Rage drew the biggest crowd at QuakeCon 2010 - and it wrote the biggest headlines while it was at it. Simultaneous demonstration on multiple platforms! The end of "when it's done"! But all in all we would say Brink was the most assured game on display. It's a team-based multiplayer shooter with bold new ideas about movement, story and player incentives, and right now it already looks slick and polished, even though it's not out until spring 2011.
Splash Damage founder and the game's director Paul Wedgwood was certainly in his element demonstrating it. You may remember Wedgwood from his presentations at last year's Eurogamer Expo, and the one-time mod maker was on similar form as he showed off two new levels - the Aquarium and an assault on a Security forces tower - while attendees were also invited to play a Container City level in the Vendor Area next door to QuakeCon's famously massive LAN party.
Earlier in the week we got our own chance to play around on Container City, and we also caught up with Wedgwood to talk about Brink's delay, the unique obstacles the Bromley-based studio is having to overcome in realising its goals, and the pressures and challenges of going from a medium-sized independent developer to a massive, multiformat studio supported by one of the world's most ambitious publishers.
Eurogamer: What was the story with the delay at E3?
Paul Wedgwood: We just felt like the game would benefit best from being released in spring 2011. Just genuinely. There isn't really any good gossip or anything to give.
Because the game has such a strong multiplayer component, the longer that we're in alpha or beta the better, so the plan isn't to spend that time working on additional features or anything - we've still gone alpha a couple of months ago, we're still pre-beta at the moment - but we're just really focused on balancing and polish.
I think that Bethesda really understand that - look at Morrowind or Fallout 3 - and it's the way id Software always did stuff as well. If you get the opportunity to get your feature set done and then just stop and look at what you have and take a decent amount of time making it right, then you end up with something that's so much better for everybody.
Eurogamer: Does it also make a difference now that the generation's been elongated, in that there isn't the same technological arms race any more?
Paul Wedgwood: In previous generations if you released six months earlier or six months later you could look like a last-generation game. But I think for the top five shooter developers in the world, all of them approach technology in their own way and end up with something that looks really good for the game they're making.
We've done things with Brink like sparse virtual texturing that allows us to have double the resolution of textures that we had in Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, or significantly higher polycounts and cinematic-quality characters. Gamers understand that at the same time as trying to achieve those things graphically we have 16 characters on-screen all the time, and there is a limit to how much you can do with visuals without taking away from that stuff - and the game's about interaction first and foremost. But I'm pretty pleased with the way the game looks.
The other thing is that in this cycle art direction plays a much greater part in how you present your game. Previously you had 900 polygons to draw a character with, so all the art director could do was choose a colour for it to be and maybe have some impact on the texture. Now we normal-map the entire game, so everything is high-poly. That forces you to hire artists with strong traditional art skills like sculpting, who tend to be graduates from fine art colleges.
Eurogamer: What's a unique challenge you faced with Brink?
Paul Wedgwood: One of the things we've solved with Brink, which is an incidental benefit of the SMART movement system, is that in past shooters if we just wanted to do this room full of tables and chairs, they would have got in the way, so everything would have to be a fixed height to support jumping, and you couldn't slide under anything. In the end you would remove everything from the room that would impede the progress of the player. Although we didn't design it with that in mind, when we came up with the movement system we found it removed those artificial constraints, so the level designers were able to add more to the maps during the block-out stage and introduce more cover, concealment and fortification.
Eurogamer: You're trying to do a lot of ambitious things - blending single and multiplayer, making the game accessible, smooth movement. Has it been harder than you expected?
Paul Wedgwood: Blurring the lines between offline and online gaming, we're lucky, because coming at it from a multiplayer perspective we're not trying to add humans to replace the AI of a single-player campaign. That would be a nightmare, because all humans as enemies would want to do was grief you as you try to progress. We're lucky because we're just adding AI into multiplayer, which is that little bit easier.
Then of course we have our narrative to drive the story, which feels more like a traditional single-player shooter but doesn't have the same challenges if we had been a single-player shooter developer. We could have been really proficient at single-player and never solved this problem.
I suppose the second thing on the accessibility side is that all of us were newbies once - I spent months learning how to circle-strafe and use splash damage in Quake 1 before anyone would even let me try out for their clan. But the truth of it is that run-and-gunning is actually easy to pick up, and I think it's a mistake to nerf a game in the belief that that's what makes it more accessible. You should still be bold and deep in the execution, but what you want to do is find other accessibility challenges.
For instance, the people who play together in an organised match online have an amazing sense of satisfaction at achieving something together. We're doing two things to encourage people to play online. First by rewarding players for doing things that help other people, so we treat players as inherently selfish and bribe them. We also have a mission system that has them all doing the right things to coordinate together. You can take a group of strangers, who in any other shooter would just be headshot five times, teabagged five times and insulted over VOIP, and have them join a multiplayer game of Brink and enjoy themselves and feel like they're contributing to the team effort.
Eurogamer: Do you find that people buy into those incentives?
Paul Wedgwood: You still have people running down the middle of the road spraying and praying, so we have upgrades that allow them to extend the magazine and spray and pray for even longer - but it comes with a penalty of decreasing the equip speed and stability of the weapon. If you want to support that as well as people who understand spraying is not as effective as controlled burst-firing, then providing you have a balance between the two you can have both.
En route to the shooting there's always something you can do that helps your team - you can buff their shooting, or buff their health, or you can give out ammunition. You can do all those things for yourself, so we don't say you can't play selfishly - if you want to play ninja medic and give yourself health all the time and shoot people, you absolutely can do that, but you're not going to level as fast as someone who gives other people health. We also charge you double the amount of power to heal yourself compared to healing other people, so if you all help each other out instead it costs everybody less and the reward is higher.
Eurogamer: Bethesda has invested enormously to help you staff up and make the best game possible - do you feel a different kind of pressure than what you used to feel with something like Enemy Territory: Quake Wars?
Paul Wedgwood: I think it would be a mistake for a developer not to take very seriously the investment that a publisher makes, because it goes so far beyond the pure cost of development. By the time you add in things like marketing budgets, the cost of manufacturing, cost of goods, royalties to platform holders and all that stuff, the budgets now are just immense.
It's movie money. People have fortunes invested in video game development now, where before you could make a game for one or two million, self-publish, put it out on shareware discs and collect the lion's share of the royalties.
But developers aren't taking a significant risk with anything other than their time, and since game development is so enjoyable that in itself it's a rewarding pursuit. So I think there's always growing pressure, because if you choose to be in triple-A blockbuster video game development then you have to take all of the things that come with that method of making games.
The toughness comes I think from handling things like transition. For Enemy Territory: Quake Wars we had an art team, a design team and a programming team and that was that. Now we have an animation team, a character art team, an environment art team, a technical art team, a core technology team, a gameplay team, an online services team, a level design team, a gameplay team, writers... It's 12 or 13 and every one of those is between three and 20 people, and it becomes such a huge process.
More on Brink
Eurogamer: How does Bethesda manage you?
Paul Wedgwood: We have a really good relationship with them. They know internally they have such a great team in Bethesda Game Studios, headed up by Todd Howard, who has just been making stonkingly good games for a really long time, and I think Bethesda Softworks take a very hands-off approach and allow people to be creative and iterate, and make your own decisions about what to cut and what stays in.
We're I think equally transparent. Our Bethesda producer has the door code to Splash Damage - he turns up whenever he likes, he has a desk on the executive floor, he has a desk on the main development floor, he can turn up at any meeting he feels like going to, and I think as long as you have that very open relationship with a publisher then it tends to just lead to good things.
Eurogamer: How much of the need for Brink to be successful do you feel on a day-to-day basis? Do they tell you it needs to sell X many million copies?
Paul Wedgwood: I don't think any developer can ultimately have too great an impact on an exact sales figure. There are games that are licensed that come out at the same time as really big movies and fail to sell. There are games that have very low Metacritic scores that sell incredibly well despite how poor they are as an offering to a player. I think with Bethesda the only thing they want is for the game to be really good. Because our interests are all aligned in that area it's a straightforward relationship.
Eurogamer: What do they make of the game so far? Do they give you feedback?
Paul Wedgwood: Oh yeah. I just heard from the president of Bethesda Softworks - he came up to me and said he heard QA was having great fun with the build for QuakeCon - so we have a ton of feedback going back and forth. Of course we have our own production testing team internally, but QA is handled at Bethesda, so you have the standard bug databases and that kind of stuff.
But we don't have that sense - and I don't think anyone does who works with Bethesda Softworks does - that anyone is policing your design intentions and telling you what you must or mustn't do, or that you must achieve this rating or this target audience. I've never had a conversation with Bethesda where they've said, "Right, we are focused on a male 18-34 year-old." It's just about making a game where not only does the player not want a refund but they're going to tell all their friends to go out and get it as well. That's a pretty easy goal to focus on.
Paul Wedgwood is one of the founders of Splash Damage and game director on Brink, which is due out in spring 2011.