Interview: Propaganda's Josh Holmes on Turok

The game that reminded us how cool dinosaurs are will return next year, with Propaganda Games' reimagined dino-shooter Turok (PS3, X360). It's the Vancouver studio's first game, and it appears to capture the essence of the original title--kill dinosaurs and dudes with a knife, bow, or wacky weapon--while bringing the gameplay mostly up to date.

This version of Turok takes place 200 years in the future, where the mohawk-sporting Joseph Turok is a former Black Ops mercenary. After a probably fairly honorable dishonorable discharge from the military, he's been brought back as an adviser to a band of deep-voiced hardasses known as Whiskey Company. The company is trying to take down Turok's former mentor, a war criminal called Roland Kane, but unexpectedly crash on the prehistoric planet where Kane's hiding out. So that's where the dinosaurs come in.

Propaganda tried to add some depth to the combat with a couple mechanics. Since there are essentially three groups on the dino planet--Whiskey Company, dinosaurs, and Kane's men--you're encouraged to use the groups against each other. Dinosaurs can be drawn to armed guards with flares or called out of hiding by breaking up a nest of their precious eggs.

Another addition is the stealth mechanics, which require silence via creeping around and knifing baddies and dinos alike in the brain using the context sensitive instant kill. Both the instant kill mechanism and dino manipulation worked like they should, but those weren't really what drew my attention in the very short gameplay segment I played. Though I'm not sure the thrill will last through the entire game, using Turok's trademark bow and arrow and knife to dispatch dinos and soldiers felt pretty enjoyable.

Though the original Turok had no multiplayer, its sequels focused heavily on this aspect, and the new Turok will feature both competitive and cooperative modes. The game will ship with seven maps for the 16-player competitive multiplayer, with three maps included for the specially designed 4-player cooperative missions. To learn more about the multiplayer and the game in general, I chatted with Propaganda Games' co-founder, vice president and studio manager, Josh Holmes.

Shack: What were the main elements from the original Turok games that you most wanted to bring to this game?

If you're watching this movie and a dino came out with machine guns mounted on the side of its head, would that be super cool or would that be laughable?
Josh Holmes: First of all, just from what it meant to the industry, I think Turok was the first console shooter to really get the console shooting experience right. So first of all I just want to acknowledge its rightful place in the history of gaming. I think a lot of people forget that--they think back to Goldeneye. But Turok was actually out there first and really set the standard for what a first-person-shooter was on a console.

The things we really loved about it was, it was the first one to really take you out into what felt like a lush expansive outdoor world that was there for you to explore. It sort of deviated from that corridor crawler Doom clone that had been the standard for what a first person shooter was. Although, a lot of that, if you go back and look at it today, was through the use of fog planes and basically like a 6-foot draw distance. At the time with the graphics that they were using and also a lot of the audio cues, they were able to create that impression of a huge world that you were exploring.

Loved the dinos, this idea of predatory animals that really turned the hunter into the prey. And then the inventive weapon types and this sense of satisfying power at your fingertips.

Shack: What were some of the specific elements you wanted to leave behind from the more poorly received Turok sequels?

Josh Holmes: I think, basically, the Turok fiction got stretched so far into just far-fetched crazy fantasy that it kind of broke, at least for us. So we wanted to ground this in kind of a gritty realism, and one of the things that we as a team have always kind of used as a benchmark when we're considering something is, how could you see this translating into a movie or some other piece of entertainment? And would you laugh at it, in that case. If you're watching a movie about this situation and the main character jumps on the back of a dinosaur and starts riding it, would you laugh at that? Yeah, probably, so let's not do that.

If you're watching this movie and a dino came out with machine guns mounted on the side of its head, would that be super cool or would that be laughable? So that was kind of a litmus test that we used for all the elements as we were going through the game. There was debate on our team, some guys were like, "Dude, that would be super cool," but ultimately we kind of made our decision as far as where these elements fell and what tone we were going for with the game and we arrived at something that was a little bit grittier and more realistic than those later games in the Turok series, or really any games in the Turok series.

Shack: So Turok looks a little different this time around.

Josh Holmes: We liked the Native American hero, but what we wanted to do when we sort of took those elements and looked at--Okay, how can we sort of twist these elements and reinvent it? What we ultimately wanted to do was take kind of a new take at what it meant to be a Native American hero. It didn't mean a guy in a loincloth and moccasins running around with a bone vest looking at dreamweavers and stuff.

We didn't want to do the stereotypical thing where the fact that he's Native American is the one and only thing that defines him as a character and other than that he's paper thin. We wanted to create a deeper, more nuanced character where his Native heritage was a part of who he was but it didn't define him wholly.

I know that reading a lot of the boards and everything and people looking at the screenshots and stuff, that was something fans were like--What, is he not Native American? Did you turn him into some kind of action dude? And no, that's totally not our intention and that's not what we wanted to do, but hopefully people will realize that you can have a Native American hero that doesn't have all those stereotypical qualities to him. And we day pay homage to his heritage as a Kiowa Indian and talk a little about that, and that's part of the backstory with him and Kane, but again it's not the one and only thing that defines him.

Shack: Has anyone at Propaganda worked on any of the other Turok games?

Josh Holmes: Yeah, we do have some of our engineers that have worked on previous games in the Turok series. I believe one of our creature AI guys worked on one or two of the previous games and there's a couple other guys that had worked on it as well. But for the most part, it's a new team. And it's actually a team that has come together from all different parts of the industry.

So we've got a group of us that have worked together in the past at EA on titles like Def Jam Vendetta and Fight for New York and NBA Street, and we've got people from EA who've worked on Bond and Need for Speed, and then we've got people from Ubi who've worked on Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia, people who've worked on Metroid and Quake 4, Battlefield.

So we've got a bunch of really diverse talented people who have come in and brought individual perspectives to try and create something that hopefully is different from everything else out there. I think first person shooters have been so done, especially this holiday there are so many great shooters out there. But the formula is pretty much the same.

We really wanted to see if we could stretch that and expand it in terms of the immersiveness and grounding you in a body as opposed to a floating camera turret and adding some of the third person elements that bring the reality of the dinosaur situation to the forefront.

Go to page 2 to read about Turok's platforming heritage, narrative devices, a possible PC version, PlayStation 3 features (or lack thereof), and Propaganda's upcoming projects.

_PAGE_BREAK_ Shack: The original game had quite a few platforming elements. Will those be reintroduced?

Josh Holmes: What we ultimately decided was, we didn't want to have a core fundamental path, like an area that you had to progress through, that had any hardcore platforming elements in it. Because ultimately, I think that as many people that found that stuff cool in Turok, there were as many or more that found it frustrating. I was one of the people who found it frustrating, so maybe I'm a little biased.

It was a lot of effort that I think we would've had to put into trying to deliver something up to the standard of Half-Life 2 where really that wasn't the focal point of our experience.
We did include some areas that have some platforming elements that either allow you to find weapons and ammo and powerups or strategic vantage points that give you a bit of an advantage in an area, but again they're not required areas that you have to cross. I think there's only like one or two moments in the entire game where there's even a basic platforming sequence that you have to complete to progress, and that was something that we were pretty deliberate about.

Shack: I saw a cinematic flashback cutscene, and also a gameplay section where the camera locked onto certain elements. Are these basically the way the narrative will be told?

Josh Holmes: Some parts of the story are told in the moment, in first-person perspective. For a lot of the really purely story-focused stuff that's either backstory or character interaction based, we do use third-person with camera cuts.

The state of the art, when we started working on this, for first-person storytelling, as far as in first-person perspective, is Half-Life. I actually think it's still the state of the art, when you look at Half-Life 2 and what they've managed to do. So we looked at that and we were like hey, this is one avenue we could take. But ultimately we found that we weren't able to portray the character emotions and interactions that we wanted to show off in a larger group setting.

Personally, and I guess this is a little bit biased, but I found it was almost a little distracting to be in some of those story moments throwing coke cans off of people's heads and having them continue to ramble on about stuff, and it was a lot of effort that I think we would've had to put into trying to deliver something up to the standard of Half-Life 2 where really that wasn't the focal point of our experience.

Shack: Is there a PC version coming?

Josh Holmes: It's definitely on the radar as far as something that we're looking at. We don't have anything to announce at this point, but the engine that this runs on is a highly modified version of the Unreal 3 Engine, and the Unreal 3 Engine supports Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, so it seems like an obvious platform that would make sense for the game.

Shack: Midway was the first company to develop a multiplatform Unreal Engine 3 powered game on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and they've had to delay the PS3 versions of both Stranglehold and Blacksite. Even Epic had to delay Unreal Tournament 3 because of problems using the engine with the platform. Have you guys had any problems at all using the engine on the PS3 version, and could cause you to delay the game?

Josh Holmes: There's no way that we're going to miss our simultaneous ship on PS3 and 360. The Unreal 3 Engine is an engine that was primarily developed, or the lead platform was, for 360, and Epic has since spent a lot of time and effort bringing the PS3 version up to parity. We're lucky in that we have a dedicated group of technologists in the studio who have a lot of experience in next-gen hardware, both 360 and PS3, who've put a lot of effort into developing the PlayStation version of our engine.

Although we were leading on 360 through the early and midpoint of the development, the PS3 has become more the focus towards the end of the development in bringing it up to parity. I think through those efforts and the hard work of that team, which has been amazing, we're going to be able to deliver both products simultaneously.

Shack: As far as multiplayer goes on the PS3, the PlayStation Network doesn't support the extensive matchmaking and gamer profiles within the games like on Xbox Live for inviting friends to matches. Developers have to add this functionality themselves--will Turok have these features to make the 360 version and PS3 version equal in this regard?

Josh Holmes: The online team has worked really hard to provide that functionality to find and add friends, and it's building off of the foundation of the Playstation Network, but they've added additional functionality. I wouldn't say that it's going to be 100% parity across the board with the functionality that Live allows because that's obviously a huge amount of functionality. But we have put a lot of effort into bringing the PlayStation version as close to parity with Live as possible.

Even on the achievements side, that's something that the PlayStation Network doesn't support, but we have brought the achievements from the 360 version across onto the PlayStation as well and provided support for that.

Shack: Do you guys have any plans for downloadable content on either of the platforms?

Josh Holmes: Sounds like a great idea. Nothing to announce at this point, but we really want to support the product when it's out there on the marketplace and continue to support it in terms of maintaining balance in the online space. Providing support, web-portal support for the online community, and then we'll also be looking at opportunities to expand with downloadable content down the road.

Shack: Are you guys looking ahead at what you're going to be working on after Turok?

Josh Holmes: Absolutely. So we've got a couple of projects in the works after this. Nothing that we can announce at this point, although I will say the next project outside of Turok is an RPG, and that's all we can say at this point.

Shack: So is Turok planned as an ongoing franchise?

Josh Holmes: That will depend. We'd love to see Turok continue as a franchise. That was kind of our hope in working on this game was to revitalize the franchise and have it something that could continue on as a premier shooter on next-gen consoles as long as people want to play them. But a lot of that's going to be determined based on how well it's received. So hopefully everyone goes out and buys a copy and loves it.

Shack: Thanks for the interview.

Josh Holmes: Thank you.

Turok will arrive on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on February 5, 2008.