Take On: Bohemia’s Marek Spanel Talks Day Z, Arma III

By Jim Rossignol on August 23rd, 2012 at 8:00 pm.

Warplace.
One of numerous RPS interview victims at GamesCom was Bohemia bossman, Marek Spanel. The smiley Czech was keen to discuss the studio’s success, and to talk his upcoming projects: Arma III, and the Day Z standalone. We also touch on the importance of modding, that Operation Flashpoint was almost something like a post-apocalyptic Carrier Command, and why DirectX 9 can be dispensed with. As for Carrier Command itself, well, I am leaving what he said about that for another article. Read on for the rest.

RPS: Did you and the other guys realise you would still be here when you started Operation Flashpoint all those years ago?

Spanel: We come here [GamesCom] year after year, and there is always a lot of big companies that come and show that they have a lot of cash, big money, and then we are here the next year and they are gone. And we are still here. So yeah, we feel kind of pleased that we are still here, independent, and always doing well, even in times when the PC has been written off. “PC dying” or “PC gaming non-existent” has been said in the past, but we are still here and PC gaming is still here. I remember showing Flashpoint in 1998, just me, dressed in a Soviet soldier’s uniform, changing in a toilet to go on the show floor and promote the game. And now we are here!

RPS: You’ve done a lot since Arma 2, haven’t you? New studios, four games…

Spanel: We are now about one hundred people on the gaming side, and about the same on the simulation side [BIS also produce military simulator training tech]. Working with Arma 2 wasn’t always easy, but I think we made something special with Arma 2 and Chernarus. It was a strong offering, and now with Day Z people feel like they know Chernarus even better – and often they think it is part of the mod! They download all the files, many megabytes, and think that the map is in there too, not knowing that it is all part of Arma 2. These people do not know just how much work has gone into making a believable country. And I think it is a tribute to the idea of Chernarus, because we spent so long on making it a believable place, even with fictional background and geography, it is such a strong thing. It is the part of Arma 2 which will live for many years.


RPS: Arma 2 did a bit better than you expected.

Spanel: Oh, yes! Especially now, after Day Z. We had been through a long, hard time after Flashpoint: losing the name, trying to find our way, struggling with publishers and then pretty much becoming a publisher – not because we think that’s fun, but because we had to become a publisher to survive in some sense – we had to learn a lot, and had to work out how to do sales, and shows, and so on. Arma 2 was our strongest game, which helped, and it’s something that it’s the first game we really did on our own, and also happens to be the biggest game we have ever made. So that is a good thing.

RPS: Arma 3 is a little different in one important way, though, which is that it is set in the future. Why is that?

Spanel: Well, I can say this from experience with our previous games also, you do not always have a clear vision. So a game is sometimes less about one vision and more about evolution, it’s organic. Operation Flashpoint was originally supposed to be a post-nuclear apocalypse game where you are the last two carrier ships of US and Soviet Union, and you fight over the last place on the Earth where you can live, and that ended up being Cold War era conflict. So the same was true of Arma 3, we didn’t say “it has to be a near future setting”, instead we looked at Arma and saw what’s best for it. We changed that as we worked out what that was.

And so firstly: we haven’t done a near future setting yet, and it’s boring to do the same thing all the time, so we needed a change, but also there are not too many options to make this kind of game in. Back in 2003 we were planning on making a Vietnam game – never before done in games! let’s do it and do it right – and then of course along came many Vietnam games. So back to Arma 3, we choose the location on the Greek island, and that is completely new, right now. Mediterranean setting is rare in games, and so combine that with the near-future, and you have something unique for our setting. It’s not that near in time, really, like 2035, but that gives us the advantage that we can use current equipment, modified equipment, and non-existent equipment. We have someone coming up with cool new stealth helicopters, taking trends in helicopter design to make one ultimate Russian helicopter. And we think you can see the trends in what technology is evolving into, but at the same time you can still see today’s military using fifty year old technology. So down the road you will certainly have new gadgets, new toys, but the principles remain the same, many of the weapons, too, remain the same.


RPS: How do you decide what goes in, then?

Spanel: Well the process is collaborative, free, even unorganized. We give our team a lot of freedom to do what they like to explore what they are interested in, and then I myself work hard to make sure that what we get feels like it fits with Arma. Other than that, it’s really down to the team down to what they create, and how to fit that into the game.

RPS: In terms of the actual game technology, you are obviously building on Arma 2, but how do you decide what technology you need to put time into?

Spanel: It’s not always easy. What most influences the decision-making is asking “what can WE do?” Like, you might see things you would like to do, but are unable to do, so you don’t do it! But you need to figure that out. We see what fits the game, too. For example, underwater combat was not touched by the series before, and we want the game to feel exciting and new. Keeping it all on the ground is not new, so we try to do something really different that is also a natural fit for the series. Arma 3 is also set on an Greek isle, so it make sense, because using boats and diving is logical when you are on an island. Extend that to combat, and you can see that there are not actually any underwater battles in real warfare, so we are looking at our futuristic setting and saying that perhaps some of the research that is happening now will evolve into underwater weapons, like rifles that can be used underwater. So that’s an interesting thing to learn.

But also we want to have better physical simulation in the game, so there will be a better ragdoll and physics to make the gameplay more authentic. Then there are considerations for the low level tech, such as the move to DirectX 11. That was really obvious for us because DirectX 9 is no longer dominant, our users already have Windows 7 and Windows Vista. There are more advantages in moving to a more advanced API, and really DirectX 11 for us is not about fancy graphical effects, but about stability. That’s what matters on PC. That’s why DirectX 11, because the fancy things can be added later once that stability is in there. We do not see the visual advance as so important. Tesselation might be cool, but it does not really improve the overall nature of the game, and certainly does not improve the fundamental gameplay. The DirectX 11 API is now better supported by things like drivers, so by moving to that is logical. A very small number of our users now use XP, according to our data.


RPS: What do you really want to fix this time?

Spanel: Well, the lighting. We’ve been doing eye accommodation and HDR since our game on Xbox 1, but one of the frequent complaints of Arma 2 was that the eye accommodation did not feel right. So we have done some fundamental changes to do that, to try and make it fully realistic, but also comfortable for the player. That’s a difficult problem, because the dynamic range in real life is huge. The human eye can see under artificial light, but then daylight is a hundred thousand times more intense. That is a huge scale of light conditions to simulate. But we want to make that more natural to the human eye, and I think getting that right will make the game immediately much better for players.

RPS: Are you changing the mission editor for Arma 3?

Spanel: You know, this editor is really twelve years in development. Within the company, even before Operation Flashpoint game out, we were saying “this is what want: a complete community editor in the game”, and we did that over time, and it’s really great. We are not really changing much of it, but we do hope that some of the new systems will make it easier for people to publish maps and mods, and for players to find maps and mods. We hope that with Arma 3 it will be like one click, and you get all you need. So what is important here is not really changes to the SDK or the tools, but more how the mod is delivered to the end user. We feel that’s the biggest opportunity to improve the experience. There are some great community sites and updaters already, but there are so many great add ons you might never find – cool missions, cool units, cool terrain – and I want to make it easier for you to get those things in your game. More visibility for the mod makers makes modding more fun: seeing users playing in your mods is a huge reward.


RPS: Do you think people are going to explore more of Arma 2 modding now that they’ve had it brought to their attention by Day Z?

Spanel: I think the attention it brings is important not just for Arma 2 modding, but for all modding. It has been so big that it has pointed to modding generally and said “modding, that is a thing”. I am not entirely sure, but I don’t think there has been a really big mod for a few years. Even Red Orchestra… was that really considered a mod by the wider community? Or was it something made in the Unreal Engine that ended up being a commercial title? Modding is really strong, and it’s where great things can happen on the PC. We have focused consistently on modding, and some of the attention on it has come out of nowhere. Modding is not easy, and there is a lot of work behind it. And it requires the game to support it, and for there to be multiplayer, and we put a lot of work into that. Day Z is a fine example of showing that all that effort was worth it.

And there are a number of truly great mods in Arma, which will hopefully now get more attention. I think it’s important to recognise how important it is, and that it happens only on PC. Other formats, iPhone or consoles, they are locked down by third-party owners. The value in the PC is that it is really open, and this can happen here. It has its dark side with hacking and cheating, but there is so much possibility for creativity here. It demonstrates that the PC is about creating things – other gaming platforms are solely about consuming, and that’s an important distinction to make. More than half the people working for our company started out as modders. When someone asks me “how do I get into game development” I say “do some modding”. And if you look at Rocket’s story with Day Z, you can see that the career progression can be very fast!


RPS: Speaking of which – what was the decision behind making Day Z standalone, rather than keeping it as a mod, or turning it into DLC?

Spanel: It was really difficult to support both Arma 2 and Day Z in their current cross-connected nature. Some of the problems for a standalone game of Day Z is nearly impossible to solve in Arma, especially with some of the cheating issues. And any change you make to Arma 2 requires that you think about changes to Arma 2 itself, and all the other mods that depend on it. Hundreds and hundreds of mods. We want to implement methods of countering cheats that would stop some great Arma II mods from working. The basic issue is that Day Z has reached such a height that there is no other way to support it. This will improve the experience, and to keep the mod growing professionally. It will also allow Dean to see some reward for his great work.

RPS: Amen to that. And thanks for your time.

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47 Comments »

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  1. felixduc says:

    This:

    “We do not see the visual advance as so important. Tesselation might be cool, but it does not really improve the overall nature of the game, and certainly does not improve the fundamental gameplay.”

    Is a terrifying thing to hear.

    Visual advances in an open-world military “sim” do not improve the overall nature of the game?! That’s what the BIS CEO thinks?

    Did he just doom Arma III?

    • Premium User Badge

      wengart says:

      I’m not sure if you are joking, but if you are not he did not just doom Arma III. Once you reach a certain visual fidelity you are better off working on other things. Like physics and AI.

      • felixduc says:

        I’ll agree when that “certain visual fidelity” isn’t “Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind”.

        • Post-Internet Syndrome says:

          Arma II looks great already. Arma III won’t look worse. BIS have already shown that they are making improvements to the graphical fidelity – especially lighting – so I’m not worried about that part.

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          Durkonkell says:

          Oh, please.

          USE EYES ON SCREENSHOTS.

          • The Greatness says:

            This. Arma III is looking stunning.

            Also stop being so mean to Morrowind. Don’t forget it was one of the most technologically advanced games graphic-wise when it first came out. Far more than Oblivion and Skyrim really.

        • wearedevo says:

          Arma 2 looks incredible on maximum settings. Even if Arma 3 only improved on it slightly, it would still be a beautiful looking game.

          • Miltrivd says:

            The thing is that even when you use lower settings, just the fact that there is actual foliage in the game that let’s you look through, along with the ability to move your head independently of your body gives such a sense of immersion that graphics really do take second place.

    • brau says:

      Well.. specially if you are doing a military simulation where the important stuff lies in ballistics, physics and as mentioned above AI and other stuff. Even if this was not the case, in my world of games, Gamplay is King!

    • xaphoo says:

      felixduc, have you seen Arma III’s graphics? Marek did not doom anything.

    • YeOldeSnake says:

      You mean, skipping a few visual gimmicks that will hardly improve anything is dooming ArmA 3? Oh boy, what have we come to.

    • derbefrier says:

      graphics whore unite! Gameplay be damned!

    • hosndosn says:

      Look at those screenshots and honestly tell me you’re concerned about Arma III’s graphics quality.

    • Slinkyboy says:

      That reminds me of COD. Fuck COD, I want a graphical game.

    • Shortwave says:

      I’m a graphics whore to the core, but I have to admit that was sort of a painful reply to read. Haha.
      Everyone knows this game looks beautiful, much much nicer than Arma II..
      I think all he was saying is, theres no reason to push it graphically as far as possible really..
      Which sure, it’s cool to have that option but with this engine we know hardly nobody is going to even be able to utilize it properly. One of the main legitimate concerns with this game is most definitively optimization and making sure EVERYONE can enjoy the game and run it with a respectable FPS. Not simply just catering to the much smaller group of individuals with insanely high end PC’s with that lucky hardware configuration that agrees best with the engine for whatever reason. HA, and so forth..

      I’ve seen gameplay, it looks brilliant.
      Now just freakin’ give us that, but make it less buggy and run much better than Arma II could.
      And I’m sold.. And it seems they get that at least.

      BTW, a true graphics whore appreciates a good frame-rate if you ask me. That’s why we buy 120hz monitors no? Heh.

    • Tams80 says:

      No. The ‘fundamental gameplay’ is you running/flying/driving/crawling/swimming around, planning to and trying to kill virtual people. As long as the graphics are good, you don’t really end up noticing, unless of course you spend more time comparing stills and videos for pixelation etc. Arma III will look better anyway.

      If you’d seem any actual military simulators, you’d know that they tend to look rubbish. Realistic physics and AI are considered far more important, as they are what will affect real soldiers (and often soldiers don’t get to admire scenery when at war).

      In short; staring at the visuals is not gameplay.

    • soldant says:

      Nope, because the series already taxes hardware and often runs like a dog when first release without improvement until ages later, so I’m quite happy with them not piling more effects onto the game.

      Here’s what I do want: a game that is reasonably stable and that runs at an acceptable FPS out of the box. That’s it. Also infantry movement which can handle collisions with objects smaller than a 2 storey cube. Seriously, there are fundamental problems with the series that BIS should be focusing on fixing. Graphical fidelity is not one of them.

    • Contrafibularity says:

      Wait, I thought all graphics bores jumped off a cliff a few years ago because computer graphics weren’t exponentially exponentiating quickly enough to keep up with their unhealthy dependence on exponentially exponentiating numbers of graphics?

      Anyway what’s a graphic bore doing reading this article, shouldn’t you be trolling Epic to put more exponential graphics in Unreal Engine 5 or something?

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      Continuity says:

      You forget one important factor: Most people that play Arma games are not as shallow as you.

      Suck it.

    • Capt. Eduardo del Mango says:

      “Did he just doom Arma III?”

      No, he might have just saved it for a little bit longer.

      All BIS games have been buggy, unplayable messes on release and they’re getting worse. It’s clearly more and more strain placed on an engine that was never actually any good in the first place – Microsoft Flight Sim syndrome, where each new release adds a handful of features and a little extra prettiness for a massive, massive additional load on an old, creaking, bodged together engine. Eventually, three years after it came out, most people now have hardware that’ll run Arma2 acceptably (but only acceptably – look at screenshots of ARPS sessions to see just how much of the detail that most people have to turn off) and that isn’t thanks to any improvements from BIS – Arma2 is more system intensive now than it was at launch. Given most existing PCs can’t get turn the options that far up on Arma2, there’s no point layering Arma3 with visual effects that nobody can use that will just break the engine further.

      Arma3 will likely be unplayable on most existing systems at launch, and will probably remain so until people buy yet-to-be-released hardware. The last thing it needs is more visuals when the present engine can barely handle them as it is.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Chaz says:

    Is Arma 3 still going to be an open world RPG type thing, or has that now changed?

    • Magnusm1 says:

      What.

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      oWn4g3 says:

      I guess you will still have campaign, various multiplayer options and the editor.

      So if you want, just place a soldier somewhere, take control of it and run around as much as you want. (if that is your definition of “open world RPG”)

    • Unaco says:

      From what I’ve heard, the campaign is going to be trying for a little more persistence and branching going on, choices for which missions to do, and in which order, those sorts of things. So missions will be ‘open’, somewhat, and success/failure will have an impact. I also seem to recall seeing something about there being some ‘factions’ in regards to how the local Partisans and civilian population view you. But I don’t think it’ll be plonking you down on Limnos and letting you run wild… there will be some structure to it.

      There is also more customisability in loadouts, and some effects from that. Nothing too complicated or vast… basically, carry more stuff and your shakey aim will happen earlier and/or stay a touch longer. And you’ll be able to change scopes and attachments on the fly. But I don’t think there are stats and perks.

      Some mild, RPG-ish elements to it. But it;s not an open sandbox or that.

      Edit: If you’re familiar with it, think along the lines of the Resistance campaign for OFP. But expanded somewhat.

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      Chaz says:

      I’m sure when the previews first came out that there was talk of going into towns and villages to get missions off contacts and resistance people etc, and taking things forward how you saw fit, that you had a lot more freedom and it was more sandboxy than the previous games. It came across as being more something like FarCry 2 for instance than previous Arma games.

      When I meant RPG I didn’t necessarily mean leveling and stats etc. The term RPG (Role Playing Game) is not fixed to those types of games alone. It is possible to role play a character without the need for leveling and stats. How I play my character and the freedom I have to do that is the important thing. Stats and levels are just an incidental game mechanic.

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        ffordesoon says:

        Somewhere, Wizardry is cringing so hard that tears are running down his face.

        And, honestly, in this case, I’m right there with him. I suppose I can see how you could define Far Cry 2 as an open-world RPG if I really squint, but to define any game where you recieve missions from characters and can accomplish them in multiple ways as an RPG is a bridge too far even for me. Multiple approaches to a mission alone does not an RPG make. In fact, using that as the sole criterion for RPG status actually excludes a number of games I would consider RPGs.

        If you don’t partially or totally define the strengths and/or weaknesses of a character and/or set of characters in a way codified by some type of progression mechanic, it’s not an RPG. Which doesn’t make other genres inherently inferior, to be clear; I’ve none of Wizardry’s disdain for real-time/”action” mechanics or linear storytelling, in RPGs or otherwise. My point is simply that if the mechanics don’t support role-playing in anything more than an anecdotal sense, it’s not an RPG. Playing Arma 2 as a pacifist is, I suppose, possible, but the game doesn’t support that style of play whatsoever. Not that every RPG allows for a pacifist playthrough, but you hopefully see what I mean.

        Oh, and if you’re an RPS newbie: Wizardry was a guy who used to (and maybe still does, but I haven’t seen him doing so recently) get into long, rambling arguments about what makes an RPG in the comments section of every post even nominally connected to RPGs on RPS (so many RPs!). He’s the kind of guy who calls – and I actually witnessed him doing this! – Ultima VII an “adventure game” because its primary focus was on story and morality rather than stats and leveling. Thus the reference to him above.

        • Shodex says:

          I can see where you’re coming from, but personally I view an RPG as a game where the player’s character(s) is representative of you. I’m probably in the minority with my opinion, but hear me out.

          God of War makes you play as Kratos, a big guy who makes a lot of bad decisions. You may disagree with a lot of what Kratos does, but that doesn’t matter. God of War also has experience, and levels, stats, etc. I’m not saying you think God of War is an RPG, because it isn’t. My point is, in terms of story, you don’t directly control the actions of Kratos outside of combat and puzzles.

          Mass Effect lets you completely control the Commander Shepard you want, every action he/she takes is of direct result of a choice you made. The story properly moulds around the player’s personality, you don’t play as Commander Shepard, you ARE Commander Shepard. This same kind of idea can be seen in The Elder Scrolls, or Fallout.

          Obviously this has it’s flaws, because by that logic Half-Life is an RPG because you never ever lose control of Gordon. But I think a properly made RPG shouldn’t be marked by it’s progress bars and stats, and instead it’s ability to make the player never feel out of control of his/her character’s actions.

          I guess I have to tie this to ArmA somehow, so basically this is why I think of Day Z as an RPG. Because it’s not a matter of Day Z telling you a story, it’s you telling your own story inside of Day Z. If ArmA 3’s open world thingamajig manages to properly achieve this, then I’d consider it a role playing game. If not, just an open world action game. More akin to Grand Theft Auto, or Infamous.

          Just my two bits.

  3. dodgymadman says:

    Good article, thanks.

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    oWn4g3 says:

    I remember showing Flashpoint in 1998, just me, dressed in a Soviet soldier’s uniform, changing in a toilet to go on the show floor and promote the game. And now we are here!

    Reading this interview tells me that he has lost nothing of his dedication.

  5. Dood says:

    Well the process is collaborative, free, even unorganized. We give our team a lot of freedom to do what they like to explore what they are interested in, and then I myself work hard to make sure that what we get feels like it fits with Arma. Other than that, it’s really down to the team down to what they create, and how to fit that into the game.

    That paragraph is slightly worrisome and kind of explains why BIS games tend to be so enormously buggy on release. It can be good for a game to give the individual team members a lot of freedom. But it can also end in extreme feature creep and a very buggy game. I really hope they can keep things under control.

    • razgon says:

      I think they should hire you, so that their games can be better!

      Nice article- thanks! I’ll be getting myself a new Cray supercomputer to run Arma III I guess, seeing the immense horsepower ARMA 2 requires :-)

    • Shortwave says:

      They should just pick up the Steam Employee Handbook even perhaps. : P

  6. gamma says:

    “…and after a century of war I remember that which matters most… We are still here!

  7. Premium User Badge

    hellboy says:

    Operation Flashpoint was originally supposed to be a post-nuclear apocalypse game where you are the last two carrier ships of US and Soviet Union, and you fight over the last place on the Earth where you can live, and that ended up being Cold War era conflict.

    Make this game please!

  8. Mattressi says:

    The one thing I REALLY want to know is whether Arma 4 will be a less-near future, near-future, present-day or past setting. I worry that the series will go scifi. Near-future I’m ok with, but it would just be weird for there to be a realistic, simulator-like scifi game, when they could, instead, be making more awesome games like Arma 2, but with bigger maps, better controls/physics and more vehicles.

  9. frightlever says:

    It’d be funny if DayZ ended up being part of some military force’s training syllabus.

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    Goodtwist says:

    Now that was a piece of a refreshing and interesting interview. Hats off!

    And now imagine Mr Kotic from Activision taking a uniform and going to a game fair. Kind of impossibru.

  11. communisthamster says:

    I’m glad to hear that the methods for getting mods set up on the user side are being looked at. Getting all the correct mods set up for arma 2 used to be like sucking porridge through a straw, many many desktop shortcuts and @ suffixes to the “launch in” field. Six Updater and similar programs alleviate that now, but a similar launcher available from the start would be nice.

    • tigershuffle says:

      oh how i love SixUpdater ….once you get it sussed it teh bestest thing ever for BIS games

    • AlphaCentauri says:

      One shortcut with the @ command line, manually switch between mods every time you need to. LIKE A MAN

  12. defunkt says:

    ArmA badly needs tesselation so map size and decent performance doesn’t demand a chunky terrain grid, then we could have finer details like ditches which would really improve the infantry experience.

    Visually A3’s weakest point appears the same as A2’s, the interval between the where clutter finishes (say 50 metres out) and about a kilometre beyond that, in that space your terrain is a pixellated satmap with the foliaged areas, in particular bushes or the shadows from bushes obviously painted-on to the ground. They need better resolution ground textures and more bump mapping for this middle distance.

  13. tigershuffle says:

    was playing I44 mod on Arma 2 last night and the Takistan map and its lovely to look at….but its the teamplay that i love.

    im old and daft enough to have seen the leap in quality of gaming graphics….even just from OpFlash – Arma – Arma2 ….and now Arma 3.

    cos ive got a 45yr olds eyesight and a 4770 graphics cards im not that focussed on the fact the graphics will be improved even more as im only just catching up with medium settings :p.
    Far more important to have the Arma2 engine wonky bits and ai improved on, but ill take the shiny graphics too :)

  14. Cor Cordis says:

    There was a game done Vietnam setting back in 2003 when BIA considered making one: VIETCONG and the expansions.
    A good game whose story, setting and atmophere I enjoyed. A Czech game too :D