At this year’s E3, DailyGame got to take a peek at a game you might not have heard of, Alpha Black Zero: Intrepid Protocol from PlayLogic. While everyone else was busy drooling over just the established franchises, we got to spend a good bit of time playing ABZ and learning more about it. Recently we caught up with Yesse America, the lead designer of the game, who was kind enough to answer a few questions we had about the game and give us three exclusive new screenshots.
As you’ll soon find out, Yesse really loves games, and he loves even more to talk about all the details involved in making great ones. Below is a virtual treatise on all things ABZ, as well as Yesse’s thoughts about game design in general, from the work that goes into level design to AI programming.
What is the history of the design and development teams? Have you worked on other projects together in the past or worked on other projects our readers might have heard of already?
Khaeon was an existing multimedia company before we started making games. It is founded by me, a friend from work and a previous employer. Our goal was always to make games, but we actually started out doing some pretty mundane stuff, such as multimedia cd-roms for a large publishing concern here in the Netherlands. We earned enough capital that way to stay afloat, and also – and I think this is very important – we learned how to work as a team. Doing "regular" work before you enter the games industry prepares you for the fact that making games is indeed great fun – but that it is also a regular job, and things must be finished on time and within budget. But although we are a new developer, the entire team are avid gamers. We know what we want to make and we hope to avoid the pitfalls we see in other similar games. Some of our team members do come from other game development companies in Europe, and we have one professional AI coder who used to do AI R&D for a Dutch company – and now he implements it in games.
What is the storyline behind the game?
You play Ltn. Kyle Hardlaw, leader of an External Tactics Initiative team (a sort of interplanetary Special Forces / SWAT) , which is codenamed Alpha Black Zero. In this future, which is pretty distant (2366 AD), mankind has colonized the stars, and most planets fall under the auspices of the Sol Government (SolGov). Every newly discovered planet is auctioned off by SolGov’s Interplanetary Development Bureau to large terraforming corporations. These corporations pay immense sums of money for these planets, and expect to get their return-on-investment by terraforming them, seeding them with colonists (funding their farming equipment and their tickets over there), and taking a sizeable cut of the revenue the planet will start to generate after a hundred years or so. With the aid of SolGov’s Interplanetary Development Bureau, they will ultimately help them to start their own democratic government, after which the inhabitants can buy the planet from the terraforming corporation. If all goes well, and the planet maintains a stable economic and political climate, they will be allowed to enter the SolGov interplanetary senate with an elected representative – effectively joining the intergalactic government. SolGov earns extra income and expands it’s territory, the terraforming companies generate huge amounts of revenue, and the colonists will be able to build their own world, form their own government, and live a free life away from the overpopulated inner systems of Sol. Sounds like a great deal for everyone right?
Well sadly, it did only ever worked in theory. Most of these projects (with some exceptions) failed miserably. Hundreds of terraforming companies went bankrupt because of huge debts they were unable to repay, causing massive economical recession throughout SolGov. As such things go, the corporations cut their losses and SolGov largely ignored the problem. So here we have an intergalactic society which ignores the plight of thousands of stranded colonists throughout known space. Day after day, generation after generation, these people struggle to stay alive, feeling utterly abandoned by a distant plutocratic government. Whole generations grow up despising the political machinations of a cabal of powerful factions who basically – in spite of what senate spokespersons claim – do not care for the opinions of planets smaller, poorer or weaker than they (even if they are part of the SolGov Senate).
Then you only need to add a few small but powerful groups of ideological dissidents, fascistic warlords and political extremists, and you’ll realise that trouble is brewing. Think how vulnerably we feel in the face international terrorism this day and age – then imagine a situation where political extremists, followed by desitute masses of abandoned and neglected "third world" civilzations, can get their hands on things like asteroid-sized star freighters. Not to mention anti-matter bombs and military grade nano technology.
The problem of course is how to root these dangerous elements out. Planetary bombardments might work, but they would only magnify the widespread hatred of SolGov in those backwater colonies – and well-organized groups of extremists would probably be several steps ahead of any fleet of cruisers heading in the direction of a star system.
Enter the special forces: the E.T.I. teams.
The story of the game revolves around the actions of the very first activated E.T.I. team: Alpha Black Zero, which is sent on a standard V.I.P. extraction mission. At a certain point the mission takes an unprecedented turn and the ABZ team is stranded in dangerous territory: a third world planet populated by hostile tenth generation terra forming colonists who are under the influence of an unknown terrorist organization. The Alpha Black Zero team has no access to ammo, food, or backup. Effectively, they are on their own, since communication relays with their HQ have been sabotaged.
From that point on the mission changes: the team will have to operate under E.T.I. Intrepid Protocol, which comes down to: no matter the amount of danger or opposition, interplanetary security must be maintained at all costs.
During their Intrepid Protocol mission the ABZ team stumbles across an incredibly deep rooted conspiracy, which they try to counter according to the mandates given to them. Effectively, this ends in a bloody incursion into the heart of SolGov’s inner system, where the ABZ team manages to stop the conspirators.
This is where the game starts.
The leader of the Alpha Black Zero team, Lieutenant Kyle Hardlaw, is charged by the SolGov military with mass murder, performed by him and his team during the Intrepid Protocol mission. Before a court marshal, Hardlaw has to prove his innocence to military judges who are none to easily sway to his point of view, and who have the greatest suspicion of covert strike teams such as Alpha Black Zero.
As the game progresses, the player plays the entire Intrepid Protocol mission as it is related by Lieutenant Hardlaw to the military tribunal. In between the action, the judges will evaluate the evidence the player has effectively gathered by playing a level of the game (a sort of flashback structure). The ultimate objective is to prove you – as Hardlaw – innocent of the count of mass murder.
You can play the full campaign in single player mode or cooperative mode. We aim to provide a scintillating experience, not only during the action parts of the game, but also through storytelling. Alpha Black Zero’s story is very deep and involved, giving a sense of gritty reality to the SciFi setting. In that sense the story and setting lean more towards the "Hard SciFi" genre than towards "Space Opera".
Since the events within the game will be related back to the player in a sort of military tribunal report, how is this implemented and how do you think it enhances the immersiveness of the game? Will there be frequent cutscenes during and after missions to keep the plot moving? Since the game is following your progress in a report format, does this mean it will be a very linear game, or will there be options to force the story to branch off in new directions?
There will be frequent cutscenes yes – Almost every mission is preceded or superceded by a cutscene. All in all, I think we have near an hour’s worth of them, and yes – they can be skipped of course.
The game is linear due to time constraints on the development schedule – I wish we had more time to make it like Deus Ex, sadly that is not the case. Perhaps when we make ABZ 2!
Will the game take place on a single futuristic world, or across several? What sort of environments will the player be fighting in? Regarding the environments, how interactive will they be (i.e. destructable structures, player movable objects, etc.)?
In the game, the team will be visiting planets in the Izanagi system – an Asian terra forming effort – whose terra forming company Freyland-Taranoga went bankrupt before the planetary development program could be finished. The first missions take place on two of the planets in that system: Fuchiyama and Shih. Those planets are populated with stranded colonists, duped by the terra forming corporation and ignored by SolGov’s planetary development bureau. Having lived on a barely inhabitable planet for over ten generations, they are none too happy to see SolGov soldiers hiking around the countryside. There are several missions on space stations in orbit around planets, industrial facilities on a planet called Typhon-Baach and missions based in the Leonidis Halo, a gigantic ring of Russian-American space habitats in orbit around Earth. The court marshal takes place on Qahira, the planet formerly known as Mars, which is one of the super powers of the SolGov federation, together with the Leonidis Halo. The defense of SolGov’s inner system falls upon Qahira’s shoulders and most inner system military forces are stationed there. It is a planet with an Anglo-Arabic culture (Al-Qahir is the Arabic name for Mars), and one of the most enlightened and wealthy societies in man’s interstellar realm.
The environments: There will be a large variety of indoor and outdoor terrains, featuring colonist villages, space stations, bunkers, corporate head quarters, embassy compounds, subterranean access systems and weapons processing facilities. The environments are interactive enough to facilitate the main goal of the game: survive through any means necessary – stealth or rampant destruction.
We spent some time with Alpha Black Zero at E3, and in the demo, the player’s team seemed to have all the same abilities, they were just equipped differently. Will they be more fleshed out in the final game so that each has unique skills and abilities you need them for (snipers, demolitions experts, steal abilities, etc.?) Will you be able to add new teammates along the way, or does the team remain static throughout the game?
First of all, you will not be able to add new teammates along the way. When a level starts, you always begin "in" Kyle’s body. But from then on, you can switch to the other team members with a single keystroke. Kyle can give his team members orders, which they will follow to the best of their ability (if not completely detrimental to their health). These orders include movement and tactical commands. But in order to keep the game fun and fast, the other members of the team can "request" these actions from the team as well: you don’t need to be everywhere at once with Kyle in order to manage the team. Kyle himself will actively respond to "suggestions" from fellow team members. Also, since the game is not about micromanagement of the team, individual team members take care of themselves and each other. While you – as the player – are hopping from team member to team member, they will take cover, protect Kyle, attack or retreat, throw grenades and snipe. There is a careful balance we set up: on the one hand we did not want the player to work his or her way through cumbersome command strings and tactical setups with the bots standing around and taking multiple hits to the head without reacting if you don’t, on the other hand we don’t want the bots to constantly throw caution in the wind and go freelancing everytime you don’t tell them to hold their fire until a go is given.
So in ABZ you are in complete control of all team members, but giving commands is very easy and fluent (one or two keystrokes for all of the team or a single individual) – and if you are less adept at these things it’s not an immediate problem.
Your team is comprised of five people: four E.T.I. marines and Ltn. Kyle Hardlaw. All of them are equipped with state of the art armor and weapons, but their specialism over the course of a level largely depends on what you fit them out with: all E.T.I. members are adept at a wide range of combat styles and uses of weaponry.
As far as non-player characters go, will there be a lot of them? How will the player interact with them to complete missions?
There will be a lot of NPC’s – hordes of them in fact – and the manner in which you interact with them depends on the strategy you pick for your team. Other NPC’s (such as the judges) only appear in the cutscenes.
Aside from his own team, Hardlaw will stand trial and will have to defend his actions – which you take during the missions – before a tribunal of three military judges. These characters are Judge Xiao, Judge Ardell and Judge Slaudecker. Judge Xiao is of asian descent and she comes from a wealthy family of well-known politicians. Her age is indeterminate because of a longevity strain genegineered into the genetic makeup of her family. Judge Ardell is an older black woman, having been promoted to the court on Qahira after a successful military career and Judge Slaudecker is a military judge of germanic descent – a real hardliner – who doesn’t like Hardlaw from the outset. Other characters are secret agents in the employment of the Qahrian External Service (QES for short), among whom is a sort of arabic James Bond type figure who pops up now and then to get Hardlaw in and out of trouble.
Since ABZ is a mission-based game, what sort of missions can players expect to be thrown into? How many hours do you think the game will take the average gamer to finish?
Since most of Alpha Black Zero’s missions are set on "Third World" colonies, a typical string of missions plays in the vicinity of the small and larger planetary setpieces; villages and settlements, atmosphere prosessors and larger industrial areas. Some of them are in a state of decay, others are still partially operational. To get to one of these structures, the team has to navigating the terrain surrounding it, which is, of course, full of hostiles. In the first few missions you’ll run across poor disgruntled settlers whose numbers are great but who lack proper military hardware and training. As you progress you’ll find thougher opponents have also taken an interest. Moving through an area you’ll return hostile fire while heading towards your goal. We strive to make the gameplay flow naturally (which means that it is not complex to control your squad), the missions don’t contain puzzles, and navigation is not like finding your way through a maze. Rather the challenge is in keeping the team alive for the duration of a mission and dealing with scores of enemies by positioning and using the best equipped members of your team. If you want to make it through a string of missions, it’s important not to loose team members early on.
Once you reach the end of an outdoor mission the next mission typically plays inside an abandoned super-structure
e setting is darker and more cramped – emphasising strategic placement of your team and using its full firepower to take enemies out.
Other types of missions include the (stealthy) infiltration of enemy stongholds, escorting and defending SolGov personnel and property against hordes of attackers. In each case the environment will play a role in the kind of opposition you meet and both can use said environment to their own advantage.
Our main consideration when designing a mission is whether it has been done before in the game, because we feel that too many games thrive on repetitious mission design and we want to keep the gamer on his or her toes. Also important is how the mission ties into the story and what new challenging aspects of team-based tactics we can present to the player. We try to shy away from frustrating efforts that will force the player to do a die-quickload-die-quickload exercise. Rather than that we try to add extra playing time on a mission. We’d rather have the gamer playing a huge level in one go over the course of three hours, than have him or her play a small level over the course of one hour, during which he or she is confronted with the same corridor over and over again because of repeated quickloads after the next "challenging" deathtrap. I don’t like that in a game, and I don’t want our game to be like that.
My current guess is that the game will take 30 to 40 hours to finish.
How is AI implemented in the game? Will most enemies and non-player characters be scripted, or is the game more free form?
No scripting. All of our AI is what you would call dynamic, based on behavorial routines. Though it is crucial to the enjoyment of the game that I do not divulge everything about our adversaries, I can say that the player will face both highly disorganized and trained troops. From colonist guerillas to corporate death squads. The most interesting thing about enemy troops is that their behavior varies widely according to the situation they are presented with, and the morale of their fellow soldiers. Some might be more courageous than others, and actually lead a group of bots against the player’s team. Naturally, when this "champion" is killed, the group fragments and depending on how pinned down they are, they will drift to another group whose morale is high, or try to withdraw themselves under covering fire. If they are in a state of panic they will just plain run, but very tough opponents (whom we call "assassins") who find themselves alone will try to lure the player to an area they know well and try to sneak up on the ABZ team, causing as much havoc as possible before withdrawing again. Others might just sneak away and return with reinforcements.
Our main objective in designing and implementing the AI of the game was not to try and write ridiculously overwrought sentience routines for our bots, but to make them behave convincingly intelligent during combat. The player should never experience the feeling that a bot can see through walls, nor should a bot sit on by idly while a team member is gunned down right next to it. Suspension of disbelief was our main goal when approaching this. Enemies need not necessarily to be intelligent; as long as the player thinks they are and enjoys the threat level they pose.
The enemies are nothing like the ones you’ve met in Serious Sam (the game engine we used), which is mostly thanks to a far more powerful AI system, which allows for complex behavior. The main goal for the AI in ABZ is to present a believable enemy that use their environments in order to attack or defend certain areas or buildings.
The models themselves are all implemented in SKA, using a broad collection of animations and parts of animations, which are blended together in order to get the movement right. The static models are also implemented as SKA models.
The problem we’ve seen in a lot of tactical games is that your squad-mates have moments of sheer genius and sheer stupidity, with very little in-between. For example, typical AI squad members do stupid things like throw grenades ahead of the team while everyone is rushing a pack of enemies, which means death as the team advances. How do you see your AI squad mate throwing the grenade, or the rest of the team realizing a grenade’s been thrown and scattering away from it?
The problem you’re the describing is related to one of the toughest AI challenges : common sense. How do you get the AI to make decisions which seem ‘obvious’ to us humans ? Because of the antromorphic character of bots in game (bots look, move and sound the same as humans), people tend to judge the decisions bots take to the decisions we make as humans. Even though bots in games look and walk- like human characters, their brains operate in totally different fashion for a number of reasons.
Bots have to base their decisions on a surogate world which contains nowhere as much information as the world we (humans) perceive. For example bots do not ‘see’ the 3d world as we do. We see complex shapes and structures which provide us information where we can stand, where we can find cover, what may be dangerous zones to stand in and so on. Bots do not have this information, for instance bots ‘know’ where they can stand because we provide them a map which specifies where they can stand and where they cannot. One may say the bots are virtually blind.
We cannot provide bots the same information because we (still) do not have the computing power to process all relevant information. Where we nowadays have separate graphics cards are taking care of the bulkload of heavy rendering, the AI has to share memory and cpu power with everything else. This forces us to come up with restricted representations of the world which do not tax the cpu or memory too much. Consequently one loses a lot information in the process. We can tell a bot where it can stand with a certain representation, but this doesn’t tell the bot ‘automagically’ where it can find cover, prepare an ambush, expect enemies and so on. Whereas we humans are capable of deducting that information from our surrounding world.
Furthermore there is relatively little understanding on how humans tackle the ‘common sense problem’. There are a lot of approaches ranging from providing the computers with as much explicit information about the world as possible to training computers with unspecific data to learn a certain task (so called neural networks). Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.
Coming back to your question regarding grenades, it seems so trivial but if you took a better look at the problem at hand it is a bit harder than one might expect. For instance throwing a grenade requires the bot to understand where the grenade is going to land and explode. In complex environments as used in Alpha Black Zero this is not possible within the computational restrictions. Grenades might roll off slopes, might bounce off objects or might collide with overhanging ceilings. Furthermore, the bot throwing the grenade has to predict where his teammembers are going to go. This involves quite a lot work for something as simple as throwing a grenade. So we decided only the player can throw grenades and in special situations the bots are allowed to throw grenades as well.
Evading grenades on the other hand is much simpler. Bots are informed when a grenade lands nearby, because they know where they can go they ‘just’ have to go away from the grenade.
Speaking of grenades, what sort of weapons will be found in the game? Are they based in reality, or mostly futuristic fantasy weapons? Are there any really unique weapons in the game that players will seek out?
Most weapons are futuristic fantasy weapons. The weapons will be available according to the kind of mission you are playing and whether you are still out of contact with your HQ. At the beginning of each mission you will be presented with a weapon load out screen, from which you can pick what you think will be appropriate. There will be suggestions as to what might be best too, but since we tried to present each mission in an as open format as possible, our suggestions may not work for you. One of our favorite weapons is the Freyland Snub Gun, a burly sniper rifle which can fire superheated armor piercing rounds and a wide variety of small grenade charges, ranging from explosives to SenseDull rounds (imagine a flying flashbang that emits a high-pitched shriek – very good for breaking up and confusing large clusters of enemies).
At E3, Alpha Black Zero was looking pretty good, with plenty of graphical polish. What game engine did you use? Did you have to tweak the engine at all to optimize it for the game? What sort of system requirements will ABZ have?
We used the Serious Sam Engine, which we indeed tweaked. Our first concern was whether or not we could build the game-concept in the engine. What we like most about it (and still are amazed about sometimes) is the graphical power of the engine. But, as with any licensed engine, it does require a whole lot of work to get it to do what we want. The gameplay of ABZ is completely different from that of Serious Sam, so for the most part, the engine is changed completely to suit our needs.
Furthermore, Croteam has added an advanced Terrain renderer to SS for licensees of the engine (it is not used in either SS:FE, SS:SE or SS Xbox), which can create huge outdoor terrains
which are very detailed. The power of this terrain renderer is comparable to that of the Unreal 2 engine. We are adding our own features to the terrain renderer as we go along, modifying it to suit our needs. As far as I know we are one of two SS licensees using it. It is pretty powerful and unique.
Add to that the amount of enemies the SS engine can render onscreen and you have a pretty powerful set of features that allows us to create the game we want.
ABZ will run on a Pentium 4 equivalent with a 2nd generation 64mb Hardware T&L graphics card. The best results you will get if you go higher of course, but that is the lowest configuration on which ABZ will run.
Lastly, are there any unique features of ABZ you’d like people to know about? Something beyond what we’ve read in the descriptions already given out by Playlogic?
We have a great story and great gameplay planned for the gamers. The action is relentless and the story surrounding the game is an extra reward for those that make it through the harrowing situations the lead characters find themselves in. We have massive outdoor levels, populated with masses of enemies and dangerous tactical obstacles. You’ll be able to completely decide on your own how you want to approach any given situation and how to achieve your mission objectives. We have great indoor settings as well (some of these crossing over from the outdoor settings) that’ll prove a challenge to *any* hardcore action gamer. We have an accomplished and realistic AI system for the enemies and team members alike, with bots ducking and rolling away, taking advantage of cover (not only using level geometry as cover, but also natural features of the outdoor landscapes: such as long grass – through which bots crawl on their stomach – stalking the player undetected).
There will be a multiplayer mode in which you can play the game cooperatively with 5 players. Co-op multiplayer is done way too little I think, there are many action games which would have been so much cooler if you could have played them with friends.
Our thanks to Yesse and PlayLogic for taking the time to answer our questions and give us the full scoop on what looks to be a great game!