Ryan Sharpe

Valve Software has always had a keen interest in bridging the gap between the mod community and the larger world of game development. One could even argue that they first legitimized the practice by taking the Half-Life mod Counter-Strike into the retail space, a first for a fan-created mod. Further mod incorporations like Day of Defeat cemented Valve’s reputation as a company willing to pull directly from the community with a frequency unheard of elsewhere in the industry.

Valve’s latest acquisition seems to the be the team behind Narbacular Drop, an Independent Games Festival entry that came courtesy the DigiPen Institute of Technology, located right in Valve’s backyard. From that background comes the eagerly anticipated Portal, shipping alongside Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2 early next year. Today we had a chance to sit down with the Portal team’s Dave Kircher and talk a little bit about this unique action-puzzle game they’re developing.

First of all, how does it feel to go pretty much straight from the classrooms at DigiPen to the offices of Valve? Did you ever in a million years imagine this is how it would turn out when you were filling out your application forms?

We all set our sights fairly high before we went to DigiPen, it’s a school that requires determination. I had actually set my sights specifically on getting a job at Valve, but I never actually believed it could happen right out of the gate.

Being here is really as awesome as you can imagine. They’ve given us access to great people and resources, shown us how they make their games, and then turned us loose to put it together by ourselves. It’s a great feeling of complete design freedom that most of us feared we’d
lose when we were ramping up to leave school and get jobs.

According to Doug Lombardi’s Game Informer interview, you guys hadn’t even finished your Narbacular Drop presentation when Gabe Newell stopped the presentation and offered the entire group jobs on the spot. Give us the first sentence to pop in your head when you heard that.

It’s not even really quantifiable as a sentence. It’s more closely represented as dumbfoundedness. We spent a good half-hour outside the building asking each other, “What just happened?”

Does this, unfortunately, mean your withdrawal from the IGF? There’s
always the weekends, you know…

For the time being it does. But the IGF is really about creative freedom, and everyone in the team already has an outlet for that with Portal. We rarely receive any sort of solid requirements from anyone that could be considered a boss figure.

On to Portal: Was the decision to set the game inside the Half-Life universe a conscious goal all along, or was it more of “We’ve got to set it somewhere, and we can make it fit in the HL story, so why not?”

We haven’t really revealed too much about the story yet. But what I can say is that you play a new character in the Half-Life universe and the connection to that universe is revealed during the game.

How hard is it to develop puzzles for a game that makes use of such bizarre and irrational tools? When you can go from any surface to any other surface, fly through the air sideways and upside-down, how do you design puzzles that will still make sense? At what point do you stop and say “You know what, no one is ever gonna figure this out”?

We worked for nearly a year on Narbacular Drop, so as a team we had a firm grasp on how to make interesting levels. But it has been a real challenge to present the levels in such a way that the entire gamut of players from newbie to haxx0r can follow what’s going on. The game makes use of spatial thinking that people never encounter in their daily life, so it’s a real tossup how quickly someone can assimilate the gameplay elements. Thankfully Valve has shown us a trick or two about how to work out the kinks through constant playtesting and providing us the freedom to iterate on our designs until we’re succeeding with players of all skills.

You’ve got Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw, formerly of Old Man Murray fame, writing the narrative for Portal. First of all, isn’t having a narrative for a puzzle game sort of unusual, and secondly, how will Portal best put their dry, irreverent wit to work?

The game has puzzle elements, but it’s not truly in the puzzle genre. We tend to think of games as being closer to experiences than computer applications. Chet and Erik’s work breathes life into the experience making everything seem just a bit more real. That and it gives our players a good chuckle every now and then.

Is the Apertue Science website actually germane to the game, or is it just a neat piece of viral marketing? What’s the point of it all- the video feed, the birthday cake, the whole bit?

The robots have taken me. Please send help.

Will Portal be moddable? There’s a kind of recursive justice in a mod team’s game becoming moddable itself, but does the technology lend itself to the practice?

Most definitely. We want to get the community into Portal gameplay design as easily as possible. There are so many gameplay ideas to explore with Portal technology – we’re dying to see what other designers will do with this.

Modding aside, how do you see the Portal technology being used in other applications? A theoretical first-person shooter utilizing a grander scale of the Portal tech could really be something- hallways that go on forever, an entire match in freefall, even perhaps M.C. Escher’s House of Stairs made into a CTF map?

There are too many possibilities to even mention here. We’re breaking Euclidean space, which adds a brand new tool to the toolbox of every existing idea out there.

Finally, what’s next for the Portal team? After Portal is done and shipped, where do you see your team moving to within Valve?

We’ll be exploring Portal gameplay for the foreseeable; either integrating the technology towards traditional FPS gameplay or branching off in a whole new direction is yet to be determined. Where we focus our attention will rely heavily on how the community responds to Portal.

The Elder Scrolls is a series as much renowned for its ambition as for the games that execute said ambition, and Bethesda Softworks is in no position to change that anytime soon. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, due out next month for both the PC and the Xbox 360, looks to be one of the most ambitious games ever made, so we here at eToychest took the chance to sit down with Bethesda’s Pete Hines to see what’s waiting for us in Tamriel.

First off, now that you’re in the home stretch, how’s it feel to look back on all the days and weeks and see what Oblivion has finally turned into?

That’ll probably be something we can do once the game has gone off to the manufacturer, or maybe not until it’s out and on store shelves. At this stage you really can’t afford to lose focus and think you’re A

Spectral Souls

February 1, 2006

NIS is known for giving players what might be considered fan service, delivering a selection of niche titles that play to the tastes of their ever-growing army of devoted followers. And we love them for it. This fall the company will bring Idea Factory’s Spectral Souls for the PSP to North America. Set in same universe as Generation of Chaos (which ships in 2006 as well for the PSP, and is itself part of a long running series in Japan), this is a new SRPG made by Idea Factory. The game is unique in that is shows the story from the vantage three different armies who all are fighting each other to unite the land of Neverland. Recently we spoke with NIS America’s Jack Niida and Idea Factory’s Kenji Kitami regarding this upcoming portable RPG.

Given the somewhat anemic RPG lineup for the PSP thus far, Nippon Ichi is in a position to become perhaps the premier RPG publisher on the PSP. How aggressively are you going to pursue the PSP?

Jack Niida: You will perhaps see us grow aggressively. We are not going to announce exactly how many titles we will launch every year for the PSP; however, you can expect a solid number of games. If we want to gain a bigger market share, we have to take a different approach than others and the PSP is one of them. It is an untapped territory for RPGs, but we see a great potential in it.

Nippon Ichi games have a penchant for allowing gamers the opportunity to advance their characters to dizzying heights of power and experience. Will Spectral Souls follow this tradition?

Jack Niida: Characters on Spectral Souls can be powered up quite extensively, but not to the same caliber as say Disgaea with Level 9999. It might be a let down for some people, but Spectral Souls makes up for it with a unique item synthesizing system and a battle system to keep gamers happy for hundreds of hours.

What differentiates the three armies in Spectral Souls? Will each army have access to certain exclusive classes or spells?

Kenji Kitami: In Spectral Souls, there are three major military powers. There is the demon royal empire, an imperialistic human nation, and a liberation army formed of human soldiers. There are exclusive classes and jobs per army, but many of them can be obtained later on in the game.

Would it be possible for a player to go through the entire game using just one of the three armies?

Kenji Kitami: You can play the game as a single nation; however, at certain scenes the game will automatically switch over in order to progress the story. Depending how much you play with the three nations the ending will change.

With three separate armies driving the plot, how many different endings will the game feature?

Kenji Kitami: I cannot give you the exact numbers, but more than 2.

Will there be any “Special” zones in Spectral Souls, like the “Dark World” and “Item World” from La Pucelle and Disgaea, respectively?

Kenji Kitami: Yes, Spectral Souls has a free battle system that allows you to battle enemies to power your characters up and search for rare items. What is interesting is that if you stay inside the free battle long enough, you may encounter a ridiculously powerful enemy. I personally have yet to defeat this monstrosity, but I hope everybody else can.

Finally, do you see the PSP as a more fertile breeding ground for 2D games than the home consoles that seem to emphasize bigger and bigger poly counts as a measure of a game’s quality?

Jack Niida: I truly hope so. If more companies make 2D games it will create a better awareness among the consumer, and creating awareness will expand the market as a whole. Fortunately, developing adventurous games like 2D titles are far suited for the PSP than the home console. First, the development cost is lower and second many consumers can easily be convinced to try the product, as they are priced lower. Therefore, yes you can argue that the PSP is a more fertile breeding ground for 2D games than the home consoles.

While Microsoft has always been something of a software juggernaut, the games studio wing of it always seemed like a kid brother always lagging behind his much larger and more capable sibling. Flight simulators and golf games aside, it was the 1997 release of Age of Empires, produced by Ensemble Studios, that really put MGS on the map. Competing even with such stiff competition as Command & Conquer and Starcraft, Age of Empires became a huge hit, spawning a sequel, a spin-off series, and expansion packs on top of it all. Now, as we get into 2005, Ensemble Studios prepares to send us back in time once again with the announcement of Age of Empires III. Today we’re taking a moment to speak with Greg Street of Ensemble Studios, Lead Designer of Age of Empires III , to learn more about this exciting new game.

Snackbar Games: AoE3 seems to offer the highest visual fidelity of any Real-Time Strategy game to date. Is this advance tied to the gameplay in any way, or is it just a “We have the technology to make it better” thing?

Greg Street: We get at least 4 big benefits from spending so much effort on visuals. 1) It gets players’ attention. The Age of Empires series has always attracted new gamers because of its looks. We are confident customers will like the game once they play it, so we use the visuals to reel them in. 2) We’ve been making RTS games for some 10 years now. A heavy investment in graphics became a powerful motivator for our programmers and artists because they got to challenge themselves and try and solve some problems we’ve never had to look at before. 3) I think pretty games can be more fun. Our worlds always contain a lot of detail. You’re always seeing something new, which in turn can encourage you to want to keep playing to see what else you can discover. 4) A lot of our graphics focus has been on combat, and in this case the gameplay actually changes. When you have a battle where the soldiers line up the way soldiers fought in the 1600s-1700s, it makes the battles easier to understand. You can more easily tell who is winning or losing and why.

SBG: What’s being done to make sure navigation and control is as easy in the lush, complex environments of AoE3 as it was in the first two?

GS: There is a lot going in AOEIII, so much that we wanted to simplify parts of the game to free up player bandwidth to deal with the new features. You still make a lot of economic decisions, but they are more strategic, such as which food source to invest in, rather than being about madly clicking units on the screen. We offer ways to keep your troops together without having them spread out across the map, or forgetting and leaving some at home. We also let players turn on or off a lot of UI options. More casual gamers can have a simple, elegant UI, while hardcore gamers can have that space shuttle-like display with lots of numbers and gizmos that they enjoy.

SBG: Is terrain going to be playing a larger role in tactics this time around? For instance, will there be spots too rocky for siege machines that infantry and/or cavalry can get across?

GS: Tactics in general are much more important than they have been in our previous games. We’re currently focusing a lot more on different orders to give your troops, such as whether musketeers fire in volleys, break and attack, or fix bayonets and charge. Assuming we can keep that system from getting too complicated, we’ll add things like a downhill charging bonus or increased damage from firing from higher ground.

SBG: How many civilizations will the player have to choose from this time around, and how will they be differentiated gameplay-wise?

GS: There are 8 civilizations, and they are much more diverse than the civilizations were in Age of Kings. Each civilization has a general “feel.” Some get lots of colonists, others fight with hordes of terrible units, while others have expensive and highly-upgraded units in smaller armies. Each civilization has a twist on how they manage their economy. The Portuguese start the game with two colonies, so they can produce Settlers quickly, but have to manage two towns at once. The Spanish only have a single colony, but they receive shipments from Europe more regularly. Two additional features complement this diversity: Native Americans and Home Cities. A Dutch player allied with the Comanche feels different from a Dutch player allied with the Maya. The Home City allows the Dutch to develop along a very different path from the Spanish, and even two Dutch players to develop to diversify over time.

SBG: What kinds of single-player campaigns are players going to be able to do? Can we expect to help Spain conquer the new world, etc.?

GS: When we started AOEIII, we knew there were two directions we could go in: the purely historical variety of Age of Kings (“You’re Genghis Khan. Here’s what happened to Genghis Khan.”) or the more story-driven campaign that we went with on Age of Mythology. Ultimately we chose the latter. It’s just hard to compare what we were able to accomplish in the AOM campaign to the drier battles of AOK, and I also think it’s harder to come up with charismatic figures in this time period who can compete with the likes of Genghis Khan. So instead, we wrote our own story with our own characters to try to capture the feel of what it was like for Europeans to reach the New World and ultimately prosper there. Our characters interact with real events and people from history (in what we’ve started calling “Forrest Gump moments”) but we also have good excuses for our characters to travel all across North and South America and get involved in some conflicts that aren’t in the history books.

SBG: How is the multiplayer aspect of AoE 3 going to be handled? What Kinds of modes can gamers look forward to?

GS: Our multiplayer is a combination of what we offered in Age of Mythology and Age of Kings. Specifically, with Mythology, we tried to attract some more casual gamers online with a system that emphasized speed and ease-of-use over customization and community. It was a successful experiment, but in hindsight we may have neglected some of the more hardcore players who are the bread-and-butter of online play. This time around we are trying to give the hardcore exactly what they want, without being too intimidating to someone who wants to venture online for the first time.

SBG: Is it hard play-balancing cultures that were not, historically speaking, balanced themselves? The differences in available technologies and resources between pre- and post-industrial societies would make for some pretty unbalanced sides, I’d think…

GS: Our games have always been a little bit about “what if?” In Age of Empires, you are the leader of your people, and your decisions bring them to power or to ruin. If you want to lead the Spanish navy to defeat the English, you have that capability. If you want to send your French trappers down into Mexico to ally with the Aztecs and establish a series of trade routes fortified by Aztec Eagle Warriors and French Crossbows, go for it. Now advancing in Age is always a good move, provided you can afford it, so colonies that reach the Industrial Age have some exciting new options, including the ability to use Factories and Trains, and get access to the most powerful cannon. The way we chose to handle Native Americans was precisely so we wouldn’t have a game where the Iroquois were building frigates and cannon in order to compete with the European civilizations. Instead our Iroquois can feel like Iroquois, and still be cool.

SBG: Has the Ensemble team done a lot of research to ensure the game’s historical accuracy in terms of buildings and units?

GS: First off, we make games, not educational products. When history and fun collide, fun wins every time. But we do a ton of historical research. We have a library with several hundred volumes and probably many more Internet links. We buy movies to check out costumes and the way large-scale combat works. We take photographs of real buildings to get the architecture right. Early on in the project, several of us attended the reenactment of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, where we were able to get audio and video footage of musket volleys, cavalry charging and cannons firing. (A Revolutionary War reenactment would have matched our time period better, but it’s hard to beat the spectacle of the tens of thousands of re-enactors who attend Gettysburg.)

SBG: What are “Home Cities”, and how will they impact the player’s experience? Will they provide faster building or more profitable resource gathering than expansion cities?

GS: Your Home City represents your capital back in Europe. If I play as the Portuguese, I may found “New Portugal” in Argentina, but my success is ultimately dependent on the state of Lisbon back home, and vice versa. In every game, your Home City continually provides you with shipments of resources or soldiers. Aggressive players often choose soldiers, while economic or city-builders like Settlers or resources. These shipments occur every few minutes, depending a great deal on how you are doing in the game, and you get to decide what the Home City sends you. But if your colony flourishes, your Home City improves as well. The way this works is that a player earns Experience Points for doing things in the New World – everything from shooting a grizzly bear, to building a Mill, to razing an enemy Fort. If you gain enough experience, your Home City gains a new level, just as in many RPGs. When you gain a new level, you get the ability to visually customize your Home City (such as changing the color of shutters on a building, or changing the lighting from day to night), and you gain a new bonus you can use in the game, such as having more powerful Crossbows, or faster hunting, or adding more armor and weapon improvements to your Arsenal. The best metaphor for the Home City is probably a console game like Gran Turismo, where if you play enough, you can unlock new content for your car: not just changing the color or pinstripes, but also the ability to get a more powerful engine or better tires. That’s how the Home City feels. You can expect to level up every few games, though it slows down at higher levels.

SBG: Finally, what would you say fans of the series should be looking forward to the most?

GS: Diversity. There are constantly new things to discover in Age of Empires III. You might see a Native American warrior that you’ve never seen before, or you might play on a new map that has different animals living on it. There are scores of upgrades available in the Home City, and they vary from civ to civ. I play whole games where I forget to build an Arsenal or Church because I am focused on other things, so when I remember those buildings, it’s fun to explore what improvements they offer. Every ship in the game is given a culturally appropriate random name. Your Explorer can unlock a pet dog in the Home City, and that dog gets a random name as well.

Well, I don’t know about you readers, but I know I’m excited. In a genre that has seen too much “Me too” and not enough “Follow me” in recent times, Age of Empires III looks to give the RTS genre a much-needed shot in the arm. Thanks again to Greg Street for taking the time to talk to us and the rest of Ensemble Studios for keeping the series going for the better part of a decade!

In the world of submarine simulations, the Silent Hunter series has consistently proven itself to be at the top of its game. Now in it’s third incarnation, Silent Hunter III is again proving to be the game to beat within this niche sub-genre. Recently we were able to sit down with one of the folks who worked on this exciting PC title to get a peak into what went into it’s creation.

First off, thank you for taking the time to speak with us regarding Silent Hunter III. Could you please give us a little bit of your background, as well as what your role has been on this project?

My name is Critian Hriscu, game designer and 3D artist of Silent Hunter III working out of Ubisoft’s internal development studio in Bucharest, Romania. Silent Hunter III is one of the most interesting and challenging projects I’ve ever worked on. My background was in theater but I decided, six years ago, that the future of entertainment was in video games, so I got into Game Development and I haven’t been disappointed.

What are the challenges inherent in having the player assume the role of a villain? I mean, obviously it’s not that big of a hang-up if you’ve made it to Silent Hunter III, but convincing the player to assume the role of WWII-Eram German U-Boats can’t be as easy as, say, a futuristic Space Marine fighting anonymous aliens…

The German U-Boot was one of the most advanced and formidable weapons of in all of WWII. Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, that A