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Titanfall interview discusses inspirations, playtest surprises and South African flair

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Of all the games revealed in 2013, Titanfall is the one that has most ably been able to run away with the collective imaginations of gamers the world over, starkly contrasting itself against modern-day military first-person shooters by focussing on extremely fast-paced and fluid mobility for soldiers on the ground with double jumps and wall-running techniques, while also providing gigantic, hulking and controllable mechs – or titans – that are able to turn the tide of war in an instant.

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The near-future setting for Titanfall affords developer Respawn Entertainment a certain amount of freedom in the studio’s debut creation, but as we learned during an interview with the game’s producer, Drew McCoy, the team behind what promises to be 2014′s most exciting game strictly adheres to its own principles for fun with enough wiggle room for constant and rapid iteration to ensure that the game continues to be entertaining for months to come.

You can read over our initial impressions of Titanfall from E3 2013 over here, and our hands-on impressions from gamescom 2013 over here, but don’t miss our interview with McCoy below for more information on the team’s response to gamers’ reactions to Titanfall, the inspirations that Respawn has drawn from, the possible return of the studio’s previous concept, South African flair, and much more:


El33tonline: To start out, can you talk a little about player customisation?

McCoy: We can’t really talk about it, no… We’re going to have it, it exists! That’s about as much as I can tell you. [Laughs]

El33tonline: I suppose you can’t talk about the currency or anything you use to progress? Anything you earn?

McCoy: No, sorry… [Laughs]

El33tonline: OK… Changing tracks, how has your approach changed in developing for a single console – Xbox One – and PC compared to developing for many different platforms? Advantages, disadvantages?

McCoy: So we’re developing for Xbox One and PC, and another studio is doing the Xbox 360.

It’s been really beneficial in that our engineering time can be really focussed, adding more platforms is really hard. You usually have to re-write your renderer [for each platform] and parts of the engine have to be re-architected. This is our first game and we’re a pretty small studio, and the man-power required for it would have been impossible to do more platforms as well as keep the quality high.

We want to be known as the company that releases really polished, functional and fun games, and that would have been compromised.

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El33tonline: The initial response to Titanfall was just overwhelming. At E3, and also at gamescom, I hear all the time ‘You have to play Titanfall!’

How has the team responded to that reaction and how have you kept a level head for the months ahead?

McCoy: Before we unveiled at E3 we didn’t know how it was going to go. Hardly anyone had seen the game, outside of Respawn, and we had been working on something that was just what we wanted to make. We didn’t know if other people would be on the same page as us. So at E3, to have such a good reception was awesome.

I was a mess the day before E3 started, just ‘Oh man, how is this going to go?!’ And then afterwards, we were all really excited and celebrated and it was like, ‘Yeah, we did a great job,’ but then we started looking forward.

One, we have to finish the game. Two, we have to live up to some expectations. And also, gamescom is in two months and we knew we wanted to get hands-on there. And then the nervousness started all over again, with ‘Now that they’re going to play it, are they still going to like it?’

We’re some of our harshest critics, and we still don’t realise that, so we need to understand that if we enjoy it, and we can’t put it down, then that’s a pretty good bet that other people are going to enjoy it as well.

El33tonline: Following on from that, after that initial response and seeing the action explode in the demo room and in trailers – are you confident that players will continue to enjoy the action after ten hours, twenty hours, one hundred hours, three hundred hours?

McCoy: One of the things that we’ve been trying to realise throughout development is the idea that everything you do ‘feels’ right and it’s part of the universe. When you walk up to your titan and it prompts you to enter, it doesn’t just blink and you’re inside your cockpit all of a sudden. No, it actually picks you up and puts you in and you see it all happening. It goes dark as the hatch closes and brightens up as the screens turn on – we go through tons of effort for these little details that really make the experience. It all feels right and I can keep going.

The proof is in this build [of the game] that we have, I’ve been playing for months and I still… if someone leaves early from one of the press sessions, I hop on for just five minutes and I’m like “Yeah, let’s go, let’s do it!” So it definitely has that addictive ‘just one more round’ quality to it. At least in my opinion, I hope everyone else who plays it agrees.

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El33tonline: Can we expect different mech designs going forward?

McCoy: We’re only showing one type of mech here, but we’ll be talking about that more later.

El33tonline: What kind of reference material have you looked at for Titanfall, there’s anime, movies, other games – have you looked at other source material?

McCoy: Oh yeah, not just our art department but our designers – everybody! – we all have input into the game, we’re a very collaborative studio, it’s not like, ‘Here’s a design bible now go and make whatever’s written down…’ We’re all playing and iterating and giving feedback.

Visually, some of the inspirations would be District 9, now Elysium as well, there are a lot of parallels in our game with those movies, it’s pretty mind-blowing. The original Star Wars, Bladerunner – the kind of grounded and gritty sci-fi. It’s not Mass Effect where everything’s pretty shiny, very high tech and futuristic.

And then games… we’re inspired by all games, we’re all gamers and we all have been our whole lives. From back in the day from DOOM all the way up when it comes to shooters, and we take inspiration from other stuff. I mean, our lead designer was a designer on God of War. Our inspirations and experience comes from all sides.

Further Inspirations

El33tonline: Did you look at other games to see what did and didn’t work with similar themes and gameplay, like Tribes, or Shogo, or Prince of Persia and Mirror’s Edge in terms of wall-running abilities?

McCoy: We tend to play most games, and any big game or if someone even finds a game that’s pretty unknown, we’ll take it into our conference room and grab people, like ‘Hey, come check this out, let’s see how it is,’ and we expect everyone to know how other people are doing and yeah, we take inspiration from all sorts of stuff.

I remember early on when we started the company, and we were still figuring out what we wanted to do, people were bringing in games and saying ‘Oh, do you remember that one game,’ and with Tribes we had a company-wide playtest of that for a whole afternoon, we just fired up Tribes and were like ‘Oh yeah, remember you could ski and there were jetpacks and all this other stuff!’ Revisiting old things, talking about games that we were excited for and were then disappointed by because the execution maybe wasn’t good enough.

We went through a whole phase of just, pre-production, prototype, figuring things out that really helped guide us.

El33tonline: I’ve heard that the initial design for Titanfall was very different from what it is now, can you talk about what it was…

McCoy: It might come back!

El33tonline: Oh, I see!

McCoy: So we’re still kind of keeping it under wraps. During the course of development, a good skill to have is to know when to cut something, but don’t throw it away. It can always come back.

It’s because we only have so much time, we could work on this game forever and we have so many ideas and so much stuff we could iterate on and make better, but sometimes you’ve got to say ‘You know what? We’ll shelve that for now, what we have we want to make really good, and that’s what’s important right now.’ But that other stuff could be resurrected.

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El33tonline: What is your personal favourite feature of Titanfall, and maybe one of your favourite moments from playing the game that cemented the experience for you?

McCoy: For so long we were busy working on these individual mechanics and throwing them in the pot, so we have titans you can get in and out of and when you’re out of them they turn into AI-controlled titans, we have the vortex blocker for the titan that can suck up rockets and machinegun fire, you can jump on the back of a titan and rip off the panel and shoot him, and do all of these things.

And I was watching someone play, and they’re in a titan, an enemy jumped on their back and you can hear them scrambling around ripping the panel off. So the player gets out of his titan, turns around with a rocket launcher, shoots the guy off of his [titan’s] back, but because the titan was in AI mode it vortexed the rocket, the enemy jumped off of his back, the AI titan turned around, let go of the rockets and exploded the enemy.

It all happened in the space of three seconds, and it worked and it was awesome and it was one of those moments of like ‘Oh yeah, this is it, this is happening, this is real!’

Aside from that, in any match I’m playing when I’m wall-running – I was a big Quake and Unreal and Tribes player so I love mobility and learning routes around maps – so I love when I’m gaining momentum, wall-running and getting really fast, I look down and there’s a huge four-on-three titan battle with explosions and people popping into the air ejecting, and ships coming in and dropping off AI as they zipline down… all while I’m just doing my thing… and I realise that I just can’t get this experience anywhere else.

It fulfils a piece of me that I’m so happy about because I feel as though that kind of game went away a decade ago. I’m so happy that we’re bringing it back even a little bit.

Campaign Multiplayer

El33tonline: Can you explain how the cinematics work and if those are going to be random every time per map, or how does that all fit together?

McCoy: So in the campaign multiplayer, it’s a linear progression of the level so it’s not like ‘Oh, I’ll just randomly choose a level and play some cinematics.’ It is, ‘You’ll play this level, this is the story of that level and this is what’s going to happen with the characters, then you’ll go to this one and that one…’ you just happen to be doing it in a multiplayer environment.

Usually there’ll be something that happens at the beginning that sets the story and your mission and what you’re supposed to be doing, stuff will happen, like in this level in Angel City, the IMC send in a carrier ship that warps in from space and plants itself over the city and then deploys fighter ships around. Then there’ll be an ending to the level, so without getting in the way of people just playing multiplayer, we’re trying to tell a story and introduce you to characters and give you context for the things that you’re doing.

El33tonline: So in pure multiplayer there’ll be no cinematics?

McCoy: Correct, in… we don’t have a name for it yet, but if you think of a classic multiplayer that you just party up and say ‘Let’s just go play team deathmatch,’ then you’re just playing team deathmatch.

El33tonline: During your playtests have you seen people shying away from the titans and having the preference to be a pilot?

McCoy: Absolutely, I’m one of those guys. People see the game, and our keyart is this giant robot, like ‘Oh, that’s so cool!’ So everyone initially thinks ‘Man, you’ve got to get your titan! That’s the only thing worth doing, right? It’s a big war machine, you want to blow everything up with it.’ But that’s actually not how we want it to be.

There are different playstyles so we want it to be more of a choice that you can make. Maybe there are three titans and I want to call mine in and try and take them down and take them on, or maybe I just want to run around snapping guys’ necks while running from rooftop to rooftop, so that’s what I’m going to do.

In our playtests and looking at the stats of who does what, people play more often as the pilot than a titan partially because you can’t always be a titan and you’ve got to earn it, but even then people spend a lot of time as a pilot with a titan available that they don’t use. That’s good, that’s great, we want people to choose what they want to do and not feel as though they’re being forced into a playstyle.

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El33tonline: You’ve been reading the feedback online – have you seen anything that the team has folded back into development or anything that you’re considering?

McCoy: Not so much from gamescom just because people have such a short time with it, and from E3 it was a lot of speculation, like ‘Oh, I can’t believe they’re getting rid of singleplayer, they should add singleplayer,’ and we just have to say that that’s not the kind of game we’re making.

I hope that the people who say that they only want singleplayer will take a look at it and say ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool I want to try that out.’

But we do more elongated playtests with outside people and that kind of feedback is really helpful because they’ll play for a couple hours and then we’ll hear what clicks for them, or what’s difficult, or things that they try to do and expected to work but don’t. That kind of stuff is really valuable to us because we’re so close to it, all day, sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees.

El33tonline: What’s been the most surprising thing you’ve seen from the playtests?

McCoy: Honestly it’s been the lack of people using all of the mobility aspects of the pilot. They play it so much like a Battlefield or a Halo. Without telling them and repeating to them ‘Hey, you should really do this or that’ – which you don’t want to do because you want their unadulterated feedback – they take about an hour to start realising, ‘Oh, I don’t have to take the stairs up here I can just jump up there.’ So that’s one thing that – we have a training video here that explains all of the basics to help people understand how to play as a pilot.

You know like a shark never stops moving, you should never stop moving when you’re a pilot or else you’re going to be dead. You don’t want to be on the ground because you’re going to get stepped on, that kind of thing. The gameplay loop that we have is different to other games, so you can’t play Titanfall like other popular first-person shooters.

El33tonline: What were the initial goals and aims that you had for the project, and are you confident that you’re going to hit those or have they changed dramatically over time?

McCoy: Well the initial goals were so loose, it was ‘We’re going to make something fun and exciting and new,’ which eventually morphed into playing with the way players move around as well as playing with the scale difference, like cat and mouse, big versus little. Once we honed in on those wider goals I think we’ve really hit something that works well, and is balanced and fun, and is something that people seem to enjoy.


Bonus:

Upon hearing that El33tonline is based in South Africa, McCoy told us that there is in fact a South African influence in Titanfall:

McCoy: We actually have a South African actor in our game.

El33tonline: You do?

McCoy: You guys should feel right at home.

El33tonline: Do you have lots of different nationalities?

McCoy: We try to. We feel that people feel kind of alienated if everyone is a white American. [Laughs]


Titanfall is out on Xbox One, PC and Xbox 360 in 2014 – check out El33tonline’s current and continued coverage of Respawn’s exciting shooter for more details.

Also follow El33tonline’s coverage of gamescom 2013 for our continued impressions from the show this year, with photos, sights, sounds and more to come.


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