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How the Infinity Ward Veterans at Winterborn Games are Designing Their Dream Tactical RPG

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Winterborn Team Photos

Every one of us is built to chase our dreams, but only a precious few possess the skill and guile required to make them a reality. Late last year, a brand new indie studio out of Seattle was formed with a singular goal, to do just that.

Winterborn Games was founded by veteran developers with over a decade of experience in the industry, including a spell at renowned Call of Duty developer, Infinity Ward. Winterborn’s debut game is still a mystery, but we do know it is a tactical RPG based on a tabletop game created by one of its founders when he was only 15 years old.

OnlySP was lucky enough to snag an interview with studio head, and aforementioned table-top RPG-mastermind, Kent Gambill, and community manager Trevor Osz. Over the course of the interview, Kent and Trevor walk us through the struggles of setting up a studio from scratch, and maintaining that knife-edge balance between the table-top game’s dark humor, moments of levity and the seriousness of the setting.

Please note that this interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

OnlySP: Congratulations on announcing the new studio! Based on your experience so far, what has been the most difficult thing about setting up an independent studio?

Kent Gambill: For me, it was the legal side of things. None of us had experience owning a business, so setting up the LLC and all that was new for us. I had to learn a lot about that, trademarks, filing taxes for the business, etc. I think these are things a lot of devs don’t worry about until later down the line, but I was concerned I was going to do something wrong legally and it would [come] back to cause problems.

Trevor Osz: Kent and I were literally sitting in his parents’ basement as Kent read the legal papers out loud and we attempted to translate everything from legal speak to layman’s terms. It took way longer than I’d like to admit and I would consider us both smart guys.

OnlySP: What’s been the most surprisingly easy thing?

Gambill: Since we develop remotely, I expected us to have a lot of issues with communication or being able to work on things in a timely manner. Luckily, with all the collaboration tools and remote capabilities of most technologies, it hasn’t been nearly as big a problem as anticipated.

Osz: I was hoping that we would work well as a team but it’s hard to know before you do it. Most of us knew each other and were friends but had never actually worked together before forming the studio and the two are very different. But we’ve had no issues whatsoever. There are no egos and we all just want to make the best game possible. I feel like we all are receptive to ideas and work the best bouncing ideas off each other.

Winterborn Team Photos

OnlySP: What comes first when you are building a new studio? Does the game idea drive the team’s constitution, or does the team assembled dictate the nature of the game?

Gambill: Depends on the situation, but for us, the game idea was there before the team was created. Several of our team members did play the original tabletop game, so we looked for the team that would have the skillset to match. The only piece we were missing was an artist and I had worked with Moudy (Hamo) at Infinity Ward, and we meshed well so it was the perfect fit.

Osz: I agree with Kent. I also want to say that while the game gave us the initial drive, everyone on the team has added a different perspective when we nailed down what we wanted the game to be. It’s truly been a collaboration from the start and every person has made the game better in one way or another.

OnlySP: The headline “Ex-Infinity Ward Vets Form New Studio” is an eyecatcher, but how do your experiences at Infinity Ward inform your design ideology, if at all, and is that background relevant to your first project, a table-top RPG?

Gambill: From a design standpoint, it doesn’t impact it too much as the game types are drastically different. From a programming standpoint, everything I learned at Infinity Ward has helped. Every piece of programming you learn expands your technical skillset, and I spent a lot of time at Infinity Ward attacking big problems from different angles. This made me able to adapt to the situation and more capable of finding solutions.

OnlySP: What preconceptions do you think gamers have based on your background, and what would you like to set straight about the nature of this first project?

Gambill: I think the major preconception is that my experience lies solely in the AAA space, or that I only have knowledge of first-person shooters. I’m actually leaning more on my background as a fan of tabletop games and tactical RPGs for the design process. My background as a programmer is really providing the ability to see my design ideas come to life, rather than shaping the ideas in the first place.

OnlySP: What kinds of games and other media have influenced the mechanics and narrative of this first game?

Gambill: Tactical roleplaying games play a huge role in our core gameplay. I’ve been playing about every type of tactical RPG my entire life, so I have a huge log of all those games in my head about what I like and don’t like about certain games that influence how I want to make my own. I’ve always been a fan of high fantasy from many books, movies, and even anime.  All of these have helped inform my ideas about worlds with humans, elves, dragons, and monsters which informed the tabletop game. Now we’ll have the opportunity to show our unique twist on those things.

Winterborn Team Photos

OnlySP: In what ways does a table-top game change when it is being adapted from a board game played by a few friends around a table to a video game played and shared by tens or hundreds of thousands of players? What elements do you want to keep, and what needs to change?

Gambill: It’s about adapting the mechanics to something that makes sense and being flexible. For example, the tabletop uses dice heavily for everything that is front-facing where most of this will happen behind the scenes in a video game.

We can also make the game a bit more complex as we are able to have a lot of processes happen behind the scenes where a tabletop player may get bored if the game is too complex. We also want to balance the serious, often dark tone of the adventure with the ridiculous humor that would happen from time to time when a group of friends is playing together. So, it’s about finding a good balance between serious moments and moments of levity.

As far as changes, we’ve had to change around a few things that just don’t work in a video game or for a wider audience. Some of the very free-form puzzles had to be changed or removed since it isn’t technically possible to have players do literally anything, (which) you can allow in a tabletop setting. And referring to the humor thing, we had to remove a few inside-joke characters and situations that just wouldn’t make sense.

Osz: Figuring out the balance between the serious tone and comedy was something we discussed a lot. In Kent’s table-top game, there are a lot of ridiculous moments that just happen between a group of friends playing at the table. We wanted to have some of that, but we don’t want to take away from the story that we want to tell. I think, as a team, we have figured out the balance well and have a story that’s engaging and fun.

OnlySP: How has the table-top game changed and evolved since you first began designing it over a decade ago?

Gambill: The original version got simplified the longer we played it. We started with stricter rules like other table-top RPG’s at the time. We changed the focus to the fun parts of the game over the years, such as the roleplaying and the story. We also focused more on the idea of chance by using dice rolls and threw out the parts of the game that just (weren’t) all that fun to play.

Winterborn Team Photos

OnlySP: This generation has seen an explosion of creativity and success across the indie landscape. What are your thoughts on what needs to change and what needs to stay the same as we head into the next generation?

Gambill: I generally think we are headed in the right direction for indie games right now. Most platforms have made it easier for developers to self-publish on their platforms. One of the biggest issues for this generation has been discoverability, and I hope that the next generation of platforms will do a better job of letting you sort through the types of games that you’re interested in playing.

Osz: Yeah, I would agree with Kent on this one. When getting your game out there, discoverability can be the biggest challenge. There are so many games released every week and so many are great, but just get lost because the storefronts weren’t designed to have that many releases constantly. I know there are plenty of games I would have never heard about had someone not played (them) and recommended (them).

OnlySP: Development on Winterborn’s first title is still early, but when can we expect to hear something substantial from you?

Osz: This part is hard to pin down. Obviously, we are hard at work on the game and we see a lot of things that we think are cool on a weekly basis. We don’t want to show stuff too early because we want to make a good first impression, but we’re excited to show more. The current plan is to have more information later this year. With that, we appreciate the guys at OnlySP for getting a hold of us and will let you know when we have more to show.

Gambill: Thank you guys for taking the time to talk to us about Winterborn!


Want to stay up to date on what Winterborn is working on? Be sure to follow OnlySP on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also join the discussion in our community Discord server.

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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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