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Brink / Splash Damage Interview with Neil Alphonso

I think not only my, but Brutal Gamer’s appreciation of what Splash Damage are trying to do with Brink has been self evident since last year’s EuroGamer Expo.

Not only did we finally get our hands on the genre redefining co-op title, but we also managed to grab half an hour with Neil Alphonso, Lead Designer on Brink.  So settle back and listen as Barry Guihen and myself ask a few questions.

ZW: With the abilities on offer from SMART (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) was the design more challenging?

NA: Not really, you’d be surprised.  Technically, it’s really once you get it in to your head how it works as a system.   It’s not like any other systems I’ve worked with before where you have to plan things out to a grid, because things have to have very fixed heights.  The SMART system doesn’t work that way as it does everything on the fly.  Really all we have to worry about is creating things that are really high so the player absolutely can’t go there and they don’t read as a place you can go.

Things do have to be walled in a bit and that was one of the things I was very big on.  Nobody likes invisible collisions.  We have it on the edges of the maps as we don’t want you to go off and drown.  Also there really is nowhere to go out there.  Other than the edges of the maps we never, ever have it.

We had to modify geometry early on when we were still getting used to it frankly.  Now we’re used to it, in the play space we have to assume that everything is going to be something you can get over or will be really tall.

ZW: As a designer do you find SMART liberating?

NA: Extremely.  It lets us have old school first person shooter feel like Quake and Quake 3 with jump pads etc, but in a more grounded and realistic shooter.  That was really the inspiration for the whole system is that sort of gameplay.  Movement as much as shooting has gone by the wayside a bit as everybody is trying to be more realistic.  It’s all sprint to cover, peek-up, fire a few shots , sprint somewhere else.  Which is fun but…

BG: Looking at the demo running it would be a nightmare to have to flag each surface as mountable or not.  How would you flag each area?  Does SMART help you out?

NA: We don’t do it.  Well it wouldn’t work to have to flag each of those areas as we’d be making mistakes.  This is how traditionally all other games I’ve worked on have been that way as well.  To have anything like that you have to pull up a little editor next to a box and say that means you can go into cover there and hop over it.  We don’t have to do any of that as basically [SMART] does a compile and puts all the collisions in and calculates it all automatically.

The cool thing about that is it’s also how our bots navigate the world using the exact same system.  So the reason on the show floor that we have players against bots is for a lot of people SMART is a hard thing to pick up.  For many people they’ve been playing shooters the way they play them for maybe a decade and they don’t even think about climbing up stuff.  You can play it just like a normal shooter.  You can just run around on the ground.  You can sprint, you can take cover, all that is valid but you’re missing out on a lot.  The reason the bots are in there is that they don’t think like that.  They see everything as a valid path.  There are waits associated with it like it takes a bit longer to climb things, so if they’re being shot they’re not going to do it because they know they are vulnerable.  But if that’s the quickest way to get somewhere they’ve decided to go ahead and take it and players will see that and go “OH! I can just climb over that”.

BG: Bots are having a resurgence in recently announced titles.  A big concern with bots are their AI.  Are the bots in Brink good enough to sustain someone offline?

NA: Oh yeah.  I think the best thing for that is the shows we’ve been doing.  Some have been co-op and some multiplayer and generally people don’t know who the bots are.  Sometimes they don’t know they are playing with bots they think they are other people in another room they are playing against.  Something we’ve been very big to do, and this is not true of some of our earlier games, our bots were really supposed to be like multiplayer players.  They will team kill you, tea bag you, basically we removed all that stuff.  We wanted them to be the best of what human players are.   I think that’s why people want to play with bots more and more.  They aren’t going to swear at you like 12 year olds do.  We don’t want players doing it.  We don’t encourage it in the game as we want team work.

ZW: A lot of titles are going team-work centric.  Many attempt co-op gameplay without really grasping it in the overall design.  With Brink was it something you designed for?

NA: Completely.  It’s sort of one of the founding things of the studio of which this latest evolution is Brink.  That sort of team based competitive, objective based gameplay is the most fun sort of multiplayer there is.  Because you’re not just on your own, your forwarding with your team it’s immensely powerful.  It’s why Counterstrike was so huge all be it a slimmed down version.  Grab that bomb; get your team to Dust it’s why it was so popular.

BG: Splash Damage has a reputation for their online shooters.  Have you learnt lessons from transitioning from multiplayer in to the single player experience?  May are either not online or prefer to play alone – are they catered for in Brink?

NA: Yeah.  You can do everything offline.  If you’re not comfortable just jumping online right away we have challenges that will teach you some of the mechanics of the game.  They get progressively harder and you can gain experience and level up from these challenges as well.  You can level up playing offline completely and then go in as Max level and play online if you feel comfortable with that.

BG: So it’s all integrated around itself?

NA: Yeah, we don’t care what mode you’re playing experience is always given to that character.  We wanted to take as much of the grind away as possible.  The whole point of this system is to try and keep experienced players away from inexperienced players and to introduce the game gradually.  So when you’re level 20 you’ll keep earning experience but you can dump that on your other characters.  You can have up to 16 characters.  You can then play one and keep levelling up other characters without ever playing them.  They can specialise in different things, they look different and can have different weapons.

BG: How do you balance that when you have a player who is very good but is deliberately capping his other characters at level 10 when he himself is a level 20 just to do a little griefing?

NA: Yeah that’s going to happen.  Every 5 levels is a rank and that is the playgroup you go in with.  You can always go in to a higher level match as there will be things you can do but higher level players are unable to drop in to lower level matches.

BG: Is there any way to tell that a character is a lower level persona of a higher level player?

NA: No.  The only real way is when you see someone at a lower level with a really weird outfit or lots of crazy guns.  Those things unlock differently as when you unlock them with one character we let you use them on any character.  We don’t want to make you do it with every character.  Clothing items unlock as you level up so by the time you’re level 20, the maximum level, you’ll have all the clothing items.  You can slap those on a new character.   So all new characters will be basic looking but every so often you’ll see someone who looks sorta exotic.

BG: Which areas are more fun for you to build?

NA: Honestly, it’s hard.  It depends on who you’re playing with and how you’re playing.  One of the reasons we did Container City, which incidentally is made by the same guy that made Dust [Counterstrike level of legend- .ed], it’s a bit more linear and leads the players a lot more, so is a good introduction to the game.  Whereas the level we showed at  E3 this year, Reactor, it’s a very different level with a lot of flanking routes, centralised objectives but requires a lot of team work.  It’s hard to pick a favourite as things play out differently every time.

ZW: The players world in Brink is an island know as The Ark.  Was it difficult to design an enclosed space but still maintain a sense of open freedom?

NA: Well, yeah.  You could sort of consider it a bit like Rapture.  At the same time you see the expansive ocean so you see how open the world is but it’s not somewhere you can go.  You’re contained and that is translated in the movement system in that you can do anything within this space but there are still invisible walls around the edges.  We spent a lot of time with the geography of the place.  We have a big map for development.  We have it all mapped out so that when you look out from Container City you can see Founder’s Tower. That’s because that’s how it’s laid out, not just because we thought it would be pretty – which we totally did as well.

BG: All the big areas are linked together in some shape or form to make this larger world?

NA: Yeah.   One of the levels we showed at Quake Con in presentation form with a few screenshots of it as we’ve not let anybody play it yet.  It’s on the border between the richer area and Container City .  You can see what was our take on the Berlin Wall. On one side they have a really nice train station.  One side pristine another not.

BG: You’re using the environment to portray the story in a similar way to Bioshock did in Rapture.  Will you use audio logs for this?

NA: There might be…  We don’t have the environment exploration they have but it is something we’re big on.  A buzzword this year is environmental storytelling.  In our game you don’t necessarily have the time for the straight exploring so much.  The best thing about that is that you’re not forcing it on anybody.  It’s just there and they can choose to do it or  go back to shooting people.  We try to put a lot of it in the spawn areas as we know it’s an area people will keep coming back too many times.  There’s not a whole lot of combat there, or at least there shouldn’t be unless people are spawn camping.  Which we’re trying to stop.  You actually have a few seconds to look around and see what’s there.

BG: In regards to spawn camping.  It can be a huge problem; you mentioned Splash Damage is taking measures to alleviate this.  Can you elaborate?

NA: I’m not sure I should let you know exactly what we do as we don’t want people gaming it.  We have spawn turrets that you would see in games like Killzone 2, except ours can’t be blown up.  They are completely invulnerable and incredibly powerful.  You don’t really have any chance to react to them you’re just taken down.  The problem with that is that it gets where [the player] is spawning is safe but what you can always do is defend the next choke point back from there.  If you’ve got eight people  all concentrating their fire down a couple of hallways the other people are not going to be able to get out unless they are incredibly well co-ordinated and thrown a couple of flashbangs and all rush out.

The other thing we do is we have this hidden invulnerability that I’ve never talked about.  Basically until you fire or are in a responder’s area you’re invulnerable.  We can define where and how long it lasts from when you leave the spawn area.  So we can give you a couple of seconds to get around that first corner knowing that those guys are sniping.  We’ve been careful to make that something we can change maybe later if there are problems when the game gets out in the wild.

BG: Is that a dynamic system which adjust to a players weaknesses or strengths?

NA: No.  I’m pretty sure that is something that would get gamed.  We do have other things for the players who are in trouble.  They will get different side missions.  Those were designed to take them  to do a mission that is not on the front lines.  It will take them along a flanking path and let them learn a bit more of the level.  Honestly that’s what I find, maybe as a trained level designer, is that when people are really struggling in a game or a map it’s because they haven’t really learnt it.  We have a lot of flanking moves with SMART so we try and teach people to use it.

BG: In a lot of games there are specific routes to take where as in Brink Smart will allow you some diversity.

NA: Yeah.  Even at a micro-level if you’re coming through a doorway and the doorways has some sort of crate of blockage.  People are going to aim for where the opening is.  Most people will run to the opening.  That’s just human nature as people will always take the path of least resistance.    But if you decide to hop over that crate instead…

BG: How have you managed to convey that Brink, despite appearances, is not just running and shooting?

NA: That’s been a tough one.  Like I said it’s not something people are used too.  It’s something they’ve not seen before and with some people it clicks and some it doesn’t.  That why we have the different body types as well.  We have the heavy body type which doesn’t climb as high or move as fast but has very bid weapons.  Those guys are designed for the people who don’t care about the SMART system.  Whereas the  light characters are designed for people who are all about the SMART system.  They’re all about quick movement, getting to higher places and jumping over roof tops.  The thing with the game is that it’s got so many different elements that I don’t honestly think there will be that many people that are all in to everything , all about the weapons customisation, all about the SMART.  There are some, and god bless them.  It’s one of those games I think people need to get their hands on it.

BG: Trying to put across this many new concepts must be hard.  You must have met a lot of scepticism?  Although at least scepticism in this instance means you’re trying something new.

NA: That’s a tricky question to answer.   When you work on a game and you know it’s good and people are surprised it’s like, what do you say?  I’ve felt it’s a game you need to get your hands on.  And you’re right to be sceptical.  We’ve promised a lot and a lot’s been written about it.  I wouldn’t believe it myself in their position.    It’s pretty crazy all that we’ve tried and all that is new.  Unfortunately I think some people will be overwhelmed by it.  I think out of all the features we have, there will be one thing that pulls in people and they will then like the full package.

ZW: What market are you aiming for with Brink?  Are you after the Team Fortress  / Quake Wars audiences or are you looking to bring in the Call of Duty / Battlefield player?

NA: We know the game will be enjoyed by Enemy Territory fans, people who play team class objective based shooters.  We’ll know they’ll like it.  We’re trying to pull in the more main stream people.  That’s why we have things like iron sights and our controls are very similar to those major shooters.  Then we’ll introduce more advanced elements like “No this isn’t just capture the flag.  We’ve been doing those modes for 20 years.  There’s something more interesting why don’t you give this a try”.

BG: How has it been working with a new publisher like Bethesda?

NA: They’ve been really good.  Especially in regard to giving us the time to make the game good.  We could of met our original date and rushed the game out, and quite frankly, have it be crap.   They’ve been cool and worked with us on giving us the time to get the game shipped.  I worked on Duke Nukem Forever so you have to get it out eventually.  There’s a balance there.

BG: As for Duke Nukem Forever are you looking forward to it?

NA: Oh, I’m looking forward to it.  I still have friends that work on the project.  I worked on it about 5 or 6 years ago.  I have co-workers who have been working on it since then.  That is why I want it to see the light of day and do well.  People have been working on it for a decade and it’s a huge part of their lives.

And with that we bid a fond farewell to Neil Alphonso.   The game is shaping up really well and should live up to the amount of praise we’ve heaped on it over the past twelve months.  Check out Mike Jones’ hands-on preview for more information on the upcoming Splash Damage title.

Zeth Ward, Neil Alphonso & Barry Guihen at Eurogamer Expo 2010

About Zeth

Zeth is our EU Senior Editor and has been writing about video games since he joined BG back in 2008. He's pretty old and has been a gamer since he played Space Invaders as a young boy in the 80's. His genre tastes lean towards platformers, point-and-click adventure, action-adventure and shooters but he'll turn his hand to anything.

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