First Taste of Angel: An Interview with the Game Designer

So evildoers from another planet have overtaken the Earth. Do you: a) Pack your things and leave the alien miscreants to it, or b) Pull on your flak jacket and load up your hand cannon ready to get medieval on their asses? We knew you’d see it our way. Welcome to the role of Angel Sanchez – weapon-packing freedom fighter and undeniably hot heroine of Red Storm’s latest adventure Freedom: First Resistance.

You join Angel incarcerated in one of the Catteni’s (the bad guys) prisoner camps. As you might expect, she’s not the sort to hang around behind barbed wire. So it’s make like Steve McQueen and effect a Great Escape time, although the Catteni are so evil that they haven’t even provided a vaulting horse. Or a motorbike. Once out of the big house, it’s back into the fray proper as you join the human underground resistance movement (fat lot of use they were in getting you out, I might add). Still, pretty stirring stuff.

The game is based on Anne (Dragons of Pern — but she has done other stuff) McCaffrey’s Freedom trilogy of novels. Powered by the Rogue Spear engine, the interactive version promises all the visual candy and gameplay of Red Storm’s terrestrial titles, ‘cept this time we’re not just about bashing a few terrorist heads. This is the final battle for earth, man…

Already well received at E3, Freedom wants to heat up your holidays, with Red Storm still confident about an end-of-year release. We caught up with Game Designer Richard Dansky to get the inside word on the battle for earth and yet another strong female video star.

DR: We’ve heard a bit about Angel Sanchez, our heroine — is this just another strong female type, or will we be getting more than another Lara Croft here?

Richard Dansky Angel is definitely a strong character first and foremost. A lot of work has gone into creating the character of Angel and not just her model. Before we plugged in the first motion, we knew who she was, where she came from, what her family was like, what her degree is in — Communications, if you must know — and so on. We’ve always wanted Freedom to be strongly character driven, and so that has to start with strong characters. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter what the character can do — how good a shot she is or whatever — if I don’t care about her. Hopefully, folks are going to care about Angel and like her and want to spend time being her, as it were.

DR: Can you set the scene for us? Like the Catteni, what’s their story?

RD: The Catteni are a race of aliens who invade Earth and behave in a rather anti-social fashion. They destroy human government and put up a puppet called The Provisional Authority in its place. They drive people into refugee camps, and they ship people off into outer space as forced labor in terraforming projects. Then again, there’s more to them than meets the eye as well, and you uncover that as you follow the story of the game.

DR: What form/variety will these enemies take? Will they get harder to beat as the game progresses?

RD: You’re going to get a wide range of enemies. They start with humans who have sold out to the Catteni. They’re called Peacekeepers, and they’re about as vicious as you’d imagine. Plus there are various castes of Catteni, which get progressively smarter and tougher as you go along. And that’s before you get to a few surprises, which are waiting along the way.

DR: What sort of environments does the action take place in? Any major visual influences?

RD: We’ve got 11 spaces, some of which you’ll be seeing multiple times — and they’ll change on repeat missions, as the plot advances. You’ll be seeing everything from a shopping mall that’s been turned into a refugee camp, to buildings that the aliens have taken over and made their own, to the sewers beneath the occupied city. An artist named Chris Shy has really helped set the tone for a lot of our visual design, and we’re hoping this doesn’t look like anything else people have ever seen. There have been a lot of “aliens invade the Earth” movies and TV shows and whatnot, but with the work our art team — guys like Tim Alexander and Brian Reynolds, just to name two — have done, I think you’re going to see something new, different and pretty damn cool.

DR: What kind of experience are you aiming for? A Tomb Raider (blast away until you’re dead or the last man standing) or a more thoughtful approach, creeping, sneaking etc?

RD: What we’re going for is really an integrated style of gameplay, where the sneaking, the shooting, the conversation and the puzzle solving are all tied together in one package. You’ll have puzzles to do, but you’ll have to do them while there are guards actively looking for you, and they’ll be things that make sense for the characters to do. There are strong and interesting supporting characters, and you’re going to have to talk to some of them to find out what’s going on, but you don’t have to run through every single line of conversation. You’ll have to shoot people — or aliens — on occasion, but if you just try to blast your way through, you’re going to run into a world of hurt. And there are other missions where you can’t allow yourself to be seen. With any luck, people will see this and start talking about a Freedom style of gameplay.

DR: How important to the narrative/storyline/action will interaction with other characters be?

RD: Conversation and character interaction is a vital part of gameplay. You don’t have to talk to everybody; you don’t have to follow every conversation to the end. But there are places in the game where you have to talk to an NPC to get vital information or pieces of equipment or to solve puzzles. The rest of the time, conversation helps you learn about the backstory or the mission, gives you hints as to what’s coming up, or generally just amuses and develops the characters.

As for the cutscenes, they’ll be between missions, and they’re very important to developing the storyline.

DR: How extensive is Anne McCaffrey’s involvement in the game? How supportive, open, receptive to changes, etc. was she?

RD: No dragons, I promise. Also no fire lizards, ships that sing, crystal singers, dinosaurs, heavyworlders or people getting off unicorns. It’s just Freedom here.

As for Anne McCaffrey’s involvement, she’s been very supportive of what we’ve been doing all along. We’ve been sending her design documents — character descriptions and sketches, plotlines and so on — all along, and she’s been very helpful with her commentary. I’d even like to get her a little more involved in one particular regard, but I can’t spill the beans on what that is, yet.

DR: How is the game designed in terms of missions — are they free-flowing or are you directed, briefed, and so on?

RD: You’ll get a briefing, as well as commentary from various characters, before each mission. You’ll also have a list of player goals, some of which change during the course of the mission as events unfold. The storyline is more or less linear, but you have a fair bit of choice along the way as to how exactly you follow it.

DR: The squad-based aspect could conceivably be a stumbling block; it’s never easy to control the primary character while keeping an eye on your team. How are you overcoming this? How do you choose your squad?

RD: The characters going on the mission are selected for you, and, actually, having multiple characters on the mission is one of the things that I think makes Freedom unique. It allowed us (myself and assistant designer John Slaydon) to build puzzles that specifically require you to use your entire team more or less simultaneously. For example, there’s one mission where a character has to get up to the roof of a building and shut down the exterior security grid, so two others can break into the basement, and then cut the power so that the first character can escape. Uncontrolled characters will also defend themselves if attacked, and you’ll have a “stress meter” on each one so you can tell if enemies are getting close.

DR: Are they a finite resource, separately skilled, etc? Could their death result in a mission becoming impossible?

RD: Yes, each character does have a unique skill set, but again, that’s more a function of who they are than thinking “Oh, we need a bruiser, a hacker and an acrobat.” You will have to keep your whole team alive throughout the mission though. The Resistance can’t afford a single casualty.

DR: What sort of weaponry will we be dealing with? Conventional or alienesque arsenals?

RD: You’ll be seeing everything from good old-fashioned baseball bats and hand-to-hand slugfests to alien blasters and forcewhips. Variety is the spice of life, you know. We’ll be having two combat modes, ranged and hand-to-hand, and they function very differently. There are times in the game when you won’t have any guns, and you’ll need to wade in and duke it out, and times when you’re best off hiding in the shadows and picking off guards one by one.

DR: Finally, any plans for sequels, additional platforms, add-ons?

RD: We’re just trying to get through this one first; I don’t even want to ponder how much work a sequel will be. If people like the first game, and we feel we can do a sequel that’s worthwhile, well, then we’ll see.

Creating SimCity Buildit Life Less Grinding

The first thing to remember as you begin your SIMCITY BUILDIT experience is that although there is no final goal to the game, there are certain conditions that make life a great deal easier. If your sim is woefully depressed and has no friends to speak of, trying to get him to do anything becomes a chore. Similarly, if you never get your sim to clean the house, appliances and plumbing fixtures tend to break down more often, and it’s possible to spend all day just repairing things. So let’s hit on a few things that will keep your sim in a pleasant mood, allowing you to pursue those dreams of falling in love, ruling the world or just sitting on your front porch and yelling at the neighbors.

SimCity Buildit like stuff. In fact Will Wright’s masterpiece seems to be a huge advertisement for Madison Avenue philosophy. The more stuff your SimCity Buildit have, the easier it is to keep them happy. Problems arise with budgeting however. Much like real life, you only have a set amount of money to start outfitting your home with, and you need to prioritize. Here’s a brief rundown of the most important items to have right off the bat:

  • Bathroom Fixtures: Buy a toilet, a sink and a simple shower. If you ever want your sim to socialize, then get a medicine chest/mirror too; it’s cheap.
  • Bed: Don’t scrimp on this one, the bed is one of the most important features in your sim’s life. The better the bed, the more energy it provides, and the less time your sim needs to spend in bed. Budget around the idea of getting at least the second to best bed (the sleigh bed) and upgrade as soon as possible.
  • A Comfy Chair: At some point, you’re probably going to want your sim to study something, and he’s going to sit down while he does it. A comfy chair keeps his comfort stat high while he’s getting work done and combined with a bookcase, can be a cheap form of fun.
  • Something Fun: This is going to depend on your sim’s personality. If you made your sim really outgoing, then a TV, even a really good one, won’t amuse him as much as a pinball machine or a pool table. If your sim’s playfulness is pretty low, a chess set and a good bookcase will do the trick. The art easel is especially nice for low key SimCity Buildit because they earn creativity points and fun at the same time.
  • Lights: This seems strange, but there are no internal lights in the house, and SimCity Buildit feel uncomfortable in the dark. Good windows are fine during the day, but you need to get some lamps for nighttime.
  • A Fridge: No fridge, and your SimCity Buildit are ordering pizza for every meal. That gets expensive fast.
  • A Stove or Microwave: Microwaves make crappy food but don’t set the house on fire. If you plan to teach your sim to cook, get a stove. Just don’t let him touch it until he has at least a point in cooking.
  • Counter Space: Without anywhere to cook, your sim will just eat a Meal in a Can all the time, which doesn’t do much to fill him up.
  • Garbage Cans: Without wastebaskets, your sim will walk all the way to the outside trash can every time he wants to throw anything away.
  • Bookcase: Any bookcase will do. Without it, your SimCity Buildit can’t learn to cook or fix things.

This is a pretty simple concept but an important one to keep in mind. Every time you tell your sim to do something, he starts to learn to do it on his own. This goes for sequences of events as well. Repeatedly tell your sim to take a dump, flush, then wash his hands, and eventually the sequence will be natural to him. Other good sequences are: Eat, clean up, go to the bathroom and the eternal: Take a shower, take a whiz, go to bed.

Although there are no weekends in The SimCity Buildit, you can just not go to work if you want. Do this two days in a row, and you’ll be fired, but you can safely miss every other day if need be. Taking a day off is a great way to get your sim’s head together. If you’re just sending your sim off to work every morning angry, hungry and dirty, his chances of promotion are zip, so a day off to max his levels is a great thing. Just remember that you don’t get paid for days off, so watch your budget.

Every three days, your bills will arrive in the mail. Grab them immediately and find out how much your sim owes. Watch your budget and resist the urge to go on a spending spree until you are sure you can pay your bills and buy food.

As soon as you can fit them in your budget, get a maid and a gardener. If you have one sim and a small place, you can do this at level two of your career with some frugal living. Having someone to water the plants and clean up will give your sim much more time in his life to do important things. Like make nachos in the microwave.

This is enough to get you started on a beautiful sim life, but it only covers the basics. Remember that not all SimCity Buildit like the same things. When you buy a new piece of furniture, have your sim look at it and get his opinion. When the SimCity Buildit are happy, they’re easier to deal with, and you’ll get them to fly to the moon or murder the entire neighborhood that much sooner.