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Taking AIM: Jagged Alliance – Flashback Interview Pt Two

Alphas and Expectations

The first part of my conversation with Full Control CEO Thomas Hentschel Lund covered the main mechanical and interface changes that have been implemented in Jagged Alliance: Flashback. Taking Jagged Alliance 2 as its base, the game's alpha has now been released to backers, giving a first insight into the combat mechanics. In this second part of our extensive interview, I spoke to Lund about the pressure of working with a license and living up to expectations, as well as the vital importance of modding in the future and past of Jagged Alliance.

RPS: I don’t understand coding at all but JA 2 is something of a Holy Grail to me, so the idea of the source code is quite exciting.

Lund: Yeah, it’s crazy to go in there and see how they made it all work.

RPS: You mentioned mechanics that are never properly explained earlier – I get the impression, with JA 2, that nobody quite knew when to stop. You hear about feature creep pulling people off track or delaying games, or even preventing them from releasing altogether, but JA 2 seems like a game where people kept plugging new things into it and somehow it worked, it all came together. That’s rare, right?

Lund: (laughs) Yes! It is rare and that’s one of the issues when working with something like this. Where do you stop? And so we know that what’s important to the success is to have as much modding as possible. To utilise the community that’s still around in The Bear's Pit and similar places. We want them to be able to add all the stuff they want into it.

Right now, they are sitting and modding a 15 year old game. It’s crazy. We want to give this brand another 10-15 years by moving into a 3d engine that allows for new kinds of modding. I’m really hoping that it gets that kind of success.

RPS: What kind of things do the movement to 3d and the interface changes allow that wasn’t possible before? I don’t want to ask if it’s a better platform for modders, but in what ways does it make it worthwhile for people to shift across rather than carrying on with playing and modding the 15 year old game?

Lund: Well, part of it, and not to talk down on JA 2 at all, is that it runs on an old 2d engine. It looks old and there are limitations to what you can mod in it. The UI principes, some of them, were new 15 years ago but dated now. With the processing power we have these days, we can show much more information in a visual way as part of the UI. That kind of stuff isn’t easy to mod into JA 2.

The 3d engine has a lot more particle effects and lighting, and things you can play with. Hopefully that draws in a new crowd to Jagged Alliance. The coding language is interesting as well because once people crack this baby open and start putting in code, it’s easier to find people who know scripting in Unity and can make big changes.

RPS: The re-emergence – or new visibility – of bedroom coders is interesting, in connection with Unity in particular for JA. Coding is like sorcery to me. The breadth of games made in Unity is extraordinary though. I often don’t realise I’m playing a Unity game unless it’s brought to my attention. I mean, with the Quake engine, you knew where you stood, except for that one racing game somebody made.

Lund: Yes, there are limitations but it’s very flexible. There’s not a lot of Unity in AAA but the democratisation of game development that the Unity guys talked about back in the day has happened. It’s really cool to see the new generation of games coming up. There aren’t many genres that aren’t filled with cool ideas right now – and also a lot of crap, but that’s part of the experimentation process, right? That’s great to see.

RPS: If you’d had to make a custom engine would the game not have been possible? And if you did have the time and money to do that, what are the possible advantages of a custom engine for a JA game over Unity.

Lund: There’s obviously a lot of control that you miss, having to go in and swap things in and out that are deep-set in the engine. But at this point of time in game development it doesn’t make sense to code your own engine unless it’s very specific, or a case of the existing engines – Unreal and Crytek for example – just being too large. For a mobile 2d game, for example. You can discuss whether it makes sense to use a huge engine with all of these fancy physics for a one-button 2d mobile game.

For us, we want to make games, not technology. We can use something that somebody made rather than having five or ten engineers plugging along with a custom engine, which is always working at a lower level than you want it to.

RPS: The tech/game division reminds me of the old joke – or criticism depending how serious the person saying it was – that Carmack and id made engines and tech demos rather than games. I think that was always a little unfair but perhaps there’s some truth in the idea that if you have tech guys at the top of an organisation, you begin with their ideas and find game design solutions to the engine rather than the other way around.

Lund: Tech and game design people often have different mindsets and processes. From a game development point of view, I think that it makes sense to work directly on the game rather than the tech. The people making engines can hire the tech people so they can get on with it. Somebody has to push the boundaries of what’s possible in the engines but having specialist people to do that for two years before we can start coding the game itself, just doesn’t seem the right way to go.

I want to release a game every year or every year and a half, and for them to be bigger and bigger and bigger. Having to reinvent the wheel doesn’t allow me to do that.

RPS: With the alpha going out, can you reinvent the wheel at this point? If people react by asking for changes to certain features, or a certain implementation doesn’t work as well as you’d hoped, can you make changes? Presumably, one of the reasons for the alpha is to get feedback. How flexible can you be at this point?

Lund: Er…42 (laughs). 42 flexible. We definitely think that taking all the mechanics for JA 2 and putting them in is what we wanted to do, so if people say they don’t want a mixture of real-time and turn-based with action points, they’re not going to see that change. But if somebody asks for an indicator for listening distances when sneaking, and they have an idea for how that could be implemented, we’ll definitely take that on board. That’s the kind of feedback we’re looking for.

RPS: Have you had much interactions with the JA 2 mod community?

Lund: Too little. It’s not four hours ago that I poked our guys to get cracking so that we before we reach Early Access we have the chance to discuss things with them and still have time to be flexible when we have their feedback.

RPS: Does it feel good to be this close to alpha?

Lund: It does. (pause) There’s obviously some expectation management. It’s the tricky part. We really want to hype the game and we think that we have a really cool game, but at the same time we didn’t get two or three million dollars in the Kickstarter, so we do have limitations as to the amount of stuff that’s in there. We’ll have to reuse some of the music and the voiceovers, and some of the models as well, even though we’ve created a whole set of things.

It’s that expectation management thing that is going to be hard. People might expect 200 sectors because there were more than a hundred in JA 2 and think that it’s going to be bigger than the previous game – that kind of expectation is something we cannot fulfil. There is a large large list of things that we really wanted to get in there but it simply wasn’t possible but we couldn’t on the smaller budget we have.

But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to try and push it as hard as we can and, for us, a lot of the core elements is what we’ve concentrated on. Getting the combat right was the most important thing for us, along with modding. The combat has to be cool, interesting and complex enough that people want to play with it. If we fail on that, it won’t matter what we wrap the game in. It won’t work.

As for the modding, that is so important because it means that all the ambitions we had for the game can still happen, and somebody else can sit down and make it happen with us.

RPS: Obviously this depends on sales to an extent, but do you plan to work on DLC or large-scale expansions? Or will the modding tools allow for sufficient post-release content without your involvement?

Lund: It’s slightly similar to Space Hulk in that regard. We’re still adding features into Space Hulk after half a year, maybe three quarters of a year? We definitely want to keep adding to Flashback, taking feedback from the community. The release of the game is the first step and hopefully we’ll take many more steps, but yes, that’s dependent on the commercial side, of course. We also had some people approach us in the forums saying ‘why not do another Kickstarter?’ and that might be something we do but we want to get this out now, onto Early Access. And that will extend the budget and for as long as the Early Access sells, we can add more content pre-release and when the story is in there we can release the first version. And then we look at the commercial success.

RPS: It’s interesting talking to somebody before an alpha release who is willing to discuss these expectations. You were very honest about the stretch goals and the importance of some of that content that you didn’t get a budget for. But normally when I talk to people before release, they only want to manage expectations upwards!

Lund: This is partly a lesson we learned from Space Hulk. We were excited and people started to think it would be a AAA kind of deal, like Dawn of War, but we were 10-12 people working on that for a year. People who followed us through the Flashback Kickstarter and onto Early Access will know the story, they’ll know that we’re a small team with a small budget, but people who see the final release won’t know any of that. They just see a game and expect certain things from that completed game.

I want to manage expectations both downward and upward. We want people to give the game a really good chance because it is a really cool game, but with the knowledge that some of the original fans have huge expectations.

RPS: Licenses are a chalice that is at least mildly poisoned. They have name recognition and an in-built fanbase, but…people are very attached to them.

Lund: I could give you lots of weird examples, but we have had fans telling us that the game isn’t a Jagged Alliance game because it doesn’t measure the weight and velocity of the bullets, so they won’t buy it. And then people who want it to be more casual, more pastel-coloured – there’s a whole range.

RPS: Do you think that there are serious downsides to having a Kickstarter and the accessibility to developers that people have in general? I imagine it can feel a bit like being in an antfarm, constantly observed. When Jagged Alliance 2 was in development, I knew so little about it until it was on a shop shelf. I had no insight into how it was made or who was making it.

There was a period when I’d go into my local game shop and ask for Daggerfall every Friday, because they had a cardboard stand with an undead chap on advertising it. Every week the staff would say it was due in the next Friday, but that went on for so long. They were probably messing with me, come to think of it. But I had no way of checking the delays and when it came out, buggy as hell, there weren’t immediately hundreds of forum threads filled with complaints that might have put me off playing it.

Things have changed so much and while community access and conversation is great, do you think there are drawbacks to the constant observation and expectation? Can it lead you away from the plan you originally had or to try and implement things because of popular demand, even if they unbalance the game?

Lund: Yes, I think it’s a dual-edged sword. On one side, it’s really cool to be in direct communication with individuals that, at the end of the day, pay for your daily bread. That’s a cool thing. But there’s a negative side of internet trolls existing. There’s been a lot of controversy about some people sending death threats to game developers. I think that part of it poisons it and the other part sweetens it.

RPS: The closest thing writers have online are comment systems. Some people would rather turn them all off because they think it makes the entire environment better, but we have a great community at RPS, on the whole. Sometimes a comment makes me laugh, lifts my day a little, and I’ve had civil discussions below the line plenty of times.

Lund: RPS commenters are great. I like to read them. On Space Hulk we had a policy of trying to answer everything, including the negative ones. We’ve only had to swing the banhammer once and that was somebody going totally totally nuts. That’s the only one we had to do anything about. I like communicating with fans and I try to answer every email that comes into my inbox. I think there’s an obligation to do that these days, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t days when I’m just shaking my head and thinking, ‘that guy there is nuts’.

RPS: I think the obligation and expectation to have that communication can change the way you work though. Knowing that your audience can respond immediately and might throw rotten fruit at you makes online engagement, whether it’s during development, after development or as a writer, like a performance in some ways. As soon as you say we’re making a new Jagged Alliance game, you’re open to peoples’ requests, demands and expectations of what that is, rather than being able to concentrate fully on what you think it can be.

Lund: Yes. Especially with Kickstarter, which has a special genre in the community. What you actually do is promise lots of things and that is recorded forever and ever, so when you do game development and figure out that a mechanic doesn’t work or part of a story is complete bollocks, you may have said it’s going to be in there. So what do you do?

We’ve changed the base management. We’ve changed the entire story. We think that has improved the game, but back in the old days you could experiment and cut features and mechanics completely if they just weren’t fun. Now, if you run a Kickstarter, you better deliver what you originally promised. What you thought would work. I’m unsure if that’s completely healthy.

There should be room for experimenting, failing and taking the consequences of that. Either on the feature side or even with a complete game. If a complete game is simply not fun, why release it? Why not stop it dead in its tracks? As soon as people have invested into it, so to speak, in a Kickstarter, you have an obligation to be honest and to explain why changes might happen as you go along.

But that’s going to alienate some players. People might say, ‘well, you promised this and I only backed because of feature x’. Sometimes, it’s really just a matter of saying ‘we tried and it didn’t work’. At the end of the day, if the overall package is there and you delivered the game you promised, that should be fine. If a certain feature is detrimental to the overall package, then the designers should be able to remove it.

If somebody really only bought a given game because of a single promised feature, it’s like saying if the bubbles in Coca-Cola have to be a certain size and if they aren’t, it’s not really Coca-Cola. It doesn’t fit with how games are developed.

RPS: One of the benefits of Kickstarter is giving people insights into the development process but I don’t think most people want to see the reality of that. Months of hard work, sitting at desks, slowly rotating assets and typing code.

Lund: People could come in and see us doing uv-unwrapping for a week! We have a lot of people applying for internships and so on, and they think we sit and play games all day. If there’s one thing that we don’t do, it’s playing games all day!

But we love it. It’s not just a livelihood. If we were rational thinking beings, we’d make bank software and a lot more money. I love my job though. Everybody in here loves it. We had a guy who sent in a picture of himself having the Space Hulk loading screen tattooed to his arm. That is a dedicated fan right there and he sent it to us, so excited, and said ‘look what you guys made me do!’. In a positive way. That gives you a warm feeling in the stomach.

You can’t change an entire feature-set based on a few people screaming about feature ‘x’. But it’s hard to see how many people think certain things are right or wrong, because the silent mass might just be enjoying the game.

RPS: Thanks for your time!

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About the Author

Adam Smith

Former Deputy Editor

Adam wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2011-2018, rising through the ranks to become its Deputy Editor. He now works at Larian Studios on Baldur's Gate 3.