Homefront Interview: SKUs, Learning from Old Wars and More with Kaos' Brian Holinka

By Xav de Matos, Jan 21, 2010 9:45am PST When we previewed Homefront's single-player mode in November, there were more than a few question marks hovering over the heads of hardcore Shackers. Of course, the biggest mystery is the game's PC version. With Kaos Studios developing the game on consoles, Canadian developer Digital Extremes was tapped to handle the game's release on PC.

The concern isn't that Digital Extremes can't handle the job but whether or not the PC version was being shuttled away as an afterthought. Speaking with Kaos multiplayer designer Brian Holinka, we decided to focus our attention on answering the questions offered by the Shacknews community. Is Homefront on PC being forgotten? What did the team learn from Frontlines: Fuel of War? How will Homefront's currency system affect in-game balance? These questions and more after the break.

Shacknews: I was in Montreal a few months ago when THQ showed off the single-player portion of Homefront. From the feedback at that event it was clear that the Shacknews community had a plethora of questions for the team at Kaos Studios. What I did--as you know since you're an avid Shacker--was solicited questions from our community.

Brian Holinka: Right.

Shacknews: So, most of these are coming directly from the hardcore gamers Homefront is obviously targeting.

Let's start with something I'm not a fan of bringing up in pre-release interviews: downloadable content.

Brian Holinka: You know, a lot of people are asking about that and I honestly don't know what I'm allowed to say. What I can say is that we do have a DLC plan for Homefront.

Shacknews: One reader wants to know if the DLC will only feature multiplayer content or if some single-player DLC will be launched.

Brian Holinka: Multiplayer.

Shacknews: So, no single-player content?

Brian Holinka: Not that I know of.

Shacknews: Great. Let's move on. Your job is focused on the multiplayer aspect of the game but one Shacker wants to know, how do you balance scripted events and regular or emergent gameplay?

Brian Holinka: Well, I can talk about single-player. You know in Frontlines, we tried to do this Battlefield-esque single-player where you would have this big, open world and you were just doing these objectives. That ended up being a really challenging problem to tell a story in. Obviously, we don't want to get super linear with everything but the only thing is that--for instance--that bus ride [in the beginning of Homefront] is like a Half-Life-style transition into the game. That's where you can really tell really awesome story moments.

On one hand, we do have some very scripted events that happen but we try to guide the player towards those. We always talk about a "lion-circle" mentality. Funnel the player towards the event and it creates this open space and play into the storytelling moment. That's how they try to manage that.

Shacknews: Related to that, I wonder--and I imagine this may be difficult to do as your multiplayer component is not story-driven--does Homefront have the same dark tones in multiplayer? In the single-player experience, players are introduced to a world that is very dark. I wrote about the child who watches his parents get executed and crawls into their arms. That's dark and gruesome. Can you achieve that kind of storytelling in multiplayer? Can you pull that kind of emotion?

Brian Holinka: I wouldn't say we have those types of moments in multiplayer at all because it would be pretty challenging to do. I mean, that isn't what our goal was. Our goal was to really capture that audience that's playing the most popular games online. We felt like what they want was that hyper-competitive, fastpaced multiplayer game. I mean, we still can provide that in a unique way with our vehicles and all of our experience. But we did want to bring it down and streamline it a little bit.

Shacknews: So, it's objective based and more geared toward what players are familiar with?

Brian Holinka: Right, I mean, I've played multiplayer games that try to tell a story. You're faced with "this objective" and "that objective." In Frontlines we tried that: "repair the SAM site, now destroy the SAM site." In the end, it just gets really confusing.

We really just wanted to simplify what the objective-based gameplay was in Homefront. So, we just kept it simple.

Shacknews: I'll get back to these Shacker questions but I wanted to bring up the sales data released by the NPD Group. The December numbers--and year end numbers--have Call of Duty: Black Ops at number one. How does a developer approach a situation where they are tasked with facing off against a behemoth? How are you going to pull in those gamers and retain their interest in Homefront?

Brian Holinka: We feel that step one is just give them an option. To make them not have to commit completely. Say if our control scheme was totally different and our weapons were really different, those players would come in and it would feel clumsy. They would have to come in and want to play it so badly that they would accept those things. So instead we said, "Let's not break what's working. Let's make them feel utterly and completely comfortable. Let's not mess with their muscle memory."

Step two was to offer something new and unique on top of that. On one hand I think it's vehicles. I think, if you took our vehicles completely out, [Homefront] would feel very similar.

Shacknews: To Black Ops?

Brian Holinka: To Battlefield or Call of Duty. But that's just the control scheme I'm mostly talking about. And on top of that, we have our vehicles and our progression and I think they are really well integrated in the infantry/vehicle combat.

Shacknews: This ties into a Shacker question: there's three styles of game going on here--like Battlefield features--that being infantry, armored, and air combat. Then on top of that is the progression system. How does balance testing function for all of those factors? Is it quality-assurance testing to death?

Brian Holinka: In some ways I think it's easier and in others I think it's harder because we introduced the Battle Points system. If you play another game you can just hop in a vehicle immediately and if you're an ace in that vehicle, you may never get out of it, right? So, on one hand, you have to nerf that vehicle because it could be annoying. With Battle Points we have this new thing we have to adjust but we can set a cost that we think works and set all expectations based on that cost. If a player has a tank, he has a certain expectation. But when he sees the cost--2400 points--he has an exact worth associated with how powerful that thing should be. We just totally steer towards that. Here's a good set of costs that we think our vehicles should be at and also our special weapons and we adjust that.

For example the helicopter drone--the assault drone--we didn't want that to be too expensive. If it was nerfed it would just be annoying. People wouldn't care about it, they would kill it quick. So, you buff that up a little and you bump up its cost and suddenly it's worthwhile.

Shacknews: The first match I played, I picked up the assault helicopter drone and I was able to buy it pretty early on and I ended up finishing 30 and 4. The majority of my kills came from that and I can see how that will get on people's nerves.

Brian Holinka: At the office we already bumped up the cost on that so you don't see it immediately. But it's really interesting how bumping things up 100 or 200 points really changes the perspective around buying it. You know, if you spend like 800 points on something and it dies then you're not so quick to spawn another one. So, that's one way we balance things.

Read on for more on the PC edition of Homefront, and what Kaos learnt from developing Frontlines: Fuel of War.._PAGE_BREAK_

Shacknews: Kaos is working on the console version and Digital Extremes is taking care of the game on PC. I think, because Kaos is doing the push on promoting the game, there's some concern the PC version is being hidden from the public. What is the status of Homefront on PC?

Brian Holinka: You know, Frank Delise--one of the co-founders of Desert Combat--he's firmly committed to the PC version. Making it a great PC product. It's not a port. I want to talk to those guys about all the great things the PC game has. But I know that things that annoy people about games that are cross-platform, this will not do those things. Like, we have user-generated servers, so players don't have to rent them from us. They can create the communities they want to create on PC.

Shacknews: When I interviewed Danny Bilson in Montreal he was adamant that he was a proponent of the PC platform. And, you're a Shacker, you know the PC is king on Shacknews--we cover it all, but PC is what drives a big portion of our community. But after that interview and the announcement that Kaos wasn't working on the PC version in-house, there seemed to be a fear in some sections of our PC community that Homefront on PC would be an afterthought.

Brian Holinka: That's not the case with this. It's way more than that. There's a whole team really, firmly committed to it. There are designers committed to it. There's engineers and artists committed to it. It is really its own product. Obviously it shares things like the single-player and the multiplayer modes but those guys are really building their own product in that way.

Some people are unforgiving but if you think about what Kaos Studios did. We started as a mod team out of nowhere and said, "Okay, we're going to make a game that's, like, as big as Battlefield but we're also going to do a single-player game. We're going to do it on PS3, Xbox, and PC." It was a lot of work to take on. We had like ten guys. Yeah, the product was not as good as we would have liked, for sure. But this is going to be a different story.

Shacknews: Well, that's what's confusing because, as you mentioned, Kaos started as this PC community of modders but you've given the PC version of your new game to another developer. Why aren't you doing that in-house as well?

Brian Holinka: Well, in terms of why we aren't doing this as well is that there's a team there. So, we could either build a new team here to work on PC or there's a team available and we can work with them. They have experience with this, why don't we just do it. It just made more business sense. That allowed us to focus more on the consoles, which--in my opinion--is probably a better thing. Because, I'll be honest, if we also had to do the PC SKU, I think it would probably end up hurting the PC version and not help. Like, we'd probably want to balance it all as one thing, you know? I think it really is the best way to go.

Shacknews: Enough grilling for a second. Some of our readers are wondering if there will be a demo or a beta for the game.

Brian Holinka: We want to.

Shacknews: On all fronts?

Brian Holinka: I think on all fronts, we want to. I think they're just working out the details on whether we are or not. We want to.

Shacknews: Last thing is regarding Frontlines and the lessons learned there. Speaking with Danny Bilson, he told me that, for THQ, Homefront is the big shooter franchise for the company. That's a heavy weight on your shoulders [the team at Kaos] and on the shoulders of Digital Extremes. So, looking back on your previous titles, what did that game accomplish that you want to bring to Homefront? What failed?

Brian Holinka: We felt like our multiplayer formula was pretty good. We felt like we had good knowledge about the guns and the fundamentals. It felt like, there [in multiplayer], we were comfortable and confident. And we did not feel confident about single-player at all. At the end of Frontlines, we were not sure if we were doing it right.

Over the process of the last two and a half years, we've really learned, "here are the elements we need." We brought a lot of people in--some Medal of Honor people, some Call of Duty people--and we really got familiar with what you have to do to tell a really engaging and compelling story.

The biggest mistake in Frontlines, I think, is that you didn't actually play as anyone. You didn't have a character. You were just this innocuous soldier. Repeatedly beating yourself against the wall. In Homefront you are a character. You play out that character's story. You have these other characters that you're familiar with. Frontlines was not like that and it really suffered.

Shacknews: Now is your time, talk to your fellow Shackers and explain to them why they should be anticipating Homefront.

Brian Holinka: One thing is they'll be able to have Shack servers. That'll be big for them. Things they can control and monitor. I think it's going to be more of a spiritual successor to the games that they really love and that they're used to. If they played Frontlines and they expect that level of quality, they're going to be really surprised. The bar is way, way higher. We're lightyears ahead. And they can call me a liar in Latest Chatty if I'm wrong.


Disclosure: This preview is based on an event hosted by THQ in New York City. THQ invited Shacknews to the event and provided one editor travel and accommodation to and from the three-day event for the purposes previewing the company's 2011 line-up.

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  • I live in London Ontario and I got to visit the Digital Extremes office to test out the demo for Dark Sector before it's release. They have a good lineage with PC games so I'm hopeful they don't disappoint. With access to websites like the shack, there's little excuse for PC developers to drop the ball knowing what is expected out of a PC game. If they adopt the "my way or the highway" approach to nerfing a PC game, the sales will inevitably suffer, so this is no time for hubris PC developers. Give the consumers what they want! I'm waiting for the reviews and if things don't pan-out this game could end-up being a rental for me.