Homefront: 'If the big developers won't take risks, it's up to us to break the mould'
25th Feb 2011 | 16:26
Next month, Homefront leaps out of cover - and into one of gaming's fiercest battlegrounds.
THQ is aiming to capture a rare slice of the gigantic FPS sector - with a marketing campaign that focuses on its title's striking mix of napalm with narrative; histrionics with history.
But in a crowded release period stuffed with the likes of Bulletstorm, Killzone 3 and Crysis 2, can Homefront really offer enough innovation and freshness to stand out?
Developer Kaos certainly thinks so. Homefront pits you as a member of an often desperate resistance force, fighting the United Korean occupation of the United States in 2027. The plot alone is sure to ruffle a few feathers. Are you listening, Fox News?
But the game's contentious scenario isn't its only attention-seeking weapon. Kaos has deliberately dropped heartless carnage into homespun Americana - littering US suburban locales with scenes of torture and despair.
This unsettlingly domiciliary juxtaposition is sprinkled with some stomach-churning, arresting set pieces, including gunned down parents and mass civilian graves. Kirby's Epic Yarn it ain't.
For all the unique gloomy theatre, however, much of Homefront's core gameplay still borrows from the best in the FPS field - which is perhaps why Kaos has thrown another unexpected characteristic into the mix: a restrained bodycount.
We caught up with lead level designer Rex Dickson to ask why Kaos has toned down the kill tallies in favour of drama - and whether Homefront really has what it takes to find the audience its makers passionately believe it deserves...
You've spoken about "massacre fatigue" in the past - the jaded feeling from countless kills in other games. You're trying to avoid it in Homefront, which has contributed to your surprise '15' BBFC rating in the UK. Are you confident this won't be a turn-off for players who are used to mowing down countless enemies?
The way to think about the "massacre fatigue" problem is not so much that we've set out to solve it completely in this game - because obviously if you play through a 30 minute level and get only five or six kills that isn't going to be satisfying and I doubt you could sell that to the mass market.
The challenge for us was to solve that problem without breaking the formula of what an FPS is. The way we solve it isn't by reducing firefights to long engagements where you can't see where the enemy . Instead, every two or three minutes we break up core combat with a moment, be it a story moment, a drama moment, spectacle moment or vista moment.
Right at the point where you're starting to think "oh God, another wave?", it stops and you get a moment. We never want you in core combat for too long before we move you to the next big thing.
You have areas where there is no shooting whatsoever...
We have encounters. They're story-heavy moments where you can walk around, talk to characters; the environmental storytelling is played up in those moments and they're sprinkled around the whole game.
Do you think the relentless struggle one faces in FPS games is a natural enemy of story?
I think you can treat the two as separate. I do think there have been some pretty good stories in the FPS space over the years - Half-Life 2 jumps to mind as being at the top of that list. It's really about making smart decisions about what kind of story you want to tell.
When you're playing a Call of Duty game, they're going for the Michael Bay Hollywood model. Everything's dialled up to 11 all the time. Whereas you take Half-Life 2, and its very subtle, they don't mind turning the pace down.
The latest Call of Duty has a story about the Cold War which I though was interesting and engaging. Yes, it was a big spy movie with implausible action sets, but it was interesting. To me [the plot] was more cohesive than the previous versions.
What makes Homefront unique in our minds is that it's telling a story that hasn't really been told before to this degree. The inspiration is that Red Dawn, freedom fighter approach where you're in an occupied country and you're fighting as a civilian alongside other civilians.
You mention Red Dawn, which, along with Apocalypse Now, was written by John Milius. He's penned much of Homefront. How did that change the development process?
I love Apocalypse Now, it's one of my favourite movies and I've seen Red Dawn a million times. John is a shotgun of ideas. The design side of it is listening to what he says and picking the gems out of the shotgun barrage.
Working with him has been great. Having the guy who worked on Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn adds a lot of credibility, especially with Kaos Studios because we don't have that pedigree with narrative storytelling. A lot of people will ask what we've done other than [previous Kaos FPS] Frontlines, which wasn't a narrative game and how much faith they should have. Without John it would be difficult to convince people that we are a studio capable of narrative expression.
Usually in any shooter, things are left in all-too-convenient places - whether health, guns or cover. Have you striven to avoid that?
Absolutely. It's interesting because a lot of games out there will pick and choose [between reality and gift-giving]. Two games that come to mind are Mass Effect and Gears of War. In those two, you walk into a combat space and everything is perfectly aligned on the grid, it's laid out, you can see where the cover layout is. It doesn't necessarily have to work as a real space if it works as a gameplay space.
However, in Uncharted it's hard to tell the difference between set and the gameplay. They put so much attention into making sure the sets don't look like a game environment, almost like a movie. We drifted more in that direction and are focused on realising the environmental narrative, the "familiar turned alien" thing, we don't want it to look like a game environment, - we want it to look like a real place.
Did you look to Uncharted for much influence?
Very much so. There's a key difference between Homefront and Uncharted in that we don't use cut-scenes as much - they seem to be cutting to them all the time, but you sort of accept it because it is a very cinematic game.
Between them and BioWare you're looking at the top of the line in terms of writing for games. We looked at them for how they did dialogue, how characters came across - characters are very distinct and memorable after their game.
In Homefront, gameplay is based on a civilian squad - and we wanted each of those characters to be memorable in their own separate ways. We drew a lot of inspiration from Naughty Dog and Uncharted that way.
FPS games usually have a main character who could be described as a "meathead". How difficult was it to resist the temptation to employ that guy?
Not difficult. Very early on we decided on the Gordon Freeman model - where we wouldn't give the player a voice and allow them to project their own persona on to the character. The way we counter-balanced that was that we sort of make our supporting squad characters diametric opposites.
Connor represents that Duke Nukem, ball to the wall, "rah rah" America character - but he's balanced out by other characters that are not as extreme as he is and are more interested in restoring society than killing the Koreans.
Those different motivations clash over the course of the game. Although these characters are on the same side, they're arguing constantly because they all have different motivations, theories on how the battle should be fought and what costs they should be paying to achieve their goals.
We do have a few situations in the game where there are some morally grey decisions for the player to make - but we don't force any one decision on the player and allow the for you to decide how you would act in that situation.
How much does moral decision-making come into it?
We don't do the branching paths with different outcomes like you would find in Mass Effect, Fallout or Oblivion. In Homefront, the squad around you have choices and argue which is right or not. The player gets to make this mental decision about what they would have done. Most of those choices are made by the squad over the course of the game, but you're encouraged to project yourself into it and ask yourself what you would have done.
How pretty is Homefront - and does it stack up to other games on the market in terms of visuals?
One thing I will say about the game is the "familiar turns alien" sets such as the mall, the high schools that are now occupied and the depiction of the fall of America and democracy is very unsettling for a lot of people.
Seeing a High School that looks like where you went to school all decrepit and burned out - as well as children toys thrown about in empty back yards - is reminds people of "home".
In different games "pretty" means different things. In Gears, it means everything is shimmering. In our game it's about the realisation of classic Americana that has collapsed and been twisted by a foreign occupation. In that regard I think we've done an excellent job.
You've mentioned that in-game product placement is important to Homefront. Can you elaborate on that?
First of all I should dispel a rumour that is pretty wild. We are not actually getting paid to put these brands into the game. This is us going to [brands]. They ask us what our game is about, and we say, "Korea invading the US." They say, "Not interested" [laughs].
We've been rejected by so many companies that we've almost abandoned the idea due to the lack of interest. But as soon as the press hit and we started winning E3 awards people started to get interested. I can promise that every single person that was asked the question if seeing those real world brands in the game added to the experience said it did.
It just adds familiarity. You look at Modern Warfare 2 with Burger Town. The fact that it wasn't McDonalds or Burger King takes away from the game. If it had been a real world place, it registers in a different way with the player.
My only regret with that whole thing is that we weren't able to convince more companies to get in on it. We have a mix of brands that we came up with, the small Mom and Pop stuff contrasted with bigger names but I kind of wish we could have got enough people interested that we could have done a corporate brand for everything in the game.
Maybe you can in Homefront 2...
Maybe, if we're successful.
Releasing this game during a time when the US debt is where it is - the images of gutted restaurants and dilapidated retail giants. Do you think that may play into gamers' current real world fears?
There's no question and that's our goal. When people ask why this is set in America and not somewhere else, we say that we're trying to come up with an idea and fiction that preys upon a paranoia.
That all ties into American culture and how we think we're untouchable. We're elitists: "Nobody can touch us, nobody can invade us, we've got a better military, more guns and money". We're taking that Zeitgeist and preying on it. We're asking, "What if this did happen?"
Perhaps more than any other culture, Americans are the least prepared and least equipped to deal with something like this because we're very much a culture of convenience.
We've led this life for so long that we're completely unprepared for something like this to happen. We as Kaos are trying to grab that feeling and use it in the game to make people feel unsettled and uncomfortable. That's one of the main vibes of the game.
Do you have any fear that forcing the player to be uncomfortable in a 'real world' sense might backfire?
For me personally, no. As a game designer and someone who plays games I really want some people to start pushing boundaries. Kaos could have made another modern combat game in the Middle East, or an armoured fighter in space versus aliens but does the market really need any more of that?
If you want to break the mould of what everyone else is doing there is going to be a certain amount of risk involved. Maybe that's not OK for people like Bungie, Microsoft and Sony but for us, the little guy - and THQ as the 'third' publisher - we have to take these risks and break out.
If the big guys aren't going to take the risks they're going to just keep making the same game over and over with each iteration then It's up to the little guys to make these games and try and break the mould.
There's no fear really, I think I'd be more afraid if we making another Halo game or another desert combat game. The fact that we're offering something unique and different removes the fear - that's what we should be doing.
With that in mind, can you promise that if Homefront becomes as big as Call of Duty it won't slowly descend into becoming a generic FPS by Homefront 3 or 5?
Oh absolutely. When you launch a new IP we could have gone full one insurgency with this game and rally made it dark. But you have to take steps towards a goal, otherwise we run the risk of alienating the mass market if we jump to far into it.
We need to stay on the formula while introducing our own unique concepts into the game. If people start accepting that and buying it, we come into Homefront 2 or 3 with all this value. We can say to someone like [THQ core games VP] Danny Bilson in corporate: "We tried all these new ideas, this many million people bought it, let's push it even further."
I can tell you unequivocally that the people that work here have a vision of where we want the franchise to go. There was an internal conversation recently about the difference between an extremist, almost terrorist style insurgence and what we would call a classic 'freedom fighter'.
The difference between a hero and the terrorist is actually very grey and blurry. That is something that we're definitely interested in exploring in the next game.