Homefront Interview: Rex Dickson on the Battle Between Campaign & Multiplayer for Your Attention

By Xav de Matos, Nov 04, 2010 8:40am PDT

Homefront is the upcoming first-person shooter from Kaos Studios, published by THQ. Potentially the publisher's premiere shooter franchise--according to THQ core games boss Danny Bilson--Homefront will attempt to tackle the competition with a "unique" single-player adventure and a "highly competitive" multiplayer component.

In Homefront, players are thrown in the middle of a near-future "What If?" scenario. What if America were invaded by a brutal army and put under military control? What if the familiar turns alien? As a civilian would you comply or resist?

At the recent "grand opening" of THQ's new Montreal studio, Shacknews grilled Homefront lead level designer Rex Dickson on the game's story, whether single-player games are in trouble, and the risks of falling in love with your own work.

Stay tuned for hands-on impressions of the Homefront single-player campaign, later today.

Shacknews: A tremendous amount of attention has been focused on the multiplayer. Most of the trailers have focused on that element of Homefront, for example. With so much emphasis on the game's competitive element, how does the single-player come into play with game's strategy for the market?

Rex Dickson: It's interesting because Kaos' pedigree in the past was very much multiplayer focused. The "Desert Combat" mod was the first thing they did. It was a huge breakout thing for the Battlefield games and they work very closely with DICE, whose pedigree is also in multiplayer. When [Kaos] set out to make Frontlines: Fuel of War, it had a single-player component but it wasn't as crafted and wasn't as much of a cinematic experience as Homefront is.

So, in order to achieve that, what Kaos had to do was bring in some outside talent. They recruited people like me and a few people from Electronic Arts and a few other places to bring in that "muscle memory." People who had done this cinematic approach to first-person, single-player campaigns before. Essentially, they had to get talent from outside the studio to come in and help them bring it around.

The main thing about the single-player campaign, which you won't get in multiplayer, is this feeling of being a civilian and fighting against an overwhelming, occupying force. In multiplayer it's U.S. military forces versus Korean military forces, but in single-player it's all about the civilians. It's all about--what we call "our pillars"--the human cost and violence with consequences. All those things are represented, mainly, in the single-player campaign.

So that's kind of where we wanted to focus. The "familiar turns alien" environmental, narrative stuff? That transgresses across both multiplayer and single-player, but single-player is really "the human side" of it. What happens to the civilians when the war comes to the homefront? And that's really what we focused on.

Shacknews: And this is a story you're telling completely in-engine? Are you putting people in this role?

Rex Dickson: We don't do any cutscenes--any cinematics--outside of our loading screens. Everything is in game. Half-Life 2 is, sort of, our spiritual model for what we want it to be. Keep it in first-person. Never take control of the camera, unless you're doing some explosion or knocking them down, or something like that. We never take control of your camera to tell you a story segment. You have free range of motion in a lot of those sequences.

Shacknews: Is it difficult to convey that story to the player with hopes that they'll be paying attention at the right moments? Look at Gears of War, for example, where a button prompt appears to tell players, "Hey, press this to watch something cool."

Rex Dickson: It is and a lot of times your temptation as a developer is that you fall in love with your story scenes and you're like "I really want the player to watch this! I really want the player to watch this!" But as soon as you put it in the hands of some player the last thing they're going to do is watch your story scene. They're going to go jump around. They're going to try to get out. They're going to try and shoot something.

You have to, sort of, resist that temptation to fall in love with your cinematics and your story and force the player something they don't want to watch. That gets as far as your first usability test where you hear everyone clicking buttons to skip.

Shacknews: Yeah, our "go to" buttons to skip are 'A,' 'X,' or 'Escape.'

Rex Dickson: As soon as you hear that, you go "Okay, they're not as invested as we are because we spent all the money and time on this!" They just want to get to the next gameplay segment. In a lot of ways you need to resist that temptation to turn it into a movie and keep reminding yourself "It's a game. Give the player something to do. Always give the player something to do."

It has been challenging. But it's very important to find that line. You look at some of the big first-person shooters that came out in the past six months or so, some of them are getting hit pretty hard for being, you know, very "heavy-handed" with the story sequences and taking control away from you at weird times. It's very jarring to the player to have that happen.

Shacknews: Something that you said, based on the single-player market being split between two groups: there are those who want that story injected into their games to give meaning and purpose to the onscreen action and other people who just want to know where to aim next. It's possible a lot of gamers just want fun gameplay segments and don't pay attention to the story of games.

As a developer, where do you draw that line in the sand between focusing development resources and money on telling a story for one segment of gamers that actually cares and "wasting" resources on gamers who don't really care about the narrative?

Rex Dickson: I think that's the real challenge. It's finding that "perfect alignment" between giving the player enough agency and control over the scene and also telling the story without it being intrusive. If people are trying to skip your story scenes, you're doing something wrong. And when you force them to watch it--if you even have a moment where you're having a conversation, saying that you need to force them to watch something because they're doing something other than what you want them to do--you're failing.

Essentially, you always want to give the player the freedom they want. It's really, like, I think the "golden chalice" of merging story and game. I think Half-Life 2 has probably been the most successful game to ever do this. Merging that story, that narrative, but allowing the player to retain gameplay and retain free-agency.

Shacknews: So, Robert Jacobs [the protagonist in Homefront] is a silent hero throughout the game.

Rex Dickson: He's a silent hero. It's one of the things that's pretty important, that we surround the player with different civilians in your squad and each of them has different motivations. One of the characters is very...angry. He has a lot of rage. He believes in killing the Koreans at all costs. He's sort of, what we call, our "extremist" character.

Then we have another character, Boone, who is a former police officer. He's very much about protecting the civilians and preserving society. In his eyes, civilian casualties are completely unacceptable. Whereas Conner, the angry character, says "They're in a war zone. If a thousand civilians die for us to take out this Korean installation then so be it."

One of the reasons we left the main character silent is that we allow the player to ask themselves, "Where would I sit?" If you think of any nation that's been occupied by a foreign army, civilians sort of have a choice. You can either choose to comply, you can choose to resist, or you sit somewhere in between. One of the reasons we didn't give the player a voice is because we wanted people to ask themselves that question.

Shacknews: So, is it a determined path? Is there a story that you are setting out to tell or is this something that players can toggle between and decide how their experience will shift based on these decisions? Can players choose to be extremists? Can they focus on preservation? There are a lot of ideas of who these other characters are and what they represent, but who does the player represent?

Rex Dickson: It's a determined path. The story is linear, but there are some moments where you do have some choice. We play around with this moral thing. For example, there's one moment in our E3 demo when the player has a sniper rifle and the resistance springs a trap on these Koreans and they, basically, light them on fire with white phosphorus.

The character next to you--the female squad member--says, "I can't stand to watch this. Put them out of their misery." They're going to die anyway but you can snipe them and put them out of their misery. As soon as you take your first shot--if you take your first shot--Conner [the extremist] says, "Who's shooting? Let those bastards burn!"

So, you can make a decision for yourself. Whether you want to finish them off or just want to let them burn and die.

Shacknews: But that decision isn't reflected in the actual storyline?

Rex Dickson: Correct. We just leave it up to the player. There's a few moments like that in the game where you get to make some decisions like that, but it's not really our focus to do this branching morality path, like a Mass Effect would.

Shacknews: So, those decisions are not tracked?

Rex Dickson: Correct.

Shacknews: Do you think that the single-player is still as important as a game's multiplayer component in this generation? Has multiplayer taken over with the continued growth of online networks like Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and the--still flourishing--online PC space?

Perhaps it's silly to consider the complete "decimation" of the single-player element but there seems to be this pendulum swinging where more games are coming out as dedicated multiplayer experiences and games--you know, previously single-player focused--are attaching multiplayer components with hopes of increasing longevity and value.

Rex Dickson: I'm not ready to say that multiplayer has "taken over," but over the last five years it certainly shifted heavily in that direction. Single-player games--especially this one--if you look at the "Medal of Honors" and the "Call of Duties" and "Enslaved" and stuff like that, you can see that so much time and energy and money has been spent on the single-player campaign.

There's actually--like--it takes more time and money to produce single-player content. You usually get a much shorter duration in playtime. I think it's going to force people to really look at themselves in the development industry and, sort of, ask these questions. I don't think we're ready yet to put out--like you haven't seen a multiplayer-only game really break out on console. I still think you do need to have both, but what I think what you're seeing is single-player campaigns getting much shorter--densely packed with scripted events and cutscenes--whereas multiplayer is getting really "sticky" under the hood.

You know, you have to play 50 to 60 hours to unlock everything and to ramp-up your character. And I can see it continuing to go that way.

Another thing I'm seeing developers do is actually contract their multiplayer out. BioShock 2 did it.

Shacknews: Right. Digital Extremes.

Rex Dickson: Yeah, we're actually working with them in Canada to do our PC SKU and they've done an incredible job.

Shacknews: Considering heavy-hitters like Call of Duty and Halo, do you think the FPS genre is a viable place for new intellectual properties? Can they compete against known quantities?

Rex Dickson: Yeah. The thing to me, if you look at the marketplace, is it's really, highly competitive. You have to throw Gears of War in the ring, Halo, Call of Duty. But it all breaks down into, really, two genres. You're really talking about your modern military shooter--Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor--or you're talking your armored space-guy versus aliens game--which is like Gears and Halo. What we know we can't do is be one of those two games. We don't want to fit into either of those categories. We want to make our own category.

That's sort of where this idea of being a civilian and fighting alongside civilians really came out. The more we thought about it, the more we realized "No body else is doing anything like this." I'll give you an example: you take that [Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2] level where America gets invaded and there's paratroopers everywhere because the invasion just started, there's not one civilian. Where did everybody go?

Shacknews: To be fair, we probably wouldn't be hanging outside during an invasion.

Rex Dickson: Well we asked ourselves, "What would happen if the civilians were still out?" That's sort of the genesis of Homefront. Even though there is a lot of competition, it's sort of segmenting into two genres and there are a lot of core fantasies that still aren't out there, that I think people want. That's what Homefront represents. It's not your modern military shooter, it's not your armored hero versus space aliens. It's something else and I think people are ready for something else, right now.

Shacknews: You already mentioned Half-Life 2 as an inspiration for Homefront, are there any other titles that you've pulled from for this game? How do you differentiate this game from those that inspired it.?

Rex Dickson: I think with Call of Duty is a game that, sort of, represents the de facto standard in what people understand is how an FPS works. We tried very closely to map our controls, our layout, to them. You know, once people understand a traffic light is "green, yellow, red," you don't want to go and change one of those colors. You'll confuse everybody. We sort of use Call of Duty as our de facto standard of how the controls work and how the weapons should feel whereas Half-Life 2 is very much our story model.

In terms of whether we're worried about being too closely compared to that: I think you'll find, when you see and play the game, that the core fantasy we're selling is so different and so unique. You'll, sort of, forget that the game feels like Call of Duty.

Instead of feeling like a bad thing, it feels like a good thing because it's familiar. But, pretty much, the differentiating factor is this unique context of being a civilian and having so much of the game focus on what happens to the civilian community and its occupation.

It's like, telling a story about how America's spine gets broken and how fast it just devolves into this sadness in this horrible place that used to be so great and, now, it's just broken.

Homefront is expected to arrive on the PC, Xbox 360 and PS3 in 2011.

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