GDC 2012: Interview With Tribes: Ascend Devs Hi-Rez

 

I sat down with Georgia-based Tribes: Ascend devs Hi-Rez to get a little more information about their forthcoming free-to-play shooter. The Tribes series has a distinguished pedigree, and Ascend has been been in beta for some time — hoary veterans and new converts who love jetting around the map at 500 k/h must be champing at the bit by now. Hi-Rez Studios Chief Operating officer Todd Harris was kind enough to tell me more about his game.

Game Front: Let’s start with that aspect of speed. Tribes is known for being a game that’s all about speed — some of the fastest shooter gameplay if not the fastest. What are some of the design challenges associated with that? Does it present unique challenges that wouldn’t be a concern if people werent’ going so fast? Are there things you have to keep in mind? Are you concerned about disorientation, or people just not being used to it?

Harris: Definitely the unique element is speed, and just that freedom of movement and really momentum, as if you were playing a racing game or a skateboarding game. I think design challenges — certainly all the weapons keep that in mind, everything from the visual effects on the weapons — most of the weapons are projectile-based, so you have to lead your opponent. We try to give really good visual cues to people aiming, so they can hit fast-moving targets.

Map design is all about embracing speed. A big element of the game, particularly in the Capture the Flag game mode is ski routes, and making sure there are obvious and maybe less obvious routes where players can build up speed. Of course, the other thing is, you recognize the difference between super highly skilled players that are able to achieve just crazy speeds, versus lower-level players — not having them be untouchable, basically.

Game Front: Is there a way to protect the newer players, who will be at a disadvantage getting used to the speed? Is there a way to ease them into it?

Harris: The way we do it is a couple things. One, in this last update we just added a badge system, like achievements. At the beginning, learning to ski is a new thing, so we provide some badges, which makes it satisfying along the way as they reach different speeds. The other thing that we have is more of a Deathmatch, which is not as complex as capture the flag. You don’t have generators or roles. You basically just have one flag, and all the action is consolidating around the one flag. The way that game type works is if you have the flag, and you kill me, you get two kills, instead of me just getting one, so it’s a ticket system with the advantage of the flag. You’ve got 10-15 players who tend to be centralized all around the flag action. Also, those maps tend to be very bowl-shaped, so the player starts at the top and they really have no choice other than to press the space bar and instantly get up speed. It really trains them right away how to speed and how to ski, and they can hopefully take that skill to Capture the Flag.

Game Front: Besides the new players, you also have a lot of old players. Tribes has been around for a long time, and has a very loyal following. What was the pressure like, trying to live up to the expectations of those players?

Harris: It was pretty intense! Our message in the early days was “we’re happy to have Tribes — we’ll try not to eff it up.” Definitely, we let into the Alpha a lot of Tribes 1, Tribes 2, Tribes Vengeance players. They were pretty harsh with their feedback, because they love the franchise. A lot of the first part of the game was just trying to be true to the feel of it. It was down to a lot of really small levels of detail around physics, around speed, around jetpacking. What does it feel like to shoot a Spinfuser? What should be the reload time of it, and how well does it match the old game? We worked with that community.

To be honest, a lot of the direction we’ve taken to make the game better came from that original community, specifically around having less hit-scan weapons and more projectile weapons in the game — that leading thing. Also, we added classes to the game, which was a departure from the old game, but the community really wanted customization, so we added weapon unlocks in a big update. Both of those are two examples of listening to the community, and I think we have a better game because of it. Maintaining our weekly patch schedule throughout beta let us get feedback and iterate really really quickly.

Game Front: Some of those veterans will have played Tribes: Vengeance, which was a disappointment to a lot of people. What would you say to someone who got burned by Vengeance — didn’t like it, didn’t like how support for it dropped kind of abruptly — to reassure them that you’re trying to do it a different way.

Harris: Vengance tried to inject a story campaign into the game — I understand why they did it, because Tribes’ story is really cool — but we’re focused entirely on the multiplayer aspect, and really Tribes as the original internet sport, coming back as an internet sport. Secondly, we tried to take the best elements of 1, 2, and Vengeance. I think Vengeance tried to make the skiing accessible, and I think that’s a good thing that they embraced it as a feature — we go about it a different way — but we also maintained the teamwork that made the old games appreciated. I think players will see the specialization of roles that was the flavor of the old games even more in Ascend, because of the class-based system.

Game Front: In addition to those classes which haven’t appeared before, what are some other new features that you’re excited about?

Harris: The familiar is weapons. You see the big Spinfuser up there. Vehicles — we have three in the game that are from the old game: the Gravcycle, the Beowulf Tank, and the Flying Shrikes. Those things are familiar. Different are class-based systems, the idea of weapon unlocks and weapon progression, so I can get +5 ammo for my Spinfuser, for instance, and choose to customize that way. There’s a credit system, inside the match. We really wanted an escalated intensity inside every match. Forgetting about any real money transactions, as I kill people, repair my generator, or capture the flag, I earn credits, and those are credits that I have to spend within the match. I can do that by getting the vehicles, I can upgrade base functions, make my generator a little stronger, increase my base turrets, or do call-ins like tactical strikes. You get this real nice build-up within a match. Really, it’s the spirit of Tribes with some shooter elements around character progression and escalating intensity within a match.

Game Front: Say I’m a Tribes player from way back in the day. I haven’t played it since Tribes 1, and I fire up Tribes: Ascend. What do you think is going to be the biggest surprise?

Harris: I think you’re going to be surprised in that it actually capture the feel of the old one. You’re going to say “wow, this feels true to the old one.” From a mechanics standpoint, the class system will be new. You used to pick light, medium, or heavy and then choose your armor. Here, you start out with one light, one medium, and one heavy, but there are other ways that you can go that are more specific classes. The biggest surprise is seeing those new classes and finding the one or many that best fit your play-style.

Game Front: You guys have plans to support this game for a while. Can you talk a little bit about how that’s going to work? Content updates, or other support that will go on after the official release?

Harris: As I mentioned, through beta we’ve done once-a-week patches, and we plan to keep a real sizable team after launch. The way out pipeline is set up, before release, the next big feature that we’re doing is custom servers — that’s not in the build yet, and that’s coming. Then there’s additional content. After release, we plan on updating with new weapons, new perks, new maps, and new game types, all at a pretty fast clip. Something like a new class would be a much more exceptional release — maybe we’ll do one of those before the end of the year, but it’s not something that will happen that quickly. We expect once-a-month updates that will have a new reason to check out the game — something new for players to unlock — and we’ll keep a very sizable team on it.

Game Front: It’s been this thing that keeps getting said over and over at GDC: “Free to Play, but not Pay to Win.” First of all, what made you choose the free-to-play model in the first place?

Harris: Mainly because of two things. One because it lets us as a studio put more resources into the development of the game, rather than the marketing of the game. Clearly, people need to discover the game, but we don’t need to convince them with an over-the-top television ad campaign that it’s worth $50. They can try the game for themselves, and if they find it’s worth their time or money, they stick around. That’s really number one, because it’s good for the studio and good for the developer, ultimately. Number two, as you mentioned, as gamers, we like the Free to Play, not Pay to Win model. It’s always a little subjective, where you cross the line, but in our other game, Global Agenda, we really felt that we were able to maintain that, and the community backed us up on that.

We think that people accept the idea of a time or money trade-off, to unlock things, and they accept the idea of real-money transactions only for things that don’t affect the game, like cosmetics. That’s the idea with Tribes. Anything that affects the game, as far as, say, a new weapon or a new class, you can unlock with game time, just using experience points. It may take a while for some of those items, but if the game’s fun and enjoyable, and you’re playing your way towards that — gameplay hours are a good thing. If you’re spending a lot of gameplay hours to unlock everything, and enjoying them, that’s awesome. If you’re impatient , and you want it right away, or you want more stuff, you can use real money to unlock it faster. The other things that are real money are “bling.” If you want a better-looking Blood Eagle armor, or maybe even a custom set of voice macros or taunts, those are the things that will open up for people to pay, and we think the community accepts that.

Game Front: What’s your personal favorite feature? What do you love to do when you play the game?

Harris: We all play the game every day inside the studio, and from home also. I’m a pretty basic player. The versatile, free class of the soldier is one of my favorites, and just playing in the midfield and using the Spinfuser or the Thumper is pretty satisfying. The technician class is also fun: he’s a deployable class. I’ll sometimes play a stay-at-home role around the generator or around the flag stand and take care of the defense there. Both of those are very satisfying roles.

Tribes: Ascend comes out April 12th, 2012!

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