Robert Bowling: The Human Element
The Robotoki boss explains why The Human Element is more than just the name of his next game
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When you're the creative strategist and unofficial community mouthpiece for a major studio like Infinity Ward, your job is, at least in part, to make the right noises loudly and publicly, selling the work of your colleagues to the public and giving insight behind the scenes.
When you look back at the headlines which have surrounded Infinity Ward since the controversial firing of co-founders Jason West and Vince Zampella, it's hard to sieve out the negative coverage of lawsuits, poor staff treatment and bitter infighting to find the positive news which the hugely successful outlet has undoubtedly had to communicate in the last two years or so.
Founded solidly on the ethos of proper staff management which Vince Zampella has been espousing since his departure, Robotoki is ready to break the silence on its first project, next-gen zombie survival title Human Element. Here, we sit down with Robert at Gamelab in Barcelona to discuss the game, the studio, and what he thinks about Activision's out of court settlement with Zampella and West.
Q: So, you've been uncharacteristically quiet since leaving Infinity Ward, culminating in the Game Informer reveal of your new game, The Human Element. Details have been fairly scarce - can you tell us anything new?
Robert Bowling: We've been talking a lot about how the character creation stuff is set up - in Human Element what's most exciting is that we're going cross platform and cross genre in this universe. The situations that you'll face when you're in this open-world survival scenario are determined by your identity. That's determined by a number of things: your gender; your company - are you an adult alone, which is inherently easier because you just worry about yourself; an adult with another adult, which has advantages but means you have to share supplies, or an adult with a young child - that translates to the hardest difficulty and adds a whole other layer to that survival mechanic.
Lastly, it's your class - whether you're intelligence, action or stealth. When I think about the apocalypse, zombie or whatever, my plan changes drastically with my age. When I was young it was very action oriented. I was fighting zombies, I was fighting other survivors - that's what I was worried about. Then when I got older and had a kid - I have a daughter that turned three last week - you think about survival very differently. You want to rebuild some resembelance of society. You want to avoid confrontation, build fortifications. That mentality lead to these design decsions.
The interesting thing is, that, since it's an open world and the situations you come across are very dynamic, based on your identity and where you are in the world - we're not telling a linear A-B kind of story - how you engage in the universe changes drasticallly depending on the device you're using. That's what I'm most excited about here, is that cross-genre, cross-platform experience.
Say you're at home, you're playing Human Element, you're out in the world, you get injured. You're hurt and you need medical supplies. You don't want to risk going out to forage in the game world, or maybe you did and can't find anything, but you know that there's a pharmacy four miles down the road in the real world. So you go out and you're out and about in the real world. You open up Human Element on your iPad. We're overlaying the world of Human Element onto the Googlemaps API, FourSquare business API, we're taking your real world and merging it with your game world. So now you're checking into places in the real world and you're scavenging in those locations for supplies that are dynamic to those locations. We can do that anywhere there's GPS map data.
You're feeding those supplies back to your character in Human Element - these are not independent experiences, they're additive to each other. The cool thing is you can form alliances. So, say my girlfriend doesn't want to play the console experience but she wants to play on iPad - she likes that experience. If we have an alliance she can play the resource management game, that scavenging mechanic, and she can be benefitting my game by sharing supplies with my survivors.
"We're very confident, but we do acknowledge that it's a very ambitious thing"
Q: It's dated for 2015 - that sort of lead time must mean that it's going to be pretty ambitious?
Robert Bowling: We're very confident, but we do acknowledge that it's a very ambitious thing. The good thing with the Human Element is that we had a great running start, coming from the franchise that I did, with the momentum that we had, we had a lot of great partners and a lot of great people to latch on to, not only the game concept but the philosophy of our studio, the way we do business and approach game design. Because of that we had a tremendous running start for both a business and staff standpoint. That's why I'm so excited, that's why we're so confident.
It requires a very dedicated and focused plan. The 2015 deadline is the at-home, console experience. That experience, from a story standpoint, takes place 30 years after the event, after the apocalypse. We can engage you in that universe a week, a month, a year after that event. Maybe through mobile, maybe through titles on the arcade, maybe through PSN, handheld titles. We can start telling that story leading up to that big event in 2015 where we tie them all together.
That's what excites me about the age of game design we're in right now - especially with a smaller team. We're very nimble, very flexible. We have distribution models available to us as a smaller team which lets us get smaller experiences out which are additive to that home console experience.
Q: It's going to be next gen console and PC - what sort of PC hardware are you using to emulate your end target results at the moment?
Robert Bowling: Right now we're developing for very high end PC. In the past we've developed for mid-spec because you're trying to get the most audience or whatever, but since this is a very forward-looking project, by 2015 they're going to be mid-spec. As we get more specs and information on what that next generation may hold, then we can start adding to that.
Q: You must be keeping a fairly close eye on The Last of Us - did you have any idea that was coming before you started work on The Human Element?
Robert Bowling: I keep track of everything that Naughty Dog is doing, they're an amazing team. I love the team. The biggest inspiration you can take from a project like that is not that it's also a survival game and action game, it's looking at how well they tell stories. Their dynamic dialogue and character animations, their games are so polished and so good - you take a lot of inspiration from that.
I keep track of everything that Naughty Dog is doing, they're an amazing team"
I'm not too worried about the similarities in terms of the story because, although there are some top level similarities, the gameplay and the way that you engage in the universe will be completely different.
Q: Looking at the Robotoki page, you're staffing up. It seems from the literature there that staff happiness is a real key value for you. That must surely partly be a takeaway from your experiences at Infinity Ward?
Robert Bowling: All your design philosphies and your staffing philosophies are always shaped by your past experiences. You always want to take away what you've learned. We've focused very much on that team morale, having them creatively and intellectually invested in that project. I'm a strong believer in that - if you have a happy, invested team, you're going to get a good project. But if you don't have that you can never have a good project. We approach our design in a way that's very free-flowing. I always say that the worst thing you can ever tell a creative is to 'just do their job'. If you pigeon hole them into just fulfilling their job description you're not getting the most potential out of them. It should be a very flat organisation where, if you're an expert artist or animator, you have a lot of valuable insight into impacting design, story-telling, writing because of your unique expertise.
That's why we have a very free-flow approach to design. You're not stuck to your feature list. It's very important to have structure from a production standpoint, but you have to have that creative freedom to go outside that structure and start developing that feature that you're passionate about. That's where so many of the greatest innovations in gaming come from - when someone goes off in their free-time and develops something. Maybe at the time it doesn't look like it will benefit the core project because it doesn't fit within that universe or story, but a nugget of that benefits it, or it lays the foundation for something cool later on. That's okay, even if it detracts from your core project - it's beneficial overall because it keeps your team creatively and intellectually fulfilled because they're engaged in what they're working on.
Creativity requires emotion, passion. That's not something you give someone, that's something they have to have and you have to have to nurture an environent that allows them to have that, to be emotionally invested.
Q: What number are you looking to cap at?
"I think it's to the the betterment of everyone in the creative field to study it and read about it."
On the West Zampella case
Robert Bowling: About 86 for our main team.
Q: One last question. With the Zampella West case being settled out of court, it seems like that means that there's a story there which we'll never hear - do you think it should be told?
Robert Bowling: I don't think it's a story that will ever be told in full, I think it's a story that, based on the information that's already come out from the case, I think it's to the the betterment of everyone in the creative field to study it and read about it because it teaches us a lot about how to treat creative talent, how to build and maintain a studio and how to approach that publisher developer relationship - I think there's a lot to learn from it.
I hope that as much information as possible comes out about it, because I want to learn from it and I think others do too.