SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Tactical Strike Interview

As Chris Remo pointed out during his San Deigo Comic Con coverage, SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Tactical Strike isn't what you expect from a series typically known for its emphasis on skillful aiming and quick reactions. Instead of providing direct control over a SEAL and throwing the player into the fray, Slant Six Games' Tactical Strike on PSP takes, well, a more tactical approach to the situation.

Best described as a mixture of Nintendo's Advance Wars series and Sony's SOCOM property, Tactical Strike puts players in the role of squad commander, issuing orders to the four highly-trained special operatives in the battlefield. These commands apply to the whole squad, a two-man team within the squad, and even individual soldiers, and switching between the various commands and their recipients is a rather simple affair thanks to an extremely functional control scheme.

Built around a series of button taps and holds, the controls allow for numerous combat actions without too much work or confusion. With just a few button presses, I split the squad into Alpha and Bravo teams and had them alternating between designated points of cover while the other team provided suppressing fire.

More importantly, the user-controlled pace of the game permits players to approach the game at their own speed, resolving the issues some had with the fast action of previous SOCOM offerings.

At one point in the game, I once again split my squad into two teams. One was positioned on bridge above a street, which was crawling with enemies. The other team was located on the porch of a building down the road, giving them a slightly different view of the action. With both teams set to emerge from cover and begin their assault at my mark, I triggered my carefully-planned assault. As the combatants took cover from the bridge team behind cars and boxes, they fell prey to fire from the two on the porch. None of my SEALs took any damage, a vast improvement over the last time two times I had approached that scenario.

To find out more about the game and and the challenges behind it, I chatted with Slant Six director of development Dan McBride. With the frequent fire of airsoft rifles in the background--Sony had set up a simulation run by actual Navy SEALs to give the assembled journalists a feel for actual battlefield tactics--McBride offered new details on the game, including its conception and evolution, along with his insight into PSP development, thoughts on the new PSP Slim, and hints of what else is in the works at the developer's Vancouver-based studio.

Shack: One thing that really impressed me about Tactical Strike was the control scheme. Obviously there's a learning curve, but once you've got it down, there's a lot of functionality through taps, double taps, and holds. How much work went into the control scheme?

Dan McBride: It was the biggest R&D aspect of the game, well, that and AI. This was a 21 month development cycle for PSP, and as a side note, I really gotta congratulate Sony in backing us to that degree and having the faith in the platform and the project and giving us a long development cycle. They didn't try to turn it around in 10 months like a lot of publishers would and they gave it time to mature properly.

That's a good thing, because the control scheme went through at least six iterations before we honed in on the version we're playing now. I'd say that was the most enjoyable, but difficult, problem solving design session that I've ever been a part of. It was a challenge.

Shack: Just lots of focus testing?

Dan McBride: Well, we did focus tests. It was a big challenge, and we went through multiple iterations before we got it right, or right-ish.

Shack: When did you settle on the current control scheme?

Dan McBride: It would have been just around the New Year.

Shack: With the camera automatically controlled by the computer and the direct movements of the soldiers controlled by the AI as well, how do you ensure the camera is properly positioned?

Dan McBride: That was a big challenge too, and we were refining that up to a month ago. One of the things we went through was having the camera oriented the way a SEAL is facing, which kind of makes sense, but what happens is when you send your group of four SEALs off to a location, they automatically do this sector-splitting logic. This is an actual thing that Rob taught us. A group of SEALs moving through the field, when they're at rest, will divide the 360 degrees of a compass into quadrants, if there are four of them. Each will take a facing, so that way they have full coverage. What that means is, I look down the street, I send my guys down there, then I switch cameras and it goes 180 degrees behind me, which is never what you want.

Currently it's a fairly complex algorithm that has to do with the last time the player moved the camera, if the moving-from SEAL has an active target and the moving-to SEAL also orients towards that target. It's actually about a 12-step algorithm, with early outs for certain conditions being matched.

That was a tough one. Especially in the early builds, we got a lot of feedback. Even when the dev team played, it was our common gripe that you were always wheeling the camera around to where you wanted to go.

With the current build, I think we're getting pretty close. There may be a few instances where, "oh, I switched the camera and it's not quite where I want it to be," but I think 95% of the time camera switches are pretty good. I'd be interested to hear your feelings about it.

Shack: The more I played, the more I found the camera was where I needed it to be.

I've always liked the idea of SOCOM but I could never deal with the action of the series, especially on a portable, so this is a good fit for me.

Dan McBride: The user dictates the pace here. There's not that requirement to react all the time, it's on your conditions.

Turn the page for more on origins of Slant Six and Tactical Strike along with the the studio's research process. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: I think that works a lot better for a portable, especially in a setting where I can't completely lose myself in a game. I've always thought strategy games work really well on portables.

Dan McBride: It is obviously within the strategy genre, but do you find it a clean fit? We're thinking that it's hard to categorize this game. It's in a way we're proud of, but we know it's gonna be a bit hard for people to get their heads around.

Shack: No, it's not necessarily a clean fit. I mean, I was there at Gamers Day and got to see video of the game, so the concept was pretty clear to me. It's got everything I associate with SOCOM, it's not toned down at all, just presented in a different way.

Dan McBride: It's all real time ballistics. Bullets are being raycast into the world, they'll intercede with geometry. That's all happening, even though you're not directly controlling your guys.

That was an issue we had early in development, because when you come under fire, you can't just run away, you have to issue a command unless you give the SEALs a bit of autonomy to do things on their own. But if you give them too much autonomy, then that's not a fun experience for the player either because they feel out of control.

It took a year to find that sweet spot. We tried a bunch of different approaches. One concept we worked with for a while was a line of scrimmage concept. We allowed the SEALs to roam behind the line of scrimmage, but not forward. Still, even lateral movements were unnerving to the player if they didn't actually make that command.

We solved that problem by giving the SEALs just the right amount of autonomy. If they're under attack, they'll get out of the way. If you send them right into a line of fire, they'll come right back.

Shack: I did that a few times by accident.

Dan McBride: [laughs] They have their survival instinct. They listen to you, you're their commander, and they'll do their best to do what you say. But when it comes down to their skin, they'll say no.

It was just finding that balance between SEAL autonomy and the world as opposed to them doing exactly what you say.

Shack: How did Slant Six come about and how you first get involved with the SOCOM franchise?

Dan McBride: The Slant Six story was that a bunch of us up in Vancouver, from Rockstar Vancouver and Electronic Arts and some other studios, we were all connected socially. We were kind of dissatisfied in our jobs, so we decided to take the lead and start something new.

A couple of us were founding members of Barking Dog Studios in Vancouver, it was acquired by Rockstar, become Rockstar Vancouver, did Bully. We loved being an independent studio when were Barking Dog, and after Rockstar acquired us, while we had a lot of respect for those guys, it just wasn't the right situation for us. So we decided to move on started our own thing, Slant Six Games, in February of 2005.

We had some contacts at SCEA in Foster City and our first project was working with the SCEA Bend Studio PSP on portions of the graphics engine that ended up showing up in Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror. That was our first piece of work with SCEA, and on the strength of that work we ended up chatting with Seth Luisi who has been involved in the SOCOM franchise since day one.

He had the idea of extending the franchise into a new direction, new genres with Tactical Strike. The project was proposed at the Tokyo Game Show in September of 2005, and we kicked off the pre-production shortly after that.

Shack: Was Confrontation for the PlayStation 3 pitched at the same time, or did that come about later?

Dan McBride: No, that came later. That was more of a reflection of our ambitions as a studio. We had ambitions to move into the next-gen platforms as well.

Don't get me wrong, we like the PSP platform, we're going to continue to develop for it, we think it's viable. On one hand, we like small teams. We developed this game with 20 people.

Shack: Is that core staff or everyone?

Dan McBride: It peaked at 30 at one point, but throughout the development it was typically around 20 people.

We love that. Small teams have definite advantages for development; you don't need a lot of overhead of management and so on. We're going to continue to develop on the PSP, but we're an ambitious studio, so we definitely want to get in the mix with new platforms and cutting edge technology.

Shack: Are you afraid that because you're working on two separate SOCOM games across two platforms, you'll get stuck working on constant iterations of the franchise?

Dan McBride: No, I don't think a concern of ours. There are certainly much worse fates.

Shack: What did the studio do to research and prepare for developing a game based in the SOCOM franchise?

Dan McBride: On a high level, we had a lot of conversations with the guys at Zipper and started to get slowly indoctrinated into what was the heart and soul of the SOCOM franchise--the authenticity, the real-world environments, real-world situations--and so we had a lot of background in that.

Eventually, retired Navy SEAL Rob Roy and his associates came up to Vancouver and ran a two-day session at a paintball field with the developers, with the gameplay engineers and some designers. We had two solid days, eight hour days, where we ran simulations with airsoft rifles.

That really got us into the mindset. We learned a lot about how to accurately portray field activities of U.S. Navy SEALs.

Keep reading to see what actual SEALs think of the game, the benefits of using the PSP's full CPU speed, and impressions of the redesigned PSP. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: What's it like working with original SOCOM developer Zipper Interactive on the franchise they're known for? Are they heavily involved?

Dan McBride: They're very open to us, all their staff is available to us on a consultancy basis. They've come up to Vancouver on more than one occasion to hang with us and talk about the franchise and how our products fit into its overall scope. They've given us some technical support here and there, access to code base, it's a very open relationship.

Shack: Were the SEAL consultants involved throughout the development cycle?

Dan McBride: Yeah. We've done a couple of sessions like I just described and Rob has also been available for telephone and e-mail consultation on an ongoing basis. Rob was present for our mo-cap sessions; he's helping us correct the mo-cap actors. He's like the voice of authenticity, and we defer to him on all matters.

Shack: Has Rob been playing the game at all? What's his reaction?

Dan McBride: Yep. He is really stoked. The traditional SOCOM, with the player directly controlling the action, there's only so much you can do to enforce authenticity. The player can do inappropriate things, and there's no way to prevent that.

In our game, because you have the abstract and indirect controls, we have a little bit more leeway, because the AI is directly controlling a player and you're just giving instructions. We can more closely dictate that things are done authentically. I think the fact that it's more of a slowed down game experience and it's tactically-oriented, that really ties in really closing with Rob's training, so he can transfer a lot of that into the game.

Shack: Have any other SEALs here today gotten back to you with feedback?

Dan McBride: The ones that are gamers, are right into it. The ones that aren't gamers are watchers and they're really impressed. It seems very real to them, it could almost be a training exercise for them.

Obviously, we have to make some concessions to entertain because training exercises could end up being dry, but in general, they're super impressed with what we've done.

Shack: How has your experience been with developing for the PSP?

Dan McBride: It's been great, it's been really good. Our engineers just love working on the platform. We came into it thinking it's PS1 and a half, in terms of power. Now, especially with [the recent unlocking of the] 333 [CPU speed], we consider it to be basically a PS2.

Shack: Are you using 333 in Tactical Strike?

Dan McBride: We are using 333 in the campaign mode. In multiplayer it was decided that the benefits were outweighed by the decrease in battery charge time.

Shack: What effect did 333 have on the game?

Dan McBride: It's a huge boon for developers. Our framerate increased by something like 30% when we bumped up to 333 so the game definitely benefits from the new power. You're going to see, as much as we're proud of what Tactical Strike has managed to achieve graphically, it was somewhat tailored to 222. For our next PSP title, you're going to see better graphics, better framerate as we specifically tailor the engineering effort to that.

Shack: Some have complained about the lack of a second analog stick. Do you have any nitpicks with the PSP hardware, anything you'd like to see changed?

Dan McBride: No. No matter what you put on there, PC users will complain there's no keyboard, no mouse, you know? It is what it is. If a developer can't design a game around the controls of a particular console, then they're not really doing their job.

Shack: That's almost word for word what Ready At Dawn told me.

Dan McBride: We don't waste any energy thinking about, "oh, it should have this, should have that." It is what it is. It's a slick piece of hardware, it's a great gaming platform, it's a great portable cross-media platform, it's got a lot going for it.

Shack: Would a second analog stick helped in the development of Tactical Strike?

Dan McBride: No, not at all. The one thing you can't change is the platform, the software and the design can change. It's totally a moot point.

Shack: What are your thoughts on the redesigned PSP?

Dan McBride: It's great, I've got one right here. Would you like to check it out?

Shack: I would love to play around with that.

Dan McBride: [hands over PSP Slim] It's a really nice package. I know everyone at Sony is really excited with the new price point and what that's done to stimulate the marketplace.

This is going to help hugely as well. I really like the action on the buttons. You'll notice if you press the bottoms, it's a very positive action, which will help a lot. It just feels nicer, sleeker, newer, and I like the sort of gun metal grey finish, it's really cool.

Shack: The d-pad and buttons are a lot more responsive.

Dan McBride: [nods] It's very nice.

Shack: What do you think about the TV out capability?

Dan McBride: I guess I have mixed feelings. I think it's great that if people want to play their own PSP titles on their home set they can do that.

I guess I have a little bit of concern, just from a pure developer's aesthetic point of view, because that screen on the PSP is so beautiful and I know our game looks just sweet on that thing, but I think on an LCD TV it looks a little degraded. But that's purely just selfish developer talk [laughs].

Shack: When I first saw Ready At Dawn's God of War: Chains of Olympus on PSP, it was running on an LCD TV and it didn't look all that different from a really jaggy PS1 game. But when I got up there and actually saw it running on the PSP screen itself, the game looked gorgeous, identical to the PS2 titles.

Dan McBride: There's no reason why, if you have your PSP and you drop the money for a game, why can't you play it on a big screen at home? Why not? I mean, that trumps any of my petty developer concerns.

Go on for McBride's thoughts on the current state of independent development and his experiences working with Sony Computer Entertainment. _PAGE_BREAK_

Shack: What was your first project when you were just starting out?

Dan McBride: The first thing I ever worked on was writing some demos for the a failed peripheral for the Sega Genesis. I was with Gray Matter in Toronto in 1991.

Through all this time, I've always worked for independent studios with lots and lots of different publishers. The SCEA group has just been amazing to work with.

Shack: How have you seem the industry change since 1991?

Dan McBride: Obviously, you know in the last 15 years, the breadth of the industry has expanded so much. When started in the industry I was a programmer. Game programming, game development and software engineers who worked on gamers were not taken seriously. You were a hacker, garage programmer or a hobbyist at best. That was how you'd be considered in the software development community.

That's obviously changed now, and now it's a career path for software engineers, through games. I guess there's a lot more respect afforded to games than there was back then.

Shack: Do you feel that it's easier to be an independent developer these days?

Dan McBride: I would say that the next-gen platforms have significantly higher barriers to entry. You can't really compete in the AAA arena as an unfunded or self-funded indie. It's pretty hard unless you have a lot of money you're ready to sink.

But then you see things like Xbox Live Arcade, which is an avenue for indies. SCE is opening a lot of doors for smaller groups as seen with Flow and Little Big Planet. For us, we started off with lot of really solid resumes and a really solid team, that's probably why we attracted interest. It doesn't mean we're giving up our autonomy, we're working with a big publisher who's well-funded, but it doesn't mean we give up our independence.

The power relationship between developers and publishers is still a little bit unbalanced, but comparing Sony to other published I've worked with in the past, that's why I'm so happy with them. Even though, in reality they write the checks, the fact is we run the show.

Shack: Sony seems to have been making an effort to branch out to independent developers lately, especially with the PlayStation Network offerings.

Dan McBride: The people we work with, from Phil Harrison and the Foster City people on down, they recognize that the creative juices flow in the developers' studios. They don't want to compromise that by being totalitarian, dictating certain things, especially when it comes to the creative side of things. They're pretty open that way.

Shack: Of all your titles, what are you most proud of and which one would you strike from your past?

Dan McBride: I'm not going to answer the second part, I've worked on a couple of really bad titles.

Shack: I ask because members of the God of War team used to work on Barbie and Backyard Wresting games. There are all these talented developers putting their hearts and souls and good concepts into these horribly received games no actual gamer will ever play.

Dan McBride: I didn't work on this title, but when I first started in games, the studio that I worked for did a Game Boy WWF game. The review said "this game wasn't released, it escaped." It got a 1 out of 10.

I would say that, you may take this as a cliche answer, but I think Tactical Strike is the one I'm most proud of. The AI is really slick, the game really came together. We had difficult design challenge, and we overcame them, and we have a winning product on our hands, I think. Time will tell, of course, if the market agrees with the last part.

You know, there are a lot of market factors we can't control, how reviewers take to the game, we can't control that. As we're finaling, it hasn't been a death march. The team hasn't been despondent. Everyone's still smiling, people are enjoying the game, you hear lots of howls in enjoyment of playing the game. For a developer, that means we've won. After all this time, close to two years, everyone's still into it, motivated and happy. To me, that's an indication that it was a success.

Shack: Dream project. Any platform, any property.

Dan McBride: Our next project.

Shack: Not SOCOM Confrontation? An unannounced title?

Dan McBride: Yup.

Slant Six Games' SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Tactical Strike arrives on PSP this fall.

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