Tribes And Tribulations: Part Two

In the second part of our interview with Tribes: Vengeance producer Chris Mahnken, we go over the community's involvement, how seriously Irrational takes the single-player component, making the game more accessible, and public demo plans.


Yesterday, in the first half of our interview with Tribes: Vengeance producer Chris Mahnken, we heard what the team picked up from previous games, and what it's been like adapting the game to new technology and a new audience amongst other things. Today, in the concluding part, we address the issue of community involvement, how seriously developer Irrational Games takes the single-player aspect, and how the team has tried to make the game more accessible in multiplayer without sacrificing the feel of the originals. We also talk about the ongoing beta test, system specs, Irrational's demo plans, and whether or not it matters that nobody on the team directly contributed to the core development of either previous title.

Eurogamer: Obviously the community is very passionate about Tribes. Did you consult them at all during development? What sort of influence did they have?

Chris Mahnken: Well, Michael Johnston, our multiplayer designer, is from the community. So in that respect, they've had a tremendous amount of influence. I am also from the community. I was playing competitively in Tribes 1 a long time ago before I had anything to do with the franchise [at Vivendi] and I played a lot of Tribes 2, and I didn't pick up the franchise until long after Tribes 2 had shipped, so between Michael and I, I think the community had a lot of input. And we've talked with community members over the past two years, and we've had community forums where we've brought in specific members of the community and talked to them about what they would like to see and how competitions should work and things like that. So we've taken feedback from them. We also want to make sure the game is fun for new players, and it's not just specifically designed for a super hardcore group of people.

Eurogamer: Will you be remaking any of the original maps?

Chris Mahnken: Those maps already exist and people have played them for years and years, and we've decided to spend our map design resources on new maps. We do have a little utility that one of the developers wrote that actually reads a Tribes 1 map and outputs it as a height field that can be used in Unreal, so if people want then we'll make that available to the community. It's a script for Tribes 1. You just run the map, trigger the script, and it outputs it as a height field. So yeah, if people want to remake Rollercoaster or Raindance or whatever their favourite map was they can do that, but we're not going to spend time doing that ourselves.

Eurogamer: Are you still planning to have maps with zero gravity in multiplayer?

Chris Mahnken: There is something in the single-player where there's no gravity. It would be possible for people to make a multiplayer map that doesn't have gravity [in TribesEd], but we messed around with it, and discovered that it's really not fun, so we won't be shipping any multiplayer maps that have no gravity.

Eurogamer: The single-player aspect is very much story-driven, with tutorials built in. Is it something you take as seriously as the multiplayer?

Chris Mahnken: We're very serious about it, and it's one of the reasons we selected Irrational Games to make the game, because they've got such a great history of doing that sort of thing. I knew how to make a multiplayer Tribes game; I sort of understood all that and that wasn't a very confusing thing for me. I really had no idea where to start on single-player, so we went and found a developer that could handle that really quite well on their own, so Ken Levine and the guys whose most recent game was Freedom Force and did System Shock 2, and worked on Thief and all those old Looking Glass titles and stuff.

We selected them because of that body of work that they had done, and - yeah - we're very serious about it, and I think that the story is much more ambitious than a lot more of game stories that are just, 'You're a really tough guy and you have a lot of weapons, and there are evil things taking over the Earth. Kill them all.' We haven't boiled it down to something as simple as that. There are a lot of things that are going on and you have to actually pay attention. You can play through the whole thing and just, you know, 'there's an enemy, kill it, there's an enemy, kill it' - you can get through it that way, without really understanding what's going on in the story, but you need to pay attention to what people are saying in order to understand what's going on. Hopefully people will enjoy it.

Eurogamer: It's obviously also geared towards getting people ready to go online though, as you said previously; to make it more accessible to newcomers. What have you done specifically in the multiplayer to make things more accessible?

Chris Mahnken: We did a lot of things. Tribes 1 and Tribes 2 had a lot of rough edges. Brilliant games, but there were a lot of exceptions to the rule of the sort of English language of games, or something. You know, I before E except after C, that sort of thing. So we had all of these different packs, for instance, and there was an energy pack, which was just always on. You wore the energy pack - it did its thing. With the repair, you had to switch the repair pack on then press the fire button while pointing at something to repair it. So it kind of worked like a pack, and kind of like a gun. And then there was the shield pack, which you had to toggle on and you could toggle it back off. You could switch it on and it would work and you could switch it off and it would stop working. So there were three different packs, and three different ways to use the packs, and the game was full of things like that.

What we did was we identified all these kinds of constrained exceptions, and so we said, 'every pack will work the same way', and that way is that every pack has a passive function and an active function triggered by pushing the pack button, and all of our packs will do that. So if you wear a repair pack, it repairs you all the time, and if you press the pack button, it repairs everything in a radius around you. So we did a lot of things like that, where we smoothed out a lot of the rough edges that the previous games had.

Eurogamer: How is the beta testing going?

Chris Mahnken: It's going really quite well. You know that things are going well when they pick out a really tiny thing and they really focus and they get super angry that you're not willing to change this one little thing. The game is obviously fun and they can't find anything major that they're really having issues with, so right now, er... Well this is kind of a bad example, but in the heads-up display we have a friend-or-foe indicator, called IFF, and it's just a coloured triangle about somebody's head. On previous games it was green for friendlies and red for enemies. In this game, you can see up here now [gestures to a game running on a projector nearby], you can see there's yellow for the yellow team and red for the red team, and if you're on the blue team it's blue, and so they're very upset that the red team has red IFF indicators over their heads all the time. So that's their major issue right now. [Smiles]

Eurogamer: How many of the team at Irrational worked on the original Tribes games?

Chris Mahnken: Well Michael Johnston worked on the last patch for Tribes; he made a game called Team Rabbit 2. He was also the guy who made Team Rabbit 1. But that's really not development team. Even I didn't work on Tribes 1 or Tribes 2...

Eurogamer: Do you think it matters?

Chris Mahnken: I think that it has an effect. I don't know whether it's... Sometimes I think it's a good effect, but sometimes I think it's bad. Sometimes the team just didn't understand that you couldn't do this because it was going to cause a problem, but it was the sort of thing that Michael and I did understand from a design standpoint. You can't make this weapon do this, because this bad thing will happen and we know that because we've seen it. On the other hand there were many times when they said 'We're going to do this' and I said 'No! That will be terrible!' and they said 'Well we're just going to give it a try' and they would try and it and I would go, 'Well that thing I said would terrible, I was wrong. That's brilliant. Thanks.' So it balanced out. I think that overall it was great; we had just enough experts involved in the process and fresh ideas to get where we needed to go.

Eurogamer: What system specs are you currently shooting for? What would get it to run at the level we're seeing here, with tons of detail and almost no frame loss?

Chris Mahnken: At this level? This is like a P4 3.4GHz [it may have been a 3.2GHz actually] with probably a GeForce 6800 and a gig of RAM. They were the new Radeons [X800s] in there yesterday and today we switched them out. Quite honestly the game runs really well on either. This build is not tremendously optimised... [Glances at the projector again] Ooh that was a nice shot! So [turns back] there are a variety of things that have increased frame rates that we've added since this build was made, but basically anybody who's playing competitively is going to turn a lot of the options down to optimise their frame rate. You can play at a decent frame rate with just about everything on on any sort of relatively top of the line computer. You don't necessarily need an X800; a 9800 would work fine. Still not a cheap option of course.

The game does actually run... This is below our minimum spec, but one of the beta testers has an 800MHz PC with a GeForce2 and he's running the game and having fun. He's not getting great frame rates. He's getting about 20, 25 frames per second, but I was surprised it even ran. Our goal is, I think, 1GHz, 1.2GHz machine with 256MB RAM. That's our goal. Our QA department will actually set that. They will say the game plays appropriately well on this level machine. That's not necessarily the case for every game that goes out; that's something I insist on. The guys who actually tested it and know the pain will set the spec, so QA will set that number and we'll live it.

Eurogamer: Do you have any plans to release a demo version?

Chris Mahnken: There's going to be both an open beta at some point in August, and there will also be a single-player demo available that month.

Eurogamer: Do you know what will be in either of those specifically?

Chris Mahnken: The beta will have probably two, maybe three maps and it'll be sort of like the Battlefield beta was. A limited amount of content...

Eurogamer: But enough to help you draw some conclusions?

Chris Mahnken: Yeah, at that point we'll have tuned the game fairly well and that will be our chance to say, 'Oh this configuration has got a bug in it it', or 'This sound card is causing a crash' or whatever. 'This version of the NVIDIA drivers needs this problem solved' or whatever. The single-player demo will have one map in it.

Eurogamer: The first map?

Chris Mahnken: No. I'm not even sure if we're going to give out the name of the map since the name is kind of a spoiler, but that one map is sort of an Arena map where you get to use just about every weapon and there's lots and lots of enemies swarming in on you all the time. It's a fun map. The kind of map you can play over and over and over again and get something out of it. That's fairly uncommon for a single-player game.

For more on Tribes: Vengeance, check out the first half of our interview with Chris Mahnken here, and our first impressions of the single-player component here.

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Tom Bramwell

Tom Bramwell

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Tom worked at Eurogamer from early 2000 to late 2014, including seven years as Editor-in-Chief.


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