At this year’s Developers Conference in Brighton, I was lucky enough to catch up with Edward Stern – Lead Writer at Splash Damage – who was responsible for having a hand in the development of Brink as well a number of titles that are owned by iD Software. He was kind enough to spend the afternoon talking about his career, including his present role at Splash Damage, and also took the opportunity to tell me as to why he thought the studio had grown up since its days as an amateur mod-team developer.
Can you tell me as to what your role is and what it entails at Splash Damage?
I’m the Lead Writer over there, so I’m responsible for the conceptualizing, back-story, dialogue, cinematics… all that sort of stuff.
Which I guess isn’t that dissimilar from being a Lead Designer…
Kind of. It’s like being a “Narrative Designer”, which is one way of looking at it. But it’s not as directly involved in gameplay and “here’s what the player’s going to be doing”. It’s much more from the point of view of what the player’s experience is going to be. What do you want them to feel at any one point in time? Some of this is going to be done through the environment, some through the music… So it’s not just the lines that actors say, and it’s not just the words. In movie terms, a lot of it would be the job of the Casting Director, or the Location Scout, or the Production Designer – and I think a lot of that has to be done by the Writer working in concert with the Art Director.
So as a “writer”, do you come up with the story-lines?
Yeah. Backgrounds, settings… I’m very keen for writers to think of their job in the widest possible term, so it’s not just “the plot”. What you’re writing is the whole player experience. That’s how we experience games – it’s not just “I’ve played this game, and here’s the plot and the story”. Well, what does the whole thing feel like? What music plays when the thing boots up? What’s the menu like? What’s the player experience? That I guess is the biggest thing for writers, and the toughest thing for writers with screen-writer training to realise, is that you’re not writing the plot. The story is the sum of the player’s experiences playing the game – some of which has to do with cinematics and dialogue, but it’s a much bigger remit than just “ok we’ll write some scenes, and that’s the storytelling done”.
Just out of curiosity, but is Splash Damage mostly associated with Triple-A or indie developed titles?
We started off as a mod-team, and Splash Damage was built from the Quake 3 Fortress (Q3F) mod team with the help of iD Software and Activision who got us a developer deal. We then got to work on their IPs, and they’re not bad places to start with. We got to make Return to Castle Wolfenstein multi-player maps, then we got to make Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, then we made multi-player maps for Doom 3, and then we got to make the PC version of Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. And now we’ve just released Brink.
So we’ve been trying to build up from that initial, quite limited experience of “we can take a game that already exists and try and do something else”, to “we’re going to make something completely new from scratch”. And with Brink it was like “well, hang on… we’ve got to create our own IP”. It’s not just using someone else’s engine or someone else’s game. We were using iD Tech 4 as a game engine, but we created everything from scratch. We rewrote the engine, and every part of it – the renderer and so on, and it was a game world that we created completely ourselves.
What made you decide to create your own IP, especially when you already had backing from iD Software?
The weird thing is that we signed with Bethesda, and then Bethesda bought iD. So in the end, we ended up in the same family. We wanted to demonstrate (as a studio) that we weren’t just a mod team – that we could come up with our own stuff, so it just seemed like the next logical step for us. You want your stuff to find the biggest possible audience, and to do that, you need to make a more mainstream game. Hopefully without sacrificing the cool things which long-term, old-school fans enjoyed as well.
Brink is obviously not so much of an old-school experience, because it incorporates parkour routines. What was the reason for incorporating parkour as a form of movement?
We were trying to advance on all fronts. We wanted to do everything better, and movement has been kind of stuck in shooters for a while. We rather unkindly call it the fridge on a roller-skater problem – “oh look, you’re the super-fit marine, but you can’t climb over a chest-high wall”. You can go to a particular point and press a button, and that will play a pre-canned animation. It’s like, hang on… surely we can do better than that.
So we thought that if you can climb over a wall in real life, your character should be able to climb over a wall, and you should be able to slide under things. In real life you don’t bump into a table, you find your way around it or you jump up on it. So we knew we wanted to do something with movement, but we weren’t sure what, and then one of our Technical Designers – Aubrey Hesselgren – just came up with this really twisted, really exciting prototype. It was so good that we just thought that this has to be a really big part of the game.
How much of an influence did Mirror’s Edge have over the design?
We’d already embarked on that when Mirror’s Edge was announced. As soon as the first screen-shots were announced, we thought “oh no, everyone’s going to think we copied that”.
There are very few original ideas. We weren’t geniuses for thinking that we could do something with movement – it’s the next thing. What’s the next improvement going to come with? Is it going to amazing graphics? Well, everyone’s doing amazing graphics. Is it going to be incredible motion-capture? Well, everyone’s doing amazing motion-capture. Clearly an area of development was going to be movement, and lots of different companies have come up with slightly different solutions to changing what we had as bog standard movement.
That may be true but at the same time, apart from Mirror’s Edge (and Brink to an extent), you still see a lot of first-person shooters appropriate the “fridge on a roller-skater” movement. Why do you think free movement to that extent hasn’t really caught on?
It’s really hard to do. It’s really difficult. It sounds like a really simple thing to do, but in actuality, a lot of your sense of movement comes down to how you control the camera. We tried to model how a player’s head movement would be, and we found it to be really disorienting. What you actually have to do is simulate it, or emulate it – not actually replicate it. So you want to give the impression of movement, and that means bobbing the camera in a particular way. If you actually recreate how a player’s head moves, it’s terrifying and horrible. So, it takes a lot of trial and effort. If you’re making a game, you generally veer towards what already works. There were already a lot of people who were already utilising tried and tested methods of movement, and it was up to us to experiment and that’s what we chose to do.
You’ve obviously gone from a background where you were a mod-creator, to now where you are part of a fully-fledged professional development team. What changes have you experienced along the way – not only in terms of corporate culture but also in terms of mindset when it comes to creating the games you make?
We’ve had to grow up an enormous amount. We started off as this shambolic, amateur mod-team where we slept under our desks and crunched until a game was finished. And you realise you just can’t do that. You spend three years making a game, and people have joined your company and they have wives, kids and mortgages… You just have to organise yourself and do things on a professional basis. So we’ve had to grow up, and we’ve certainly hired really experienced people – such as Olivier Leonardi who was the Art Director on Rainbow Six Vegas and Prince of Persia, and our Lead Character Artist – Tim Appleby – who created all the main characters for Mass Effect. These are people who are extremely respected within their industry. You’ve got to do it properly, so we’ve had to grow up. Our publisher has put a lot of money behind this game, and I am effectively writing cheques that everyone is going to cash in with their work. If I am going to write something, think how many level designers, environment artists and animators are going to have to work on the back of that. I want to come to work showing that I’m focused. I want to come to work showing that I respect what they do, and I’m going to do my best job to ensure that they have the best stuff to work with. That’s very different from the attitude where you show up to work not knowing what you’re going to do, and doing everything according to an ad-hoc basis. You’ve got to be more organised…
So how long have you been with Splash Damage?
I joined them in 2002 when they just started work on Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory. I was initially a part-time freelance writer who became a full-time writer, then writer/designer, designer, game designer, senior game designer, and now lead writer.
What made you decide to transition from Lead Designer to Lead Writer?
I didn’t want to be a Lead Designer, because being a “Lead” means a lot of management and leading a team, and I’m lazy and I’m not very good at that. So it was a case of “I’ve been here a long time, and it’s kind of a senior role, but it’s much more about narrative”. I didn’t want to say something, and I had a thing against the word “Narrative Director” – it sounds a bit fancy. I wanted to be a lead, but I’m a one-man team. I’m sure at some point I’ll probably get someone to help out with the grunt work…
Is that how you operate as a Lead Writer?
I wrote everything in the game. I wasn’t leading any other writers, but it gets to the point where if in future projects… It’s not so much that there isn’t enough time to do all the writing and all the other stuff, it’s more to do with the fact that you’ve got a limited mental bandwidth.
There’s a reason in the army why they don’t give rifles to the officers. If a high-up officer is shooting at the enemy, then that is a waste of his time. He needs to be there making decisions. So you want to have officers who know how to fire rifles, but that’s not a good use of their time. They need to be directing the people who are really good at firing rifles. That’s a rather strange analogy…
So you prefer a more hands-on approach?
Well, we’ve had to because we’re a small team. Possibly in the future I might get people to help with the writing, because there is so much other stuff to worry about in terms of overall narrative – how that’s told through cinematics or motion-capture, and so on… There is an enormous amount of book-keeping and admin – Excel spreadsheets – so I realise now that it would have been really handy to have someone to just take care of all the files, and all the other unglamorous stuff like localisation when the game has to be translated into other languages. Really fiddly stuff – like tracking changes – which is incredibly dull and not particularly creative. I’m not very good at that stuff, whilst other people are, and that would free me up to be there making decisions rather than tracking down items such as individual files.
You talk about the term “creative” and also mention how you compose and write all the narrative yourself. You also hint towards Splash Damage being a studio that is very much geared towards making games which offer mainstream experiences (ie next-gen consoles and PCs) – in other words, games which require Triple-A budgets. With any kind of commercial project to that degree, it can be argued that the narrative suffers or (to put it another way) creativity suffers…
Well you’re making a game for an audience, and with a larger audience the game is going to be more conservative. You’re going to be working within the genre, and the job is to satisfy all the conditions of the genre, and then also bring something unique and special to it – which is (in some ways) more difficult then actually just going ahead and making something wacky and indie and hoping that it finds an audience. Well no, we’re going to make for a mass audience, and try to give them lots of stuff that they haven’t seen before. That’s really tough and a difficult thing to do – to make something generic, yet make it fresh. I have no idea how to make a racing game. How are you going to do something new with a racing game, or a sports game? How do you make a new John Madden, or something like that? As a designer, I have no idea how to go about something like that.
You just iterate, and because you don’t own the franchise, you just work within the parameters as outlined by the franchise holder…
Yeah, and that’s what those games are, and people don’t want them to be radically different. So our position is to give people something that they didn’t realise that they liked before. We get to be experimental and to try stuff out. Not all of it works – sometimes it doesn’t work and you have to cut it. It’s horrible, particularly when you’ve sunk a lot of time into it, but if it’s not fun for the player it’s got to go.
You’ve made a few games for iD Software, yet the last game to come out featuring iD Software IP (Wolfesnstein) was developed by Raven Software. How come you didn’t continue development duties for iD Software on their franchises?
Because we wanted to grow as a studio. We’ve had a great time with iD and Activision, and Splash Damage would not exist without iD Software.
Would you still go back and help them?
Oh yeah. We’d love to work with them again and on their intellectual properties, but it was just a case of trying to define as to what message we sent out. Do we make games based on multi-player versions of their single-player games, or can we come up with our own IP and our own worlds. So that was definitely the goal with Brink – can we create compelling, original IP? Which is why Brink has more story and more back-story than a multi-player(ish) shooter actually needs. Because we wanted to show that we could actually do it. Brink was a challenge we wanted to take on…
Parkour isn’t really that new a concept as Mirror’s Edge did it before and was a high profile release. Having said that though, Brink didn’t exactly set the sales charts alight. Why do you think that was?
I disagree. We’ve been Number 1, and have been Number 1 in more countries than we haven’t. It’s still in the Top 10, and has sold really well. It has sold very strongly indeed, which is surprising in a way, because it was always going to be a “Marmite” game – there would have been people who were never going to like it, and the people who liked it, liked it a lot.
So we thought we’ll go in, and if we’re really lucky, we’ll be in the Top 5. And it came in at Number 1, and it stayed in the Top 5, and it’s still in the Top 10. That’s amazing for a new IP! That’s really unusual, and we’re delighted with sales. So the question is: was it down to the game, or was it because it was really well marketed.
It was really well marketed…
It was fantastically well marketed. Both as a gamer and as a developer, you don’t want to think that it’s all down to the advertising budget. You’d like to think that it’s something to do with the game. I think that when people keep on buying it, it can’t be a case of it being an initial sales splurge anymore, it has to be something deeper – like word of mouth from when your mate played it and really enjoyed it.
It can’t be as bad as Duke Nukem Forever which keeps selling like hot cakes…
I can’t talk about any other game.
Where do you see Splash Damage going from here now that you’ve completed Brink?
Well, we’ve still got to finish that off. We’ve still got DLC coming out, which we promised for June. It just takes a really long time to get this stuff certified – because you’ve got to pass it through Sony in order to get it on PS3, and Microsoft to get it on XBox 360, and that’s just a really complicated and long drawn-out process. So it’s kind of frustrating, but we’re still supporting the game and addressing balancing issues.
How much support do you have from Bethesda in order to accomplish all of this?
Obviously it’s a huge reliance on them, and they’ve been fantastically helpful. And just getting stuff certified is a really big and complex thing. It’s one of those things that’s really frustrating as a gamer because you just think “well, why isn’t it done yet”? And gamers shouldn’t have to know how complicated something is to be certified for download through PSN or MS Live. But unfortunately there is a lot of fiddly stuff that needs to be done behind the scenes.
You’ve mentioned Sony and Microsoft, but what about your plans to take some of your existing titles and converting them to Nintendo’s future Wii-U console?
We’re taking a look at it, but it’s still very early days yet.
Have you seen the Wii-U or heard much about it?
I haven’t had a chance to check it out.
What do you think of the Wii-U based on the coverage it has received?
I really haven’t seen it enough – we were so busy finishing Brink. That’s one of the the frustrations about making games, in that you are effectively cut off from what else is going on.
Obviously with the new Wii-U coming out, there is speculation that a new generation of consoles is around the corner. Do you think the market is even ready for a new hardware cycle?
I really couldn’t say. All my concern is on creating the narrative side and in terms of business strategy, I wouldn’t be qualified to say. It’s been very interesting that we’ve had such a stable console cycle. We’ve had the XBox 360 for a while, as well as the PS3 for a while. And the longer we’ve got those, the easier it is for developers to work out how to use them well, and to get the most out of the existing hardware without having to worry about learning a whole new way of doing stuff. So I think developers would really be quite happy to stay with current hardware for a while, but we clearly can’t do that. Hardware moves on, and there’s only so much you can do with the current gen.
Crysis 2 is a game that is representative of what can be achieved on current gen technology, and considering that Brink and all of Splash Damage’s previous games have been shooters, which 3D shooters would you regard as being your favourite?
I really like how different they are, and how they aren’t all the same style and aren’t concerned with the photo-realistic war thing – although having said that, I was playing the last Medal of Honor game recently and thinking “this is fantastic”. It’s really good. I was thinking that it’ll be contemporary shooting, and I was amazed with the faithful recreation of stuff. I actually felt really angry at myself – thinking “hang on, I heard about this incident. Why is it taking a game to make me realise just what a horrific situation that was…” I think they did an amazing job with that.
But then look at Borderlands. That has a brilliant art-style and is a fun thing. It’s like Diablo and is a dungeon-crawler, but it’s outside. Left 4 Dead is fantastic and that’s a totally different game style. Team Fortress 2 is a brilliant thing – totally different again.
There’s different itches you want scratched. Sometimes you just want to play Counter Strike, which is a set game experience. Other times, you want something hardcore and twitchy like Call of Duty or Medal of Honor.
I don’t think I have one favourite. It’s great that there is so much variety, even in the shooter genre. I think that is really good for gaming.
Considering that you have worked with iD Software and would like to work with them again. If you had a choice, which development studio would you most like to work with in future?
We’d take it on a case by case basis. It’s lovely to have choices, and it’s a lovely position to be in. That’s one factor, but there are others – what kind of game is it, what does the project involve etc. Clearly the development studio is a really big part of that, but there are other factors to consider as well. Also, that’s well above my pay grade. I get told what game we’re making, and I try to work out how to tell a story about it. It’s not down to me to decide as to which direction we should be proceeding in as a studio.