Codemasters on Bodycount
With Red Faction bowing out after the poor showing of Armageddon, there's now room for a new king of destructibility. Enter Bodycount, an unashamedly all-guns-blazing, all-bricks-breaking shooter that's all about revolving the gameplay around the destructibility rather than just tacking it on. I spoke with Andrew Parsons, Experienced Level Designer at Codemasters Guildford, ahead of the game's release later this month.
In terms of the coverage we've already seen of Bodycount, a lot has been said about it being a spiritual successor to the PS2 and Xbox shooter Black. Is that a fair assessment of the game?
Just in terms of time, the fundamental thing is that you've got technology and things change across teams. We do have some of those sensibilities, you could probably say that we have a lot of the guys who worked on the VFX for Black, and the main weapon artists. A lot of people describe it as the spiritual successor to Black, but what we like it to think it's that been brought up [to a higher level], but also I think from our point of view that it competes in a better space than Black did.
So in terms of that technology, because obviously the biggest thing with both Black and Bodycount is the environmental destructibility, what kind of technology is there in Bodycount's destructibility and what does that mean for the gameplay?
Basically, with the destructibility we generally term it as 'shredding'. What that means is, rather than a binary 'it's destroyed' or 'it's not destroyed' thing, it's a much more analogue degradation of the environment. What that means, well, I can talk about the challenges. From a level design point of view that throws up three challenges. How do you make that a compelling gameplay mechanic? How do you make that technically work? How do you maintain a visual fidelity on the Xbox and PS3 and stay competitive art-wise while still retaining the technical elements? But also, shredding for us and the whole degradation of the environment has this slightly subconscious effect in terms of the ambience, so when you're seeing splinters flying through the air and there are big clouds of dust and pieces of wood skittering across the floor, that's quite a new thing. So there are those three challenges and to answer my own questions, we've always looked at the destructibility as a core part of the gameplay, and so we design the levels specifically to support shredding at as high fidelity as possible. We want the levels to be open, we want players to have lots of tactical choices and to be creative about what they're doing and to use the weapon as their agency in the world. That whole idea of running into an environment that might be unfamiliar or dangerous, and just having a quick look around and thinking "I'll go through there. I'll shoot that thing, create a hole and go through there." For us, that's got to be the core gameplay mechanic, this constant tactical choice using shredding.
Red Faction was the game that brought destructibility to gaming. Now a lot of games feature it, maybe not the exact same way you're doing with Bodycount, but it's not as unique and original as it was in Red Faction's day. It's arguable that with the exploration-based, experimental gameplay you're talking about that the skill shots in Body Count are more distinguishing as a unique feature.
You've got two parts to that. The destruction - You mentioned Red Faction, which did it really nicely, but because of the technical limitations of the platform what you're talking about is a fairly linear environment with some really cool destruction. As a level designer, it's a tough challenge, but basically what we're trying to do is go "How well can we make this while retaining the shredding elements?" So what you're really talking is having a core mechanic which has all sorts of tactical uses. To leapfrog slightly to the skill shot system, which you mentioned, that can be equated to the same sort of thing. You've got a core mechanic of shooting - and I'll stand by as saying that our shooting is some of the best in the biz, we've got some of the best guys out there working on our weapons, VFX, audio, and all that stuff - so what you're talking about is a core shooting experience that's unmatched, similar to the physics level of the destruction. With the skill shot system itself, what we're trying to do is introduce a level of competitiveness but it's also quite a tight feedback loop. Basically, as your skill shots chain up the potential for earning intel goes up and then your potential for spending it quicker goes up. What we didn't want to do was make some kind of currency or XP type of thing. We just wanted people to earn it, spend it, earn it, spend it, just a constant stream.
You say you didn't want the skill shots to be like currency or XP; I guess you could say that was how they were used in Bulletstorm. Playing the game today, I would say the skill shot system is reminiscent of The Club's combo system. When we talked to the Bulletstorm guys they were keen to say that skill shots haven't been done right in games, that they're a new territory to be explored. Did that drive you guys too?
Well, I don't know. Firstly, I think what the guys did with Bulletstorm, personally, I thought it was genius. It smacked of a studio that knew exactly what to do with Unreal. They were like: "We're not gonna try and do these great big stream-y, levels, but we are you going to give you a gun that allows you to pin a guy to a wall and spin him around." I just thought it was a really nice thing to see someone just got that engine and [said], (smacks fist) "Right, we're gonna do it." Having said that, with that XP system, what that engenders is a play style which starts to veer in a certain direction. So, for example, if you look at the more hardcore end of XP, you know RPGs, it basically means that if you leveled up your melee then if someone says you need to use magic then you're a bit screwed and that's no fun. So the reason that we've gone for this feedback loop with the intel, it's to keep people constantly going, "Well, should I play like this? Should I try and run around? I died a lot that time, maybe I'll try something different this time, go and grab another weapon and try it in a different way." What we didn't want was for people to go, "Well, I've leveled this up to such a level that all the rest is useless." We want to give the players choice but we don't want to make them feel like they're specializing at the exclusion of everything else. If you're having trouble back up a bit, swap out your weapons, have another think about it, maybe collect some more intel and then go back in with a different approach. If you do go with that kind of persistent XP system, that can be detrimental.
You mentioned intel there. Could you explain that a bit more?
Intel is the currency of the game, but as I said earlier it's not something that's used in the long-term - having said that, there are some benefits to hanging onto it for a long time. The more intel you earn, the more it fills up the intel bar, and the more powers you can use. All the powers except for the airstrike are turn-on-turn-off. You've got four options on the OSD in the bottom left of the screen [tied to the d-pad]. On the left is radar which is a low-level tactical use. It highlights characters in the world and shows you their status and all that kind of thing. Then you've got adrenaline on the top. That is a brief burst of invincibility and a brief speed burst, but it burns down intel really quickly. On the right you've got over-clocking bullets. So at the lower level it increases the power of your bullets, stun enemies when you shoot them, things like that, but on the higher level it makes your bullets explosive and incendiary, and you can just literally rake through a building or shoot at a guy and make him explode. So those are the three options which are constant, push-pull mechanics. If you save up intel all the way round then you've got enough for an airstrike. The airstrike is huge. The reason it's the top thing is because it's really powerful, but it costs a lot, and it doesn't work if you're underground. The whole point with that is that we want people to go, "You know what, I'm going to save up for this because I keep dying. I keep having trouble with this and I want to see what the airstrike does." It's interesting, if you see someone use an airstrike in an area of high shredding, there aren't too many places to hide!
Another unique thing in Bodycount, maybe a smaller facet but still, is the duck-in-duck-out cover mechanic. Holding the trigger down gently zooms in the weapon but holding it right down holds you in place where you are and the right stick then swings you left and right. What prompted the decision behind that? I know you guys have said that you're not fans of sticky cover...
When you've got an environment that degrades in an analogue matter rather than a binary matter, as in it's either there or it's not which is how it is in a lot of our competitors' games, and especially if you look at that whole sticky cover mechanic where you've got that down-and-up [out of cover], down-and-up thing going on. So for us, we thought, well, in an environment that's going to degrade it's never going to be the same thing twice, if you create a system in which you're either hiding in cover or you're not, what you've got is a very stiff system. With an analogue degradation system you need an analogue cover system so that you look around, look through, and really use the cover to your advantage. So, for example, it might seem weird but you might want to get a silenced pistol and shoot six inches of panel out of a bit of wood, and then duck down and use cover to look through it and shoot a guy in the knees. In a lot of our competitors' games, first of all they wouldn't let you shoot through the panel, or they'd say that the cover could only be blown up with a grenade. If you've got this constantly shifting landscape and cover, you need a cover system which is flexible to deal with any shape of cover. It could be a T-shape, a U-shape, a V-shape, whatever. Also, it's a real-time thing. So, for example, if you're hiding behind a completely straight bit of cover and it starts to erode, you can duck back in and duck back out, and find your new place to hide and then maybe that'll go away from you too and you can look around and find another bit of cover.
Briefly on the co-op, it's essentially the two of you defending from waves of enemies. Apart from the obvious, what singles it out from the single-player? What is the co-op mode's USP?
We've adapted a lot of the single-player stages to support co-op in a more circular way, in a more arena-based way. What we've tried to do is really pile in the shredding fidelity. To be fair to our network team, they can sync up the shredding across the co-op experience, and that's no mean feat. So what you've got is this crazy glut of guys coming in [and attacking you], and this intel loop as well. The intel drops, you get it, use it, get it, use it, and as the waves go up you start unlocking more powerful weapons. There's a gentle progression through the stages as they get harder and harder. So you've got this completely adapted, custom-made area specifically done to showcase the shredding.
We've had games like Bulletstorm, Shadows of the Damned and Duke Nukem Forever this year already. Do you feel like the big, unpretentious shooter is enjoying resurgence in the industry?
Top line is yes. There should always be space for those games, and there always has been. I just think that, not only in the shooter space but across all genres, there probably needs to be a bit more normalization. And I don't mean normalization as in everything should be normal, I mean normalization as in the top should be slightly less at the top and the bottom should be brought up. It's not just in terms of development budget and time, but it's also in terms of consumer expectations. If you're going out there paying $60 then you've got a certain level of expectation. The thing is, if you make a game which you feel confident in then you should be able to meet those expectations. Consumers, at the moment, their expectations are... pretty fickle, right? You know, they are pretty intense. I don't think it's just shooters that suffer from that, but shooters are the highest profile at the moment, so that's why the spotlight is on the games that you mentioned, like Duke Nukem and Shadows of the Damned. It's like the appetite is there but it doesn't just need to be from a development side but from a consumer side too.
Very interesting. Thank you for your time, Andrew.