Interview / Alex Hutchinson, Creative Director, Army of Two: The 40th Day

A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to chat with Alex Hutchinson, Creative Director for the upcoming hockey-masked merc sequel, Army of Two: The 40th Day, about what makes a man (is it the power in his hands?). What follows is a true story involving co-op experiences, pissing off your friends and the examination of overcoming suckitude. There’s also some potty-mouth going on because we’re men and that’s what happens when testosterone is your co-pilot. It’s the more extreme version of Jesus, bee-tee-double-u.

That VideoGame Blog (TVGB): What’s the story behind Army of Two: The 40th Day?

Alex Hutchinson (AH): The basic idea is the guys set up a business in Shanghai as mercs, then all of a sudden this massive disaster begins. But it’s a mystery. Just like in the real world, if you were standing here and the building explodes, you don’t know; it’s not James  Bond where someone tells us what’s going on. So, you’re trying to figure out what’s going on. And you’re also going to have to figure out who are you when this happens, which is the core question of the game. Like, we’re buddies, we’re in this environment; are we going to sacrifice our own personal safety and personal rewards to help the civilians and do the right thing or are we going to say, “Fuck it! I want all this stuff, don’t care about you or if you get killed.” There are two distinct styles you can play and the game supports multiple playthroughs much better than the original.

TVGB: What is ‘The 40th Day’ in reference to?

AH: It’s sort of the mystery of the game. All you know early on is that this group is calling themselves ‘The 40th Day Initiative.’ It’s one of those fun things the player can choose to uncover and discover or just say, “It’s a shooter and I don’t care.”

TVGB: How have you improved upon the original game?

AH: We remapped all the controls so everything’s done with one button — there’s no more two-button stuff. We worked a lot on the speed of the camera motion and how fast everything moves around so it’s really snappy. You can snap the characters like in Call of Duty, go into cover automatically instead of having to hit a button and we’ve added a bunch of new co-op moves. There are 16 moves you can do and I have 16 moves I can do. Everything you do opens up an opportunity for me. For instance, you go out and surrender and all the aggro is on you then I can go around and flank the enemy, snipe them or get to an exit.

TVGB: There’s been mention of civilians in the world and the ability to kill them. What effect does that hold for the player?

AH: If you save them they’ll give you information, access to new areas, parts for the weapon creation system. If you let them die, well, the civilians are in tricky little areas where you need to use more complex tactics so you can run-and-gun but you’re a bad guy and won’t get the parts or rewards.

TVGB: Is there a real incentive to following the “good” path and getting the rewards or does dickishness prevail?

AH: My background is with Maxis (Spore, The Sims 2) and for me it’s mostly about player expression so what I want to do is allow you to tell a story with your buddy. “Are we good guys? Are we sneaky? Fuck it! We’re Rambo assholes and we’re going to kill everything!” Everyone plays a story in their head and I want to enable those stories. It’s more about that than the mechanics of it and of course there are awards and give-and-take, but I think more important than that is you expressing yourself in your game. At E3 we’re going to show off moments that are like morality moments. These are giant, unique choices that you have a limited time to make. There might be a situation where you come across someone about to be executed. You can stop to help them or maybe you’re on your way to get equipment and don’t have time to stop and that’s a choice you have to make together, in about 10 seconds, as co-op partners. If you and I are negotiating who we are, discussing, “Should we care about the civilians/not care about the civilians?  Should we take our time/just run through it?” If that conversation is happening on the couch it’s a massive win.

TVGB: What do you think was the biggest criticism of the first game?

AH: I didn’t work on the first one so I had a very clean run with it. I read every review in the world and made a document that listed everything, then split it between Europe and America. There were two big criticisms, one of which was the start-and-stop nature of the co-op — set piece, back-to-back; set piece, parachuting; set piece, step jump, etc. That’s why we went with an organic approach giving you sweeter moves that you can do whenever you want. We’re still going to do back-to-back but we’re not doing parachuting.

TVGB: How come you’re not doing parachuting?

AH: It wasn’t awesome enough that we wanted to build a specific scenario for it.

TVGB: What was the second criticism?

AH: The other one was the tone. There were some people that said the Wu-Tang joke had them laughing and laughing and others were like, “I hope you’re taking that bullshit out.” So, it’s a problem — do you keep it or do you get rid of it? The answer is there isn’t one. The only way we can be safe is it’s a videogame and it’s your choosing. If I’m telling a story about being a sneaky, cool guy and my guy is joking about the Wu-Tang Clan, I’m angry. If I’m with my buddy, in a frat, drinking beers, it’s hilarious, “I love him, he’s just like me!” So, we’ve built something where what you do in the world leads into whether they tell jokes, if they’re buddies or if they don’t like each other. It’s something we’ll be showing at E3.

TVGB: Has there been an overhaul of the AI partner?

AH: It’s been completely rebuilt from the ground up. You can give specific orders and it will also lead you in certain areas.

TVGB: How long has the game been in-development?

AH: Not as long as we should’ve been; maybe 40 months and we’ve got another 8 or 9 to go. We needed a bit more time than the last one. I really think it’s one of those franchises and the example I’ve been giving everyone is, Resident Evil 1 sucked; Tekken 1 sucked; Burnout 1 sucked. Sucked! If you go back and play them now, they’re really bad, but at the time you’re like, “Well, it’s kind of broken but there’s an awesome kernel.” They had time to become three of my favorite franchises in the world. The problem is the cost of these games these days is so ridiculous that your opportunity to do that is really hard. I didn’t work on the first one but they were really ambitious and tried to do something and the cost of ambition is you won’t always succeed. Now is the time to learn from that, make some of the things from the first one better, take some things out that we realized weren’t good and add a bunch of stuff. I think, eventually, that we can get it to be a franchise that people talk about as a true, AAA franchise.

TVGB: Are you really trying to make the player invested in the story?

AH: We want the player to be invested in the characters. The story, to me, is a frame that’s simple: “Horrible things are happening in Shanghai. Get the fuck out.” That’s the whole story, but how you do it is all the detail. What we’re trying to do is say, “You guys should make your own stories.” So, let’s give you tools that ask, “Is our relationship good, is it bad? Did you piss me off by killing the hostages?” Whoever chooses first, wins. The decision is made. You don’t both get to choose, someone chooses for both.

TVGB: So you can really dick your friend.

AH: You can dick your friend and he’s going to be like, “What are you doing?!” So now I’ve got a story. Whenever I do a survey I always ask, “What’s the story of the game?” They actually never describe the story. What they say is, “Oh, I went into a room and there were a bunch of guys, so I hid under a table and then they came over and I shot two of them and another one saw me and called reinforcements and we had a massive firefight.” Ok, none of that was written by a writer, what you had was a player experience which is awesome! That’s why it’s a game and it’s powerful and cool, so let’s enable that.