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Interview

Deus Ex Creator Warren Spector on Storytelling and Ludic Freedom

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Warren Spector

Video games should aim to engage players by offering freedom and “asking questions,” rather than answering them, according to Deus Ex creator Warren Spector.

Speaking to Gamasutra at GDC last month, Spector praised Dishonored 2 for privileging player freedom and ensuring that “playstyle matters,” which the veteran developer says is his personal game design philosophy. Furthermore, the “genuine interactivity” arising from open-ended design allows players to engage with the game world more fully, and “the more [developers] who do that, I think the better off we’re going to be, as a medium,” according to Spector.

The rise of open-world gaming and the prevailing dominance of sprawling RPGs in the AAA sector has been accompanied by a shift towards ensuring that players are able to experience games in the way best suited to the individual, yet Spector says that even many of these fail to truly engage players in a meaningful way because “many developers have been inspired by the mechanics of [Dungeons and Dragons]”:

“I would love to see us jettison — forever — character classes and you know, the character stats: strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, charisma . . . I mean, we don’t need that stuff. So it would be nice to move away from that. But also the content; look at the content of games, of many if not most video games, and it’s right outta D&D or Traveller. And we could do so much more.”

In addition to the established gameplay norms and settings, Spector is also highly critical of the way that developers tell stories. Too often, he argues, do developers follow the model set by other media and treat the player as a passive observer, providing answers and opinions, rather than using the interactivity inherent in games to ask questions:

“You know, we need to be asking bigger questions. And some people are doing that. Again, the Mass Effect games ask you to think about stuff, the BioShock games ask you to think about stuff. The key for me, as I said in my talk, was not to answer the questions . . . I find that the idea of asking questions, and having a dialogue with your players, much more interesting than just saying ‘here’s my story. Here’s what I think about Topic X.’ That’s way less interesting.”

Following the collapse of Junction Point Studios after the commercial failure of Epic Mickey 2, Warren Spector left the development scene to focus on teaching at the University of Texas. Early in 2016, however, he reversed this decision, joining OtherSide Entertainment, which is currently working on Underworld: Ascendant and System Shock 3, both of which promise to follow the tradition of emergent gameplay and non-linear progression set by Deus Ex.

For more news and commentary from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to bookmark OnlySP and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

Interview

Arma 3 ‘Contact’ Project Lead Discusses Importance of Single-Player Content, Inspirations, and Plenty of Details

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Arma 3

Arma 3 ‘Contact’ delivers a new spin-off expansion for players to explore an unnervingly realistic interpretation of humanity’s first contact with an alien species. ‘Contact’ combines popular science-fiction with stunning graphics, realistic forested terrain in Livonia, real military general protocols for dealing with any unknown threat or situation to produce an authentic hardcore military sim experience.

In an exclusive interview with OnlySP, the expansion’s lead developer Joris-Jan van ‘t Land discusses influences, game development, campaign details, a new weapon—the ‘Spectrum Device’—and much more.

OnlySP: Arma has a strong history of hardcore realistic military sandbox sims. What made you want to take your formula and branch out into the sci-fi genre with ‘Contact’?

van ‘t Land: Firstly, we should make clear that we view Arma 3 ‘Contact’ as a spin-off expansion. It does not signal a new direction for the Arma series, which will itself stick to its authentic military sim-game core. Arma 3 being six years into its impressive tour of duty, we felt this was the right time to get a little more creative. We’ve supported the game with lots of free and premium content, features, and support. Now some of us wanted to explore something less traditional, while still doing our best to support the military sandbox as much as possible.

The ‘first contact’ premise is one many in our team have wanted to explore for years. Some know that during its pre-production stage, Arma 3 itself had some less conventional elements under its ‘Futura’ codename. We had done our own experiments with the topic on the side for fun, but now pitched it as an actual project, and were fortunately given the chance. Looking around at other sci-fi entertainment covering aliens, there are but a few approaching it from the viewpoint of contemporary (or rather 2039 Armaverse) military. We simply loved to theorize about how current armed forces might react to an extraterrestrial intelligence arriving on Earth. Nobody really knows what might happen, so it’s a conceptually interesting ‘what if’ setting to work with. ET adds a variable that nobody can really argue with: who knows what they are technologically capable of, what their motivations are, and what it would mean for humanity?

OnlySP: Has Earth’s first contact with aliens always been something that you wanted to do? Where did the inspiration come from?

van ‘t Land: Absolutely! Personally, it’s one of my favorite big topics in general, ever since being very young. I grew up watching movies like Independence Day, Contact, and later Arrival, following TV shows such as X-Files and Falling Skies, reading books like War of the Worlds, and playing games like XCOM. Since the Arma series (as Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis) entered my life, there have been many moments when I fantasized about building scenarios involving humans and aliens. That mostly did not really go further than hobby projects and quick experiments, until now. During the project’s concept phase I also had the chance to re-explore many inspirations, for example by reading lots of books, like Contact, The Black Cloud, and a lesser known hardcore military sci-fi series: Legacy of the Aldenata.

OnlySP: Given the time since Arma 3‘s full game was released. Why did you decide to create another expansion instead of Arma 4?

van ‘t Land: ‘Contact’ originated from our relatively small Amsterdam studio, a team which was formed to develop original ideas for Bohemia. That specifically meant doing less traditional projects, even if they were DLC or expansions to an existing game. Our first project—Arma 3 ‘Laws of War’also offered a non-standard perspective on armed conflict. Some of our team members have worked on Arma for well over a decade, and we were personally interested in doing something different. Initially ‘Contact’ was not even specified to be an Arma 3 expansion. We considered even a stand-alone game, but ultimately the benefits of the expansion route were far too great. It meant we could make use of a massive sandbox, and Arma 3 players would benefit from additions even if they do not care about the setting. Without ‘Contact’, there likely would not have been another official Arma 3 DLC or expansion, aside from our Creator DLC program of course.

I should also mention that we received very important support from other small teams in Bohemia, such as in the Czech Republic and Thailand. They helped to build the Livonia terrain and other sandbox content, while in Amsterdam we focused on the “First Contact” campaign, aliens, and defining the overall package. Other than that, it’s no secret that Bohemia has been working on its next generation in-house engine: Enfusion. It continues to mature and will power the next decades of awesome Bohemia games. We’re a pretty sizable company meanwhile, with various teams working on exciting things.

OnlySP: ‘Contact’ will get a single-player campaign, can you give any details of the campaign and how long it will be?

van ‘t Land: A big part of the campaign is about uncovering its mystery and exploring what is going on, so we’ll leave most details for players to discover for themselves. Known is that you will assume the role of a NATO drone operator, deployed to Livonia for military training exercises. Eventually our alien visitors arrive to the Area of Operations, and from there on out you’re part of an improvised reconnaissance operation to investigate what’s going on. The gameplay at its core is still Arma 3, but we’ve wanted to add some extra mechanics that are less directly combat-focused, such as Electronic Warfare. It’s largely up to the player whether they want to use more direct action or deceive their enemies using a new type of ‘weapon’: the Spectrum Device.

The length is always hard to specify, because it of course depends on each individual player, and how much they explore the terrain beyond the core objectives. We’d estimate normal play sessions lasting between 4 and 6 hours. And after that there’s of course a cool box of new toys to tinker with, including the rest of the new Livonia terrain. We also hope community creators get inspired to build their own alien scenarios.

OnlySP: Is the idea to produce a realistic version of what you think first contact might be like? Military robots, recon, drones and tactical planning?

van ‘t Land: Military and scientific authenticity were definitely our starting points when we kicked off the project. We scoured books and the Internet, spoke to various consultants, and tried to find out whether there even exist real-world ‘post-detection protocols’. There are bits and pieces out there, like the US military’s Seven Steps to Contact (1950), but also the usual conspiracy theories and questionable sources. We could not find a clear central and declassified playbook, so then you get to more general protocols for dealing with any unknown threat or situation. Much of that could be extrapolated to an alien arrival, so we quickly landed on themes like Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear defense, autonomous vehicles, and SIGINT (signal intelligence). These things just make basic sense: avoiding cross-contamination and taking extreme care in general. Another interesting analogue was how Navy vessels may react to a non-responsive ship at sea. How certain actions or inactions may trigger the wrong response. Not all of it is intuitive; a signal meant to communicate a basic message can easily be interpreted as hostile. And that’s between humans … who knows how aliens are and observe the world around them?

Setting out to depict this premise put us in a pretty challenging situation. We wanted to be authentic, but at the same time introduce aliens, whose level of technology can easily surpass our understanding. We approached it by setting ourselves the rule that the aliens were allowed one general super technology that they could use to ‘cheat’ our scientific knowledge, one magical ability if you will. The other parts of their tech should have a strong connection to how we think the universe works. And we are also still making a game, so along the way you can encounter gameplay situations that need to break with authenticity to preserve fun or player understanding. All in all, I would still say our interpretation is more down-to-Earth than many other sci-fi stories out there.

OnlySP: Can you reveal if any missions will take place on an alien spaceship? Or does humanity’s encounter with alien tech revolve around the orange levitating orb seen in the trailer.

van ‘t Land: What I’ll say is that you will not be leaving Earth. And there is more to the alien visitors than the Alien Flying Object and anomalous orb seen in the Announcement Trailer, but you’ll experience that when you play.

OnlySP: This expansion is adding five new weapons, all of them based on real-world arms. Will there be any weapons specifically designed for engaging alien targets? Did you ever consider adding in alien weaponry?

van ‘t Land: Perhaps not a traditional weapon, but the Spectrum Device is the player’s primary new tool. It lets you receive and transmit signals on certain frequency bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, depending on the antenna you attach. This can be used for engaging in Electronic Warfare against human forces and technology, but perhaps also more. We based the device on real-world experimental drone jammers and how they might develop over the next decades. How capable the alien visitors are at defending themselves is something for players to uncover.

OnlySP: The environmental graphics in the trailer look amazing. The forest setting is an iconic setting for many alien stories and films. Were you consciously attempting to tap into the cultural heritage and atmosphere of the likes of E.T. with it?

van ‘t Land: Thank you! E.T. is another movie all of us saw growing up of course. I would not say we were directly trying to replicate its atmosphere, but now that you mention it, the mood of being alone in the dark with strange light anomalies, definitely is a huge part of the campaign. Another similarity with Steven Spielberg’s movies in general is subtlety. We quite quickly settled on wanting to focus rather on that as opposed to bombastic blockbuster scenes. Think Jaws and Jurassic Park more so than Independence Day. At the same time there are several events in the campaign that nobody has ever seen in an Arma game.

Livonia’s development history is not as straight-forward itself. The terrain started as a Research & Development project to incorporate more automated tools for terrain building, but after building a prototype that way, it did not have an actual project to finish it in. Then we kicked off ‘Contact’ and at some point the match was made. This turned into a rather massive effort to shape the foundation into Livonia, but having an actual narrative context and setting helped to flesh out its back story. It meant we started developing it as a fictional nation, with a history, flag, and armed forces. And we started incorporating wishes from the ‘Contact’ campaign team. It was no easy task, but the teams did a fantastic job, and it has also allowed the expansion to bring a huge new sandbox to Arma 3 players.

OnlySP: The forested area of Livonia looks like a closed landscape as it’s densely packed with trees. This is something quite different from vast open landscapes that we’ve seen in the past with sandy, grassy and dirty environments. Will players be forced into exploring different tactical options to cope with this?

van ‘t Land: The landscape indeed means not all tactics are suitable or successful. Especially in the mid-section of the campaign, the player has some freedom to explore off the beaten path, and choose to walk or use vehicles, employ direct action or pure stealth. Even so, Livonia is rather large, and there will be plenty of interesting places to explore beyond the campaign. We fully expect the community will create their usual assortment of cool scenarios and multiplayer modes to make the most of its rolling hills, fields, and forests. Some of them have actually already started to publish versions based on our Sneak Preview builds.

OnlySP: How important is the single-player portion of Arma 3, not just for ‘Contact’ but the game as a whole?

van ‘t Land: That’s going to depend a lot on who in the player community you ask. For some only multiplayer matters. They spend thousands of hours in mil-sim operations or on role-playing servers, and perhaps never touch any single-player content. And yet, I could personally not imagine an Arma game without a single-player component. It does not have to be a complex narrative-driven story, but could also be a more simulation-driven open world. The current Arma 3 library of content, whether official or user-generated, is vast. Pretty much everything is represented in one way or another. Going purely on analytics, it could be tempting to conclude that singleplayer does not matter nearly as much, but the data does not tell the whole story. Aside from curated content, there is another way to play Arma 3 alone: the editor. Many players love just throwing together a quick battle and seeing how it plays out.

Then you could argue that any playable content could be both singleplayer and multiplayer, but there are still many complexities that make it very hard to pull that off well. We’ve learned some of these lessons with our co-operative “Apex Protocol” campaign. Besides being technically much more complex and harder to test given all network situations, there are many storytelling difficulties when you have multiple players in the virtual world, starting with their individual pace. ‘Contact’ actually started out intending to be playable in both singleplayer and multiplayer, but we are really pushing the limits of our engine with the aliens for example. A few months in we made the call to go single-player-only, letting us focus on building the atmosphere we wanted without the worries of network synchronization.

OnlySP: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

van ‘t Land: Having worked on ‘Contact’ for some two years, we are very excited to finally let players experience it soon. There are not many companies like Bohemia, where such an unorthodox concept would be greenlit, so we’re very happy to have had the chance to make it a reality. We hope you all enjoy playing our take on this big human topic!

Arma 3 ‘Contact’ will be available on 25 July 2019 for PC.

For more on Arma 3 ‘Contact’ and from the world of single-player gaming, be sure to follow OnlySP on FacebookTwitter, and YouTube. Also, be sure to join the discussion in the community Discord server.

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