By John Walker on March 30th, 2012 at 3:00 pm.
Once in a while in this job, you get to speak to a hero. A developer whose work you’ve always more than admired – perhaps even had your life changed by. But today I spoke to Jim Rossignol about his new game, Sir, You Are Being Hunted.
RPS: Hey Jim, who I don’t know, tell me what on Earth Sir, You Are Being Hunted is all about.
Rossignol: Good morning, strange journalist. Your questions are very clever, but I shall attempt to answer them all. Starting with the one you just asked. Sir, You Are Being Hunted is about three things.
Firstly it’s about having a big, open, sandbox survival experience. It’s a first-person game that emerges from our interest in open ended experiences. We don’t want any scripted events or linear story stuff going on in there, and so much of what’s going on in that world is freeform and AI “life” driven. It’s about exploring, gathering up what you can carry in your inventory, choosing your path, and your strategy. All encounters in Hunted will be dynamic, and it’ll be down to the player to figure out how best to take on the robotic hunters. That could mean running away, it could mean trying to confront them violently and dying horribly.
Secondly it is about pseudo-aristocratic tweed-wearing robots. They smoke pipes, drink tea, and carry shotguns. They are hunting you, for some reason, across a recognisably British landscape.
Thirdly it is about Big Robot, my little development team, exploring AI behaviour. The key motivation for the game was that we want to make games in which enemies fight each other, and you – creating the kinds of worlds that feel believable because they’re going on without revolving directly around the player. I think first-person games are generally best when they simulate something independent of the player. This is our first step into that kind of technology.
RPS: So you’re in a position where you can now make games with complete freedom. Why have you made this game?
Rossignol: Because, I suppose, the freedom is actually sort of illusory. We are still constrained by not having much money, or many people. We wanted to make something that followed our lines of interest, but also explored territory that we think need to be looked at in game dev: dynamic combat, survival, exploration. And to do that all in Unity, with minimal assets and development time, was the challenge we set ourselves. The design we came up with for Hunted was the best solution to all those desires and constraints. Also, for the past year we’ve been working on a game for Channel 4, which is an educational puzzle thing called Fallen City. Sir, You Are Being Hunted is sort of an antidote to that, because it has guns and robots in. Both games, though, are set in distinctly British environments, and both have tea-drinking in, so the studio influences are clear.
RPS: As you started exploring ideas of freedom in games with Lodestone, were you encountering the reasons so many try to avoid it? Has that influenced SYABH?
Rossignol: We were certainly encountering the feature-creep issues that so many developers work hard to avoid in their games. Lodestone is a terrain engine developed by our programmer Tom Betts, which we can use to make infinite landscapes. Actually infinite. We wanted to play with that idea and see how it might work as a game world. A purely generative space on an unimaginably vast scale seemed like a fun idea, but yes, there were some development issues related to that. Breaking it down to smaller tasks seemed like a good idea, and so we’re exploring the idea of factional AI fighting both themselves and the player in an open landscape. Hunted is a full-blown project, but it is also about finding out how to make specific things within a game world.
RPS: So why the British aristocratic theme? What concepts are you looking to explore with this?
Rossignol: I like the idea of developers using local themes, culture, and mythologies in their games, just as GSC did with Stalker, Chernobyl, and The Zone. In that same way we want to create a game that echoes the silly sinisterness of our upper classes, the peculiar spooky kitschness of our sci-fi history, and the bleakness of Britain’s countryside in winter. An early reference made by my design chum James Carey was the Ealing comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, where an aristocratic chap systematically kills his very English relatives to inherit their titles and money. It’s funny, of course, but very dark. That’s the kind of thing we want to pull off.
RPS: Does the game come more from a desire of something you want to say, or something you want to play?
Rossignol: Both! I want to say “this kind of game is interesting and fun”, and then go and make it so that people can play it. I think the great disappointment of my career as a games journalist has been how often I say “this type of game is AMAZING” and then never see it attempted again. (Stalker, Eve, PlanetSide all being good examples of games that have only had one or two imitators in a decade of games, and in PlanetSide’s case it’s a direct sequel.)
RPS: Are you able to shake off the critic’s voice as you develop, and allow yourself to create without worrying about how it will be received? Or is it a bonus?
Rossignol: Oh, God, no, it’s horrible. Not really because I care about how it will be received, but more because I can’t stop worrying at what we’ve made, even when I can’t do anything about because of money or technical constraints. I’ve always known how difficult it is to make games – I tried to make them as a teenager and then spent a decade listening to developers tell me how tough it was. Now that I am actually making them I am suffering under how tricky it is, while at the same time tearing it apart under critical scrutiny. It’s an excruciating Catch-22. Ultimately, though, making stuff is harder than simply writing about stuff, and the difficulty makes the results more satisfying.
RPS: How many DRMs will your game include?
Rossignol: When we’ve worked out what the most controversial DRM solution is, we’ll use that. I was thinking some kind of red hot robotic desktop hook that removes the eyes of legitimate users, but leaves pirates unscathed?
RPS: Do you think, if left to your own devices, you’d accidentally make STALKER?
Rossignol: I wish we had the resources to make something as full-on as STALKER. We’re going to make something much lower fidelity, and a little more sketchy and weird, I think.
RPS: What would you give your game out of 10?
Rossignol: That’s a trick question, isn’t it? You know very well that I only mark out of 12,000! Or hands. Robotic hands.
RPS: Thank you for your time.
No release date yet, but Jim promises regular development updates over at Big-Robot.com.