Partner at Haley Strategic, designing products, creative and training programs. Shop designer at Echelon Software, currently cranking on a new isometric Black Powder, Red Earth game. My first graphic novel series(BPRE) available on Amazon. Working on a sequel and a new non-fiction book. Current graphics and vocals for Gridlink(as seen on Homeland >o<). Former singer of Discordance Axis and Hayaino Daisuki.
Short blog, just relaying a few thoughts...
Having just about beat the new Battlefield 3 campaign, it's never been clearer that there's some things that I have loved and hated about games since the PSX era.
Story can give so much context and meaning to an experience. Games with great stories compel me to finish them, and in the case of Red Dead Redemption, replay them to 100% completion repeatedly. However, they can really kill a game as well, which they do more often than not for me as the writing, voice acting and camera work is amateurish at best.
It's often in the name of this amateurish writing that we end up with story lines designed more to highlight special effects that the engine produces rather than create emotional crescendos.
Speaking of amateur, the use of twists in plot are about as heavy handed as the stock levels that always make their way into most action games these days. I don't know how many different ways the same missions will be slightly reskinned, but I am pretty tired of crawling past a patrol if you catch my drift. This ends up infecting gameplay and then we get a snoozer.
And lastly, stories that make no sense. I mean seriously. No damn sense at all. This goes back to the same damn levels being in every game. The prison break, the secret underground base, the snow level, the desert level, blah blah blah.
I just expect more from the creative people who are given the opportunity to create narratives than to check off a bunch of boxes, collect a check and call it done. When Sakaguchi crafted Final Fantasy VII, he did it with intent. It's not a preachy thing, but very personal. I believe he was coping with the death of his Mother and the game reflects that. It's got humanity. Stories don't have to have that, my books are all about humanity being stripped away from people and how they act under those conditions...He also said, that games could rob people of control if they forced too many sounds and images on them. They spent a lot of time researching how to make the players feel interactively involved in the games. It's a shame such wisdom was lost on his successors and so many others in the industry.
For myself, at a certain point I decide that I would make a game in the same way that board games are a game. The stories will be for the players to create. I would create systems and give the players the raw material to be creative within that. For now, my stories will be told in books and films :)
As we bang out our first level, myself and Josh have been really focused on nailing the art style for the game with Josh trying to hammer out a complete set of sprites for one of the player units while I focused very intensely on getting a environment concept put together that could be turned into textures/tiles.
As I create environments I keep getting ideas for gameplay and throwing them at the rest of the team. The results have been a deeper understanding of how a BPRE game level will flow. There are distinct phases, that can have some overlap, but as I've thought more and more about the flow, there's also a deeper sense of gameplay beyond the combat which had mostly been my focus up until now.
When players locate the enemy forces in the level. This can be done in a number of ways depending on the player specialties/skills, with each method having a strength and a weakness.
It's here that players engage the enemy or are engaged by them. There is also now the possibility of diversion or the potential to create traps/ambushes that have emerged based on ideas we have hashed out in the Acquire phase.
Looting is a mechanic that is both natural, given the nature of intelligence collection/site exploitation, and fun. Playing Deus Ex Human Revolution Director's Cut really reminded me of how much fun it was to capture information via searching the enemies I had killed. We've also added the idea that enemies destroyed by drone strikes or fire, have their items destroyed, incentivizing very controlled and channelized violence when combat(s) occur.
The escape with the loot can be almost as tense, if not more so, then the attack. Nothing is going to keep me on edge more than waiting for that last suicide bomber or if their is a QRF team I missed.
When i started the design of this title as a board game, I created three core classes for the player to choose from, each with a pre-mapped set of weapons and skills:
Critical Skills Operator - fastest, most accurate with weapons, most hit points
JTAC - Drone Control and Helicopter Support
Exploitation and Intelligence Operator - Locates enemy units, taps into communications and finds additional intel items at target sites
As we build the first level, I'm starting to question this. The original BPRE computer game I designed featured a system similar to what would end up in CoD, ie pick your unit's weapons and then pick perks/skills to back them up. As we get closer to a playable digital pre-alpha build, I am trying to gauge what gives the player the most freedom to express tactical problem solving and I am starting to lean towards my earlier design.
Recently having replayed the Black Ops II, BF3, Final Fantasy VII, Shadowrun Returns and Syndicate, I am torn LOL If you are reading this, I would love to know your feeling on this. Fixed classes with pre-mapped weapons/skills or Build your own commando and why please?
The early board game prototypes of BPRE I built didn't account for a specific digital rendering/realization, but instead attempted to build a game system that was flexible and open ended enough to support a variety of missions in urban-hamlet-sprawl battle spaces.
One of the first decisions I made was to design a game focused purely on street fighting, with the higher goal being to provide both depth and opportunity for the player to problem solve in that setting. Not just to build a corridor where shake-bake-repeat is the key to victory, but a true tactical/operational decision matrix that allows for permutation and creativity without slowing the game down to turn based speeds.
This meant detail oriented scrutiny in how I chose what set pieces would inhabit the world and how they could be utilized by the player in both surveillance, attack and egress.
Coming from a predominantly FPS background, designing an isometric game level is a whole different animal. We have to deal with line of sight and enemy awareness in a whole new way with the screen displaying around 50 yards at a time. This one constraint alone has driven decisions effecting every aspect of the game, from the weapons balance to the actual settings where the game plays out.
I have written previously about the setting and world of BPRE, but what I have not mentioned is that the early prototypes were set in the same location as the first series. The city of Basra. With the creation of the first digital prototype, it became clear that a dense setting would not work well in a isometric experience as it did in a first person style game.
I began exploring current conflicts in the region outside of Iraq and then began mapping the likely consequences of those conflicts. In a few weeks, Yemen and Syria became the top contenders as a setting. Ultimately I chose a post-Syria state as the setting for this game, in no small part because of the potential for both a very different narrative in the graphic novel and because of the needs of an "ideal" isometric game level.
Studying the cities and towns in Eastern Syria, I discovered that things are far more spread out than the shoulder-to-shoulder construction we find in a major metro area like Basra or Baghdad. The vast majority of the town-hamlets are built around a single main paved road, generally a highway, with dirt roads feeding off that into neighborhoods of walled compounds. There's the odd orphan structure, but that is the general lay of the land, which is perfect for our title.
As we went from pen and paper to pixels, we determined that structures could be targeted and destroyed, but units would not be able enter and clear them. To make CQB work in a digital analog would require a far more zoomed in camera and a whole different set of assets to be created. And when you are 3-4 guys, the last thing you want is to have to reproduce a whole library of assets, not to mention that CQB is really a whole game in itself. You can see plenty of other titles exploring pure CQB and they are laser focused on this one element.
To take this on, in addition to our street fighting system, would cannibalize valuable resources that could be otherwise used to refine our core game. I remember meeting with Cliffy B and Dr Mike Capps in 2007 when we were working on the first iteration of BPRE and they gave me some of the best advice I ever got. It boiled down to, "You're 5 guys - you're not making Grand Theft Auto. Pick your battles and win them decisively." Holds just as true today.
The first game I designed, the original Black Powder \\ Red Earth FPS, used what would become later known/popularized in CoD Modern Warfare as a create-a-class system. I thought the idea of a custom load out, tuned down to the actual weapon systems and optics was an idea that was long overdue. In the following years, Battlefield 3 used a version of this concept but reintroduced a role based class system where ranges of weapons were paired to the different classes. DICE did this, I assume, to throttle the power of certain classes in the hands of very skilled players.
When I began work on this Black Powder \\ Red Earth game I decided to focus on a role based unit system inspired directly by the skill sets required for a real-world targeted killing mission. The core roles were collapsed into an assaulter(responsible for breaching, area suppression, heavy fighting), a JTAC(Joint Terminal Attack Controller - essentially a drone controller and overwatch unit) and a Intelligence Officer(responsible for signals intelligence, site exploitation and interrogation).
I also decided that there would be a very limited fleet of weapons for these units. Currently, there is 1 player selectable weapon per class: a MidLength M4(improved over the SOPMOD carbine), a M1A and a MP7. These weapons were selected and configured to perform in these environments, each with trade offs similar to their real world analogues. IE an M1A is going to be able to shoot through walls and pretty much kill anything with one hit, but when faced with half a dozen Quds Force at close range, a player might do better to suppress with the M4 or MP7.
Part of this was driven by the fact that in a third person action game, minute details like optics, barrel length, vertical grips and slings, would not have a tangible or visible effect felt by the player like they do in a FPS. The other thing influencing this decision, was as a board game, I had found that producing a limited number of units with specific balances required some interesting player decisions. In a game with 3 classes, but only 2 units, players always had to make a call about which specific skills they wanted to employ on a specific raid. These choices could radically impact how a raid played out and made the game a lot more fun, to us anyway.
Designing the look of these characters was also a long process. Presently, there are 2 player units designed at the moment and almost a dozen enemy and non-combatant units. However, given that there are several classes of enemies in BPRE, each with distinct jobs, capabilities and skills, we might end up with only one skin per enemy class. As seen in games likes Company of Heroes or Syndicate, there's not a lot of detail for players to track in environments of the scale and complexity we are building, so friend/foe recognition is of paramount importance, especially when planning attacks.
As we add complexity to our environments and explore the combat system in the virtual world vs the tabletop, there is a constant stream new considerations to factor in.
When I sat down to do the world design for the new Black Powder \\ Red Earth title, I didn't want to use the same setting we had used in the original graphic novel series and role playing game. I wanted a setting with new challenges and objectives that would provide a completely different textural, geopolitical and gameplay experience.
With Basran, the fictional nation-state formed in what is today known as the Basra Governorate, I spent more than 2 years collecting open source information on the history, the people and the conflicts in the region. I also mapped strategic interests there for both the indigenous population as well as that of neighboring nation-states. In the end, the setting was as much a character as the protagonists/antagonists that inhabited it, driving the missions they conducted there.
Expanding upon the speculative history of an Iraq dissolved, the new title is set in Kurdistan, but not as it exists today. Kurdish people are settled throughout Iran, Syria and Turkey as illustrated here. In 2019, Kurdistan's borders extend well into Iran as well as Syria. There is no Kurdish invasion, simply an organic extension of power as the regional governments of Syria and Iran are both distracted and weakened by other immediate conflicts.
The player/protagonist acts as a senior advisor/operations commander attached to a Kurdish MRF(Mobile Reaction Force) hunting Iranian Pasdaran and Quds Force agents facilitating Hezbollah terrorist attacks inside the new Kurdish state. However, the Kurds staffing the MRF are not employed by the Kurdish Government, but by a Kurdish Private Security Company that is owned by senior Kurdish Intelligence Officials and on contract to the Saudis.
The adversary is based in neighborhoods where many of the residents are not even aware of the Iranian-Hezbollah presence. In some cases, status for cover can include front businesses where Hezbollah foot soldiers are employed, giving them reason to be in the area. This creates a massive potential for collateral damage which could make local security forces throttle player capabilities in future missions. The whole thing is a delicate balance...
Concepts like this make sense given the canvas of this world and open exploration outside traditional tech and weapons trees that have become universal in many action games today.
Next up, the BPRE MOS system.
This is the first, in hopefully, a monthly series of ongoing blogs about the development of Black Powder \\ Red Earth(BPRE) from the designer/creative team perspective. My name is Jon Chang, the creative and design lead for the game Black Powder \\ Red Earth. BPRE is an isometric action game heavily influenced by the original PC games Syndicate and Syndicate Wars. This is important and I will come back to this in a minute ;-)
BPRE started as a short story about military contracting that eventually became a graphic novel series (that you can pick up on Amazon) where the goal was to tell a story that was almost documentary in it's nature without being filled with out of left field zingers, ie control wasn't selling the protagonists out nor would the story turn into a OMFG we've got to save the world type narrative. It was written after years of research and interviews with people from all walks of life who were living through the GWOT and the fallout from it, first hand.
Between the short story and the graphic novel, I had linked up with some very talented people who would go on to form the core group at Echelon Software. We started the company based on the notion of social FPS gaming, ie something that took the customization, questing and other features from MMO type experiences but broke those out into a browser/mobile browser based social experience, leaving the core gameplay to happen on the desktop/gaming rig. We spent 2 years on the demo, working with publishers before we killed the project. It came down to: Publishers aren't comfortable with new models, Publishers did not believe in the PC platform and finally Publishers want to own everything. All were deal breakers for us so we scuttled the game and moved on.
Each of the partners started working on new games, using everything from card game to board game formats to test, while pursuing day jobs at a variety of other companies to "keep the lights on". For myself, I had been doing a lot of work in the real-world energy, intelligence, tactics and training industries. In 2010, an opportunity presented itself to join my long time friend Travis Haley, as he left Magpul Dynamics to form a new company - Haley Strategic Partners.
I had worked with Travis since late 2007, helping him with his company SDI Tactical and then building the branding and design for the company Magpul Dynamics. Haley Strategic would take the work we did at MD and bring it back to our roots with a focused core team delivering innovative training, original products and world class marketing services.
We had already been known for being one of the top weapons manipulation training shops in the world, but we wanted to take things to the next level. After months of brainstorming, trial runs and tuning, HSP developed a tactical problem solving program called Disruptive Environments. Built around real-world problem solving, D3(Disruptive Environments) was essentially game design applied to a advanced training program. And by extension, it inspired the development of the game we are building today.
Now one thing I want to emphasize, we are making a game. Not a sim. As someone who actually can work a carbine and handgun and knows tactics, I can tell you that real world doesn't work in any game and likely never will. In fact, I've found games like BF3, Modern Warfare and (the original)Syndicate allowed for more believable application of tactics than any ARMA or Rainbow Six game I have played to date.
That said, as a gamer, I love action games. Echelon is building a thinking mans action game. There are stealth elements, surveillance elements and kinetic elements, but these are abstracted. That said, combat as it is designed is far more complex than flank and counter flank. I will get into some of the thinking and experience that drove the core features of the game in coming blogs but for now...
Those looking for further info or ways to support us, the lead developer of BPRE maintains a tumblr blog where you can see some of his errant experiments gone amok at Altaymurat.tumblr.com
Our Facebook portal is here.
Our website is BlackPowderRedEarth.com
If you want to pick up merch, all funds go directly to supporting the further development of this game :)
Thanks. More to come.