Paul Wedgwood, fervent gamer turned bold game designer, believes he has identified the greatest experience a player can have in a video game. And he's determined to make it possible for us all to experience it.
Wedgwood's means to this end is Brink, the squad-based shooter he showed to attendees during a stage demo at QuakeCon in Dallas on Friday (Brink preview here). A day earlier, I spoke to him about the game and its planned deployment as a tool that can blur the lines between single-player and multiplayer gaming.
As Wedgwood walked me through his answer and discussed a conversation he has had with Brink's creative director, Richard Ham, he brought me to this monument of a statement:
"I've convinced him that the buzz you get from coordinated team play is beyond and above just about every other experience that you can have as a video gamer," he said. "But the jump from single-player shooter player to my end of the spectrum — which is the high-end tournament clan combat — is one where you have to have such a thick skin and such dedication to your aim that most people are put off. What we'd love to do is just help people find that route to the incredible buzz that we get from coordination by giving them a system that allows them to coordinate with strangers to get things done."
Wedgwood described the way his game will do that and how it compares to the efforts of other designers in great detail. I'll share his concept below.
But, first, I must note that listening to the audio recording of my chat with Wedgwood today, Sunday brings to mind an unlikely parallel development to his stated goal: the creation of Rock Band.
The New York Times Magazine's glowing cover story on Beatles Rock Band — one of the most prominent stories I've ever seen about a video game — quotes Harmonix co-founder Alex Rigopulos discussing the missed opportunity so many people have of playing instruments: "They spend the rest of their lives loving music, and listening to music, and playing a lot of air guitar, but not having any outlet for that innate urge they feel." Rigopulos has said as much to me and other reporters that Harmonix has been driven by the desire to use video games to give to those who don't have the skill to play music the thrill of playing music. Rock Band, evolving the idea further, simulates the nirvana of playing music in a group.
What we've got in Harmonix and, it seems, in Wedgwood's studio, Splash Damage, is men and women in game development who are engineering the medium to transport a person — a player — into a situation in which they'll find themselves suddenly skilled to do something they never thought themselves capable.
To get us there, to the sublime peak of coordinated group play, Wedgwood and Brink's Richard Ham had to confront a formidable obstacle, the ugliness of playing online games with other people, when you're not good at such games. This is possibly the analogue to getting on stage at a concert, guitar in hand, without knowing how to play at the speed of the rest of the band.
Practicing alone doesn't help much.
"If you play through a traditional single-player shooter — the kind of mine-cart-style ones — the enemy's always in front of you, and you're witnessing canned cinematics," Wedgwood said. "It just doesn't prepare you for being out-flanked when you go online. If the first thing that happens is that, not only are you out-flanked, but it happens five times in a row, he teabags you at the end of each one and shouts "Homo!" over the VOIP [voice-communication] , you just quit and can't be bothered. It's just no fun. And Richard Ham, our creative director, is just obsessed with solving that problem."
The Brink guys yearn for their players to be skilled online team gamers but have to worry about things like racial epithets scaring their players from the stage. That's a challenge.
To appreciate their planned path past that obstacle, it helps to absorb a description of how varied and complex the activities in the game might be. Wedgwood explained to me how this squad shooter, which can be played alone or with friends, put the player in the role of a fighter of change-able classification and skill-set. Bear in mind that the Brink player always has squad-mates in the game, whether another person is playing with them or not:
"At any given point you could be playing one of four different combat roles. We have this squad commander, essentially an AI mission director. Based on the combat role that you've chosen and your location on the battlefield and the status of these big objectives that you're trying to pull off, it generates a bunch of missions on a rapid-access objective wheel. And you have segments which represent how difficult they are. Each one that you do can take you on a completely different route and the end result will be very different gameplay. Sneaking behind enemy lines and interrogating an enemy with a taser is nothing like hacking into a back-door and opening up a route for your team, which is nothing like trying to get to a security gate, when all focus is on that gate and it's an absolute choke point — and you're the one who does the touchdown with the heavy explosive charge. So as you play through the game we have this branching mission structure which leads to a highly re-playable experience because it rarely feels like you're doing the same thing that you did before — unless you choose to because you had fun doing it last time."
That's the gameplay structure. Here's the scheme for getting the player to that sublime peak of coordinated group machinations:
"What we want to do is create something where, if you bought it, didn't have an Internet connection, never went near cooperative gameplay it was still a really fun, compelling squad-based game. But if you happened to go online, your friend can join you.
"Let's say you have a friend who has already finished both campaigns and he's at work. He's recommended the game to you. You've been playing for a couple of hours. He gets home. You can invite him and he can just jump straight into your game with his badass character all decked out in cool gear and everything and play alongside you.
"When you've got some experience playing, the game's going to say to you: Why don't you go online and try playing with some strangers? Just cooperatively and we're not even going to turn on VOIP [voice-communication]— there's no point, you don't need to talk to anybody, the game coordinates for you, you're not going to get put off by what they're doing."
By default, Wedgwood told me, that VOIP is turned off for anyone who isn't on the player's friends list. That AI mission director will ensure they have the opportunity to have a productive and un-harassed co-op play experience. Players will be able to play with humans without having the uncomfortable consequences of sharing an open mic with strangers in an online shooter. Ideally, the game will enhance the player's skills to a level that makes them competitive and interested in team tactics.
All that would bring players of Brink to the level of coordination of a well-tuned band.
That's quite a climb. And it's a heady endeavor.
Brink's out next spring on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. We'll know then just how high it can take us. (QuakeCon '09 may have wrapped this weekend, but Kotaku still has more to share from it, even for gamers who don't consider themselves the target audience for QuakeCon material. Expect more from Carmack, Howard and more in the next couple of days.)