IncGamers Network

Section 8: Prejudice Interview

We sit down with TimeGate President/CEO Adel Chaveleh and Section 8: Prejudice’s Lead Designer, Brett Norton, to discuss the decision to release the game exclusively in the digital realm, the challenges in balancing large-scale multiplayer shooters and why the FPS genre has shunned the use of health pickups. 
IncGamers: There are a lot of successful FPS franchises out there.  Is there a pressure to try and emulate the Call of Duty’s, Halo’s and Battlefield’s of this world in an attempt to achieve success through familiarity?

Adel Chaveleh: Emulate, but not copy.  Our target was never to go and be the Halo-killer, the COD-killer, or anything like that.  But, clearly, our audiences have overlap.  So, when you’re creating a new franchise, you’ve got to build a bridge for people to enter your universe and then go appreciate what’s really unique [about it]. 
We have a bad habit when we go and create new IP’s, like Kohan in the RTS arena and like Section 8, that we go too far with it.  Accessibility to some of these IP’s is a little removed on the first product but then we come back to it – we build the bridge on the second product.  That’s what we’re going for this time around; we’re now building the bridge to a lot of the things that are really unique about our game and back to where the audience is hanging out.
We believe that when they get to the core of what we’re building that they’ll have an ‘a-ha’ moment and think ‘okay, that’s what makes this game stand out’. Generally, we try to push a genre forward rather than take an existing framework and just increase production values or something. We really try to do unique things with our games.
Brett Norton: Yeah, with our gameplay, we set out and we knew we were going to be between the extremes of other shooters.  We looked at games like Tribes and Quake and Unreal Tournament as much as we looked at stuff like Battlefield or PlanetSide or Counter-Strike. 
We knew we weren’t going to be Counter-Strike and we weren’t going to be Unreal Tournament, we were going to be somewhere in the middle; in a spot where we didn’t fully know where we were going to end up.  We never wanted to be ‘that-game-plus-one’, we wanted to do something different and find ourselves in a different spot on the spectrum of shooters and, maybe, no one else was there.
You mentioned you have a bad habit of going too far with new ideas.  How much development time is spent scaling those back in an attempt to produce something that is going to be accessible to a decent sized audience?
Adel Chaveleh:  I’ll use the first Section 8 as an example.  There was a lot there.  Did you play the original by any chance?
Yes, briefly.
Adel Chaveleh: Well, you’re probably a good example of [the average player].  You get into the game, you drop in from anywhere, you’ve got this full load-out system that is potentially overwhelming, you’ve got DCMs (Dynamic Combat Missions) kicking off in the background and some of the combat mechanics we had probably weren’t as intuitive as they could have been. 
You throw all this at the player and all of a sudden it’s overwhelming and people either make it through that painful period to get to the ‘oh, this fits in with this and this is how it all ties in’ and they get to that moment and think it’s awesome and then they won’t go back to anything else.  It’s about getting them to that point.  It’s about presenting it clearly and scaling it back.
With each iteration you have to refine and tweak and that’s what this product is for us, aside from pushing some content things further, we are taking some of the mechanics that we believe are valid in pushing the genre forward and packaging them better and making it more accessible. Metering it all out too, hopefully you’ll have picked up that the game is a little easier to get into and the campaign will do a much better job this time around to slowly meter the content, the complexities and the mechanics of the game [to the player].
Brett Norton: We didn’t want to quote, un-quote, ‘dumb’ the game down.  Our goal wasn’t to necessarily make a simpler game but to spend a lot more effort in getting players into the universe and buying into it.  We wanted to make sure that the hardcore players of Section 8, when they start playing Prejudice, would have just as much fun and that the game worked for them. 
At the same time we knew we wanted to turn more players into hardcore players, we wanted a higher conversion ratio and for more people to stick with it for longer.  That required a lot more effort on our part to build more accessibility into the game without subtracting depth.
What’s behind the decision to release as a download-only product?   
Adel Chaveleh: Originally, when we scoped out the content, the development budget, the timeline and everything else, the intention was to go full-retail sequel.  Hopefully the amount of content we’ve got highlights that. 
But, as we started developing and looking into the business components of getting the product into retail and working out how to make a splash and create the positive impact we wanted, it was obvious that there was an entrenchment [at retail] from a few key partners; the story we’re hearing every day, right?
On the flip side, you look at this digital space that has evolved a good bit over the last year, and you look at the products that we would be compared against in that space, and just literally by flipping a switch we become able to make a huge splash on this side.  Granted, it’s not without risk, it’s not like it’s the same price point and everything else; it’s a fraction of the price a retail product would have been.  But, we can justify that by not having as many hands in the pot and, on top of that, we have a direct relationship with the gamers ourselves now by selling directly to them; we’re able to support it more substantially, we’re able to engage them more and do more post-launch content.
The digital decision was business driven really.  We can make a splash and over deliver at the end of day. It became a bit of a no-brainer after we looked at the options and we frankly think that the whole industry is evolving that way.  If you look at the music industry as an example, five years ago if you told the music executives that all music sales are going to come via digital they’d probably laugh at you but, look at what iTunes has done.  Games are going there too and we’re just hoping to be one of the front runners in that space.
So, in comparison with the original, what’s the development budget on Prejudice? You’ve mentioned the lower price point, does that mean you have to achieve ‘x’ times more sales to turn a profit?
Adel Chaveleh: The development budget is actually larger than the original.  It’s our biggest budget in our 13 year existence and, hopefully, the content demonstrates that we’re certainly not short-changing it.  Also, we’re self-publishing it so everything comes back to us whereas with every game we’ve done before there’s been layer upon layer of… y’know, the ‘skimming’ [of revenue] if you will.  The game still needs to do reasonable well but we don’t see it as insurmountable and that’s what’s exciting about it; we’ve got all the risk but we’ll also get all the reward. 
Do you think it’s more difficult to stand-out and be taken seriously as a digital title?  For example, how do you see yourselves attracting the COD and Halo players?
Adel Chaveleh:   The price point is a huge part of that, you look at what people are paying $15 for on XBLA and I think that from both a quality and content perspective Section 8: Prejudice will dwarf the large majority of those products.  Ultimately, at that price point, it’s an impulse buy as opposed to having to decide which $60 game I buy this month.  At our price point you can be buying the [$60 game] and our game.  Our game also becomes a word of mouth product because of the big bang for your buck that you’re getting.  That was one of the reasons we came to the digital space, because you can stand out just by doing things differently.
What’s your take on the quality of digitally distributed games? Is the idea that boxed titles are superior to download-only titles a thing of the past?
Adel Chaveleh: It will be with our product (laughs). 
I think people assume that download products are ‘valued’ at $14.99.  But, as an example, if you look at iPhone games, what you’re getting for 99 cents or $1.99 is well worth it and that’s why they’re selling crap loads of copies. 
The console and PC-gaming market hasn’t really adapted to the new mindset of the consumer and different price points just haven’t really been played around with yet.  The first dabble of that is the fact that’s there’s this digital space, and there is a different price point there, but you’re kind of getting what you pay for. We’re hoping to come in there and shake that up and, to a degree, be disruptive.
Hopefully people will pick up [Prejudice] and in no way question their decision to purchase the game.  They’re going to get $15 worth of value out of this thing and hopefully well beyond that.  When you hit that point, that’s when the word of mouth kicks in and that’s what we’re after.
How much extra work is it, as a company, to self-publish a title?
Adel Chaveleh: We’ll be 13 years old as a company in August and this will be our fifth internal IP product that we’re shipping.  In every one of our projects over that time we’ve moved up the food chain just a little bit. On our first ever project we just did development, then the next one we started to do a little PR on it – and this was always with external publishers and distributors – and we always keep progressing forwards until this last one, which came out in 2009. We realised we just had a couple more dots to connect – working directly with Microsoft and Sony as well as putting the final financing pieces into place – and then we’ve total control of our own destiny. 
While we’ve got a hundred percent freedom to do what we want and go in whatever direction we want to take, you’ve to have a hundred-and-twenty percent discipline because there’s no big brother there to make sure you cross the finish line on time and that kind of thing.  It is riskier but the upside is all there.
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On to the design of the game itself…  With big maps and up to 32 players per game, how difficult is it to create a multiplayer experience in which each individual feels suitability involved and that their actions are actually impacting the course of the match?
Brett Norton: It’s a really big challenge actually and it’s something we’ve wrestled with a lot while working on the Conquest game mode. Part of it comes from having objectives that are complete-able by just attacking and capturing control points; an action you know is of value to your team as it contributes directly to the score. 
DCMs also have a very profound impact on that as well, especially some of the one’s that are more singular focused like the Outpost DCM where you either have to defend or destroy it – especially if you’re on offense, and you have to destroy the Outpost, you know you’ve had a pronounced impact on the game since the outpost is worth quite a few victory points. 
What it really comes down to is create really discreet goals. It’s a little bit easier for us as we’re an objectives based game, as opposed to something like pure Team Deathmatch where each individual kill is lost in the grand scheme of things.  If you go out and capture a control point, it matters.  If you go out and stop someone completing a DCM, it matters a lot.   
There’s a lot for the player to get their hands on and customise – weapons, vehicles, personalised load-outs.  How difficult is it to balance all of that and prevent players unfairly exploiting certain items?
Brett Norton: It’s not easy; it’s actually a pretty good challenge.  We’re very experienced as a development house in dealing with balancing issues, especially going back to our RTS days.  In an RTS environment you have the exact same issues.  Depending on your game you have hundreds of potential units – at least in our Kohan games you have lots of options – and if you’ve balanced a couple of units poorly then they would be the only ones the player would use; the game would turn into unit ‘y’ versus unit ‘y’, or unit ‘y’ versus unit ‘x’. 
If you want to break that mentality it takes careful balancing.  If you have multiple kinds of short-range weapons, or multiple kinds of long-range weapons, you have to make sure that they’re fairly balanced out in terms of how much damage they do, how rapidly they can fire, what their ammo capacity is, how difficult they are to use.  It’s not easy but you work on it, you continually iterate on it, you run theoretical test cases, you review what players think of as powerful and compare that to metrics that show how powerful something really is. 
We have a lot of tools in place so, for example, we can look at all players that have played for over 20 hours and see what their favourite load-outs are and what they’re finding to be most effective.  When we compare this data we can see overriding trends and start to look into the reasons behind why players are using certain things.  We’ve been running a PC closed beta on Prejudice for a while now and those guys have access to all the shippable content and they’ve been going through and looking at exactly that, looking at what’s strong and what’s not, looking at what people are using and what they’re not using. 
We’ve found some things that we’ve had to fix because they’re too strong but we’ve got to a point through iterating on the beta where the best of the best players don’t stick to the same load-outs, they have a couple of things that they rotate around and they add new things and experiment with them.  They’re constantly looking for new ways to improve their load-outs and that’s when we think we’ve hit our sweet spot with balancing and gameplay – when no one is using the exact same load-out and everyone is trying lots of new things. 
Like most FPS games, Prejudice utilises a regenerating health system, are the days of health pick-ups gone forever?
Brett Norton: Health packs aren’t really gone forever but they’re more popular in certain kinds of games than others and they’re more appropriate in some kinds of games than others.  When you have something like a survival horror game, and you want to limit resources and create a sense of anxiety, health packs are great for that kind of thing. 
But when you’re trying to do an action based shooter, especially for campaigns, you get a much more consistent difficultly when using regenerative health models because the difficulty doesn’t vary wildly based on the skill of the player.  New players will sometimes just get themselves destroyed in a fight and make the game harder for themselves and, unless you get lucky and put a health pack in the right place, you might end up presenting those players with a brick wall that they can’t get past – it’s the end of the game for them.
In multiplayer you have to be careful also; how fast should players regenerate their health? Can a player be beaten by simply throwing bodies at them – i.e. if you weaken someone enough will they just die the next time they come across someone because there’s nothing they can do about it?  In that case, if you had health packs, individual skill doesn’t have anything to do about it because you simply can’t get to a health pack fast enough. 
It’s a difficult thing to balance when making a shooter. You don’t want the player to feel that, because they just barely survived one fight, they have no chance of winning the next one because they’ve got no health left.
There’s been a lot of talk about how Prejudice features a much more significant single player component compared to the original.  But, when it comes down to it, is this multiplayer focused shooter?
Brett Norton: Well, we’ve put a lot of effort into the single player campaign but we haven’t removed anything from the Conquest multiplayer component.  We’ve also done the whole Swarm multiplayer component, which is a co-op multiplayer mode, so we’ve essentially got two core modes that are multiplayer and one that’s single player. 
But, you can play both Swarm and Conquest offline with bots so we’ve really tried to hit single player everywhere.  We don’t have a 20-hour single player campaign, if people come in and they’re used to sprawling single player RPGs or very long single player shooters… we’re not like that, we’ve done a few different modes and we want players to experience those modes both online and offline.
We have some people [at TimeGate] that are not great competitive multiplayer players so they just play offline with bots. They have a blast with it because they enjoy the mechanics, they enjoy the gameplay, they enjoy the big sprawling battles but they didn’t want to go online and play against a bunch of hardcore guys – they prefer to play offline against bots that are closer to their own skill level.
You’ve mentioned how you’ve got total control over this project.  Any concrete plans to support the game post-release?
Adel Chaveleh: Definitely.  We’ve already built what we call a ‘live’ team for the game, so we’re treating it like a living, breathing product post launch.  We’ve already got several streams of content that we’re developing for release after launch which is going to include game modes, maps, armour customisation etc.  Some of which will be free, some of which will be paid for.  The paid for content is going to be priced appropriately for the cost of the game – we’re not going to be releasing any $15 DLC packs, for example.  The support component that we’re working on is certainly substantial. 
For the hardcore fans of the original game, what’s going to be the main improvement they notice from that game to this one?
Brett Norton:  It’s a tough question because there are so many changes, and we’ve talked about some of the big ones.  For the hardcore guys, the players focused on each gameplay detail, then I think the biggest thing they’re going to see is the change in the amount of weapons, equipment and upgrade unlocks; the depth and breadth of the content pool we have in the game is just massively deeper than we had in Section 8.
 In Section 8 we had a set number of weapons and unlocks but Prejudice just blows it out of the water with the number of possible combinations.  If you’re the kind of gamer that loves experimenting with load-outs and trying new things then you’re going to really going to appreciate that depth. 
A lot of our hardcore fans in the PC beta have delved into it and they love it, they’re still making new posts in the forum like ‘I’ve tried this new combination and you’ve got to give it a shot’.  The forum guys are constantly arguing with one another about what works the best and what they’re going to try next.  The people that really enjoy that sort of gameplay are going to see a whole new world that just wasn’t there in Section 8.


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