EA Montreal's Army of Two: The 40th Day, the sequel to 2008's co-op third-person shooter hits stores this week. We caught up with Alain Tascan, EA Montreal general manager, to talk about the new game, finding the right tone, the studio's focus and a motion-controlled future.
Q: Army of Two wasn't received brilliantly but it sold very well. There have been a lot of reports recently that game reviews don't matter. What do you think about that?
Alain Tascan: They matter to me and they matter to the team, and that's why we improve. But to answer your question, what we've been able to do is to engage people emotionally. The heart of Army of Two is friendship. Whether you're a young person, you're in school and you're bullied and your teacher doesn't like you and your parents just grounded you, you always have a friend you can call and say, let's go and do something to take my mind off of it. When you're an adult it's the same thing. I lost my job, my girlfriend's cheating on me I'm sure, I just ate the worst Chinese food in my life and I can't afford to pay the rent; you call your friend up and say, let's do something. I feel somehow, we delivered something that is putting two friends together in this situation and, you go through steps and be successful in a partnership. Now a lot of games are doing that but at the time it was pretty unique. We focused hundred per cent on that. For us it's not a mode, it is the game. I feel unconsciously people reacted to that.
Even if the characters were cold, for a certain kind of people they were iconic characters. The tattoo, the attitude, the mask - they were very recognisable. Some people thought, I can see myself being like this for a few hours. And, within the third-person shooter category, the experience was slightly different. It's not this huge ride, very entertaining with tonnes of stuff happening and you're like, oh my god, this is so cool. You play differently. It's like, now we need to think. Now we need to communicate. People are getting bored more and more easily. What we tried to do is give them a different flavour of a popular genre.
Q: You've worked on changing the tone. What didn't work in the first game?
AT: The mistake we made was we thought that what is going to make a certain type of person laugh is going to make everybody laugh. The reality is, you can laugh off everything but not with everybody. When we mixed killing in North Africa, killing terrorists for money and then fist pumping and saying something funny afterwards, in a place where real life our troops are dying, people just felt whatever the game is, this is wrong. You can't do that. People from the left thought we were on the right; people from the right thought we were on the left. We were able to piss off a lot of people!
We needed to correct that, because it was taking away from what the game was. Some people focused so much on that they didn't see the game. They just thought, how can you do that? My brother is in Afghanistan and in Iraq, you cannot do this kind of thing. We got carried away. The reality is we have real recordings from mercenaries in the field, and let me tell you, we took ten percent in the first game of what was said in war. But is not like in the movies, it's not appropriate. What we're discovering, now that we're a mass market entertainment medium, is like, as movies we have to filter, what would be the reality via our medium? And things evolve. Televisions evolve and movies evolve. We have to respect that, and we've learned good ways to do that. The new one I feel is still very funny, but at least it's more Bruce Willis funny than Steven Seagal funny.
Q: A scientific study was released recently that looked at the depiction of war crimes in video games. What's your take on that? Is the terrorist level in Modern Warfare 2 problematic, for example?
AT: It's interesting. The game, whether it's Modern Warfare or us with Battlefield, we're [restricted to gamers aged] 18 years old plus. We should be at an age where we can make a difference. We know what is fantasy and what is not fantasy. Now it's the way you're doing it. Are you encouraging something or not? There are different angles. It's interesting that now we're touching this place where what we're doing can be like war or a war crime. When we are doing mock surrender [in Army of Two: The 40th Day], and somebody flanks and shoots somebody in the back, that's a war crime. You don't do that in war - you just kill.
But we're delivering something that's just a fantasy. Instead of having a wooden gun like we had 50 years ago, we have electronic stuff. What we need to be sure of is that people feel it's a fantasy. For me, we have responsibilities, and our responsibilities are towards the younger audience and to make sure they're rated and don't have access to our games, and that parents are doing their jobs. I'm a parent, and I wouldn't put my kids in front of Army of Two. When I'm playing I lock the door of the play room. My six year old and my nine year old are too young. I feel that we live in the age where we get censorship - especially from M-rated games in the US and 18 rated games here. But it is artistic expression, and we cannot censor that. Sometimes we go too deep, sometimes we don't go far enough, or hit just the right tone, but the thing we cannot do is do it religiously. I think it's a bit dangerous.
Q: Did you play the terrorist level in Modern Warfare 2?
AT: I didn't play it. I've seen the video.
Q: Do you think that goes too far?
AT: I think it's very intense. But me seeing that, again... I'm thinking, I don't know how I would have pitched that to EA. But when I listened to what they [Infinity Ward] said, it kind of made sense. I felt like, yeah, okay, now I feel as a terrorist and I feel as a bad guy and a good guy. I was talking to a few screenwriters, and they wanted to do things so that when you create a character and he's a villain, he doesn't know he's a villain, really. He's not a hard villain. He thinks he's doing the right thing. Showing the humanity of the villain, it's an interesting way to go to. So it's like, how do you play with it. I have to finish the game to really see. But for sure, they have been very ballsy.
Q: You were quoted in an interview with EDGE that EA Montreal is going to focus more on blockbuster HD games than on Wii titles. What are the reasons behind that?
AT: Wii titles are quite unpredictable, right? We're not pulling out of the Wii market, as EA. But as an organisation, as the Games Label, and our studio... It was the first studio that was created from scratch six years ago, and we touched everything. We did hockey games, dancing games, racing games, skateboarding games, snowboarding games, on all platforms from the GameCube to the DSi to the PS3. We felt that we needed to focus a little bit more and we needed to do something that is in phase with what we feel for our organisation are the best opportunities. Right now for us, it is more this HD action game. There is a story in Montreal about this type of game - character based, big action, with a story. If you look at everything Ubisoft did... I was one of the founders of Ubisoft Montreal there, so there really is a story in Montreal. Even Eidos is doing this kind of game. There is something in the city and the region that means the synergy around this type of game is very positive.
Q: Does it make you sad when you see great games like Dead Space Extraction not sell on Wii?
AT: On the one hand it makes me sad because we put a lot of effort into respecting the audience and giving them something of quality. On the other hand we say okay, we need to understand not only quality - and for the first six months EA has been back hitting it out of the park with all the games, and the Metacritic ratings have increased - but we need to understand what is engaging people on what platform on what time. EA is always accused of copying people and being the last one to do something. I feel today what we're showing, by specialising on different platforms, we are ready for this transition that's happening right now. Right now people are playing on many devices in many different ways with many different price points. And if you see what we did with the Wii, our acquisition of PlayFish, with Jamdat, we specialise in all of these things. I think we're the first publisher that's covering everything.
We're not asking one studio to do everything. We're just specialising a few people who are passionate about doing something well, to go after the market they know and do something incredible. That's why EA Mobile is number one in its field by a huge margin. Playfish, well they're number two in their field, online Pogo is number one. In the RPG realm we've seen Dragon Age for instance, Mass Effect, we feel we're going strong there. Shift, in the driving, is really raising the bar again. And hopefully what we'll do in the next three or four months, is show we're trying to be the best in class in every field. We're back to number one position, which we're very proud of it. I feel this is what EA is doing now: trying to lead the market rather than follow the market.
Q: Are you worried that some of the risks EA has taken in recent times haven't met the amount of success they deserved? Does it concern you that this will impact upon creativity?
AT: I joined EA six or seven years ago. I joined when everybody was telling us the opposite, right? Now, we're doing it and people are saying, why are you doing it? The company and our CEO, we're very proud of what we're doing, because this is why we joined the video game business as game makers. And I give credit to the marketing people and everybody. We want to take the risk. Risk comes with a price because it's risky. But the rewards, when they are there, are incredible. Today I feel we are trying and in the process of turning around the image of EA being evil, of trying to make money without any respect for the gamers. I feel if you were in a meeting with the executives of EA, you'd see that the first feeling we have is how can we deliver something of quality that people are going to enjoy. I feel if we're consistent with that strategy, success will come sooner or later. We believe strongly that respecting the customer with the right product and the good quality will pay off. It's starting to pay off right now. But yes, it is difficult. In the long term we feel well positioned, hopefully.
Q: Has the closure of Pandemic impacted on morale across EA? How secure is EA Montreal's position?
AT: It is always sad to see good people, colleagues, losing their job. Some people you know, you've been friendly with them. We had a few people move from Montreal going there. But we need to control our costs. We need to restructure. We were too big. We were not able to take all of these debts. For us, less is more. We need to go direct to the customer and we need to control our costs - otherwise we won't be able to deliver the quality we just talked about. Yes, it was very painful and throughout the company it was, on a human level, sad. Then, when the emotion is fading a little bit and the brain is kicking in, the logic says, you know it's the right thing to do. And even some people within Pandemic said, you know what, I understand. The plans are incredible. They're still alive and we'll keep them. We have a few things we officialised in EALA, and we announced new stuff.
Now to go on to EA Montreal. While I'm not able to give you specifics, all I can tell you is there are over 700 people now in EA Montreal, including BioWare and EA Mobile and ourselves. We're continuing investing in the place. We have over 20 or 30 positions up. Right now it's an incredibly good balance of talent, economic structure and results. So far nobody's protected, and we need to perform on the quality and the commercial level. So far we are in a pretty good place and an exciting place.
Q: So, in short, you're feeling pretty secure, not to tempt fate or anything.
AT: I feel enthusiastic about EA Montreal, definitely. I don't feel we should feel secure, because then you don't do the right thing. But I'm very enthusiastic about the next three years for EA Montreal. Everything we're doing... you're going to see growth, you're going to see new things, and hopefully you're also going to see the quality rising. We've been taking a lot of risks ourselves, and what we've discovered is, when you try to innovate at a new price, and the risky stuff, you risk your life.
Q: Am I right in thinking EA Montreal is going to be taking on The Saboteur now Pandemic is gone?
AT: We haven't announced anything yet. We will probably announce a new partnership and stuff, but I can't talk about that.
Q: Can we say it's in good hands?
AT: Again, I can't say anything.
Q: What's your opinion of peripheral-based gaming? We've seen Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and within the last year we've had DJ Hero and Tony Hawk Ride. It seems gamers are split down the middle on this very expensive part of the hobby. What's your take on them?
AT: I enjoy these games, so it would be difficult for me to blast them. I feel what's good is the fact that gaming is evolving. The Wii started the stuff in the mass market. We already had peripherals. We already had this cockpit you entered for £10,000, so rich people can drive their car on the PS2 or on a PC. But I feel we are showing that the interface is very important now. Once you're in 3D with 1080p and you start going stereoscopic, how far can you go besides the engine? The interface dissolves - you can link Natal and the motion controller into this. I think they're very important. It's a matter of how natural we're going to be. We're still buying a piece of plastic. I'm going to just take something that looks like a guitar and start playing, and the camera is going to see it. It's not about if, it's about when. The interface is very important, and the problem right now is that we haven't seen an interface, beside the guitar controller, as tight as a standard controller. Milliseconds difference in the controller input can be the difference between a good game and a sloppy game; this is what we're facing if we use motion control. But I believe sooner or later the combination of accessories will be everybody's life. We just use them more and more, for instance, touch-based screens with the iPhone. So we're very natural. Naturally you're going in front of your own screen and start moving stuff away. We're just at v1.0 on a massive scale of this kind of stuff. We're going to evolve more and more.
Q: Is it fair to say the interface will be one of the most important parts of gaming?
AT: I'm convinced. This and always-online and direct to customer, and what these things will change in terms of design. But I really believe the interface is the key to expanding. The Wii started doing it, but let's see what's going to be the future. Natal wants to do it. It will come soon, for sure.
Army of Two: The 40th Day is due for release on January 15 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PSP.