Producer LP Pharand on Far Cry 2
Easily one of a packed festive season's most widely anticipated releases, Far Cry 2 could mark the emergence of a major new franchise. Publisher Ubisoft certainly think so, having acquired the rights to the franchise from original creator Crytek - and putting and their Montreal studio to work for more than three years on a sequel-with-a-difference. New setting, new story, open-world gameplay... only the ever-popular hang-glider seems to have survived unscathed. We sat down in Montreal with Louis-Pierre Pharand, producer, to find out more.
Far Cry 2's been in the works for me than three years now, have you been involved the whole time?
Did Ubisoft always want to make a sequel to Far Cry?
Yes! Yes, of course. That's why they acquired the rights to the brand. The original game was created by Crytek, but, Ubisoft were the publisher, and when they shipped the original, Ubi bought all the rights. There were a few console versions, and Instincts hadn't shipped when we began work on Far Cry 2. We got a mandate to ensure we were working on a true sequel to the original that kind of renewed the brand. There were some things that as a company and as a team that we didn't like about the original, stuff worked well, we looked at what worked and what didn't. We thought, how can we make this better. We actually did a lot of focus testing with Far Cry fans. We got a lot of data. Then we found consumers saw the same things we did. They didn't like the sci-fi stuff, they liked the earlier mercenary battling. The idea that came out was that people liked a realistic experience. Fighting mercenaries; that sense of an open-world. I mean, the first game didn't have that, but they liked the sense of it. They want kick-ass AI. They didn't really care about which character they played it - Jack Carver wasn't that exciting - so we took all this, the core features and elements, and we said we've got a mandate to renew the brand, then we're going to start with a blank page with a few bullet points, and we're going to stay within the guidelines. The type of story; a systemic narrative design. A sustainable plot, that integrates the challenges...
Was the decision taken early on to forgo the Polynesian setting in favour of the African Savannah?
Yes... that was... three and half years ago. We considered keeping the tropical setting at the start, but then we knew that there was this game called Crysis that was going to come out. And there was Boiling Point... then there's the FC console titles, and then you look at TV shows like Lost, Survivor... other products using the tropical environment.
Far Cry gamers want an exotic environment, but it isn't exotic or exciting if you see it multiple times every week... it doesn't give you that feeling. So we opted to look at different setting. Africa rose to the top pretty early on and that's why it was chosen. Its a perfect setting... so, we're not in a city environment. We wanted to keep some jungle. Choosing Africa allowed us to keep the jungle. They've got everything there. The Savannah is the iconic image of Far Cry 2.
Natural beauty is very important I guess?
Yes, that's a key part of the brand we wanted to keep. That's why you can live, and play it, in Far Cry 2.
Not at all. We were stuck in a situation wanting to be as realistic as possible, and that story wasn't realistic at all - for the last two-thirds. It was more The Island of Dr. Mourau. We wanted to move away from that - be factual - and tackle a subject that hasn't been tackled before. What's actually great about it is that fans and journalists are saying we're taking on a subject that is engaging, that even newspapers and the media are steering away from. Its real, its factual, we want to talk about it. The challenge is to make it good. Believable. In doing that we're moving away from WWII shooters... we're looking for the next level. Some people might say we're taking advantage of the situation, but you know, let's talk about it and see if we take advantage. There are people against this kind of thing. We just believe videogames can be a media... just like movies, the same as TV series', books, whatever... for that you need excellent story-telling. That's what we're working to ensure.
Is the story key to justifying your use of the premise, then? We assume you couldn't set this somewhere like Rwanda...
We don't need to justify it... we didn't want to play politics. If you talk about Rwanda or Somalia... but then Black Hawk Down was an excellent movie. People said it was too patriotic, others thought it was a debacle... it dealt with political issues. For us it would be impossible to make a systemic story like that. Its too complicated. A major pain. There are too many choices... its a spider-web. Its not our duty. In many movies you don't know where they story happens, it doesn't matter. A specific country might have made things more complicated; that's not what we set out to do. It happens everywhere in Africa; in the world, factions trying to control land. They're playing politics. We're dealing with serious issues, but we're not playing politics.
We've got nine playable characters. You choose one of your preference. You get biographies and background information at the start of the game. We worked hard to make sure they're credible characters. We work with a consultant - he did documentaries about mercenaries in Africa - we made it as real as possible. Then we created a set of characters. Nine are available, one is playable. There's even female mercenaries; we didn't believe they existed but apparently they do. The other eight characters you'll meet in the game. They'll give you side missions, help you out if you're in trouble, sometimes you'll end up fighting them. You need to create relationships - they'll push you to make decisions - you're going to have to pay for decisions; the benefits or the negatives. There are implications.
With so many characters involved; and an open-world in which they roam... how do you approach from an AI perspective?
There's two things. There's the behavioral AI, and the combat AI. Two different things. Any mercenary you encounter - outside the world's two cities. Anyone is an enemy. You have affiliations. Its not like when you do a job for one side you have a flag above your head. You're a badass, everyone wants your skin. You're a bad person in a bad place. So, everyone is an enemy.
When you encounter AI, there will be combat behaviour. Town is different, you can push buttons but they might retaliate; they'll tell you to 'f*** off'; that interaction on the spot will clearly indicate basically what's going on. As your reputation grows, people will have a different reaction to you. It adds an RPG element which is pretty interesting.
Most of our AI efforts have been on these two parts of development.
What can you tell us about the parallels that can be drawn with Heart of Darkness / Apocalypse Now?
Pat would give you a better answer... but we went with the Jackal character - your target - the man selling weapons to both sides. He's been implicated in many battles around Africa. He's playing god, stirring up conflict by providing weapons. He's banking all the money... trying to control everything. When you start the game, that's the man you're going to kill. That kind of has the similarity with Heart of Darkness. You're after Kurtz... journeying down a river in search of a madman. Which is very much the same as FC2. That's the short version. There's more detail of course. The other inspiration is your need to work with two rival factions to reach your target, that's where we took insight from Yojimbo - a 60s Japanese movie. A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood is similar. Chicago gangs. What's going on is that you work for two factions - unlocking more content - decisions are always gameplay related; but it feels realistic - you're a gun for hire, this is how it works. We spoke to our specialist in mercenaries Malcom Clark. There are sometimes mercenaries who start out as friends, and end up opposing each other. This is how deep things can go.
You're in a morally ambiguous world...
Yes, exactly. That's why choices are important. It challenges the morality that you, as a character, are going through. A journalist put it nicely, saying its basically a grown-up version of cowboys and Indians. We want people to personify the character. Its an FPS, when you're forced to play Master Chief, that's it. We want people to identify with their character. Playing a game isn't just about gaming... its about playing a role - saying I want to be this character in this role. This impacts the story. The plot will evolve differently based on your choice of character. The story progression will be different - in that way, we really let people relate to their characters.
Will you always reach the same conclusion though, regardless of your character choices?
I can't... really give you too much detail on that.
Will we always have to kill the Jackal, though?
Ermmm.... I can't really answer. But what I will say is that its impossible for you and I to play the game in the same way. That's was one of the main goals. That's a systemic narrative story. You decide what you want to do with a load of options. You carve your own path. There are so many decisions to take. Through the course of the game we bring players back twice. Players will go through similar choke points. It won't ever be the same though, it depends on what you did previously.
Are you worried about giving players so much control over their destiny in the game?
Not at all! I think its exciting. Its great to have so much to do, so much control.
Do you worry about players 'breaking' the game, though?
That's what we've been working on really hard with a huge testing team. Testing all variables. Testing, testing, testing! Its about freedom of choice. You choose how you want to play. You can do the same path if you want; but it won't be the same, it'll be similar. Sometimes, for example, you do intimidation missions - forcing a radio message, for example - you can choose whether or not to kill him afterwards. This will effect your story. Simple decisions. This isn't an RPG, or an RTS; there's no unfolding action. You're in the middle of it all - you have choices. Do you shoot this guy's face or not? Another example, which we find interesting, sees your buddy shot in combat. He's wounded. There's a decision. Do you save him, using your medication (he could use it all), or maybe you don't have any. What's going to happen to him. Can I shoot him? There's always an impact on progression. We were at E3 and a journalist was playing, he used all his medication trying to save his buddy. This is in-game, there's no cut-scenes. In the end the buddy grabbed the gun and put it to his head and says "go ahead buddy, pull it, put me out of my misery". The guy just put the controller down and says "what the f*** is this? This isn't cool." That's the reaction we were looking for. We want you to be forced to make decisions. There's no A or B... its compelling.
Of course there are things you won't see for many hours, and there are things you may never see. Or, you might see it many times. It depends on the action in-game.
On multiplayer... what are your hopes for the community side of things? Things like the map editor...
Well, I hope people see the value in it. For me there are two different things linked together... 'cause and effect'. Some games do it well but don't really 'catch'. Okay, there are reasons for this. Call of Duty is a great example. The game is so well-tuned, we looked really hard at what they did. They use all the singleplayer elements in the multiplayer. We use all the singleplayer elements. Propagation of fire, for example. It would be frustrating if you couldn't use this stuff. There's lots of new gameplay here. We didn't want to reinvent the modes - there's a new one called Uprising - its a little different, but pretty much we've got the classic modes. We're tuning them well. Its 16 players, one of the things we saw is that people spent time on multiplayer, maybe 30 minutes per-day, but later on as they rank up, maybe it takes a month to rank-up. So we've added in-session ranking. So its all compressed. Within 30 minutes you can access really cool weapons. Your choices are important, your classes for example; you can rank-up different classes. There's a tactical element.
It really has a super-interactive layer. There's no waiting around for ranking-up. Its pretty cool. The other thing, the map editor, is pretty much a 10 out of 10, everyone loves it. People have been drooling as they watch. I took it home and gave it to my niece - she had a blast - she can't play the game, but she could make something. It was easy for her, even using the 360 controller. Its very accessible. There are lots of tools, so people can be creative. Some tools are too technical, so we want to keep the focus on the creative. We want it to be as intuitive. People can easily test in-game; that's the way to do it. Its going to be cool. I think people will love it.
I can't wait to see people do crazy sh*t. That's what I want to see as soon as the game comes out.
Its been years since the first game came out. Will we have to wait three years to see Far Cry 3?
I don't know, I don't know. There are two ways of development. Either you come out rapidly with another one, not adding a lot of features. Doing a "2.5" type game. A lot of fans enjoy that - its been mocked-up in the same way as the sports game model. A yearly update. For me, its the Call of Duty model. Take numbers two and four, great. Number three however.... however, I hope number 5 will be good! You make a great game; if there's a decision on Far Cry 3 - I'm sure there will be a Far Cry 3 - there's no reason why there wouldn't be. I'm not going to lie and say "I don't know if there will be a Far Cry 3". There will be a Far Cry 3, I don't when. Two or four years... I don't know. The brand is a triple-A shooter, we are, in a way, reinventing the FPS genre. I expect huge things... Ubisoft expects that. To achieve that takes time. So... it'll go in one or the other direction... we'll see!
The African setting looks great, but were any other settings considered after the tropical one?
We looked at more... like the Laurentian forest; big forests you find in places like Canada and Russia. We looked at Antarctica...
Isn't that a bit... 'white'?
Yeah! Its too bland. There's not a lot... where's the civilization. We looked at a lot of things. Pat was totally misquoted the other day - a journalist said the game was going to be in Antarctica. You look at things... Antarctica was crossed off pretty quickly, but you need to look at everything to reach the best decision. For me, its a good decision to go to Africa. It works with the story. It works with the mercenaries theme. The fact that that we can push the boundaries. The 24-hour day/night cycle, the propagation of fire. We wanted to play with this... and there's nothing better than tall dry grass. When we went there, we realised it was the right setting. I actually get messages on Facebook; guys from Africa saying the game looks exactly like my home. This is a great compliment.
The action looks very fast at times... how does it play out in relation to the more cerebral story, characterisation, etc?
That's your choice. That's the tricky part. Its up to you. When you play more... you'll realise you've never played anything like this before. When you play it, you'll understand. The vehicle chases, the random open-world; foes coming at you from 360 degrees. You've never played that before. Before you get to the desert, you can drive for a long time. There are lots of encounters. The combat feels natural, it isn't 'arcadey', we like the Call of Duty games. Its very dynamic. We're not just spraying bullets. Its more like: 'I run to cover, I look around, I pick my target, etc.' You need to be clever - the AI is pretty smart. We've added snipers that are scattered around. We did a lot of playtesting, people play differently. Our CCO said to us, "I love your game guys, because I can make my own movie". That's kind of true. You know your mission, but if you want to explore you can. You can snipe - or you can look at the scene - If I shoot that barrel, or that vehicle, what will happen? There are many realistic behaviours. You can expect the AI to behave in certain ways, but sometimes you'll be surprised... "oh f***, there's a guy with an RPG over there"... or a mortar. The first time you get shot with a mortar is pretty intense. Once you know the enemy have them, its surprising. Its super-dynanmic. This isn't a corridor shooter. Do you know what heat maps look like? Some game AI gets data on player activity; player paths, etc. The game controls where you die, and the experience is staggered; controlled. But with Far Cry 2... we have no f***ing idea where you're going! We can't control it. For the level designers it was a new mindset, to create the environments.
Its very liberating, there's no control over positioning. There are no triggers for bad guys.
Any DLC plans?
Yes! We're actually working on that, but I can't say what the content of those will be... but they're going to be f***ing cool. We kept a few surprises for our DLC. We're thinking they're going to be pretty sweet actually. I actually played it yesterday... its really cool. We're still going to be working on it after the game ships; I played the prototypes yesterday. Its going to be really awesome.
Do you worry about the jam-packed festive release schedules?
Maybe... I'm an optimistic person be definition. I know the quality of the game we have. I've seen the numbers for the buzz around the game. I was in Leipzig a month ago; there was a line of 150 or 200 people queuing to see our game. The line wasn't that long for Gears 2 or Call of Duty 5. What's cool, for consumers, is that games are getting better and better. As a consumer I love it. I also think people are now more able to see the difference. I'll give you the best example: BioShock. If it came out four years ago, people would have been saying "oh, System Shock" which game developers-only love. Then BioShock came out and it was accessible, and it was different, and people were open-minded about playing it. The timing when it came out was great. I just think people are ready for something different, as a shooter, that's the bet we've made and we'll see if it pays out. From the numbers I'm seeing, the buzz, its pretty good. I've been traveling around and the fans are excited. When casual gamers are talking about your game its a really good sign.
That's all for now LP, thanks for your time.
Thanks! Enjoy the game.