Far Cry 2 Interview: Glowing Arrows in the Jungle

Hardy LeBel has been around the multiplayer block. Lead designer on the original Halo multiplayer component, LeBel recently joined the team at Ubisoft Montreal to develop an online portion of Far Cry 2.

I caught up with LeBel at an Ubisoft event, where he told me why Far Cry 2 was one of the most challenging projects to tackle. We also went over the game's approach to level design, and why LeBel feels that faster is not always better when it comes to multiplayer shooters.

Shack: Were you brought in early on the project?

Hardy LeBel: No, not real early. I think I've been associated with the multiplayer for about a year now.

It becomes really, really, really hard to make a good level if you also have really complicated game modes.. There are a lot of Battlefield levels, but Wake Island is really one of the best.

I was brought in mostly because, honestly, there's a lot of complexity with trying to make this multiplayer fun to play. I think it's fair to say I've got a lot of shooter expertise. I've worked on Halo, worked on the SOCOM series of games. The challenges of this particular game with the complexities of the dynamic systems, with weather, the complexities of next-gen graphics, next-gen lighting, even the level design challenges--were incredibly steep.

So the team wrestled with them for quite a while, and didn't make the kind of headway that Ubisoft really wanted them to, and that's when they reached out to me. I actually was kind of taking some personal time off to deal with some family issues, and I'd had the great pleasure of meeting the Ubisoft crew two years previous, so when Montreal was looking for someone to help out on the multiplayer side, I guess the Paris team said, "You should try talking to Hardy."

So really out of the blue I got this fascinating phone call from the executive producers saying, "I heard you might be able to help." And it's been such a learning experience for me, to really kind of go into the deep end of the pool in terms of next-gen graphics, lighting, really all of the complexity of those systems. And the figuring out how to make levels and gameplay that's going to be fun and not overly complex, and make sure that it's rewarding to the player. It was a big challenge.

Shack: How many iterations did you go through on the basic multiplayer gameplay? Was it always this shoot-and-scoot style of gameplay?

Hardy LeBel: No, it used to be.. [laughs] There have been tons of iterations. What you see right now is a very deliberate balance between what the game wants to be--which is a very fast-paced, run-and-gun wild shooter--and the creative goals for single-player, which were much more deliberative, fire and movement, kind of crawl through the jungle, picking eachother off.

That was a challenge, to try to marry those two things and find the right balance between the two of them. Because multiplayer tends to really want to play fast, faster than single-player. Single-player you're going to stop--and I'm not just talking about Far Cry 2, I'm talking about literally every shooter--it's a contemplative, you know, I'm going to stop and think about the tactical situation, I can engage or disengage with AI as I want to, in most cases. So as you put those down on the accelerator, the gameplay pacing picks up.

A lot of multiplayer games can evolve into something like Quake, where it's just so fast, and the action is split-second. But that really felt wrong in these natural settings, characters flying by like Quake, just shooting eachother. So what we've been trying to do is find ways to make the pacing so that it's still fast and fun, but it's slowed down a little bit so it's not Quake in the jungle.

Shack: There are some similarities to Halo there.

Hardy LeBel: Right. I mean yeah, it's true. The gameplay pacing in Halo is very much about understanding what your tactical options are, that are available to you, and understanding that you have a suite of them right in front of you, and then choosing what you're going to do.

And to a certain extent, we did something similar here in the sense that, you can melee, you can use weapons, you can use the environment itself, explosive objects and that kind of stuff. So we're trying to give you kind of a palette that you can play with and then let you figure out what are your tactics, what are your strategies. In some ways it's similar.

Shack: So for modes, you have Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Uprising, and Capture the Flag--

Hardy LeBel: Capture the Diamond. [laughs]

Shack: Right. Sorry. [laughs] So with the deathmatch modes--you know, I grew up playing deathmatch, and moved on to games like Tribes before the end of the 90s, and now we still have deathmatch modes. Are they still necessary as kind of an entry-level mode for newer players? How much do you think about your audience in terms of adding complexity to the modes?

Hardy LeBel: There's no question. Our thinking process for this game specifically was very much tied to the fact that we had the level editor. The editor was a big focus technologically, and a big focus in terms of trying to, from a design side, trying to take the robust enemy tools that we had, and figure out how to put a wrapper on them so that they're accessible and easy for people to use.

And with that in mind, also making incredibly complicated game modes just seemed like, if were looking to the community to create content and enjoy it, it could very easily turn into rocket science. Because like, okay, well we have these incredibly complex game modes that require all this logic to successfully pull off.. and in point of fact, and I don't mean for this to sound.. whatever..

Shack: Go ahead.

Hardy LeBel: It's really hard to make a good level. And it becomes really, really, really hard to make a good level if you also have really complicated game modes. And I would point to the fact that there are a lot of Battlefield levels, but Wake Island is really one of the best. [laughs]

Shack: Yeah, I'd agree with that. [laughs]

Hardy LeBel: And they all kind of cascade down from there. And so the more that you have complicated mode structures, the more you have to actually do, the less likely you are to get successful levels.

Anyway, that's the long-winded way of saying that we didn't want to make game types that were like rocket science for people to be able to put them up and create their own content. But to be honest with you, I've got 15 years of level design experience behind me, and the lead level designer on the multiplayer side had a comparable amount of experience, but it was really hard for us to make levels for Far Cry 2 that were fun. [laughs] And it's just because of all of the challenges.

As an example, we made a level, and we're playing it with dynamic weather and dynamic light. And one time it was foggy and dark, and we couldn't play the damn thing. We were like, "Wait a minute, that's not fair. My level design principles tell me this level should work." But it doesn't work.

So we literally had to go back to the drawing board and relearn new ways to do level design in a next-gen setting, where you are dealing with dynamic lighting and weather, and the complexity of these layouts. And at the end of it, the lead level designer and I looked at eachother and we were like, "Damn. Thank god we managed to get some good ones." [laughs]

And I don't mean for that to sound like people can't do it, because they will, and I'm excited to see what the community is going to produce. But for me, as a long-time level guy, I kind of came to the dance with my kit bag of tried and true level design "stuff." Like, "Well I made a couple good levels in my day, you know, Blood Gulch. I know how to make a multiplayer level!" And that didn't work. And I was like, okay, better go back and try to figure out some new stuff.

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Shack: Is part of the challenge just the fact that you're designing for an open, natural environment, rather than a more shut-off, corridor-based shooter?

Multiplayer design from my perspective is so much about trying to shape player behavior, more than dictate player behavior.

Hardy LeBel: Yeah, no question about it. No question. To make something that looks plausible, and still reads and has good flow..

As an example, you can take--again, apologies to the Halo guys for this--you can take a science fiction setting and put glowing arrows on the floor, and nobody is going to complain about that. You can not take a fishing village in Africa and.. put glowing arrows on the floor. [laughs] You just can't do that, right?

So what we found is that we have to rely on a bunch of other techniques to enable players to find their way through the space, to navigate it, to understand the space, understand it spatially, and be able to navigate through it horizontally and vertically, yeah, it was an incredible series of challenges. And the natural setting with lots of complex geometry, plus weather, plus lights, it took a lot. It look a lot for us to get that.

Shack: Were you always designing the game with the map editor in mind?

Hardy LeBel: Oh sure. Absolutely. It's been such a major focus technologically, and from the long-term goals of the product, that we've always been thinking, "Wait 'til they get their hands on this." It's going to be cool to see what they can do.

Shack: It seems like all of a sudden, a huge number of high-quality games are focusing on user created content. Spore, LittleBigPlanet, you guys.

Hardy LeBel: Well there's no question that, you know, if you can find a way to harness the creativity and the passion of your audience, and have them make some kind of contribution to the product, it's a win-win across the board. Because it's satisfying creatively to author this kind of content, and not only that, you also get some good levels out of it.

And so it's no question that Spore, LittleBigPlanet, and our level editor are coming from that same kind of philosophy of finding ways to include the community with that passion and that creativity.

Shack: Any plans for downloadable content?

Hardy LeBel: Oh yes. Although I doubt I'm authorized to make any kind of announcements about that, but watch for premium content.

Shack: Will there be DLC specifically for multiplayer, though?

Ubisoft Representative: We're not making any kind of announcements about that today.

Hardy LeBel: [laughs] Like I said.. watch for premium content.

Shack: [laughs] Okay. And how about modding on the PC? Is that going to be an option for people?

Hardy LeBel: Well I think right now what we're interested in is seeing what the community produces with the tools as they go out the door. With an engine that is as flexible and powerful as this, we fully expect that--you know, who knows what's going to happen down the line. We'll see.

Shack: As I was playing earlier, I managed to upgrade my weapons to the point that I was just blowing people away with a zoomable grenade launcher. It was fun, but I'm wondering about balancing. I assume there are checks in place to keep that from getting out of hand?

Hardy LeBel: Yes. Yes, there are terror weapons available to every class. And the goal of the [leveling] scheme is to really give everyone access to their own version of the terror weapons, and let them have fun with them, and use them and exploit them. But yes, there are incredibly powerful weapons across the board, and part of the reason for that is that they're super fun.

Shack: But throughout a session, will there be any incentive to go back to the introductory weapons?

Hardy LeBel: Oh, that's another question. We deliberately designed the data structures in the game so that there are advantages and disadvantages to every weapon in that kit. On first blush you may not necessarily perceive what the value is, but multiplayer design--and again I'm sorry, the design lights go on and I'm like "design, design!"--so multiplayer design from my perspective is so much about trying to shape player behavior, more than dictate player behavior.

So one of the things that I enjoy is to build more complexity into the data structure overall. There are absolutely significant advantages to the lower level weapons in the matrix overall. And I think it's just kind of up to players to see what those advantages are, and explore them, and make their own decisions.

Yeah, the [multiple grenade launcher] is super fun to use, but its reliability as compared to some of the other lower-level weapons is remarkably low. So maybe you don't mind if your weapon jams two or three times as often as everything else. But if you over time find that it does, and you get ganked because of it, as you're enjoying your terror spree launching grenades, maybe that shapes your behavior. Maybe it doesn't, maybe you'll just switch to your secondary weapon. But that kind of complexity is deliberately designed into the matrix.

Shack: Are you planning any kind of clan system on top of matchmaking?

Hardy LeBel: Um, I don't know, off the top of my head. I'm not sure what's in there right now. I know we had plans for clan stuff, but inbetween gold master [some things have changed]. I've got my fingers crossed.

Shack: Thanks Hardy.

Far Cry 2 is set for an October 21 release on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3.