Kaos Studios' Homefront hopes to introduce an emotional layer to the military first person shooter by bringing the action to American soil and presenting a hypothetical future in which North Korea invades U.S. territory.
Much like popular online shooters such as Call of Duty: Black Ops or Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Homefront aims to provide a single player and multiplayer suite roughly based on real world locations and military weaponry.
While the game's campaign aims to present a narrative focused single player experience, its multiplayer focuses on large-scale combat with both vehicles and infantry, much like Kaos' first title, Frontlines: Fuel of War.
Homefront's largest change from the studio's previous title is its battle point system, which allows players to earn and spend points on vehicles or other in-game benefits.
Gamasutra spoke with Homefront multiplayer design lead Erin Daly about the game's place in the popular shooter market, how big-budget FPS development has changed during the current console generation, and how "authentic and realistic" aesthetics change the way we play multiplayer shooters.
The competition in the shooter space has heated up tremendously. From a design perspective, how are you guys aiming to differentiate?
Erin Daly: On the multiplayer side, we're really doing a lot to try and bring something new to the table because obviously it's a really crowded. So what we've tried to do is create this really intense, large-scale warfare experience. We're trying to take 32 players with a really wide variety of weaponry -- we have infantry, ground vehicles, and aircraft. What we're really trying to do is marry the intensity and hi-octane action you get from a tight infantry shooter with some of that really cool, large-scale vehicular action.
When you approach it from a design perspective, do you draw inspiration from other sources?
ED: We absolutely look at the competitive landscape, and what other people are doing. We also try and find some new things that we can bring to our game. We've shown off the battle point system, which is a new innovation we're trying to do. It allows players to make strategic choices on the fly -- while they're on the battlefields. Part of our philosophy is we want to keep you in the action, we want to keep the pace of the game really high. We don't want you to sit around, waiting for a vehicle to spawn, we don't want you to have to run really long distances, we want to get you into the action quickly.
It sounds like your approach is somewhere in between more hardcore titles like Battlefield and something more casual, as if you are trying to ride that line between the two.
ED: Absolutely. Yeah, we want to hit a real mainstream audience, and make sure the players can jump in the game and start having fun right away. This is not the kind of game where you're going to have to spend hours learning how to fly a helicopter. This is the kind of game where you jump in, you can use the controls immediately and you start having fun right away. And then as you start playing the game you kind of start to encounter those second level systems to get more depth out of a vehicle or mechanic.
I mean obviously an extreme example of structuring shooter development is Medal of Honor, where DICE did the multiplayer and the single player game was done at EA LA. How did you organize your development in terms of structure?
ED: Kaos is doing both multiplayer and single player, the only thing that we're outsourcing is the PC platform. We have Digital Extremes off in Ontario working on that, and that's really so that that platform can really hit on the key parts of the experience that are important to the PC audience. And we're supporting things like dedicated servers hosted by users on PC, we're supporting things like server browsers -- things that the PC player really wants. In terms of single player and multiplayer, we really share all the base technology and all the assets, all that is the same stuff. As the player goes through the single player experience, they're really learning how to use all these weapons and getting familiar with the controls, and then they can jump right into multiplayer.
I know Kaos is developing both single and multiplayer modes, but did you actually break down into separate teams? How did you manage development in that regard?
ED: Yeah, I mean the only thing that's really separate, in terms of single player and multiplayer, is the design team because the level design for multiplayer maps is very different than the single player mission design, and so that's different in kind of the mechanics design is slightly different. But in terms of all the kind of shared base level systems, those are all kind of designed from the ground up for both games.
I'm curious about scale of players. I understand the game supports 32 players? We've seen everything from games like MAG with 256 players, down to games with 16, which are relatively common. But, how do you determine how many simultaneous players to support in a game like this?
ED: It was really a result of a lot of play testing and iteration, so we can tweak that number everyday and change it and play these maps with 24 players, we're like, "Well, it's cool and it's really fun, but the action is just not quite intense enough, so let's try cranking it up." And then we keep doing that and we keep adjusting until we find that sweet spot.
Did you primarily do testing with external people or with the team itself?
ED: The whole team plays every day at 5 o'clock, and we have a whole hour-long session where we play multiplayer. And then we also do testing with our external QA department and then we're starting to incorporate some outsourcing teams actually to help us get even more feedback on the game.
When you are playtesting, do you pay more attention to what people are saying or do you actually use a lot of metrics when you're doing internal testing?
ED: We do both, actually. So we have a verbal feedback session and a forum thread, so we capture that feedback one on one and direct from people's mouths about the game. And then we also have a lot of data that we mine about every match. So we have this data mining system that happens in the background, and it's pouring out tons of stats from every game so we can see what the weapon accuracy is, we can see how quickly players earn battle points, we can really analyze that from a statistical point of view.
I can't remember at all; it's been quite some time. But I interviewed someone from the studio prior to the release of Frontlines and I remember having a conversation about the concept of the battle lines that the game was really pushing. What happened with Frontlines, in terms of audience reaction and how did your feelings about the successes of the design influence Homefront?
ED: Sure, I mean I didn't work on that project on the multiplayer side -- I kind of came in on the last third of the product on the single player side. But certainly we took a lot of lessons from that game, and we learned that players really enjoy things like the drones. The pace of the game certainly wasn't hitting quite the level of intensity that we're after, and so that's what you see with Homefront. We really brought that up a lot as we created new systems like our spawning vehicle system, allows you to really get into the action quickly, avoid those really long run times, avoid those wait times awaiting for a vehicle to respawn. So we really tried to solve all of those pacing and flowing issues and make sure the experience is much more streamlined.
Yeah, because it seems like a lot of testing is what would probably either arrive at these decisions. Because you're not going to see how these things turn out until you've seen people churning through the map.
ED: Absolutely, yeah. There are so many different variables to adjust; it's a very difficult thing to try and hit that pace. But we feel like we've managed to achieve it and occasionally when we were doing earlier in our development cycle and we weren't hitting that, we sat down and we were like "hey, how can we bring vehicles into the action faster? How can we solve these fundamental issues?" And that's where we started to try and branch out and try and do new things like the spawning vehicle system like battle points, you know, try and solve these really fundamental pacing issues.
Are you doing anything like the persistent ranking systems seen in games like Call of Duty, or even Halo: Reach? That sort of system seems to be becoming part of the landscape.
ED: Yeah, the long-term progression and unlock system is a big, core part of our product. We're not going into details of it today, but we definitely have to tell you it's a full featured system, and it provides that long-term compulsion loop that the player's after.
So did the theme of the game, which is arguably quite provocative, influence the design of the multiplayer at all, or was it more about just pure mechanics based design?
ED: It kind of influenced the scale of the action, because we wanted to tell the part of the story that wasn't in the single player. We wanted to tell these large battles where you got the U.S. military fighting with all their remaining equipment and weapons against these invading North Korean forces. And of course, it influenced the setting of the maps a lot. So we look at, thinking, "How can we make this familiar to an alien environment and really come to life in these big battles?"
To go back to saying just a minute ago about telling the story, is it primarily just through the visuals and the locales, or is there actually a drive towards more direct kind of storytelling in the multiplayer mode?
ED: We're not doing any kind of cut scenes or anything like that; it's really about the atmosphere and the ambiance. You definitely capture that somewhat with the battle chatter and the guys talking on the battlefield -- the U.S. military sounds like the U.S. military, the North Koreans have a really different sound to them and a really different kind of pace to the way they operate, that their commander is much more about giving his men extremely directed commands. And then you've got a female voice in the vehicles giving you radio chatter, telling you updates about what enemy vehicles are in the area. So it's really kind of a different feel to the two sides.
This will be all the sort of ambiance stuff that's occurring as you're actually fighting in the multiplayer mode?
ED: Right. I mean, really the story of multiplayer is the story of the game; it's the story the players make for themselves, and that's usually the most compelling story the players want to tell. So I think it's just up to us to really accentuate the atmospheric elements that really help create that fun experience for the player that feels different and feels unique.
I think, you know, there was a little sort of mini controversy recently about being able to play as the Taliban in Medal of Honor, and you guys sort of side stepped that because you take your game into the future. My feeling, and this is totally just my opinion, is that that players don't care that it's really the Taliban. When they're playing multiplayer, you're probably not mapping your actions directly onto real world conflicts in your head; do you have an opinion on whether or not players really do compare the game with real-world conflicts?
ED: I think the setting and the atmosphere of the game matters a lot in multiplayer. One of the overlooked elements in the past about multiplayer is that we just threw people into these crazy spaces, with crazy weapons, and crazy characters and said, "Alright, just go have a lot of fun shooting each other." And it was a lot of fun to shoot each other, but when people start bringing in settings that feel authentic and realistic, it really kind of elevates that experience to a new level. So I think from that standpoint it's really important to hit that level of authenticity, even if you are in a fictional setting; it needs to feel real in your fiction.