Electronic Arts Montreal's over the top action game project Army of Two debuted in March 2008 after a notable last-minute delay, but has ended up becoming a continuing franchise and somewhat of a success for EA, with over 2 million sales across Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the majority in North America.
Now there's a sequel - Army Of Two: The Fortieth Day -- on its way later this year, and in this Gamasutra interview, new creative director Alex Hutchinson, fresh from Spore, and executive producer Reid Schneider, returning from the previous game, discuss the elements that came together to create the franchise -- and how they hope to expand on the pluses and mitigate the minuses for the sequel.
The first game, the subject of some notable Gamasutra interviews, became known for its slightly controversial characters -- soldiers working for a Blackwater-esque private military company -- and its outlandish character fashion, including bling on guns and those notorious masks the characters wore.
The new game seems set to turn some of these things on its head. Hutchinson here speaks about the advantages of coming into a series' development on its sequel, where the opportunity to refine what was already created -- while working from a solid technological basis -- exists.
But he also talks about the challenges of capturing more interest for the game -- from those who didn't like the humor of the original, to those who weren't sure about its characters or their motivations, as well as revealing the much-awaited return of the 'fist pound' game mechanic to the sequel.
How do you guys look at the reaction to the first game in the context of designing this one? What about the first game do you think wasn't successful, that led to some of the negative feedback it got?
RS: Well, I worked on the first game, so I can kick that off, and I'm sure Alex will have lots to add. In the first game, what was interesting to us was the core gameplay feeling of you and your buddy up against the world. That resonated with people. That really worked.
What didn't work was really the tone. If you think about it on a scale, that's a good problem to have -- tone is more easily fixable than having people say, "You know what? I don't even like the core fantasy or the core gameplay that you're doing."
The game sold well enough, and EA wanted to do a sequel. We've been working on this thing pretty much since we shipped the first Army of Two. Now, we're able to just build upon all the features, fix the stuff that didn't work, fix the tone, and make it the experience we wanted.
Alex Hutchinson: To give you a different perspective, as someone who played the first game as a consumer and then came into the second game to work on it, I thought the reaction to the tone was fascinating for a couple reasons.
One is that people seemed to feel that the game was celebrating bad behavior. Actually, if you play it, I think it's amoral. It has no opinion. That's really interesting to me from a development perspective, because what it means is the press wants you to punish the bad guys. They don't want you to have no opinion about the bad guys. They want to say, "No, but they're evil! They need to lose!" And I think that's kind of sad.
Isn't it more interesting to say to the player, "What should you do? What do you do? And what is your reaction?" I actually thought that was a little disappointing, even though I agree that the tone that we're going for in the new one is more appropriate and will hit a wider audience.
We want the tone on the new one to pass the Steven Seagal test. If you can hear it as a line in Die Hard coming from Bruce Willis, great. And if you can hear it in Under Siege coming from Steven Seagal, cut it. That's our general in-house rule.
On the flip side, too, it's interesting to me how intolerant the industry is of unusual tone or humorous tones or weird tones in Western developers versus Eastern developers. You can have Metal Gear Solid stories, which are pretty wacky. I'm a big Metal Gear fan. I love Metal Gear, but it's wacky as hell -- it's so in its own universe. But anything unusual from a Western developer is piled on, which I think is a bit unfortunate.
RS: Humor is kind of a hallmark of the franchise. We have the Steven Seagal test, and I think that's applicable, but we want to make sure that we bring back humor in the game. It can't be just 100 percent straight and serious all the time. They have to be able to make a sarcastic remark, as long as it's dark.
AH: Yeah. These guys are supposed to be best friends. These guys are meant to be buddies, and they're meant to be in an extreme situation, but they should behave like buddies. I think about gallows humor, black humor, and about making sure it's situationally appropriate, and better yet that it's kicked off by a player behavior as opposed to just being something that comes out of nowhere. That's what we're trying to do.
It's funny that you mention some level of intolerance toward a strange or goofy tone. I guess I felt differently to some of the press, because I had been hoping that Army of Two would actually push further in that direction, with some of the almost campy nature that's not a parody of anything, but is just bizarre and surreal.
If I had a criticism of the tone in the first game, it would be that it wasn't confident enough about going in that direction. But earlier you were telling me that actual players didn't mind the goofy nature, even though the press did. Is that the case?
So why even worry about pushing in that direction if it's only the press that doesn't like it? Does the press weigh more heavily for some reason?
AH: Yeah. I think it's interesting in games. If you go and look at Rotten Tomatoes for movies, you see that there's almost no correlation between reviews and sales -- just zero. In games, there's a lot of correlation between the top 100 sellers and the top 100 reviews.
But I think it's starting to break down, which is a sign that games are finally becoming mass market. There's a big enough audience, and a big chunk of that audience is not on websites 24 hours a day. We're all on it; we love games, we're in the biz, we read all that sort of stuff, but there's a big chunk of players who are just looking for an experience. They're looking for a core fantasy that a game is selling.
And I think that Army of Two has an awesome core fantasy. It's in the title. It's on the box. These two guys together versus the world. It's not eight players, it's not sixteen -- I may not have that many friends myself to play video games with, but I have one gamer buddy who I can play with, and that core fantasy resonates hugely.
I think the new game is going to hit that core fantasy equally strongly, so now we're trying to grab the rest of that audience as well. I think those people will come back, basically. And in terms of the tone and what you can do in the game, what we really want is the ability for players to push it further if they want, but not to impose it on them.
I would love to see -- and hopefully this is a problem we'll solve in the mechanics -- if you want to push the social stuff or the humor further, that we will give you the means to do it, but we don't force your hand. I think that's where the line is. Those people who reacted poorly, it was because they felt that in certain instances that the game forced them to do act in a certain tone.