Interview: Army of Two Producer Reid Schneider on Co-op and Politics

After years of neglect, cooperative play is finally back in the limelight thanks to successful games like Halo and Gears of War. However, few games fully embrace the feature to the extent that EA's upcoming Army of Two (PS3, X360) does.

I spoke with producer Reid Schneider--who noted the team's reliance on the mantra "co-op's not the mode, co-op is the game"--about how and why Army of Two places such a heavy focus on having two players work through a campaign collaboratively. Don't skip the second page of the interview, which delves into the intriguing political backdrop of Army of Two, the post-9/11 world of private military corporations such as Blackwater and Aegis.

For more detailed gameplay impressions, check out today's coverage from our own Carlos Bergfeld.

Shack: This is an unusual concept for a game. How did the team go about conceiving and pitching it?

Reid Schneider: Initially when we began thinking about what we wanted to make for Army of Two, we had a lot of different ideas. We knew we wanted to focus on co-op, that was really core for us. We had some ideas, but we didn't know the exact setting we wanted to do. Back on Xbox 1, there were a couple interesting co-op experiences, and then if you think back to Contra or Double Dragon, there were some, but when we were first thinking about this nobody had really nailed it on next-gen consoles yet.

"In other games, co-op is more like an add-on. In Army of Two, co-op is the game."
Really our core focus from the ground up was that you need to play co-op with your partner, you need to cooperate to survive. In other games, co-op is more like an add-on. In Army of Two, co-op's not the mode, co-op is the game. As we began to research more and more, we started looking--well, there was an article in Time about the world of private military corporations.

This was about three years ago, so it was before, you know, Blackwater was center stage in the news. We did more research and thought, this is really really interesting. It's not just the U.S. government--governments worldwide are really invested in this as a business. We said, that's a great backdrop for us to craft this co-op experience. We researched companies like Halliburton, like Blackwater, like DynCorp, like Aegis, and that's our setting, then we started building everything around that.

Shack: In the last few years, Halo has been big with co-op, and as far as earlier examples, a lot of readers are PC users who have been playing co-op all the way back to Doom as well as with console or arcade games like Double Dragon. Still, there was a big period of not much co-op, and even Halo and Gears of War haven't seemed to really push the feature into genuinely new territory gameplay-wise. How did you guys sit down and try to move forward?

Reid Schneider: Yeah, I mean you're totally right. Obviously, in the past few years, Gears has a cool co-op experience and Halo does as well, but those are more add-ons. We sat down and did a lot of brainstorming, and asked what would be interesting to do during co-op. We had ideas like taking a riot shield and your partner is behind you shooting, or things like co-op sniping with synchronous sniping techniques, and co-op parachuting.

"Now you're seeing this resurgence of interest in co-op more than you have in any other time. That's great for us."
We had tons of ideas. I mean, some make it in the game and some don't. We prototyped a ton of them, and then we took the best ones and pushed those forward into the game. As a design philosophy--and the team deserves all the credit for this--it was, it doesn't go into the game unless it's really focused around co-op, unless each person in the game has an interesting activity to do. A lot of times, we had an interesting idea, but it's like, okay, that's good for one of the players, but what does the other guy do? If that happens, that didn't go in the game.

Shack: Though this game doesn't technically require two people, since it can use an AI player, co-op is integral to the game as you said. EA is a mass market company that makes mass appeal games--were there any reservations at a company like that making a game so focused around having two people?

Reid Schneider: I think we probably did make some people nervous. [laughs] Video games aren't a small investment these days. You can't really just make them in the garage with your friends. So I think, yeah, it definitely made some people nervous. We pushed really hard, and I think the execs believed in what we were doing, but yeah, obviously, the bet I believe will pay off.

I think now you're seeing this resurgence of interest in co-op more than you have in any other time. That's great for us, because it means that what we believed a few years ago is on the right track. We're just happy to see that come through.

Shack: One thing I always find interesting is when big-budget "hardcore" games--even games in which combat and shooting is the core focus--contain gameplay mechanics that aren't entirely focused around combat. One really extreme example recently is Portal--

Reid Schneider: Amazing game.

Shack: Yeah, amazing game. So that's kind of an extreme example, but even in Army of Two I find it really interesting that you do often have a guy who's helping the other guy up and pushing him over the wall, or holding the shield while the other guy shoots, or whatever. What processes did you go through to make sure it works even if you're not shooting every moment?

Reid Schneider: I think we spent a lot of time on that. You mentioned the step jump [allowing one player to boost another up above a wall]. Initially it was a completely digital experience, where you just walked over and hit the button, and he walked over to you and you lifted him up.

What we found is that, like you said, that's kind of boring. So we added the aspect where it's analog, where you can now lift the guy up and lower him down as you move the analog stick, so that if there are enemies on the other side, he can say, "Lift me up," and you can lift him up and he'll take some shots, then he can say, "Take me down now," so he doesn't get capped in the head.

"It's hard to make a first-person game where you give a really strong identity to your character."
It was thinking about things, and that's a good example, of thinking about things that you'd normally do alone, and making that experience fun for both guys. And it's hard. [laughs] It didn't happen overnight. Credit goes to the design team and our engineers for coming up with that stuff, and our animators as well, and for coming up with ways to make it so both players have an interesting role to do.

Shack: Action games with military themes are generally in the first person. Why not this one? Was it a practical measure to give you more peripheral vision so you can see what your buddy is up to?

Reid Schneider: I think there was definitely that, and I think it's also that it's hard to make a first-person game where you give a really strong identity to your character. We really wanted to make this a character-focused game.

You look at a game like Half-Life, or really almost any other first-person shooter, and you are the character. When you see your character doing stuff on the screen in third person, you develop more of a relationship with that character. You want to see the interesting things that character is doing. It's just a difference. If you want to build a character-focused game, third person is really the area, at least in our opinion, and the way to build a character.

Turn the page for Schneider's thoughts on the political situations at the root of the game's setting--September 11, private military corporations, the military-industrial complex, and more.


Shack: I noticed in that early cutscene, it only shows up for maybe less than a second, but is that 9/11 on the television? Are those the events around which the game is set?

Reid Schneider: It is 9/11. Definitely, 9/11 is tough. We wanted to treat it with respect, but really we're taking a page out of history to a certain extent. It's really what drove a lot of the PMCs [private military corporations] coming into the public eye, and a lot of them getting more and more business.

We don't want in any way to make fun of it, or belittle it in any way, but want to paint it as something that triggered an even bigger rise in the world of private military corporations. It's historically accurate.

Shack: In one cutscene, there is a direct reference to President Eisenhower and his famous farewell speech cautioning against the growing power of the military-industrial complex. I don't know the politics of the development team, but the game itself dismisses Eisenhower's warning and makes a strong statement against it. Do you have any thoughts on that, or do you--well, what are your thoughts on this?

Reid Schneider: I think, um--you know, we're not making an educational title. It's not even edutainment any way. But, at the same time, if people play Army of Two, and it inspires them to do some research and look into what's going on with the military-industrial complex and private military corporations and the relationship of war and business, then I think that's pretty cool.

If we push people to want to learn more about what's going on in the world--of course this an entertainment game, it's meant to be fun--but if that causes people to want to learn more about this stuff, then we've gone above and beyond just making a video game.

Shack: Again, speaking of EA, the company always makes a big deal with its Medal of Honor series about being respectful to World War II veterans and that conflict. Just as they have their military advisors, you have your PMC veteran advisor. It's a very different political perspective.

Reid Schneider: It's a different take.

Shack: I think the advisors for those games would clearly disagree with some of the advisors on your game when it comes to certain issues, including PMCs.

Reid Schneider: They probably would. I think that's what's cool about this, that these are guys who are modern day mercenaries. They are guys who get paid to fight, and there's a really interesting dynamic.

Let me give you an example. In Iraq or in Afghanistan, the average day rate for a contractor there is between $800-1000. That's what an enlisted guy would earn in a week. That's an interesting dynamic, because now you see these modern day mercenaries who are making seven or ten times what soldiers are earning. There is a conflict there, and I think that's an interesting topic to draw from.

Shack: These days, there's so much controversy about video games. This isn't a particularly gruesome game compared to a Manhunt or something, but as far as the political overtones, do you imagine any kind of, well...

Reid Schneider: Fallout? [laughs] I think people are always looking for an excuse to hate on video games, more than any other medium. I'm sure some of the things people see in Army of Two will cause some controversy. If that happens, we'll manage it. It's never our goal--our goal is not to make something that attracts controversy. Our goal is to make something fun to play that people will like, and make the best game experience we can.

Shack: As [Army of Two PMC advisor Richard] "Woodie" [Mister] mentioned, there's a lot of exaggeration of real-world techniques and practices inherent in a video game, but that aside, do you feel that the world of Army of Two represents a fair and relatively realistic portrayal of what's going on with private military organizations?

Reid Schneider: I think so. Obviously we have over-the-top characters because it's still a video game, but I think in terms of the kinds of missions that PMC contractors are expected to do, for the most part these are things that PMCs actually do in the real world. Again, if that causes people to research these things, then I think that's pretty cool.

Turn the page for details on Army of Two's multiplayer mode and replayability system, and whether we can expect a PC version.


Shack: What's the multiplayer mode all about, and how much replayability is there overall?

Reid Schneider: Versus mode is basically all about two versus two. You and a buddy versus an opponent and a buddy. It's not traditional deathmatch. Obviously to be successful you need to take out the other team, but it's all about objectives and earning cash. Certain objectives are about blowing things up, other objectives are about rescuing hostages.

You're also upgrading your guns with money you earn, so it's also about earning cash. We've obviously taken some core ideas from Counter-Strike in that regard, like how to go when you're buying weaponry at the start, and then integrating that with some core objectives.

In terms of replayability overall, we have a pretty deep weapon system in Army of Two. The first time you go through the campaign mode, you're not going to be able to buy everyting, but as you go through the mode a second time you retain all your guns. If you want to, say, earn the heat-seeking RPG, you're going to have to play through it again. You accumulate, accumulate, accumulate more and more, and you pimp it out, and all that stuff has a real effect on the game. It's not just cosmetic.

Shack: One of the co-op features is being able to swap weapons in-game. If you've completed the game and you have expensive weapons, and you're playing with a buddy who's new, can you swap over an advanced weapon to him in the game?

Reid Schneider: Yep.

Shack: And he'll be able to use it?

Reid Schneider: Yep. He'll be able to use it and see all the cool stuff you have. You can't bring him into later missions and skip stuff he hasn't played, though. But he can use all the cool stuff you've gotten if you let him. I think that'll be really fun for players.

Shack: Do you see yourself taking this game concept and doing more in this vein?

Reid Schneider: Well, we really--

Shack: I mean, it's EA, so...

Reid Schneider: [laughs] Yeah, it's--the team has done a really great job of taking this concept and bringing it to reality. It's something we want to do more of. We have a lot of great ideas for what potential sequels could be like and what it could be down the road. What we want to do is release this one, and I'm sure we'll get a lot of feedback from players about what they like and what they don't like.

I worked on the Battlefield franchise, and one of the best things about Battlefield is that we have such a strong community, and the community really helped us from 1942 to Vietnam and then to Battlefield 2, they helped us to define the feature set in the following products. I want to build a strong community around this first game, and then to help us make design choices for future ones.

Shack: Speaking of Battlefield and its strong PC base, is there any chance of a PC version of Army of Two?

Reid Schneider: You know, we'll see.

Shack: I know it's tough these days.

Reid Schneider: Yeah, I think we really designed the game as a console game for the ground up, and that's not to say we won't bring it to the PC, but I think we wanted to focus on PS3 and Xbox 360 for the first versions. But if there's a strong market out there, I don't see why we wouldn't do it.

Shack: Speaking of PS3 and Xbox 360, are the online features fairly comparable? Obviously Xbox Live has extra features by default, but as far as Army of Two's own multiplayer?

Reid Schneider: Yeah, the feature set is 100% identical. If you're on 360, you have Xbox Live and all the stuff that comes with it, but the feature set in the software is the same.

Shack: I assume a game like this allows you go through the whole campaign in co-op without any fuss, but can you also drop in and out?

Reid Schneider: You can start with your buddy right from the start, and you can play through the whole game together, or you can start playing with your buddy and and then if he's not available for the second mission you can play with partner AI. So just because you start something through Live, for example, you're not limited--

Shack: Right, that makes sense, but I mean can you leave or enter in the middle of a mission?

Reid Schneider: You can leave in the middle of the mission and then have partner AI take over. As far as joining in the middle of a mission, the way the game is built and because we use a lot of synchronized animations, it uses a deterministic approach to the networking. There's no client/server, it's all peer-to-peer. So if you jump in, it will start at a defined checkpoint.

Shack: Okay, so you can drop in, just only at checkpoints?

Reid Schneider: Yes.

Shack: Any final words?

Reid Schneider: We're excited to release it. The team has done a great job, and they're proud of the game. Just got to get some final things done, get it through Sony and Microsoft, and it'll be in your hands.

Shack: Thanks, I appreciate your time.

Reid Schneider: Thank you. Great to meet you.