"Tribes is a hard game to master." Tribes: Vengeance producer Chris Mahnken is actually discussing some of the lessons the team learnt from the previous two titles, but he might just as easily be referring to developer Irrational Games' brief to resurrect the series in a new guise. The idea was to create a game with a strong single-player aspect, and refine the multiplayer game in such a way that the whole package was more accessible for newcomers, and yet suitably familiar that the series' fanatical following would happily make the transition. The results are, at this stage, extremely promising - the single-player component, covered in some detail elsewhere on the site, is enjoyable and manages to impart some of the things that become important online without resorting to bullet point lists and tedious tutorials. The multiplayer, meanwhile, seems to have refined things in such a way that it's genuinely simpler to understand, but still handles in familiar fashion.
Today, in the first half of our two-part interview with Mahnken, we discuss how this came together; what Irrational learnt from the previous two, what was involved in adapting the game to fit the licensed Unreal Tournament 2003 technology, how the infamous skiing practice evolved to become what it is now, and talk about multiplayer issues like balancing, mixing and matching modes, and why the game is capped at 32 players. Make sure you check back tomorrow for the second part, when we get round to community involvement, the team's view of the single-player component, the ongoing beta test and what impact the lack of Tribes development veterans on the team has actually had on the process.
Eurogamer: What lessons have you learned from the previous games in the Tribes series?
Chris Mahnken: That Tribes is a hard game to master. All videogames have a lot of skill involved in them, but I think that Tribes maybe has more than a lot of the others, simply because movement is such a huge part of the game. So if you watch new players, they can be experts at other shooters, but watch them come in and start playing Tribes for the first time and they're really not good at all. We have to find ways to make it easier for those sorts of people, who are maybe expert Quake players or expert Battlefield 1942 players, who haven't played Tribes before; a way for them to come in and learn various different aspects of the game, so that they can play online without, er, getting their asses handed to them.
Eurogamer: Was it difficult to adapt the traditional Tribes gameplay to the Unreal engine?
Chris Mahnken: There were areas where it was difficult and areas where it wasn't. We started with the Unreal [Tournament] 2K3 engine, and we just immediately scrapped large portions of the engine. We scrapped about 50 per cent of the renderer, and rewrote that, and we scrapped all of the physics. [Pauses] Actually, we didn't scrap all of it. There's one thing that Unreal physics is still used for, and that is when you die and your weapons fall to the ground... That uses Unreal physics...
Eurogamer: But otherwise, is it using Havok physics now?
Chris Mahnken: Yeah, there's actually three systems. There's the old Unreal physics which is just items dropping to the ground, there is Havok which is used extensively in the single-player for items that can move around. All the vehicle physics is done using Havok. And then there's our own custom physics simulation, which is used for player movement. And the player movement in Tribes is so important and so highly specialised that we really needed to write some code that was specifically designed and specifically optimised just for that one aspect.
Unreal is a very fast game. You can move around very fast in Unreal. If you figure it out in kilometres-per-hour, the players move - depending on the version of Unreal - they moved at anywhere from about 50 to 70 kilometres an hour, which is pretty fast for a guy who's running around. In Tribes it's not uncommon to see someone hit 250, or 300 kilometres an hour, so dealing with player-terrain collision at that rate of speed was something that the Unreal engine just couldn't get, so we scrapped it, put our own in.
Eurogamer: You mentioned the speed of the thing. Have you changed or refined the way that skiing actually works at all, or is it basically the way it was in previous games but in this engine?
Chris Mahnken: It's similar to the way that it was previously, but we have refined it. [Pause] I'm not sure what the best way to put this is. In Tribes 1, early on in the beta, there was no way that you could possibly have skied. What happened was you were in the air and when you landed you just stopped; I mean you stopped dead. It was sort of like everything had 100 per cent friction. It was a world of crazy glue. And it felt really wrong, so what the developers did was they put in a short space of time when you went from no friction down to 100 per cent friction, so you would land on something and skid to a stop. Players rapidly figured out that if you jumped really quickly in that timeframe, that you would land with zero friction and jump before your friction got very high and you would basically skip across the ground without any friction, and that's where skiing came from, but really it was just jumping fast.
People broke a lot of keyboards doing that. Then people wrote scripts to make it easier to do, so basically you could hold the spacebar down and automatically jump. Tribes 2 continued that, and made it so you automatically jumped if you held the spacebar down. We've taken it one step beyond that and just decided, well, skiing is just an aspect of the player's armour. When they hold the spacebar down they go into a skiing mode and basically they become frictionless. All the maps are designed with that in mind, the gameplay is designed with that in mind, the physics engine is definitely designed with that in mind.
And the ability to move fairly fast is relatively easy. As you get up to around maybe 150 kilometres an hour or so, or 125 maybe, somewhere in that range, it starts to get more difficult. And being able to consistently go 200 kilometres an hour is getting fairly difficult. Then with very expert players, they might be able to go 250 kilometres an hour all the time. There's no cap on how fast you can go. But then, there's no cap on, for instance, how many goals David Beckham can score in a game, but there are practical limits. So... someone like David Beckham has a lot better chance of scoring a hat trick in a game than I do, and that's the skill difference.
Eurogamer: We understand you can mix and match classes. Presumably that relates to mixing and matching elements at inventory stations...
Chris Mahnken: Yeah. Most games you play, you spawn and decide 'I'm going to be the medic now' and off you go and you're the medic until you die. In Tribes we have the idea of the inventory station; there are three different armours (light, medium and heavy armour), there are four different jetpacks, there are a number of different weapons, and you can mix and match. Any time you want you can go up to an inventory station and change any of your gear; you can change armour, you can change packs. If you grab a repair pack, you're a medic to some extent. You get heavy armour and a mortar, then you're artillery. And you can change it on the fly as you see the need, or as the need arises for your team. Do whatever you want, and mix and match what you want. People come up with different combinations that suit their play style better.
Eurogamer: One of the things we saw a lot of when we played Tribes 2 was that people would pick up a sniper rifle, and they would go to a remote point on the landscape somewhere and just pick people off endlessly because the sniper rifle had unlimited ammo. Have you done anything to address issues like that?
Chris Mahnken: Yeah it doesn't have unlimited ammo any more. Right now - it's subject to play balance and so on - but right now the sniper rifle comes with ten shots of ammo. It's not a default, so when people get killed it's rare that you find sniper rifle ammo on them, so typically you run out of your ten shots and then you have to go back to an inventory station and get more and then you come back out. It also still uses energy the way that it did before, so there's a penalty in using the sniper rifle. You shoot and you have no energy left. It uses all available energy. This means that as soon as you shoot you've sort of immobilised yourself to a certain extent; you can't use your jetpack until your energy comes back. So there are definite drawbacks to the sniper rifle. It's one of the most powerful weapons in the game, but it also has these drawbacks.
Eurogamer: But you could presumably still take a dispensary somewhere and set yourself up with a sniper rifle.
Chris Mahnken: You could, but it'd take a little bit more effort, and once people find out where you are... That sort of ties you to one spot even more, and makes it very easy for people to go out and they don't even have to kill you, they just have to find your inventory station, destroy that and they're done. Now you've got however many shots you have left, and you either have to go back and get another inventory station or go back to your base and get more ammo.
Eurogamer: We talked about mixing and matching classes. We've also read somewhere that you'll be able to mix and match gametypes in multiplayer. How does that work?
Chris Mahnken: Yeah. The way that that works is... We came up with this idea called UGM - the Universal Gaming Model, or Universal Gaming Mode - and basically what it is is a sort of geeky programmer's way of saying that all the gametypes are just objects that you can place onto a map. So if I place two flag stands and two flags, and then in the property screen in the map designer I assign those to two different teams, I've got a Capture The Flag game. If I then put up two goals, and put a ball in the middle, then I've got a CTF game going with Ball [another gametype] going at the same time, and you can play both at the same time, and I can score a point by capturing your flag or I can score a point by throwing the ball into your goal. So all of these things just sort of work automatically and you can add stuff in to the map...
Eurogamer: Is that all done in the map editor, TribesEd?
Chris Mahnken: Yep.
Eurogamer: That's based on UnrealEd.
Chris Mahnken: Yeah - it's modified, and we fixed some bugs, added some features.
Eurogamer: How many gametypes have you got now? We heard five.
Chris Mahnken: Yep there is Capture The Flag, Ball, Fuel, Rabbit, and Arena.
Eurogamer: How does Fuel work?
Chris Mahnken: Fuel... On a typical Fuel map, there are three fuel depots. Yours, the other team's, and a neutral fuel depot. Whenever a player spawns, it takes one unit of fuel out of their fuel depot, and when they get killed they drop that unit of fuel and the other team can pick it up. So you run around gathering fuel, and if I've got ten units of fuel on me, I drop all ten and the other team can pick up those ten. I can also go to your fuel depot or the neutral fuel depot and extract fuel from those, so I can steal fuel from the other team. Basically the idea is you start with around 20 units of fuel and whichever team gets to 100 first wins. So you start with some, the other team starts with a little bit also, and there's a whole bunch in the middle, and you start stealing each other's fuel and killing each other and whoever fills their depot first wins.
Eurogamer: And how does Arena work, for the benefit of anybody who might not know?
Chris Mahnken: Arena is 'you lose and you're out' team deathmatch. So if you play five on five, and all ten people spawn at the same time, then you're out, and whichever team has someone left at the end wins. And that was a very popular mode of play for a long time in Tribes 1 and Tribes 2.
Eurogamer: What's your upper player limit?
Chris Mahnken: We don't have a technical limit; we haven't set a specific limit. We decided at the start that we wanted to make the game a little smaller and more intimate than it was in Tribes 2. All of our maps and testing has been designed around a 32-player maximum. There's nothing to say you couldn't run a 50-player server, or a 64-player server or something if you have hardware that will actually do it, but we haven't been overly concerned with whether people will be able to do that or not. If we have to report an official number, it's 32. The game is designed for up to 32 people.
Eurogamer: Obviously a lot of games now have much larger limits. Battlefield will do 64, and Joint Operations will do over 100. You say you made a decision to make it more intimate - do you think that's a better approach?
Chris Mahnken: It's a different approach. The reason we opted for that was Tribes 2 had maps were designed for large numbers of people - up to 64 - and if you were playing on a map that's designed for 64 players and you've got 20 people on it, it feels pretty empty. Even when you've got 64 people playing 32 on 32 on a map like that, the amount of time it takes for you to get from your base to the enemy base can be quite long, and we just made the decision that transit time is not fun. The amount of time it takes for you to get from your base to the enemy base where there's action happening, and all of that space in the middle where there's no action happening, was wasted time, and we didn't want to worry about that, so we made much smaller maps. It should be very fast from the time that you spawn to the time that you see action.
Even if your base is safe, and you have to go to the other base to find more enemies, it should be fast for you to get there. You shouldn't have to wait a long. So that's the primary reason we went with smaller numbers. That and from a competitive standpoint, if you're trying to manage a competitive team of people, if you're playing in a league that has 20 on 20, you probably have to get 30 people in your team in order to field that 20 people when the time comes. And keeping 30 people organised and willing to actually participate is nearly impossible, particularly on the Internet, so we wanted to go with smaller teams partly because it's easier to organise and it's easier for leagues to deal with.
For more on Tribes: Vengeance, check out our single-player impressions piece here, and check back tomorrow for the second half of our chat with Chris Mahnken.