By Kieron Gillen on February 15th, 2008 at 3:36 pm.
[With Conflict: Denied Ops running jokes reaching critical mass, I thought digging out this interview with Pivotal’s Stuart Poole about the genesis and development of the series may be a good idea. It was done just before Conflct: Global Terror was released, but their mind were clearly on Next-Gen. It deals with both Desert games – which I think were neatly designed, actually – and the disappointing Vietnam.]
Pivotal rose from the ashes of Bath’s Pumpkin Studios, who made the ground-breaking Real-time strategy game Warzone 2100. Despite being the first true-3D RTS and receiving some of the best reviews of Eidos’ history, it was a commercial flop which killed the team. While being ahead of the curve can pay off handsomely, it can just as easily lead to disaster. What now?
Well, pick yourself up and start again with a new company and a new game. Conflict Desert Storm hit at the exact moment when the gaming public wanted something a more than just another trigger-happy blast while not requiring you to be up to date with the Jane’s Military book series to actually play. Walking a well judged between credibility and accessibility, Conflict: Desert Storm was exactly what they wanted.
Also, it took a team like Pivotal to do it, with its roots really lying more in Warcraft than Medal of Honour. “They were very interested in the RTS strategy games, and a lot of the design elements in this company are less action but more tactical,” explains Producer, Stuart Poole, “The idea was to get certain elements of the strategy RTS, but on a more personal level. In an RTS you’ll have hundreds of units, and just throw them around since as they have no individual personality”. How about a game that was just as tactical, but on a more human scale? “They experimented with eight grunts originally, but still found at that point you were still firing them in without having any sense of belonging,” says Stuart, describing the initial experiments to try and make this idea work, “They found that with four they found that right balance where each grunt has their own characteristics and personality, so you feel a lot more for them.” And because you know the strengths of each of your charges, this leads to the Conflict’s tactical game mechanics.
The setting also distinguished the first Conflict. Modern games tended towards pure counter-terrorism like Rainbow Six. Actual war based games tended to be WW2 period-pieces. “They wanted to go for a more high-tech war, rather than an old school one,” says Stuart, “We wanted a war where you could have laser-designation and tanks. Since the Gulf was ten years prior to that it worked out quite well, as there was a lot of raw data to use as reference.”
With a commercial hit, it left Pivotal the challenge of translating a one-off into that most attractive of beasts: a franchise. The second game, Conflict: Desert Storm 2, gave them a second bite of the cherry. “What was missed from the first one, was put in the second one,” says Stuart. Also with a solid, elegant game which didn’t over-reach, they had a foundation to progress from. “One of the things about the first one was that the controls were very simple,” Stuart says, “Which was a good thing. The actual overall control was something we worked on. It was essentially “Go there” and “Stay on me”.”. Over the time, they’ve expanded the controls to add more aspects without overwhelming it. It’s a difficult task. “It’s never going to be easy, as we have four characters you can control which you can jump between at any point, which is quite unique,” comments Stuart. They’ve strived to make additions to the control set which integrate smoothly. For example, for Conflict: Global Terror, they’re adding the ability to delay orders to allow pincer attacks and similar. “That’s one of the advantages of being able to do progressions of game mechanics,” Stuart says, “We’ve been able to add things in steady layers. However, we don’t want to do anything radically different. We have a formula which works.” “When you drop a heavy set of features into a game, or do something very radical with it, you’re essentially making a different game,” Stuart states, before citing how Westwood developed from Dune II to Command and Conquer to Red Alert. “That made a enjoyable gaming experience,” Stuart claims. Keeping their eyes on the fundamentals is key to Pivotal.
The level design is another key feature which Pivotal actually excel in. In a quiet way, it’s very clear that their levels have been carefully considered in relation to the skill-set the developer has provided. “You do have to work out how the levels are going to work, as they are very different to a standard first-person shooter,” Stuart explains, “You have to open it up so you have to use all your other characters. We do, certainly in the early levels, make it so that you can run through the levels with the characters following you and progress. But when you get later than that, that just won’t work, as it’s not the way the game’s meant to be played.”
While the first two games had a really contemporary feel, the series has flirted with a little temporal wandering. “We have toyed with ideas of going back and forward in time. Certainly the next game is even more in the present day, with all manner of technology,” explains Stuart, “Vietnam was 30 years ago, with certain machinery bordering on the archaic”. Vietnam, of all the Conflict games, was the most experimental. It was also the closest to a straight failure.
“With Desert Storm 1 and 2, we went for wide open areas,” explains Stuart, “We realised that our game mechanic worked in that. However, when designing, we try to keep an element of realism, so during Vietnam we kept things very real by going for so much jungle. Going from the open areas to the jungle was very hard on the game mechanic, making it play very differently.” This was made worse by the tactics of the VC. “In Vietnam, also, we had the VC charge you and try to outnumber the Americans. They’d just run at you,” notes Stuart. But with tight environments and constant charges, the tactics which personified the first two parts of the series was sorely hampered. Stuart claims they’ve learned their lessons. “With this game, we’ve still got jungle environments, but we’ve done them very differently,” he claims. “There has been ups and downs, over the development of the Conflict titles, but the good thing is that each time we’ve done something we’ve moved the series forward in some direction,” he
argues before adding, “And we’ve learned the lessons of the bad things”.
That said, that’s not what message they’d send back in time to their younger selves. Normally when we ask this question, a developer will come up with a design mistep. Pivotal’s main woe is of a more financial nature. To the question, Stuart responds: “Don’t join Kaboom”. Kaboom, their mother company, went bust during the time when their games were storming the charts. “It’s something we didn’t foresee and had an impact on us, in more ways than one,” Stuart reminisces, ““It was a strange experience. At the time, I think Desert Storm 2 was in number one in all formats and Great Escape at number 8, and we were basically in receivership. Having two games in the top 10, you find yourself thinking “Shouldn’t we be millionaires”, when actually you’re worrying about even having a job next week. We lost a lot of money, but we’ve ended up in a good situation with SCi.”
While Conflict: Desert Storm was an opening salvo in the last hardware cycle, Conflict: Global Terror is a final assault on ageing technology. “We’re at the same point we were when doing the first Conflict,” says Stuart, “We’re coming up to next generation stuff, with ideas of what we’d like to do”.