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Red Faction Armageddon Producer Interview

26 Apr 2011  by   Paul Younger

Apparently, creating destruction is hard work – which is why we recently sat down to talk with Red Faction: Armageddon’s Associate Producer, Dan Sutton, about the difficulties in allowing players for reign to destroy the environment, how to keep a game’s online components popular over the long term and the concern being voiced by players about the franchise’s u-turn from open-world, back to a linear structure.
You can also read our hands-on with Armageddon’s campaign here.
IncGamers: By going from open-world to a more linear level design structure, are you worried that Armageddon is going to be perceived as just another third-person action game?
Dan Sutton: It’s definitely something that we’ve talked about. It’s funning because we originally went from a first-person shooter (with the first two Red Faction games) to a third-person open world game (with Red Faction: Guerrilla) and people were freaked out about that.
One of the things we thought we could improve [about Guerrilla] was the narrative and, by coming back through this route, I think we’ve hit what we always wanted Red Faction to be. We had this whole playground in Guerrilla where we realised that yeah, it’s fun to drive and knock down buildings but, how to we get a really cool third-person action game in which destruction really matters?
So, we reigned it back in and we made it more linear. When you focus less on providing an open world you can actually have a lot more buildings around you, create more immersive gameplay and we found we could use the 360-degrees of destruction that we couldn’t in Guerrilla.
So, yes, going linear is still a worry but the people that have played it all seem to really like it. Plus, we really like it and we’re positive about the direction we’ve taken and we think it’s a great game.

IG: Would you say it’s easier to create a good game by sticking to a linear structure?
DS: I think that telling a story is easier to do in linear games. With an open-world it’s often broken up with you going down the main path and then trailing off to do side-missions for eight hours; you tend to get disconnected from the story.
We feel that by reining it in a bit it gives the players a much more focused approach to playing the game and brings them into it. You can still go off and collect stuff like you could in Guerrilla but it’s a much more cohesive experience this time and it gives the story a much better sense of direction.
IG: Is story really such an essential element to a modern game?
DS: I really think so. One of the big things that we realised after finishing up Guerrilla was that we were able to tell a couple of good stories in Red Faction 1 and 2 but then we lost it a little bit with the third game. At the start of Guerrilla we wrote this 800-page bible of the universe that detailed what the world was like, what the Red Faction is, this is what marauders do, this is how the people behave and so on.
Now we feel we can make proper use of that with Armageddon, we have a really good story to tell and we want to tell it in the best way possible.

IG: Armageddon features some great physics – the Magnet Gun, the destructible environments – have you ever thought about scaling back the story elements and just concentrating on getting players having fun with the technology you’ve built?
DS: That’s interesting that you bring that up because some of the feedback that we got early on was that people just want to run around and use the tools. The way that we’ve allowed people to do that is in Ruin mode (see our hands-on with Ruin Mode here), a Challenge mode where you can go around with your friends and use everything in the game to tear stuff down and a Free Play mode where you can go destroy stuff and mess around with the physics by yourself.
Those are things that we didn’t have in Guerrilla as you were always restricted to either fighting enemies or racing against a timer.
IG: What is it that makes destruction such a consistently enjoyable gameplay mechanic?
DS: For me, it brings out a kid-like quality. I’m playing the game and as I take a building down I just chuckle to myself, or as I throw a creature at a building or a building at a creature – with our system everything is always different; you see different things each time you play through. You can’t say the entire experience changes but, based on the weapons you have, you can destroy one part of a building one time and the next time destroy another part and it will collapse in a new way each time.
Destruction really does just make you feel like a kid, it takes to back to your childhood where you’d build something up with blocks and take pleasure in knocking it all down again – pretending you’re Godzilla or something like that.

IG: How difficult is it to design destructible levels, not knowing exactly what the area is going to look like when a player enters it?
DS: It’s difficult. With Guerrilla we were limited in that once you’d destroyed something you couldn’t build it back up again. So we were restricted in terms of level design; for example, if an objective was on the second level and you’d destroyed the first level staircase then there was no way you could get to that objective unless you provide an alternate route.
With Armageddon we have the repair tool to allow you to rebuild anything you destroy. So, designing levels is still a challenge but having the repair tool – which is the biggest addition to our Geo-Mod technology system – allows our designers to create levels like they would in other games. For example, we can have objectives on the third, fourth, fifth floors and we can use bridges to give the player access to secret areas containing pick-ups etc.
The biggest challenge is just building the game in general because it costs so much more to build these destructible buildings. It takes roughly ten-times the amount of memory that it would take to build a stable building, for example. For that reason, you’re limited to how many destructible buildings you can have in one area.
IG: You’ve been doing these games for a while now. Do you consider yourselves the ‘masters of destruction’?
DS: Yeah, I think so. It took us about five years to get that into place for Guerrilla – it’s funny because a lot of people ask us why other games don’t do [destruction]. The answer is that it’s expensive, it’s painful and it’s frustrating to get that system going. But, once you have it it’s one of the most satisfying things you can have because I think most gamers appreciate that we’ve got something there that you don’t see in other games.
We don’t just have buildings that blow up in a mass of special effects and are destroyed in the same way each time, you can take down buildings in any way you want; they’ll fall differently, they’ll crumble differently, the stress system makes them react differently and it’s certainly rewarding.

IG: Can the enemies utilise the destruction system in the same way?
DS: Yeah, you’ll find towards the end of the game that we’ve got some really big enemies that will take out the building that you’re hiding in and collapse the scenery around you. We improved our A.I. to allow the enemies (be it the standard Marauders or the aliens) to actually try to destroy buildings and collapse them upon you. Bigger enemies might even try to smash through a building if you’re on the opposite side in an attempt to get at you.
IG: This is something that I’ve quizzed developers of other games about and I’m interested to hear your thoughts on it. Why do so few developers use health packs anymore? Why do most games employ a regenerative health system?
DS: Good question. I think it’s one of those things that changes depending on what kind of game you’re making.  Survival horror games like Dead Space do use the health pack system but, for us, our inspiration was to let the player be a bad-ass, Arnold Schwarzenegger-style character that can go through a ton of enemies. The ‘regen’ health system helps to achieve that feeling because it allows for a fast-pace, action focused experience as opposed to having to stop, collect health and keep going into your inventory to use it.
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IG: Again, this is a point I’ve picked up with other developers. Why is violence such a popular aspect of videogames? Why is it so appealing? Are we all monsters at heart?
DS: [Laughs] We could be all monsters. I think it generally goes back to escapism, people want to be able to do stuff in games that they can’t do in real life; whether it’s flying around a city or taking an M16 around and shooting off a few rounds. It’s about escapism.
In some ways we’re beginning to merge that with art with games like Heavy Rain, games that really tell a cinematic story in a different way than we’ve seen before. I think that’s going to be a challenge for the industry – where do we go next, especially with Kinect and those kinds of things coming out as well. How immersive are we going to get over the next few years? That’ll be really interesting to see.

IG: Going back to essential elements in modern games. Are multiplayer elements as essential as everything else? As essential as story?
DS: Yes. Going back to the story elements too, we have a four-player co-op mode, Infestation, in which we put four players through battles that other groups are fighting throughout the story. You’ll take control of Sergeant Winters, as well as some other characters that you’ll meet throught the game, and you’re basically fighting survival missions against aliens that are coming in and swarming you.
You and your teammates will have to take on wave after wave of enemies that are either trying to kill you or are trying to take down critical buildings. We’ve put a lot of our focus on that. There’s nothing more fun than getting together with three of your friends, using the Magnet Gun and the destruction elements to attack or defend from the aliens.
IG: There have been numerous high-profile games that have seen their multiplayer modes become deserted after only a couple of months. How do you make sure your multiplayer modes stay popular over the long term?
DS: It’s certainly tough and it’s something we’re very conscious of. You can’t expect to be riding that Call of Duty market. You’re not going to be able to compete with those guys on the same aspects.
What we’ve tried to do with Armageddon is focus on something that is more unique. We have hundreds of levels that you can fight through on co-op, and things like the Magnet Gun sets us apart when it comes to multiplayer. We’re definitely not doing the competitive multiplayer stuff this time around – we’re much more focused on the co-op stuff.
We’re not going to compete with Call of Duty in terms of competitive modes but, we can definitely tap into the Gears of War market – as well as that of some other games.

IG: So you specifically went out to avoid any direct competition with Call of Duty?
DS: It wasn’t that so much as it was about–. When we decided to go more linear and story-driven in our single player we thought that co-op was something that made more sense for us. We could have done human vs. human but we just didn’t think that it fit properly as it isn’t something that has any part of our single player game. Telling the story of these four rebels fighting against aliens from another world was something that we thought just fit much better for us.
We also did a lot of tests and proved to ourselves that that was the right way to go. It was more about that than actively avoiding the competition.
IG: How difficult is it to create an A.I. that reacts intelligently to four players within the same game?
DS: It’s difficult, especially when you’re adding destruction. The A.I. has to say, ‘okay, so I have four people to fight but I also have to find a way through this building that has been partially destroyed’. It was a real chore to get that working properly and implement it into the game. We didn’t have time to get it to a high enough level in Guerrilla but now I think we’ve really got it nailed down.
Also, thinking about future, successive editions of the franchise, you’re really going to see that we’ve figured out how to combine co-op with destruction – we’re really excited about the potential that that holds.

IG: Why do you think multiplayer has become such a focus for this console generation? Almost every 360 or PS3 game incorporates multiplayer in some form or another.
DS: The social aspect. I love playing multiplayer because of that feeling of being connected. Some people don’t like the whole ‘invasion of privacy thing’ but some people just love the fact that they can communicate their success to their friends, display their stats and have that camaraderie with the people they’re playing with.
Single player can only last for so long but with multiplayer you can play night after night after night and people are still as in to it as they were when they first started playing.
IG: There have been a number of recent, high-profile cases of studios being shut down due to big-budget games not performing as well as expected. Is there an argument for studios to make games on lower-budgets, focus the product (i.e. shun multiplayer entirely) and rid themselves of the pressure of having to sell x-million copies just to re-coup the enormous budget?
DS: It’s an interesting topic and it’s something that we’ve actually talked about. Yes, budgets are getting bigger and bigger but we feel that we’ve stuck to a very moderate budget for Armageddon. We’re one of the multi-multi-million dollar projects now and we’re a part of the industry that’s still trying to figure out how best to use the money available to us.
I think part of it is iteration, rather than rebuilding everything from scratch. I think our games iterate really well, as do the Assassin’s Creed games,  and concentrate on improving our core concept rather than scraping everything and starting over.
No company is immune to lay-offs, no company has the development process down perfectly. Even at THQ, we’re struggling to figure out how to make high quality games on lower budgets. The problem with the big budgets is that if you [fail] just one time then you’re looking at massive layoffs across the whole company and, obviously, that’s something we’re trying to avoid. I think that at Volition that’s something we’ve done a good job of in our relatively short existence thus far because we have been very budget conscious.
 

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