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On concerns that the action focus could detract from the sandbox feel: From the pacing side, we decided not to have gameplay-specific levels like we did in Crysis, where we had, for example, an entire tank level and we tailored the entire level to have the most preferred experience being in a tank.
In Crysis, we had a bit of an old-school mentality to level design: "Now, it's the vehicle level." In Warhead, we have shorter sections within levels -- you don't have one level with driving all the time. There would be a short vehicle section, an infantry section, maybe another vehicle section, then some aliens, then some North Koreans.
It's a lot more entertaining if you mix it up more, so players can't identify, "Now I'm in the sniper level," or, "Now I'm in the VTOL level." There's a possibility that something else is coming.
From a creative standpoint, it makes it much easier to keep players engaged if you can surprise them from time to time, forcing them to experiment. Then, we encourage the player to realize they don't always have to do it in a particular way.
We didn't want to force players into mandatory vehicle sections we had in the original Crysis. In a hovercraft level, for example, you can stop at any time, and there are other weapons and vehicles lying around. If you prefer the classical sandbox gameplay, where you come up on a challenge, observe, and grab the appropriate weapons, we designed for that; or, you can go the Skyes way with dual SMGs blazing and blow the hell out of everything.
On criticism of the very linear last third of Crysis: Vehicle rides, even if they are on rails, can be a lot of fun, just shooting lots of targets, but in Crysis, the switch in gameplay was just too great. We spent eight hours teaching the players, "Do whatever you want," then suddenly you jump into a vehicle and we just turned off the exit key. Of course, the first things players did was say, "I want to get out."
We taught them before, "Do what you want! Freedom!" Then we broke the design rule that we ourselves created and spent a lot of time teaching players. Suddenly, that rule wasn't valid anymore, and that is an abrupt switch.
From a pacing standpoint, we switched almost entirely to alien combat at a certain point in the game, and from then onwards the expectations were set. The players knew, "From now on, it's aliens." Forum posters talked about the first part of the game, and the second part of the game. The public perception was really driven by these design choices -- there was "pre-alien Crysis" and "post-alien Crysis."
In Warhead, we tried to stay away from that. As a team, and as a company, we're now a lot more familiar with the IP we created. Crysis' nanosuit actually came into development rather late, while we were building the game. As a game designer on Crysis before I moved into the producer rule, I had to convince level designers into changing levels to be more suitable to the nanosuit gameplay. If somebody had spent three months working on a level, it can be tough to accept a different mindset for that level. Now, as a team, we are much more comfortable with how levels have to be built. The nanosuit makes sense.
If you give complete freedom, you have to make sure that players at least get an indication of what they could do next -- not just drop them in and say, "Do whatever you want!" So in the level design, we brought everything closer together. The levels aren't smaller, but the action elements are much more condensed.