Titanfall was huge, but perhaps not quite as huge as some people expected. But still huge.
Nonetheless, it feels like a lot is riding on its soon-to-be released sequel (now also hitting the PlayStation 4). After an initial strong showing on stage, Titanfall 2 went on to receive a less enthusiastic reception after its first tech test (don’t call it a beta) with the general public. This has since improved, though, and Titanfall 2 is again looking like a game we’re very much looking forward to sinking our teeth into the full meat of.
We recently had a chance to sit down for a chat with Joel Emslie (Art Director) and Dusty Welch (Chief Operating Officer) about where Titanfall maybe fell down, and how its sequel is aiming to fill the gaps and be an overall better experience for players of all kinds.
Titanfall was considered to be an excellent game, but a lot of people dropped off quite quickly. What are your thoughts as to why?
Joel Emslie: The original Titanfall was a debut title for the team – we had come off of doing Call of Duty and had started a brand new company. We went in to develop the game and it was extremely difficult to balance it – there were a lot of new mechanics that didn't really have a home yet. Titanfall was very experimental to a point that, well… we kind of had it down but it wasn’t quite calibrated properly – not like it is in Titanfall 2 – and being calibrated properly, balanced, that’s when things start having meaning, having depth.
We’ve changed the way that we unlock things and how things level up in Titanfall 2. I think that's a reason – well, I played the tech test for four hours straight and I simply couldn't stop myself and, for me, that's an indication that we're doing something right; as opposed to the original which is an amazing first game, but when you look at Titanfall 2 there is evolution there. The depth is spot on to the point where it will have much, much longer legs than our first game did.
Dusty Welch: First of all, I think we would be remiss if we said we weren't excited about what Titanfall did. It was a brand new title from a brand new studio, coming off this string of all these CoDs and trying to come up with something unique. The first Titanfall was actually very successful and I heard from EA that it's the number one new IP that they've ever launched, so you can't go wrong with that. It was a very successful title.
The team found the fun in the juxtaposition between the small pilots and the titan robots, and all of these things such as wall running to back it up. What we found was that Titanfall didn't have the depth to maintain its legs, whereas Titanfall 2 does. Including its own bespoke singleplayer campaign.
Joel: We had around ten million unique users in Titanfall, so even we were surprised. It was never actually dead. Even more surprising was that, when we went forward with the tech test, we discovered this massive Titanfall community that we didn't know existed, and they were extremely passionate about the mechanics and the things that we've changed in the new game – which is fantastic, because the purpose of a tech test is to listen to the community and be able to pivot on things and fix them as fast as we can.
You’ve already mentioned it a few times, but what were your main takeaways from the beta?
Dusty: Just to clarify: it was a tech test, not a beta. This really was about testing the back end – we moved away from the structure of the first Titanfall and are now using Multiplay as the host, so a real tech test was critical. In this sense, it was extremely successful. We had twelve major issues – I can't recall them from the top of my head, sorry – that we found and fixed. Those would have been large problems at launch had we not done the test. So that was great.
We were also able to listen to the audience and hear things about the game. Was the movement slow? Should we change and tweak things here and there? But primarily it was about ironing out technological issues.
Joel: One of the positive takeaways was that, well, we’re not a massive team – we're very tight and nimble and every single person is top notch, so when there's good, constructive feedback from the community, having a team like this gives us the ability to pivot within a week and have the changes ready the following weekend. Larger teams, they take longer.
I think that the community was really loud in part because they expected it to take us months to make these changes to the game, but that's not the case. We’re always watching the game in real time and reacting to player feedback, and it served its purpose. We stress-tested the system. And we made changes that will result in it being a better game come launch day.
Dusty: And the community was very favourable on the second weekend after the first wave of tweaks. And we're not done.
Joel: Our ears are always open to the community, we're always listening. I probably shouldn’t say this for fear of bringing out the trolls, but the crew really is always reading all of that feedback. Obsessively. And they try to figure out ways to make it work.
How do you feel about adding a single player campaign this time around? Has this added any stress to the project?
Joel: When Respawn was first started, it was a very, very challenging time. We were in a two-year lawsuit with our previous publisher; it was not easy to develop a brand new game and establish a new company at the same time. Think about launching a brand new IP that nobody has ever heard of before and having some level of success. It’s crazy!
We wanted to put single player in the original game, but simply couldn't do it. Half of the team members have single player pedigrees – we love paced, crafted single player storytelling; and finally, the campaign in Titanfall 2 is the single player I’ve been waiting years in my career to make.
In fact, this campaign is probably why I do what I do. It's got everything I love in it: it harks back to Half-Life, it harks back to Blaster Master on the NES. It's only the tip of the iceberg but, level to level you're doing something completely different and there's so much personality and it's this absolutely exotic, huge environment you’re thrown into.
And we're using all of those insane mechanics from the original Titanfall in a solo game space and, you know: for parts of it, you're not having to shoot things, but you're sure as hell having to move quickly and manoeuvre and take advantage of your skill, so you're fighting to stay alive or moving – wall-running, double jumping – and you're working with this really big mech.
We love our single player. Being able to deliver a single player Titanfall experience is a dream come true.
What have been some of your inspirations, gaming related or otherwise?
Joel: It's a mixed bag of – actually, I think what makes Titanfall special isn't that it's doing any one thing that nobody has seen before, but rather the way in which we're mixing everything up is what makes it unique. So, I think back to Vanquish – I think there's a mechanic in that game where you slide on your knees; our animators were inspired by that. Players in multiplayer will slide around the corner and shoot me in the face as they zoom by – it feels like somebody should be playing a guitar riff while it's happening.
We have roots in Macross and Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, as well as games such as Blaster Master and Mega Man. So many things are going into the stew that is Titanfall 2. Honestly, it's all about how you put the ingredients together – the same ingredients could make a really shitty stew if they're not properly balanced.
Having a proper campaign now, do you feel you have better training wheels for players who might be nervous about online play?
Dusty: Personally, I'm about seventy percent through the campaign. I’m a fan of single-player games, and I wanted to wait until the game was at least pretty damn close to being finished before diving in.
What I keep on telling the team is that I am now – finally! – properly understanding some of the multiplayer mechanics, because they're being introduced to me. They’re almost being spoon fed to me, but in a logical manner. I can better comprehend the relationship between my titan and pilot, for example. And I can figure out different mechanics, weapons, loadouts – how they work in conjunction with the titan and I can translate all of this to multiplayer and – honest to God – I’m a far better competitive player now.
It's a really nice ramp and learning curve.
Joel: The unique thing about your single-player mech is that he's the first titan ever to be developed by the militia itself. So if you're thinking about fiction behind your Titan, it's there. The great thing is that you can synthases other titans and their loadouts based on his experiences with them. So the moment you kill a boss character – and these are actually derivative from what you might find in multiplayer – you learn its loadout, and then synthesise it into your character.
Also, the matchmaking system is way better this time too.
Dusty: The most extraordinary thing about the franchise is the fluidity. It's kind of new for everybody. It's not the easiest concept, especially for a solo player, but I'm finding that the campaign is really helping me to master the difficulties and that fast, frenetic movement of combat.
You mentioned personality earlier – which character has the most of it? Jack Cooper or the titan, BT-7274?
Joel: I think that Jack Cooper – well, that character is your embodiment. The idea is to give him enough personality that when he talks to BT, there's at least something there, but in terms of greater personality, BT is this giant that walks around with you and he needs to emote. We spent seven months designing this character and making sure that his optics emoted the right way and we added extra joints to his legs so that he could bend down to you. He moves much more elaborately than the mechs in the multiplayer.
Single-player needs a more detailed titan to drive the story. BT definitely has the largest personality. It's up to players to be the personality of Jack.
Dusty: I enjoy seeing how BT adapts, even changes his personality over the course of this eight to ten hour single-player campaign.
Joel: When you first meet him, he’s lost his pilot and there's a sadness to him at the very beginning. The opening is basically that you've lost everything and you're behind enemy lines and this titan is this super hardcore, elite battle chassis with a personality and it has to settle for you: someone who’s not even not a pilot. You're just a rifleman who wants to be a pilot. And you're basically handed this ultimate weapon that has a personality and you're having to prove yourself to that character over the course of the story.
And then the mechanic where you converse with BT is there to help describe and propel the story. The story is always told on the move – we really veer away from the idea that you should be locked into a cutscene where you have no choice but to watch this stuff. So, the mechanic of talking with him grew from that idea. Players can take it or leave it. If you don't want to talk to BT then you can just focus on running through the environment. But we've done things in the game to give you the opportunity to have more story if you'd like it.
So… balancing. Just how troublesome a job is it?
Joel: The balance of the titans walks a fine line. It was incredibly difficult to balance just two or three titans in the first game, let alone six or more completely different titans. The thing that used to happen in Titanfall, one that we've been working on – which is why we tried removing the timer, before settling on modifying it – is balancing how many titans were one side and the other.
With the old mechanic that we had, you would see a group of really good players and they would be all titans and there was no way for the other team to make a comeback. We've been working really hard to balance that out.
The titans themselves, it's like they're a different game – they use health packs and batteries and they manoeuvre differently; they fight in a style that feels a bit more like classic Halo. There's also visual language that communicates how you should attack them. It's almost like Street Fighter where every titan has a counter to the next. We've still only shown a very small amount of our multiplayer – the tech tests only scratched the surface.
To me, it really comes down to pairing the pilot and titan. There’s a duality there that – well, a tactical duality. There's a trick to it and I’m really curious to see how the community uses it, because the sky's the limit.
Dusty: In tech test we learned that we needed to listen and make tweaks. In the second weekend we returned a modified timer, so that all players could earn a titan. We saw far higher number of finished and fair matches from the data that came out of week two. Things like the data on the kills and the time to death were all moving in positive directions, and we're not quite done yet.
Joel: We took risks on mechanics and we did that in an environment of only hundreds of people – the dev team, basically. But there's nothing comparable to the potential for something like the tech test to reach millions, and get the feedback from that community.
We have heat maps, so we can actually see where most of the combat took place. So do we want to modify the environment a little to spread out the combat and not have it all meet at this one place that is seeing all of it? Maybe, and we can. It’s a tough job, but we’re getting there.
Titanfall 2 is due out October 28th on PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One