Summary: Harvey Smith, formerly of ION Storm Austin has moved to Midway and begun development of Blacksite: Area 51. JCal gets the words and the screens and makes a beautiful interview.
FiringSquad: First, how did this particular idea to revive the Area 51 franchise come about?
Harvey Smith: The original decision came to pass before I was working for Midway. I love shooters and I've rarely had the chance to work on a pure FPS. I worked on both of the Deus Ex games, but they were FPS-RPG hybrids (to mix acronyms). I also worked on a shooter called Cybermage with David W. Bradley. And early on in my career I was fortunately enough to serve as lead tester for the System Shock (1) team, working with Doug Church and Warren Spector. After looking at the concept for a while, I found some creative angles to hang on to, sort of morphing the idea into Blacksite: Area 51. Along the way I developed an interest in using very grounded, small-town settings for the game. I'm very much interested in atmospherics and I spend a lot of time working with Pete Franco, the art director for Blacksite. I also wanted to include some political allegory related to what we're afraid of in today's world. But maybe more than anything I had some personal goals I wanted to accomplish: I wanted to achieve a certain level of polish in terms of how the game looks, sounds and feels. I've always admired games with great aesthetics, solid frame-rates, smooth movement and combat controls, and just that general feeling of polish...execution. I want to master that standard and apply it to all the games I work on going forward.
FiringSquad: What can you tell us about the storyline for the game?
Harvey Smith: The game starts with a flashback mission in Iraq and eventually moves to small town USA. Allegorically, it's all about dealing with the consequences of corrupt decisions, buried secrets coming back to haunt you, and creating your own monsters.
FiringSquad: What can you tell us about the main character and his team?
Harvey Smith: Aeran Pierce leads a Delta Force squad referred to as Echo throughout the game. He's a former college soccer player turned military shooter. Sometimes he's alone, sometimes he has 1-3 squad mates. At various times, the squad consists of Ambrose, Grayson, Somers and Weis. Ambrose is a solid soldier, concerned about doing things right and staying alive. He's from Baton Rouge and had family wiped out in Katrina. He sees himself kicking back on a military retirement package when it's all over. Somers is all about advancement; he's hungry to prove himself at any cost. Noa Weis is a Middle Eastern attachment to the team, interpreter, medic and "consultant." Her worldview comes from a certain non-US perspective, putting her at odds with the rest of the squad in the Iraq missions and later in the small-town US missions. Grayson is red in tooth and claw; he just wants to put bullets into bad guys.
FiringSquad: The game's morale system for the squad members sounds interesting. Can you talk more about how this works in the game?
Harvey Smith: I've spent a lot of time working with Jim Stiefelmaier and Matt Green, first talking about the squad morale system and (later) tuning it. We started with a high concept: The game should react dynamically to three different scenarios. First, if the player runs into a combat situation, doesn't really fire his weapons much, doesn't issue squad commands, and just plays ineffectually, the squad starts to freak. They go through various stages of low morale. First they complain, then they start using more conservative tactics, taking cover more often, blind-firing from behind cover, and finally just going into a purely defensive stance. ("Pierce, get us out of here!") Scenario two revolves around the average player, not incredibly effective, but moderately skilled. Morale fluctuates a bit and the squad helps some. The third scenario involves the skilled player, making headshots, giving commands, focusing the squad's fire on one target, and working to avoid any squad mates going down. In this (high morale) state, the squad gets much more aggressive; team members run out into the firefight and melee, they inflict more damage, etc. The system is more analogue than this, but it biases toward these three states, more or less. It adds interest to the combat and works to keep the tension higher. I love it. Working with us, Art Min is an AI programmer who's really taken the system and run with it. There's an obvious game design situation to watch out for with systems like this: If you're not careful about how you tune the numbers, the player can get caught in a positive feedback loop, where doing poorly (or well) cascades. Ideally, it's tuned so that the player can nudge it back on track just by focusing or pushing himself for a moment.
FiringSquad: What sort of weapons will the team use in the game and will they get to use any alien weapons?
Harvey Smith: We opted to take a very realistic approach to weapons. We've got modern weapons, especially those used by Special Forces, but we've also got weapons that you could imagine being built by DARPA-type organizations if they were given alien power sources and materials.
Harvey Smith: I love providing each enemy with its own suite of game mechanics, but I also prefer to give each enemy mult-stage effects. The Reborn are the primary enemy in the game...a soldier of one program, created by the US military outside ethical norms. We also have a "Xeno Ecology" providing us with a set of unique creatures. In the Xbox Live gameplay teaser we just polished up for release, the Reborn Scout takes cover (until the cover is beaten up too much), summons additional types of Reborn, and the torso separates when the Scout finally goes down, crawling toward the player in an attempt to suicide bomb. So ideally each enemy will feature some interesting set of behaviors, and those behaviors will change the tactical situation dynamically. Very similar to the enemy design philosophy we used for Deus Ex.
FiringSquad: What can you tell us about the multiplayer support in the game?
Harvey Smith: The main thing I find interesting is two-player co-op through the missions. But Tom Bonner is our multiplayer lead and we're constantly working on a couple of traditional competitive modes as well as two modes that are unique to Blacksite, including Abduction, which involves game mechanics of changing team sizes.
FiringSquad: What other unique features will the game have?
Harvey Smith: To sum up, Blacksite is a fast-paced first-person-shooter with squad command, vehicles, and lots of destructible objects. It's got a subversive storyline, it's set in unusually grounded/realistic locations, and I love our squad morale AI system. A lot of our effort has gone into atmospherics...we're very much committed to immersive environments.
FiringSquad: How has the Unreal Engine 3 been modified for the game?
Harvey Smith: Midway has done a lot of work, scattered across various studios. We're looking to ship with more aggressive streaming, the Stranglehold breakables system and a few other features. Unreal is amazing, though, so the bulk of it didn't need to change.
FiringSquad: Are there plans for a playable demo of the game and if so what will it contain?
Harvey Smith: The current demo is more a "gameplay teaser" because it's very short. It's essentially our vertical slice, polished up some. Later, we hope to release a full demo shortly before we ship. Even since we wrapped up the vertical slice, we've gotten a bunch of features polished up: Blind-firing by the squad (in low morale), more map sections that apply "multiple path" thinking, different environments and times-of-day, more breakables technology borrowed from the Stranglehold code base, two-player co-op, etc. The later demo will also include a cinematic story scene. But the first demo feels really polished and indicates the frenetic, tactical pace of the game.
FiringSquad: Finally is there anything else you want to say about Blacksite?
Harvey Smith: It's really exciting to be working on a pure shooter. I love it. But already I can feel my extreme passion for exploration-based games pulling at the edges. I think the next game will involve a lot more exploratory space.
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