When I was a Russian major back in college in the era before time (the early 90's) I began a journey which ultimately led me here - to Developer Diary #3 - where I have had the privilege to chat with you all about TimeShift. This journey has encompassed learning to speak Russian, learning to drink like a native, learning to deal with cash-hungry customs officers and learning to not embarrass myself abroad with my unrefined brand of American humor. Luckily, once you have cleared the linguistic stuff, you learn that the Russians are really pretty similar to you and me. I mean yeah, they drink vodka in the quantities that we drink beer and have a much higher tolerance for Arctic climes, but outside of that there are more similarities than differences. In fact, in many respects they are more similar to us than many of our closer European neighbors (I am pretty sure, for example, that David Hasselhoff never became a "rock star" in Russia). So when people question the ability of a Russian team (under US design and direction) to develop a game palatable to American and Western tastes, my answer is always the same: "Here, take the controls and play it for yourself." That usually does the trick.
Come to think of it, the only thing that has been a cultural hindrance has less to do with gameplay and more to do with Russian etiquette. Russians have this "handshaking" tradition that is a daily ritual. When each member of our team comes to work in the morning, he (or she) makes his rounds and greets each and every member of our team with a firm shake of the hand. Now, when we started out as a 15-person team this was no problem, but now that we are well over 50 people, the whole process really takes too much time and is a major waste of dev time, not to mention a really bad way to spread germs and increase sick days. (Note to self: try and curtail all the handshaking).
Anyway, I digress... I am really here to speak with you about something much cooler than culture – today we will speak about how we crafted TimeShift's gameplay. In particular I will talk about all the major gameplay elements and how we have designed and balanced them to create what we think is one of the more compelling shooters released to date.
In past segments I have spoken in some detail about what it is that makes TimeShift unique. I really want to make it clear that TimeShift is an evolutionary game. It is, at its core, a well-implemented shooter with an engaging storyline, great weapons and solid AI. The cool factor about the game and what separates it is the way that we have seamlessly integrated the abilities to slow, stop and reverse time into the first person shooter mechanic. The trick for us was really to make sure it didn't feel like a bolt-on or a forced addition to the game. In order for us to accomplish this we needed to design the game from the ground up with the TimeShift mechanic in mind. This means that every battle, every thought-provoking challenge, every weapon, opponent and environment in the game was designed specifically to interact in a meaningful way with the ability to control time. Below I am going to give you some examples of how game systems were designed to take advantage of the time shifting feature.
One of the major challenges in developing a good first person shooter is crafting believable opponent behavior. As challenging as this is with standard shooters, it is that much more complicated when you throw time control into the mix. How should an opponent react, for example, if you walk right past him while time is frozen? How should he react if he sees you and then you reverse time and hide?
The answers are clear: if time is stopped for an opponent, then he should not notice you at all. And if you take it further and steal his weapon during time stop he should act bewildered. If time is reversed, then AI states should reverse as well. An opponent who has just noticed you can be reversed back to blissful ignorance. These are not simple things that just "happen" - they all have to be hard-wired into the AI code so that opponents act naturally and as expected in such situations. In addition, special animations have to be created and voiceovers must be recorded that accompany such behavior.
From a gameplay perspective, you can really see how the use of time powers and its interaction with AI can create some cool opportunities for gameplay. Imagine, for example that you are severely outgunned. Why not stop time and sneak past some heavily guarded opponents? What if you walk right into a trap of hidden opponents? Why not reverse time after they have pounced on you and get out of that trap and strategize a better way around the obstacle? The use of the time powers and their interaction with the AI allow each player to approach a challenge differently. This is one of the really cool aspects of the actual gunplay and one that makes the game much less of a linear experience.
Another major design challenge is creating levels that work well with the time mechanic. Our level design lead – Sergey Larionov – has had to be very creative in crafting gameplay scenarios that incorporate time control. This is more challenging than it sounds.
Let's take another solid game – Call of Duty 2 – for comparison purposes. In COD2, as in most other shooters, battle intensity can be increased by spawning additional opponents in out-of-the-way places. This is why it can sometimes seem that the battles are lengthy, protracted struggles, which indeed they are. Of course it is a cheat (of sorts) that creates the illusion of a massive army, but it is a standard tactic that works well and allows for gameplay that would not be possible were all opponents placed in a level from the start.
In TimeShift, this whole idea of spawning opponents is much more complex. Imagine, for example that we spawned opponents in a neighboring room that then burst into your room and starting firing away. What would happen if I reversed time and followed this opponent back into the room that he spawned from? Well, I would see that he appeared from thin air. What if I stopped time and entered a room where opponents were supposed to spawn before I entered? In this case, they would spawn in front of me. You can see the challenges in crafting intense gameplay are greatly increased and have forced us to come up with creative ways to handle these issues. For example we almost always spawn opponents at a distance greater than you can cover in the maximum amount of reversal time allotted. We have had to apply these principles to the entire game to ensure that the world we have created is as believable as possible.
One of the coolest things about first person shooters is the weapons. We have, in my opinion, one of the most talented game weapon designers in the world – a brilliant fella named Anton Lomakin. Of course I am biased, but when you see our weapons in the game I think you will agree. One of the advantages of creating a universe from scratch is that we can be as creative as we want in our weapon design. We do not have to model realistic guns or worry about sticking to convention. Thanks to this, we were able to develop weapons that interact in cool and novel ways with the time powers. I will mention a few of these weapons below.
- Swarm Grenade: This is a special "grenade" that is actually an intelligent weapon. Once released it unfolds wings and searches out the enemy. When it locates the enemy it hovers around him and fires. Imagine that multiple Swarm Grenades have been released and are surrounding you. Your only defense is to slow or stop time and take out as many as you can. Without time control they would likely lay waste to you very quickly.
- Surge Cannon: This is one of the largest and most powerful weapons in the game. It's primary fire works by shooting bolts of electricity that span from the weapon to the target. Imagine that you have been tagged by this weapon and a bolt of electricity is now stuck on you, quickly sapping your health. What could you do? Well you could try to kill the enemy before you die, but your chances of success are minimal. Instead how about stopping time and freezing the electricity in place and seeking cover? What about reversing time to the moment before the enemy targeted you and taking him out?
- BloodHound Rocket: The Bloodhound is a guided rocket launcher that works (from the AI's perspective) by allowing the enemy to target you and track you. Imagine that you have been targeted and a rocket is incoming. As you run the opponent guides the rocket to follow you. One direct hit and you are likely a goner. What should you do? Well, let's say you stopped time, the rocket would freeze in the air and you could run and seek cover or shoot it out of the air. What if you slowed time? The enemy would be unable to track you as his movements would be slowed down substantially. By using your time powers you can avoid the rocket and take out the enemy.
- Clutch Grenade: Any of you who have played Halo have seen a similar weapon that they call the "sticky grenade". If an opponent throws a grenade and it gets stuck on you in Halo you are pretty much RIP. In TimeShift you have an out – you can reverse time and reverse that grenade right off of you.
TimeShift's opponents have also been created specifically to interact with the time mechanic. Below I have described a few of the game's opponents and how using the time powers can counter their tactics.
- Warp Guard: This enemy possesses an ability known as quantum teleportation that allows them to essentially teleport to another location. By utilizing time stop it is possible to freeze the Warp Guard before teleportation and take him out. Utilizing reverse against the Warp Guard allows you to bring him back to his previous location and fire as soon as he appears.
- Flash Guard: This opponent, as its name suggests, moves extremely rapidly. The best way to take her out is to slow or stop time to aim and fire before regular time flow resumes.
- Storm Guard: This guy has a large shield that covers the entire front of his body. The best way to counter the Storm Guard is to slow or stop time and rotate to his backside where you can shoot him in his exposed area.
- Thunder Guard: This is one of the big bad guys in the game. He possesses a guided rocket that he can track you with as you move. The best way to counter his fire his to slow time and reduce his ability to track you or to stop time, shoot the rocket out of the air, and kill the guard before time resumes.
By crafting opponent AI specifically designed to interact with time control, we enhance the value of the power itself.
The bottom line of all of this is that TimeShift required us to think about design a little differently than we would for a more conventional shooter. We think TimeShift will appeal to those that enjoy solid FPS games with compelling storylines and fast-paced frenetic gameplay. By adding time powers that are tightly integrated into the game, we are taking the experience up a notch and giving shooter fans a fresh experience in a genre that has seen little new in quite a while.
That's it for now. Looking forward to reading your feedback in the forums. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have....
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