Alistair Cornish is a designer at Eidos London -- who works externally from his development teams on titles such as Championship Manager
and the upcoming Xbox 360/PC action/strategy title Battlestations Pacific
The latter title, developed by Eidos's Budapest-based Hungary studio, allows players to become the Americans or Japanese in a post Pearl Harbor World War II scenario, with real-time switching between multiple combat units. It follows up 2007's Battlestations Midway
, also created by Eidos Hungary.
In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, Cornish discusses the community-driven process for improving the sequel, the external designer as, in his opinion, an integral role, and working with a developer in another country -- all hot topics in today's development landscape:
Did you work on the original Battlestations Midway?
Alistair Cornish: I didn't. I came in at the inception of Battlestations Pacific
, and my first task was really to trawl the forums and the boards and see what the fans were saying -- going through the reviews and trying to pick out what we were going to improve on and fix and change.
What were your priority items, when you came to the project as a designer, to bring into the new Battlestations?
AC: Two things, really. The first one is accessibility. That was my kind of big remit -- that the first game had a pretty notorious tutorial. I don't know if you remember it. It was quite dry and it was very, very long. And what we've done now is that you learn on the job. So there's a gradual revelation of units and there's lots of pop up hints and tips, and you can review them any time in the pause menu.
So you learn to bomb on an exciting bombing run in the middle of combat, rather than a naval academy. If you want to just practice, if you're worried about that, you don't want to get your feet wet, then you can go to a separate naval academy and drill yourself. But that's something you can elect to do -- you don't have to do that.
And you that's not the only way to learn. So, that's a really big deal, just accessibility. And keeping players in the action was another part of that. So, if you remember the old repair menu, you're taken to a separate screen. Now we try to keep everything in pop-up screens. So you can be in the cockpit of the Zero, and from there you can choose planes to launch from aircraft carriers and airbases.
We've got a really good fan base, and not only are they passionate but they're also very vocal and can express themselves very clearly in the forums. You know, they just come in and go, "this rocks," "this sucks," and then they tell you why, and what they want.
So, we've listened to them at every step, you know, from minor things -- like they ask for cockpit modes, we gave them a cockpit mode, they asked for this kind of unit type, we gave the most popular unit types they requested -- up to big deals, like skirmish mode, which was a huge thing that fans wanted to extend the longevity in single player.
Do you have a specialized community site for this game?
AC: Yeah. Fans can go to BattleStations.net
. Previously we had official forums for it, but I go to trawl everything. I go to GameFAQs, I go to fan sites, and I go to our official forums. We kind of cast the net as far and wide as time allows, really.
And you often get people in the forums who are very, very active. You see them pop up in every post, they post multiple times, and we've tried to get their involvement. We've had events for them to get their opinion on things, and solicit their feedback.
Did you actually bring them into the studio?
AC: Yeah. So we've tried to give back. We've had them up, flown them into Budapest and put them up and had events for them. So, you know, part of it is to thank them, and part is to really get their honest feedback on what we're going to do.
Was that the primary kind of research you did into the features you should make in the new game?
AC: It's a real mixture of things. Obviously, the team had their own ideas of what they wanted to put in to drive it forward. We obviously had an understanding of what our strengths were, the pillars of the brand, the split of action and strategy.
There's obviously a drive for more content, so we've doubled the content with the Japanese campaign. All the multiplayer modes, the great addition of skirmish mode. And then one aspect of that was the fan feedback, another aspect was review feedback. You know, what the reviewers like, what they think was lacking, if anything, what we can improve. So it's a real multifaceted approach.
But I've worked on a fair few games, and I think this is the one that's taken the most direct fan feedback and just put it in the game. And part of what's allowed us to do that is the fans themselves. they've been very vocal and verbal, and they made good sense, they made their points well -- they haven't come on and just gone "ah, this is terrible" and left it at that.
They explained what they didn't like, what they wanted to see, what they would like changed, what they loved and wanted more of. But it's a real multi-faceted approach. The trouble with some fan feedback is you can't possibly take into account all of it because it contradicts itself. But it was a great experience.
As a designer, when you knew you were going to be leading this project, I'm sure you had preconceptions of what you wanted to do with the game before you started collating the feedback. How far did you go in directions that you weren't anticipating, or change your viewpoint?
AC: I think I'm very happy with the amount of input I've been able to have, and how the project's gone. I think my primary focus was accessibility, and I think that's something that we've driven towards so far, and so well. So I'm very proud of that -- that was a key thing.
Does this game have a narrative?
AC: That's something we changed from the first game, because it's quite limiting to try and follow a character through events. The other thing is it's quite contrary to the spirit of the game -- you can jump into that ship, and that submarine, then another plane. It doesn't make sense to follow one character's story when you can jump into any. So that's gone now -- you're some kind of nebulous floating Commander, as you'll see is atypical of any type of real-time strategy game.
I feel narrative can be a bit superfluous, at times, to some games. This strikes me as a game that's very mechanics-based, and then, as you said overall, it really wouldn't really logically make sense to follow one person's journey...
AC: That's exactly the conclusion we came to, hence our direction... I mean how narrative we're going to go really depends on genre, depends on goals, a bit of the design there. So in some games it's absolutely what you need it should be the focus, in other games it shouldn't.
We felt that with Battlestations
it was about controlling over 100 different war machines, jumping between them at any time. That was the focus of it, to try and artificially squeeze in a person's story... We want to focus on the epic. The epic scale's a really big thing; you can't get too much of a sense of the epic scale if you're locked down to one person. So we brought this much more overall feel to it.
You work out of London, but the game is developed in Budapest. How does that work, from a pure logistics perspective?
AC: It's hard being an outsider, at a publisher... Initially, when you go from development to the publisher's side it can be a bit of a jolt. But early on on my career, I started at Sony, so I have experience on the publisher's side. So it wasn't too big a jump, to be honest.
But that's one of the challenges to be a designer on the publisher side -- you have to have really open communications channels, constantly be on the phone, or messenger, or emails, or writing documentation, or visiting a studio, to work harmoniously. So that's a window into my world!
Honestly that seems a bit rare, to have a designer on the publisher side; usually it's a producer.
AC: I'm not sure if things are going that way more, but Eidos is certainly not the only company that does it. Konami does it, for example.
I think it is the way to go, because good producers are great -- time/costs/staff, keeping things on the rails and everything else. But he doesn't necessarily have any design background. I've been a designer for over 12 years and have 25 published titles. You get to know what works in a game and what doesn't.
I don't have to worry about spreadsheets and Microsoft Project, or any of that stuff. I care about one thing, the quality of the game. Meeting specific goals -- like accessibility, in this case -- are being laid out. I think it's the right way to work, really.
Producers have their strengths and designers have their strengths, so I think it's a nice combination to have them both on the project.
There's sort of a blending or ambiguity of director, producer, and now maybe even designers. Go to different studios and go to different publishers and you'll find that these roles entail different things, or that there's overlap.
AC: My kind of role is occasionally referred to as "gameplay producer." I'm not sure if it's only EA that has that title.
That's sounds like an EA title, yeah.
AC: It does, doesn't it? There are about three or four different titles that basically mean the same thing. But I'm very, very positive about it. I know the changes that are effected on this title and other titles.
I'm confident that if I had to go to a publisher tomorrow, that's absolutely the structure I'd use. Producer and designer working together and all the brand managers, PR managers, associate producers to get the project to be the best it can be.
When they're in balance and in harmony, the yin and yang, it's all good. If it goes too much one way, if the designers get their way, it's probably going to take six years to come out. If the producers get their way, it'll come out in a couple of weeks with no features. [laughs] It's getting that balance right. That's industry-wide, internal and external.
And even though it's an Eidos studio that you're working with, it's still got to be somewhat like working with an external studio that's not really part of the company. Probably the politics are the big difference -- as opposed to dealing with the studio, because it's remote.
AC: Exactly. Day-to-day, it's exactly the same challenges and opportunities as you get from an external developer. As you say, it's more politics and down to really boring stuff, like how the payroll is handled. So that's very different. But from my end of things, it's very similar. As I say, the same opportunities, the same difficulties.
What are the major difficulties you've run into? Have you come up with any processes that you've now followed?
AC: You just have to be very, very agile. If you know your craft and you know what's missing or what's needed and you can communicate that well, work within the realities of deadlines and budgets, work in structures, then you can see what you should be doing in terms of the project.