Interviews// Zipper Interactive: Phil Knowles

Posted 22 Jan 2010 17:00 by
It was almost like being at school again. Albeit, a school playing rave music in the background while an American actor dressed as a commando addresses the gaggle of worldwide press. Oh, and beer. Otherwise, it was hot dinners, set timetables and being herded from one area to another on a regular basis.

I didn't mind though, because this was a special Sony showcase of MAG, in which journalists from the UK, Europe and even America were invited to participate in a huge online tournament, held in a University on Baker Street. You might have seen updates of the kind on Twitter Wednesday (#MAG256) ? 128 writers simultaneously signing a digital deathwish, as we took on 128 members of Zipper Interactive staff overseas in a 256-player battle royale.

For those who hadn't tried the Beta (i.e. me), playing the game felt like Killzone 2 crossed with elements of Black, and it was pretty fun for a few rounds if you ask me. Customising your foot soldier in different gear meant you could change your strategy upon respawn ? one minute you're mowing people down with an assault rifle, then if you get killed you could swap to an equipment kit that included a rocket launcher and repair kit. These 'Loadouts' were the key to maintaining a good offensive-defensive position.

Communication is absolutely crucial in MAG ? if you don't have a microphone, it's best you don't play at all. Unfortunately, we didn't have a choice as the voice chat facility wasn't working for one reason or another. It meant our men kept dying at the hands of Zipper staff and nobody else knew how to efficiently revive anyone, meaning a painful respawn all the way back to the start of the map (or a convenient drop-off point).

Inbetween sessions, I caught up with the game's art director, Phil Knowles, to talk about MAG's approach to design, the studio's history with network games and the future of the company. We ended up beating Zipper, by the way.

SPOnG: The MAG Beta has been out for European and American players for a while and you've managed to give it a good stress test. As it's Sony's first large-scale networked game of this kind on the PlayStation Network, were there any lessons you learned throughout the Beta process?

Phil Knowles: Well, it's our first game on that large a scale too, so yeah, we definitely learned a lot from the Beta feedback. A lot of the stuff we learned concerned the networking ? which pretty much performed as we expected, but with a game of this size and the amount of downloading and streaming going on, there were challenges as to how to make it more efficient with minimal hiccups.

SPOnG: As the Art Director for the game, what were the processes you took to make sure players knew who each other were and things weren't too confusing on screen? With a game of MAG's scale, it must have been a considerable design challenge.

Phil Knowles: Our first big task was getting as much content as we possibly could into these really big environments. A lot of things are streamed to make sure we keep that high fidelity around the player, and we also have customisation options so you can trick out your character. The ability to style each player in a specific way was a big part of our solution to making sure teams could see one another in the madness.

The biggest challenge though, was just to make sure we had and maintained the art fidelity at that huge scale that we wanted to achieve. Working on the PS3, we developed a lot of ways to stream enough information and handle enough processors at the same time. So in achieving that, we were able to create environments and include customisation options that won't make the player feel lost or apart from his team.

SPOnG: Zipper Interactive is also the creator of the SOCOM series. How has your experience working on those games helped in MAG's development, and were there any major differences in your design approach?

Phil Knowles: There was a lot that we took from our experience in working on SOCOM. I've been on all of those projects, and many people who created that series still work at Zipper, so we have a rich knowledge of this sort of design that predates MAG. So we took the team's experience in creating these types of environments, play modes, stats crunching and weapon balancing and so on, and scaled it right up.

But we didn't simply do SOCOM all over again. When you broaden the scale of something like that, you've got to make sure that the core gameplay mechanic ? getting tactical, killing guys all around you ? is still fun. Once we overcame that hurdle, we layered new elements on top of that to allow more and more people to come together without causing chaos. That's really where the Command structure comes in, we added that so people could co-ordinate larger groups.
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