One of the most significant facts about Capcom’s recent
press event is that it was the first time in the company’s 25-year history that
the bulk of games on display were developed outside Japan. Resident Evil 5 and Street
Fighter 4
are obvious Japanese standouts, but European and North
American developers are starting to diversify Capcom’s famously eastern label.

A standout in the company’s developer stable is Airtight
Games. Composed of key members of the last Crimson Skies team from Microsoft
Game Studios, Airtight is developing a flying/shooting hybrid called Dark
Void
. The story follows a pilot sucked into a void through the Bermuda
Triangle, within which he finds a ragtag collection of humans struggling
against a race known as the Watchers. Cannibalizing Watcher technology, the
hero and fellow humans fight this other race on land and in the air.

The key component in Dark Void’s strategy is ‘vertical
cover’. As our demo began, we saw a pretty typical gaming landscape: a weird
vista on which the hero had to shoot and take cover from aliens. But on a whim,
the protagonist can activate a hover pack to fly above and behind enemies,
changing the battle conditions completely.


Dark Void has you battling on column
and cliff faces, taking out minions slowly as you grapple, leap and hover ever
upward. Then, when the hoverpack is upgraded to a rocketpack, you can soar away
much like the Rocketeer. The animation, already impressive when on the ground,
becomes spectacular in the air. Rocketing around looks wonderful, and the
ability to land on other vehicles in flight before hijacking them is one of the
most appealing game actions I’ve seen since the carjack.

In the space of a 30-minute presentation, Dark
Void
went from being only a tiny blip on the radar to one of my most
anticipated games of 2009. Yes, the title is terrible, but the gameplay and
animations look top-notch. I sat in on a small roundtable discussion with
Airtight co-founder (and former VP at Microsoft Game Studios) Ed Fries, chief
designer Jose Perez III and Capcom’s director of design Kraig Kujawa.

Vertical cover is an
inspired idea. Where did it come from?

(Jose Perez III) A lot of it was Ed Fries saying, ‘you’ve
got a week – go!’ At the time I was playing a lot of cover-based games and
looking for something innovative. That was something I was really liking at the
time, to not always have to run around and be in the fray, but to slow down for
a second and think. And then it was 3 in the morning, probably very
sleep-deprived and Bing! I started thinking about all the vertical stuff we
were already doing with UFOs, being able to jump out of those and all the
in-between stuff and it made a lot of sense.

The demo is striking
when you use the hoverpack to go from in front of a cluster of enemies to
behind them. But I’m programmed now to go into cover mode; is that fundamental
re-addressing of convention something we’ll see elsewhere in the game?

(JP) Definitely. We want players to be creative, make their
own choices and talk to their friends and realize they did all have a different
experience. From a replayability point of view, I realize I can approach each
of these encounters in a different way. It’s something we’re focusing on, to
let players be creative and make choices.

(Kraig Kujawa) Yesterday we had someone else play the game
that was from Capcom, and he found another route through the demo that we
hadn’t even thought of. It took a tough jump — a high risk, high reward jump
— and we could only make it maybe one out of three times. Point is, players
are exploring the hell out of these levels and we want to embrace that and let
them play the way they want to. The level we showed in the demo is one where
you sidestep action a little bit, but in another area you can go all the way
around and it’s like shooting ducks in a barrel.


Is it a challenge to
get people to re-think how they play? Will people just play a lot of this Gears of War style?

(JP) I don’t think you can…you’ve got a rocket pack and
vertical combat and stuff. Gears is out the door at that point.
If they’re comfortable on foot and want to play Gears style, more power
to them. If that’s the way you like to play…but like I said, here you do have
the ability to jump and use the hover/rocket pack, so there are all kinds of
ways to break that down.

(KK) We have that base foundation of people who know how to
play with cover, so why reinvent that wheel? But that gives us the flexibility
to add all these really cool unique things, and that’s what we focus on
teaching them.

(JP) We already have the Unreal 3 engine, so we
have a lot of their stuff in there to build off of. Gears is a really fun
game and they did a really good job with their cover. So let’s use the stuff
that we like and really innovate on everything else, let’s see where we can
push it.

Does the level design
force players to use the hover/jetpack, and is the pack finite?

(JP) So, the beginning of the game you don’t have a jetpack.
You start out naked…well, not naked, you’re clothed, but you start without even
a hover pack. You upgrade to the hover, then you get the rocketpack. Once you
get the rocketpack, we don’t really limit it. We don’t say ‘you can only fly
for three seconds in this one mission.’ We say ‘you can fly!’

We let you do that, we let you cruise around and let you fly
around the world. There are limitations on how long you can boost, and that
gets upgraded, but you’ll be able to fly around and really make your own
choices. There are certain things that happen…say if you’re in a small hallway.
Probably not the best idea to activate your rocket pack. [Actually, I think
that sounds like a great idea.] But it goes back to player choice, making a
good decision and trying not to make a bad one.

(KK) I think we might also be reacting to the games that
have ‘X’ gimmick, and you can use ‘X’ gimmick in ‘X’ room, ‘Y’ gimmick for ‘Y’
room. We want to avoid that false choice. We want to give you this toolbox, and
you figure out how to use it. The other path through the demo yesterday is a
good example of using the toolbox in a way we weren’t thinking of.

(Ed Fries) It does put the pressure back on the designers.

(JP) It’s really tricky to design around this stuff. There’s
something really magical about being on ground in a really intense, quality
encounter, thinking ‘holy crap, I’m surrounded!’ and then WHOOSH! taking off
with the rocket pack and finding another way to approach it.


From a design
perspective, do you have to approach things differently to ensure that players
who take all these different routes have a similarly compelling experience?

(JP) There are a lot of things we have to do to make that
happen. In the beginning it’s a lot easier from a design perspective, because
you’re on foot. Once you get the rocket pack and open it up, we do have to
think about all the angles a player could approach it from. One of the ways
we’re finding to make sure they use everything and not just the rocket pack is
multiple objectives placed on walls [for vertical cover] and different
environmental ways of constraining or allowing you to approach it in different
ways.

(EF) Flying out in space over all the cover isn’t
necessarily a smart thing to do. All the guys can turn up and shoot at you.

(JP) If you’re flying at a wall and it’s got all these
manned vertical nodes on it, that’s the equivalent of standing in Gears
without any cover. You’ve got six guys shooting at you, you’re toast! You’re
going to have to figure out the best way to approach that. A lot of times it’s
to get in at one point [on the wall] try to avoid the fire, land here, work my
way up [the wall], maybe work my way over or whatever.

(KK) To build on Ed’s example, you get up there and you’re a
sitting duck because you’re vulnerable. So maybe I want to go after the UFO,
which is more difficult, but will give me a nice coating of armor to sit up
there, and it’ll have big guns, and some other things the team is working on as
well.

Crimson Skies had a lot of humor, but this looks more serious.

(JP) We’ve got some fun in there. Crimson had more fanfare
and maybe a different sensibility about it. This one’s maybe a darker story.
Fanfare is (makes trumpet sounds) dah-dah-DAH! Duh-dah-dah-da-DAH! This is more
of a personal, darker story. Though he’s not the big pissed off guy with a gun
that has to save everybody…he’s more of an everyman that gets wrapped up in a
situation. He starts off self-absorbed and cocky and there’s always something funny
about watching that guy grow and learn things the hard way.

(KK) Funny moments are also user-driven. So when you get a
Watcher to ricochet off six ledges, pachinko-style, that’s pretty amusing. Or,
sometimes a UFO will veer off into a mountain and blow up while you’re trying
to hijack it. So there are those spontaneous moments too.


Bioshock might have changed the rules for story-driven action games
by being very lenient with resurrection. Does that sort of thing affect you?

(JP) We have a checkpoint system. If you failed, we’ll put
you back…it’s the basic ‘You’re dead! Now here you are when you weren’t dead.’
That sort of thing. We’re friendly with our checkpoints; we don’t want to
punish the player. We want them to progress and beat the game.

(EF) It might be like Maximo, though, since it’s a Capcom
game, so you’ll actually have to buy your checkpoints.

(JP) And in this damage system, he does get down to his
underwear, with the hearts on it…

[Those are jokes, guys.]

Designing vertical
levels as well as ‘normal’ ones seems like it could be awkward…how do you balance
everything?

(JP) Through a lot of playtesting and a lot of being really
honest about what does and doesn’t work and then trying to meld the two. It’s
really hard to explain. I think we found a sweet spot. If you’ve played a lot
of the shooting games that have come out and any flight games, we think we’ve
got a really simple way of fusing those things together. I can say that until
I’m blue in the face, but when you play it I think you’ll see.

(EF) It’s very playable right now. But we’re not going to
let you play.

The Bermuda Triangle
seems like a huge story point.

(JP) I don’t know how much we can say, but I can say that in
the Triangle a lot of things have crashed and a lot of mysterious things have
happened, and we know that.

Is the game really story-driven,
or is action the main force?

(JP) I like to think that it’s all story-driven. At Airtight,
our philosophy is that story and gameplay are the same thing. It’s not like you
start playing the game and the story is over. We want it all to be the same
experience, so for me and the designers, they’re all really smart about
evaluating the scenario and what we want the player to feel, knowing what plot
points we’re at and what we can and can’t reveal, and then seeing how that
affects the gameplay. What is the player doing? Is it motivated by shooting a
bunch of stuff, or is there a reason for it?

How about upgradable
weapons?

(JP) They’re not letting us talk about that too much yet.
It’ll be simple, not hyper-complicated. We want to keep the game fast-paced. We
want to keep you progressing; we don’t want to stop and make you go through a
bunch of inventory screens. Our game is fast and fun and we want to keep it
that way.

We’ve seen a lot of
open space and verticality. Are all environs outdoors?

(JP) We have multiple environments that we’re doing, though
I can’t talk about a lot of them because we want to reveal over the next year.
I can say the on foot encounters will be quality; we don’t want the AI to be
running around willy-nilly. We want it to feel neat. It’s a massive AI
challenge.

(EF) They have to deal with areas that are horizontal and
vertical, and a player that’s pretty complicated, a player who can do a lot of
different things.

There are some great
new procedural AI and animation systems out there now; how are you
incorporating or learning from them?

(JP) We have a behavioral tree within out AI and our AI
reacts the same way you or I react. They hear and see and make decisions based
off that and based off the stimulus that they’re acquiring.

(EF) They completely threw out the UT3 AI system and started
from scratch. And they looked at some of the AI engines that are on the
market…some are good, but we have unique challenges. As far as animation goes
this team has some of the best animators in the game business. They hand
animate everything.

The rocket pack
flying sequences look spectacular.

(JP) That’s Charles Anderson – he’s really good. He’s got a
really good team. The UFO hijack sequence, where you’re pulling up panels? That’s
animated by this guy Tim, who animated on
300 and did the rhino sequences.
We’ve got some really top-notch talent.

How does vertical
cover work when moving downward?

(JP) It depends on where you are in the game, what upgrades
you have, that sort of thing. But essentially, in the same way you saw up
scaling a wall vertically, you’ll be able to move down as well. There are fun
things in that; I see a guy coming up onto a piece of destructible cover, I’m
going to blow it up and watch him fall. There’s also a feeling of vertigo you
get that’s almost vomit-inducing.

How do you achieve
that? I think that vertigo is palpable in the demo we saw.

(JP) A lot of elbow grease, late nights and insanity. That’s
something we’ve been working on a huge amount; it’s a massive effort to get it
to feel right. So when you’re climbing up something, making sure they know the
sky from the ground, we’ve got indicators like shell casings falling, dust and
environmental effects, watching the bodies fall…there are a lot of things we’re
doing to let you know which direction you’re facing.

(EF) You’ve got to cue the brain. Definitely the first
attempts weren’t very successful.

You’re a year out
still — what’s left to do?

[Great laughter.]

(JP) For us, this is the baby phase as far as I’m concerned.
For what we want to do, we’re talking about some pretty big effort. It’s a lot
of work. A year to me does not sound like a long time.