Arma III is still quite some way off, with a release date of "2013", but Bohemia are starting to reveal more and more of the latest iteration in their ongoing soldier sim project, giving us some tantalising glimpses of an overhauled engine and a reworked game. Creative directors Ivan Buchta and Jay Crowe took some time out from working on their near-future weaponry simulations to tell us about their plans for the game, the meaning of the near-future setting, the impact of Day Z, and the value of modding.
RPS: We're starting to get glimpses of Arma 3 now, and it's looking very promising. Is the main focus for this new game the visual fidelity? I understand you are focusing on things like improving the animation, physics and so on? But what will that specifically mean for the game? Will we get overhauled lighting and visual effects too? Any other things in there? Please tell us about your plans.
Ivan: When we started working on Arma 3, improved graphics and related features contributing to the visual impression (e.g. animations or physics) were identified as priorities. While Bohemia's proprietary "Real Virtuality" engine excels in many fields, many visual features either were or still are mediocre, compared to the current technological standards.
Jay: Ivan's right about the desire to 'bring things up to scratch'. Things like ragdoll, too, are part of that process. By themselves, such things perhaps aren't much to shout about, like, 'wow, radgoll, welcome to the late Nineties, guys!' Together with what our engine is good at, though - the enormous environments, the fantastic detail of the models - then things start to get quite interesting. I think it's that overall impression which has helped to provoke some generous compliments about Arma 3.
Ivan: In our game, visuals are often related to function or gameplay, and the changes are usually deeper than it would seem: e.g. tampering with vehicle physics means we need to address physical interactions in multiplayer, or seeing how the changes would affect the AI.
Jay: Yeah, the consequences of improvements that appear quite superficial can be far-reaching. More often than not, impacts upon gameplay emerge organically from the process of improving the visuals, but they're then something we must consider carefully, particularly for things like multiplayer. Take muzzle-flashes, for example. Sure, they look 'prettier' now, but there've been a couple of times I've caught sight of a burst of light through bushes or trees from an enemy weapon. Now I'm thinking more about changing position after I've discharged a sniper rifle, or the advantage of using a flash suppressor.
RPS: So how much does what you have done build on the Arma 2 engine? Is the technology significantly different, or is it more like another iteration of the same tech?
Jay: It's true to say Arma 3 is built on an iteration of the same tech - the Real Virtuality engine - but, to do so might imply there's not a serious number of quite fundamental advancements.
Ivan:Our work has always been rather evolution than revolutionary changes, but compared to engine upgrade between Arma 1 and 2, changes are very significant this time. For example, changes in the physical simulation influence many other parts of the engine, migration to DirectX 11 forced us to commit substantial changes to the renderer code.
Jay: I suppose Bohemia games always have tried, one way or another, to push boundaries. Sometimes, that's meant going a little further than we've been able to deal with effectively. On the other hand, Bohemia Interactive can't afford to pump out the same new game each 'holiday season'. Arma 3 needs to offer something unique. I simply hope that we strike a balance of core stability, and an exciting/ambitious new feature list.
RPS: Let's talk about Arma 2 a little bit - that game seems to have been quietly enormous. Has it sold well? And have the DLC expansions been a success?
Jay: The game's certainly been well supported after launch, both by our creative community, and in terms of official patches. 'DLC expansions' is actually quite a useful term, in the sense that they weren't simply content packs; rather, they've brought alongside engine advancements, which have been included in free patches to keep everyone running the same base code. That's really helped to extend the lifecycle of the game, encouraged a steady flow of new players to join, and provided a solid foundation upon which to build Arma 3.
RPS: Do you think your success proves that there is a real demand for simulation-led games?
Ivan: We certainly offer a different experience, which may not be attractive just to the milsim niche gamers, but hopefully also for people seeking some alternative to the "FPS canon". The success of the DayZ mod proves that our simulation may work for many people when stripped of its military fatigues.
RPS: Yes, it's selling again now with the excitement around the Day Z mod - does that vindicate your ongoing interest in modding? That's always been very important for Bohemia, hasn't it?
Ivan: The success of DayZ certainly proves that modification support is the right thing which may prove the game's true value. DayZ's popularity is exceptional because it reaches out of the milsim niche, but to us, every mod is important because it means someone had fun modifying our game, and brought something interesting to some more Bohemia customers.
Jay: In terms of media exposure, it's certainly a most spectacular validation of a mod-friendly attitude. It's also a real vindication of what persistent, open worlds can offer, and what players can achieve if provided with a simple set of elegantly designed rules.
RPS: Regarding the mod itself - how do you feeling about the hype around it? Are you playing it? Are you learning anything from it?
Ivan: I am not a typical DayZ addict, and E3 practically forced me to cease playing for a while, but I ate my fair share of canned beans. The mod certainly brought a very refreshing insight into my own work, and Arma 3 will certainly be influenced by the DayZ experience.
Jay: I'd like to mention that Marek (Bohemia's studio boss) is a huge fan of DayZ, despite not being much into the traditional 'zombie genre'. He enjoys the strict and simple brutality of it, even seeing it as something of a return to the magic present in the Cold War Crisis and Resistance campaigns, revelling in the paucity of on-screen waypoints, save games, hints or aids. There's certainly much to learn from the phenomenal growth and critical reception of the mod. Though, the majority of the lessons will likely be found in recognising where a designer should take a step back and let the player create his own experiences.
RPS: What can you tell us about the plans for multiplayer support in Arma 3? Are Rocket's experiments with Day Z going to feed into that at all? Should we expect any persistent aspects to Arma 3's multiplayer?
Ivan: It is hard to tell at the moment, as it would be nonsense just to take the DayZ ruleset and stitch it to Arma 3, but we are carefully examining the possibilities and are excited where this may lead us. Dean's solutions and lessons learned from running a persistent multiplayer mod are very useful in identifying the weak spots in the current multiplayer code. Arma 3 will surely benefit from the recent Arrowhead patches oriented on the DayZ improvements, but it is impossible to tell if and how we would add any persistence.
Jay: It’s clear we'd need to be careful about approaching the quite evident problems one can run into with persistent worlds and big, public databases; particularly, when evaluating making that tricky transition from a 'diamond-in-the-rough' mod to a 'wait, why isn't my retail game working' mindset. That being said, Dean is an incredibly enthusiastic, optimistic guy surrounded by very experienced developers. He can make big problems disappear with his attitude alone. If we can take even a small part of that with us into Arma 3, it'll be a better game for it.
RPS: Can you explain the setting for Arma 3's campaign in a bit more detail? We've heard that it is set in the near future, but what does that mean for the game? What sort of technologies will be available? And what made you opt for a future scenario?
Ivan: The near future setting allows us to enrich the experience by some most recent military technology, which will hopefully change the gameplay a bit compared to the previous Arma titles. We try to avoid purely sci-fi designs and focus rather on modern military technologies, which are reshaping the battlespace: precision munitions, reconnaissance means, autonomous vehicles, advanced weapons and targeting systems, lightweight equipment, enhanced survivability. The setting also allows the team to have some rest from the pressure associated with replicating reality and focus more on the actual gameplay.
RPS: One of Arma 2's most impressive features were the amazing Takistan and Chernarus maps. Will Arma 3 feature similarly huge environments? What sort of terrain can we expect to explore?
Ivan: This time, players will explore two Greek islands situated in the Aegean: the smaller Stratis, with ground area covering 20 km², and Limnos, which with 270 km² of ground makes it the largest official terrain in the Arma series. Both terrains are arid and modelled according to the real-life data; Stratis is mountainous and fairly green, Limnos encompasses many types of environment ranging from dry mountains to lush irrigated lowlands. Of course, both islands also provide sufficient amount of detailed seabed for months of underwater exploration.
RPS: Oh yes, underwater action in Arma 3. Can you tell us about that?
Ivan: It is possible not just to swim, but also to dive. There is also special diving equipment, an underwater rifle shooting supercavitating bullets and an underwater Swimmer Deliver Vehicle, a periscope-fitted underwater convertible as a transportation means for longer distances. We plan to employ these new features in the campaign, where it may contribute to the missions' variety from the very start, and of course in multiplayer.
Jay: The underwater environment is really just a logical extension of what Arma has always been about: freedom. It introduces a different set of potential experiences, giving players more latitude to pursue objectives as they like, and offering some different options for mod/mission makers. Our games are always at their best when we can, as designers, take a step back, and simply provide a context or situation in which players can play out their own action.
RPS: Gamers often complain that the Arma games are difficult to get into. Is that something you want to actively work on? Or is the steep learning curve a good thing? Do you have any plans for a slicker UI?
Jay: The good news is that we're taking a much more pro-active approach to grinding down those sharp edges commonly associated with Arma. We've now got two teams across two studios working on Arma 3. Having guys dedicated to working on the UI alone is something that we've rarely seen before as a company, particularly when times were tight. The bad news - or even better news, depending on your standpoint - is that we're not removing the features and freedoms many have come to expect with Arma. It's rather about being more intelligent about how we present them to the player.
Ivan: We have already put great effort into improvements of infantry controls, which produced very positive response during the E3 hands-on. Our experience from this event also confirms we should start overhauling the interfaces for interacting with player's surrounding, as many people struggled with the complex controls of user actions and commanding interfaces. These changes will hopefully prevent players from giving up after the first contact with the game; furthermore, we would like to achieve moderate learning curve by careful design of playable content. The current campaign structure will allow us to control what new features are available to players and make sure there will be some very simplistic scenarios allowing player to learn the rules and controls before being required to use them in proper combat.
Jay: It goes without saying that the popularity of DayZ doesn't make us complacent, but there is I think some validation to be found there, in the sense that if you can create the right conditions for compelling gameplay to take place, the rest can follow. It gives us a renewed faith that players have the capacity and desire to learn. You have to want to play Arma. It's our job to sustain and reward that desire, and work hard to identify and find ways of minimising the things that may detract from that feeling.
RPS: You guys have often been criticised for making games that have bugs or unfinished features, but do you regard that as a necessary side-effect from making such an open, large-scale sort of game? Arma's position is very different to that taken on my most commercial FPS games, and most FPS games are very simplistic if you compare their feature lists, so do you think it is necessarily a rougher experience when you aim for simulation and stark realism?
Ivan: I certainly don't want to excuse our mistakes by complex designs. However, our games' overall complexity and amount of features and possibilities have always added to the issues, and testing is far more demanding compared to a common shooter game with rather narrow options and pre-scripted events. However, we are learning and improving our internal QA with every project, and we also gradually gain know-how to prevent major issues in the content design. Of course, we would like to dedicate some time to testing and bugfixing, which is one of the reasons why we have announced postponing the release of Arma 3 to 2013.
Jay: Part of the commitment to producing a more stable game can be seen in our planned community alpha. We're a relatively small team with a big, ambitious game, so anything we can do to identify and iron out problems - be it hardware, code or design related - is a step in the right direction.
RPS: When can we expect to see more of the game? Any chances of a hands-on session soon?
Ivan: We are now busy working on the public community alpha which is due for release in this autumn. It will be similar to our E3 hands-on demo, but it will contain the 2D mission editor and allow modifications. I am confident we will be able to showcase many major improvements and new features in this early build and give the community an excellent toy to ease their waiting for the final game.
RPS: Thanks for your time.