We're often asked to let some of our people talk about what it's like to develop a game at BI. So, stepping aside from our usual PR activities for a moment, 'Report In!' gives you a more personal perspective on our team, and a more detailed look at the way we go about our work.
Our next victim is Bohemia Interactive Veteran, Joris-Jan van 't Land, who talks about the upcoming update - bundled along for free with Arma 2: Private Military Company - the 'Multiplayer Armory', and discusses procedural gameplay more generally.
Tell the people a little about yourself. What's your role? How long have you been with BIS? Which games have you contributed on and which is your favourite BIS game or mission?
Joris: I've been with BIS for a long time now; the first thing I remember working on was a multiplayer scenario for the North-American release of Operation Flashpoint back in 2001. Since then, I've worked in various branches of the company on projects like VBS1, Arma 1 & 2 and Operation Arrowhead. My employment wasn't continuously full-time, as I returned to my homecountry, Holland, to complete a Bachelor's degree in Information and Communication Technology.
My favourite BIS title would still have to be the original Operation Flashpoint, simply because it was a radical change to what was available back then and because it kick-started my career with the company. The single mission "Ambush" (also featured in the demo) demonstrated perfectly what was so great about the game. It was possible to tackle the objectives in many different ways and there was a real war going on around you - a second squad was actually fighting for control of a nearby town. As opposed to just hearing ambient audio files, you could equip your binoculars and check up on their progress.
And can you give us a random fact about yourself?
Joris: One of the houses in Arma 2 contains an old framed photo of my dad's service in the Dutch armed forces.
Joris: The Multiplayer Armory is the next evolution of the Armory concept introduced in Arma 2. The game mode allows players to view and try out all equipment available in the game. As the name implies, this latest version is multiplayer compatible, and the added dimension instantly adds a whole lot more fun and replayability to the experience.
Two main modes exist in the Multiplayer Armory; namely, ARMEX and Operation. ARMEX is a military expo showcasing all our military equipment, but - unlike a real expo - you're free to use anything you see. Operation is a series of dynamic and procedural challenges; essentially, challenges that are different every time, based upon different factors.
So, what kind of new gameplay experiences will The Multiplayer Armory bring about?
Joris: Well, procedural gameplay is a key component for the experience - so it's tough to say exactly what kind of gameplay will arise! An Operation's content, location and enemies depend upon the equipment selected by the players. Want to try an Apache Death Match? Go for it! Would you rather raid an enemy camp using a mix of rifles and launchers? Just select the items you want and you're good to go.
Tell us a little about the muliplayer compatibility - how many people can get together and fire up the Multiplayer Armory?
Joris: Early on in the concept phase for this project we decided on a maximum of eight players, even though our engine allows for many more players in multiplayer generally. The Multiplayer Armory is a complex system and, by limiting the amount of players, we are better able to provide a smooth experience from a technical point of view. Similarly, on the design side, we limited the amount of players to prevent complete chaos and anarchy. It will be easier for a smaller team of players to keep an overview of what is going on and to cooperate successfully.
Joris: Procedural gameplay does not exist in its final form when you launch the game. It is generated as you play based on rules, logic and algorithms, as opposed to having been precisely defined by a designer.
In a more linear game you may play a mission which sees you rescuing the crew of a downed helicopter. Aside from some AI behavior, the mission set-up and the way it plays out is very similar every time. By turning the same scenario into procedural gameplay, we can implement a system which reacts to any helicopter in the game crashing. If the player is near the crash site he is dynamically presented with a task to check out the wreckage and rescue any survivors.
This procedural version can be different every time as many variables come into play: the crash site location, the type of helicopter, the crew surviving or not, enemy presence and more. It should also be pointed out that procedural content generation is not new and has been implemented for many other parts of game development (terrain, animation, music, etc.) since the beginnings of our industry.
What kind of benefits or challenges can procedural gameplay bring to developers and players alike?
Joris: For players, procedural gameplay offers up almost infinite replayability and longevity. Since player agency (actions within and influences upon the game world) is input for the procedural systems, it will be different in every session and for every player. It's truly 'non-deterministic' - almost possible to fully predict what will happen - and this can lead to some highly entertaining situations. Occasionally, even having designed the scenario myself, it manages to surprise me! The quality assurance team, on the other hand, doesn't much like this unpredictable side of it!
Taking it a step further, the community can also benefit. We've sought to develop a system that can generate gameplay for content that does not yet 'exist', such as community add-ons. The amazing thing is that players can drop custom vehicles, weapons and characters into their game and it can and will be used procedurally without specifically setting up a scenario for it.
For developers, this technology can potentially generate a lot of gameplay automatically, which they otherwise would have to do by hand. This is especially convenient for smaller development teams and large-scale games. However, procedural gameplay is very difficult to properly implement and in many cases the creation and configuration of procedural systems will be more time-consuming than doing the work manually. For example, it can't generate the main campaign narrative at the moment, but it is great for secondary objectives. Ultimately, though, I'm a big advocate of this very powerful technology.
Joris: Good examples of BIS procedural gameplay were first introduced on a large scale in Arma 2, with the singleplayer version of the Armory being the obvious thing to mention. Several modules also promoted this type of gameplay, or facilitated it, namely the Secondary Operations (SecOps), Ambient Combat, ALICE and SILVIE modules. The first of those would constantly scan the state of the game, world, player and AI units and generate side-tasks based on it. Taking the task to assault and secure an enemy position as example, the module could either work with an existing enemy position or dynamically create one in the world.
Of course, other developers also use procedural gameplay in one way or another, but they don't always share the way they have developed or designed their game. From playing other large-scale games, such as Grand Theft Auto 4, Red Dead Redemption, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Fallout 3, Just Cause 2 and Borderlands, they seem to use similar techniques. On the other hand, I've heard about several big-budget titles trying to do manual generation of gameplay as much as possible, as it allows for more control and fine-tuning. It would be interesting for these developers to get together and discuss the possible future of procedural gameplay.
You have an undergraduate degree in Information and Communication Technology - do you think gaining this kind of qualification helps to enter the games industry?
Joris: For me personally, I was already in the games industry when I started this degree, which was a more general computer science degree and not specifically geared towards games. Admittedly, I did morph my study into being games-related whenever it was even slightly possible! I definitely think it can help prospective game developers, because it prepares you for things like working in a team, communicating professionally, managing projects, problem-solving and more supporting skills.
I think the best advice for an aspiring games developer still is to create or work on a game mod or add-on and to complete it. That last part is essential, because it will demonstrate to potential employers that you have gone through a project from beginning to end. You will also have something real to show, other than just a collection of ideas and documents.
Arma 2 has a thriving community, what stands out for you?
Joris: As developers, it is truly inspiring for us to see people getting creative with the technology and tools we provide. Often, the community will create something we never even imagined. I love seeing them pushing the boundaries of the engine and coming up with interesting and creative ways of using - and sometimes abusing - the existing framework. Recently, it has been the machinema aspect which intrigues me most. The game lends itself for directing some awesome trailers, demo videos, short stories and after-action reports and many are a lot of fun to watch.
Takistan has invaded Bohemia, bringing with them a blanket ban on all games. What game do you risk your life to buy on the black market?
Joris: I would probably want to escape the hardships of such setting and retreat into the immersive world of The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind. The massive open world with virtually endless quests and locations are great to explore for hours and hours.