At a recent London press event for SEGA's Aliens: Colonial Marines we sat down for a chin-wag with Gearbox Software senior producer Brian Burleson to discuss, amongst other things, delays, the Wii U and not treating players like noobs.
Q: Apologies for starting on a negative note, but the shifted release date... how confident are you that this one will stick?
Brian Burleson: Well, we never announced a specific date before...
Q: Okay, but there was a general sense from you guys that it was coming this year.
BB: It's actually never been delayed. The trick is with development, and this is always of those weird things... Actual production of the game started not so long ago. It was announced way before it should have been, because work had never started on it. You do pre-production, you do some research, you get all this stuff together – and everyone's too excited, the cat's out of the bag too soon.
As production goes through it different courses, you go through these phases. In pre-production you want to understand what the game is supposed to be, then you start production to make the game what you thought it should be. Then you re-evaluate what you're doing – it's all part of the process. Then at a certain part of the process you say, 'Ok, when are we going to ship?' And so when people get really excited, and they really want it now, that's when you get mixed messaging. But you know, we never talked about a date until just now. We've come to this point where we're confident that we can do this at this timeframe, at the quality this game needs to be at. When you sit down and do the maths and figure out that's what this is going to be... that [date] is what comes up. Now, if that date changes we can say it slips. And it better be for a damn good reason... like economic collapse in Europe, or something. [Note, Brian and I were talking about this just before the interview].
Q: Well we're dealing with the horrors of Aliens now, not the horrors just down the road! This is a license people clearly care about and they're excited to see what you guys do... but do you think there's a limit as to how long people will wait? Is that something you're conscious of?
BB: I think it's important to set expectations right. The expectations for this game are huge, and people have been waiting for an amazing Aliens game forever, really. I can't remember the last true Aliens game I remember as being really good – other than the DS game [Infestation], that was great. You kinda have to think: the film came out 25 years ago, and they're making another movie in this franchise now! How long did people wait for that?
I don't think it's about waiting, it's about anticipation. Everyone really wants this thing to happen. Ridley Scott's doing his part, for sure, and that's amazing. And we're doing it too. We all want it, when you work on a game, you want to play the game – you want to see the final product, experience it how you envisioned it. And that's really fun. There's so much expectation, you want to make sure it's done right, and we're keen on doing that.
Q: The game has become strangely synonymous with Wii-U. How do you guys feel about that, to have that kind of association?
BB: It's kind of interesting, because we started work on the Wii-U stuff a long time ago. And that was really fun, because you don't get that opportunity.... it comes how many times? It's rare. So it's fun to start stuff that early, and it's helped a lot in development, for sure. It's the thing. You're going to have a lot of fun with it, interesting controls and all that stuff. But you'll have to wait till Nintendo talks more about that stuff, because they haven't released a lot of details.
Q: There are so many eyes on what happens next week. Do you think it's going to have a big impact?
BB: I certainly hope so. Are you going to E3?
BB: I don't know what Nintendo's plans are there, but one would hope... It could be really cool. They're secretive, very very secretive.
Q: Past Alien games have tended to cast the player as a blank vessel – they're more or less "the rookie", and sometimes they don't even have a name. Gearbox hasn't gone down that path. You play as a named character, Winter, and he speaks. Why did you choose to take that route, and what can you tell us about Winter?
BB: The rookie thing is sometimes kind of a cop-out. "Oh, you've never played this game before so you're obviously new, and I'm going to treat you like you're new." It's kind of a nice tool to train people, and to let you relate to the character – it seems familiar. We're kind of saying "fuck that". We expect everyone to have played first-person shooters before, and if you haven't... Gearbox are known to make pretty good first-person shooters, so it should be pretty easy to pick up. It's pretty accessible. But the whole rookie thing isn't our path, and the 'voiceless vessel' isn't what we wanted to do. You want to have a sense of embodiment, to be a person in the world – but you aren't. But when you can actually see people's reactions to the character, and that character is an agent in the world, who's affecting the world – that's interesting, especially when that character, and the perceptions of that, come through.
Now, we're not going to be beat you over the head and have a person who's a dick, or a super-nice guy, or something like that. He's pretty straightforward, but he comes across as you'd expect a person to in those situations. He definitely has certain relationships with characters in the game, and you build them as well as he does. It's much more neutral right now, especially as we're doing more with touching the environment. You fall down, you put you hand on the ground. You open doors, you climb up things, touching the world. And you emote. When you say something, you're always doing something with you hand. That's something that some games do: the player is talking, and you're like, "Who the fuck is talking?" - it's like a voice in their head. Whereas we're doing indications. [Gives thumbs up] "I'll take care of it, I'm on it." It's a visual clue that someone is talking.
Q: Obviously you have co-op going on, so how does that square with that? If there are four of us playing, are we all Winter?
BB: Oh no. You definitely customise your character quite a bit. The weapons you have, and what you want to load out with, is completely unique, depending on how you join up. You can do that in single player, co-op or whatever – all this translates back and forth, even multiplayer. So you're really not jumping in and saying, "Hey look, four Winters!". That would just be silly. For practicality reasons you need to have, "Hey you, do this!" and have a grounded Winter in the scene.