Listening to Edward Stern, Senior Game Designer at Splash Damage, talk about Brink isn’t too different from listening to a political ad campaign. There are idealistic promises of fixing all the broken systems (within the realm of online first-person shooters), plans that will reach out to the whole nation (or all of gamerkind), and new technologies with fancy names and acronyms to execute these ideas.
“It’s kind of an interesting sell in a kind of way because we’re basically claiming that lots of thinking games are broken, which people are really not having a problem with so far,” Stern said, explaining how certain features attempt to make the game more accessible to experienced and inexperienced gamers. “With an online FPS, you can either have the best time or the worst time possible. So we wanted to take all of the good stuff and build on it and fix all of the stuff we haven’t been able to fix so far. And also make it available to everybody.”
Brink is set on an artificial continent called the Ark, and although the actual plot is still a little mysterious, the events occur after the “Ark Project” fails. The conflict involves two groups called the Resistance and the Security, and the player will be able to play through both teams’ versions of events. I needled Stern a bit to see if some great environmental message was going to emerge, but he assured me it was just a cool setting for a game and that Splash Damage has drawn on some real-life ecological projects in making the game (and that some of those projects are creepier than the fictional stuff they’ve invented).
The missions are based on two teams of eight, which Stern describes as the perfect balance for Brink. “It’s 8v8, which is the sweet spot for us. Teams with lower numbers just don't last that long. More of the players have the most the most of the time with that kind of busyness. Also, it means we can have smaller environments, much more richly textured, and much more richly detailed, which is just immersive.”
Brink’s SMART (Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) system, for example, attempts to simplify and streamline movement. While moving toward an obstacle, like a bunch of pipes you can either jump over or slide under, the player’s avatar just has to glance slightly up and will automatically jump over the pipes. If they’re looking down, they’ll slide under the pipes. SMART is designed with the goal of helping players move smoothly over varied terrain, without having to worry about getting hung up on a one-pixel-high wall, or what buttons to press.
In addition to stream-lining movement controls, Brink has a few other tricks to try to make the game accessible including a more assuaged style of storytelling called “instant deep concepts” that will get rid of those “let’s tell the history of this game’s story” cutscenes. You know the one’s that start “XX years ago –this terrible incident- happened and now gameworld X has YY conflict.” Instant deep concepts tries to tell the story through clues in the game environment and show the player what happened rather than telling them through an NPC monologue. At the same time, while Brink aims to immerse the player in its post-ecological-utopia world, it doesn’t shove the narrative down uninterested players’ throats. The player can finish the game with understanding little, but players who want to understand more of Ark’s conflict can really dig deeper into the game environment and get involved with the story as much as they’d like.
Another long-standing issue Splash Damage is attempting to fix is the disparity between online/offline, single-player/multi-player modes in some past games, an issue that can sometimes present different control schemes and overall game experiences between different modes. As Stern said, at Brink’s load screen, there won’t options for single-player or multi-player—just one option to play the game. The game runs from a single executable file. For example, if a player boots up Brink and sees a friend is playing a solo mission, the player can join their friend and make it a co-op mission. In joining, you’ll be replacing an AI-controlled NPC on your friend’s team. Splash Damage is experimenting with split-screens for local multiplayer.
During skirmishes, players will have a few objectives to choose from and complete for experience points that will bolster their character’s skills. The difference that sets this EXP system apart is that objectives are dynamically generated based on how the game is going.
“We brazenly, openly bribe players with XP,” Stern explained. “If you do the thing that earns you the most XP, you will be an awesome teammate and be doing the best thing for your team.”
I think it’s reasonable to expect great things, or at the very least a great amount of detail, from Brink’s environments thanks to a new, nifty technique called “virtual sparse texturing”. Virtual sparse texturing compresses GB-sized source textures into mere megabytes, allowing tons of data to be stored on disks, and for the data to be transferred easily across internet networks for multiplayer modes. This also frees up a lot of room for customer characterization, which Brink is packed to the brim with, although not quite enough to store male and female avatar models—players will only be able to choose from various builds of male avatars. While the various clothing, hairstyles, tattoos, etc. available for these avatars won’t have any effect on the gameplay, the character’s physical build will. So if you choose an avatar that’s beanpole wiry, he’ll be much faster than the beefed-up super-sized soldiers, but way more susceptible to damage and have less health.
Brink will certainly be a game of details and experiments with the shooter genre. Splash Damage has hired a lot of new talent for this project and Stern expressed a lot of confidence for the FPS experience Brink will bring in Spring 2010. “Splash Damage started as a mod team,” Stern reminisces, adding with a slightly maniacal laugh, “We get paid for this stuff now.”