The Flock’s Jeroen van Hasselt on asymmetric multiplayer
Asymmetric multiplayer titles, or games which include an asymmetric mode, are in a distinct minority. There’s a perception that “balance” is the only thing worth striving for when multiple human beings are involved, and that the only way to achieve that is to give each player a role that is broadly the same. Vogelsap’s The Flock is hoping to challenge that assumption and add another asymmetric multiplayer game to the list.
Somewhat like The Hidden Source mod, The Flock is based around the predator-and-prey model. The majority of players are agile, dangerous Flock, while one is the Light Carrier; able to fend off attacks, but also highly vulnerable due to the illumination inherent to their role. Player roles switch as members of the Flock hunt down the Light Carrier and assume their mantle.
In order to learn a bit more, IncGamers exchanged some words with Vogelsap’s Jeroen van Hasselt about the game.
IncGamers: As a bit of an introduction, who are the people behind Vogelsap? Where are you guys based and what kind of prior experience do you have making games?
Jeroen van Hasselt: Vogelsap is a company consisting entirely of students. We’re based in Hilversum at the HKU University of Arts Utrecht. We have our own classroom that we like to call our ‘office’. Our goal as a team is to get to know the games industry in all the professional ways possible before we graduate university. We’re all studying game development related subjects. What way better is there to prepare for the real games industry, than to try and launch an actual game? We believe an education can only teach you so much. When it comes to making games independently there is so much more to learn. Such as how to run a company, doing PR, thinking about a marketing plan and having actual potential users playtest your game.
Our game making experience prior to the The Flock existed mostly out of potential great (school) projects. Doing game jams, drinking beer, playing games, cooking and attending events together ensured great bonding with the team!
IG: Can you summarise how The Flock works and what first attracted you to an asymmetric multiplayer structure?
JvH: The Flock is an asymmetrical multiplayer thriller. You play as the hunter lurking in the shadows, but your goal is to become the prey, which is key to winning the game.
Starting as a Flock in a dark and desolate world, you need to find the coveted Light Artifact. The player who grabs it first, transforms into the Carrier, a fragile, slower and more humanoid creature. The goal of the game is to hold onto the artifact for as long as possible while the other players – who are Flock – hunt you down. There’s only one thing that can stop them. The Flock can’t move while being in the light emitted from the artifact. They have to stand still or they will die in an instant.
Making sure the game has an asymmetrical structure was a logical step to take. We could’ve chosen the same avatar for every player and making the use of ‘light’ just a different ability for the same avatar. However, I chose to take both roles as far apart as possible. For example, playing as a Flock should feel as playing a beast-like creature, roaming up high and seeing your prey way before it sees you.
Taking these roles apart helps creating tension for the Flock, but especially for the Carrier, because it’s more difficult to relate to your opponent. You might feel empowered with the screeches you let go when hunting as the Flock, but as soon as you become the Carrier those same screeches will give you a feeling of terror. Suddenly you’re nailed to the ground due to the heaviness of the artifact and you have to predict which way the Flock will come from.
IG: A few other games have dabbled with this kind of multiplayer (there was a mode in Crysis 3 and the Hidden mod for the Source engine, Evolve will do it too) but it doesn’t seem as widespread as it should be. Why do you think so few multiplayer games and modes have chosen to go beyond the basic deathmatch model?
JvH: Asymmetrical multiplayer is different and in most cases more difficult to balance. You can’t make direct comparisons between opponents because the skillsets may differ widely. We’re doing it a bit different, because we let players start out the same and don’t have players act the same role throughout the whole match. Continuously switching roles is an important gameplay element of The Flock. This definitely makes it easier when it comes to terms of balancing.
The Carrier is meant to face odds. It will keep getting more difficult for the Carrier to survive, so in this way it might seem unbalanced. However our game is balanced, because every player has a chance to become the Carrier. The thing to keep in mind though is that as the Carrier you should always have a chance of survival. You can always defend yourself when you hold the artifact.
Also a lot of multiplayer games have a single player campaign or come forth out of a single player experience to which the deathmatch model is a suitable fit. They usually don’t have an asymmetrical structure to start with. Sure you can play as an Elite in Halo multiplayer or play as the Nazis in Call of Duty, but most of the time the things you can do won’t differ that much.
I personally think this has also to do with wanting to show every player the same and the whole experience in one match. It’s generally a good thing to give the player choice in what they want to play when they want to play it. Taking that away forces the player in a role he/she might not like, which is not the obvious thing to do. This does make it exciting to explore asymmetrical structures! We’re finally entering a time in which games don’t have to deliver £40 worth of content. We can choose to deliver the amount of content best suitable for the experience with a fitting price tag.
IG: The Flock strikes me as somewhat the inverse of The Hidden. In that mod, it was one powerful being against a squad of soldiers, picking them off. You turn that on its head and make the individual light carrier the vulnerable one. When did you settle on the idea of the light being both a weapon and a give-away of the carrier’s position?
JvH: This was a natural thing to do when coming up with the concept. The Flock came forth out of me and another team member being bored and doing stupid things. We were thinking of how we could turn ‘this’ into a game and the only thing resembling a bit of gameplay would be the ability to ‘predict’ each other movements. What if the direction we were looking was clearly visible for the other one? This meant a cone of vision emitting from the eyes having a color different to the surroundings.
There had to be a goal too, so what if only one person would have this cone of vision and the other one needed to steal the ability? “This could be fun” we thought, but without any meaning to this ability other than visual enhancements, this wouldn’t last. So what if you were not allowed to move in this cone of vision? Unfortunately this meant that one could be caught in the light and be forced to stand still for eternity. We needed more players! This is where things started to become interesting. After a real-life playtest in the basement of the HKU we were convinced this could become very exciting. Of course there were a lot of other things we tried and questions we asked ourselves, but these were the ones that stuck and led to the beginning of The Flock.
When it comes to light as a weapon I want to design in forms of opposites. For example a rocket launcher would be perceived as a strong weapon, but it usually has limited ammo and a blast radius you can hurt yourself with. The light artifact has the same design challenge. It’s the only way the Carrier can actively defend himself and it’s a strong weapon to use. So it had to have a certain weakness to it as well. Since it’s inherit to the Flock’s survival it had to be easy traceable. It’s important for the Flock to know which way the Carrier is looking so it can successfully sneak up from behind. From a first-person perspective the light also steers the player to look in a certain direction. This makes the outer areas of your screen less useable, perfect for us to design suspenseful suggestions.
These opposites hold true for everything in the game. You can try and shine the light towards the ground, making you less visible. Even so the Flock being able to use the high ground effectively means this will leave you vulnerable for an attack. You can also turn off the light and sprint away in an evasive attempt, but timing this wrong might also end with a Flock in your face before the artifact has time to power up again.
IG: Everybody else plays as the Flock (until the Light Carrier is caught and that role switches.) Do the Flock have any ways of combating one another? For example, if I see a rival Flock about to catch the light carrier, can I prevent him from doing so in any way, or should my tactic be to wait for him to strike and then pick him off immediately afterwards?
JvH: We are certainly experimenting with ideas to allow that. We take it step by step, because we have to be careful in maintaining the scariness and tension of the game. We feel that the suspension of disbelief is very important for this genre of games. One of our biggest challenges is to make sure the player behavior in a match won’t destroy that. When designing something like this, you have to keep the focus on the Carrier. If Flock would engage each other too much, the Carrier could feel left alone or maybe even bored. The tactic you named is a valid tactic used by certain players. It emphasizes the backstabbing element the game has. You have to keep in mind though that the transformation into the Carrier comes with a big explosion of light. This gives the new born Carrier a bit of a safe start.
Flock share the same opponent. Some players want to work together when hunting the Carrier. The design goal we keep in mind is: all (Flock) parties who want to co-operate together have to gain an advantage in a way they still feel they will come out the better of the two. There is only one player that can become Carrier and only one that can win the match.
IG: There’s a bit of a stealth element in that the Flock players can turn to stone when stood still (which also protects them from light.) How visible are they when this occurs? Is it still clear to an observant light carrier, or do you pretty much vanish into the scenery?
JvH: We’ve tried a Flock character prototype that turns invisible upon standing still. This might see a return in the future as a different playable Flock race. However at the moment the Flock turns into stone when standing still. We want them to look like statues, not clearly visible, but visible nonetheless. When you catch a Flock in your light that’s standing still you know perfectly well that it sees you and it’s waiting for you to turn around. These trembling moments are interesting because you’re both powerless; you can’t kill the Flock and it can’t kill you. You have to press on, because another Flock might find ‘your attention being grabbed away’ the perfect opportunity to grab you from behind. That imaginable eye-contact you have with that statue Flock is something psychological we really like. I think it’s a powerful ‘you don’t see anything moving, although you know they move’ and ‘they only move when you look away’ effect.
IG: Audio as well as visual elements seem as if they’ll be important in terms of maintaining an awareness of your surroundings. How does the Unity Engine handle audio design of this kind?
JvH: We’ve first tried to incorporate FMod, which is an industry-wide used audio solution for sound designers. But this meant too much work and maintenance, so we’ve build our own dynamic audio system within Unity that reacts on certain situations in the game. We have a lot of parameters that check certain gameplay events (or uniquely created events all together) in order to give context to what’s happening. For example a Flock that sees the light in the distance will hear a ‘that way is the treasure’ like sound. However when that same Flock comes close to the Carrier, the burning ray of light will sound more dangerously. When directly being shined upon it will even create a ‘feedback’ like noise. Now you can start to imagine what we did for the Carrier when it sees a Flock that has come close enough to attack.
We use the standard Unity library form, but we’ve created our own editor that’s responsible for all the dynamic sounds. Unity generally does a fine job creating reverbs and play the sounds. It’s easy to place them in the scene creating ambient sound effects for the surroundings.
IG: Did the structure you’re using lead to any challenges with map design? And how many different maps will The Flock have?
JvH: Yes it did. We wanted to make sure the Carrier wouldn’t be safe and able to camp in one spot. So every place in the level should be attackable from more than one direction. We still design the levels in a way that some places are safer than others. This allows the Carrier to move from safe zone through a danger zone to a more safe zone. It meant a lot of testing and redesigning maps from the feedback we got.
Other than that, we also introduced a motion sensor to the artifact, which makes a lot of sense in the yet to be revealed lore. What it basically means is that when the Carrier stays too long in the same vicinity the light will start to dim and fade away. After that the light will start to flash and the artifact will shut down. This will leave the Carrier vulnerable, especially as there are clear indications for nearby Flock to know this is happening. When the light’s down you won’t be able to gain any points. It could be a conscious decision to time this, but in the end the Carrier has to keep moving.
IG: Indie multiplayer games can be notoriously difficult to maintain. Dan Marshall recently suggested that most indies probably shouldn’t risk making one. Does the possibility of The Flock launching with a low user base concern you? Is there a Plan B in case that happens?
JvH: I read the article and it is indeed worrying for us. We think about it a lot, so we’re happy we’re still students and not (yet) financially dependent on this. Our main focus is to create an engaging multiplayer thriller first. The Flock will be a game that hasn’t been done before. We set out to create something new without getting too weird. Of course we will have familiar aspects incorporated, it would be too hard to be unique in every way. We want to deliver something that people can familiarize themselves with, albeit bringing new things to the table as well.
However we don’t have the intention to design a multiplayer game that will always be entertaining. A lot of multiplayer games fail to entertain in the long run. It’s incredibly hard to keep players entertained for a longer time. You need a lot of content. But why should all multiplayer games attempt to be continuously entertaining? Why can’t we create a thrilling and unique distraction with the right price? We want to create a game that’s finished at some point. The Flock is meant to be an immersive and tense experience. Although we can get scared from our own game due to unpredictable behavior of players, eventually the novelty and the tricks at hand will wear off. What’s left is a competitive part, but The Flock is not meant to become an endless engaging competitive multiplayer game. We rather build a unique quality game than something mediocre with a lot of quantity. If your game is mediocre in the first place, nobody is going to play it anyway.
We have a number of plans we like to execute and tackle the problem of a low user base with. All will be revealed in due time. Of course we think about everything Dan Marshall pointed out, and we will try to incorporate as much as possible.
IG: What kind of server set-up and connectivity will The Flock be using?
JvH: Our networking set-up is a peer to peer connection along with a master server to help establishing connections and matchmaking. We currently do use an authorative server, but this is just one of the clients (players). This makes development a bit easier for us (as opposed to full peer to peer) without introducing a single point of failure if our servers go down. This would happen if you would have a master server that also handles gameplay. For future work, we’d like to leverage the peer to peer connectivity to further reduce network latency during a match.
Basically it means that the players host their own matches, we just help them to find each other.
IG: You reportedly managed to skip the Steam Greenlight process, so The Flock will launch straight on the Steam store. I’m sure many other developers will be wondering just how you managed to do that?
JvH: We’ve been in conversation with Valve since last year’s Gamescom where we showed our first prototype. They seemed to like it, but there were things yet undetermined. The fact we were working in Unity made things very easy though. They really like mac and linux ports, which is very doable with Unity. They like controller support as well, which The Flock absolutely has. At GDC we spoke again and had more of a formal meeting. We pushed for a direct release on the storefront and had enough reasons why we thought greenlight wouldn’t be a good idea. We also shared our thoughts about why we think The Flock would be a good thing for their portfolio. I can’t go into details, but they liked what we had.
IG: When is The Flock scheduled to be released? Is it Steam exclusive or will places like GOG be selling copies too?
JvH: We have recently decided that The Flock won’t make the end of 2014 but will be released in 2015. Quality is getting more and more important in keeping your studio viable and your games essential. We have all the intention to earn enough money to make sure Vogelsap can make at the least another game after we graduate. Of course we fail a lot during the development process. So to make sure we can build enough hype and make The Flock an experience worth waiting for we still have some time to go.
We’ve had conversations with GOG and like what they’re doing. However we’re currently focusing on Steam first.