With Splash Damage's Paul Wedgwood
After spending two minutes with Splash Damage co-founder Paul Wedgwood, it's clear that he's got a firm grasp on what makes for a good online game experience. The studio's last game, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, wasn't exactly a huge success; part of this can be attributed to the game's late and lackluster console launch (and we all know that the lion's share of revenues for most games come from consoles rather than the PC), but another important part of it stems from the mismatch of attempting a deep, level-based, RPG-style multiplayer experience inside the Quake universe. It's not that PC gamers who played Quake Wars weren't smart enough to figure out how to play, it's that the expectations were so far off of what was delivered. Quake Wars would have probably been better if it had been spawned as a brand new IP so that Splash Damage could be free to create an entirely new game from the ground up.
And in a way, that's exactly what they've done. Together with publisher Bethesda, Paul Wedgwood at the helm, and a new IP in the works, Splash Damage is finally looking at breaking free of other people's property - early on, it was mods for Quake 3, and once they went "pro", it was basing new games off of id Software's titles. Brink is their vision of a dystopian future, one on a high-tech floating city called the Ark where two factions, cut off from the rest of the world after the oceans rose to cover a large chunk of Earth's landmass, fight for their slice of the pie. The Renegades are the underdogs, the rebels, looking for their seat at the table, while the Enforcers are interested in keeping the old order and are convinced they're just keeping the peace.
My talk with Paul was more of a conversation than an interview; I brought up specific complaints about Quake Wars as well as what the challenge in creating an entirely new game world is, and the clear reaction to that question was that making anything new in this day and age is a huge risk, but that it's nice to be out from the weight of another company's intellectual property when setting up a world, its rules, and its background. I asked Paul about the use of a post-apocalyptic atmosphere, what with some of the game world looking maybe a little too much like the rusty sheet metal of Fallout 3's Megaton, and he quickly jumped in to try and correct what he says is a bit of confusion. Brink is not another post-apocalyptic game that is suspiciously coming within a year or two of the hugely popular Bethesda revival, and just because Fallout 3's creators are publishing Brink, that doesn't mean that their game directors are dropping by to add Nuka-Colas or Fat Man weapons or anything. As Paul put it, it's a dystopian future where resources are scarce, people are frightened and trapped on this floating monstrosity, and there are two sides to the game's atmosphere and overall look. The gleaming spires and shiny surfaces of the cleaner sections of the Ark are still marred by past battles and years-old conflicts, while the Renegades' makeshift locales resemble Brazilian favelas. The characters aren't quite as morally cut-and-dry, either, as both sides have their villains and heroes. As you play through both campaigns, you'll see the same missions but from the two different sides, each with unique resolutions and moral ambiguities.
Paul mentioned that Splash Damage has learned at least one thing important from Fallout 3: the ability to tell a story by creating a scene that no audio log or text- or audio-based mission briefing can really deliver. Bethesda's ability to create backstory just with the placement of a skeleton and a few objects buried in some old sewer tunnel did more for storytelling than any conversation with Lucas Simms ever could - and the player was often rewarded for his or her exploration not with (or at least, not just with) loot, but with a small piece of the puzzle. And that's what Paul and the guys at Splash are trying to achieve inside the ruins of The Ark.
One of my bigger complaints about Quake Wars was that the RPG system was carefully tucked back under the rug every time you switched servers or a three-map story campaign was completed. Those unlocked weapons and abilities would go away - yet again, if you've played a few times before - and gamers wound up feeling not like they were gaining a new weapon every hour, but instead losing a vitally important tool every time a campaign finished up. With Brink, your characters will be fully persistent both in their combat roles (operative, engineer, and the like) and in some general attributes. You'll level up, gaining experience by killing enemies and finishing objectives that help further the story-based needs of the overall mission. This progress goes towards unlocking new weapons, abilities, outfits, and more, some of which are general abilities for you, some that will be for a specific class. And while it may seem like the unique art style of Brink is intended for the player to tell what class an enemy is based just on his silhouette (much like Team Fortress 2), that's not what Paul and the team are going for. No, you'll be able to customize your look, but it's your backpack that tells the enemy what class you are.
Brink's two main campaigns are used whether you're playing alone, in cooperative mode, or in a versus match - they're set up so that the same missions work in any of the three modes. Very few games with any appreciable amount of story have really tried this, and it was almost achieved in Quake Wars if not for the complete disconnect between each of the game's three-map-long campaigns. And really, Brink is going to be home to a lot of those ideas that Splash Damage have been working on and refining since the release of Quake Wars. I can't say for sure that this seems to be a better place to implement some of those ideas, but having played many hours of Splash Damage's past games, it sure seems like it.
The one thing that really comes through with Paul is his enthusiasm for making things right with core players. His insistence on developing a solid PC experience with dedicated servers and solid controls is there, even if he can't actually officially confirm any specific plans or details in these specific areas. And while this will be a simultaneous PC and console launch (PC gamers can quickly point to dozens of titles out there that were made worse because of the three-platform simultaneous release date), the dream of having successful, fun titles on three major platforms at once has been realized quite a few times in the last couple of years. To say that those developers have bottled lightning multiple times and that no one else can do it, well, that seems silly. If we're to learn anything from Quake Wars, it's that Splash Damage needs to work on the console editions more than the PC version, but with Bethesda's considerable budget and console experience behind them, it seems quite likely that that won't be nearly as much of a problem as when they worked under the wing of id Software.
Brink is a fascinating game, but we're still left with many questions. Does the dynamic mission generation system keep players interested in the context of a bigger battle when enemies are all around to shoot? Will the combined campaign that fuses solo, cooperative, and versus play sacrifice too much in each to make all three a disappointment? If players of significantly different levels are allowed into versus games together, how do you keep it fun for everyone? Will gamers be ready to jump into another sci-fi first person shooter after seeing so many of them in the fall 2009 and early 2010 release schedule? None of these could really be answered in an interview this far from release, and they may be the most important questions of all. We'll probably get better glimpses at the answers as Brink nears its spring 2010 launch date.