that sweet spot between manual control of the camera and automatic adjustments when you're navigating because we're still confronted by the same natural problems as any other third-person action game, so we had to find clever solutions to that. Then we realized maybe that's why this thing hasn't been done before, because it does bring its whole set of problems with it. But again, we were lucky that A2M gave us enough time to try some stuff out and to work out the kinks. Certainly, the extra time after the whole Vivendi-Activision episode also gave us time to really refine some of these things. So, we're really happy with the recipe that we have now. We've been able to playtest it and see people really happy with themselves because they're doing stuff, and they don't know exactly how they did it, but they're getting gratifying feedback, so they want to keep trying it. Ten minutes later, they're starting to chain a few things together. A half an hour later, they're pulling off their first headshot. And then grow into more complex series of actions. We like the sweet spot we have right now in terms of easy to learn, hard to master. There's always something to do because of the manual nature of the dual nature of the dual aim mechanic. But you can also rely a bit more on the auto lock and try and make some crazy maneuvers and stuff. So, it's a lot of fun. You guys have a pretty overt scoring system, to the point where even in the world, physically in the 3D space, you've got numbers above people's heads and things like that -- that's not as common in a lot of real-time 3D games these days. Was a lot of that focused on sort of trying to really increase the player's investment in complexity of chains and that kind of thing? Yeah, we really wanted to get the maximum amount of feedback to players to really show them the effects and the benefits of playing the game acrobatically. Initially, we were sort of tip-toeing into that, and then we realized that's not really the right approach because it's sort of a no man's land. It's too subtle to really provide good feedback, but it's too present to really keep the clean, pure, and HUD-less look. And then we were like, "That's not what we're really about. We're about pick up and play, and a lot of fun, so why not be blatant about stuff, and you know, cheesy to a degree." That's the kind of universe that we've created, where we can allow ourselves a lot of these fun little quirky things... So, we just decided to embrace it instead. We've seen much better results since then, yeah. Makes sense. It's almost the equivalent of the exploitation film aesthetic; worrying less about what necessarily makes sense in a real world scenario, and instead focusing on what makes sense for what you're trying to convey. Yeah, it's about serving the game, exactly what you described. It just seemed to connect. We're like, "Oh, visually we're inspired a lot by these inspirations, and that's what they're doing too, with their medium, so why wouldn't we do it with our medium and just serve our players?" Then, that made us embrace it even more. "Oh yeah, there's a connection there, and it works well. We don't have to shy away from it." Level design becomes even more crucial in games that have strong or unusual movement-based mechanics. Were there any philosophies or guidelines that the level designers employed to maximize the potential of the acrobatics and chains? The level design was a big challenge as well for a while, because we had to find the right size for things, distances between the jumps and having enough room to perform all these acrobatics, but also not have, like, an empty warehouse where it just doesn't look like anything and just looks like a big cube. So, we had to find the right kind of compromise between the visuals and serving the gameplay. Also, finding ways of promoting acrobatics that chained, so at any point in the room, if you start doing an element, it sort of leads to another. So, a hole leads to a ledge leads to a ladder leads to a nice flat wall... So, we had to sort of work that into the level design philosophy. We also had different types of blocks for levels between arenas, or much more freestyle and open. And they have multiple paths, and players can criss-cross. There has been a lot of time spent saying, "Oh, you know, we need another element there to reconnect to that," and really developing that level design recipe. Then, we have more controlled environments where we lay very deliberate things where we can reinforce some of the conditioning of moves for players and stuff, or create a more intense chase because we know players are going to have to play a certain way. It allows us to vary the pace, as well, you know, after a big fight, rely more maybe on a navigational seam with a lot less enemies, just change up the pace so players can catch their breath a little bit and look forward to the next big altercation. On that note, how much do you expand or change the acrobatic gameplay throughout? One thing I think, third-person games particular, frequently one of the challenges is making them not repetitive, like sort of not relying on the same set of interactions constantly. Some of the things that we're doing there in terms of keeping it fresh is we're unlocking some of Rubi's moves. So, the store is actually used as currency, and players unlock some of Rubi's moves throughout the game. They can take advantage of elements that they couldn't before. They can pull off some moves so they can create longer chains and a more complex series of maneuvers. Also, we try to find a very distinct aspect to focus on in terms of level design, so some levels are built much more vertically. Others are more navigations heavy. Others are more about the density of enemies...and then we have the more exotic gameplay, if you will, like the car hopping, and things like that to really spice it up and keep changing the dynamics for players. But it's definitely one of the challenges for this kind of game. And you guys are looking to ship fall of this year? Yeah, we're looking for fall on both PS3 and Xbox 360.

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