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Interview:  Section 8  Producer Siwiak On Reinventing The Multiplayer FPS
Interview: Section 8 Producer Siwiak On Reinventing The Multiplayer FPS Exclusive
July 7, 2009 | By Chris Remo

July 7, 2009 | By Chris Remo
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive



Texas-based TimeGate Studios made a name for itself with the early-2000s real-time strategy series Kohan. Those titles were acclaimed for their fresh take on a relatively stagnant genre, and now the studio hopes to repeat that trick in the multiplayer first-person shooter arena with Section 8.

The Unreal Engine-using PC and Xbox 360 game, which is published by Southpeak Interactive and due out this August, is notably influenced by the likes of large-scale shooters like Tribes and the Battlefield series.

Like Tribes, its characters are equipped with jetpacks allowing for a high degree of mobility, but with its core conceit of "burn-in spawning" -- the ability for players to drop in (nearly) anywhere on the battlefield when they spawn -- TimeGate hopes to introduce a new level of dynamism and tactics into the genre.

Section 8 includes a single-player campaign, but its multiplayer mode (and its deployables, vehicles, and huge maps) is clearly the main attraction.

Gamasutra sat down with producer Robert Siwiak to discuss the game's conception and spiritual heritage, what TimeGate hopes to bring to the table, the game's unusual server strategy for the console version, and how depth emerged during development.

How did this project get started? It's been frequently compared to Tribes, which fondly remembered by a lot of gamers.

Robert Siwiak: Sure, sure. As a studio, we've been very passionate about the games that we create. We originally started off in the RTS space, and that was a direct result of us playing a lot of RTS games that were out there, finding components of it that we thought could've been done better. Things like resource management -- there's got to be something better than managing an individual peon and telling him to chop wood. Isn't the fun of the game combat and things like that?

In that same sort of light, back in 2005, we were [playing] Battlefield 1942, Tribes, Planetside, Counter-Strike. We said, "We love these games. We're playing them to death. If we were to make an FPS game, what would it be? Let's do a sci-fi first-person shooter."

Well, we hated how players respawn into the game. We hated that you die and you stare at a 30-second timer. There has got to be a better way to do that. Or vehicles, [where] there's one tank on the battlefield and everyone's team-killing each other in order to jump into it. There has got to be a better way to afford that ability to the player and get him into the action better.

Through a course of various conversations, the concept of Section 8 was initially born back then. It ultimately resulted in, "Let's have these players in powered armor suits dropping in from 15,000 feet above the battlefield, and when they're down on the ground, they can requisition in vehicles and deployable turrets and supply depots wherever they want on the battlefield."

It's an interesting back story. We wanted to really remove the predictability from first-person shooters. You play a game like Counter-Strike, for instance, and it's very predictable. It's "Team A starts in one corner, Team B starts in the other corner."

Then if you don't go the exact optimal route, you're in trouble, or you get yelled at.

RS: Exactly. You've memorized that it takes you 30 seconds to get to the middle of the battlefield, then you blindly throw a grenade around the corner because you know it took them 30 seconds to get to that point, and the round is over in your head before it even began.

As a first-person shooter player, I love these games, but that's when I stop playing them: when I start predicting them too much. So, what we've really set out to do with Section 8 was that no two games of Section 8 would ever play the same.

One of the interesting ways of doing that is really giving control to the players, letting them choose where they want to create choke points, where they want to spawn into the battlefield. Once you mix in these different components, it creates that sort of circumstance where no two games ever play the same as a result.

Yeah, there are a lot of deployables and options in there, plus the player-chosen spawn point, and so on. How do you design and balance that without it being too much? How much has the design changed over time?

RS: Well, when Section 8 was initially conceived, the core idea that at the time was the concept of "burn-in spawning," where you can choose anywhere on the battlefield that you want to spawn into. But a lot of other features came into the game as a result of us developing it and finding that there was a hole we needed to plug in there.

For instance, take the anti-air turrets that we have in the game. We quickly realized that when you give the player to ability to spawn anywhere onto the battlefield, one of the consequences of that is he could drop directly on top of the control point and quickly take it over.

We found that we had to find a way to solve this problem without breaking the immersion of the game. And a logical extension of that was to add in these anti-air turrets that would otherwise protect these bases and create a radius around them that you can't drop in on top of. Then when you iterate around that feature, you all of the sudden have found all these different turret strategies that result from that feature being in there.

So, if you're dropping in on top of that anti-air turret, you're going to be blown out of the sky. One man versus a turret, dropping on top of that point, you're going to be shot down. Whereas, let's say that we're in a squad together and there are five of us and we're all dropping on top of that point. That anti-air turret could only lock onto one of us at a time. Some of us might be able to drop in directly on top of that point.

Then you have that stealthier player who will sneak onto that base, plant some explosive onto the anti-air turret, blow it up, and otherwise open up that battlefield as a result. So, we start off with this feature of burn-in spawning, and then we found that we had to counter it in some ways, and then through the course of gameplay, we found that people were finding ways to counter the counter. It was adding a lot [more] depth to the game than was conceived of from the beginning there.

One problem that can arise from such open-ended multiplayer gameplay and huge maps is that you end up having essentially no choke points or flow, just a bunch of guys running around in a free-for-all.

RS: Playing a lot of other first-person shooters out there, I'm sure that many players can relate with finding this level designer-placed machine gun turret or something like that that always seems to be pointing in the wrong direction from where you want it. A direct counter to this was, well we couldn't necessarily have base building in Section 8. The next best thing was giving players access to deployables -- automated turrets or supply depots or sensor rays.

The player can either, in one circumstance, if there's a key bridge between two control points, can call down turrets to help defend that choke point and otherwise create that chokepoint that otherwise wasn't there, or he can create on the edge of the map a forward staging area where he's got the supply depot and other support structures that will otherwise help assault an enemy base that he's got his sights keyed in on.

One thing I've noticed while playing the game is that there is constantly feedback and messaging being tossed to the player -- little achievement-style messages, bonuses, and all that kind of thing. What was the thinking there?

RS: Well, one of the consequences of developing a game that has an extraordinary number of features is that often the sort of inputs that you're giving the player can be overwhelming at times. You have achievements, these different stats that are coming, messages that are telling you that this control point has been hacked over here, etcetera.

There's a fine balance that we have to contend with as developers to make it a very streamlined experience for the player and to avoid information overload.

With Section 8, we're quickly trying to find that balance of giving the player just enough strategic awareness of what's going on this otherwise large wide-open battlefield, so that if something interesting is happening over at this different control point over there, he's getting a message that's telling him, "Hey, there's something interesting going on over here. Maybe you should go ahead and head over there and see what's up."

Was that also what influenced the overdrive feature [which allows gradually reach a high speed on foot without a vehicle]?

RS: Sure. As a player without a vehicle, we never wanted you to feel helpless. We wanted you inside this powered armor suit to feel like you could make a very big difference on the battlefield. In other first-person shooters that include vehicles, it always feels like it's the guy in the helicopter and the tank that's dominating the battlefield. From a balance perspective, that was something that we wanted to make sure wasn't the case in Section 8.

So, to some extent, the player inside this powered armor suit is almost a vehicle himself. He has a lot of different customization options, and even moving around the battlefield, he has a long distance overdrive mode that makes him run as fast as, say, a Jeep or Humvee. On top of that, he has a jet pack that's integrated into the suits, so he can get on top of different sorts of warehouses, rock formations, and trees, and other different areas that are on the map.

From the beginning, we set out to empower the player inside of the suit, and it's things like vehicles and deployables that add additional flavor to the battlefield -- but that doesn't necessarily mean that if you're the guy in the tank, you're the one that's going to be scoring the most at the end of the round.

It looks like you're integrating both with Games for Windows Live on PC as well as Xbox Live on Xbox 360. I always like to get feedback from developers as to why they went with GFW Live. What went into that decision?

RS: Yes, we are [using] Games for Windows Live for our online component. That includes things like matchmaking, voice chat, but it also adds into the game things like achievements and a profile that can persist across multiple game titles as well. Another interesting component of Section 8 is that, while we're not support cross-platform play between the PC and the Xbox 360, during the course of development, an opportunity actually came up where it allows us to have people with PCs to run a dedicated server that Xbox 360s can connect to.

So an Xbox 360 player can run a dedicated Xbox 360 server on a PC?

RS: Right. This gave us an opportunity to interject into the traditional model that you have on Xbox 360 -- which is just listing games where one guys hosts it, people connect to him, and he's playing and both being the server kind of pulling a PC aspect -- a dedicated server model where you have a favorite pub or community.

One of the advantages of doing this is it afforded us this opportunity where you can run a dedicated server for the Xbox 360 on your PC, and then we're able to achieve things like 32 players on the Xbox 360. Otherwise, it would have just been 16 players or whatever you'd see in games like Halo.

Who do you see adopting that feature? Obviously on the PC, that kind of thing is very common, and there are whole businesses built around it, but that's really never been a big part of console gaming. Are you looking to encourage clans to buy into it?

RS: Sure. As a big PC and 360 fan, one of the things that I've noticed is that on the PC, you tend to have more of that hardcore community that finds these favorite hot spots, these pubs, these servers -- you have your two or three servers that you hang out on. You're not friends with everyone there, but you recognize all the faces. It's kind of like going to your favorite bar or something like that.

Meanwhile on the 360, you don't have that same sort of feel. First-person shooters started out on the PC, and they've only recently in the past few years became very popular on the Xbox 360. Components like pubs or clans or things are only more recently making their way over. With Section 8, we set out from the beginning to make sure there are things you can do, like go in and designate a clan tag so that your persistent stats are online, you can compare your clan versus other clans that were in there.

Likewise, on the 360, we want to afford players the ability to have these favorite hot spots, these favorite pubs. Clans have the ability to download this client to host these dedicated servers so that they can have their favorite hideaways that they can all play together on. It also affords the player to expand the scalability of the game.

Otherwise, they would be stuck on 16-player servers, whereas now they can actually participate in battles with 32 players that you otherwise wouldn't have without that dedicated servers. For other titles out there that have done higher player counts, usually that winds up being something that comes at the cost of the publisher that's having to host these servers in order to get these higher player numbers like 24, 32, 52, etcetera.

We're giving that ability to the players at this point. You're not at the mercy of a publisher hosting those things. Much like on the PC side, where you can find these hosting partners, on the 360 side we're very much hoping that people will latch onto this. You can go and rent a server and otherwise have access to the same abilities on the PC.

Xbox Live is traditionally a very closed system. How did you work this out with Microsoft?

RS: Right. It's something that we've been working with Microsoft on. They kind of approached us. This all stemmed out from the cross-platform multiplayer. Games that were very early adopters for Games for Windows Live, like Shadowrun for instance, had cross-platform multiplayer. But FPS gamers didn't really latch onto it, because with a guy playing with an Xbox 360 controller against a PC guy, there are certainly disadvantages with accuracy that come as a result. So it's kind of a turn-off to some extent.

It's better on paper than it is in reality.

RS: Exactly. We already have a mechanism in there for these two networks to play against each other, so it was an obvious extension to basically allow that opportunity. On the 360, you find a lack of dedicated servers. In FPS games, the norm is basically 16 players.

If you play a game like Battlefield: Bad Company, it's 24 players, but the way that they accomplish that is that every single server that you play on is a dedicated server. Frontlines: Fuel of War boasted 52-man servers, but the only way that they could accomplish that is with dedicated servers. And usually those servers were full, you could never get onto them.

On the PC side of things, if the community supports a title, if they get behind it, they'll provide the infrastructure if it otherwise doesn't exist. They'll host their own servers. They'll be businesses out there that host these servers and allow people to rent it. If you could find a way to take that PC component and transfer it over to 360, you've brought that share of the market out there. You've brought those sorts of opportunities that come with those dedicated servers, those pubs, those clans, etcetera that otherwise didn't exist before.

It was a really amazing realization of talking with Microsoft and realizing, "Hey, there's something here that hasn't been done before. We should take advantage of it to really afford players something that they otherwise didn't have access to."

Traditionally on the PC, people get in there and tweak all the server settings at a really granular level. Will that be allowed over Xbox Live?

RS: Well, certainly we're giving the player to customize dedicated server options, timers, how long the rounds are, map rotations, and things like that. As a studio, we're very big fans of people going in and modding our content. That extends back to our RTS games, where people would actually sit there and customize different sorts of AI for the game and integrate that into the Kohan franchise, for instance.

Really, we're looking forward to the community, and seeing what they cook up with this title and finding unique ways to integrate that into the game that we otherwise didn't think was possible.

Will you have an SDK on the PC side?

RS: We'd like to. Certainly, as a developer, it's certainly one of those components that's on your list of things to do before the game comes out. As a studio, we're definitely big supporters of community-modded content and things like that. We'll do our best to accommodate that, provided that we can fit it into our schedule.

Any plans for internally created post-release content?

RS: Definitely with downloadable content, we've already got the necessary hooks into the game. We're already planning on releasing additional map packs and other content, potentially new weapons and vehicles into the mix. After the game has launched, we fully intend to support the community and add in additional content and otherwise fill the gap between now and a potential Section 8 sequel.

Section 9?

RS: Yes, Section 9. [laughs]

So what do you think the market is like for large-scale multiplayer-only first-person shooters these days? It seems like there was the big Battlefield era for a while, but the general mood has been moving more towards smaller-scale multiplayer games recently.

RS: We definitely have been big first-person shooter fans over the years. One of the problems that we've seen with the current marketplace is that it seems like a lot of these games are kind of cast from the same mold. They're only minor modifications to an existing formula, and nobody has really tried to make an effort to interject something new into that. That's what we're really trying to do here, much like we did with the RTS genre back in the Kohan days.

We're trying to take what has been contemporary for first-person shooters for the past 10 to 15 years and say, "You know what, in some areas, there's a different way to do things. Perhaps a better way of doing things." Spawning the player into the game, giving him access to these different components.

That's a core ideal of Section 8, to bring to the market something that's been absent for a while. This includes empowering the player with these different abilities, supporting things like AI in an offline mode so that single-player players can actually participate in these large-scale battles that otherwise they don't have support for.

I suspect a lot of players are looking to this and hoping for the new Tribes-esque experience, which is something that people have been hoping for from more than a few games over the years.

RS: Actually, our lead designer on the project, Brett Norton, was one of those guys who was a hardcore Tribes fan. He was sitting there shoutcasting matches. We definitely have guys that are veterans of playing games like Tribes and Tribes 2.

We've got a developer on the project who worked on Battlefield 2 and other developers who worked on the Unreal titles. We have people who have worked on those sorts of projects, who are certainly bringing those inspirations into Section 8.

So, you know, to say that we've been inspired by those is certainly an understatement. What we really think that we're bringing to players nowadays is in some respects a taste of the past, but at the same time, something fresh that they're not going to find on store shelves to date.


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