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Interview: Guerrilla's Hulst Talks FPS Tropes In  Killzone 3

Interview: Guerrilla's Hulst Talks FPS Tropes In Killzone 3 Exclusive

June 8, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield

Killzone 3 is one of the bigger games coming from the Sony camp for E3, with the PlayStation 3 exclusive shooter trailing stereoscopic 3D visuals and the promise of bigger, badder everything.

Gamasutra got to talk with Hermen Hulst, managing director of Dutch franchise creators Guerrilla Games ahead of the show, and put him on the spot regarding familiar FPS tropes (why is melee more powerful than guns?), 3D (do you design around it?), and regenerating health.

The newest Killzone [YouTube teaser trailer] promises a deeper story, more environments, and more freedom of gameplay, but how do you introduce this to new players, when you start right where the last left off? Hulst has some of the answers, mixed with just a handful of "wait and see."

One thing that I’ve noticed in FPS games in general is that the melee is more powerful than shooting -- you can shoot a guy for 30 seconds before he dies, but you hit him once with a rifle butt and he’s done. Do you ever think about justifying this in the game world?

Hermen Hulst: That’s something that we’re balancing continuously. As soon as there’s a new system like this brutal melee system that comes in, and there’s new variances within that, we’re pulling that through play testing straight away. You gotta balance that immediately.

If you have a knife kill that somebody could finish the entire game with, that’s not good, right? So you want to go back and make sure that you’ve got some encounters that really require you to either take your pistol or rifle out to finish him.

Of course, here with this gunplay that we’ve got requiring you to hop through from iceberg to iceberg, you’re gonna be shooting from the air, so that’s already an example of where you can’t just use a brutal melee or close combat.

How early do you start playtesting for things like this?

HH: We start it almost straight away. As soon as we got a level that is some sort of functional indication of what it’s gonna play like, we get guys from the team, we get guys from the street, through Sony, in London and we also do it here stateside. Playtesting is a huge thing for us, so we do it all the time.

It seems like a lot of the more successful FPS developers are advocating aggressive play testing. Obviously Valve does it from first prototype stage.

HH: I think, frankly, in Killzone 2, it was kinda the first game where we did a lot of playtesting, though we started a little bit too late, I think. So you had some pretty severe difficulty spikes in that game still. And I think that’s the reason why we did that, and that’s kind of our development philosophy.

Look at the previous installment in the franchise, look at the areas that could be improved and try to turn those around and make them the best parts of the game. Getting the pacing right, the difficulty balancing right; it’s a huge focal point for us from day one essentially.

Deep Story Or Deep Confusion?

I get the sense that from the gameplay perspective, that mechanics are becoming more accessible as the franchise evolves, but the story is becoming narrower -- anyone who didn't play Killzone 2 will need to catch up. But do fans really care about story in this genre?

HH: I think you’re asking two questions. I think they do care -- we get a lot of mail, a lot of ideas from the community, within story, dialogue, and characters and all these elements obviously are tied into each other. I think it’s very important, in particular after releases like Uncharted 2 that really raised the bar on storytelling. It’s become an area that you just can’t neglect, you really have to pay attention to it.

I think in terms of your other question, on if it’s becoming narrow -- we’re actually trying to go a lot wider. On Killzone 2, I think a lot of it was constrained, setting-wise, since it was based in the urban areas, the first half of the game. This game we’re actually setting ourselves up so we can actually explore the Helghast culture a lot more. We have a very rich backdrop in the universe that we created and the story’s very rich; there’s a lot of stuff in there. And we feel that we haven’t really fully explored all of that.

So in this game, we’re mostly visiting various areas of the planet. We’re also giving you a flavor of the Helghast culture by replacing the one nemesis with two guys that are actually competing for power, because of that almost like civil war that’s happening in the background. You get to experience a lot more of what those guys are like. So actually we’re trying to make it richer rather than narrower.

I guess it’s kind of a fine line between "richer" and "stuff that only guys that know this thing will care about" -- to me, unfamiliar with the story background, I see a lot of terms and names that players need to be invested in that universe to understand. But I see what you’re trying to do.

HH: Absolutely, every game needs to be a great experience in its own right. You try to set it up with a great introduction to the game in the opening, in order to establish the mood. And the mood for this game really is that the tables have turned. In Killzone 2, you were part of this invasion fleet and you felt overpowered, you were sent in there, you were gonna take him out in about a month. This time around, you’re outgunned, it’s much more like Inglorious Basterds almost. A couple guys that need to scavenge for weaponry of the enemy. It has a different feel to it.

Invincible David

Earlier, you called this a David vs. Goliath scenario. I definitely understand that from a story and conceptual standpoint, but how do you make that work when your character is the only guy that can regenerate his health and has access to this crazy weaponry? In fact, he’s the invincible character in this universe, practically.

HH: The character can die, and your buddy that’s much more healthy can revive you. It’s like a small group of characters. You and your buddies, the lead characters, that together are outgunned and out powered, they’re David. Compared to the previous game, your backup has been almost annihilated, and at the same time, your enemy has progressed -- technologically [has] evolved, they're much bigger. I can’t disclose some of the other features that we have in other levels. But you've shrunk, and they've expanded, and that’s why you get that experience.

As long as you can make that happen in a moment-to moment scenario, it can work.

HH: Oh yeah, that will be ready, visible in some of the setups that we’re creating in the minute to minute gameplay, not just in the overall themes and settings.

It’s something of a struggle within the genre -- you've got these soldiers that can regenerate and are ultimately supermen, versus their enemies which are finite and can die permanently.

HH: It’s not really an option to kill the player indefinitely -- it could potentially be a very short game! Expensive purchase.

I wonder why you’ve chosen to compare yourselves to Uncharted 2 and God of War III, which are very, very different experiences. Obviously, they’re other very closely Sony-affiliated studios...

HH: That’s part of it. We talk to those guys a lot, they’re within Sony’s group of worldwide studios, people that we can share ideas with. But I mentioned Uncharted 2, for their huge effort in upping the storytelling, the character-driven experience.

And I think that’s actually a game change in what they’ve done there. God of War... we’re also looking at this increased scale. Those guys, wow, that’s a boss on top of a boss on top of a boss! That’s a boss in a third degree, right? So when we see that, damn, [we need] to be bigger. Those are specifically two notions.

Killzone 3D

How hard did you find 3D to implement for this?

HH: Actually, remarkably easy. I get a lot of questions about that and people presume that we’ve almost had some new galactic TV experience in order to enable that. It’s not all the case, particularly since we’ve done it from the beginning.

We’ve got to be ready to implement it, and it’s been a very smooth process to getting it to where we are today. I think it’s fair to say that we’re also, in many ways, kinda lucky, since it’s easier than making a movie in 3D; the world is already in 3D. In Killzone, the particles are already in 3D.

What makes 3D more convincing is when there’s a lot of stuff coming at you, for instance. We're making a shooter, you’re being shot at, so there’s a lot of stuff coming at you. I think the world that we’re making is already rich, so -- I think a lot of happy decisions that we’ve took in the past come in handy now when we’re implementing 3D.

How big of an element to 3D do you find the audio?

HH: I think 3D audio is huge for 2D and 3D. As I say, we’re always improving, in terms of the execution, the sense of immersion, and I know it’s a horrible word because everybody uses it. But it’s still hugely important in Killzone, because it has such an effect on making this world believable.

This is sci-fi realism with a twist, it's grounded. We go through a lot of trouble to design everything as it could be designed in real life. Audio is just one area where we’re trying to do that. The depth of field that I’ve talked about is very important, it discriminates between what’s important and what is mostly contextual backgrounds.

If you’ve got 3D visuals and 2D sound coming from the speakers, how does that interact?

HH: Yeah, it’s a marriage of these things. You already have the very intense combat experience, a very visceral experience. Then you have that great looking world with all the variety, you make that in 3D. Then, on top of that, you’ve got depth of field audio, and I think it’s adding all these things together that make it a cinematic experience that one can possibly create, and that’s what we’re doing.

Seems like 3D just adds one extra layer of design considerations, even more than technical considerations. I know a lot of people have talked about how it’s really difficult to do 1080p and 3D at the same time, that that’s where we are now, it’s not really that feasible. Just in terms of design, you have to pay a lot more attention to your textures now, you’ve gotta make sure that if people have 5.1 surround that what they’re seeing is exactly what they’re hearing, there’s a lot more to think about.

HH: Game design, level design...every decision we’ve made we’ve made for the bread and butter of the game, which is the regular 2D experience still, right? 3D is a layer on top of that, which makes it even more immersive, makes it even more cinematic. I think at this point we’ve made all the calls to make a great Killzone 3 game. I don’t think any of the design decisions, specifically, have been made to show off 3D.

I think, again, we’ve been very lucky and it kind of comes in organically. But what we do is things like, you know, you’ve got the close combat, we gotta make sure that that’s more visually designed, you’ve gotta blur out the left hand because that’s not where the knife is and it would be very distracting.

Other visual design considerations are the HUD for instance, which you see when you go to watch a 3D film - well, you probably don’t, because you see all the movies here in English. When you live in Europe, you see all the movies with subtitles, and they kind of hang there in the middle of the screen, it’s very awkward. So we put a lot of focus on making sure that the crosshair sits at the right distance. And all of these things are good considerations.

That might give you a leg up in terms of understanding HUD presentation, that experience.

That’s a big area focus for 3D, making sure that these things work. And if they don’t work, then you’re breaking that suspension of disbelief.

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