Interview / Brink’s lead designer Neil Alphonso

Brink was easily one of the biggest titles to showcase at the Eurogamer Expo this year, with the line to play reaching around the back of the stand. Developer Splash Damage must have been thrilled to see such a positive reaction, but there was no time for lead designer Neil Alphonso to celebrate as we snatched him for a chat about the upcoming title.

TVGB: So Splash Damage is really a developer that’s built a strong reputation on multiplayer. It’s very different for your team to come out with a game with a structured campaign. Why take this risk with Brink?

Neil Alphonso (NA): Well that was really always one of the knocks on the studios – if it can even be a knock – it really held up in multiplayer but not in single-player. Personally I wasn’t at Splash for previous projects and I’ve never developed a multiplayer game; I’m a multiplayer gamer but all my previous games have been single-player, and very focused on it too. That was one of the steps the studio took to making a solid single-player game; getting people in who had the experience which they didn’t necessarily have before. We just wanted to make the whole package, a game that’s good in single-player, multiplayer, and co-op.

TVGB: So with tackling a new style of game, what kinds of challenges did you guys come across? Something new that you hadn’t addressed before?

NA: I suppose there’s a whole mindset that goes with a single-player game that was new to the studio, like how to develop bot behaviour. You just have to look at the difference between multiplayer and single-player gaming and you’ll see in single-player games enemies come in waves, they tend to come from certain locations, and they don’t flank you very much, or if they do it’s because you’ve sat in one spot for a long time. However if you play a multiplayer game there’s people coming from behind all the time and you have to keep checking your six. That’s why multiplayer games aren’t as accessible really because you need to be good or you’re just going to get killed and it’s no fun. It’s really about finding the middle ground in between those two and that’s been the trickiest thing; how to get the bots to behave in a way that the single-player players would understand yet in the same way they’d hold up in multiplayer.

What we found was we’d made them very nice multiplayer players. That’s something we’ve had previously; my first experience with Quake Wars was jumping into a game and having a bot on my team shoot me and then t-bag me, and that wasn’t a very nice experience so we don’t have that anymore.

TVGB: Last time we were here [game director] Paul Wedgwood said you were undecided on split-screen for Brink. Has there been a decision made about that yet?

NA: Unfortunately that’s one of the things we’re not supporting. That’s just a time and resource thing though we’d love to. Pretty much the two biggest regrets we have are no split-screen and no female characters cause they’re things we’d really like to do but we’ve had another year and it’s hard enough just to get the game running now.

TVGB: So do you still consider split-screen important? With the rise of online it seems to have taken a backseat, do you think there’s still a place for it?

NA: From a design perspective it’s still a great thing. Really it’s mostly a tech concern because certain engines don’t deal well with it, especially if you’re a co-op game; I don’t think it’s quite as valid for multiplayer because you’ve got all these different mechanics and being able to see the other person’s screen, which reminds me of Mario Kart back in the day and knowing your friend has a red shell bringing a different mechanic. For co-op I think it’s really really good though, Gears has shown that, Halo has shown that for years and years now. I still think it’s very valuable as long as a couch has room for more than one person.

TVGB: You mentioned there about female characters. Why did you consider putting female characters in in the first place? Do you think many people would be up for picking a female avatar?

NA: Originally we had them in the design, sort of regardless of our audience, that’s not what drove the decision. The setting is the setting and obviously this place would have males and females and they’re all going to fight for the same thing. It’s not like we believe there should be divisions; we have a lot of different races in the game and so that would sort of translate in the same way. We’d love to remedy that but it’s just one of those unfortunate things.

TVGB: Brink is really trying to blend and single and multiplayer experience together. Looking back a few years from now do you see this game being a staple in the industry where we finally saw a perfect merge of these two modes, or do you see this as a feature that will stay unique to Brink?

NA: Well those are two extremes and I’m certainly not going to ever call it perfect or we could all just go home and be done, but I think it’ll be somewhere in between. I think a lot of people will look at what we’ve done and realise it’s a smart way to do things because in a lot of games – including a lot I’ve worked on – the single-player and multiplayer components have been very different and very separate. You’ll often find these parts produced at different studios these days in different parts of the world even, so you get a very diverging experience, almost like two games for the price of one. That may be very good in some respects but production wise it’s just not the way to do things. It’s very challenging because you have to sort of design both sides of the experience to sort of serve as a mesh into one thing; it’s definitely not easy but production wise if you don’t have a huge team then I think people will pick up on it and decide it’s a good way to go.

TVGB: Brink is a game with many different classes and many different objectives to each level, what do you have in place to encourage players to go back to levels and replay them to see what else you can do? How many playthroughs of just one level would it take to see it all?

NA: Well the way it works you could play Container City which we’ve got at the show, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played it for the last couple of months at these shows and I’m still not bored of it. It’s never the same at any time because it depends on the other people you’re playing with. Even if you’re playing with bots it depends what they do. So you have your different combat rolls but you can also change your body type which will change what you do or your weapons which will change how you play. Even what the other team does will change how you play so there’s so many factors. I won’t say it’s infinite because I’m sure a programmer could tell you the exact results of everything but for all intents and purposes it is infinite. Even within a given objective on a level there’s so much that could happen plus we have all the different objective types. That’s a challenge as well because it’s never the same so sometimes it can be great and sometimes it can be not so great. We think overall it’s normally a blast.

TVGB: Something else I wanted to touch upon was the art style with its cartoony edge; why decide to take this approach?

NA: That’s the brain child out our art director Olivier Leonardi. Paul [Wedgwood, game director] has even said before that we hasn’t a fan of the style at first but Olivier wanted to do something distinct. Most games are just doing very realistic stuff and we could have too but we’re a fictional setting in the near future, so while it’s plausible I think that having that little exaggerated edge to it lets us do some “gamier” things and makes them more plausible. We have some effects that I really like because they’re very gamey but if you want to keep your game realistic you’re sort of chained down to how you communicate these things. It’s important you see these things though because it effects how you judge the game tactically, so I think it’s a really good thing and obviously the environments feel very really which sort of keep things grounded. They still have their touches in as well; we’ve seen Container City but you’ll see some of the places for the Security too and there are some much nicer places.

TVGB: In 2011 we have other shooters like Killzone 3, how do you see Brink stacking up against the other big names next year?

NA: Well we’re going to be different, I’ll tell you that much. Obviously there’s a lot coming out and a lot has been bumped to Spring next year, un-coincidently I’m sure. I think we’re strongly positioned because we’re offering something that no other game is both in the different multiplayer modes, how it transitions in between, all the customisation, it’s a much deeper game than most of these other games. We’re hoping that we’ve made it accessible enough that the people that aren’t used to cooperative team-based shooters are able to get into that and feel the strengths of that coming through.

TVGB: Brink is the first original title from Splash Damage, and I’m wondering what the studio’s legacy will be from here. I’m not necessarily asking about a sequel but would you like to look back in 10 years and be responsible for a lot of amazing original games or build a franchise out of Brink or even return to your roots with a dedicated multiplayer game?

NA: Well that’s really three questions. Obviously it’s hard to say because we haven’t announced our next thing. Personally I don’t think we’ll go back to dedicated multiplayer because that sort of just very much limits the scope of who you can reach. One of our missions with Brink was to take the people who only play single-player and introduce them to multiplayer because there are a lot of people – including myself – who don’t play multiplayer now, largely because of the people they meet online. So we’re trying to make a game that encourages team work and we’re trying to make people play a bit nicer. We really hope that works out and we don’t think we’ll go against that and hopefully with Brink we’ll make that our legacy.

Brink releases on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 next spring.