I recently had the opportunity to do a brief Q&A exchange with Antti Summala, lead designer of Futuremark Games Studio's latest (and first) game Shattered Horizon. We discussed the development and design decisions in Shattered Horizon and talked a bit about the studio's future plans for downloadable content.
Tyler Treat: First I want to talk a little bit about the concept behind Shattered Horizon and the development process that went into making it. At what point did you decide that you were going to make a zero-gravity FPS? Where did the inspiration come from?
Antti Summala: We were setting off to create the studio's first game and wanted to set a high standard for ourselves: no clones of popular titles, no cookie cutter concepts. Of the game ideas we had, a zero gravity FPS stood out as something ambitious that very few developers had attempted. We weren't going to invent a new genre, rather we'd give a different spin to the first-person shooter, a game type that's well-established in the world of PC gaming and a favorite of many in the studio.
For our core FPS gameplay we were inspired by many of the recent years' popular PC first person shooters. For breaking that FPS genre, much of the inspiration came from earlier zero gravity games with six degrees of freedom. Zero gravity combat was the key idea from very early on. Using that idea in a skill-based multiplayer FPS was a different take on a genre that had been forgotten for way too long. With this, we had a strong foundation for a game concept.
In contrast, we didn't look to other games for inspiration when designing the setting, visual identity and backstory of Shattered Horizon. We wanted to stand out from the crowd, so we decided to do something different from other sci-fi games and set the game close to home and in the near future. We were inspired by sci-fi books and movies, but real life sources were at least as important: authentic space imagery, documentary material on space programs and personal accounts from astronauts as well as soldiers in 20th and 21st century conflicts.
TT: Was catering to both hardcore and casual FPS gamers something that was important to you? If it was, how did you manage to keep the game accessible to both?
AS: Shattered Horizon is not a casual game or an arcade shooter, although we've reduced unnecessary complexity wherever we could. As a result, the game design is very streamlined: our main design aim was to make zero gravity fun. It's easy to get into and you learn the rules very quickly. At the same time, you need to learn a completely new skill: using free movement in zero gravity to gain a tactical advantage in combat. Hardcore and casual FPS gamers both face the same new challenge.
A key part of making zero gravity fun was making it accessible. We spent more time prototyping the control scheme than anything else, going through several different control concepts and movement models. Most reviews mention the fact that it is very easy to pick up and play Shattered Horizon if you’ve played any WASD and mouse FPS game before. The learning curve for the controls is pretty shallow.
I mentioned the game's streamlined design – an important decision we made early on was to give all players an equal chance in every combat situation. This is important in a game where attacks can come from any angle. The player is never put at a disadvantage by choosing the wrong loadout or joining a team with an unbalanced set of classes. For competitive players this focuses the game on the skill of moving and shooting and rewards those who develop their zero gravity combat abilities. New players will learn all the essential skills quickly, and will waste little time trying to use the wrong class or loadout in the wrong situation.
When it comes to playing the game, you can use some of the tactics you know from other games but if you try to play Shattered Horizon as a regular FPS, you will be an easy target for players who have adapted to zero gravity. We've already seen these tactics evolve during the beta test, and after launch the larger player base have developed zero gravity tactics even further. This emergent gameplay is something we expected to see as a result of giving players complete freedom of movement in an FPS game, and I'm sure the player community will have developed new popular tactics in a few months' time.
TT: This is the studio’s first game. Were there any particular obstacles or challenges you had to deal with during the development process?
AS: The development process had its fair share of ups and downs. We are using an in-house engine and were developing tools alongside the game, and that gave us quite a few headaches.
We purposefully kept our gameplay design lean and simple to compensate for the new challenges of zero gravity combat. After prototyping the controls and zero-g movement extensively, we knew we could pass the obvious hurdle of designing easy controls for six degrees of freedom.
The remaining big challenge was level design. We couldn't rely on prior art in level design - although we took whatever we could use - because a lot of the rules are based on limiting player access. That would have been contrary to our goal of a game with complete freedom of movement. We had to take some risks and make up new rules as we went along.
Our two-month closed beta test proved invaluable as a way to test and improve our level design process. The initial three beta levels were designed to encourage different types of zero gravity tactics. The latest versions of the levels, after several tweaks and changes based on beta tester feedback, have been very well received. We started off experimenting with different ideas, and ended up with a set of rules with which we can confidently design and create new zero gravity levels.
TT: I have to ask about the audio simulation aspect of the game. It’s a really cool feature, especially when your suit shuts down and all you hear is your breathing and pulse. Were you guys halfway through development when you realized “oh crap, there’s no sound in space,” or was it something that was planned right from the get-go?
AS: Once we had the zero gravity concept and the setting of near-Earth space 40 years from now we had to decide how we would bring that world to life – the creative vision if you like. Our aim was to create a realistic space feeling for the player that would be delivered through art direction and audio design.
A completely realistic rendition of combat in vacuum would have meant a lot less work for our audio designer. Obviously there's no sound in space, and we actually considered this option very early on. While a completely silent firefight sounds like a pretty neat and unique idea, it’s actually very hard to play an FPS without any audio cues. This is especially true in zero gravity, where your opponents could attack from literally any direction.
Making the game fun to play trumps realism, but we wanted to get the best of both worlds: great audio that supports gameplay and helps create the right mood, but which also fits in our realistic space theme. As you mentioned, our solution was to give the player's space suit "audio simulation".
For your readers who haven't played Shattered Horizon yet, the idea is that your suit recreates a soundscape based on sensor information of the surrounding environment and detected threats. Audio simulation becomes an essential tool for situational awareness and self-preservation, which you'll notice when an EMP grenade temporarily disables it.
Even so, during the beta several testers kept asking for a "hardcore mode" with no sound. This inspired the Silent Running feature that lets you power down your suit and disable the audio simulation to gain a stealth advantage while sacrificing radar, HUD and maneuverability. This way we've been able to incorporate sound in the game for gameplay purposes while using it to support our realistic space setting.
TT: Why did you choose to go down the digital distribution route exclusively on Steam?
AS: Steam makes it easy for us to deal directly with our players and as we are self-publishing Shattered Horizon this was a very important factor. If we had gone for retail and DVD sales and tried to manage that process ourselves it would have introduced middlemen and a huge overhead in terms of marketing costs, distribution and administration.
As Shattered Horizon is a multiplayer only game that is played over the Internet, digital distribution is a natural fit. We looked around, and determined that the service provided by Valve’s Steamworks program would suit us perfectly. Steam enables us to respond more quickly with updates and content. For example during our beta we put out seven large updates, one per week, and it all went amazingly smoothly thanks to Steam’s update services.
We use Steamworks for some of the back end features of the game. In many cases, this rules out distributing Shattered Horizon through other services. Gamers can support us by buying Shattered Horizon direct from us on the official website as we get 100 percent of the money that way. However, even when you buy from us, you are still buying a key to download the game from Steam.
TT: As you know, there’s been a lot of buzz about dedicated servers (i.e. Infinity Ward) in the news lately. Your game has dedicated servers. Would you like to comment on the topic?
AS: It was an easy decision to use dedicated servers for Shattered Horizon. As the game is a PC exclusive we haven’t had to make any compromises. We can take the best of what the PC offers and make a game that offers the best experience on a PC. Everything, from the controls and the interface to the dedicated servers and our plans for free content expansions, has been designed for PC gamers who love FPS games. The response to this on the forums has been very encouraging. We are reading lots of comments from people who are excited to see a game that has been developed purely for the PC. Currently we are supplying dedicated server code to selected groups and partners but very soon we hope to release it to everybody. It just needs a bit of polish first.
TT: Any chance Futuremark will support mods for Shattered Horizon?
AS: Mods will be difficult for a long time because we are using our own engine and our own tools. I wouldn’t rule it out completely but developing comprehensive modding tools would be almost as big a task as making the game itself. We are very open with our community though and take an active role on our forums and elsewhere. There are plenty of ways for players to tell us what they would like to see and to influence the direction of the game. We are listening!
TT: What are your plans for downloadable content?
Our priority is to support the Shattered Horizon community with new content including new levels and the kind of multiplayer game content you'd expect. These content expansions will be free to all players. People who pre-ordered Shattered Horizon and a selected group of beta testers will be invited to help us test these new expansion packs before they become available to everyone else.
Involving the community like this worked really well for us during the closed beta. Features like Silent Running and The Arc level were added to the game as a direct result of beta tester feedback. We are really looking forward to working with our community to help shape the future of Shattered Horizon.
TT: Any idea on when we might see DLC come to fruition?
AS: We’ll be making an announcement about our plans for the first content expansion soon.
TT: Aside from extending Shattered Horizon, what’s next for FGS?
AS: We are now working full time on creating the first expansion pack for Shattered Horizon. We hope to develop and release more great games but supporting and growing Shattered Horizon is our priority.
TT: Much thanks to Antti for taking the time to answer our barrage of questions. You can check out our review of Shattered Horizon here. It's available now on Steam and at the Futuremark Store.