Fray first-look preview

Even those of us who love turn-based strategy games will find it tough not to admit that their multiplayer renditions can often be soul-suckingly slow affairs, punctuated with long bouts of thumb-twiddling while you wait for your opponents to finish their turns. Indie developer Brain Candy has their sights set on streamlining how turn-based gameplay is handled in a competitive setting with their new game Fray. I stopped by PR-firm TriplePoint Software's San Francisco offices during GDC 2011 for a brief, pre-alpha tech demo, followed by a quick Q & A session with Producer Alexandre Avenard. focalbox Fray is set in a dystopian future, in which a select few mega-corporations control everything from governments to the world-wide economy. These mega-corporations (Aros, ChronaCorp, and MagTyde) create virtual arenas where players can battle to the death for fame and riches. Each player commands and equips a squad consisting of four units, chosen from six different classes, such as Sniper, Medic, Assault, and Tank. Pledging allegiance to one of the three mega-corporations at the start of the match will give the player additional faction-specific bonuses and enhancements. Though Fray is still in a relatively early state, Brain Candy's eight-person development team was able to give me a good sense of what the game is all about, as well as some of the advantages of using the Unity Engine 3 as the development platform. "When people hear about Unity, they think of iPhone games and web-based games," Avenard explained. "We wanted to show that with Unity, you can do next-generation games. Not on par with [something like] Crysis, because, I mean, that's much bigger. But at least we have technology similar to them. They have deferred rendering, which allows for those kind of effects. We're trying to replicate that in the Unity engine. It's still a bit early, so it's really a tech demo. We still have eight months of development ahead of us - to tweak everything and make it run more smoothly." The team illustrates their point about deferred rendering by showing off Fray's use of ambient occlusion and global illumination (which allow the easy subtraction or addition of light, respectively), as well as some examples of how the game uses volumetric fog. The player HUD and interface are also integrated in a way that makes them feel organic to the on-screen action, rather than just being a generic overlay. "All the interface elements were inspired by movies and games like TRON, and Ghost in the Shell, and use global illumination," said Avenard, "So it really feels like when they pop-up, they [mesh] well with the environment. They don't look out of place, or overlayed, or simply superimposed over the image." Avenard also extrapolated how the team is aiming to bring a real-time feel to turn-based gameplay:
It's a simultaneous, turn-based tactics game that's multiplayer. We were looking at turn-based games on the multiplayer side, and realized that they're really slow, because usually you have to wait for the other player to play. [The breaks in the action] can last up to five minutes or so, especially when there's no time limit. "Take your time. The other guy takes his time." It [seemed like] it took a little bit to long. We were looking for ways to make it more dynamic, more multiplayer-focused - like current FPS games. We came up with simultaneous, turn-based gameplay, where all players play at the same time. So, everybody gives their orders to their characters - "You move here. You shoot here," and things like that.
Avenard also explained how having player plan their moves simultaneously will make the experience more reactive, effectively reducing any down-time normally present in turn-based multiplayer.
Once the timer runs out or everyone has given their orders - about fourty seconds to one minute, depending on your level - the action takes place. All the characters move, and all the action is shown to the player with a dynamic camera system. Then you see if the choices you made were the right ones. It's much more a game of anticipation than most traditional turn-based strategy games. It's closer to an RTS than a turn-based game. In an RTS game, you have to anticipate what the other player is building. That's kind of the feeling we were looking for in the game.

One of Fray's virtual battlefields.

Fray will also incorporate a robust leveling system that will allow players to customize their units as they progress, as well as some some other goodies meant to appeal to hardcore gamers. "We're not closed to the idea of including single-player," said Avenard, "but right now, it's multiplayer only." Avenard also told me that how players build their team will greatly influence the action on the battlefield.
That was another gameplay element we were focusing on: Having to choose which classes you want to play with will really influence your play-style. We went with over-the-top weapons, air-strikes... things that will appeal to hardcore gamers like us. Since we're doing a multiplayer game, we wanted to have a leveling system where you start from level one and [progress] to level twenty, where your character and team evolve - gaining new abilities and new weapons - and pretty much adjust your own strategy compared to all the other players. The idea is that when you reach level twenty, your team is your team. Nobody has the same team as you. You have your own weapons and your own play-style.
Despite the fact that my early look at the game was more of a tech demo, Fray's aim to streamline (and speed up) the multiplayer side of simultaneous turn-based gameplay seems new and interesting. Avenard still estimates about eight more months of development time, but is hoping to release Fray on a wide array of digital-distribution services, including Steam. That doesn't necessarily mean that Fray won't eventually make it to other platforms. "The good thing about Unity is that it's adapatble for PS3 and Xbox 360," Avenard clarified. "We're not opposed to adapting it later on for consoles - PlayStation Network or Xbox Live Arcade - because it would fit pretty well. A game lasts around 20 minutes, there are 20 levels of experience, and about thirty hours of gameplay. So, we think it would be a good fit on consoles too."