When EA Montreal released Army of Two in March 2008 it received very different receptions in the US and Europe. America accepted the tone of the game macho, crude, in-your-face while Europe snubbed it, put off by the frat-boy humour and trash talk. Aware that cutting off half of the audience isn't a wise move in a time when hardcore gaming is becoming a niche, next year's sequel, Army of Two: The 40th Day, is EA Montreal's attempt to make the core game more appealing without dumbing down the experience to pander to a wider audience.
GamesIndustry.biz recently got the opportunity to catch up with executive producer at EA Montreal Reid Schneider, to discuss the sequel, how hardcore games need to evolve to remain relevant in a changing market, and how game developers can benefit from looking for new inspiration in different media.
Q: You talk at the Montreal International Game Summit last month was about bringing in new audiences to games without sacrificing hardcore sensibilities. Can you expand on that, and how that relates to your work at EA Montreal?
Reid Schneider: Really what I wanted to talk about was our approach to making games. The market is expanding with more casual players coming up, so we're starting to see a decline in terms of hardcore sales based on NPD data. So as developers, how do we think about making games that our customers want? The people I always look to are Valve, who I think are brilliant at it. Valve is super smart about it. When you hear them speak it's about connecting with their customers and making games that are focused on the customers and making a better experience for your audience. One of the things I'm trying to look at now with our team is that when we're building games and deciding what the features are going to be we've got to make sure that we make games that are really audience-focused. Because games are changing. I talk to Clint Hocking (creative director at Ubisoft Montreal) a lot and what he says is when Ubisoft started development on Far Cry 2 in 2003 tastes were really different. If you think about what's successful now and what was successful in 2003 before the market changed. It's incumbent on us a lot, whether you're a developer or a journalist, you've got to think about where game are going and how they connect with the audience in a deep and meaningful way.
Q: So the time it takes to make a game is a problem because the market has shifted since development began how do you address that at EA Montreal? How do you see into the future?
Reid Schneider: It's a massive challenge and it comes down to a couple of things. You have to have some type of way of predicting where the market is going and at the same time you have to think about how to make a game accessible. At the core of it if you think about the average age of players, it's growing. And the average age of those developers making the games is increasing as well. In light of that, that changes the way games should be built because it changes what the audience wants. Look at Modern Warfare 2, it's clearly amazing, but games in 2003 were even more hardcore than that. I love this industry and I feel lucky to be part of it but if we want to continue to be successful and take mindshare away from other forms of media than it's really incumbent on us to make products that are more accessible. That's doesn't mean dumbing something down because that's not the right way to do it, but how do you make accessibility that really resonates with customers, brings people into the fold, but not at the cost of dumbing things down? We have an amazing opportunity to make something of this medium, it's interactive and you can almost touch it, but we should continue to make intelligent and meaningful games that are experiences for people that they can't get from other forms of media.
Q: It seems as if publishers have become a little scared of making hardcore games. You're obviously just finishing up Army of Two: The 40th Day, which is definitely a man's game, right? It's a hardcore, co-op, sweary, violent shooter. How do you go about making something like that more accessible?
Reid Schneider: We had to make the control scheme easily accessible from the start. There's becoming a standard third-person control scheme, so we looked at that a lot. But then there's a number of other things we can do. We really designed the game from the ground up to be a co-op game until the very end. If we're playing together over Xbox Live or PSN, we can both have different difficulty settings, which is a start. You might be a hardcore gamer, but I don't consider myself a very good player at all, I'm probably one of the worst on the team, I like playing on normal or even casual difficulty. By putting features in like that you allow users to customise their experience and it doesn't dumb it down in anyway but it still makes it more accessible.
Q: It's like playing competitively online with someone who's new to a game, and instead of giving them a chance to pick up the gameplay and controls, you hammer them straight away and they're faced with this intimidating learning curve.
Reid Schneider: Exactly, it's a bad experience and it pushes people out of the market. It's no fun to just die 30 times and go home. If we can customise an experience but make it more accessible but not at the cost of the product, then as an industry we'll be better for it.
Q: During your MIGS speech you were also quite open about the games you've worked on that were very poor products, which is quite honest for a game developer to stand up and admit, "this was a rubbish game...
Reid Schneider: I actually really believe that you learn a lot more from failure than you do from success. What I learned form those is that you really have to make games that you believe in, you have to be really passionate about the content. At this point I don't want to work on a game that's rushed out to market. As a developer there used to be honour badges for achievements - yeah, I shipped a game in eight weeks! Those days are over, and with the rise of real serious journalism, and bloggers, the customer is really knowledgeable. We shouldn't be in the business of putting out bad stuff. And hopefully I can continue to work on games that are meaningful and can expand the audience and market. What rounds you out as a developer are the things that don't go according to plan. As a developer you need to look at the games you've worked on that weren't so good and learn from those experiences. You learn what not to do.
Q: Looking at the influences that games designers cite when pitching games there seems to be a lot of repetition. Everyone likes The Simpsons, Tarantino, and these pop-culture icons and references do you think there's enough influence and inspiration coming from different, alternative media?
Reid Schneider: I think it is a problem. I actually think diversity in the workplace is really, really good. Not so you can tick a box off and say we have diversity, but because when you get together people who aren't influenced by the same things, it really forces you to think in a different way. We have a female level designer on the team, and she was thinking about these cooperative choices in the new Army of Two . We have moral and cooperative decisions where one person makes a choice for both players and give the users a flash-forward to see the consequence of those actions. That wasn't something we had thought of on the team before and just by having people on the team who are influenced by different types of media and different styles of art really helps us bring games into a place where we hadn't gone before.
Q: With the original Army of Two you've admitted the tone of the game really cut off the European audience, as it was a very Americanised. How have you attempted to change that in the sequel?
Reid Schneider: We had this whole market in the US that thought the tone was cool, but in Europe everyone thought it was ridiculous and tasteless and a bunch of frat guys running around. One of the things we learned was that we're never going to be able to please both. So the way you interact with your partner and decisions you make if you're doing a lot of fist bumps these influence the tone and the dialogue of your character. If your taking it on a more serious level then the game reacts seriously. What we're trying to do we'll find out in January if people think we're successful or not is that players can tell their experience by their play style. It's really important for us tonally to appeal to the European audience because with the core audience in that territory, the game really turned them off so deeply that they couldn't get to the game underneath. In a movie you're distanced from those characters and you're watching them, but in a game you are those characters and if they say something you find bothersome it rips you right out of the experience. We wanted to change the overall dialogue but also let the player tell their own a story a little bit more.
Q: You've nearly finished the game, and it's out in January. What are the finishing touches you're adding?
Reid Schneider: We like to tweak until the very end. One of the things is the final controls should be really, really good. And we find some texture tweaks to give that extra bit of pop to the graphics. And looking at polishing the experience so people aren't getting stuck and that the AI isn't doing anything stupid. The funny thing with AI is the moment a character on screen does something stupid the illusion is broken. We're trying to iron out all that stuff and not rush it through. My hope is that people, when they play the game, they're really able to enjoy it and have a great time with it.
Reid Schneider is executive producer at EA Montreal. Interview by Matt Martin.