Respawn is ready to move on.
There’s a palpable hesitance in Respawn’s staff to talk much about the event — the point more than three years ago when Respawn founders Vince Zampella and the since-retired Jason West were fired by Activision from their last studio, Infinity Ward, later taking dozens of their former employees with them. It was an acrimonious split that chased Activision and the nascent Respawn for years as both parties sought to disentangle themselves from complicated legal agreements, complaints and contractual disputes. Even the driest news coverage painted these events as a tiring ordeal, and Respawn has clearly grown weary of talking about them. "Our mantra is a brand new start,” said Joel Emslie, one of Respawn’s artists.
But discussing the past is the only thing that threatens the palpable relief and enthusiasm on display at this year’s E3. The development veterans who created Modern Warfare and the team they’ve assembled are making their debut with Titanfall, an online-only multiplayer-focused shooter that takes all the chances they never could with a billion-dollar juggernaut. And this approximately 65 person team may have stolen the show.
Respawn started pre-production on its then-untitled game back in 2011, originally for current generation consoles. As the team tried to pinpoint what their first project would be, they searched for a technological foundation to build on. They found it in an unlikely place: Valve’s Source engine. While few titles outside of Valve’s own games and independent mods have used Source this generation, a number of factors made it a good fit for Respawn.
"We were kind of interested in Source early on because it’s very familiar to our designers," said Richard Baker, a software engineer at Respawn who previously worked on Call of Duty 2, Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2. Source also suited Respawn’s desire to hit a constant 60 frames per second on both the Xbox 360 and the PS3, where other third-party engines weren’t up to the task. "The ironic thing is that we wanted an engine that would work on PS3, because that’s the riskiest platform in current gen. When Portal 2 came out and it seemed to be a pretty decent PS3 game, that was the point when we decided to go with Source. And then we stopped supporting PS3."
"(Moving to next-gen) was a great excuse to take what we had started with and push it a little further."
Respawn soon encountered the hard realities of developing on five and six-year-old consoles with ambitions grown larger after the success of Modern Warfare and its sequel. As the team began building out the basic mechanics and structure of Titanfall, they realized that their time might be better spent there than in pulling a technological rabbit out of their hat. "We were very worried about the technical constraints of trying to fit on 360, and trying to optimize a bunch of code that was going to make (release) really tight on a generation that was almost over," Baker said.
"(Moving to next-gen) was a great excuse to take what we had started with and push it a little further," Emslie said, agreeing with Baker’s sentiments. "There’s a lot of kind of jerry-rigged techniques that we were using last gen that we no longer have to do."
Respawn has now fully moved on to next-gen development on Xbox One and the PC. While an Xbox 360 version was also announced this week at Microsoft’s E3 press conference, it’s being handled externally. More curiously, EA and Respawn have refused to discuss the Xbox 360 version or to divulge the studio working on it, though Respawn insists they’re working closely to ensure their partner is getting what they need to make a game that lives up to Titanfall’s next-gen versions.
This would be an impressive feat, given the size and scope on display in Titanfall. The concept of Respawn’s human-mech collaboration and confrontation across a story-driven multiplayer battlefield came after much discussion and debate internally.
"Going into it, I think we threw a bunch of ideas out there," said Emslie. "Everybody had a great idea — that’s the problem when you have a bunch of people like that. And trying to settle on one idea was really difficult."
"(Going multiplayer only) wasn’t a right-off-the-bat thing ," said Producer Drew McCoy. "We spent a lot of time figuring out what we wanted to do." Respawn was realistic about the team size and time and work necessary to create a more traditional first-person shooter. McCoy explained that for most studios, single-player campaigns and multiplayer modes are designed by different teams, each requiring an enormous amount of resources.
"At a studio like ours, where we have about 65 developers, development time is a very valuable resource," McCoy said. "We always said ‘it would be so much better if we didn’t have to worry about the other half.' But we didn’t want to ignore either half, and to combine our strengths in those really cool moments and characters and events that happen that people will talk about at work the next day, and have a storyline that we hope will have people playing for months and years down the road."
Singleplayer structure, multiplayer missions
"The result is an experiment in scale. 'It's a battle of small scale versus large scale," says Fukuda, "a battle of pilots against pilots against Titans.' But it's the appearance of a short introductory cinematic and a post-mission epilogue, the latter doubling as an extended mission itself, that Fukuda says blurs the line between how multiplayer is traditionally structured and the structure of single-player campaigns.
Titanfall uses framing devices in its multiplayer missions to introduce the mission at hand, and then change it altogether. The mission shown during today's E3 event begins in a helicopter hovering above a cement-grey, abandoned complex of buildings and dusty, dirt paths, where they are briefly introduced to fellow pilots — and their mission — before dropping to the ground via zip rope.
It's a variation on a familiar theme; however, after each hard point is successfully captured, the game moves to an epilogue which shifts your focus from ground battles to the numerous drop ships in the air. All players are tasked with reaching a drop ship within a time limit, shooting through enemies that pilot their own mech Titans, in an attempt to reach the ship before its take-off." (read more)
As Respawn’s staff went through numerous concepts for the game itself, they struggled to lock down what would make their world and gameplay unique. As they experimented with multiple play styles and player abilities, they settled on three main goals: mobility, survivability and merging multiplayer mechanics and pacing with cinematic storytelling more at home in a proper solo campaign. And Respawn found a proper framing device for the game in what Emslie called the "second skin."
"We started off with a human-sized suit, and then the designers started going into ideas of going bigger, and asking ‘what if we could take cover around buildings and stuff.' I took (a) plastic model kit and threw a little guy in there and said 'let’s try this.' And so we went there."
"I took (a) plastic model kit and threw a little guy in there and said 'let’s try this.'"
What Respawn arrived at became Titanfall. Players are dropped into battle on the ruined landscape of a revolution-ravaged planet and assigned traditional shooter objectives such as point capture. But players also have access to giant anthropomorphic battle tanks called titans. Titanfall’s gameplay loop revolves around the cat-and-mouse interaction between pilots and titans as a wider battle unfolds in the sky above. Each mission is also populated by AI "popcorn enemies," so-named because of their short, explosion-punctuated lifespans. "Players like getting constant kills," McCoy said. "They don’t like being killed constantly."
The result is a dynamic game full of ridiculous potential for emergent gameplay moments. As pilots jump into the sky, held aloft by jetpacks, running along walls and hurdling over obstacles, titans patrol the ground looking for careless, naked players to cross their path. Titanfall’s world feels active and frantic — even boarding a titan eschews boring system check procedures as your chosen robotic monster grabs you in its articulated hands and thrusts you into its chest.
"Our goal first and formost is to make a fun game."
"We’ve worked so hard on that loop," Emslie said. "It’s like making two or even three games, with all the AI in the campaign mode, making sure those grunts don’t mess with players in a cheap way, balancing that, balancing the titans, pilots, getting that loop."
The possibilities on display seemed endless, and Respawn’s promises of cinematic "holy shit" moments played out seemingly at random; at one point we watched as a player ejected from his titan and fled the battlefield, entering the doorway of a structure only to find a group of teammates holding their ground from cover under the assault of another titan. The player in question then took a side staircase and blew the titan out of the building using an RPG. As titans battled other titans, the winners often ripping the conquered pilots out of the wreckage and throwing them across the battlefield, it was hard to look away.
"There’s some crazy stuff that happens," Emslie said. "One of our designers has a recording of jumping off a building, swinging off a titan, almost half-rodeo, the titan taking a swipe at him, missing him, and him leaping into a room and smart-pistoling a bunch of AI."
McCoy emphasized that Respawn is focusing on player experience over the higher player counts that typify server-based multiplayer shooters on the PC. "We haven’t finalized player count yet. It’s not a technical question for us — we’ve tested dozens and dozens of players — it’s more of a creative and game design question. So I think what we showed on Microsoft’s stage was 7 on 7, but it really comes down to how many titans can be in play at once, how many AI, what the level is like, and what the mission is. It’s something that we change on a weekly basis and playtest a lot. Our goal first and foremost is to make a fun game."
Respawn has conducted numerous blind player tests of Titanfall, and the results of its efforts to blend multiplayer and single-player tentpoles are encouraging. "They’re playing a multplayer game and they don’t even realize it for the first 45 minutes," said McCoy. "They see all this crazy stuff happening around them, but it doesn’t click that these are people in our office playing against them." And according to every Respawn employee interviewed for this article, this is due in large part to Titanfall’s cloud-implementation.
"One of the new things … is taking advantage of the cloud to put our dedicated servers there, to eliminate things like host advantage and things like that, and introduce more stable experiences for our players," Zampella says. But Titanfall’s server-based backbone goes beyond the traditional benefits of dedicated servers for multiplayer games. "It allows us to offload all AI processing, all that single-player stuff, onto the cloud."
The "single-player stuff" Zampella alludes to includes the basic scripting and control of the world itself. All non-player activity is determined server-side, whether it’s AI "popcorn" or the massive ships that often hover over the battlefield. There are multiple practical benefits to this arrangement. Instead of having world events determined in one player’s session and uploading that information to the multiplayer server, which would then be distributed to each player, locational and movement data for the various parts of Titanfall are distributed to each player simultaneously.
"Being able to know we have those servers available allows us to focus on other things," Baker says. It also frees up system resources for the game running on a console or PC. "Before we decided to do that, our plan was to have (two of six available) threads dedicated to that, to running the 'server' on one of the (player) clients. It gives us more CPU available on the console than we’d have."
"I don’t know that we would have tried this game, had we not had access to the cloud and the servers that it gives us," Emslie said.
"Titanfall is a multiplayer-focused game. So, to play a multiplayer-focused game, you need to be online."
There are special challenges inherent to Titanfall’s heavily server-reliant design and technology as well. "The biggest problem so far has been latency between what a player sees and what the server thinks is happening," McCoy says. "In a single-player game, that’s an instantaneous connection — you know where you are, and when you go to get into your titan, when he picks you up and he puts you in his chest and you close the doors, a lot of our designers just took for granted that you program it and it works. But now you’ve got to deal with latency in there, and server-authoritative locations of players and items and weapons and objects and all of these things and it’s forced a lot of our guys to step up their game. They’re not allowed to be quick and easy with their stuff. We do lots of testing with high-latency connections, because we want everyone to have a really seamless, smooth experience."
But Titanfall’s biggest cloud-based challenge may be public perception. When asked plainly if Titanfall would require a persistent online connection, Zampella responded that "Titanfall is a multiplayer-focused game. So, to play a multiplayer-focused game, you need to be online."
Respawn isn’t alone in its move toward an always-online experience. This year’s E3 has been replete with developers and publishers playing coy about what is or isn’t an online game, and one wouldn’t have to work terribly hard to theorize that the more and more common talking point of "blurring the line between single-player and multiplayer" is a roundabout way of saying "eliminating the ability to play when not connected to the internet."
But despite the tangible excitement and show-buzz around Titanfall, there’s a great deal of online policy-related ill will among certain segments of the gaming audience toward both Titanfall-publisher Electronic Arts and partner Microsoft and their online-required Xbox One. After the furor and outrage over EA’s own SimCity this year, and Blizzard’s Diablo 3 in 2012, both of which required an active internet connection to play, Respawn is taking a risk in walking a similar path with what has quickly become the highest-profile shooter of E3.
Arguments about always-online can wait though. For now, Respawn is happy to have its game announced. Some, like Emslie, are relieved to finally be able to tell their friends and family what they’re working on. And all of the Respawn team seems excited to see public reaction to it for the first time.
The excitement and critical buzz over Titanfall is a vindication of sorts for a studio that’s been intentionally invisible for almost three years. It’s also an achievement for a team less than a quarter of the size of other modestly sized triple A development studios — Respawn has cited its size as a reason for focusing on the Xbox One (and PC) for Titanfall, for example.
It doesn’t appear that Respawn has plans to expand noticeably any time soon. Emslie explained that Respawn’s size enables a particular kind of flexibility. "I like smaller teams," he said. "I’ve worked on smaller teams in my past. The advantage is communication. And I think that when you have a team our size, we can get stuff done real fast. There’s not a lot of red tape, the management structure is smaller, we can get to the root of a problem really quickly. So I think if you run a crew as efficiently as possible, we can still go toe to toe with certain games and bring a triple A title to market. It all boils down to what we focus on. We focus on quality.
"It’s a crew that wears many hats, and I think that’s how we get by."
Editing: Chris Grant
Video: Adam Barenblat, Jimmy Shelton
Design/ Layout: Warren Schultheis, Arthur Gies
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