INTERVIEW: Robert Bowling Loves New Super Mario Bros. U

After seven years as the public face of the Modern Warfare series, Robert Bowling made the gaming industry drop its monocle into a cocktail when less than a month after dissing their business model, he announced he was leaving Activision to work on something new.

That something new turned out to be him founding his own gaming studio, Robotoki, which all signs point to as being organized around the concept of not treating your employees poorly. Just before E3 2012, Robotoki finally got around to announcing their first project, a zombie survival game they’re calling Human Element. We were lucky enough to get 15 minutes with Robert on the last day of E3, and he talked to us at length about that new game, about how Robotoki actually drew inspiration from Kane & Lynch, and most shockingly, about his love for Nintendo’s next installment in the New Super Mario series.

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Game Front: Getting right down to it, let’s talk about Human Element. How far into development is it? How long before we’ll be able to see something playable?

Robert Bowling: It’ll be about 2 years before we start showing demos off. We’re very early in the pre-production right now.

Are you still in the concept art stage, how far along are you?

Right now, this is a universe that requires a lot of engineering and a lot of writing. Because it is such an open world game based on scenarios. So right now we’re doing a lot of the writing and getting the tech worked out, because we’re doing something very different with Human Element. It requires a lot of technology to do the platform diagnostic stuff. That’s really where our focus is right now.

Human Element has an interesting gameplay mechanic, either a solo campaign, you and another adult character, or you and a child. My first thought when I heard about the child character is that it sounds like you have the option of making the entire game an escort mission. Is that what you were going for, and could you talk a little about how each of these settings will be differentiated?

Yeah, your ‘identity’, which is what we call each option, whichever you choose really determines the entire scenario of your campaign, and it really determines your difficulty. Because what we’re doing is, we’re not scaling damage, we’re not scaling AI intelligence, we’re not scaling quantity of survivors, or adding other factors to make it more difficult, the only thing that makes it more difficult is your individual scenario. If you’re by yourself, you’ll find it easier. If you’re with another adult it’s slightly harder because you’re splitting supplies, but they’re another adult so they can help you. The hardest is being with a child who requires supplies, but can’t defend themselves.

But we are working very hard, the big challenge is making that not feel like an escort mission the entire time. It’s about allowing that child and that new dynamic to put you in unique scenarios that you normally either wouldn’t come across, or wouldn’t fear as much, as being by yourself, or being with another adult.

Are you planning this as a more linear experience with variety depending on your identity, or is this going to be an open world game?

Open world. There is no point a to point b. What I hate the most is when game developers tell you when the fun is over, when the game has finished. We really want you, as a player, to define your survival, to define what your story is. Your story isn’t determined by a plot that we’re trying to tell, but by how you approach each scenario that you’re presented with dynamically. By the end of that, you’ve told a story that’s dynamic, based on your identity, based on when you came across it. And since it is open world, you come across the scenarios after different situations. You won’t see the same experience that someone else who even uses your same identity sees.

When you talk about scenarios, do you mean there will be branching storylines, is it going to be a narrative-focused game, or more sort of objective-focused game?

I would say neither. This is an ‘experience’ type of game, so we’re putting you in situations that are very open ended, and therefore you’ll have unique experiences. We’re not trying to send you just on a journey, and we’re not just trying to send you on objectives. There will be elements in which you can choose to go to certain tasks that will benefit you, but this is not simply objective or story driven.

Can you tell me how you’re approaching the Zombie genre? Are you looking at zombie games specifically? We’ve seen games like Dead Island, which ended up being a lot of fetch quests, or Dead Rising, which ultimately ended up having infuriating fake difficulty with the way save points worked rather than actual terrors. Can you briefly talk about where you’re coming from approaching the genre? Are there any zombie games, survival horror games that you’re looking at and thinking about avoiding, or finding inspiration in?

The funny thing is, we’re finding a lot of inspiration from non-survival horror. That’s what’s always the most fun, when you can bring elements, little nuggets and mechanics that you find in different genres and bring it in to reshape your expectations of what this genre is. A lot of stuff they did in the multiplayer for Kane & Lynch, for example, that we have found very interesting.

Really? Can you mention what particular aspect of Kane & Lynch?

What I love about the Kane & Lynch multiplayer was that there was this whole dynamic of creating and then breaking alliances. And it wasn’t a game mechanic, it was essentially a by product of the fact that you were robbing a bank with these other people and whoever survived at the end split the money. And therefore, because there was voice communication people were creating alliances and then silently breaking those alliances so they could get out ahead with more money. That kind of mentality and gameplay was very intriguing.

In fact, that defines what the human element is. We’ll naturally try to deceive each other, we’ll naturally try to create a partnership for safety and then destroy that partnership when they no longer need the other person.

So how will a multiplayer component in this game work along with single player?

We will, we define it as… we never say the words ‘single player’ because the campaign experience is impacted by the actions of a lot of other people, but then we will also have a dedicated multiplayer experience. We’re not ready to give the details just yet, but it is meant to be very different from the campaign experience. It’s very much about fast-paced action while the campaign is more about choice.

But you’ll be building in this idea of shifting alliances and backstabbing into both the campaign experience and multiplayer?

Exactly.

Can you tell me about which platforms you’re planning to develop for?

Right now we’re aiming for next gen consoles, PC, and a separate experience for tablet and mobile.

If we can shift gears, let me ask you a bit about this E3. There’s been a mixed response to it, can I ask, given it’s your first time here as an independent developer, what’s your take on this year’s show? And how are you feeling about the state of the industry?

As an industry I’m very excited where we’re going. As an E3 itself, it’s so interesting because there’s a lot of familiar this year. There are a lot of sequels, a lot of iteration. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, you can do that well, but it was interesting to see that lag. And that’s why I think when you have some new IP like Watch Dogs, like The Last of Us, that people are getting behind them so strongly, it’s exciting, refreshing to see.

I think this is definitely the rise of the Indie developer this year. Over the last year we’ve seen a lot of big figureheads from a lot of big studios leave their former positions and go down the indie path. But because of that, we haven’t seen the results of that migration yet. But I think next year’s E3 and the year following, we’re really going to see the rewards of that. I think that’s where the gaming industry is going.

If I can ask, how do you see the place of the indie development world in the next generation of consoles, compared to the previous 2 or three years?

I think there’s going to be a lot of blurred lines and broken down barriers between what is a triple-A title and what is an indie title. A lot of that will come from new distribution technology, new ways for gamers to get games, and a more equal platform of digital distribution that will allow any game to be featured and as accessible as any triple-A game without needing the marketing budget that those guys have, so I’m excited for that. I’m also excited about the new technology that we’re getting at this E3, things we’ll be incorporating into Human Element, technology that will allow designers to think about things differently.

This is refreshing because in the past, you sit down and you’re like ‘ok, I’m making a console experience. I have this control pad, I have the TV, let’s make an experience out of that. But now we’re not limited by that anymore. Our users have mobile phones, they have tablets, they have all these different things that we can now put interfaces on, experiences on that are additive and supplemental to what we’re designing for the TV.

My final question for you is, of all the stuff you’ve seen at this E3, what are your favorite one or two games?

Number one would definitely be Naughty Dog’s The Last Of Us. From just a technical feat standpoint, their animations, dialogue, how the characters react to one another, it’s so well polished, their ability to connect you to characters and tell a story is phenomenal. Nobody does it better than them right now. So The Last Of Us is by far one of my favorite.

Other than that, I would say we just got finished playing New Super Mario Bros. U and I loved it. I loved the multiplayer where 4 people are playing and one person has the WiiU Tablet and they’re creating the blocks for you, how they can either help or hinder your gameplay experience, it was a lot of fun.

I don’t think I expected to hear you lavishing praise on a Mario game when I went into this interview!

(Laughs) It was a lot of fun, honest.

* This post was edited; Robert Bowling spent 7 years with Activision, not 4.

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