The round table with shooter games developers is spinning up. The discussion about genre agenda, which has been started by Ruslan Didenko from Ukrainian Vostok Games, is being continued by his western colleague Christian Allen from a little company Serellan LLC. Christian worked with such great companies as Ubisoft and Bungie in his career, creating Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon 2, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter dilogy and Halo: Reach, so we undoubtedly invited him to the round table.
So, why don’t you start with telling us a little about yourself and how did you get into the game industry?
My name is Christian Allen. I got started in game development as a modder in the late 90’s. I started making mods for Rainbow Six for fun and for my friends, and pretty soon it turned into working as a professional game designer.
Where do you see innovation in game development going in the future?
I think that the rise of social media has provided a platform for new innovative games to come from people not a part of the big publisher machine. Because the barrier to getting the word out on a cool game or even game idea is so low now, ideas that would never get made by traditional publishers will continue to see the light of day, much like Minecraft or DayZ have.
Imagine you can give both Sony and Microsoft a list of what you’d like to see in each of their respective next-gen consoles…
A focus on core gamers and the features that they need, rather than a focus on expanding the consoles as a broad entertainment device. Also, working to remove the barriers to smaller developers to gain access to the consoles.
In perspective, how long do you think it will be before real-time computer graphics become 100% photorealistic?
I think it will still be a while before we see Avatar-level real time games. I had the opportunity to view some of the Avatar production assets, and the size and scope of them blew me away compared to what you see in game development.
Also, there is the problem of the uncanny valley. Even if the horsepower is there to render that level of graphics is available, creating content at photorealistic levels that is appealing to people is still hugely challenging. Movies still haven’t gotten it right without the technological hurdle that games would need to conquer.
Who of modern game designers would you like to mention specially? Which FPS and\or TPS developing studio impresses you?
Right now I am impressed by the developers that are stepping outside of the traditional box from a publishing standpoint, such as Brian Fargo, Jordan Weisman, and Dean Hall. Fargo and Weisman helped push crowdfunding forward to bring back beloved franchises, while Dean Hall created the zombie shooter I always wished I could make.
As far as shooter studios, there aren’t a lot that stand out in my mind right now. I’m pretty burned out on the “gritty realistic gray brown shooter.” Hawken recently impressed me as a bad ass fast-paced mecha shooter.
FPS games were always quite linear from the very beginning, though in the past it was well hidden behind various approaches to in-game situations. Nowadays many gamers complain about gameplay being much less variable and FPS titles turning more into a plain shooting range. Do you agree? Please name one FPS game you think has the most non-linear gameplay.
I definitely feel the trend has been going more linear, and that comes about for a few different reasons, mainly a drive to provide a “cinematic” experience to reach a broad audience. And I think that gamers want an alternative to that, thus the rise of games like Day Z.
One FPS that stands out for non-linearity is S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Of course personally I was influenced greatly by the original Rainbow Six, as it presented the gameplay levels as a puzzle with multiple tactical solutions.
Early shooters had everything to make one feel like the world's real savior — huge rocket launchers, jetpacks, medkits and non-stop action. A lot of modern shooters are either too serious or mostly multiplayer-oriented. Is it the dead-end or should we expect next ten years to change much in FPS genre?
I think that with the next generation of consoles, you will see branching out in the FPS genre. With titles like BioShock Infinity on the horizon, hopefully developers will work to expand the genre and do more than just another run & gun linear brown shooting game.
What is importance of a non-linear gameplay and freedom in FPS and TPS games? Do you think linear shooter games have aged well, despite the continuous success of several franchises?
I personally feel it is hugely important. Games that make you think about what you are doing are much more rewarding to me than games that play like a movie. Michael Bay movies are fun once and a while when I just want to stuff popcorn in my mouth, but most of the time I would rather watch a Christopher Nolan flick.
Once a game comes along that bucks the current trends from a sales perspective; that is when you will see a shift in the big publishers. Right now, they can point to the success of Call of Duty and the not-so big success of Mirror’s Edge and say “look, that is what the customers want!”
What do you consider to be the key moments in the genre's evolution — like, its most significant stages, events, people? What game influenced the genre and its development the most?
Well of course there are the originators, Wolfenstein and Doom. Remember, for a while, all FPS games were called “Doom Clones.” Doom also spawned a hell of a lot of modders who became game developers.
I would argue that Halo helped to make FPS’s “cool” and bring them into the mainstream, with its popularity on college campuses. It also, of course, set the gold standard on consoles for controls and interaction.
And then you have games like Bioshock, which proved that gamers ARE interested in story, if you do it right.
What were your biggest mistakes at the beginning of your career and later as a recognized developer? What in development process takes most of your time and resources?
I think the biggest mistakes I made was when I didn’t trust my gut. Often times at AAA studios there are a lot of people who want to push the game different directions, and they are often not game developers. I should have argued harder for various decisions, and not listened to the people running focus groups.
What changes do you think should be made in a classic F2P formulae for it to become a leap forward for the industry?
I think F2P is leaping forward pretty well on its own. The key that people are starting to realize is that F2P as a business model works, if the game is good enough. World of Tanks shows us that. If the game is crap, it’s not going to be successful, regardless of the business model.
What changes in the genre are leading it to a dead-end? What disappoints you the most in modern shooter games? What it’s going to look like in ten years, in your opinion?
What disappoints me the most is the sequalization and “me-too” feeling of modern shooters. I’m tired of looking at brown environments with brown character and blood on the screen. I’m tired of regenerating health and two weapon swaps. All games don’t need to be Call of Duty or Halo.
I think that a continued success of independent games will hopefully show publishers that people DO want something different, and if they budget smartly, they can step outside the box and do something creative and new. That is the biggest problem right now, is that publishers don’t want to commit to anything unless it’s a sure bet, and don’t do enough smaller budget titles that try new things. Embracing innovation will lead to failures, but we have to continue to embrace it and have business models that allow for it.
If it's not a secret, what is approximate budget for an action game and how high should sales be to cover development costs?
I can’t give exact numbers on the games I worked on, and they can vary wildly, but you are usually looking at least 20 to 30 million dollars (and can go much higher). If you run the numbers and consider that the publisher/developer gets less than half of a $60 console title, that is around a million units to break even. And of course used game sales don’t contribute to that at all.
With each new generation development costs rise and new technologies require expanding the staff of qualified professionals. How are you planning to avoid these difficulties in the future and what measures did you take entering current generation?
The key is scoping appropriately and utilizing assets smartly. We license as much technology and even assets that we can. If we can buy it, we will.
Famous series have been showing decrease in overall sales for a few years. Can it be changed by equivalent replacement of core-brands, fresh new approach to controls and interaction with environment or does it require major reconsideration of the genre?
There are a few reasons why a brand can stagnate or decline. Quality is one, of course, but one that I see is when the brand steps away from the core tenets that made it a hit in the first place, usually in an attempt to draw a bigger audience or ward off a perceived competitor.
I go back to movies. When you go to see a sequel, you want a sequel, not a different movie.
Modern game industry is comparable to a boiling pot full of philosophy. There’s half a million books written, teaching how make game the only right way, some people rock the crowd with long-forgotten tricks, others blame the lack of photorealistic graphics. What is your vision of genre’s development according to your observations and experience?
FPS’s need to be developed by teams who know what the vision of the game is and then make the decisions that are right for that game. Tacking on features or making changes to be “competitive” usually just ends up taking away resources that should be focused on making the core of the game the best that it can be.
What are the main reasons FPSs is dominating other genres? Is it because of well-established public opinion on games, simplicity of learning the basics, aggressive marketing through last two decades, or because of something else?
I think that FPS games are inherently immersive. When you see a screenshot of an FPS you don’t ever wonder what you are doing. When you see the gravity gun in HL2, you don’t have to think about it, you just get it. When you look at the environment in Bioshock or Fallout 3, you instantly get why it is appealing, because you are looking through the character’s eyes.
I think that other genres have more of a challenge, because their character has to be as appealing as the rest of the game. You have to want to see Altair assassinate someone, or Batman punch someone, or Kratos kill all those dudes. It’s much more challenging to create that. In a FPS you get to imagine yourself as the protagonist, instead of watching the protagonist do cool things.
Did the over-the-top FPS/TPS accent become an obstacle for other genres’ development?
I believe that was true for a while, where the buzz on the street was that only FPS’s were what publishers were interested in, but I think that has changed. I think as you saw the popularity of games such as Assassins Creed or Batman or even Minecraft, the industry as a whole woke up a bit and realized that gamers want good games in general, not just good shooters.
Questions: Anton Zhuk & Ivan Kapustin
The other members of the Round table, related to FPS genre, are: