James Parkin: First of all, thank you for letting me interview you about the upcoming Midway game, BlackSite: Area 51. Before we begin can I get your name and official title, as well as your role in developing BS:A51?
Harvey Smith: Originally, I came to Midway to work on another (unannounced) title. I served as studio creative director for the Midway Austin studio. That was a great role, setting up the design department. But really I love being on a project. For the last 10 months of this project, which I re-worked into Blacksite, I’ve also been serving as executive creative director for the game.
JP: Can you give a little bit of detail on the story? How did the insurgency escape from Area 51 in this chapter?
HS:Our story involves US black-ops research programs: We start with the assumption that an artifact crumbled in the atmosphere and fell to Earth in the 40’s. No one is sure what it was…a ship, a communications device, a portal? Whenever people get near it, it screams in their head, driving them nuts. The artifact fragments exude weird energies and gasses…wherever they come into contact with biology, they warp it, which is what gives rise to our xenos. They’re more or less mind-less, hostile creatures that result from Earth’s biology being influenced by the fragments. The Reborn Insurgency was *created* by generations of researchers, working for the US government on perfecting the soldier. Our story involves these illegal research programs, conducted in black sites around the world, taking people and injecting them with biological materials from the xenos…POW’s, soldiers who were KIA, homeless people, illegal immigrants.
JP: Can you give us a little background on the main character, Aeran Pierce, and his team members?
HS:Pierce is quiet. Ha. Grayson is mostly the over-the-top special forces warrior. Ambrose wants to get out alive. Somers is looking for a medal. And Noa is studying the entire situation, analytically.
JP: How does the morale system for your teammates work?
HS:It’s super lightweight. If you don’t want to mess with it, you don’t have to. But ideally people will put the game on Threat Level Orange (our medium difficulty), use the squad command button a lot to direct the fire of the squad, and pay attention to their morale. Morale is a pool, based on player actions, like making headshots, giving orders, or not letting a squad mate go down. If the player is doing well, the squad’s morale is high. When morale is high, the squad is much more effective in combat and more aggressive. Also, they vocalize their mood and take cover more in low morale. The game defaults to Threat Level Yellow, but that’s aimed at super casual players. Red is frustrating for me, but Orange feels right. And it encourages me to use the squad…aim at an enemy, vehicle or position on the battle field and click the squad command button (which is RB by default). Simple, but fun. I am a HUGE fan of the games that most people play on XBL … Oblivion, Dead Rising, Bioshock, Halo 3 and CoD4. Sometimes when I play other games now, even games I love, I find myself missing the squad. They’re funny and useful.
JP: What sets BS:A51 aside from the other first person alien shooters?
HS: Lots of FPS games have cover, breakables, vehicles and squad. But our squad is easy to use (like firing a pistol) and they never get in the way. In terms of our signature elements, I’d point to the squad morale feature, small US town settings, political satire. I think our game is a lot more story-driven than most. The thing that has surprised us is how much casual players are responding to the story and dialogue. The game has *character* and it manages to be funny and gritty at the same time.
JP: What was the most difficult process of making BS:A51? Did the team ever run into any problems?HS:We ran into some significant production problems along the way, managing the tech effort across multiple studios. Unreal Technology has helped us a lot. I love Gears and the guys at Epic. (I get to hang out with Cliff once in a while, and more frequently I bump into Mark Rein in Cali or London.) This is my third Unreal project in a row, with Deus Ex being the first. No engine is perfect, but Unreal is very strong and you can see it in our screenshots.
JP: How does the whole co-op system work on Blacksite? Will we need to set up lobbies and set everything up before each mission? Or will it have a “jump in” feel where players can join at any time?
HS:Co-op is fun, but we’re still working on some polish issues. There are 32 encounters in Blacksite. As you play through a Campaign encounter, it’s unlocked for Co-op. One person hosts and invites a second player (from the Friends list in the case of a private game, otherwise in a Public game anyone can join). As I said, Co-op is fun, especially on a higher difficulty setting. But Campaign and Competitive Multiplayer are much smoother right now. (Hopefully, we’ll be able to iron out some of the wrinkles before we ship. It’s already fun, but I really would like to make it super easy to use.)
JP: How do the achievements work in BS:A51? Will they be single-player, multiplayer, or a mixture of both?
HS: It’s a mixture, including Co-op. My last title was Invisible War on the Xbox. I’m really a lot more into the 360 than I was the original Xbox. (Though my gamer score is pathetic…I played 150 hours of Oblivion, then kicked myself for not playing it on the 360. I find myself loving games like STALKER, but wishing they were on the 360.) I think our Achievements are solid, but I’d like to get much more creative with them next time. They came on line late. I will say that the icons are awesome. It was cool, working with the art team on “small” art assets again, like the old sprite days. I love the Achievement art from Stranglehold, too, btw … which we watched being done by the Chicago studio during development.
JP: What are your opinions on the achievement system that Microsoft is using? Are you a fan or is it more of a burden for developers?
HS: I love it as a tool to encourage players to explore the interesting aspects or play-styles indigenous to a specific game. (Like, for Blacksite, we’ve got Professional Motivator: Get the squad to High Morale more than 20x. And Master Delegator: Get more than 250 Focus Fire Kills using the squad.)