At the review event for Respawn's shooter, before we sat down to play through the campaign, Mackey McCandlish talked to the assembled gaming press about the studio and its vision for Titanfall.
The man from Respawn started by talking to us about the studio's origins, with the core of the team working together first on Medal of Honor for EA, then at Activision on Call of Duty, and then how they went their own way (back into the arms of EA, incidentally) to change direction and make Titanfall.
During his short speech McCandlish told us about how Half-Life was a huge influence on the team, citing the grunts in Valve's seminal shooter as their ultimate video game enemy (which certainly makes sense when you play Titanfall). It was an interesting talk, one that offered us plenty of insight into the collective thinking of the studio.
The next day, after having played through the campaign, we had the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with lead single-player designer McCandlish about the development process and the challenges of developing this sequel.
GR: After having played through the campaign I'm wondering could you do more with it? Is there any plans to give players an incentive to come back for repeated attempts?
MM: I'd say with this game, I think it's hard to understate the challenge of taking one game that took us four years and then doing it in two years and adding a single-player campaign. So any time we finish a game we are going to look at what was working and what are the ways that we could add to that value proposition, get some more re-playability or even just get different playability, but use some of the things we've made to help us get there.
On this game the focus was on delivering a solid campaign and that was quite the sprint to the finish. That was a monumental effort and we had barely the minimal amount of time at the end just to do like a nice credit sequence, That was where the bonus energy went, so I think at this point we're going to look at how it goes with gamers once it comes out and plan accordingly, so there's no immediate plans to revisit the single-player side, we'll just have to see how the game does.
GR: PSVR is just launching. Were you tempted or have you prototyped any VR modes, is that something you've explored?
MM: So for VR it's exactly those initial headsets that have been around for a while and there's some programmers on the team that are particularly into trying out ideas with that. So I have put on a headset in Titanfall and wall run and gotten nauseous in a pretty short period of time when you're trying to wall run, look around and jump and everything, but it is a very fascinating and new area to explore. The challenge of translating first-person shooters to VR is something that companies are already attacking and I'm sure we'll be paying attention to the progress they make in those areas. You're seeing people leave these triple A team and you know they want to be on the cutting edge of VR for shooters because shooters have been around for over 20 years, so we'll be watching and playing them. We are messing around a little bit with it and I think that's something we're all going to keep an eye on, especially with PlayStation picking it up. I think the universe and the scale of the titans lends itself to VR, the challenge is making that feel easy to play.
GR: How do you balance the game in terms of empowering the player and making them feel really good about what they are doing, and then at the same time not making it too easy?
MM: That was really a substantial challenge on this one because the pilot in particular has such a wide range of motion and I think maybe moreso than any shooter I've worked on. This game has so much, it's almost like a very wide skill gap. Usually when people say skill gap they're talking about multiplayer, but in the context of single-player there's such a range of skills somebody could have. Someone could be the type of player that's new to shooters and you don't even want to jump and we have to get you excited about running on a wall, which is maybe scary for somebody that is just a beginner. So you have defensive players all the way to the other end of the extreme, where you get someone who played the first game, [they're] going around like it's a playground, jumping over things and meleeing grunts and shooting mid-air, so how do we make it fun for both players without being boring for one or impossible for the other? And I think what you can probably appreciate from your experience is how the early parts of the game ramp you into the wall running experience and even kind of break it down into component pieces, like we're going to do some wall running for a bit without even having double jump to get you thinking in terms of the walls because if we gave you double jump first you'd probably just kind of spam jump your way to everything.
So we did a lot of experiments and R&D into how do we introduce wall running to players and how complicated can we get with it before we're going to turn off too many people. On the shooting we did a lot of work and balancing into how much to help the player with their aim. Like you'll find that the game will let you snap towards enemies, but it won't let you spam snap them, so you can't just left trigger right trigger your way through the combat, and even do a little a bit of a bonus if you're in the air to help you make those moments happen a little bit, bridge the gap just a little bit. So you're trying to do it and the game is helping you be the player you want to be, unless you're playing on the highest difficulty then we take those tunings and put it into the multiplayer style where it's more limited aim assist.
And I'd say, lastly, one of the tools we employed for this was to have one of the designers, Jason McCord, look at the whole game and do whole game tuning. So whereas most of the designers were focused on individual levels, he'd go back and look at all levels and look for spots where it was getting overall too hard or we needed to reinforce something that maybe players were forgetting how to do. So that challenge affected almost every encounter and moment combat-wise that we worked on. Finding that balance how to make combat still be linear but have freedom to move around was something that probably took at least two thirds of the project to get a handle on. A wide range of shooter players can sit down and play this and not get turned off because it's too hard or too easy, and it's intentional that you can play these fights patiently in cover and kind of like shoot one guy at a time, but at the same time you can just jump in the pool and swim around, and get on the walls and jump. One other way this factored is how we have enemies in the game that intentionally take you out of your comfort zone, like the Reaper. He'll dive into the ground and get you to move around, he's a giant robot, he'll make you flee out of that spot. So even though a lot of the time we're letting you play that way we still want to some degree a more Titanfall experience where mobility is part of the combat.
GR: How have you tried to find that perfect mixture between who you are as a team through your many evolutions, and bringing in new factors and new ideas? And what have you had to leave on the cutting room floor?
MM: Definitely a huge challenge for us is just differentiating ourselves from the competition. Like if we were just to fall back on what we are used to we wouldn't have made as successful a game because the games we were making before benefited from the prior game. So like a Call of Duty 4 wasn't really a two year game, it was a six year game because we had all the tech that we had built up to make it very easy and beneficial for a designer to be making combat with grunts and have friendly characters with you. So we knew we had to differentiate otherwise we were going to be kind of a poor man's version of the competition. That rock in a hard place creative environment is actually kind of empowering and it was something missing from making like a Modern Warfare 2. With those games we didn't really have a strong incentive to make something different because we knew what we were making was successful and we had momentum in that direction, so in some ways that was nice, but in other ways like a creative trap.
So finding ourselves in that situation we were inspired to look back at some of the other influences that hadn't been as fully explored, especially on console. I mean, for example, Half-life was a game that was available in Orange Box, but that was still several years after Half life 2 came out. It's never, I mean I think you can see the influences in other games, Bioshock, Dishonored, but its still a ripe area of exploration, the solo character that's on a mysterious mission and encounters a variety of interesting gameplay that's both shooting and puzzling, or in this case mobility as well.
So it was an opportunity to look at earlier games that influenced us, even Blaster Master on the Nintendo side where you're getting in and out of your giant vehicle and doing missions as the vehicle and the little guy in the caves. So I feel like we were kind of forced to, that's true. Even for the first game where if we'd just made another military boots on the ground game, you already can get that, you can get it from Battlefield, you can get it from CoD depending on which flavour you like, so we had to make something that played differently and in that case we decided to go with the speed element. That had been very present in early shooters but had kind of diminished, and introduced the big and small concept which maybe you saw a little bit of that in some of the mods but not really in a mainstream shooter. That's big fighting small, almost like two maps laid on top of each other, so a lot of the work we have done is 'hey you can't just do that, that's been done, that's being done, what else is there out there which we can differentiate ourselves with', but tempering that with the fact that we still need to make it something that someone can pick up and play. Like we could make something really crazy and different and only be fun for the niche audience.
We have played with other elements like even trying to bring RTS into the shooter and one of the things we found [when] trying pulling different things to shooters was if you take it too far you can get almost like a chess boxing effect, where the two things are so different from each other, like the chess player doesn't respect the boxer, the boxer doesn't respect the chess player, and it loses the skill component, the competitive skill component. For single-player we explored some old but not recent shooter areas, and pulled in some of those influences from other genres in games, like platformers and puzzle games, and we're pretty proud of how that worked out.
So far as things on the cutting room floor; we did a lot of iteration on this game, like quick exploration of some ideas and some of those grew into things that almost became their own levels, but when we got to the end we had X amount of months left and we had to shave it down to what we would best execute in that time that would make for the best game. So some things that were maybe too similar of an environment, or too many too risky things, you know we had to put aside. One of the ways we approached that was to try to scope to more things that were centred to just the pilot or just the titan, rather they trying to do things that involved both at the same time. So as a studio and a design team [we] understand the pilots better and the titans better, which enables us to think about them together with a better foundation then we could have if we jumped straight to that.
GR: How are you going to balance the new titans in the multi-player?
MM: Titans are something I worked on a lot in the first game; rodeo embarking, getting out of the titan, executing a lot of those core titan experiences. On this one there was a period during summer 2015, we were wrestling with the challenge of making the whole scene read better, and getting a bit anticipation elements and mastery into the multiplayer. So I jumped in on what we called the Titan Task Force, which was a small group of us that were focused on making new titans and exploring how we could change titans to be more [focused on] mastery and depth, and what we decided to do was switch to a more of what we called a "Street Fighter method", where your titan is a complete package like a character, so we were exploring ideas that eventually lead to Scorch and these different types of titans.
There's been a like an undercurrent of Street Fighter playing throughout my career and like the Infinity Ward game director Jason West, he was a big Street Fighter Player, and that was one of the top five games that was a huge influence on us as a group. So it's not a huge surprise that some of that would come back and influence in some ways with the titans. But it's been great because it's now allowed us to take some of those individual components and weapons and let them do things they wouldn't be able to do if you could just mix and match them, because it makes certain power guarantees. Like, for example, North Star has the sniper and we're able to decrease the time it takes to charge up compared to the first game, because we know it's in the context of a Strider and we know it's going to have these weapons and it's not going to combine these things in a way that would be too powerful.
GR: But there is a huge amount of potential for tinkering with and putting together complimentary team builds, and for a meta game to emerge.
I think what you're saying is really true. It will also be more healthy for the meta game because in the first game we were seeing, especially in a mode like Attrition where there's pilots and titans and AI, that builds tended to gravitate in one of two ways. Either towards the challenges that people were doing, so they're forced to pick that weapon so they can complete that challenge. But the environment was forcing players, was driving them more towards builds that would handle any situation, rather than specialise towards a situation. So you'd see a lot of certain abilities get a lot of play, and then the other other ones get much less play. So by forcing them you get to see a little more of what you might encounter in a Wingman LTS mode, where you have more incentive to pick based on what you're seeing as opposed to just trying to pick something to handle every situation OK.
GR: Would it be fair to assume you are going to support the game with additional content like paid-for DLCs?
MM: With the first game we did three waves of DLC, each one three maps, and we found that that created four times four different possibilities of what configuration of content people can have, which made it really hard to do matchmaking. So since I was a developer I got the DLC for free and I was sitting there trying to get a match and I'm not getting any DLC matches because there's not enough of the DLC players in there, so this time we're going to do some more maps but there just going to be free for anybody who has the game. I think it's really good to get that message out there because I don't think everyone knows that yet. Whereas the competition is still charging for maps, we're saying stick around we're not going to split the playerbase up.
So there's still resources to explore a bit and support the game. Again it's going to depend on not just how the game does but also what it feels like the game needs at that point. So that'll help to determine how much more resources and where we put them after the game comes out.
GR: Finally, what are you most proud of personally from what you've managed to achieve?
MM: At a most fundamental level I'm just really, really proud of the dev team being able to add a whole campaign to what we were attempting and actually finish it and execute it in a way we can be proud of in such a short time. As far as the campaign specifically goes, I think the way we balanced three different core loops of pilot combat, pilot mobility and titan combat to keep it interesting is really exciting for me as a designer and as a player, because shooters I think were kind of getting trapped in this loop of playing too much of a similar game, so I'm glad we were able to mix things up in that way.
Titanfall 2 is currently out for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and you can read our review by hitting this link.
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