Bodycount Interview – Part 1
If you’ve read our hands-on with Codemaster’s upcoming shooter, Bodycount, then you’ll know that it’s not the usual FPS fare we’ve come to expect from this console generation. Gone is bromantic military jargon, the primarily grey and brown colour palette and the reliance on static enemy spawn points.
Bodycount is clearly setting out to provide something different for those people bored with the likes of Medal of Honor and Call of Duty. We sit down with Bodycount’s art director Max Cant and lead level designer Andy Parsons to chat about the challenges and difficulties that such an approach throws up.
IncGamers: Bodycount hardly confirms to the standardised FPS ‘norm,’ what kind of brief did you guys work to on this project?
Max Cant: What we wanted to do was create a different ‘play’ experience. We really focused in on the experience of shooting a gun and what it really feels like to fire them – how satisfying the impact of the bullets on the world can be. On day one we started developing the tech that would allow a high fidelity destructible world, that was the initial biggest differentiator for us from other stuff like Call of Duty.
We wanted it to be an awesome, empowering experience in which you could tear the world apart. Then we wanted to focus on allowing you to traverse the world in a different way, so instead of playing through a stage that’s always going to be the same – with pre-scripted enemies always appearing at pre-scripted points – we’ve got a much more adaptive and varied experience.
Andy Parsons: We always wanted more open stages; this isn’t Call of Duty. What we’ve always said from the beginning, especially in terms of level design, is that we always wanted to provide loads of player choice.
IG: How difficult is it to build a world of that kind compared to more linear arenas?
Max Cant: From an art perspective it’s difficult enough to build a large stage that allows for open roaming, but we made it even harder for ourselves by having this high goal of putting a very large level of destruction into the world. We pushed the engine and the assets as far as we could – a lot of the stages are significantly bigger than what you’d get in other more [linear games].
Andy Parsons: In terms of gameplay, building an open world area can be a bit of a challenge in terms of the AI. From the off we wanted very good agency based AI, which threw its own challenges up for us. Basically, what we’ve tried to do is create a system whereby the player can get into an encounter from any angle and the AI will react accordingly. It’s quite a hard try to thing right but when you’ve got an open space it’s absolutely fine to have an AI that responds to you, no matter where you attack them from.
IG: Max, as the art director of a game featuring wide-open stages, what’s it like knowing that a chunk of players will never see certain parts of your creation?
Max Cant: It’s okay, really. The first time you watch a film or play a game you’re not going to see everything, but that fine because you’ll see other things later on. We wanted to reward people for exploration so we didn’t skimp on the cost of creating the areas at the edge of the map; everything is of the same fidelity.
Andy Parsons: What most people think of replay-ability is “I’ve played through the game once, now I’ll play it in a different way.” But if you think about replay-ability in terms of difficulty the whole thing about having different parts of the map that are off the beaten track means, if you’re finding things difficult, you can find different ways to go about things. There are loads and loads of secondary routes and they’re all there for you to play them.
IG: Were there any limits to what you could create, either self-imposed or technical?
Max Cant: The only real limit was the overall footprint we could have for the stages, based on what the machines could run at any one time for rendering. We’ve got a clever system that allows you to retain a very high level of fidelity for objects up close, we just turn off stuff that you’d never see later on. So, we didn’t have to cut back on the fidelity of any of the dynamic shredding, the buildings or any of the props as it was all handled in a behind-the-scenes kind of way.
IG: Just how much can scenery be ‘shredded?’
Andy Parsons: We don’t do full building destruction because the chances of performing full building destruction with small arms fire is next to zero. The other thing is that if we allowed buildings to be destroyed completely it would us no tactical or gameplay advantage – it would just be a large, awkward pile of rubble in the middle of the map.
The cover you hide behind shreds away very quickly, though. The fidelity of the art work is extremely high in terms of part-count, we have some assets that are five or six thousand polygons whereas normally you’d be looking at a couple of hundred. We’ve got a long life span on many of the assets as well, they don’t just go bang and disappear they erode down.
IG: Along with the shredding, there’s the sophisticated AI you mentioned, the skill shot system and other features. How difficult is it to marry all of that into a cohesive, natural whole?
Andy Parsons: The main thing has always been to create a serious gun experience. With all of the systems – the AI design, the level design, the weapon design, shredding and everything else – it all feeds into ‘tactical choice.’
To keep it all coherent what we want to do is get players into this constant groove of choices and assessing simple options: Can I get through that wall? Can I throw grenades through that window and make it blow up? Combined with the weapon loadouts it creates a constant flow of tactical choice.
Max Cant: You can survive fairly well by playing a crazy run ‘n’ gun style and uploading clips into people, but you can also tread carefully and slow things down a bit. Like Andy said, there’s lots of choice. For example, you should never get caught in a building because there’s always going to be a way out other than the door you came in from.
IG: How much compromise is there between you guys on the art and the level design teams? I’ve spoken to some art directors before and they’ve bemoaned the fact that the level designers have come in and wrecked their creations…
Max Cant and Andy Parsons: [Laughs].
Max Cant: Yeah, I’ve worked on stuff like that in the past where the two disciplines have gone up against each other.
This time we’ve worked very closely together – the designers worked with metrics of art and the art team worked with metrics of design. Very early on we started doing concept tests where we’d nail the fidelity of the art work along with the gameplay, so we were very much interlaced; much more so than you get normally. [The art team], the designers and the coding team all sat together in an open plan office.
Andy Parsons: When we sit down to white-board a specific stage, it cannot be done without considering the stylisation, the colours, the audio and everything else. Because [Bodycount] has such a unique style the literally can’t consider creating any part of it without the art and the code implications.
Max Cant: One of the first things I was very keen to do was to design art systems that would adapt and help the gameplay. The buildings were designed specifically to support exploration and to make sure we’ve got the right kind of shooting experience and the right kind of engagement angles from within buildings.
IG: Bodycount’s use of colour was mentioned there, is it more difficult to create a game with a varied colour palette?
Max Cant: Oh God, yes. Working purely with colour is very difficult, particularly if you’ve got multiple real-world factions and various other characters all with their own colours and styles. Plus, you’ve got to make sure the colours work with the different stages and the pace of the narrative exposition.
Because we decided to do Africa in a different way – we didn’t want to the dusty Africa we’ve seen before – we wanted to start positively and that led to us doing yellow and greens, then moving through to blues and jades. It dawned on me quite early that the game would work quite well as a colour wheel, taking you around from yellows to greens, blues and back through purples and red. That resulted in a very strong guide for us.
IG: From both an art and design perspective were the any specific inspirations you had coming into this project?
Max Cant: From the art side is was very important for me not to reference other games or, to some extent, films. Most of the colour palette choices came from classical paintings and other random sources that I’ve acquired over the years – a lot of the character design came from comic books. We wanted to get away from a copy-cat look for things, so we didn’t source ideas from the [videogame] industry.
I think the only game that has a comparable colour palette is possibly some of the Metal Slug games, those guys were the best-of-the-best for those kinds of games. It was kind of our spiritual influence rather than a direct influence because it keyed into the ‘arcade/fun-thing’ which really helped me to break out of the desaturated, ‘Black Hawk Down-mode’ that everyone seems to have doing for the past five years.
Andy Parsons: In terms of level design, it has always been a case of ‘reality first.’ It was always about basing things in the real-world and then exploding things outwards so that it would fit in with the style and design sensibilities of the game.
Max Cant: Yeah, we over dialled everything quite a bit and tried to look at extreme scenarios and environments that would give us loads of ideas from an aesthetic and gameplay ideas. When you’re in Africa you can look off the coast and see several burning oil rigs, for example. We wanted to give people a genuine feeling of tension.
Stay tuned to IncGamers for the second part of our Bodycount interview tomorrow, 11 August.