Last week I had a chance to talk to the Bohemia Interactive bossman, Marek Spanel. As one of the brains behind the original Operation Flashpoint, and then the three Arma games that followed, he is one PC gaming's most ambitious developers. He's now embarking on a huge project of developing three games across three studios at the same time: Arma 3, Take On Helicopters, and Carrier Command. I had a chance to talk to him about this bold undertaking.
RPS: How did you guys come to be remaking Carrier Command?
Spanel: It really begins in my childhood when Carrier Command was a game my older brother Ondrej (he's the lead engineer at Bohemia) brought this game home on Atari ST. I think I was like twelve years old, and he became really addicted to that game. I wasn't very good! But I watched him playing a great deal, and this game had a big influence upon us. Many years later and our colleagues from our simulation office in Australia met some of the original developers of this game, and they got the idea to recreate the game. And so we became part of that. I said: “Let's do it!” It's a game that is part of us, and it is still fairly unique, so let's try to give it new life.
RPS: So who is working on that? Is it Black Element? How does that work?
Spanel: Yeah, so our company has grown, and we have expanded in the Czech Republic, bought various studios. We are now three development studios in the Czech Republic, and it's a dedicated studio for Carrier Command. Development on the game is not always as simple as we hoped, for various reasons, but basically our goal is to make it fun for a modern audience, and true to its original depth. Of course there have been attempts to remake the Carrier Command style gameplay in the past, but what I am interest in is the open world game. We want to make a very large game world. We are going for thirty two islands, and you freely roam in that environment, and it is up to your strategy how you play – what islands you take, what you build on the islands, how you fight with the enemy carrier. In the hands-on build you have this aspect is only somewhat visible in the strategy part of the game, but in the full game this is what I consider the essence of the game.
The campaign mode is very streamlined. It does give you freedom, but gradually. You start on one island, no carrier, nothing. You have to fight your way to the carrier and get it, and you have to first repair it, and then you can explore just three islands. On those islands you get your first Manta and you then gather resources. The game world is designed in such a way that you open options gradually – an island, three islands, fifteen islands. You can of course play the strategy game on the full scale of the game from the beginning. The campaign is, in a sense, a long introduction to the gameplay. There is almost too much you can do, so the campaign is designed as a training mode, in a way.
RPS: And the strategy game is a broad strokes sort of sandbox?
Spanel: Absolutely open. It is up to you to decide the balance of power, to decide how many islands you own, how many the enemy carrier owns, and how much is untaken. You can also set an economy multiplier, which will make it easier or harder for you depending on the setting.
RPS: But you also have an action game? Is that like the original action game, or something different?
Spanel: This is an excerpt of missions. It is something we have done to make the game instantly playable by anyone. But the full game offers two main modes. One is the campaign, which is more preset, more staged, with some story as well – we have an Austrian writer writing the campaign for us – but it is basically about introducing the options. As you start you have to seize the carrier, which is damaged and in very bad shape, and you gradually build that to introduce the features of it. You have to fix it to travel to the next island, and you explore the environment there and discover blueprints to get the next thing, and that gradually unlocks all the options. Plus you have the full open strategy game.
RPS: How much can you play from the map screen? Can you rely on your AI units to fight?
Spanel: First of all each island has automatic defences. You only control troops from the carrier. But we try to tune the AI as much as possible for it to be up to you to choose how you play. From our feedback so far there are several players who try to play it as strategy only, and others who play it as action only. Mostly though people combine the two. We will be tweaking to focus on that.
RPS: So is this the Arma 2 engine?
Spanel: This is pretty much a new engine because it is a multi-platform technology, which Arma 2 was never designed to be. It is not easy to bring Arma 2 technology to consoles, it is very complex, and just too big. So this is more focused and a new technology. It's built from scratch, but of course we can reuse some technologies – vegetation is using the same techniques. Generally speaking though this is new for this game.
RPS: And it is just single player?
Spanel: Yes, it is just single player for now. We hope that we can eventually expand the game to multiplayer, but not now. We are focused on the single-player game.
RPS: And will the PC version have mod support?
Spanel: Yes, but it will be nothing like that of the Arma 2 technology. We want to support modification, but there will be some compromise. We cannot support the same infrastructure that we do for Arma 2. Our priority here is to make this work across multiple platforms, unlike Arma 2 which is the hardcore PC-platform crazy thing!
RPS: Ok, let's talk about Take On Helicopter, what can you tell me about that?
Spanel: So here is a story. Out of the blue someone contacted us last Friday – I will not name him – but it was a guy who had been in touch in 1999, and he was an advisor to us back then, and he says to us “I am running a start-up helicopter business in Seattle!” And he offered his services with testing the game. Such a funny coincidence! He is basically doing what we are doing within the game – running a helicopter business in Seattle. The circle has closed!
Spanel: But it seems logical to do a commercial flight simulation game. We wanted, however, to do something more focused. There are many good flight sims, many helicopter combat games, but there isn't a complete civilian helicopter game on the market. We feel that there is a hole and we want to fill it in. It's also really refreshing to focus on something very specific! Unlike Arma where we do too many things, and it is difficult to make it as detailed as possible, here we focus. It's still very complex, but it's a different approach to development. Here we will make helicopter simulation as authentic an experience as possible.
RPS: So what's the basic experience of the game?
Spanel: It's a large, open game with full mod support. It's based on Arma 2, but it is a heavily upgraded and improved version of our helicopter experience. We felt that the terrain detail and terrain size of Arma 2 worked well with helicopters, so it was logical to use it for this game. So players in Take On have a variety of options to play. In the centre of the game will be the campaign mode where you will play a narrative-driven experience of a helicopter business where two brothers take a struggling helicopter business in Seattle and make money. That is part of the fun – getting contracts, making money, and upgrading helicopters. There is a story where you find yourself in competition, and there are eventually some more dangerous missions in South East Asia. There are some tutorials of course and also a free-flight mode, where you can freely fly helicopters. There's a mission editor, of course, and we hope there will be a community of people creating new helicopters and new scenarios. We hope to design it so seriously that this game could last for years. It will be an authentic flight model on a completely new level compared to what we had on previous titles.
RPS: Let's move on to Arma 3. What's the big idea for that?
Spanel: There are several things that I think of, randomly. I don't know what is most important! One of the interesting aspects is that we are designing a game environment that is based on one real island. In previous games we always designed environments that were nearly real, or semi-authentic, but this time it really is one-to-one. This is a big challenge for us, because we have to be more accurate with the terrain development than ever before. We are trying to address various technology limitations that our userbase was not happy with in Arma 2, and that means we are heavily pushing engine development as well. We are addressing things like physics simulation and animations – two things we feel our userbase is not happy with in the last game.
At the heart of the new game there is a story-driven campaign where this time it is a bit more player-centric. We have created a scenario which is near-future, and which is more logical for the player to start as a lone-warrior on this island, fighting for survival of civilisation. We want to make this quite believable, and so we set it in not-so-distant future, which allows us some creative freedom compared to our previous games. As well as the spectrum of units and vehicles, we have some freedom to experiment. We have some people who design modern weapon systems trying to figure out what weapons systems will look like in the near future. We do the same thing in house, we take the next twenty years and try to extrapolate. We will make it as real as possible.
RPS: Has the series of expansions you released for Arma 2 been a success for you? Is that the sort of direction you will continue in?
Spanel: Arma 3 is a big long term venture, and so we will want to support it. I can't say if we will support that via smaller DLC or standalone expansions, but we will be doing something like this, and so yes it has been a success for Arma 2, and it was a good move. Our userbase reacted well to it.
RPS: Anything like that for Carrier Command?
Spanel: Yes, we hope so, but right now we need to sort out the release. We are only really a PC developer, although we do a few mobile games now, so this is important for us in terms of taking on an all-platforms release. Once we done with it we will see the potential for additional content for the title.
RPS: It's funny how we've gone from maybe downloading some patches and add on to a game you bought on disc, to downloading whole games, and now downloading the game then adding to it over time. Digital distribution really is everything for PC now, isn't it?
Spanel: Yes. If it were not for digital distribution we would no longer be doing PC games. It's as simple as this.
RPS: Thanks for your time.