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Speaking with… Ed Stern, Lead Writer on BRINK

At this year’s site mental was granted a face to face audience with from , the studio that created the Quake Enemy Territory series, to discuss their upcoming  first person shooter .

But first a little background information. Brink is a first person shooter that is set in a distopian future, which is nothing new. Where Brink really innovates is in the seemless blending of a single player game and online multiplayer – with a simple touch of a button you can populate your game with other human players to either aid you, or fight against you for that extra challenge.

Transcribed from Adam’s notes, written in magnolia coloured crayon, we present a very special edition of  

First of all, can you just tell us a little bit about the story and what makes it stand out among other games in the first person shooter genre?

Brink is a new first person shooter coming out in the first quarter of 2011, on , and . We at Splash Damage are making all three versions with the same game engine, same game assets and you can really tell it’s been made as one game rather than ported over onto all other platforms.

But that’s a really good question, there’s a lot of shooters out there and a lot of good shooters, so you’ve really got to work hard to make it stand out. So with Brink, deliberately our goals were; it’s got to be different, it’s got to look different, we can’t offer people the same thing, we have made those games ourselves, we don’t need anymore “brown games”. We wanted to offer people something they haven’t seen before, the settings have got to be unique, the visual looks have got to be completely different, so that any screenshot that you see of the game makes you say “oh yeah! that’s Brink, it doesn’t look like anything else out there”.

Brink features something uncommon in games today - a varied colour palette

What kind of things with the first person shooter genre are you trying to improve upon with Brink?

There are some things about shooters which we feel we needed to get right, things we could improve on, it’s not just about graphical fidelity anymore. There has been a problem previously with single player games, where you play them, you’re good at them, you enjoy them and then you beat them, but then you go online, everything is different. Sometimes it’s a different game engine, sometimes it’s different controls, but you get this feeling of “Hey I thought I was good at this game, but now I am terrible”. Also quite often, the level of graphical fidelity really drops when you go online, because you have to send everything over a network, singleplayer you just have to render the world from one point of view.

So one of our goals was to make sure there was absolutely no difference. Not just so we could constrain both versions, but to make it so the game is always looking fantastic, make sure it’s always better looking and more distinctive than any other game out there. So it doesn’t matter whether you’re online or off, singleplayer or multiplayer, you’re not losing any level of detail.

Brink has an impressive character customization system, can you tell me what it was like developing that?

We added a frankly ridiculous degree of character customization in the game because players love that, you can see that from MMORPG players, they love having a degree of customization, so we made a game where in 20 seconds you can customize a guy which looks totally unique, with all manner of ethnic and racial archetypes. You can choose a guy which looks absolutely hilarious if you like, that’s your choice. You can give him a tattoo, you can give him scars, you can give him face paint on top of that, then a gas mask on top of that, and come up with this amazing looking guy, that’s not just a pretty version of your character for the customization menu, that’s your in game 3rd person model. He looks as good as he can, whether your playing online or offline, singleplayer or multiplayer.

Of course there we’re reasons why we couldn’t have that same thing before because you have to send it all over networks, on consoles there is no server, its peer to peer, its hard and we’ve got a huge level of detail. The source textures alone for all these things are gigabytes big, but using the technology we’re using, we are able to get that down so we were only sending a couple dozen megabytes of video information over the network, it’s very efficient. What this means is, all those distinctions we are used to about singleplayer/multiplayer shooters suddenly just don’t matter as much.

The distinctions between single player and multiplayer are blurred in Brink

In one of our online modes one team attacks, one team defends. We have a decade of experience making online shooters, that is not coincidental. It is what we consider to be the sweet spot, you could have more players on the servers but you tend not to survive as long, so we put a lot of thought into how big we want the maps to be, “do we want to have vehicles in it?”, well actually it takes place on “The Ark” it’s isolated, it’s an island and vehicles didn’t really work for us.

It’s also not just like “we’re the red team, they’re the blue team and we fight because…that’s what we do” which is fine, as there are some wonderful arena games. But you’re not going to make someone care about those characters, because they’re not characters, they’re just there to fight.

How about “it’s a shooter and they don’t want to fight?” it’s much more compelling. In the rules of ancient Greek drama the choice between right and wrong is boring, the choice between right & right is much more interesting. So if you’re interested in the story line, Brink is going to give you characters and cinematics which follow through, you can skip those cinematics if you like and frankly if you’ve already played the game a couple of times everyone will skip them not matter how riveting they are the first time round, there’s no reason not to have that in a shooter. I used to get some odd looks from people saying “wait…you’re a writer, in a multiplayer game?” Well why not have a storyline? Why not create a world which is rich enough that people really, genuinely care whats going on?

You mentioned “The Ark” before, can you tell us about it and the environments you have been creating for the game?

“The Ark” is the main character in Brink, our actors are still pretty clunky compared to cinema, but oh my goodness can we render environments. The environment is the best narrative medium we’ve got, it’s always a bit of a fail in a game when an NPC comes up to you and says “Stop, stop playing this game you have paid for because I have to lecture you about what is going on”, that’s really an ineffective way of doing it. The environment can do that much more effectively than a character, if you just look around the environments in Brink and the various maps, you can see every type of landscape, there are nice bits, clean bits, slummy bits, just looking around gives you a sense of what has happened on “The Ark” in the last 40 years much more effectively than if we sit you down and tell you what’s been going on. Now that we have removed the logical constraints from the singleplayer and multiplayer, we can start to do some really interesting things.

Lets say you’re playing offline, storyline mode, I am on your friends list, I pop up, you set it so your friends can join you, I join your game and replace one of the A.I teammate components with me. Now suddenly it’s a co-op game, but nothing has changed, it’s still the same setting. You didn’t need to stop, you didn’t need to reset, you didn’t need to do anything different and there is no drop in graphical quality, it’s exactly the same thing, any single one of these players, 16 in total, could be A.I or human replacements in an instant, with no loss, no lag, and no drop in quality. This raises the possibility that you could have what you think of as a multiplayer game, but one of the guys in there is playing the next episode in his singleplayer campaign, but it’s still the same game, you’re buffing each other, he’s giving you health, you’re giving him ammo, that’s the class you’ve chosen, you can change to any class every time you re-spawn, if you go to a command post in game you can change class or weapon load out there. So, suddenly we’re really blurring the lines between what used to be very separate beasts.

It used to be of course, that you couldn’t have a singleplayer/multiplayer game, now there is no difference. We want to get people online because that produces the most unpredictable stuff.

From a writing perspective, what challenges have you come up against with Brink?

I am the writer of the game, I hope the game is going to be interesting, whilst the people are turning the page, they’re talking to the cast of characters because they want to know what’s been going on. But the story of the game is not the plot, the story of the game is the story of your own experiences playing the game, that always trumps everything else. Nobody has ever said “oh I was playing the game last night when the NPC said that amazing line of dialogue”, people say “AHH this thing happened because I did this when you did that”, that’s the memory because you made that part of the game yourself, that’s not something you’ve been presented with. That’s the great thing about online games, it’s a toolkit and a rule-kit to let players author their own experiences and those are always the most precious.

Another challenge before has always been that it is quite tough to get into online games, sometimes it is not a very welcoming environment, it’s confusing, you don’t know what to do. So, we’ve taken the decision making process of a really high level clan player and automated it. We have it on the objective wheel, you just press up on the D-pad and it will show you all the missions you can do based on the current status of the gameplay and what class you are. So, if you’re a really good clan player, you’ll know the map, you’ll know where to go, you’ll know what the most useful thing you can do is, whether that’s doing the main objective or supporting the guys doing the main objective. Or perhaps even “oh my goodness we don’t have anyone in the right class, I’ll have to change class”, but you need to know the map really well to do that, so we’ve made all of that automatic, you just press up on the d-pad and it will tell you to “go here”, it’ll put a waypoint on the map, you go there, it’ll give you more experience points just for being there, just for being near the objective, because you are effectively guarding it, whichever team you’re on, you’re influencing gameplay.

Working as a team delivers more XP

We will bribe you mercilessly with experience points to do things that benefit your teammates the most, so we hope players farm exp, we hope players are going to try and exploit it. We don’t give you that much exp for killing the enemy, we will smother you with exp for keeping your teammates alive and we make it as easy as possible, for example there are four classes, Soldier, Engineer, Medic and Operative, the Soldiers plant explosive charges and they can give out ammo, the Medics can heal or revive people, the Engineers can buff weapon damage, disarm bomb charges, repair things and the Operatives can hack objectives. Now if you already know how all the classes work, you know it makes sense that “I am a soldier, I am going to give you some ammo”, that’s how clans work. If you’re new to the game you might not know that, so we make it extremely easy by putting a big “PRESS X NOW AND YOU WILL BUFF THIS GUY” symbol on the game, and he will buff you back. If you spawn and someone gives you ammo you might as well think “oh I’m going to give you health”, we will give you loads of exp for doing that. Suddenly it’s much easier to do things which in the past only professional clan players would know how to do. Not coincidentally the things that give you the most exp are the things that do your team the most good.

You mentioned how the environment plays a key role in the story telling, can you just explain the S.M.A.R.T system that you have implemented? Some people may claim Brink is influenced by games like Mirror’s Edge…

Well yeah, a lot of people have said its a bit like Mirror’s Edge, but that’s not an FPS. Basically, some of the greatest graphical advances have been in first person shooters, it’s amazing how they have progressed in the last 5 years, but the movement within the game has actually lagged behind. Since Quake 3 we pretty much haven’t made any advances, we’re still a fridge on roller skates, it doesn’t matter how high quality the player model is, if you come up against a wall that’s chest high, you can’t climb over it somehow. There are lots of good reasons why you would need to do that, because if you have a particular script or action sequences, you only want the player to go a certain way, but our events aren’t scripted, they’re completely unpredictable, which is one of the reasons there’s infinite replay value, you never know how the maps going to go.

In our first game “Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory”, 7 years old, still one of the top 10 most played online games, we’ve had over half a billion games played, no two of them were the same, people keep playing it because of its unpredictability and the mod community have done amazing things with our maps. With online gaming, if you can get past those initial periods of “What the hell do I do”, that isn’t full of 12 year old, racist, misogynistic, homophobic, screaming abuse I hear…oh and by the way, VOIP defaults to off in Brink, you’re only going to hear VOIP from people in your friends list.

But yeah, there is always going to be something new to try out in Brink. One of the challenges for us making Brink was to have and retain all of that depth that will keep people playing our games years after the release, but make it accessible as possible. So ,even if you’ve never played this genre of game before, you will say “oh okay right, this is really easy, now I see what its’ about”.

Confirmed: You can climb over waist high walls in Brink.

S.M.A.R.T (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain), basically fixes that ex-mersive problem with movement in shooters, which is stuff like “Oh my god that’s amazing, look at the dust he kicks up, oh the weapons sound fantastic, oh no I cant climb over that little wall”, It kind’ve pulls you out of the game a little bit. So why can’t you do that? Technically its very clever, it’s quite complex, we’re constantly tracing the environments we have made to see if your guy can make any specific jump. It couldn’t be simpler to use, you just hold down sprint, if you’re on a console its like left shoulder button or something, and press forwards, if your guy could make that jump, then we’ll do it, the animation plays and allows you to progress more dramatically, of course you don’t have to use it, you could time the jumps yourself. It’s not an auto pilot, we just developed it so players don’t have to spend hours of time mastering our control system. During play tests if I see players looking down at the controller, we’ve failed as a designer. If you need to get somewhere you can do it quicker and stay focus on the battlefield. You can move around the environment seamlessly

What was your favorite part of the development process?

Oh it’s when you get the actors involved, because it doesn’t matter if the script works in theory, it’s weird how much changes, it always gets shorter. In the first draft everyone says everything out loud, then it gets shorter and shorter. My favorite bits are when you have a little dialogue exchange within the characters, and the relationship is so clear between them, but then you get the physical actors involved and you just think “no cut that line and that line too”, because you have already made that point just though the physicality of the actors. There we’re many points where lines didn’t need to be said because that point was already being put across just by their posture, with music emphasizing it. It’s a little more interesting when you’re playing against the energy of it. If the performance capture is any good, you can see how they feel. There is an old screen writing motto, “if your scene is actually about what the scene is supposed to be about then your in trouble”, because that means there is no sub-text. Obviously we still have a lot of points we need to make and with the cinematics you can see the characters and know exactly how they’re feeling, they don’t need to say it. So, bizarrely and kind of ironically, my favorite bits as a writer have been when I have had to strike a line.

Speaking of lines of dialogue, how many people were involved in the script writing process?

Well my creative director, Richard Hound, who was the lead designer on Fable 2, Syphon Filter back in the day, and The Sims on console god bless him, he was effectively my story editor on that. We wrote the story together, but it’s all down to the actors, we give the actors a basis and often, after trying out a scene, they may come up with better lines or better ways of saying it. If they can’t remember a line if there is something wrong with it. We we’re really fortunate to have the time to say, “okay, lets have a table read first, lets cast very carefully”, and we we’re really happy with the actors we ended up with and with how visually focal the cast was, that was the best bit, you’ve written this thing and suddenly it comes alive or they will do something which is way better than what you thought.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the two different factions in the game?

In Brink, on “The Ark”, there are two different factions. There is Security which are trying to hold things together and keep the peace, and there is Resistance who are trying to escape “The Ark”. So are you going to save “The Ark”? or escape “The Ark”? Those are you two key points. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t a good versus evil situation because that’s boring, we didn’t want it to be hero cops versus evil terrorists or rebels against evil storm.

There are no good guys or bad guys in Brink, just people with different goals

We thought about making it asymmetric, so you would play the game differently depending on your faction, similar to what we did in our last game, Quake Wars. The downside to that is that effectively players have to learn different games, which got in the way of our goal to be accessible. We wanted to make the experience of playing each side distinct.

In a FPS your gun is pretty much your character, that’s the main thing you see and even each version of all the guns on both sides do the same amount of damage, like the “Rocksteady Assault Rifle”, a single firing, high caliber, high damage but low rate of fire. But all the weapons look and feel completely different, as well as sounding different, so there is an entertaining audio mix. The Security weapons are brand new, they’re well maintained, well lubricated, a good bit of equipment. The Resistance have had to beg borrow and steal their weapons, so some of them look like they have been bolted together or have bits of wire hanging out of them, they sound looser and rustier, not as well maintained.

It definitely feels different between the two teams but we had to be careful to make sure we weren’t saying one is better than the other, we don’t want to get in the way of friends playing with each other because they were at different points in the campaign. You can play the maps in any order, also there are some maps which don’t occur in each campaign.

Thanks very much for chatting to us Ed, it looks like we are out of time.

No problem!

Brink is due for release in early 2011 on Playstation 3, PC, and Xbox 360. Stay tuned to The Newb Review as we will be bringing your more coverage on this game in the near future.

- Adam Radcliffe

itsactuallyadam (0 Posts)

Although a writer for the site, Adam is perhaps best known for his regular, incoherent ramblings on the newbreview.com podcast. Hater of the mainstream, lover of the obscure, he favours an eclectic mix of gaming, including a deep love for arcade classics of the 80's. If he'd never discovered video games, he might even have turned into a normal human being.

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4 Comments:

  1. Pingback: Around the web: Great feature on Brink at CG Society

  2. I had a casual interest in this before going to Eurogamer. I didnt get to play it because of the massive queues, but seeing that many people enjoying the game made me take note of it.

    If the game is half as good as this interview is making it sound then it’ll definately be on my buy list!

  3. @kamiza Me either. I’d seen some promotional stuff before Eurogamer so I was aware of it and I knew it was going to be a big hit but I wasn’t prepared for how good it was. Can see all of us getting it on the sexbox and having a great time.

  4. I really cannot wait for this after our hands on at Eurogamer.

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