Interview / Eric Chartrand, lead multiplayer designer for Army of Two: The 40th Day

The multiplayer arena’s a dangerous place to venture for any game designer. That’s especially true when it comes to the shooter genre. Modern Warfare 2 exists now, and it’s a tall steep fortress of popularity. To come out with multiplayer modes and vie for some of that attention will require some serious ambition and some real worthwhile ideas.

With that in mind, I ventured with intrigue to see what EA Montreal had in store for us next month with their multiplayer offerings in Army of Two: The 40th Day. To get even more an idea of what they have in store for us, I spent a little of that time talking with Eric Chartrand, the lead designer of the game’s multiplayer component. We talked about bringing the co-op experience to multiplayer, branching the franchise out to the competitive multiplayer field, and the past and future of the genre.

TVGB: To begin, I noticed this game seems to have a lot more competitive multiplayer than the first game did. Is that a direction that the team wants to go in? Do you want to make that a part of the franchise?

Eric Chartrand: Yes, I think it’s. What we realized with the first game is that it’s easy to put the multiplayer in [a game]. Well it isn’t that easy, but what I mean is most teams will try to put it in. But you need to have a reason or purpose why you want to have it, and I think our game is really suited for that because we have a co-op experience. It’s a co-op game world with you and your buddy on the same couch or on the internet. You want to play together, so you play through the campaign. Then it’s a natural move to go on the multiplayer field. What happens with many other games is maybe you’ll play with your friend in co-op mode and then you log into Xbox Live and play whatever games are out there. What we wanted is to carry the experience of the campaign with your buddy into multiplayer. So basically, you’re not going alone. You’re going with your partner, a friend of yours. You’re not forced to do that, but it’s what we had in mind, that natural extension.

That being said, we need to have a good multiplayer. A game that allows you to go in with your buddy and it’s not fun to play, then there’s no reason to stick around. So my main focus was to try to make sure that the main experience from second to second, the intensity of gameplay, was there first. I wanted two people to have fun, to forget about time and just play. Try to be good at running the map, shoot people, die, spawn, restart, revive your partner, work with your partner, get to know the maps, strategies and all of that. And I think on this, we focused a lot of attention. If this works, then multiplayer is no longer an add-on. It’s something that’s part of the core experience of the franchise you develop. And I think on this we do succeed.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the campaign is getting less important. The campaign is [also] core to Army of Two, and the two must live together. One tells you a story. It’s deep, involving, and it takes you somewhere; but then we go into the multiplayer, and the multiplayer is where you learn to live something and share it with a friend of yours, or friends.

TVGB: You said the campaign offers the storytelling, and then the multiplayer offers the more intense experience. It does seem like the two are sharing something in the tactical aspect of the gameplay itself, though. So are tactics learned in the campaign meant to work well in the multiplayer arena?

Eric Chartrand: Yes and no. We looked a lot at what we did in the first one, and it’s not as easy as saying “Ok, we have a mechanic for co-op in single-player, and we’re just going to carry it over to multiplayer.” The goal of Army of Two is not really to provide gimmicks or mechanics, it’s to provide a shared experience with a friend of yours, and the idea we had was “what can we make for people to discuss while they play?” They play the campaign and they need to come up with tactics, with strategies, and even moral decisions at some point with that game. So the goal is to have people talk and not simply be walking through the level and going from point A to point B.

Now if you go into the multiplayer… multiplayer’s a different experience. We wanted people to talk, but the reason why they need to talk is different than it is in single-player. It’s not about “Ok, let’s take this puzzle that we need to solve where you go left and grab that guy, and I’ll go right and try to do something. It’s a setup. In multiplayer, there’s no setup. You don’t know where the enemies are going to be, where they’re going to run, or where they’re going to come from. So the mechanics we put in there are more open and less constrained in a way. We have a GPS [view] where, if you work with your partner, everything that your partner sees, every enemy, will be highlighted on your GPS as a red silhouette. So if you two are working together, you can easily spot enemies behind cover. You can flank them even though you can’t see them, but you’ll know your partner is seeing them [since] you kind of see them through their silhouette behind the wall and it’s easy to flank on the right or left and then shoot them without them even knowing you were there.

So all the tools we put in multiplayer have the same purpose as the tools we put in single-player. It’s to have this sharing of experience, the talking between the players about what they want to do next. But the expression of those tools is slightly different. We didn’t want to force players, let’s say, to open a door where you need both players to stand on each side for it to open. This works in single-player, but in multiplayer, it’s frustrating because one will be killed just before the other, and then you’re kind of stuck and say “This damned door, I want it to open!” and it didn’t, and you’re killed by other players. It’s different from fighting the AI. That’s why the toolset we use in single-player has to be different from the one we use in multiplayer, but the goal is the same: two people, or many people, get together and talk about their experience, have fun playing it, and survive by learning how to do it.

TVGB: And that, in turn, would give the game a long life since it will be a unique experience with each game?

Eric Chartrand: Yeah. You learn to play in the single-player, and carry that experience to multiplayer and it take it somewhere else. That doesn’t mean– like back to back is a good example. That doesn’t mean that the back to back might not come back the next time around. We don’t have it in this one– in multiplayer. We have it in single-player, but not in multiplayer. The multiplayer proved to be difficult with this because we changed networks. So it’s difficult to show two players are really back to back. One machine would see them at two meters apart while another sees them one meter apart, and it led to lots of… it looked weird. That doesn’t mean we cannot succeed in making it look good, but this time around we focused on things we knew would succeed and not trying to force single-player mechanics into multiplayer just to have them there saying “Ok, we checked the checkbox and back to back is in there.” If it’s in there and it’s not fun, then there’s no reason to have it in there. But our goal is to make sure the two experiences are similar, and we will strive in the future to try to make sure that they converge.

TVGB: Another question I had was how you plan to engage the community. What plans do you have after the game is released? For example, will you be offering downloadable masks, maps or weapons?

Eric Chartrand: Yes, our system is expandable. Already, the mask creation system is quite cool, so we don’t really need to create new masks, because hopefully people are going to create thousands of masks. So what you [the community] need to do, people can go on, click on the mask creator, and then you can create you own mask, and then you can share it with the entire community. So if this goes well, and I don’t see why it wouldn’t, there will be tons of masks created every day for you to pick up. So there’s no need for us to create new masks. Actually, it’s a lot more fun if people are creating masks for themselves than us providing corporate masks done and photoshopped by artists on our side. So I think this tool is sufficient to give players something to fight with. And we’re already seeing it. If you go on and you go into the mask creator, you already see amazing stuff already made with that tool set. So this is one thing, and then probably DLC at some point. This is common now, so we’re going to add more stuff for sure.

TVGB: No details on what that will be quite yet?

Eric Chartrand: No, I don’t have any details. We’re just trying to finish this game for now, so we’ll focus on that.

TVGB: There’s a certainly lot of other multiplayer games out there. Have any of them been an influence on your creation of the multiplayer modes in this game?

Eric Chartrand: Yes. Actually, the one that I looked… actually there are two, but the one that was the main focus for us was Counter-Strike. Why Counter-Strike? Because it’s been around for ten years now, and it’s still a massive success as a PC game. But still, what works in Counter-Strike is that you don’t get progression. You don’t get unlock guns. Well, yes you can buy guns round after round, but what I mean a [round] is finished, you start at zero again. So why it works is because the gameplay in it. The second-to-second, the movement of the character, the shooting, the intensity of the combat is still fresh, even ten years after. So that’s why we wanted to craft an experience that is as close to this as possible.

The other game that, for me, works well is Killzone 2. Killzone 2 has great maps, probably the best maps out there. It’s 16 vs 16 if I remember right… I don’t count the players when I play (laughs) but I think that’s it, and it works quite well! Why it’s done well is because the matchmaking works. You get to play with people of similar caliber as yours, and I think the progression, the evolving and all the community aspects were a big inspiration for me. All of the web site’s approach… this link between stats, profile, friends, leaderboard, comes from that game [that] I think did it very very well. So those two games, the second-to-second of Counter-Strike is– I think it’s an inspiration that many games should have. That’s not saying that we do Counter-Strike, but we should try to get the same type of… feeling when you play the game. And that’s what we wanted to have, and I think we’re close. We’re not there, but we’re close. That means that it’s a very good experience and, again, all the community aspects I think the Killzone guys did a very good job and we strive to imitate them.