Demiurge Interview: Wii, WWII, and Whiteboards

By Nick Breckon, Sep 05, 2007 10:38pm PDT Remember the first time you played the BioShock demo? Emerging from the depths; staring up at the foreboding lighthouse; creeping into the intriguing bathysphere. Do you remember being awed by the reveal of the Rapture skyline? If so, it may surprise you to learn that it was Demiurge Studios, not Irrational Games, that conceptualized and crafted many of these "hero" assets for the hit horror shooter.

While you may not be familiar with the name, chances are you've played through some of Demiurge's work. With credits on games like Titan Quest, Medal of Honor Airborne, and the aforementioned BioShock, the studio has made a name for itself in delivering solid by-contract development on a case-by-case basis. After working with Gearbox Software on past Brothers in Arms titles, Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford said of the studio, "It's only a matter of time before Demiurge is discovered by a major publisher."

Suddenly our hero became a drunken slob in the hands of any player who couldn't sit perfectly still.

That time may be approaching. On the cusp of releasing its Wii port of Brothers in Arms--a reworking of the first two Gearbox games titled Brothers in Arms: Double Time--Demiurge is now in the process of pitching two original concepts to publishers. In the midst of their growth, I had the chance to catch up with studio director Al Reed. I asked Mr. Reed about Demiurge's future plans, its development process, and how the team went about working Wii controls into Brothers in Arms.

Shack: What's the story behind the founding of Demiurge?

Al Reed: Tom Lin, Chris Linder and myself all met in college at Carnegie Mellon. Our first gig was to create a casual game for a now-defunct studio in Pittsburgh. After that, we hooked up with the team at Epic Games doing tools programming and licensee support. From there, the Unreal Engine licensees started hiring us to work on their games.

There are so many different stories to tell. At one point, the heat gave out in the slumlord-owned house we called an office, but we couldn't afford to stop working--so we just pointed the power supply fans from our computers at us, put on some hats and worked through it for a week.

Shack: What was it like working with Irrational on BioShock? How much communication goes on with a client like that to ensure a good mesh?

Al Reed: Getting to touch greatness like BioShock was a dream come true for us--we're in complete awe of that talented team. Because the BioShock vision was so unique, very tight collaboration was necessary. In the beginning, we'd send over drafts of our work for comments over an online forum. As we became more involved, our artists actually set up desks there and worked part-time out of their offices.

Shack: Tell me about the "Wii Thoughts" office board (pictured right).

Al Reed: Wow, you guys did your homework. We like to encourage everyone at Demiurge to contribute to blue sky design through game-design contests, brainstorming, and allowing everyone to try and pitch the studio on what we should be shopping around the publishers. We're looking to do another Wii title in the future, so we set up a whiteboard for everyone to write down their ideas.

Shack: What were some of the control ideas you had that ultimately didn't work out?

Al Reed: There were so many. At one point, we put strafing on the Nunchuk tilt--it was horrible. Suddenly our hero became a drunken slob in the hands of any player who couldn't sit perfectly still. Inspired by Metroid, we kept trying to get some variety of circle strafe in there. The idea was great on paper, and works great for Metroid which has run-and-gun gameplay. Brothers in Arms is realistic--it's about taking cover, flanking and using your squad. Locking on to Nazi's and circle-strafing around them doesn't work and certainly doesn't make you feel like a soldier in WWII.

Shack: Tell me about the specifics of Wii FPS control. What are some of the issues you run into with working up a scheme that feels natural?

Al Reed: We ended up with something that will be familiar to the seasoned FPS folks but still easy to pick up for someone new to the genre. After all of our user-testing we found there was a second scheme that our testers also liked so we ended up including it in two unique ways.

I'll discuss the default controls. The left analog handles forward/backward/strafe movement for the player and the accelerometers in the Nunchuk are used for gestures. The magic really happens with the Wii Remote. Aiming is handled by pointing at the screen--the player is given a targeting cursor similar to the other titles in the genre. Movement of the cursor is carefully engineered to respond quickly to big movements, but also allow the player to aim carefully. The sensitivities also self-adjust when the player pulls up iron-sights or zooms with the sniper rifle. Beyond that, the game tries to detect what you're trying to aim at, and helps drift the cursor in towards your target. When the cursor moves to the edge--away from what's known as the "dead zone"--the camera rotates. We also exposed a bunch of the tuning parameters to the player in the options menu so they can tweak everything to suit their desires.

Anyone who works at Demiurge can sign up to give a lunchtime game pitch to the studio.

Shack: What led to the decision of taking out jumping?

Al Reed: At Demiurge, we really aim to have "tight" design. If it's not making the experience significantly better, we cut the feature. Jumping around the world in WWII never quite felt right and we wanted to simplify the controls.

Shack: Will the weapons, grenades, and squad-based gameplay be relatively unchanged in this iteration?

Al Reed: We had to overhaul pretty much every tool the player is given to adapt and re-balance the game for the new interface. The core gameplay that makes Brothers in Arms unique in the WWII genre was preserved, but the way you interact with the world is pretty massively changed. The amount of spread you need on a weapon, for example, is quite different when the player is physically aiming at the screen.

Grenades are something we altered a lot. It's easy to think that you should just allow the player to "throw" but that doesn't allow for the precise, tactical movement that BiA demands. Instead, we have the player aim where they want the grenade to go and switch up the movement scheme so they can then duck behind cover and throw with their arm without making the camera get whipped around on them. It fuses the tactical BiA gameplay with the benefits of the Wii Remote beautifully.

Shack: How will the narrative compare to previous Brothers in Arms games?

Al Reed: Gearbox has put a lot of effort into the storyline of the games and their effort shows. The series is widely recognized for having an exceptionally compelling storyline. Because of this, the story is one of the elements of the games that we really wanted to preserve in the Wii versions. We believe that videogames are a great medium for storytelling and the Wii versions of Brothers in Arms are great examples of that.

Shack: Gearbox got its start fulfilling a similar service-oriented role in the industry. Does Demiurge hope to expand its production to original titles in the future?

Al Reed: Absolutely. The Wii whiteboard is one of many ways we're fostering a culture of creating original ideas here. Anyone who works at Demiurge can sign up to give a lunchtime game pitch to the studio. Those pitches and their accompanying design document go into a green-light process, and eventually get turned into a full-on game pitch we give to the appropriate publishers. We've got two games from that process that we're shopping around right now and have two more in the pipe.

Brothers in Arms: Double Time is due out for the Wii on October 16.

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