World War Machine - A Q&A with Tuque Games' Jeff Hattem
World War Machine marks Tuque Games' first project and Jeff Hattem's first foray into the action RPG genre. Previously the Creative Director for games like FarCry: Instincts, the Homefront franchise, and Darksiders, Jeff founded Tuque Games in 2012 around the time that THQ was bought by Ubisoft Montreal.
Recently, following six months of more intense development funded by the Canadian Media Fund, World War Machine made its debut on IndieGoGo, and we took the opportunity to learn more about the game from Jeff.
RPG Depth Meets Shooter Mechanics
Asked why World War Machine is such a departure from his previous first-person shooter titles, being an isometric-perspective action RPG, Jeff explained: ""I really loved making games like FarCry and Splinter Cell. Lately Diablo, StarCraft, and recently Path of Exile has been taking up a lot of my time... I'm trying to combine the games I like making and the games I like playing. It would have been easier for me to do a first-person shooter; it's a bit out of my comfort zone to make an action RPG, but I wanted to make the ultimate game I would love to play."
But don't confuse World War Machine too much with other action RPGs. "Our game is a lot more action-oriented than Path of Exile or Diablo, which are more tactical - how you build your character to clear mobs. With World War Machine, I guess you could say its the influence of shooter mechanics, but doing stuff like circle strafing from a top-down perspective. avoiding projectiles - these things are much more important in our game." Jeff went on to explain that while other action RPGs rely on the ubiquitous Random Number Generator to determine if you hit or get hit and for how much - World War Machine emphasizes movement and aiming.
Customization and Multiplayer
Jeff mentioning Path of Exile made me think of mad customization, so I asked how World War Machine players will be able to customize their machines. "You have five different power systems that allow your machine to be faster, more defensive, more DPS oriented, carry more loot, and so on. You can play with a slider that will reduce the cooldowns of your functions (the equivalent of spells).
"You can also have up to 6 different weapons, and if you want, you can map all 6 to your left mouse button, but then you'll overheat pretty quickly. I've seen people map a weapon to A and D [World War Machine uses WASD movement], so as you strafe, you fire... But to answer your question, it's pretty hardcore, to be honest."
World War Machine's multiplayer support aims to be robust. "It's a matchmaking service; you can play with your friends, have a friends list, or you can have an open match where people can populate in the match that you're playing. It's exactly the way Diablo works, basically."
With so many customization options, I wondered how you can tell how potential groupmates in five player co-op measure up - how they've spent their power and what you can tackle together. "We have two features that we want to integrate. Each power system has a color code - weapons are red, for example. We want to put little LED lights on the robots, and the more power you put into those systems, the brighter those lights are. It won't be too distracting visually, but you'll be able to see which systems have more power. The second thing we want to do is a pentagon next to the player portrait; the shape of it will show how the player has spent their power."
As for how the game scales to accommodate larger groups, it's not just about more enemies and more hitpoints. "It's not more enemies; we play with different variables. One thing that we do is that we don't necessarily scale the difficulty with more players, we allow players to choose the difficulty, change the damage and resistance, increase the chance that you'll see higher level enemies spawn, and adjust the loot and rewards to suit."
Boss fights are another quintessential part of the action RPG experience, and its no different in World War Machine. "The bosses are designed to have crazy strengths that are basically unbeatable, but also glaring weaknesses that force you to understand how systems are designed and to target specific systems. For example, we have a boss that is superfast, you almost can't see him on the screen. You have to target its mobility system to take out that advantage. To be able to do that, you have to put a lot of power into your mobility system to target that system."
But being a top-down game, you can't exactly point your weapon at your enemy's legs to limit their mobility. "We have a concept called coded ammo. Any ammo that you load has a specific system that it targets. You could have your machine decked out with 6 weapons that target mobility, for example, or OS. You can have up to 20 different weapons on your character at any time, but only six can be active. You can go into the "Machine Lab" - our character screen - and activate your weapons at any time. But the game is live, so you have to do this in a safe area.
Since World War Machine has been gestating in Jeff's mind for so long, I asked if he could point to any one thing that inspired the story. "I grew up with Mad Max and Blade Runner and Terminator; movies where technology is not such a good thing," Jeff laughed. "With movies like Pacific Rim and games like MechWarrior Online, Hawken, and Titanfall, I'm not sure if you could say mechs are having a resurgence... but with world events, things like foreign invasion and drone strikes, this is one sort of future I envision."
And it's a scary future: with humanity extinct, machine factions all that remains. So how will these mechs sans pilots have any kind of personality? "Let me clear up a few points first. We don't necessarily call them mechs, we call them machines, because there's no human inside. The thing to understand is that they're not AI, they're actually a human consciousness uploaded into synthetic form. They actually are people, without human bodies." Jeff noted that the player Machines have a definite skeletal form, but customization options (like capes) will add distinction as players progress.
Jeff emphasized that the prototype and earliest parts of the game are very much rock 'em sock 'em robots - the emphasis is on action, but there is a story arc where parts of the main character's past come to light."We have two key collaborators working with us. One is Daniel Wilson, author of NY Times Bestseller Robopocalypse (the film rights to which were recently picked up by Steven Spielberg. He helped us write all the backstory for the universe of World War Machine."
With a high powered author aboard, I asked if World War Machine would have storyline branching, different outcomes for being a good or evil machine, etc. "The way that we're telling the story is that we're planting facts throughout the game. You'll be able to look into data banks and logs from both general humanity and of your own personal backstory. How you piece those bits together is left open to your interpretation. It's not really branching, it's a collection of narrative fictional elements."
WIth the story so wide open, Jeff confirmed that there's plenty of room for expansion. "What we have is a general above-ground world that is generated procedurally and is different from one saved game to the next. We also have missions that randomly spawn throughout the world, which have a bunch of variables that make them fresh. Apart from levels and loot, these missions have other achievements - time, score - that you can compare with other players.
Jeff wasn't telling much about the specifics of the story - what, for example, caused human extinction. "What I can tell you is that there is a world-ending event. We know that it's coming ten years ahead of time. We have to do something about it or we're not going to survive as a race. There's a breakthrough in technology really close to the actual event, and we manage to upload our consciousness into synthetic form. We do this and try to safeguard against this by putting these synthetic forms into three mainline nodes around the world. During the event those mainline nodes get fractured and partially corrupted. Some of the robots stray from being in sync with the others."
World War Machine also tells its story through visuals. "The robots themselves are designed to be very organic-looking. We're working with WETA's Aaron Beck,and he's one of the key people behind movies like District 9, Elysium, and Avatar. The Abbadon node, the node live now in the demo, are very animalistic. The other nodes that we'll be introducing take influence from other parts of the animal kingdom. Further down the road we'll get more toward bipedal, human-looking nodes. It's a progression from very robotic, very cold to more organic towards the end."
Looking through the concepts, I asked Jeff how it was possible to animate some of these designs. "We asked ourselves the same question. They're not just classic bipedal - they have weird joints all over the place. It's a real challenge for us."
"We have a very extensive loot system. You can either get raw materials of varying rarity that you can craft weapons or components from. The weapons have different classes - rocket class, sniper class, etc. - and then the components are chips which you put into your machine that offer different improvements to specific systems. We call that [weapons and components] hardware, and it can only be earned by playing the game - you can't buy it.
"We also have gear (and that name is probably going to change because its confusing for players). Gear is the cosmetic look of your machine. Different plating for torso, legs, and arms, different heads, plus we also have some pretty funky human-style gear - capes for example - that are really just for looks."
One classic reason to choose isometric perspective is to allow for competitive multiplayer. While no PvP plans have been announced for World War Machine, I asked Jeff if competitive online gaming was on his mind. "Right now its PvE, it's eventually going to be PvP - that's definitely a direction we want to go. For us, the gameplay is geared toward crowd control, 360 degrees of danger, and its not fun in a first-person shooter when you're always attacked from the side or from behind. It made a lot more sense tactically to have that top-down camera. Competitive gameplay is definitely something we're going to add in the near future."
"It's not a game that's for everyone, to be completely blunt. If you're expecting more of a character game with big cinematics, this isn't that kind of game. This is a game that's about visceral robots vs robots, customizing to your liking, stretching the game systems to see what's possible, and developing your own playstyle."
Our thanks to Jeff Hattem and the folks at Tuque Games for telling us more about their upcoming title. World War Machine is currently in prototype phase while in funding on IndieGoGo , where $15 will get you beta access and a digital edition of the game.