In the grand scheme of things, we know that humans survived. Presumably because we're fittest (whatever you made of that two-seat lady on the Tube last week), or at least fitter to survive than the average dinosaur, many of which can't even kill Sam Neill and a pair of kids in a locked room. However, back in the day, it was far less than a foregone conclusion that humans would become somewhat dominant. Hence B.C., which puts you in charge of a group of tribesmen and women living in a hostile prehistoric environment - rife with dinosaurs, rival ape-men and other evolutionary conflicts waiting to happen - and tasks you with guiding them to supremacy.
In development at UK-based Intrepid Games in conjunction with Lionhead Studios, it's one of the most ambitious projects we've ever encountered - and an Xbox exclusive. With the game apparently on track for release later this year, we spoke to Intrepid Games' Joe Rider about the developer's visionary ideas, the adaptability and spontaneity of the complex AI on display, and how the player's few-million-years of extra evolution influence proceedings.
Eurogamer: The premise - teaching humankind so that they can overcome the trials of an ancient world and survive an extinction-level event - strikes us as a very open-ended pursuit. Is it that open-ended, or is there a specific narrative path to follow with an end sequence? In other words, is it a traditional game structure, or are we looking at more of a Maxis-style 'software toy'?
Joe Rider: While the core of BC features a simulated world and subsequently plenty of sandbox style gameplay, there is a narrative that drives the player through the game and sets objectives for the player to achieve. This ensures that the player is kept moving through the world and is continually discovering new lands, creatures and exciting challenges.
Eurogamer: You've set the game at "the beginnings of mankind" - is this in an effort to make the learning behaviour more believable?
Joe Rider: In regard to the setting BC is deliberately played out in a very primitive context. This allows us to make the environment as interactive as possible and ensures that all the weaponry and technology is derived from objects found in the world space. As you begin the game at 'ground zero', every advance you make has a very noticeable effect on how effectively you play the game and overcome the challenges you face.
Eurogamer: And furthermore, in such an ambitious, learning-oriented environment, how have you overcome the obvious difficulty of a player who happens to have another few million years of evolution on his side to guide his actions? What if we wanted to demonstrate concepts like the wheel and fire to these people, for instance?
Joe Rider: The great thing about BC is that the player can do exactly that. You get the chance to become the missing link that not only ensures that the tribe of primitive man survives, but continues to prosper and grow. Discovering fire and using it to you advantage is pivotal to the gamer's experience. However, while there is a broad degree of player freedom in BC, the player is not able to innovate open-ended technology in a way that allows a break from the primitive context.
Eurogamer: At E3 last year, a certain Mr. Molyneux expressed surprise that people refused to accept B.C. as "a platform game with power-ups". Judging by the premise and demonstration though, it's something quite removed from double-jumping and frantic fetch quests of the traditional Mario 64 or Jak & Daxter mould - do you really think of it that way, and do you still think it's important to define a game in generic terms like this?
Joe Rider: BC is an action adventure game giving the player an enormous amount of freedom and variety in terms of gameplay and player experience. I think it's important to look at genre definition as a way of describing to the player what's on offer here. While there is an exciting layer of quests and experience power-ups familiar to most players in terms of structure, what makes the game really cool is the simulation and behaviour modelling so that if you go out to hunt, you are really engaged in fight for survival against a creature that is just as likely to make a decision to hunt you.
Eurogamer: At the time, that demo showed us how you can teach your cavemen certain tactics (like rolling a boulder down a hill to attack birds) by doing it yourself until they repeat it. It sounds rather Black & White-ish - is that a fair comment?
Joe Rider: There are obviously elements of the game that have evolved as part of the experience that Lionhead has acquired from developing previous titles. BC has a much greater depth of simulation than Black & White for example, and concentrates on this over very complex learning behaviours.
Eurogamer: How far can you go with things like that? Could you theoretically build a group up to the point that they could repeat an entire daily routine on your behalf?
Joe Rider: Certainly you can command tribes people to collect food and water for the good of the tribe, you can also assign characters to defend their routes and the settlement periphery, however the player is always responsible for the advancement of the tribe and all of the action unfolds around the player.
Eurogamer: Can you give us some other examples of the AI's ability to learn based on your actions? And will other cavemen be limited to following your lead, or is it possible for them to pick up on each other's actions or perhaps the actions of animals and other NPCs?
Joe Rider: As the player can take control of any one of the characters in the tribe, the tribes people benefit from direct learning from the player.
Once you have discovered an improved technology, the advancement will be available to other characters in the tribe that share the 'calling' (the skill class) of the lead character. The NPC characters in the tribe will then be able to make use of it when appropriate and when they accrued enough experience to use it.
Eurogamer: Given the obvious learning intelligence of each of your charges, how will they react if some of their fellow tribesmen and women die?
Joe Rider: Every member of the tribe has a basic emotional intelligence such that they can be upset by a fellow's death. However as these characters are really primitive in nature, they can equally take perverse pleasure in another's misfortune.
Eurogamer: Will they be able to breed of their own volition? And just how hands on will you have to get with matters like giving and taking life?
Joe Rider: When the player is in control of the environment and is successfully bringing food and water into the camp and stopping predators from raiding, the conditions will be met that allow new characters to be born into the tribe. A new child will be assigned to a parent to inherit a calling. When the child reached adolescence, a naming ceremony will take place allowing the character to enter the fold and become a functioning, playable member of the clan.
Eurogamer: How will you actually control the game in practice, given that you can control one person but that you'll be expected to help direct others?
Joe Rider: Control is very easy to express in BC. While you directly control one character at ant time, you can tag up to another four characters to form a team or hunting party around you and then cycle direct control through any character in the team. Similarly there is a unifying UI device called the roll call that allows you to assign a context sensitive task to any other character in the tribe in any part of the map.
Eurogamer: Is it possible for your character to become severely debilitated through injury?
Joe Rider: There is a real time scarring system that displays damage accrued on a character. Characters can be healed through rest and recovery or if available, can be given healing herbs in the field to speed up this process.
Eurogamer: We've seen mention of velociraptors, dodos and other animals. Obviously as a game of survival more than anything, bringing down animals for whatever reason is going to play a part - is the combat system as dynamic as the caveman AI, or will there be specific combat techniques to mete out?
Joe Rider: BC is built around a powerful player skill modifying combat system that hosts creatures from 1 to 20m in relative height and scale and allows creatures to attack as a lone praetor or in packs as appropriate. Each creature exhibits modified attacks and defensive moves relative to the behaviour modelling of the species.
Eurogamer: Presumably for the game to be in any way believable you've had to come up with a pretty interactive game world - just how interactive, and how big for that matter, is the world of B.C.?
Joe Rider: The simulation is based on modelling a working ecosystem where each creature shares a need for food, water and safety. If a creature is running out of food (for example) then it will be forced to migrate to a new nest. What effect does this have on the player? If the player has a raptor nest within a close proximity to camp, it might be useful to him to try and get rid of them. There are a number of ways in doing this. He can run in 'all guns blazing' and attempt to kill all of the raptors all off (risking the lives of his cavemen), or go the safer route and poison the raptors food supply (although this will take longer) or wait until night time and sneak in the nest using the Hunters skill and steal the eggs. It will then take them longer to reproduce and make it easier for the player to kill off.
The great things about the ecosystem are; 1) its easy for the player to see what's going on in the land as we show ecosystem details on an 'easy to understand' map screen, 2) every time you play the game you will get a different experience. Whenever we demonstrate BC at any game shows (like E3) it's a bugger to demo! Sometimes you can see some really cool goings on with the ecosystem with creatures fighting against each other, species dieing off, while other times the land will be quiet with each species appearing to observe each other anticipating attack. It makes the game completely unpredictable!
Eurogamer: Will you be able to uproot your tribe and move to other areas?
Joe Rider: The world is divided into five lands, themed on an increasingly hostile climate change as the player ascends in height to a dormant volcano range. The tribe is lead on a migration through each environment, establishing a new camp in each level region.
Eurogamer: Obviously you've spoken of rivals and the need to protect yourself against them. How will this work? Presumably their evolution will have to take on a similar pace and style to your own...
Joe Rider: The player's primary nemesis is a rival race of semi-evolved ape creatures - the simians. The simians hold the territory around the high ground so as the player migrates upland, he is forced to encroach on their habitat. While the simians offer organised opposition and can gather and use simple projectile weapons, the player can use knowledge gained in terms of manipulating other creatures in the ecosystem to his own advantage. The large predators find a simian meal as enticing as a human one.
Eurogamer: ...which makes us wonder about the possibility of multiplayer options. You've said in the past there are no plans for Live support for B.C. - is that still the case? Can you maybe conceive of a sequel that worked in the multiplayer arena?
Joe Rider: BC will make a fantastic multiplayer game. We already have plans for a feature rich multiplayer sequel for future development.
Eurogamer: Getting back to your rivals - what happens if you conquer another tribe's warriors? Will you be able to occupy their land?
Joe Rider: You will have to play the game to find out.
Eurogamer: Finally, we have to ask - is B.C. still set to ship in Q3 of this year, and will you have to, or be prepared to, compromise your original vision at all in order to hit that target?
Joe Rider: We will certainly try not to. A number of really cool features have already been slated for inclusion in the sequel development simply for the reason that not enough time is available to complete our entire wish list for this game which is already a very ambitious and exciting project.
B.C. is due out later this year on Xbox.