I've been playing the Arma 3 alpha! I know. But before we get to that, let's see what project lead Joris-Jan van ‘t Land has to say about the state of the project, and the plans for this early release of the madly anticipated sandbox soldier sim. Read on for victory!
RPS: Can you explain your decision to make Arma 3 a Steam exclusive? I had always seen Bohemia as fiercely independent, with you developing your own sales platform and so on. What changed? Are you admitting to defeat to the Valve empire?
Joris: Most of the reasoning is covered in our development blog. To sum it up: we took an honest look at where we were, weighed up all of our options, and decided on this as the best way forward for Arma 3. I believe it's important to keep in mind that any benefit to us as developer, should be a benefit to players. Making the setup process smoother, having updates be more frequent and distributed quicker, being able to deliver mods and other user-generated content easier, and freeing up time for us to support important things like the SDK. They will all unlock Arma 3's potential and longevity. The requirement from ourselves to release in 2013 is not just a business decision; this is important for the team as well. You cannot keep a team motivated for years and it's hard to keep the technology state-of-the-art.
We don't see this move as becoming less independent. Rather, to remain independent we need to be pragmatic and use existing solutions where appropriate. We have to accept we cannot do everything on our own. Arma 3 will still sell via our sales platform Store.bistudio.com, and other platforms, but every game does run through Steam. As a Project Lead I want to release the best game on time, as a designer I want to release the best platform to tinker with, and as a gamer I want to release the best game to explore and have memorable experiences in. So far our decision is helping to achieve these ambitious goals, as seen by our Alpha release now.
RPS: The presentation of Arma 3 seems far slicker than in previous games - was this designed to address criticism of your previous games? Do you think Bohemia had earned a reputation for technical brilliance without production polish? Was that deserved?
Joris: Yes, I believe the criticism was deserved. This was one of the things myself, co-creative director Jay Crowe, and the team really wanted to improve for Arma 3. We're trying to make the setup experience and first play session smoother. In a way our biggest strength is our biggest weakness: the sandbox. In my opinion such game experience cannot be perfect and bug-free. There are too many variables, combinations and situations to ever test for. But since we love the openness so much, we accept these imperfections. It's our job to detect the edge cases that pull players out from their immersion and solve them.
Myself and many of my team members owe our careers to the open Arma platform. To provide you with a little anecdote: my second encounter with our CEO Marek Španěl, was when I handed him a floppy disk with a 'mod' in 2001. This was at the Cold War Crisis launch event in Brussels, which I attended as a fan. After his interviews were over, we went over to one of the demo stations to check it out. It was a custom mission for the press preview version, which would dynamically spawn a tank on a beach, then drive it to the player anywhere on the island. At that point in time the scripting language was mostly still only there to create simple cutscenes. If I remember right, he was quite pleasantly surprised to see such possibilities in his game. Our philosophy is that we do not want to compromise this freedom and opportunity, but we think it's fair to at least try and remove the biggest rough edges. We're looking for a more consistent and polished package, while maintaining the open approach within and outside the game.
RPS: Can you talk a bit about the content in the alpha - why did you choose to show these elements? What are you most proud of?
Joris: I really enjoy the infantry showcase, because it is a benchmark for our design vision. The scenario is quite simple, but every play-through has little differences. Sometimes I get suppressed by an auto-rifleman, see tracers fly right over my head and hear the bullets pop. You genuinely do not want to get hit, because you know the consequences are brutal. Another time you'll have outsmarted the same patrol using a well-placed under-barrel grenade, and the survivors are forced into completely different tactics. Ignore them, and they may come back to flank you ten minutes later. The point is: when we deliver a good enough sandbox for our infantry supported by vehicles, the scenarios themselves should not have to rely on heavy scripting.
Then I start up the helicopter showcase, and you really get to see how broad the experience can be. The environment is huge, even if it's tiny compared to the full game's Altis. That's something important to stress: do not be worried about the Alpha launch content being fairly limited. The content will not only grow during the Alpha and Beta programs, but the full game is significantly buffed. Factor in community content, and you once again have an endless pool of fun.
When you start toying around in the editor, you're able to further explore the new features. Come up with new types of scenarios using SCUBA diving, get creative with anti-personnel mines or simply drop in two opposing squads of infantry someplace new on the island. A combat engagement can play out differently each time, but is now enhanced by a much-refined radio protocol and better responsiveness of the character movement.
RPS: How important do you think a single-player campaign is to the Arma series? Do more people play that than the multiplayer?
Joris: An Arma game without any campaign would not feel right to me. It's about longevity. People come in, play the campaign, play with the editor, train themselves in singleplayer generally. Then they stick around for the multiplayer and new content. Of course that's generalizing, but I think neither can be ignored when we want to deliver a complete Arma experience.
RPS: Arma 3 seems to have had a troubled development, not least thanks to the situation with Martin and Ivan, but what particular design and technical challenges did you face? What problems have you had to address as development proceeded?
Joris: One problem stems from growing as a development team. People tend to think more people automatically means you can do more, but it's very hard to effectively manage a large team. This is further complicated when you're working across several physical locations. Many of our previous games had been made primarily in one location, with support from other studios. Now we have core development spread over two offices. Quickly storming a room next door is harder when that room is hundreds of kilometers away. We're still learning how to deal with this effectively.
The second main issue is the balance between idealism and pragmatism. We want to do 'all of the things', but can only feasibly do so much. Early on we tried to add too many new technologies and features, not realizing we would not have the resources to finish them properly. We had to be honest with ourselves, dial back down our desires, re-focus our vision and make sure we can release a game. Having a solid Arma 3 platform and expanding it over time is ultimately beneficial to us all.
RPS: Can you tell us a bit about how you're expect the alpha and beta tests to go? What's the roadmap from here?
Joris: These early-access and test programs are really exciting for us. Particularly the ability to fully mod the Alpha is something quite unique in the current industry. Many of the games are even moving away from modding the final game. I can't wait to see what our community comes up with before the full game is released. By doing this they will also help us test features we would otherwise not explore in our planned content (we do not currently plan to test attaching bleachers and turrets to vehicles to create a battle bus for example).
Next to that, we are still able to react to some of the feedback and change parts of the game. The foundations are built, but getting the balance of elements right is open to feedback. What are good default control bindings? How much recoil for a certain weapon is just right? How fast should an armored car accelerate? These are the types of questions we hope to get proposals for. This again ensures that the full game in Q3 2013 will be a better experience for those people waiting to enlist at that time.
RPS: Thanks for your time.
Next time: Jim vs men with guns! (Again!)