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

Arma'd And Dangerous

Featured post 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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