September 16, 2009

Interview with Richard Ham, Creative Director at Splash Damage (Brink)

Dale Culp says: Last week, I wrote up a preview of Brink based on a demo seen at PAX. Immediately following the demo, I caught up with the Creative Director at Splash Damage Studios, Richard Ham, for a deeper look into the world of Brink.

Dale: So, how long has this game been in development?

RH: Um, they started it about a year, year and a half ago. I came on, actually, about a year ago, started basically at the beginning of 2008.

Dale: So, this is pretty close to done?

RH: Oh, actually, I'd say we've got a ways to go. We're about to go Alpha within the next month or so. Actually, this version you saw is several months old. This our E3 demo we put together and we have just been using it here because so many people didn't see it.

Dale: I noticed some of the animations seemed a bit rough. A few of the guys didn't even react to being shot, they just sort of fell to the ground after they died.

RH: Ah! The joys of ragdoll.

Dale: I did see a couple of guys who reacted to a grenade, though. I actually saw his knees bend forward as his body wrenched backward – that's the kind of stuff I like to see. I love the context, when the enemies react to being shot.

RH: Exactly, yeah. Ragdolls are really, really hard. We actually have a guy who's working full-time on it. It's odd; our expectations of what somebody looks like when they die are completely wrong. Based on movies where an actor tries to pretend he's dead, he doesn't truly go dead. You know? He still has tension in his muscles and whatnot because he's really alive. When you see somebody really die it looks really weird and wrong because they do just completely drop dead. But we do have to actually take this physical simulation and limit it such that it looks more like an actor dying, which is an odd thing.

Dale: Right, right. We've all seen that episode of MythBusters where they shot the dummy and it barely moved.

RH: Exactly! Yeah.

Dale: People don't just go flying off into the air after they've been shot.

RH: [laughs]

Dale: So, let's talk about the story of Brink; what is Ark?

RH: Basically, Ark was built right around now – between 2005 and 2010 – as kind of a prototype for what mankind's perfect, dream future could be. You know, with zero carbon emissions, renewable energy, renewable food supply – all the stuff that has been kind of a pipe dream of what we need to do for humanity, they actually proved it. We've done a lot of our research for the background of our game and based it off stuff that's really existing today. We had one bit of science-fiction in our game which was they created this new building material which was basically a replacement for concrete, because concrete, when it sets, gives off lots of CO2 gasses which is a huge problem. So, we created a science-fiction version of concrete. Turns out, I read on Slashdot about a month ago, they've actually really created it now. So, it's really grounded in the now.

Anyway, so, they've built this city that houses about 5,000 people. It was like the 8th Wonder of the World. I mean, the technology was fantastic and was going to really change mankind's future. Everything was gonna be great, but then, the inconvenient truth happens.

Dale: Where is Ark supposed to be?

RH: It's out at sea, kind of in the doldrums, near the Equator. They actually towed it out there from San Francisco Bay because that's where they'd have the least impact from wave distortions and whatnot. So, they got it out there, it had a working airport so they could bring people out there. They were pursuing the technologies and trying to get out there, but then the worldwide flooding did happen and it displaced hundreds of millions of people. A lot of them, as refugees, came to the Ark because, of course, the Ark was fine -- it floats -- and the Ark didn't turn anybody away. It was like their biggest mistake because they were all about helping mankind, so they brought in as many people as they could.

Now, the game begins about 30 years after that. There's been enough time for a whole generation to grow up in the Ark, and while it was originally supposed to house around 5,000 people, it now houses around 50,000. They've lost contact with the outside world – they know it's out there, but they just really haven't heard form them for like 15 years or so. They know it's rough so they kinda keep to themselves, but things are really bad on the Ark as well. The resources are running out, all this technology that was so great is breaking down and they don't have the means to fix it, and tensions are on the edge as the resources are getting, you know, scarcer and scarcer. So, at the beginning of the game, the whole place is on the... BRINK [Richard pauses and smiles while pointing to a large display showing off the game] of a civil war – and that's where you come in, as the civil war starts. The storyline in the game actually covers the first week of that civil war.

Dale: So, I'm hearing this story about a city at sea, broken off and independent from the rest of the world with high ideals and hopes for the future until something really bad happens, and I can't help but start thinking Rapture and Bioshock, but as I learn more I start seeing how this is actually very different.

RH: Well, I mean, I can't speak for those guys, Ken Levine and all that... I don't know where they took their inspiration from, but in a lot of ways I think it is kind of a big, cosmic coincidence. This is a storyline that Paul has wanted to do for almost 10 years now. You know, when he founded the company, this was a really big thing, he wanted this notion of a floating city. You know, this is finally our chance to do it because Bethesda are actually allowing us to do original IP as opposed to another Quake or Wolfenstein game. So, I think there's a lot of overlap, but we are really unique and I think probably the biggest thing about us is that we're not that much of a flight of fancy. There are things like the Ark being built in the world today.

Dale: I remember a news story about a guy building an island out of recycled bottles.

RH: [laughs] Exactly! Yeah, I mean, there's this place called the Seasteading Institute - - and if you go to their website, they actually have instructions for how to create the Ark. So, we did take a lot of inspiration from the real world. Now, I hope... Obviously, we're creating a kick-ass shooter, first of all, that's going to be a lot of fun to play, but there are actually a lot of things that really do harken to what's going on in the real world, and for the players who are interested and want to delve into the backstory of the game, I think there's a lot for them to discover.

Dale: I want to ask about the multiplayer aspect. Will your friends really be able to jump in and out as you're playing the game?

RH: Yeah. I'll be honest, we took a lot of inspiration from Left 4 Dead. I think Left 4 Dead is a fantastic game that really pushed a lot of boundaries and made things that were previously unacceptable acceptable, like the notion that, it's ok that if you and I are playing the game and you have to go to the bathroom, you can go idle and a bot will take over for you and you can come back in a few minutes.

Dale: That leads into my next question where I noticed that, during the demo, when he [the guy giving the demo] when into a menu, the action was still happening. Are you then vulnerable, at that point?

RH: YES! You are vulnerable, which is actually why we've gone with the radial menu motif, because it can be as fast as you can move your thumb. It's not like going through a bunch of nested lists... Every time you go to one of the command posts, you kind of have an idea, already, of what you want to do. You know you want to switch to an engineer. Engineer is always the choice that's on the left. So, you go up there, hit LEFT... Boom – you're done. You know, so, the radial menu can be fantastic because you can develop a muscle memory where you just know where the things are and you can just do them.

Dale: Does switching classes cost you anything?

RH: No. In fact, you gain experience points. Let's say your team needs an engineer, so your prize is a certain number of experience points to get you become what your team needs you to be.

Dale: What do you get for experience points?

RH: Well, basically, we have a leveling system that is more akin to what you get in an MMO. There are 4 classes in the game – soldier, medic, operative and engineer – and each one of those classes has a big number of individual abilities. You start with just a couple of them but there's a ton to unlock. There's also a ton of abilities which you can have at any time – no matter what class you are. As you level up, there's lots of things to buy and it's really up to you to decide to build a character that makes you unique and really reflects how you want to play. Another thing is, if you buy a particular ability and you decide you don't like it, you can sell it back. So, you aren't ever trapped in any particular kind of ability.

Dale: At first blush, Brink looks really complicated. I mean, I was like, “Wow, there's a lot going on...”

RH: Yeah.

Dale: And then it started clicking that everything you do is a quest... and it actually almost looked like you were playing an MMO but single-player.

RH: Oh, yeah, in action. Yeah.

Dale: So, then the AI constantly generates things for you to do, based on what you've been doing?

RH: Yeah, there's this concept of an AI that's basically watching over your entire team, paying attention to strength and weaknesses and what's going on...

Dale: Kind of like the director in Left 4 Dead?

RH: Yeah, very much like the cinematic director from Left 4 Dead. The important thing is that, even though there's a ton of stuff going on, if you're fresh and new to the game, one of the first things we'll teach you when you first start playing is, hey, when you look at the wheel, the thing at the top is the one we recommend. All the other ones you can look at if you want so you still make the decisions, but if you do the one at the top, you'll be helping everyone out. So, if you don't want to think about it, just choose that. In fact, if you really don't want to think about it, if you want to be quick, instead of holding the button to bring up the wheel, you can just tap that button and it will automatically assign that goal to you. The arrow will come up and tell you where to go so you'll never get lost.

Dale: And you can give your AI teammates different orders, and they'll follow them?

RH: Exactly. That's a really interesting thing... We're a multiplayer game, but by default, we turn off voice chat.

Dale: Wait, you turn OFF voice chat?

RH: Right, because in multiplayer, as often as it can be a really big boon to teamplay and all that, 9 times out of 10 it's really all about somebody calling you... well, I won't repeat it because you're recording me.

Dale: Ah, ok. Yeah, lots of dirty mouths on Xbox Live.

RH: [laughing] Right. So, in taking that off, you can turn it on, and you know, listen to your friends speak, but I just don't want to take the chance of you having some 12-year-old, homophobic racist...

Dale: You don't want them ruining your game experience while you're trying to get everyone to do their job.

RH: Exactly! But, we don't want to give up on that notion of communication that voice gives you, so when you choose an objective off that wheel, the game automatically – in your character's voice, because you can define what your character's voice is – messages the rest of the team, “I'm on my way to become an engineer!” Everybody else hears that and thinks, “Oh, good! Somebody's going to be an engineer. I don't have to worry about that, anymore.” And, in fact, because you've just gone off and made yourself an engineer, you've basically become the MVP of your team. You are the most important guy because you're the only one who can fix that crane, so the other guys will get new objectives, very high-priority objectives to keep that engineer alive. So, the fact that you've done something is creating new missions for other players – and that's happening all the time, live and dynamically. And, if you want, you can pay attention to everything that's going on and make all the high-level decisions, or, if you're like, “I don't know what to do!” just tap UP and it's like a buddy on your couch who knows the game really well, saying, “You should go change into an engineer.” That's what the wheel represents, it's the game helping you out.

Dale: Very cool. I noticed, also, that the AI seems really smart. I noticed during the demo, he went around the back and a guy was just standing there until the player reloaded, or cocked his gun, and the AI heard that and turned right around to investigate the noise. Obviously, the AI is smart enough to keep track of everything else, but it seems like it can give you quite a challenge one-on-one.

RH: Oh, yeah, definitely. The big advantage we have is this is being done with iD Tech 4 – not 5 – which is the same engine we used for Quake Wars. Now, Quake Wars had fantastic bots. Really, really smart, they were able to do some complicated things. Really smart about driving, providing backup for each other... They really went above and beyond; we've got that as our base. We can build on that and keep on putting more and more stuff in, so that's actually been a really big boon. So, because our goal is to ensure that, you know, it doesn't matter if you're playing online or offline, you get that same experience. So, our bots, pretty much, have to be capable of doing everything a human can do. Their AI tree is actually based off that same wheel. At any given time, they've got the same wheel that a player would have and they're making choices the same way a player would.

Dale: I like that this looks very unique, it's not just another bunch of space marines, or like, helmet-guy with a gun. I also noticed that, and I want to be very careful about saying this, but the characters look... French.

RH: [laughs] Ok, you do know that our art director is Olivier Leonardi? He is French...

Dale: Oh, actually, I didn't know that. I mean, they even have kind of an accent, and to be honest, I'm not trying to play on stereotypes, but they kind of look like Jean Reno. You know? He has a very distinctive look.

RH: [laughs more] Yeah, it was actually a choice that was made very early on to not go photorealistic. In fact, that's something that Olivier, the art director, he pushed back, because we were all a little bit nervous about it... we thought, well, are players going to actually accept this? The safe thing is to do photreal and look like everything else out there, but in the end, he was right, because ever since E3, there have been some people who are saying, “What's with the tiny heads?” But by and large, the vast majority of people are, you know, they recognize it's something new and are excited about it. I don't think we gave players enough credit at first. We kind of pigeon-holed them into, “Yeah, they'll just want the same old, same old,” but people are really excited about seeing something different, which is great.

Dale: I definitely agree; I mean, even the colors are very unique.

RH: Oh, yeah. Yes. That's actually a real important thing. Like that level you just saw [which featured a waterfront dock setting with plenty of metal crates and junk piles] would be very, very easy to do it all in just various shades of rust, but we decided to have big splashes of blue and red.

Dale: It definitely stands out, I'm very impressed. So, the game is due out Spring 2010?

RH: Yeah, knock on wood.

Dale: Very cool, thank you very much!

Special thanks to Richard Ham and the rest of the folks at Splash Damage/Bethesda for allowing me access to do this interview.
Brink will be available for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.