We were recently offered the opportunity to talk to Deck13's Jan Klose and find out more about the studio's follow up to Lords of the Fallen. With the studio ditching the fantasy setting of their previous game and parting ways with that game's publisher, we wondered what The Surge was all about, and how the team would take the lessons learned from their last outing and make them count in their next.
Jan Klose: It is in part something new. We want to keep the things that we really liked about Lords of the Fallen and that players liked. And still, on the other hand, we want to present something that feels totally new. We will keep the core gameplay which for us this duel-based one-on-one combat that we had with Lords of the Fallen. We want to extend this and put it in a whole new universe. So we will deliver new things gameplay wise, as well as setting wise.
GR: Do you want to create a new universe because you're done with Lords of the Fallen, or is it because you have new ideas that you want explore?
JK: There are two things. One thing is that we really felt like we would be repeating ourselves telling another Lords of the Fallen story, and the other thing of course is that publisher CI Games and Deck13 decided that we would not go together for the second instalment of Lords of the Fallen. So we are with a new publisher now with Focus Home Interactive. And of course it makes sense to think about a new universe. It gave us the chance to do something completely new. Like really thinking from scratch.
GR: The universe you're creating for The Surge looks very much like a dystopian future. What happened to make the world look like it does?
JK: We really want to use trends that we have in our world today and want to transform them into the future. So we are not doing a sci-fi game, but it's really like you just said, a dystopian near future. And our idea is really to think about what happens to the world if things were to go on in a bad direction. So what happens if technology advances but it's not in our favour? What happens to the environment under the pressure of worse conditions? So all these things we try to combine together and create some vision of the near future where we place the hero in. And we also think about the companies, the big tech companies, that we have today. What might become of them if they don't turn out to help the people, but maybe harm them? We really want to tell a grownup story and in the end what you see in the pictures is something that was once working and maybe positive, but has taken a terrible turn. The name, The Surge, this is something that happened to the world, but I cannot right now explain exactly what it is. But also the player will only find out in the course of their journey through the game.
GR: When you said there are environmental changes, do you mean things like natural disasters?
JK: Yes, I mean disasters like global warming, like environmental conditions getting harsher and getting worse. So we don't want something like Mad Max where the world is something else. But we really want to show what might happen in thirty, forty, fifty, sixty years from now, and how might this change the whole world and how people will live and how people will work, and yeah, how people will live their lives.
GR: You said the companies don't always work to help people; do you think that this is something that is already happening today? Or do you think that this might happen in future?
JK: Well, again, without spoiling too much, I think it's interesting that companies today, especially large companies, especially large tech companies, sometimes have the image that they really want to change the world for the better. And I personally believe that there are a lot of people working in these companies who really want to do this. On the other hand you see some frightening advances. So for example, there are companies that buy into military robotic production, and what will they do with it? So it could go one way or the other. And if it goes the bad way then there are very powerful and terrible things waiting for us. And maybe this is something that you will see first-hand in The Surge.
GR: One of those trends is artificial intelligence. There are already many games and movies that discuss how humans could possibly react when robots become sentient. Is this also part of The Surge or is it more about what humans do to each other?
JK: Well, you meet a lot of robotics in the game, that's for sure. But our focus is really on humans and, like you just said, what humans do to other humans or themselves. This is the focus and this is also what you see from our hero. If you see the artwork we already released, you can see some kind of an exoskeleton he's wearing. You see that this is a fusion of machine and people - machines enhancing people, and not always in a positive way. But of course, it changes how people can live their lives and work. You can gather hardware, but it's also software, let's say implants, that can extend the human body. These are the things we follow up and you can use a lot of that and a lot of these approaches when playing the game.
GR: Deus Ex, for example, examines a similar theme. Is it this kind of future that your story's about?
JK: I think we are a bit harsher, maybe a bit more gritty. What we show is in no way a shiny polished future, it's more a dark and grim future, where even the enhancements that you get do not make you feel like you're turning into a better, more evolved creature. You will have a feeling that maybe they are given to you for the wrong reasons and you're not getting better and more, let's say trans-human, by using them. What we have, whatever you do - again, I don't want to spoil too much - you stay human and that's a huge problem for you and for mankind. That's a little bit of our take on things. And so I think that Deus Ex is a brilliant way of talking about the subject but it's a really different angle to what we are showing you in our world and via the gameplay itself.
When talking about gameplay you said you are also focused on the one-on-one battles. Do you still want a challenging game where every fight is difficult?
JK: Yes, we want to have that. It will not turn into something like a third-person shooter, or an action adventure. We want to stick with this very, very strong duel-based fighting. What we want to do, however, in contrast to Lords of the Fallen is, we want to give the player better guidance. And by that I don't mean simplifying elements, but showing the player clearly what options they have. We want to show the player what they can do, so they can choose. They can do different things and get different equipment and walk an alternate path. However, they will get a better understanding of all the tools they have to choose from. So maybe people who found something too difficult in Lords of the Fallen will just find other ways of playing. However, we are not making it easier. It's still a very tough game. This is what we want. We just don't want to have people who are being frustrated because they think it's not for them.
GR: Maybe one of the problems in Lords of the Fallen was that you could try to defeat an enemy or overcome a difficult section as often as you wanted. But when you were successful you never needed to go back again, so some people felt it was more like trial and error. What is your approach in The Surge?
The idea with Lords of the Fallen was the same as it is here. That when you meet an enemy the first time then maybe he's too strong and he will kill you. But maybe you learnt his attacks or some moves off him. Or you learnt that your attack that you were doing was just not a good idea. So you come back and this time you have some ideas. You have learnt a little bit and now you are better. And maybe you die a second time because you tried and you were just not good enough, but the third time you really know what to do and then you can kill the enemy. For the weaker enemies that feel maybe a little bit more like cannon fodder, you can of course have different strategies or be not so tactical about them. And every time you meet an interesting enemy in the game, we think it's OK if you die one or two times before you figure out what to do. Then if you figured it out then it will be easier for you to defeat another enemy of this type, however it mean simply learning the pattern. You still need to see what tactics he is using. Another thing is that you need items from the enemies you've met before if you want to craft certain things. So we encourage the players to go back and to fight enemies again to get more of the resources you need to craft new cool stuff in the game.
GR: With crafting, you mean gear and weapons, right?
JK: Yes, crafting is a very, very strong part of the whole game design with The Surge. If you defeat an enemy, it depends on how you defeated him, you will get different loot. And with this loot, which can be armour, which can be weapons, which can be other things you can apply to your character; you can craft this for yourself, use it for yourself. So when you see an enemy carrying a special type of armour which makes it maybe especially strong or hard to defeat, when you've defeated him you can get parts of the armour. But only if you defeated him in a certain way. For example, if you cut of his arm while he's wearing a cool piece of armour, you can then get it and craft it to fit it to your character and then you have it. But you just have one piece. So maybe you want to have other pieces... and so on. There are multiple ways. While it's interesting to fight an enemy, the type of loot you get from him depends on how you fight an enemy.
So when you fight an enemy you can target certain areas of the body?
JK: Yes, this is the most important new core element we have in the gameplay. You can in real-time target a body part of the enemy and attack that. This is for two reasons. The first is maybe to take it out of combat. And the other is to get this item with a special finishing move, which is a bit cruel maybe, but very effective. And we are really happy, because this mechanic already works really well. So you don't have any pauses or anything in the game. You just use it and target a special body part.
GR: If you can build gear and weapons, is it also possible to build other items that help you? You have robots in the game, can you build them to support you while fighting?
A litte bit, but this is still under construction. But yes, there are things that will support you in your play and that you can also upgrade that are not just your own body.
GR: There is artwork showing off a "grapple spider" unit that looks like a transport unit. Is that something that helps you?
JK: Well, it could potentially help you, but it doesn't. Basically it's one of the machines you will encounter and it will have different purposes, but on at least one occasion you will need to fight this machine to progress. And this machine has a lot of very nasty ways how it can try to defend against your attacks. So if you have a look at the image and you see the size of it compared to the size of the hero, then you see that this is a pretty huge machine.
GR: Are there a lot of huge enemies in the game? Have you kept the same formula, where enemies scale up as you progress through certain areas?
JK: Yeah, I think that it fits a setting such as this. And it's an interesting game mechanic that means you have variation in there, that you shouldn't always fight the same types of enemies. But we really want to do a lot of different things that you experience and of course not only the size or the colour or whatever, but also the behaviour of these enemies. So that you really need to learn new stuff, that you really are surprised by what's happening next, and we're always introducing interesting enemies throughout the game.
<b>GR: What kind of environments can we expect? The artwork shows mostly industrial areas...
They will play a major role. There are big industrial compounds where you move around. But there will also be different scenarios. So it doesn't all look the same and it's not always indoors. You're indoors, you're outdoors, you're high above, you're underground. There are a lot of different locations you can explore. But it's all revolving around one special part of the world. So you're not journeying to the moon, or to the sea, or anything like that.
JK: We have a really different level design approach this time. We're staying with level-based world design. So you have a pretty large area that you can explore and then you have certain barriers where you change your location to another one. However, these should feel as seamless as possible and the most important thing is that you open them up bit by bit and they always leave stuff behind to explore. So in terms of that it's interesting to travel backwards; you can cross through all the locations to find new stuff, go back to unlock some secrets that are left there. We want to let you open the game world bit by bit, so that it really feels that it's getting bigger the longer you play, so that it doesn't feel like one linear experience where there is no motivation to go back. We felt that this was wasted potential with Lords of the Fallen. We put a lot of work into a lot of locations, and there wasn't enough motivation for the player to travel back and go there again and find or do something there. This is something we really want to change.
GR: Going back to find secret stuff and new areas is reminiscent of the Metroidvania genre. There you have hub where you start, and from there you can reach any part of the world. Do you want to create something like that?
JK: It certainly has metroidvania elements, so elements that you find in the game. It's like with The Legend of Zelda, where you open up the game world, but you always have secrets left behind that you want to come back to and explore, especially when you get a new gameplay feature. We want you to develop your character and then suddenly find out that you can do something that you couldn't do before that will help you in a previous level. So you might be very interested to see what happens if you go back to that level with the new skill and try it out, and you will be rewarded for it. That's a big part of the level design that we are working on right now.
GR: And what about making decisions? Is this something you want to expand upon here?
JK: We want to do it a little bit different in The Surge. We want to have more storytelling and also decision making in your actions as a player, and less limited to some dialogue with NPCs. There will be NPCs, there will be dialogue, there will be a lot of world creation that you can witness as a player, but there won't be only one way to make decisions , such as just saying yes or no in a dialogue tree. But where you are going, what weapons you are using, what you are doing in the game, will also influence the things that will happen. Not every time, but sometimes you can really change what's going on like that. And there will also be characters just giving you quests and that you can talk with. There are more layers where you can really get to know the game world than you had in Lords of the Fallen.
GR: Do your decisions also change the end of the game?
JK: There will be changes to the end, yes. And they will depend on what you do in the game.
GR: For your last game you worked closely with CI Games. This time you partnered with Focus Home Interactive. Is The Surge more of your own game than the last one was?
I would still say that we were the only developer on Lords of the Fallen. But of course a publisher always plays a big part in the development of a game. So many decisions came from CI Games and surely there were decisions that made the game better, where we were very thankful to have some outside perspective. And we had very strong creative people at CI Games working with us and of course sometimes that's not so easy, because you have different creative views. But I think we always settled for something that was good for the game, and we never had the feeling that Lords of the Fallen was not ours. Now with Focus Home Interactive we also have a lot of creative freedom and we are really, really happy with the relationship. And we think it's a really good partner, and we hope that we'll do our part too and keep them happy throughout the rest of the development. We absolutely feel like The Surge is our game, but of course it's also Focus Home Interactive's. We're happy that this is the game we are doing together.
The Surge is heading to PC, PS4 and Xbox One, and it's expected to land on all three platforms sometime in 2017.