DC Universe Online interview – Part 3: Characters and Heroes

Posted on February 27, 2011

Today, we talk with DC Universe Online’s Game Director Chris Cao about character creation, future Power Sets being added to the game and how the development team had to choose between quality and quantity in development. If you’re playing DCUO as much as we are, be sure to read the earlier parts of the interview, where Chris talks with us about animation glitching and developer priorities and the planned monthly content updates (hint: Penguin’s coming!), and tune in each day this week for more insight into our current favorite MMO.

PCG: A few of my comic book-savvy friends are upset that they can’t perfectly recreate a character like Superman or Flash because the game’s six power sets don’t really match those characters. Do see that as a problem that needs to be addressed or is it just a side effect of turning a comic book universe into a fun MMO?

Chris Cao: I know there are a lot of people who want to make a specific character, maybe you have a character concept in your head. There are other comic hero MMOs that create power sets that have no powers because it lets people do certain things. We are looking at it, but what it comes down to is that there are two types of people playing DCUO: those who want to create a specific character concept and that’s more important than the game play or cosmetic variety, and those who want rocking gameplay and abilities that tie together. That’s the spectrum: I don’t think players are one way or the other, you’re somewhere between that.

For us, the developers, we’re staying towards the gameplay more than anything, because adding a new Power type is the biggest change we can make in the game. A new power type affects literally everything we do. So our options are either give you a Power set that really isn’t very different because that’s the only safe way to add to it (giving you something that you already have and put different effects on it). Those character concept guys [want that sort of thing]: they’re like, “I don’t care if it’s different, at least cosmetically, I can get more into my character.”


I want to be just like these guys, except that Grundy fellow. He’s kinda gross.

The other alternative (on the gameplay-leaning side) is to say, “Hey, if we’re going to add more powers (and we will), let’s do it as totally different powers that feel different and provide different gameplay choices.” I think our weapons show how different we try to make things. Two-handed feels very different than Bow or Dual-wield and the rest. We’re trying to strike that balance [between new types and truly different types], and I think we’re always leaning on the gameplay side of those options. I’m not trying to stretch the answer out, but it’s really about different people playing the game and a lot of different points of expectation that they’re going to have. And we are always going to err on the side of things that makes the gameplay rock and gives it tactical combos and tactical multiplayer choices, rather than just trying to satisfy a player’s specific type of hero/villain concept.

One particular case is the Superman and Wonder Woman thing: they have power with no powers. We have their powers in the system, its just people want it called something else. We have Brawling in the game, and if you want to punch guys and smack things around, take the Brawling power set and Super Strength skill and you’re doing the Superman thing. Yes, you may have to pick Ice as a Power set, because we made a balanced system where everyone has a weapon, power, and movement mode. But if you want to get into that debate: we do have flexibility in our system. You can role play Superman no problem. You don’t have to use the Ice powers that are offered to you for tanking and those sort of things. You can mix your Power and Skill points, but its fundamentally a MMO, and that means it needs to play well as a multiplayer game with roles and abilities. That’s always going to be our first foot forward. On the cosmetic side, we’ll always try to put stuff in for it, but its gotta work as a game first.


Bop! Bet you didn’t learn that trick in martial arts school, Batjerk.

PCG: The iconic powers that everyone can access seems to be a good container for things like Superman’s laser eyes and Wonder Woman’s lasso.

CC: If you made a system that was perfect on the customization side, it would fall onto the gameplay side because they are at odds. You can choose one or the other. Really, DCUO’s the kind of game you want to play and we want to make it fun to play with your friends as well as give you the cosmetic side of it, but that’s secondary.

PCG: As far as adding new powers in the future, the most obvious one currently missing is the Green Lantern’s light powers. You could also do Cyborg’s techno-augmentation. Are there any power sets that aren’t implemented yet, that you peronsally want to see added sometime in the future?

CC: Designing power types based on one specific hero or villain is the main paradox in making a superhero MMO–if you’re making a game that only has one main hero: like a Superman game or Batman game, its probably less of a problem, because the abilities are customized to that character. But anytime you create something that’s more broad (like a power set in DCUO): your inspiration is specific, but your results have to be general.

Superman is a great example: he breaks all the rules. He’s super strong and super smart (he’s actually an incredible scientist). His story is full of alien technology, heat vision, cold breath, all of the sonic clap abilities, the pounding and ripping, and everything else that goes on. He’s a very specific case that people identify with and if you’re making  a game about Superman, you can replicate those abilities one for one. If you’re making a system of abilities [for players to pick and choose from to build their own character] you have to generalize and ask yourself, “OK, what bucket does this ability fall into?” Like th Ice power set in our game: ice is actually two sets of powers (all of the power sets are broken up into two main buckets of abilities). And even though they’re different from each other, they are not radically different, so we put them in the same bucket so, anybody who has elemental-like powers will be using, at the start, either Ice or Fire.


The Bee Knee’s wardrobe for this episode was provided by GAP.

PCG: Did any power sets get cut during development?

We tested Earth internally, but we couldn’t make it different from those two just yet, and we didn’t want to put some kind of brown ice out there, so we put it on hold. It wasn’t cut, but personally I would love to add Light. We’re actually talking right now adding Light. It has a fiction and a lore–especially with the movies upcoming, there’s a lot of support–and when we do it, we want to make sure it’s cool and not just, “We colored some other abilities or we changed the particle effects.”

I think this is pretty key to our game and what’s interesting about it: there are other MMOs, superhero or not, where fidelity is traded for variety directly. You get something that’s lower fidelity because you get more of it. It goes back to your earlier question: Do you want fidelity or variety? Obviously everyone wants both. I think a lot of times, MMOs pretend to promise both. In an action game, [a type of combat or game feature] means something completely different fidelity-wise, and when in an MMO, players [may make the excuse] and go, “Oh, well ,that fidelity isn’t there because they had to make so much of it.” Whatever we put in DCUO, we’re going to put it in carefully and we’re gonna make sure it has its own value. Whether it’s another power tech or weapon–whatever we add, you can be sure that it will make a totally different experience. We figured as long as you like the existing game, we can build more over time. But we’ll only get that once chance to make a good first impression, and if two of our powers are too alike, you’re going to think that we cheaped out.


At one point, they had almost double the number of weapon types that made it into live.

PCG: Do you think there’s room for more weapon types to be added as well?

CC: Totally. We had 15 or so weapons that we played around with in development and we boiled it down to 9. In some cases, we did stuff creatively–like we had this Wand weapon type that’s a little bit like a Harry Potter superhero. And while it was cool and there are characters in the DC universe that used wands, we just couldn’t come up with enough badass combos. At a certain point, the guy with the wand is bicycle kicking and back flipping. It just didn’t work. So the quality-over-quantity thing came into play and we said “OK, lets boil down”.

Another example is we had Single Pistol in for a while, instead of Dual Pistols because there are a lot of DC characters that use just a single pistol. Again, we looked at it and ask ourselves, “Whats cooler? OK, dual pistols it is.” And how different are single pistols going to be from dual? We thought our time was better spent making a Two-Handed weapon type or making a Hand Blaster that will really be radically different [from anything else], rahter than making a Single Pistol.

A good example [of making weapon types feel unique] is Martial Arts vs Brawling. They’re different, but both are hand-to-hand. So really, we wanted to be different. We wanted you to be cool because, there’s a lot of weapons and powers that we give you, in addition, there’s a lot of cool stuff in movement types. Like the Flash is a great example. A lot of the Flash’s abilities come from Super Speed, not a power type. If you try to re-make Flash in DCUO, you’re gonna be bigger and better in a lot of cases, because you are gong to have more options.


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DCUO interview – Part 1: Squashing bugs

Posted on February 23, 2011

Last week, I had the opportunity to interview DCUO’s Game Director Chris Cao. We talked about everything from what bugs the dev team is focusing on fixing first, March’s big update, future power and weapon sets being added to the game and if they’re planning to add mod support for the PC version. We’ll be releasing a new portion of the interview every day this week up through Friday! Today we talk with Chris about what the dev team’s top priorities are right now and what’s really going on with major bugs like animation glitching.

PCG: What do you see as the top priorities for the dev. team to address?

Chris Cao: Well, I can tell you that we don’t’ spend a lot of time making a list–we just start working on fixing problems. Right now we’re actually working on chat actively and we released some more fixes this last weekend and early Friday morning [to help improve the stability of chat on live servers]…. We’ve found that [the problems with chat] have been very population-dependent. Because our leagues are so big (like I’m in a league that has 750 people in it) its’ basically stressing our systems so we had to put in more tech to make sure that that whole thing works.

Voice chat is the same thing. We’ve done a bunch of changes there, but there are more coming in the February update. Communication is the number one thing. for us right now. Actually to that point, as a part of the March update, we’re re-designing the social pane and moving a lot of aspects currently in the social menu out onto the quick menu, so that they’re much easier to get to, instead of it being buried in the PDA.

Grouping is fun, but it could definitely be easier to get started.

Basically, right now, the thing that’s making everything not work or more annoying is the chat and communication. Right after that, is grouping and group queuing. The queuing logic that we have in there right now, we actually had hot fixes go out for it–I think it was Friday again. We’re starting to address these issues. We tried out a configuration for launch which favored Duo Modes over Alerts–it let Duos suck up all the available cues instead of letting more of the alerts show up. We’re looking at re-balancing that right now. [Balancing that sort of thing] is just a matter of finding out what people like to do and whose using what. We’re also adding in logic that makes sure that incomplete or dead instances get killed off faster, because they are also taking way too long right now.

So those are the two biggest things, because (1) If you can’t talk to people, it isn’t an MMO. And (2) If you can’t do things easily with other people then, that’s an issue. Now of course, there are lots of issues. Like we sped up the load time on the PS3 for a lot of menus which will speed it up on the PC even faster. That’s just basic usability stuff. That’s the thing: we have a great fun game, but there are some bugs and stuff that’s making it hard to use, and that’s really what we are focusing on more than anything.

And of course adding more stuff for everybody to do, but the focus is really split between making it easier to group and easier to see whats going on. Swapping group loot and cycle stance, which is a minor thing, but you look for group loot a lot more often than you cycle stance. So it’s those little things. We’re playing end game, we’re playing the leveling game, trying to get those things that we just want to smooth out and not like a rough edge to you.

PCG: That’s a lot of the changes that I, personally, was hoping to hear you mention.

CC: Yea, and there’s a ton of other fixes going in there, like in some cases, there were duos where you could get locked out of a boss fight. There are a ton of that type of changes going in. We usually don’t wait for the [major monthly] updates for those, because its server side. We actually change that stuff as fast as we can. If it involves physical assets that we have to do in the game, though, then we have to patch those and we wait for the update for that.

I could really use some help right about now… guys? Anyone?

PCG: Another major problem that you didn’t mention is the animation glitching that people are seeing in PVP, which lets cheaters chain together a crazy number of abilities. Is it going to be difficult to fix that? Is that even fixable?

CC: Well we’re actually trying to find out what’s going on, to be honest, because what’s interesting is that what people are calling “animation glitching” [isn’t really a bug at all]–it’s inherent to our system. It’s complicated to explain, so let me know if it comes across. Our system allows you to interweave weapon combos with abilities in your ability tray. That means that, in some cases, your ability tray needs to override your combo animation. In other words, if you gotta heal, you gotta heal right now because someone is about to die. So what we do is actually cut off the animation you were doing with your combo, and just instantly play the healing animation.

So sometimes people see what looks like a “glitch animation” which is actually our fail safe for when you need to heal or when you need to taunt or when you need to stun right away. We’re gonna override our own animation and make sure that that ability gets played, [but it’s not resulting in additional attacks]. The reason I bring that up is that this issue has actually grown [out of proportion] in peoples’ heads in the community, because we didn’t communicate well that “Yes, our system actually does allow inner animations to get interrupted.” Now at the same time, we’ve been watching the YouTube videos and doing detective work to figure out how the guys are doing 20 attacks a second. We’ve actually found in some cases that its a data problem, because we’ve allowed abilities to continue through [weapon attacks].

If I were animation-glitching, I might actually be winning.

So we fix some of those. We also have cheat detection which I won’t go into the details on how we do it. But we’ve been logging and learning a lot of that stuff and fixing it back end on our side. In an MMO, you are always racing against the people. The game’s evolving in both gameplay and technologically, we have our logging in place and are applying fixes (which I won’t talk about specifically, but we are addressing these types of glitches). We don’t seem to have anything duplicating what we saw in beta, where we had a few exploits like the track and field ones or the specific one with the Amazonian gauntlets where you could stack stuff up.

Obviously, when you’re in PvP and you get unfairly ganked, it’s one of the most emotional things that can happen. That’s just gonna piss you off. But what’s happening right now is that I’ve been playing a ton of PVP and I’ve never had [animation glitching] happen to me; and I’m on a pvp server! Obviously, this is anecdotal, but what I have seen is people calling out what I already do (which are my normal combos and abilities) and call that glitching.

The way to really tell if someone is glitching is to look in your combat log. If you see that you got hit repeatedly by someone in a span of time–instantaneously twenty or thirty times or constantly dodging or rolling–that’s the exploit that we are hammering down on. We’ve already done a bunch of fixes on it, but because of our combination of systems, we gotta make sure we’re covering all the holes. We don’t have them all yet but we are working on it.


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Long Live The King: Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford Talks Duke Nukem

Posted on February 10, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever has been in development for, well, forever, but Duke fans won’t have to wait much longer as his latest adventure will kick off May 3. We got a chance to chat with Gearbox’s Randy Pitchford about the long development cycle, how Duke became “video games’ Chuck Norris”, and more.

When the release date for Duke Nukem Forever was announced, fans were surprised launch was only a few months away. What did you think of the reaction?
It’s pretty overwhelming. Let me just put it this way, when we first revealed that we were bringing Duke back at PAX it quickly became a Twitter trending topic, got to number one worldwide and it stayed there for 17 hours. By comparison, Borderlands, the best it ever did was on launch day, and it got to number 10 for two hours. We felt really good about that. Duke Nukem is in a whole other world. It happened again when the launch date was announced. Duke Nukem all the way at the top of Twitter again. According to the internet it was a pretty big deal.

Recently we did a look on YouTube of all the trailers for games that haven’t come out yet, and the trailer that was released with the launch date announcement now has more views than any other video game trailer on YouTube. It got there really quick so that was really exciting. I’m excited that there’s so much love for Duke. He needs our support!

Why has Duke been so influential?

I think the biggest secret is he’s absurdly one-dimensional. A lot of our heroes have sort of become very complicated and they change so we’re not sure if he’s a happy hero or if he’s now emo. Duke is consistent. He’s solid and he’s just ***. He just owns life and owns the world. He’s the king. I think that consistency helps him stay sticky and relevant. He’s become important. He’s bigger than me. He’s huge. He’s like video games’ Chuck Norris.

Do you and Duke have anything in common?
We’re very different. It’s hard not to admire some aspects of the man. The thing is he’s the center of his universe and the whole world revolves around him so he gets away with things that no mortal should get away with. You have to be careful when you make comparisons to a guy like Duke. He’s his own dude for sure. That’s part of the fun, honestly, because none of us will ever be like Duke or come into the vicinity of a guy like him, but with a game like that you can get a taste of what it’s like in his boots for a little while.

When 3D Realms shut down everyone thought Duke was dead, but now he’s back in a title called Duke Nukem Forever. Why “Forever”?
It’s kind of ironic that the game was called Duke Nukem Forever. This is a game that’s been in development longer than any game in the history of the entire industry. It’s kind of neat to be here and see this resolution finally happen. It’s like the end of an epic book series and you’re getting to the end of the final chapter. It’ll be great to see that impact point when it launches and to see the reactions. Then to think about what to do next with the man.

Why bring him back?

I think there’s two answers to that. As a gamer, Duke is one of a kind. There should be a Duke game once in a while and that’s just a fun thing to do. On a personal level in a lot of ways I feel I owe Duke my career, and since I was in a position to help do something about it, I couldn’t let the man die. The Duke can’t die. He needed us so it’s important he has his chance to become triumphant so I feel like it’s the least I could do. The first game I ever worked on in the industry was Duke 3D and I can’t imagine the path I would’ve had if that weren’t the case.

You had mentioned during the demo presentation that the game can be a little challenging…what can you say about Duke’s difficulty?

The point of different skill levels is to give people the opportunity to dial in their own challenge level. If you’re a casual gamer, you’ll pick the easiest skill level, and you’ll find the enemies are easier to take down and they don’t do much damage to Duke. If you really want the most difficult challenge you could pick one of those harder skill levels and you’ll have to be very quick, very good, and very accurate. It’s pretty brutal. Now there’s still some fine tuning that’s being done, but that’s part of the fun, to have those options for gamers who want to dial in a different challenge. I like it. Sometimes I’ll beat a game through just for the experience on an easier skill level and then play on the hardest skill level.

What’s left to polish off in Duke Nukem Forever?

The game is complete, we’re just wrapping up tasks and fixing a few bugs, things related to preparing for certification and making sure it can be delivered on all the platforms. At this point, we’re at the beginning of February, and the game ships on May 3, there are about 3- to 4,000 issues in our database of work to do, “tasks”, and I imagine we’ll add a couple thousand more to that by the time we go into final certification, so there are about 6,000 work items or so that we’ll have to get through to ship the game. There are a lot of talented people working on the game and some of the issues we can knock out pretty quickly, but there are some tricky ones too, so we have to work really hard and keep our heads down and focus.

DNF has been in development for roughly 14 years and the gaming landscape has changed so much over that time, are you worried about the reception it may get?

I can’t worry about it. I’m not worried about it, but even if I was, I can’t worry about it. I can’t second guess things. It’s a game for today’s gamers that cleverly remembers our memories from Duke Nukem 3D. Those of us that were there will find those nods and homage, and will enjoy those jokes. Even if you hadn’t played Duke 3D it’s still very fun. It’s not the vision from the beginning years ago, it’s a vision that’s been iterated on all this time and evolved and developed with the industry.

Be sure to check out our hands on preview of Duke Nukem Forever.

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Dragon Age II -Mike Laidlaw Interview

Posted on February 10, 2011

Mike Laidlaw talks about talent trees and how character gameplay has improved in this Dragon Age II interview.

Read and Post Comments | Get the full article at GameSpot

Dragon Age II -Mike Laidlaw Interview” was posted by JimM on Tue, 08 Feb 2011 15:33:39 -0800

Interview – Monday Night Combat devs talk Steam, bacon

Posted on December 16, 2010

I’m not going to be shy about it–I’m damn glad that I’ll be able to play Monday Night Combat on PC. We need more downloadable-sized shooters on PC; I’m still miffed that EA let Battlefield 1943 drift into PC-port limbo-land.

Anyway. MNC sizzles onto Steam January 17; we thought we’d take a moment to get to know Uber Entertainment, the bacon-loving men behind the game. We spoke with Chandana Ekanayake, executive producer and art director about the special guest coming to the PC version, the dev’s background, and how Uber’s experience working with Valve has differed from its cooperation with Microsoft.

PC Gamer: MNC was Uber Entertainment’s first game, but the studio is made up of  people with a PC development heritage. Your founder and president worked on one of our most-loved titles of 2009—Demigod—with your creative director John Comes. You worked on Morrowind. How has that background helped or influenced your decision to bring MNC to PC?

Chandana Ekanayake: Great question! Here’s a few others:

Steve Thompson, Cinematics Lead – Dungeon Siege, Dungeon Siege 2

John Comes, Creative Director – C&C Generals: Zero Hour, LOTR:Battle for Middle Earth, Supreme Commander, Demigod

Tim Cox, Environment Art Lead – Neverwinter Nights 2

Jon Mavor, CTO – Total Annihilation

With our combined background in both RTS and action games, we wanted to make a hybrid shooter game that we all wanted to play as developers, keep it more accessible and light hearted. That’s how the idea of Monday Night Combat was born and developed. We’re big believers in “find the fun first” method of game development which means get the game playable as soon as possible with the most minimal art assets. For the first year of development the game was in white box mode.

MNC’s textureless white box mode.

Keeping the art simple allows us to iterate on the gameplay fast, experiment with different ideas and throw away mechanics that don’t work. Early on during development, our daily process started with ideas we want to throw in the game, once it was in, we all play-test it as a group, and the ideas people like stay in and things that suck get thrown out.

We still play-test the game everyday and feedback from everyone at the studio as well as fresh eyes from people that we bring in gives us good information as to what to adjust and balance. This is why we wanted to do a beta to further tweak balance for PC and also make sure the game runs well on the various PC configurations.

PC Gamer: At what point did you decide to bring Monday Night Combat to PC?

Eka: We always knew we wanted to bring MNC to PC as it started it’s development there but we could only concentrate on one platform at a time with our smaller crew. We initially chose XBLA as it seemed like a great place to get noticed for a smaller indie studio like Uber.

Uber’s first studio: a shared apartment.

PC Gamer: It’s not uncommon for a developer to delay or cancel the PC version of a game and say that it isn’t willing to dedicate the resources—even with content as seemingly simple as DLC. Why is it worth the time and effort to bring MNC to PC? What’s attractive about the platform?

Eka: Our basic philosophy with Monday Night Combat is that it’s a game as a service. Since it’s primarily a competitive multiplayer game, we feel it’s important to listen to our community and keep updating the game with balance adjustments and new content. What’s attractive about Steam is the ability to push content and changes out to our players in a fast manner as well as experiment with ideas and get fast feedback from our community.

We’re also impulsive and if we get an idea in our heads that just makes us go “awesome!” then we want to get it into the game as soon as possible and get it into the hands our our players. Just today, we had this crazy idea for a special guest character that just makes total sense in the world of Monday Night Combat (at least to us). We ran the idea by creators of this special guest and they loved it. So said special guest character will be making an appearance when the game launches on January 17th. I know, I know, stop teasing but it’ll be awesome!

Even game developers need some bacon love.

PC Gamer: What’s the reception been so far on the announcement?

Eka: So far the reception has been very positive with some concerns about support for our console version. We’re on our forums daily and we’ll continue to be as well as supporting both the PC and console versions of the the game.

PC Gamer: You’re planning to add “editor support” to MNC on PC sometime in January. What form will that take? Is it a level editor, modding tools, or something different?

Eka: Monday Night Combat is built using Unreal3 and it’s suite of powerful tools. Players will be able to edit levels and create mods with the same tools we used to create the game.

PC Gamer: In October, Penny Arcade wrote about an experience that you guys had trying to push an update for MNC through Microsoft certification onto XBLA. Has working with Steam and Valve, so far, been a different experience than working with Microsoft?

Eka: Traditionally, consoles have been fixed hardware closed platforms without too many software updates to make it simpler for the end-user while PC gamers are used to more frequent updates. The consoles are evolving slowly but they have some ways to go before catching up with Steam and its ability to put out content faster.

MNC character statues guarding bacon-covered donuts from Uber’s favorite shop.

PC Gamer: What other changes are you making/have you made to the PC version of the game? Did any portion of the interface require significant reworking? Did any weapons or levels need to be tweaked or rebalanced?

Eka: On top of supporting higher resolutions, bigger textures and tweakable graphic performance, we reworked most of the various menus to better suit the PC version. The biggest changes went into the Multiplayer Lobby, server browser, favorites and custom games. We spent a fair amount of time setting up a good default control scheme for keyboard and mouse and adding hotkeys to our skill purchase and turret buying menus. Some of the classes have gone through balance changes and we’ll continue to balance them throughout the beta.

PC Gamer: We share your open, romantic enthusiasm for bacon. What kinds do you eat? At what point did eating it turn into a conversation of “Hey, this stuff is pretty good. We should put it in our game.

Eka: Bacon is a steady part of our balanced diet here at Uber and putting it into the game wasn’t even a question of “if” but “when.” Our favorite bacon right now is Country Smoked Cajun Bacon from The Loveless Cafe in Nashville. We just ordered 30lbs of it last week!

PC Gamer: Keep fighting the good fight. Thanks for your time, Eka.


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Storytellers Of The Decade: Amy Hennig Interview

Posted on December 04, 2010

Expanding upon our cover story featuring the decade’s 30 greatest characters, we’ve called out a handful of industry professionals who’ve earned the title of master storytellers. Amongst the selection is Amy Henning, perhaps best known as the creative director and lead writer on the Uncharted series, and a seasoned industry veteran who honed her voice on franchises such as Legacy of Kain. We talked to Hennig about the evolution of the industry as a storytelling medium, her personal inspirations, and touch on the upcoming Uncharted movie adaptation.

Your original intent was to pursue a career in the film industry. What inspired you to switch mediums?

Yeah, it’s funny, there was no intent behind it. I’m not even sure there could have been intent, because I ended up joining the industry in1989, so it wasn’t as if something like that was a career people even considered. Maybe some people, but I think most of us back then stumbled into it one way or the other. I’d always liked video games, especially when I was a kid, I was one of those kids who saved up any allowance I could and blew it all at the arcade. It was like, Sea Wolf, Night Driver, Pong… It’s so primitive compared to what we think of now.

Once I got caught up in school and all that stuff, I put games to the side. I had sort of rediscovered them a little bit when my niece and nephew were little, and we got some of the 8-bit machines and were playing games together. I had done my English degree and I was working on a master’s in film theory and production. I was trying to pay my way through grad school, so I was taking any odd job I could get. Anything from word processing to illustration for technical manuals to page layouts. Anything. I was living in the San Francisco bay area at the time and just driving up and down the peninsula. This opportunity just sort of fell in my lap, completely by coincidence, to basically do the art and design for an Atari 7800 game. At the time I thought it was just a job that would help pay the bills.

I’ve described it before as like having a light bulb go on. I worked on a game that unfortunately never actually saw the light of day. We finished it but it just never got published. I realized that there was something intriguing about this medium, even though back then, we’re talking about just little pixel guys, almost no memory, three colors. But trying to be creative and push the boundaries within those limits, I thought was really fun. And I thought it was very interesting to try to jump into an industry that’s this nascent, this pioneering. So I put that stuff together, made a portfolio, went to Electronic Arts, and dropped out of film school.

What was that first project that you worked on? The one that didn’t see the light of day?

It was actually Electric Cop, but not the one for Lynx. They wanted to do a version for the Atari 7800, but it wasn’t at all related, it was just the same name. So it was basically just a horrible Robocop rip-off that we were doing. We were trying to push the boundaries of the technology at that point. But it was right at the tail end of the 7800’s lifespan, and I think they were starting to either push the last projects out or cancel them. So that’s why it never got published.

Where to next?

From there I went to Electronic Arts and worked on another game for a year that never got published, which was Bard’s Tale 4. I had joined as an animator and artist. Then I did a little work on Desert Strike –  just a very little bit of work doing interstitial screens and stuff. That was my first 16-bit console game, learning how to work with that. And then I moved into game design, actually ended up inheriting the Michael Jordan: Chaos in the Windy City platform game, as lead designer. So the concept was already in place, crazy as it was, and it was a matter of implementing against this idea of putting Michael Jordan in a platform game. So I did that, and again I always tried to take the opportunity to try and push the boundaries of the hardware. Even back then we were doing streaming technology. It was interesting, you look back and you think that you could make some of these games in a weekend, knowing what we know now. How did we struggle for a year with a decent-sized team trying to get these games done? It’s obviously the evolution of the technology.

From there, let’s see, I went to Crystal Dynamics in ’95, and I was the design manager on the first Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain game, as well as some other titles like 3D Baseball and Blazing Dragons. And then I went back to being a director on a single project after being there for a year, took over the Legacy of Kain franchise. Soul Reaver was the first game that I worked on after Blood Omen. I did that for eight years, and then came here in 2003. So that’s my big long story.

As creative director, what are your current responsibilities at Naughty Dog?

I think a lot of creative directors’ roles are pretty similar these days. It’s just trying to keep the holistic vision of the project. In my case, that also means being the key writer on the thing. Working with the actors for performance capture and all that, but also working with our game director on the nuts and bolts of the game design. I always say that I keep an eye on the forest and let people work on the trees, you know what I mean?

On this game that I’m working on currently, I am pretty much the primary writer. On previous games, we’ve had people on the team who were also inclined as writers, so we would collaborate on things. Sometimes people would write drafts of scenes. So at the end of the day, I’m the one responsible for doing the majority of the writing and also taking any ideas from the team, or any rough drafts, and making it all cohesive. And then taking that stuff and working directly with the actors to make sure that it’s all coming alive on the stage.

Where do you derive inspiration from as a writer and as a creative director?

I have to think about that for a second. Obviously we all take our inspirations from all the stuff around us, right? There isn’t a specific answer to that, because it’s maybe graphic novels that we’re reading, or television shows that we’re enjoying at the time, movies we see, it’s the whole amalgam of all the media around us. It may be stuff that’s kind of unexpected, too, it may be that you’re really into a certain sitcom or something like that, and that ends up infusing itself into your creative psyche a little bit. I think we just absorb these things, even if we’re not actively hunting out inspiration, if you see what I mean.

Looking at what our other colleagues are doing in video games is inspiration too. We have to keep pushing that ball down the field. We look at each others games and say, ‘well, here’s where they faceplant and here’s where they succeed, so let’s not faceplant.’ We won’t make that mistake, but we’re going to maybe leapfrog off an idea that somebody else had. I think that’s what’s cool about our industry; it’s like this organism where we’re all looking at each other’s work to keep evolving the medium. And then of course for me too a lot of inspiration comes from being able to work so closely with our actors, because everything we do is such a collaboration. Specifically, say, the scene work. And then the same thing goes for working with the team here, because everything we do is a collaboration. Any one of us may have good ideas. Tt’s when we combine them and challenge each other that… That’s where the magic comes from. You take idea A and idea B and then when you collaborate you get this third thing that neither of you alone would have come up with. So it’s a really vague answer to your question, but it’s all that stuff, I think.

Up next: the evolving industry…

Go to Source (Game Informer)

Interview: GamersFirst on bringing back APB

Posted on November 17, 2010

As reported last week, cops and robbers MMO APB has been bought by GamersFirst, who have announced that the game will return as a free-to-play game in the first half of next year. We’ve had a chat with GamersFirst CTO and COO, Bjorn Book-Larsson about the next chapter for the troubled MMO, discussing the game’s potential, the new features GamersFirst will be working on, and the reasons why APB failed in the first place.

PC Gamer: Why did you decide to buy APB?

Bjorn Book-Larsson: From our side we initially thought it was a really good concept. So from a distance we had said “hey, this seems like an interesting new title, it seems like there’s a lot of customisation and user generated content features”, and we were interested in the game, on a professional level, from the outside. Then what happened was, we picked up the game because, from our point of view we think that it has a lot of really good critical components that can make a good foundation for a long term free-to-play project. The huge difference between free-to-play and retail sales is that with retail sales you have to make your numbers in the first 30 days, and in the free-to-play model you have the expectation and/or luxury of putting the game out there, and modifying it to match what people actually do in the game. For us we think that the game has a lot of really good features. It has a lot of customisation parts, and it has various innovative ideas and ways to expand the traditional shooter genre. The things that were problems, like the balancing, and the weird monetization methods are things that we feel pretty confident we can address, especially because we have about seven years of publishing experience in the free-to-play space. Drawing on all that experience, we’re taking all the things we learned from all those other games and incorporating them into APB.

PC Gamer: What is it about APB that makes it suitable for a free to play model?

Bjorn Book-Larsson: Well, it already has a lot of components that we want in free-to-play. It already had an in game trading system so you can trade things back and forth, which is usually an important component to free-to-play experiences. It has very a evolved concept of “choose this side”. We have a game called Knight Online where we have two nations fighting, it has a lot of elements that we have seen be successful in free to play games. We don’t think it’s there yet, because one of the key things in a free-to-play game is that you actually have to make it fun and engaging for the free player, and then for those who do microtransactions and/or become premium members, or premium players by making a purchase, they have to have some slight benefit or advantage in the game, but you also still have to maintain the balance throughout the game so that the two types of players continue having fun, so there’s a lot of that type of balancing that we have to work on to make it work, but we feel like it has the bones, the skeleton of a potentially really good free-to-play title, and we have to get there in the next six months or so, and then we can release it as a free-to-play title.

PC Gamer: You mentioned microtransactions and a premium service, what kind of items will players be buying in APB, and what would the premium service involve?

Bjorn Book-Larsson: There’s many different models for the free-to-play games We have another game called War Rock. War Rock was a game made in Korea back in 2006, we launched it in the US and the world in 2007, so it’s sort of a last generation game, but it has a lot of innovative ideas. Basically we’re going to borrow some things from those types of titles, other games like Combat Arms, which we don’t publish, but there’s other games like that out there. One of the easiest things to do with this game would be to add leased weapons, so for thirty days you lease certain weapon types. Then for premium access you would essentially allow certain expanded features or complexities of customisation for those who are premium players, and those who are free players get less complex things included in the basic membership level. Beyond that, there’s multiple ways to monetize free-to-play shooter games. The leasing method is probably the simplest and most straightforward. There’s another method called the ‘wear method’ where you pay because your guns wear out, you have to repair them. There’s another one that we generally refer to as the ‘grinding and trading’ method, which is more common in RPGs, and then there’s another one called the ‘insurance model’ where you get to build stuff, but they blow up, and if they blow up you can have insurance to cover your losses, if you will. What’s interesting about free to play is that there are a lot of financial models behind it that actually mimic real world systems, so you drive on the same real world motivations. The reason you buy insurance for your car is because you don’t want to lose the whole thing. You don’t necessarily pay subscription fee to have a car, you might have car payments for it, but you’ll have insurance, so there’s models like that which work in other games. What we’re going to do is, initially, we won’t go there across all those models. We’re starting very simple, just adding the two core components that have worked well in our other shooters players, and that would be just leased weapons and premium accounts or premium services.

PC Gamer: Apart from putting in the new payment model, will you be making any changes to the mechanics of the game itself?

Bjorn Book-Larsson: Some. There’s more balancing issues. One of the key issues the game seemed to have when it came out, what happened was, first of all you had to pay for game time, which was sort of weird. The second thing was, if you showed up in a game, because of their version of progression, if you got shot when you turned up in a match, you might be shot by a gun that you had no access to, because you hadn’t gotten murdered for nine hours yet, so you didn’t have the gun. I think that a lot of those things will remain, but now make more sense. If you’re a free player and you don’t want to buy the premium weapons then you can grind and eventually earn it, but you don’t have to necessarily pay for that painful grinding process. I think they accidentally created was, in this game, you had to actually pay to grind, which is unheard of in the free-to-play space. Those kind of balances are the ones we’ll focus on the most. There’s a few other balances too, such as, for instance, individual gun balances, which we do want to modify, so things like gun ranges and the disparity between weapons actually has to be much less. We’ve found from other games that you want to have just a couple of percentage points of balance difference between weapons, otherwise it becomes essentially a slaughterfest one way or another. So there’s various balance fixes like that, and then there’s various small annoying things, and this may not be in the first re-release, but when you run up to a car you often accidentally end up in the back seat, which is a little surprising! There are rare situations where you would probably want to be in the back seat, but 80 or 90 percent of the time you want to be drivers seat because the car’s empty. I think the original designers were very concerned with some purity of design which may have gotten in the way of the gameplay.

PC Gamer: Why do you think APB failed on its first release?

Bjorn Book-Larsson: I think part of it of course was that it was such a huge investment. I mean, the expectations were huge, and therefore when it didn’t start paying off in the first month or so it was almost doomed on its own expectations. I think it actually had the potential in the long term to potentially work, and obviously we believe it’ll work in the long term, but I think the hybrid retail subscription model that they had tried, for the mechanic they designed I don’t think it was going to work, ever. In order to succeed with that mechanic you would have to really polish some of the core components in order to convince enough players to be a subscriber. If you look at other games like Eve Online, Eve Online started as a modest, much smaller game, and over time they grew it, it got more and more of a devoted fanbase, and it really took several years before it got to the level where it is today. I think that’s the kind of game development structure they would have to keep in mind, like they should probably have considered going out with some sort of live beta, be in a live beta for a year or more, preferably with thousands of players participating in order to polish the game, in order to make it something that was sustainable. I don’t think they had planned that in, it was more planned as a retail release with EA pushing a bunch of boxes everywhere. I think the issue there is that the traditional publishers haven’t really yet – EA has experimented quite a bit with the digital distribution sales type stuff, but I think the free-to-play model is very hard for traditional publishers to predict, and if you don’t do a straight retail or console title it’s a very very long term, nefarious, difficult to predict process. I just don’t think they had the stomach to go all out, which I actually think would have worked for them.

PC Gamer: Then the advantage of the free to play model is that you can have the game out there for a long time, have a lot of people playing it, and then update it as it goes on.

Bjorn Book-Larsson: Yeah. I mean, in fact, we’d say about 80 percent of the work may happen after the game goes live, so to some extent not a lot of work goes in initially, but we have games today that have really existed as games for as much ten years, and then they have as many as 50,000 simultaneous players even ten years after they initially were launched, so these are pretty substantial MMOs. I guess the concept is surprisingly simple, which is: in a free to play game, no-one will pay for it unless they have fun. Surprise! So the net results is that you have to spend all your efforts following users around, figuring out what it is they do that is fun, and then effectively focus on giving them more stuff in the areas where they spend most of their time, around the things that they prefer to do. Often we’re surprised at what users actually do. We might design something because we think “hey, this’ll be great”, and they don’t even do it, but they find an alternate use of something we did, and they go off on a complete tangent and do stuff. I think being humble about the fact that as a designer you can’t so much predict what users will do so much as throw out a lot of good ideas and hope that users latch on to some of them, and then you have to measure and measure and measure what people do.

PC Gamer: So player feedback will play an important part in APB’s development?

Bjorn Book-Larsson: Yeah, I mean, as a company we’re called GamersFirst, and the reason is our goal is to follow what gamers do and give them that. We’ve existed as a company for seven years and it’s funny because we’re not especially huge or well known, we’re somewhat known, but it’s one of those things where the velocity of this type of release cycle is that the game should last, and almost be a platform from which you launch a lot of different experiences. With War Rock for instance, we just launched a collaborative mode where you play with team members as opposed to trying to kill everyone else, and it was huge, it turned out there was a huge demand for that type of gameplay mode, so we’re continuously doing that kind of work, and those are the kinds of things that we have to bring to APB as well.

PC Gamer: What new experiences do you want to add to APB as it develops?

Bjorn Book-Larsson: In the short term, obviously, a lot of things. It would be great if there was a way for clans or teams to have more collaboration, because right now you get thrown out in to a big city and it’s a little bit tricky or difficult to pick encounters against other teams. If you think of things like the e-sports leagues that are out there in Europe, in War Rock for instance we have a lot of clan versus clan fights, so we do want to set up a method for those smaller groupings to stay coherent, because that kind of social dynamic will actually perpetuate the game much longer than an individual experience. I think if you look at the design of the game, it was very tailored towards an online individual experience to some extent, because you were thrown into a large group of people, but there wasn’t really a direct mode for clans to take on another clan and be ranked against them, or there wasn’t an easy way to do it, it wasn’t central. I think that’s one of the first things we’ll do. We might accomplish that by adding some session based gameplay. There are a couple of maps that the original had already finished, so we might bring those out and let people join those smaller maps in some form of clan mode. There’s other changes as well, there were some interesting concepts around the cars, there was some potential racing components that existed in the original code, so there are various experiences like that which are close at hand. I think, three to five years out, the goal would be to take advantage of the really cool customisation tools, and potentially build several different game experiences like this around the game. Because it already has a really solid social district, there’s nothing really stopping us from allowing you to enter different worlds of engagement from that social district, not necessarily just the large scale San Paro financial districts, but you could go do collaborative gameplay, or a session based game, or some other kind of interactions using that same character that you’ve built.

PC Gamer: It sounds like you’re taking hold of some ideas that were already in the code that Realtime worlds didn’t implement, and using that as a jumping off point?

Bjorn Book-Larsson: Yeah, we’re sort of trying to reuse what they had started with, but I think there are a lot of things that weren’t even built in code which we’re going to have to add, but obviously the first few months is really focused on consolidating on the things that are there. In the real long term, we’re trying to envision: what if we wanted to launch multiple game experiences based on different user types? One of the things to keep in mind is that as a company we have about 30 million registered users, out of which about half are registered to play shooter games, so those users, quite a large audience, are ready, and we have a pretty good idea of how they behave and what they play. So we can tell you how many of those have signed up to play collaboratively as opposed to competitively within the shooter groups, so based on that we can tailor game changes to what it is that they want to do.

PC Gamer: So obviously there’s a lot to be added to the game, is there anything you’re taking out?

Bjorn Book-Larsson: Possibly we will try to reduce parts of the game. One of the issues is that the game client is quite large, so what we might look to do is try to create two versions of the client, one which is a smaller version, and one which is an improved version. Those are details to be worked out after the first batch of changes. We might have a starter pack, and then an enthusiast version for those who have the latest and greatest hardware.

PC Gamer: When the game comes out, are there any plans to gift items or services to players who have already paid for APB?

Bjorn Book-Larsson: We will try to accommodate those former players if we can. The issue is that of course the former players were distributed to by EA, and I know that EA has been giving refunds, and we’re not really engaged with that process. It’s a tricky question that we don’t have an answer to yet, if there’s a technical or even operational way to recognise all the former players then we will. If there’s not, then some of them may have to start over, but at least we hope they can reclaim the characters that they created, but they’ll have to create new accounts on our services in order to do so.

PC Gamer: So you do plan to let people take through characters they’ve already created?

Bjorn Book-Larsson: If possible, that’s a huge caveat. Obviously, as you can imagine, since EA has been doing the distribution there has been a lot of somewhat unanswered questions around that. Once that gets worked out, which I actually think will take a little bit of time, we would probably have a solid answer at the end of this year.

PC Gamer: Thanks for your time.


Go to Source (PC Gamer)

Fight Night Champion: Producer Interview

Posted on November 16, 2010

VIDEO: We talk about the fight mechanics in Fight Night Champion and how this iteration of the Fight Night series will be more mature than previous games.


Go to Source (Game Pro)

Call of Duty: Black Ops Interview and Workout with Hank Keirsey

Posted on November 15, 2010

James Kozanecki spends time with Call of Duty: Black Ops’ military advisor Hank Keirsey, where he gives insight into his role and runs us through a typical military workout (only to amuse him, of course).

Read and Post Comments | Get the full article at GameSpot

Call of Duty: Black Ops Interview and Workout with Hank Keirsey” was posted by edmondt on Sun, 14 Nov 2010 16:25:23 -0800

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood Interview With Philippe Bergeron

Posted on November 04, 2010

GameSpot AU sits down with level design director Philippe Bergeron to discuss the inception of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, insight into the game’s major design decisions, and more.

Read and Post Comments | Get the full article at GameSpot

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood Interview With Philippe Bergeron” was posted by edmondt on Mon, 01 Nov 2010 21:14:21 -0700

Planet Fallout Interview – Chris Avellone

Posted on September 21, 2010

Planet Fallout presents an interview with Obsidian’s Chris Avellone, covering the state of RPG’s…
Go to Source (Planet Fallout)

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Interview: TGS 2010

Posted on September 19, 2010

Deus Ex: Human Revolution has been a big hit at TGS 2010 and we talk about it with the game’s producer, Jean-Francois Degas.

Read and Post Comments | Get the full article at GameSpot

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Interview: TGS 2010was posted by Tyler on Sat, 18 Sep 2010 20:33:46 -0700

Alice: Madness Returns Interview: American McGee

Posted on September 16, 2010

We catch up with American McGee at TGS 2010 to find out what’s new with the development of Alice: Madness Returns.

Read and Post Comments | Get the full article at GameSpot

Alice: Madness Returns Interview: American McGeewas posted by Tyler on Thu, 16 Sep 2010 07:45:30 -0700

Fable III Interview: Peter Molyneux

Posted on September 16, 2010

Peter Molyneux talks about gaining followers, moral decisions, and Kinect, and how they all relate to Fable 3.

Read and Post Comments | Get the full article at GameSpot

Fable III Interview: Peter Molyneux was posted by Tyler on Thu, 16 Sep 2010 05:51:36 -0700

Shadows of the Damned TGS 2010 Interview: Suda 51 / Shinji Mikami

Posted on September 16, 2010

Suda 51 and Shinji Mikami sound off after announcing their long-anticipated collaboration, Shadows of the Damned.

Read and Post Comments | Get the full article at GameSpot

Shadows of the Damned TGS 2010 Interview: Suda 51 / Shinji Mikamiwas posted by Tyler on Wed, 15 Sep 2010 09:02:19 -0700

Sarcasticgamer Interviews Gstaff

Posted on September 15, 2010

Sarcasticgamer interviews Matt “Gstaff” Grandstaff about Fallout:New Vegas, an almost surreal…
Go to Source (Planet Fallout)

Three new Fallout: New Vegas interviews

Posted on September 13, 2010

Do you crave Fallout: New Vegas interviews? Good, because here are three new interviews from…
Go to Source (Planet Fallout)



Pre-Order Fallout: New Vegas!!

PAX 2010 Video Feature: Day One Daily Wrap Up

Posted on September 05, 2010

GameSpot editors Tom Magrino and Shaun McInnis team up with Editor-in-Chief Ricardo Torres for a PAX 2010 Day One daily wrap up.

Read and Post Comments | Get the full article at GameSpot

PAX 2010 Video Feature: Day One Daily Wrap Up” was posted by gslive on Sat, 04 Sep 2010 18:38:00 -0700

TERA PAX 2010 TERA Interview: Brian Knox 1

Posted on September 05, 2010

GameSpot interviews TERA Senior Producer Brian Knox at PAX 2010 in Seattle.

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TERA PAX 2010 TERA Interview: Brian Knox 1” was posted by gslive on Sun, 05 Sep 2010 03:23:05 -0700

Darkspore PAX 2010 Darkspore Interview: Casey Weaver 1

Posted on September 05, 2010

GameSpot’s Sophia Tong gets a look at Darkspore for the PC at PAX 2010 in Seattle.

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Darkspore PAX 2010 Darkspore Interview: Casey Weaver 1” was posted by gslive on Sun, 05 Sep 2010 05:16:27 -0700

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