Making Of: Operation Flashpoint

By Kieron Gillen on October 5th, 2007 at 1:15 pm.

[Flashpoint has the dual appeal of being simultaneously one of the most realistic takes on the Soldier game the medium has ever seen and the only one where you can engage in the sport of Tractor hunting in an attack chopper. I’ve interviewed Marek and his brother a few times over the years, and they’re one of the more gloriously eccentric and constantly enthusiastic developers I’ve met. Last time I was over there, talking about Armed Assault we had a lengthy discussion about how they were programming Butterflies. They develop incredibly militaristic games and they obsess over butterflies. It’s hard not to love them.]

The first casulaty of war is polygon counts.

Before Bohemia released their classic Soldier-Sim, I had a chance to chat to director Marek Spanel about his life growing up as a games devotee in the Czech Republic. He described sneaking their first computer into the country after a trip to Switzerland. And then, realising there was no way to load or save data, jury-rigging cables to perform the task with their tape recorders. And then learning to program games so, finally, they could achieve their objective of playing a game.

Bohemia are nothing if not shaped by their experiences. And the realistically-tinged eighties-set wargame directly mirrored that. “It was definitely influenced from living behind the Iron Curtain in communism,” Marek explains, “As a kid, listening to the voice of Americans on the radio, and really seeing things from the other side. That was a big influence: a fight against Russians. When you lived in Communism, you felt different about it than when you lived in a Western country and didn’t mind or didn’t understand. We got inspiration to create a kind of anti-communist game.”

However, it was a long and winding route to get there, stretching back before they even were called Bohemia. Not for them the simple design-doc to game in two years of many developers. Its roots goes back years, to the consoles of the early nineties. “We were a long time fan of old computers like the Atari,” recalls Marek, “ In fact, we were working on the Jaguar console in games development. We were working on a 3D game with massive environments of large islands. It was fairly unique, but was never released.” It was eventually put out on the Atari Falcon, the ill-fated sequel to the Atari ST. “The game was fairly good, but it was commercially a disaster for us,” remembers Marek. Entitled Gravon, it sold just over 400 copies.

Tractors call me The Death That Flies On Spinning Blades.

This left them at an impasse. “We didn’t know what to do,” Marek grins, “What platform to work for?” Perhaps the PC? “We hated the PC!,” Marek growls, “PC? No! Evil Platform!”. Luckily, DirectX was released, along with the first 3D cards. The PC metamorphed from an ugly, awkward duckling to an attractive swan. “We became converts,” Marek states succinctly.

“We decided to develop a simple shooter game called Rio Grande,” explains Marek, “It was a 3D clone of River Raid from the 8-bits. We made a small demo which took us two months to create… but then we saw it and it was so boring. It was nowhere near the game we’d already completed. We didn’t like doing such small scale games. We wanted to do a massive open-world game with no boundaries.”

The route to Flashpoint is becoming clearer, but they weren’t quite there yet. “We started with a concept where you controlled helicopters and APCs, called Poseidon,” says Marek, ”Operation Flashpoint an evolutionary process, where we expanded from that. It took us maybe three years to get more of the gameplay into it”. It was originally quite different. “It was more of a science-fiction/post-nuclear game where you were the last survivors after an apocalypse,” Marek claims, “The last 100 US soldiers and the last 100 soviet soldiers met on an island, and didn’t have any better ideas what to do other than just to fight each other, and they’re the last people on the world.” Worryingly credible.

This gent looks oddly like Jim Rossignol.

“We then changed the game into a more real world setting,” Marek continues, “At the same time, we were forced to change the gameplay concept from a fully dynamic campaign to more pre-set objectives.” This was a major alteration, as originally the Flashpoint’s missions were to be generated on the fly by the interactions of the armies on a mass scale. “We didn’t want to but we’d failed to build up an interesting enough dynamic campaign,” Marek laments, “We started by building a non-dynamic training mode, which then developed into the whole game”

Why didn’t it work? “The main problem was that we didn’t really have enough game logic or mechanics working,” Marek ventures, “Units couldn’t find paths, or fight or aim well. Even if we had a proper dynamic campaign objective generation it still didn’t work. You couldn’t even playtest it, as it couldn’t work. The proper thing to do was to build up the physics, AI and other elements together. When everything was working in a linear environment, it’s time to go to a fully dynamic environment. We were trying to do it the other way around.” For fans of ambition, it’s interesting to note that now they hav/ a working game, they’re returning to the Dynamic Campaign idea for their next game…

This incremental approach is very much Bohemia’s philosophy. “We always believed in designing by play,” Marek says, “It’s nice to write a document, but I don’t believe a document can actually describe the game. Especially if the game tries to be innovative. There’s no actual way to judge other than to play. When you design by play, you have to be open to trash your ideas. Some ideas look so nice on the paper… but actually, when in the game, doesn’t work. And when it doesn’t work, you either fix it or just don’t use it. If you keep it there, it’s a disaster.”

Rock and Paper feel left out.

“One thing was an on-screen radar,” says Marek, when asking for an example of something which seemed good in theory but in practise proved inadequate, “We had one all the time, even when on foot. In the end the player just looked at the radar instead at the 3D environment. So what was the point in having a world if you never looked at it? We got rid of the radar, and it was such a better game immediately. That was an idea which looked great on paper, as you could see where your troops and waypoints are, but it removed the feeling of being there.”

It had a protracted development to say the least, with the company growing enormously. “It started with just my brother working at home by himself by the game full time,” Marek recalls, “Then I joined. Then some artists. We grew up as a company over time. We had a difficult time finding a publisher, who then went bust (Interactive Magic – Ed). Then our new publisher didn’t want the game, so we had to find another publisher. We had one or two years when we had an almost complete product and we just couldn’t find a publisher. That was the most difficult period.” Typically, Marek finds the silver lining to this. “It had a good influence on the game,” he adds, “We could play more, we could design more…”

That said, when it was released it was, to put it mildly, twitchy. Since then, Bohemia have offered determined post-release support in a mass of patches which fixed problems and generally improved the game. Was this always part of the business plan, or did they have some other motivation? “It was definitely because we were part of the community,” Marek claims, “We felt personally affronted by any shortcomings and bugs. While people did go “You must fix this!”, it’s not obligatory for a developer. However, because we felt responsible, we had to. It wasn’t driven by a business model, in that we didn’t think by releasing the patch we’d get any more money. I have no idea if it helped us, as each patch was an expensive operation for us. The community doesn’t realise that even for a simple thing it needs testing. And if the testing reveals the fix has created another bug, it’s more and more work. It’s possible that it was a commercially smart decision, but there’s no way of telling.”

Flashpoint is awesome.

At the end of this long journey, what wisdom does Marek have to impart? He’s characteristically optimistic. “It’s not true what some people from the industry tell you, that there’s no chance for a new game or no room for innovation, that you should just keep the proven things and do it again,” Marek argues, “Follow your dream or vision, no matter what it is. I’m pretty confident that if you do what you like – what you really like – then even if the idea wasn’t the best idea, that you enjoy it so much makes it a better game. If you work on something you don’t believe, or don’t like, I don’t believe it’s possible to make a great experience. In the end, judge only by yourself, by your friends and people you see playing the game. If you like it… you’re a gamer, after all. If they like it, even better.”

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30 Comments »

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  1. Trystero says:

    I was never in the good books of ‘serious’ OF players. It’s too tempting to give the order to disembark the chinook when you’re a mile out at sea, or get hold of a jet fighter and do skywalker-style ‘wombat-acing’ practice on anything that moves. Freedom of Antics should be a civil liberty in games like this!

  2. Trystero says:

    wombats? i think i mean ‘womp rats’

  3. Dan says:

    Excellent interview.
    I love this game, although to my shame I never bought the Resistance expansion. And to my embarassment, there is still one mission that a friend and I just cannot complete on multiplayer.
    The name escapes me now, but you start as the resistance out in the desert, and must destroy a Russian convoy before escaping in a truck. Destroying the Russian hardware is all well and good, but my God, we’ve never got further than a few hundred metres away before being destroyed by a Hind.

    Anybody fancy helping out?

  4. Ging says:

    Ahh, the hours spent with some friends retrying mission after mission to get them right (well, with at least half the team walking away rather than lying in a ditch on the battlefield). I couldn’t get on with AA when I gave it a go though – hopefully OF2 from codemasters will do the job for me instead.

    (side note: spelling of “Soldier” in the intro )

  5. Kieron Gillen says:

    Edittttedd!

    KG

  6. Janek says:

    Dan: Yeah that’ll be Desert Ambush. I think out of the God knows how many times I’ve tried that with people, we’ve only beaten it something like twice, one of which involved me heroically sacrificing myself by running out into the open to get a clean RPG shot at the Hind.

    *whoooshKERBLAMMO*
    *dakadakadaka*
    “Oh no! Two! Is Down!”

  7. Dan says:

    Hah, good times!

  8. Winterborn says:

    I loved OF, I think it’s the hardest game I’ve really enjoyed. I’m not one for reloading time and time again to finish a level but for some reason in OF I did it and loved every second.

  9. Martin says:

    Man, we had some seriously excellent times with OF. A bunch of us gathering at the office – playing until our eyes bled.

    I miss those days.

    *sniffle*

  10. John P (Katsumoto) says:

    4, target, MAN

  11. whitebrice says:

    “For fans of ambition, it’s interesting to note that now they have a working game, they’re returning to the Dynamic Campaign idea for their next game…”

    You mean Arma wasn’t originally going to be OF plus graphics?

  12. muscrat says:

    Ah I love OFP.

    Its one of the few games i started playing when I was in year 6 back in 01, to this day.
    Awesome game, one of my favourites. Bohemia and the OFP community are stuff of Legends.

  13. Kieron Gillen says:

    Whitebrice: Armed Assault, when I interviewing them, was their current game. It took them a lot more time to get done than they thought it would.

    KG

  14. teaCup says:

    OFP was bitchin’! I was tempted to say “is”, because i still play some online today, but i don’t even remember 2001/2002 anymore..
    By the time Resistance came out, many issues were ironed out and we had our toys and a couple of large and immersive islands to play on. The game had a crack scenario editor and increasingly opened up to player created content. The ball was rolling and Operation Flashpoint was going to be a monster franchise for the PC soldier-sim, right?

    Some 5 years, a breakup with Codemasters and a drawn out Xbox port later, BIS have released an almost finished Armed Assault(PC), after struggling yet again to find a publisher. Some of the fans were.. underwhelmed. Butterflies are nice, but even they can’t distract from some of the limping features.

    ArmA II is announced for 2008. Both PC and console. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

    One last thing. “When you lived in Communism, you felt different about it than when you lived in a Western country and didn’t mind or didn’t understand. We got inspiration to create a kind of anti-communist game.”. This theme appears in some of their interviews, but i find it to be a bit of a pose. Growing up in the Eastern Bloc does give you some insight into the “exotic” life of a communist regime, but precious little of that made it into the game. OFP is only superficially anti-communist, if at all.

  15. Balschoiw says:

    Thx for the nice read. I somehow felt teleported back to the days where I first played the demo and then got assimilated :-)
    OFP has been a real masterpiece, unique and breathtaking. I still remember the feeling when I found out that I could simply go anywhere in the landscape without a loading-bar and realized that the sund and the stars refelct real-life patterns.
    Too bad though that Arma is such an unworthy successor. If done properly it would have been a worthy follow-up, but with all that shortcommings, flaws and lacking content it will not have the longterm-addictivness of OFP. Unfortunally.

  16. ThePlayer says:

    Operation Flashpoint IS a masterpiece. I play it two times a week.

    Hope they can find a way to bring back the OFP feeling to ArmAII.

    Thanks Bohemia.

  17. DaKa says:

    Operation Flashpoint is one of the best games ever created. Practicaly there ain’t no boundaries in the game. You don’t have to play the campaign or mission when you want to enjoy the game, you can make a campaign, a soldier, an island, or a mission. As Balschoiw and ThePlayer said: OFP is a real masterpiece! I am really enjoyin’ every moment which I played with it, Marek and all the creators made a great job, I really hope that ArmA 2 won’t loose that feeling, so guys: Keep up the great work!!!!!!

  18. THobson says:

    OFP was an incredible game. The graphics are a bit dated now but the whole mission building capability is incredible. There are some simple things it cannot do but there are some very complicated things it does exceptionally well. The design is deep and that comes out in the freedom of the game play and mission building capability. I was devoted to it for years. I have not fired it up in anger for nearly two years now but I still find myself thinking of the missions I have played both as a single player and as a multiplayer with my two sons. It is fair to say it was an important part of life for my whole family for a long time.

  19. DeanosBeano says:

    Bis were the ultimate gamers dream ,they listened and they backedup there promises.
    Unfortunately they Chose to create an elite part of the community and this created turmoil
    and the once thriving community is now reduced to nothing more than a hundred or so die hards.
    It makes my eyes weep that so much was lost for such a small gain , there is a quote
    “your only as good as the people that surround you” . I really do hope bis turn it around and get that community back one day , but Whilst they are linked to BIA and “The Chosen Few” ,i fear my hopes are little more than dreams.
    Thanks Bis for all the years of good gaming and i look forward to your dream of the fully dynamic campaign .
    see you in game2

  20. tony says:

    I read the last paragraph three times. Way to go! :)

  21. SaBrE says:

    Really good read. I hope OFP2 and ArmA2 are both worthy successors to OFP. ArmA is good but even BIS know it has its shortcomings. Roll on the future.

  22. mrj-glo says:

    Their game have took so big part of my life almsot 1/10 all of my life time gone into OFP so they made somethign very right. Freedom and the setting on OFP was perfect on its time and I hope that ArmA 2 will finally be the game that is value of be successon of OFP and the ambitious ideas of Spanel brother.

  23. USSRsniper says:

    OFP was a great game, especially the addons which were made even after 5 years sicne game release. As DeanosBeano said it, community is not that great as it used to be…

  24. edge2 says:

    OFP is the best game made, even it was really really hard to find it here, all i got was some Russian version that i couldnt update. But later i got GOTY. The community helped develop OFP even better (for example: ECP, FFUR, SLX etc.) Id love to play the first beta tests of OFP :)

    Sabre – ArmA is good but i cant play it since its still full of bugs and others, but OFP2 wont just feel like OFP…Since its using a different engine. I think OFP2 wont live for 6 years or more as Original BIS-made-OFP.