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Taking AIM: Jagged Alliance - Flashback Interview

Mods and Mercs

Jagged Alliance: Flashback's first alpha slice releases to backers tomorrow. It's the first time, to my knowledge, that anyone outside of Full Control will have played the game and CEO Thomas Hentschel Lund is excited and, it's fair to say, a little anxious. Since I last spoke to Lund, the company has released its Space Hulk adaptation and the Jagged Alliance Kickstarter crept over the finish line with moments to spare.

In a long and exhaustive conversation, we discussed the huge changes to the game's story and setting since the Kickstarter launched, and the mechanical and interface changes that differentiate Full Control's game from Jagged Alliance 2. I also found time to ask if Full Control had tracked down the original merc voice actors and to begin a discussion of the extensive modding capabilities that will be in the game from day one of Early Access.

RPS: The alpha releases to backers tomorrow. Is that just a single sector tactical map?

Lund: We have more than what will be in the alpha but the slice we will release is what you might call a minigame. There are four sectors and you start out at the gas station that you may have seen in screenshots. Then you go through to other levels and end up at a prison. In each sector you have to kill all the enemies before you can move on and there’s an increasing difficulty curve.
The aim of the alpha, apart from fulfilling a backer obligation, is to show the core combat and get some feedback from the alpha backers. That’s what we hope to get out of it.

RPS: I have seen the gas station graphic. I think before that, the only image of a combat scenario I’d seen was the diorama. You’d talked about how important clarity was in the visuals and the gas station suggests you’re closer to that ideal. How important is the graphical design overall?

Lund: It’s a balance in a turn-based game. The mechanics are the most important thing. If the combat doesn’t work and the mechanics aren’t satisfying then it doesn’t matter what it looks like. That’s how I feel, as a gamer and a fan of turn-based games. For Jag, it’s important to have the tropical island feeling – it’s important to the overall theme – but we have an ambition to take the game into a direction where it has its own visual style.

If you look at Back in Action, it tries to go into some sort of realistic visual direction without really hitting it and it turned out a little bland. For my taste. That’s one of the things that our art lead and concept guy wanted to do, to give Jagged Alliance: Flashback a visual style that everyone can see in a screenshot and recognise it.

RPS: What is that style?

Lund: I’m not an artist! (laughs) But the guys call it stylistic realism. It’s a similar direction to the one that Wasteland has gone in. We take real textures and oversaturate them with some colour without ending up in World of Warcraft. It’s important for us not to end up with a pastel-coloured game that looks like Team Fortress 2.

We maintain some realism but we do exaggerate some elements to highlight the important things, the things that matter to the gameplay. Make them pop. That has been a success and we’re really happy about how all of the sectors have come out – I think we have twenty or twenty five done now, and we’re adding more as we go. It looks right for where we wanted it to be. The diorama was a little too cartoony or pastel-coloured. A little too much bloom.

RPS: You mentioned the importance of the tropical island setting. Isn’t it also important to change things up as the game progresses, to keep the world interesting?

Lund: Yes, there’s variety and it builds toward a theme. There’s jungle, beach, the main urban area. Then there are farm areas. There will be groups of sectors with the same overall visual theme – there is a coherent look throughout the entire game but with sector-specific art styles. There’s a progression moving across the island rather than having all of the assets used right away at the beginning.

RPS: As I remember it, the first Jagged Alliance was mostly just green. But 2 had a good sense of place.

Lund: That’s one of the things we’re trying to keep track of. If you take a sector and look at it on a screenshot, it’s a pretty place but fairly dead as well, so we add moving things. Moving butterflies, the wind blowing. We added a cloud shader so you can see clouds moving across the ground and the water moving. Those things take it from a dead place to a living place, and then you add the mechanics on top of that.

RPS: Do you do anything interesting in terms of lighting, like the day/night cycles or destructible light sources?

Lund: I think day/night cycles were a stretch goal that didn’t make it but I can’t remember if we’re planning to find the time to add some anyway. We did have some prototypes earlier on, where we’d have lights that could be shot out but at night time, that just makes everything black and how interesting is that? There’s also a lot of technical stuff with light maps that means that removing and adding lighting effects makes the game struggle on lower-end machines.

RPS: Are there things that you thought would work, or that the Jag or Kickstarter community thought would work, that when you’ve prototyped them you’ve realised that they’re just not very enjoyable? There’s sometimes a danger of overcomplicating and veiling the core mechanics.

Lund: A lot of the things that we ended up not implementing have been on the plan since day one, since our aim was to take JA 2 as a baseline. We have the source code, as others do as well, and we’ve been fishing through to dig out the mechanics. Some things were a given, that we knew had to be the same way, and we haven’t diverted far at all. It was important to modernise without taking it too far from JA 2.

A lot of the modernisation is interface-based, so adding context-sensitive cursors and more information in the HUD. That explains some of the underlying mechanics and in JA 2 there were mechanics that were never explained – we talked to some of the original developers and dug through that source code, and found that there are a lot of things that have no explanation and no real impact.
So we had a discussion. Do we remove those things because they have no real impact? That’s the kind of thing we work out in prototypes.

Experimentation-wise, the changes we have made from our original plan is mostly on the story side. The original plan that we thought up and used on the Kickstarter is a Cold War setting, where we did have remnants of the Soviet Union and the US forces fighting on an island. The logo was the Hammer and Sickle. That has totally changed as we moved through the story planning.

RPS: Is that because the Soviet Union is in the process of being rebuilt at the moment?

Lund: (laughs) Yes and no, really! One of the things we took as a lesson out of the Kickstarter was that huge parts of the Russian community hated our game without looking at it properly. They thought it was just another Russian Kill Simulator where the US Forces just slaughter them as generic enemies.

We also made the mistake of calling them Russians instead of Soviets because, from our end, we didn’t have that sense of the language. Russians are very proud of their country and in some ways too nationalistic even and you can see some of that right now, with what is happening in the Ukraine and so forth.

So we’ve made it a more traditional Jagged Alliance story. There’s an island and a Prince and his drug cartel. We’ve removed the Superpowers [a moment when I think Freedom Force Jagged Alliance crossover was nearly a thing and then realise what Lund actually means] and made it into more of a CIA agent setting. As part of the alpha on Thursday, we’re shipping out the new logo, which doesn’t have the hammer and sickle anymore.

RPS: One of the things you said from the beginning was that you wanted to keep the sense of humour, which has always seemed to me like a gung-ho, Soldier of Fortune, Guns N’ Ammo kind of deal. Jagged Alliance finds the idea of men and women with big guns extremely enjoyable and amusing. I guess that’s one of the reasons it needs to be removed from a real political situation because in a real war, those things aren’t quite as amusing or entertaining.

Lund: It was never our intention to do an East vs West story. It was just a cool setting and time period to drop the mercenaries into.

RPS: When we spoke before the Kickstarter began, you told me that you’d chosen the period because it fit the timeline for AIM’s origin story.

Lund: It’s still the same timeline. I think we’re in ’91 now instead of ’89 but the focus on the Superpower part has been removed and it’s now a more classic Banana Republic dictator-prince setting. For me, Jag is a lot like the A Team, that’s primarily what I think of. A little bit exaggerated in terms of the combat and explosions, and having fun blowing shit up!

RPS: Did you never consider a gritty reboot then? About the existential tragedy of the mercenary life? (both laugh) I wonder if the humour in particular might be jarring to some people – it has gone out of fashion, I think.

Lund: A little bit, unfortunately. But it has its audience and there aren’t too many games in this style anymore. I think it’s an opportunity to test the water – three years ago, people didn’t realise that turn-based strategy games could be such a huge deal. We can experiment and try to see if these things still float.

We haven’t dumbed this game down. It’s still hardcore and a lot of the core combat mechanics are still in there, but now in a 3d world, with a stronger art style. We could have gone with a more realistic ARMA style, visually, but then we couldn’t include the over the top violence without being TOO violent, if you know what I mean.

RPS: The personalities of the characters veer toward stereotype as well, with humour to temper the violence. Even if they’re dying horribly, many of them tend to quip about it.

Lund: Yeah.

RPS: One mechanic that interests me is the cover system. Have you changed it? Because in Jagged Alliance 2 [which I love dearly and am not being mean about] you just sort of stand diagonally next to a tree and hope that you’re in cover. There’s no feedback, which some people no doubt like because it creates tension but it can be frustrating.

Lund: It’s a really good example of where we did change things. We have indicators on the cursor so you know where there is cover, and cover is explained in the UI as you move around. It’s those kind of small things that we explain as we go along. I don’t think that’s part of the alpha right now but we have been talking about having a switch so you can turn on the gritty detail of the calculations or turn them all off. So you can see percentage of cover, line of sight, direction you’re facing – how it all adds up.

RPS: I like having information at my fingertips. I can imagine people arguing it makes the game easier but others would argue that seeing through to the numbers proves the tactical credentials and allows people to engage more closely. For me, being able to see the figures on screen makes the game more credible – I like to know what is happening and why.

Lund: There’s a lot of information that we want to give to the player but some people don’t want that. Another thing that may make it into the UI for the alpha is that when you move the mouse to a tile, on the indicator ring for that tile you’ll see lines from enemies, in different colours, to indicate their line of sight and whether there is cover or not. It breaks down when twenty enemies see you and everything is obscured by lines.

RPS: I may have misinterpreted this aspect but is there a base on the strategic map, to defend and manage?

Lund: It’s one of those things we wanted to do when we did the Kickstarter – a full base with base management. It’s one of those things that we changed around a little bit. Now, when you take a sector you can spend money to fortify it or to build a field hospital.

RPS: So it’s more like Jagged Alliance 2 now?

Lund: Yes.

RPS: Can you recruit soldiers to defend it still – the militia system from JA 2?

Lund: Yes, that’s in.

RPS: How long do you expect the alpha to run? Will it run continuously with new slices every month or so?

Lund: This goes up on Thursday and then there will be a few additional ones up to Steam Early Access which is at the end of May, I think. So we’ll be loading up new slices to the alpha backers.

RPS: Are they distinct ‘slices’ rather than a central alpha that you’ll add new features to?

Lund: Yeah, they’re completely separate, so we can get feedback on different aspects of the game. Obviously, this first alpha is really important to us. We want to have more than just a technical slice, to show people the interface, the combat mechanics. We want the feedback but we also want people to see that, yes, this is Jagged Alliance.

RPS: The Kickstarter was touch and go for a while…

Lund: Oh yeah, it was!

RPS: I remember an update where you said if we don’t make it, we won’t try this again. We’ll talk to Bitcomposer and see what other options we have. Now, I see a lot of Kickstarters and yours looked more like a fulltime job than most – lots of updates and communication. It looked fairly draining. I wonder what you learned from that and what you’d recommend to other people doing Kickstarters or considering them?

Lund: Oh yeah, it was draining. In many ways it was really rewarding but it was horrible as well. Without mentioning names or pointing fingers, I see some Kickstarters were people set up a stream, play some games and make their goal in three hours. I just think, ‘oh man, they have it too easy’. I’ve been giving talks to local people here where my overall message is ‘Don’t do a Kickstarter.’ But then I add some caveats. If you don’t have a rockstar team, a kickass demo or a brand – if you don’t have one or two of those there, you’ll have a hard time.

The place where we failed miserably is that we didn’t have a demo. You need to have something to show that is more than screenshots and an IP name. If we do another Kickstarter, we’ll make sure that we definitely do that.

RPS: On a more positive note – I’ve been rewatching some of the update videos this morning and hearing the Jagged Alliance music kick in at the beginning is so great. Did you find the composer or do you use your own stuff in the actual game?

Lund: We don’t have our own stuff. We have had a huge amount of people who basically volunteered, sending us music, and we have access to all the old sound effects and music as part of the license deal. So we coded a little radio station and you can pick a genre and there’s a folder full of music files, like a small MP3 player, and one of the channels is the original Jagged Alliance music, and then there’s an island music channel, a reggae channel. And it’s completely moddable – people can add their own MP3s and they’ll play.

RPS: You’ve probably been asked this many times before – and I think I might even have asked you this before myself – but do you have any of the original voice actors? I imagine they’re scattered far and wide.

Lund: We don’t have any of the original ones. We investigated where they are and, unfortunately (for us), a lot of them are now voice actors in Hollywood, which makes them very expensive to hire!

RPS: I thought you were going to say, ‘one of them runs a shrimping boat, one of them is a barista in Portland’.

Lund: No, they’re real voice actors now! It’s crazy.

RPS: You mentioned adding new music but how deep does the actual modding go?

Lund: It’s the thing we’re pushing really hard on. There’s no secret about the fact that we hoped to get more money in the Kickstarter, to make a larger game. I’ve heard rumours about the original JA2 being a multi-million dollar project and here we are with $350,000 in a modern age.

The amount of content we can create is limited compared to expectations that it will be a huge huge huge huge game. We are still delivering a cool story and a reasonable-sized game with a lot of great stuff in it, but we build up the systems that we have in place – like the strategic map, on which people can swap out sectors, or build a completely new map with sectors made from scratch. Everyone who buys has access to every asset we used to make the game. The only thing that isn’t moddable directly is the code, some of the merecenary animations, which is due to technical stuff in Unity. I think we’re the first game going on to Early Access to have moddability from day one. That’ll be day one in May. The first person buying it, along with the alpha and beta backers, will be able to use all of this stuff.

RPS: Let’s assume the first person to buy it is me and the extent of my modding ability is making Quake levels and swapping out sound files in Doom so that Cacodemons shouted out ‘argh, it chafes’ when I shot them. What are my chances of making something cool?

Lund: It depends which part of the game you want to mod. If you want to take a picture of yourself and put your mugshot in as a mercenary with your own stats and name, that’s as simple as copying the file into the right folder and editing a text file, and either adding a new entry or swapping one out.

RPS: Could I add in a whole bunch of new mercenaries and have them appear in AIM?

Lund: That’s the plan. And it’s the same with weapons – change stats, add entirely new ones, swap out models. That is just text files and uploading images.

RPS: You’d always said JA 2 1.13 was the dream but it’d be a stretch to make something as large and as complex as that.

Lund: As far as we can stretch Unity, this is our plan, to let people make add-ons of that complexity. To go back to the question of how much knowledge you’d need to mod the game though – if you wanted to create a new sector, with a fortress for example, you’d need Unity, either the free or pro version. And then you can go in with our tools and assets, and start building and dragging things in. If you can assemble something in Unity, you can swap out a sector. To add your own assets, you need Unity Pro because we use asset bundles, which are an advanced form of zip files that Unity uses. But then you can add your own models.

RPS: Theoretically, people could do total conversions.

Lund: Sure! If they don’t like the art style, say, and have lots of time on their hands. It’s been important for us throughout development to tell people that we’re on a limited budget and that we can make a cool little game but we want to be a bit like JA 2 in that modding is possible in a clean way so the game can have a long life.

Tomorrow, part two explores the depth of the modding tools in detail, and we talk about the challenge of managing expectations while working with a license and a crowdfunded game.

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