Question Time: Volition’s Sean Kennedy

Recently we gave you the chance to ask questions of Sean Kennedy from Red Faction and Saints Row developer, Volition. In the full interview, Sean discusses open world destruction, guerrilla politics, Summoner 2, Freespace 3 and smashing up the Gold Coast.

Here’s how Question Time works: you come up with the questions and a games industry luminary will answer them. We then publish it as an interview.

Today it’s the turn of Sean Kennedy from Volition. Sean was the assistant producer of Red Faction: Guerrilla. You asked him a bunch of questions a couple of weeks ago. Here are his answers.

What inspired you to pursue a career in video game development? Bonus points for using world domination or chicks in your answer.

Good question. It’s funny because my degree is in Political Science and I had planned to go onto study law, yet when I was a kid I would always say that when I was older I was going to make games for Nintendo, Nintendo being everything back then. When I started working in game development it was at Electronic Arts San Diego (gone now) and I was still in college at the time. From the moment I started working there I knew that it was what I wanted to do for my career. Now I am here at Volition working on incredibly games, games that I hope can help redefine, dominate, and bring more gamers, especially chick gamers to their genre. Dominate and chicks in the same sentence – goal!

Hey Sean! I want to know why you made Normal difficulty so hard in Red Faction Guerrilla? It’s way more fun to play on Casual and smack dudes with the hammer.

Really it comes down to each gamer who plays RFG. During development we did extensive play tests with gamers of all types and skill levels. This data helped us in defining each difficulty setting found in RFG. We’ve heard people say normal is too hard, easy is too hard, hard is too easy, and so on. Really it is hard to find that perfect balance for difficulty options in a game like this, but in the end you try to deliver settings that will work for the majority of the gamers.

When playing Red Faction: Guerrilla, the mission that most stuck out to me was the one where you kidnap and interrogate the EDF commander. It made me realise “Man, we really are the terrorists.” Were there any mixed views on this mission during development? Did you question the inclusion of it in the game? Were any big changes made to the mission before you settled on it?

I wouldn’t say you are a terrorist in the game, but a freedom fighter. An uninvited overwhelming military force has come to your world, stripping all of your rights and killing innocent people. You are fighting to stop this force, liberate your planet and restore peace and freedom to the people. Blurry line I know, but freedom fighter sounds better. LOL. In regards to the mission, that mission was intended to make the player think, to blur the distinction between the Red Faction and the EDF. But in the end it ended up being a little more extreme than originally planned, which only makes you think even more when playing.

Sean, first of all I just wanna say how much I love Red Faction, it’s heaps of fun! My question is about how Volition makes open world games like Saints Row and Red Faction and how you go about doing that differently to stuff like GTA. What’s the most important part of an open world game to get right? Is it the freedom, all the activities, the vehicles, the missions?

Honestly, I would say the most important part of an open world game is to make sure you create a world where anywhere the player turns there will always be something to do, something to engage the player. Sure you can create a city that is beautiful, that looks like a real world place, one that has a gritty life like look to it, but if that city doesn’t constantly provide the player with things to do, give them engaging content and a reason to be there, what’s the point? Very quickly gamers will see past all that flash and glitz and realize promises were not fulfilled and they will leave you for something that will provide them with the fun they were seeking. That right there is the single most important thing when building an open world to me: making it fun. It can be easy to get caught up in the creation of a world and overlook making sure you are giving the player things to do everywhere that are fun. You can give the player all the freedom they could want in your world, but what’s the good of that freedom if that world is not brimming with things to do. Things that keep the player coming back to your game over and over again.

Great game, bringing freedom to Mars was awesome! What’s the likelihood we will see some DLC for this title?

The likelihood that you will see DLC for Red Faction: Guerrilla is actually very likely. In fact, we just announced it. I am actually heading up the development of the DLC right now. While we are not talking specifics yet, though by the time you read this they may be released or about to be, there is DLC coming for single player, Wrecking Crew, and multiplayer. The first DLC out will actually be for single player and it is the one I am most excited about. I think people who have played RFG, especially fans of the Red Faction franchise in general will be very excited to get their hands on the single player DLC.

The destruction aspect of RFG is amazing, it’s so far ahead of anything I’ve seen in other games. How much of a challenge was it for your programmers to come up with the tech for it? And how did it also challenge your designers to build gameplay when they don’t know if the player’s going to destroy an entire building?

The tech was in development since 2004, and it was a long, uphill battle. Several times we all together to admit that we had run out of ideas for getting destruction to be fast enough, and then a miracle would occur—some new optimization that doubled the frame rate—and we’d continue on.
Designers had to change their mindsets. It’s not possible to control the player, to micro-manage him. They learned to build scenarios for the player, but not to worry too much about what the player would do, because the player could do all sorts of crazy things, like driving a truck off a cliff and crashing it through the roof. The rule was “respect the player’s freedom.”

Can you give me some tips for playing online? I really suck. Whats your fave backpack and weapon combination?

I used to think I was pretty good at our multiplayer. That was until the game came out and very quickly, probably after a day of release, I found myself being destroyed in the comfort of my own home. One way to be successful though is to find that perfect backpack and weapon combination. For me I have a few favourites. First, I like to use firepower with the gauss rifle to give it that extra kick. Second, depending on the map, I like to use the jetpack with remote charges or the RPG creating a sort of aerial bombing run. Finally, really nothing is more satisfying then grabbing a fleet foot pack and using your good old sledgehammer. Run past enemies and knock them to their death.

Roman Bellic
Will we ever see a new Summoner game from Volition? I’d love to see what you guys could do with an action RPG on 360 and PS3!

Cool, a Summoner fan! Sadly, a new Summoner game is not something in the cards for the foreseeable future. I do think that if we ever did go back to that franchise and revive it, we could give it an incredible reboot like we have for Red Faction. But again, right now we are focused on Red Faction: Guerrilla and supporting that title with DLC.

I’m looking to get into game development – I’m studying design right now. I wanted to ask you, since you have worked on a wide variety of games in different genres, how do you maintain enthusiasm for a project if it’s not something you’re personally interested in playing? I really want to make games, but I don’t know if I could work on something I’m not interested in, like a sports game or a racing sim.

Great question! Really it is not that hard to do. While we would all like to always be working on a project we are interested in, there are those times where you could end up on something that doesn’t interest you at all. While that might take away from the enjoyment of your job you just do the work and keep in mind that you have the best job in the world, working in the best industry out there, doing something creative, and that in the end you are making something that will make people out there happy. Also you remember that like every project before it, it will eventually end and you will move onto another one that could be something you totally love. Working on a sports game isn’t too bad and they have shorter development cycles, so it will be less time to wait to move on. One thing to note would be that if you start working somewhere and you are working on annual sports game, then it is very likely that you will work on another one after that. You would be best not to apply to a job at a studio that has a focus on genres you do not like.

The destruction element to RFG made the way i approached the missions completely different to any other games i have played. With proof the technology works, although built up with a lot of effort. How long do you think till this level of deformable terrain makes its way into mainstream games in a similar way that physics have since seeped in since half life 2? For example could we see this level of destruction by Saints Row 4?

First I have to say, congratulations on being the first person to ask about Saints Row 4. LOL. To answer your question though, I would love to see it not make its way into mainstream games for a long time. Fortunately with what we have made it should be a long time until you see other developers hit the same level of destruction and type of destruction we created for RFG. As for seeing it in games like a Saints Row or other titles of that nature that would not happen for a long time, not even next-gen. The hardware is just not there to allow for a world of that density and size, with all that is expected to be going on in say a Stilwater and have it be fully destructible in the way RFG is. There is also a balancing at between destruction, time, quality, and other things that just would prevent that from happen. So, it’s not even just a hardware issue but a lot more.

Mr Waffle
There are a lot of design choices that almost seem to ‘limit’ the limitless fun that can with the destruction in the game. For example, buildings that don’t (normally) respawn, an extremely limited number of singularity bombs (that you couldn’t save for later), and almost no walker spawns outside of missions at all. Why were these choices made? I assume at least some of these decisions were made to keep the player underpowered to emphasise the guerrilla aspect, but what about the endgame, like in Saints Row 2, where you have access to virtually everything? Will we see Heavy Walkers littering the landscape in DLC?

They are all design choices made to better balance the game and make the end experience what we wanted it to be. When you build a world that can be completely destroyed and you build a game around that, you have to be careful to balance everything just right to keep the game fun and challenging. In terms of DLC and walkers, you will have to wait and see what we do with DLC.

Daniel Purvis
When developing Red Faction: Guerrilla, the game obviously takes advantage of the brilliant destruction the engine allows for. In fact, all of the missions revolve around bringing stuff down or blowing shit up in some way. Were there other key features that you would have liked to include to broaden the mission variety in Red Faction: Guerrilla, or additional methods of destroying stuff that you weren’t able to include, and what were some of the best? What were some of the limits the team imposed on themselves in order to ensure each element of the game was polished, rather than include a swathe of elements half-finished?

For this one I am going to let our two lead designers answer, James Hague and Luke Schneider.

James: Early on, we were trying to make every mission be based around destruction, but we eventually realized we didn’t need to do that. Destruction just happens and enhances the player’s options, so even a mission was about collecting kittens then I bet that most people would play that mission in a way that involved all kinds of destructive chaos. With hindsight, I definitely think that more missions that weren’t blatantly destruction-oriented would have been good (like Ultor Echo—I love that mission).

We used playtests to help determine what was fun. If something was clearly failing, then we had to decide to either rework it or cut it. There was often a gut feeling that we were going down a bad road involving a feature that would need weeks of extra polish, when we could be using that time on the rest of the game instead. And we were ruthless at times about cutting things.

Luke: We would have liked to include more weapons and additional types of vehicles to give the player more ways to interact with the world. We had to remove some because they just weren’t working and the effort required to make them work would have meant a lot less variety overall. We also explored many ways of giving the player tools to interact with the world physically, and while we’re happy with what we shipped with, more ways to interact with the world in a physical sense is something we hope to explore in future titles.

In terms of limits, we had so many it’s hard to list them all. Much of the world was pushed to the absolute limit in terms of density and variety. If you tried to replicate an actual city, the framerate would be measured in seconds per frame. Having even larger structures and more large structures interacting is one variation on that theme in terms of what we wanted to do but couldn’t. What you’re seeing in RFG’s world is definitely pushing the limits all over the place.

So uh, let’s say if one was in the process of refinancing a mortgage, selling vital bodily organs and using their unsalvaged remains as a object of sexual slavery – who would one sign the cheques out to to get Freespace 3 greenlit? Or would you prefer PayPal?

That would be Interplay, not Volition or THQ. As to where or not they would prefer PayPal, that would be a question to direct to them.

1) I also desperately want to know what is up with Freespace 3?
2) How many of the original Freespace staff still work at Volition? (ie: could a Freespace be done without losing the original flavor).
3) Does Volition own the IP? Are there any plans?
4) Do people even talk about it in meetings?
5) Would they sell it to someone else?
6) What’s the biggest hindrance to it becoming a reality?

A multiple-question question gets multiple answers:
1. It’s lost in space.
2. There is about 12 people here who worked on Freespace, which is pretty good for a team that was about 20 people.
3. Neither Volition or THQ own the Freespace IP. Volition was the developer of Freespace, but the publisher Interplayer actually holds the rights to the IP. There are no plans to obtain the rights.
4. Freespace is brought up in just about every studio meeting, Christmas party, and gamer Q&A interview.
5. I cannot comment on what Interplay may or may not do with the IP. That would be a great question to send them.
6. Not owning the IP. Being busy working on other great games.

Why oh why wasn’t Red Faction: Guerrilla online co-op?

Two words: hardware limitations. While co-op would be amazing in Red Faction: Guerrilla, it was just something that was just not technically possible with everything else we are doing in the game going on. Being able to have 16 player multiplayer with the same level of destruction as the single player was a huge undertaking and something that for a time we wondered if we would be able to do. To do that over a network, with all the destruction and players was a lot of work and pushing the hardware hard, and that is just within a single MP map. To take the entire single player world, with everything that goes on within it, plus keep the same level of destruction and duplicate all of that for co-op was just not technically possible.

May I ask, are you currently in production of a new Saint’s Row game? Or is all of that just rumour?

We are currently hard at work on supporting Red Faction: Guerrilla with DLC and on the PC version of RFG. While we have other unannounced projects in development, I cannot comment on rumours as to what those projects might be.

David Wildgoose
Sean, as part of a promotion for RFG, THQ recently asked Australians to name the biggest eye sore in the country. The Gold Coast won. What are the chances of allowing us to actually take a space hammer to the Gold Coast thanks to a future DLC pack?

LOL. Sadly I don’t think those who live in the Gold Coast would like that too much, well, unless most of the votes came from there. At any rate, there are no plans to include the Gold Coast in any DLC packs, so you’ll have to take out the Gold Coast on your own.


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