Gearbox talk Brothers in Arms
We sit down with Gearbox supremo Randy Pitchford, and his WWII adviser Col. John Antal, to discuss the merits of the excellent-looking Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, a historically inspired FPS set on the infamous hell's highway, rich in tactics and atmosphere.
Good afternoon gentlemen. Story and characterisation are at the heart of Hell's Highway, when making a cinematic game, is plot equal in importance to gameplay?
Randy Pitchford: Nothing is equal in importance to gameplay. Having said that, to accomplish what we set out to accomplish, we must do well in every place where we're pushing. It's not acceptable for either gameplay or cinema to be poor (even if the other is strong).
Do you feel gamers appreciate and recognize the importance of this, or are they after the quick thrill of combat, primarily?
RP: For many of the fans of the series, part of the decision to play has to do with the desire to be involved with the squad and spend time with these characters. For other fans of the game, they'd rather just skip the scenes. There is a spectrum of players and we have to balance our investment in features and material around that spectrum. Ultimately, Brothers in Arms is a piece of interactive historical fiction. Being a part of the experience with the characters and the time and the place of this significant moment in war history is really, really interesting. The sum of the experience is certainly about how Brothers in Arms is pushing the genre, but it's also about getting caught up in the drama.
Squad-based combat. Why does this make for a richer experience than lonelier action titles, such as BioShock?
RP: I think Bioshock is awesome. I also think fighting with a squad is awesome. Brothers in Arms Hell's Highway promises to put you in the boots of a squad leader. You become Sergeant Matt Baker, in command of a fire team, assault team and a special weapons team as part of Headquarters Recon element of the 101st Airborne Division in the middle of Operation Market/Garden, the largest airborne invasion in the history of the world and the last great German victory of the war. It is impossible for me to imagine how that promise can be fulfilled without being in the war with your men. It is impossible for me to imagine how a game creator can deliver on the promise of making you a squad leader without you actually having the power to command and lead your squad.
From a setting, promise, narrative and distinctive game play point of view, comparing Bioshock to Brothers in Arms Hell's Highway is like comparing Apples and Pluto. I think both can exist and be loved for totally different reasons.
Band of Brothers is clearly an influence. How have you ensured the similarities don't compromise your game?
RP: Band of Brothers is a great series. We're fortunate that came along after we started down this path. Band of Brothers is an amazing piece of passive television. Brothers in Arms is an amazing piece of interactive entertainment. Where they are similar has to do with the history and a clear deference to authenticity that both pieces have. Where they are different has to do with the medium and the specifics about the units each focuses on. Thinking about where to be the same or different from Band of Brothers simply hasn't been part of our process in any way shape or form.
RP: The evidence is that the world wants more. It makes sense. You just have to think about the reality that all gamers aren't the same person. Some people are subject matter agnostic - they can enjoy Katamari Damacy and then play Brothers in Arms and have a great time and that's totally natural. Other gamers are selective about genre. Others still are selective about style or setting. You can look at sales and see which genres and which settings happen to be the most popular. WW2 is a biggie. It makes sense, though. WW2 is, like, the biggest thing that ever happened. There are core fantasies that we'll likely be exploring in entertainment for thousands of years.
I saw a movie called 300 and loved it. It was about a battle that took place almost 2,500 years ago. I'm pretty sure we're going to see a lot more games about space marines saving the world from aliens. I'm pretty sure we're going to see more games about knights and wizards fighting dragons and orcs. I'm pretty sure we'll see a LOT of games about soldiers and war. Some of those games will take place in the past, some in the future and some right now. Some will be fictional and some will be based in history. Our approach to Brothers in Arms is to focus on a particular time and place and a particular unit of soldiers in the moment. The focus helps it be more interesting. It's like when you watch Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers - these episodes are about a short period of time and a specific group of guys. The fantasy is to spend time with them and wonder what it would be like to be there.
Brothers in Arms helps you be there as part of the squad. If the game was a survey of the entire war and spanned a lot of different characters, that aspect of the fantasy would be injured. What would remain is only the game play (which, fortunately, is usually great because WW2 is so well suited to close range skirmishing and man-to-man small arms combat). You asked about Call of Duty - when I buy Call of Duty, zero percent of my purchase decision has anything to do with wanting to spend more time with characters or wanting to see the next chapter of an unfolding story. I buy Call of Duty because I trust that the shooter game is going to be solid. When they've done WW2 games, they've sort of done these surveys along the same trend - three different character perspectives spanning all over the war from start to finish. Call of Duty 2 was like Call of Duty 1, but with better graphics. They've got their great gameplay and they're dressing that with background themes that feel like WW2 (and now feel like "modern" warfare). That's cool, but their approach made it difficult to make a new promise in the same setting. So, for them, the modern combat decision was smart and natural. When the game play is solid, but the character and setting experience is shallow, you have to keep interest by changing the characters and setting. If the game play is solid *and* the characters and settings are deep, you'll want to spend more time with the characters and experience what happens in new situations.
That's what Brothers in Arms is. Brothers in Arms is more like Star Wars, staying with the characters and living through this saga. It's less like James Bond - become the same kind of character (even if the actor changes) and just take him into a new setting and see what happens.
How interactive are the game's environs, and how do you balance the use of interactive scenery with the need to 'channel' a player's movements and actions in-game?
RP: The combat environments span from narrow to wide to extremely wide throughout the game. Picture an hour glass, where the wide bits have a lot more tactical options for how to approach a combat and the narrow bit in the middle is the bridge between the two wide bits. Put a whole lot of hourglasses together in all kinds of different configurations with all kinds of different sized and shaped bulbs and you have the player's critical path in Brothers in Arms Hell's Highway.
In the wide parts of the hour glass, the player has a lot of freedom to approach the combat situation and use his weapons and his squad how he wants. If it's difficult, there are a lot of other ways to approach the challenge.
The fact that weapons can shred apart the cover and objects and other elements of the environment that the enemy can hide behind just helps me feel even more powerful when I'm attacking. When I'm hiding behind things that are getting chewed apart, the sense of risk and tension is increased and I better move or I'm going to get taken down. It's even more interesting because there are harder cover elements, like sandbags, that my bullets won't do much to. So, now I can use other weapons, like my bazooka, to take that down. There's different tools for different jobs, but it's very natural and fluid and there are a lot of options in any given combat, so it's not like solving a puzzle.
Do you believe the game has, given the subject matter, an air of 'gravitas'?
RP: "Gravitas" sums up our philosophies about how to approach the subject matter in a game. When we started, we wanted to talk to a lot of veterans and learn about warfare. I'm no soldier - I make games. So it was important to talk to guys who *knew*. At first, it was difficult. Some of these guys knew what was happening with other video games and to them it was shameful or just so far off it was embarrassing for them. If you've ever seen a movie that's about a subject you know a lot about and it's so funny how bad some of them get the subject or the details, you know what I'm talking about. It's like watching hackers. Any of us who know anything about computers couldn't buy into it. To real hackers, that movie is insulting and embarrassing.
Our intent was to treat the subject in such a way that the guys who were actually there can respect and support. Brothers in Arms stands alone with this subject and genre in accomplishing that. It feels good because we spent a lot of time and money to do so. Gravitas is a good word to sort of summarize that intent and result.
Is there anything you'd alter if you could make the game again, and do you have any future plans for the series in mind?
RP: There are always things we learn. We learned a lot from the first two Brothers in Arms games and Hell's Highway is the beneficiary of that learning.
As far as future plans go, that's like asking Lucas about Return of the Jedi before you've even seen Empire Strikes Back. Hell's Highway is like Empire - the Axis comes out ahead in this battle. The Allies are going to have to rally. On the ground, it's not certain what's to become of Baker's squad or Baker himself in the fight. They may not make it through Operation Market Garden.
Colonel, why were you interested in being involved with the Brothers in Arms series?
Col. John Antal: I am a Soldier, historian and novelist. Put those three together and you can see why I enjoy being a part of creating dramatic historical fiction.
Do you play games yourself, and if so, what are your favourites?
Col. JA: Yes, I enjoy historically based strategy games and many first person action games.
Colonel, do you worry that making WWII the subject of a game belittles or 'lightens' the obvious tragedies of the real event?
Col. JA: No. If compelling books and movies can be made about combat, then we can also do this in interactive entertainment.
Tactics are key to Hell's Highway. How involved were you with this side of the title, and how much of a challenge has creating realistic squad combat been?
Col. JA: Realistic WWII tactics separates BIA games from all the rest. I was central to this feature and have enjoyed working with the team to get this right.
The game is rich with authentic detail. How much of a pleasure or a chore was this side of your role on the project?
Col. JA: It is an absolute pleasure to get the authenticity right. Our fans expect this of BIA games and I am proud to be a part of providing this to our players.
What do you think other veterans will make of the game?
Col. JA: I have talked to many WWII veterans and they appreciate what we have done. In fact, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the largest veterans organization in the world, has endorsed our game.
Is the game's story your own work? How much research went into this side of things?
Col. JA: No, another team member wrote this latest story, but I have written a novel, Brothers in Arms Hell's Highway that will be on bookshelves when the game is released. Everyone interested in BIA wil want to read this novel.
Many thanks for your time, chaps. Best of luck with the completion of Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway.