Stop me if you've heard this one before. You have a FPS game with a five hour single player campaign and some cool online modes. Sound familiar? How much would you expect to pay for that game? $60? Well the folks at TimeGate have come out with a shooter that sounds a little familiar but they've released it at the low price of $15. How did they do that and what makes their game different? Well read on and get the scoop from Brett Norton, the design director behind the game.
For those who didn’t play the first game could you give us a short summary of the universe the game is set in?
The Section 8 universe is set in a distant sci-fi future. Mankind has spread out amongst the stars, setting up a series of loosely aligned colonies. Many of these colonies are governed by a central Earth empire, others are independent colony-states. The military unit, the 8th Armored (nicknamed Section 8), is a group of powered-armor soldiers that are sent to spearhead dangerous military operations. At the start of the first game, Section 8 arrives on the fringes of Earth’s space to crush an insurrection by a group known as the Arm of Orion. Although they were expected to steamroll the opposition, the 8th becomes involved in a protracted war. While Earth’s forces are ultimately victorious, the costly war raises a lot of questions, stemming from the Arm of Orion’s relative success against Earth’s best. Prejudice picks up at this point in the story, following the character of Alex Corde as he and the 8th search for answers to this Arm of Orion mystery.
Why the decision to launch the game at such a budget price (considering the amount of content)? How much of this is a pricing experiment vs. marketing hook?
Price and distribution were considered hand-in-hand. At first, Prejudice was going to be a full retail title, but about halfway into development we started to think how releasing it as a digital-only title would allow us to hit a very large audience. Since we’re self-publishing Prejudice, we have total control over how we distribute and price it. We didn’t feel that it would be appropriate to sell the game for $60 on services like X-Box Live and PSN, given that most XBLA titles are in the sub-$20 range. It wasn’t an easy decision, but the more we considered the breadth-and-depth of the audience we could reach, the more we liked the idea.
In the end, it’s both a bit of an experiment and a marketing hook. Since nothing like this has ever been tried before, we’re not entirely sure of the outcome. All we can do is hope the outcome is a great game that lots of players get for an amazing price.
Safe to assume that a $15 price isn’t possible without digital distribution? How much would physical distribution add to the cost of the game?
A good bit; more than doubling it. Manufacturing, shipping, and retail margins add up. The scope and budget of Prejudice is a lot bigger than what would be successful at a $15 retail route. Digital distribution, with its higher developer margins, is certainly what is making the $15 price point practical.
The pricing angle of the game is fairly big risk, are you putting your studio at long term risk or have you hedged your bets a bit?
There’s always risk in trying something new. That’s the scary part of business, as well as the exciting part. We’re not really worried about the health of the company though; Prejudice would need to be a spectacular flop for it to seriously affect TimeGate.
What separates your game from others in the crowded FPS genre? What do you feel is the biggest selling point of the game and how do you think it stacks up against market leaders?
Prejudice is different because it’s not a modern or near-future tactical military shooter. You won’t be unlocking red dot scopes for several different assault rifles, again.
That being said, we’re still a shooter, and a relatively classic sci-fi one at that. Prejudice is a large-scale shooter with a heavy multiplayer focus. Our main competitive multiplayer mode is a 32 player Conquest mode. It’s the opposite of a small-scale team deathmatch game; it focuses on huge 16v16 battles raging across large outdoor maps. There are mech vehicles running around, deployable turrets setup at bases, and soldiers flying around in jetpacks trying to blow them both up. While it’s not a sandbox game, Prejudice gives the players many different tools to use both offensively and defensively, and Conquest is a great arena in which to use all those tools.
Co-operatively, we have a 4-player Swarm mode that capitalizes on our sense of scale and diversity. In Swarm, you defend a single base from increasingly difficult waves of enemy bots. This is where Prejudice’s sandbox-style diversity come into play, as the players can call in deployable turrets, supply depots, and vehicles to help assist in the defense of the base. It’s a mix of tower defense and shooter gameplay, and on the harder difficulties, it’s an absolutely thrilling co-op experience.
We also have a campaign, which isn’t unusual for a retail shooter, but it is highly unusual for a digital shooter. It provides a great narrative backdrop for our universe, and helps ramp players into Prejudice’s unique mechanics, like jetpacks. So, for your $15, you’re going to get a 32-player competitive mode, a 4-player intense co-op mode, and even a slick 5-hour narrative campaign. We’re hedging our bets that Prejudice’s combination of polish and insane value will let us compete with any of the market leaders.
Why the decision to use Games for Windows Live as your PC matchmaking service? Any chance that we’ll ever see the PC and Xbox Live versions of the game going head to head?
Largely, it’s for technical reasons. Boring answer, I know, but we felt it was important to support dedicated servers on all platforms. Games for Windows Live allowed us to accomplish that goal, so we used it. While we had the option to allow cross-platform play between the PC and X-Box 360, we ultimately felt that the PC players had too much of an advantage with mouse/keyboard controls. It was probably going to hurt the X-Box 360 experience to have PC players constantly beating up on them, so we kept the matchmaking separate for each platform.
The game now comes with a single player campaign, why the decision to invest in a single player campaign?
That comes from us initially expecting to ship Prejudice as a retail title. If you’re going to release a retail shooter at $60, you really have to throw in everything-and-the-kitchen-sink to meet the minimum value bar a player expects. We were already far along in the development cycle when the digital decision was made, and by that point, we knew it would be better to finish the campaign than to cut it.
It’s turned into a bit of good luck for us, as now we get to be one of the few digital-only titles to feature a narrative campaign. The Prejudice campaign is also a major improvement over the very limited campaign we had in Section 8, so the game wound up with a lot more character behind it than most digital shooters.The game features a really deep customization engine, could you cover the various options that are there and any kind of balance options some of those created? Are you at all worried about giving players too many options? What’s your personal favorite build right now?
Customization in Prejudice is handled through our loadout system. We have a very freeform system; players can choose two weapons, two pieces of equipment, and a series of upgrades in each loadout.
For weapons, you can mix and match any two different weapons. Want to carry both an Assault Rifle and a Missile Launcher? Go for it. We don’t have the concept of ‘secondary’ or ‘sidearm’ weapons in Prejudice, so all of the weapons are balanced as being ‘primary’ weapons.
Equipment provides another set of options. Equipment includes ‘normal’ items like Grenades, but also a lot of support items like the Repair Tool. So you can mix and match your weapons with additional combat items or support tools. For example, you could take a Sniper Rifle and a Repair Tool to create a Sniper-Engineer hybrid.
Then we’ve got Upgrades, which are small stat tweaks. You can boost your shields, bullet damage, explosion damage, jetpack recharge, etc. Initially you get 10 different Upgrades, but you can’t just dogpile them into one category, so we force at least a little variety. As you might imagine, players rarely ever pick the same Upgrades, so it’s the last little element that makes you feel like a unique character.
But we’re not done just yet. As you play the game, you unlock weapon and equipment variants, giving you even more options! Easy example is Grenades; we have a standard Frag Grenade that explodes when it hits an enemy. You can also unlock a Napalm Grenade, which explodes, sets fire to everything it hits, and leaves a temporary fire pit on the ground. The Napalm Grenade doesn’t deal as much initial damage as the Frag Grenade, but it excels in defending chokepoints and tight, indoor areas. Now imagine that every weapon and equipment item has 3-4 different variants, and you start to see the sheer scope of how much tactical variety there is in Prejudice.
We’re really proud of the loadout system. Thanks to the efforts of some hardcore Section 8 beta testers, we’re certain that Prejudice will have many different viable loadouts, encompassing many different weapons, equipment, and upgrade combinations. My favorite Swarm loadout is a support hybrid, in which I use an EMP Machine Gun, Buckshot Shotgun, Repair Tool, and Frag Grenades. At long range, I use the EMP MG for suppression, while at close range I rock the Shotgun and Nades to clear the room.
Of all the weapons we’ve seen in the preview builds, the crash mortar is my favorite. How did you come up with such a cool weapon? Do you have a personal favorite in the game?
The Crash Mortar was something that came about from our love of artillery attacks. Early in Section 8, we wanted to have some kind of explosive weapon, that while similar to Grenades, really shined at long-range bombardment. Standard ‘deploy and fire’ mortars were far too clunky for the pace of our game, so we came up with the idea of a man-mounted mortar that just automatically targeted where you were aiming and dropped a shell there. It’s not as much of an indirect-fire weapon as a classic mortar is, but it makes pulverizing enemy turrets from a safe distance very easy.
It’s hard for me to have a favorite, since I’m so familiar with all of the loadout options. I will say that Crash Mortars are surprisingly underutilized with Sniper Rifles. A fun combination is to take a Sniper Rifle + Crash Mortars to create a really awesome one-two punch at long range. Fire the mortar a second or two before you take your shot, and if you time it right, you create inescapable doom.
Why the decision not to have a dedicated melee button?
There isn’t a dedicated melee button due to a combination of gameplay and control issues. Originally, we were developing Section 8 in the roughly the same era as Halo 3 and MW1. At the time, a lot of gunfights in Halo 3 wound up being resolved by melee attacks, and we didn’t want to follow that precedent. Making the Knife a piece of equipment meant the players had to choose to equip a super-powerful close range attack, instead of just getting it for free. Additionally, it saved us a button, which simplified our control work. It’s something we considered changing for Prejudice, as Section 8 generally turned out to focus on more long-range combat than Halo 3 did, but by that point we had a lot invested in the control scheme and it would have taken too much work to refactor it
Do you have a rough idea of when the first DLC for the game will be available? Are you looking at strictly map packs or are things like new weapons and new game modes on the table?
We have DLC content in the works, but the PR dictators have shutdown my ability to talk about that subject until its closer to being released. But suffice to say, we have multiple, different types of DLC in production, scheduled to be released at various times shortly after release. We’re talking ‘within the first few months’ timeframe and not ‘sometime next year’. I really hope that we’ll have something to put up right after release, but for the sake of not making false promises, you’ll have to wait and see.
Is there anything we missed that you think is important?
Release dates! Section 8: Prejudice will be out on April 20th on Xbox Live Arcade, with the PC version on May 4th, and PlayStation Network version coming this summer. All the goodies we’ve been talking about, and for only $14.99!
We'd like to thank Brett for taking the time to answer our questions as well as Tom for helping to coordinate the interview