Alain Tascan is one of EA's big cheeses. He's in charge of EA Montreal, the studio responsible for Army of Two and its upcoming sequel Army of Two: The 40th Day. Here, in this wide ranging interview with VideoGamer.com, we quiz the man responsible for making Army of Two one of EA's biggest and best franchises. Can it reach Call of Duty levels? Can it work with Natal and Sony's wand? Read on for the answers to those questions and more.
VideoGamer.com: How much has player feedback from Army of Two been taken on board during the development of 40th Day versus new ideas EA Montreal has for the game?
Alain Tascan: A lot. It was very interesting. We did something a little bit unique. We had a big promise. We disappointed a few people with the delivery, but at the same time a lot of people enjoyed playing the game, and still today buying the game massively and playing in different ways. A lot of people are very, they go and play the game for 10 minutes, half an hour, an hour, two hours. To be very honest, we listen a lot to the press and we understand there were some turnoffs. We listen a lot to the players. The first one, it was like shoot shoot shoot, shoot shoot shoot, with the aggro and stuff, and I feel this time what we tried to put into the game is a lot of organic co-op. So you always have the possibility to play differently with your partner, whether it's online, whether it's the AI or whether it's on your couch. So this is what really we tried to improve. We drastically improved the shooting through the gun experience. Obviously it's not first-person, so we don't have the precision of first person, but for third-person I think it's starting to catch up with the best in the class.
We felt people like to be put in this scenario, which is bigger than life. With Shanghai and the destruction I think it's very interesting. If you're in the gaming industry you have a lot of opportunity to go to Asia and to Shanghai in particular. I feel Shanghai over the last few years, in the mass market the audience is like, everybody talks about it, the Olympics were in China, so I thought it was a good take to put our two characters within this destruction scenario in Shanghai.
To go back to your feedback, still today we do a lot of testing. We have some Powerpoints that are from the magazine world to give us their take on the game and we try to improve on it. But we know we have a base now. We know the unique particularity of our game was a good bet, a good strategy, and we try to double down on it.
VideoGamer.com: What was the reason behind releasing the game in January next year?
AT: The last game came in February. We loved the window the first time around. We adore the window this time around. We are after the storm!
VideoGamer.com: A lot of games seem to have been delayed to early next year in order to avoid the pre-Christmas crowd, but now it's created a new crowd.
AT: Imagine in three years, because people are not going to be able to pull the game. Usually it moves forward, so the new crowd will be the beginning of the summer next year. It's going to take six years to catch up! I don't know, but I feel like it right? The next transition is going to be great for Christmas.
The interesting thing is the cluster effect. Everybody is moving. We have so many games coming from our side or the competition in February and March. It's going to be great for the market, right? Really it was Christmas time, now it's Christmas in February.
VideoGamer.com: What's your opinion on the call from some to stagger game releases throughout the year? Is that something publishers should do more of?
AT: We always can improve. Intrinsically game development is not always completely predictable, to say the least. I feel we ship games when they're ready in terms of quality. If you look at what EA did the last 24 months, we drastically improved our quality average. It's very difficult to hold on a game for three months or six months, you know? How do you know the graphics are going to hold up? How do you know the market still wants it? I feel in the future for sure we need to do a better job at that.
I always try to do analogy for the toy market, but more importantly the movie market. Summer blockbuster came with Jaws, right? This was in 1975, and then suddenly it was oh summer is good for movies. I think we're going to discover a big game is going to come in August or July, and we'll say, oh people play games when they're on vacation, what big news! When we have a big event like this, the publishing organisations are going to start, you know, we can pace ourselves and Christmas is not only the time when people play games.
Obviously online is also going to change a lot. Online consumption, the way you consume, is going to probably change the way people buy games throughout the year. But that's the exciting part of being in this business, you know? As a journalist or as a publisher, we're still learning all of this. It's not a business where it's the same thing again and again. I feel like we're increasing the quality. We're increasing the respect for the player. The difference, and I've been in the industry enough to see it evolve from, let's put something in a box and call it Zoom Zoom and have it a little bit interactive and people will play, to now you need to deliver real quality. At the end of the day the customer is the winner and it's always good.
VideoGamer.com: How big can the Army of Two brand and franchise get? Can it reach Call of Duty or Halo levels?
AT: I have big, big, big hopes for it for a few reasons. Number one, I think we're improving this collective intelligence of how to make the game, and this will always improve. And you will see it in the difference between the first one and the second one. Two, I think we're very, very crisp in our position to the title. Army of Two, in less than a second you know more or less what it's going to be. Also it's character based. I was at Comic-Con and I saw people in costumes. It was a shock - a nice shock - when you see two characters coming and it's like Army of Two guys. Did we pay for this? No, no, these people are in costumes. When you go to websites, you put Army of Two costumes, you'll see websites that are big fans making their own costumes to go paintballing and stuff like that. I feel our positioning is unique and we're doubling down and everybody is doing co-op but nobody, beside Kane & Lynch at the time, really put it at the center of the experience.
Number two, our characters are resonating very well. There is a movie also we announced in development with Universal. I feel people bought the game in a significant way and we feel it can be bigger. There is some story, it's unique, and today what you want is a fresh experience that is entertaining but makes you play in a different way. And I feel if we improve the quality, people buy the game in a more important manner, for me we will continue doing this. The movie should help also. Especially the character resonating with people, with the masks and stuff like that, it starts to be, at our scale a little bit of a pop culture status.
VideoGamer.com: Do you think Army of Two has the potential to become as big as the biggest brands in gaming?
AT: Every pointer is positive in that manner. The thing is that it's going to be different experience than a Call of Duty experience, or a Gears experience, or even a Battlefield experience. Battlefield is a big online game. I think where Call of Duty has been out of the mark in terms of quality, like this very cinematographic experience with the guys dying, because they can do it, right? They control one player. They did a very smart choice of not doing co-op in the main campaign because their trademark wouldn't allow to exploit co-op like they do in single-player. Us for instance, where do you put the camera when the possible field of view is 360, with the two players? So you cannot do like an event right in front of you and you invest a lot of development in the event if the other guy looks the other way. How many times can you say, hey, look here? Naturally in Call of Duty they put you in the right frame, right camera and then there is something.
The more we have feedback and the more we learn about how people play the game, the very experience we create for these people, what we discover, I'm going to be very simple, when we had the idea of the game people were playing like this, right? And we said, why don't we make people play like this? It was a very simple thing, 90 degree turn, but it worked. And I feel we still have a little bit of an edge because we are doubling down on this pure experience. We're betting that everybody has a friend and so far so good.
VideoGamer.com: What's the latest on the movie and what kind of creative control does EA have over the script?
AT: We're working with a writer [Scott Z. Burns ] who is incredible. He wrote the last Bourne movie. So we're working together. We explain what the world is about, what the missions are about, and then we leave the guy to do his job. The way you tell a story in eight hours, 12 hours, and develop the characters, is completely different than two hours. We just give him our reference and then he's working. We read a few parts of the script and it's very promising. Obviously he has his own style, and we want to keep some big moments we had in the game, but it's like, I don't want to say parallel, it's like a different path. He respects our world and we respect completely the movie, but we don't want to attach the things together. So far, when movies try to really respect the games they're not always the best quality. That's the truth. But we feel we have top quality partners, as a producer and a writer, so hopefully we will have a top quality in the results.
VideoGamer.com: So the idea is for the movie not to follow the story of one of the games?
AT: Yeah. To respect the characters, the theme of the game, what's important. Again the message is, and I feel this is why I have big hopes in it, I'm sorry to answer your question later but it's like, imagine your wife left you, you've been fired from your job, it's raining and you have a headache, there's always this friend who you can reach out to, this one guy, and with him you're going to go through these things. This is deeply in us since we were very young. Sometimes it's not the same friend. There's not that many people I can call. There's usually one guy, two guys that I can call. This is where we tap in. This is why, even if our quality is not over the top, we hit something inside people. I feel like this is why the game can be as big possibly as the others because we really are playing on something that resonated. I'm excited by it and how we can take this to the limit.
VideoGamer.com: Can third-person shooters work with Natal and Sony's motion-sensing wand?
AT: Shooter wise, to make a good game you have to really see how you can use this controller in a great way. With a shooter, you know Natal, you might have something. Very simply you can say okay, you have a partner, you give orders with your hand like in the army - stop for instance, or continue. But then when you do that you take your hands off of the controller. If you look at the speed of the shooter, can you put your hands up and go back in? Is it going to be seen as something refreshing, or seen as something annoying? What we've seen when people play is they're really tied to the controller. I don't think we're going to do something with the head moving.
If you look at technology that tried to do voice recognition, it works but people don't really use it. So for a shooter, now that Sony is maybe different because it's very precise and then you can replicate a gun, so that might be something interesting like the Wii did and what we're doing with Dead Space. I don't know, shooter... the language of third-person is so precise now.
If you look at Resident Evil, they kept their layout and instead people are saying there is something that doesn't feel right. With a shooter the language is very established now in third-person and the controls. We'll have to have a pretty strong proposition in terms of innovation and quality when bringing something to make people change their language. Does that make sense?
VideoGamer.com: Absolutely. I think it's fascinating. One of the things I'm trying to find out from the development and publishing community is how core games might work with Natal and Sony's motion sensing technology. The impression is that nobody's quite worked it out yet.
AT: I'm sure you will have an application that will be fantastic and you will play as a hardcore gamer. But for the game where you're really used to a specific interface, you want to keep this interface because it took time unconsciously to learn it, right? Now as a shooter fan, they take any shooter and they're like, two seconds they get it. Already us, it's a way more complex game because you have a partner. And it takes a little bit of time. You have to be taught. So new controller, we'll see. For sure we're still doing a lot of Wii development, we're still doing a lot with this control, the camera, the PlayStation, anything new, but again we need to come with a very, very compelling idea if you want to try that on a successful scheme in terms of language. Be it shooter or even driving games. The language is there.
VideoGamer.com: Bringing it back to Army of Two, what's your take on downloadable content? What are your plans for DLC and, as an online game, is it as necessary for Army of Two to have DLC as it is for single-player games?
AT: In this category if you don't come with a very solid plan in multiplayer, and with more content, I think it's going to be tough to break out. So we have very solid... I don't know how much detail we announced...
[PR interjection]: We've not said anything about downloadable content on Army of Two yet, and we can't yet.
AT: See I have a big mouth!
PR: I think it's expected and accepted that all games continue to be supported after they launch. Across any title released on console now, it's a pretty good guess that there's going to be some DLC. Will it be free or paid for or whatever that might look like, there are different levels of DLC.
AT: You will see a few surprises with the downloadable content. People see it only right now as new maps. We will do something more interesting. I can't really talk about it! We will try to bring some new stuff. Looking at how people are playing, and not like putting it down their throat, or buy one more map for £9.99 or whatever it is, you know? What we're seeing is the more you respect the platform as an entertainment medium, and the more you respect players rather than trying to extract the money from their pocket by all means... I think it's a good goal, you know I feel good, I'm fine when I go asleep.
People that are really respecting the customer are successful and can be proud. The people who are trying to just do this for business reasons... maybe I'm a little bit of an idealist, but you know the facts are out there. When you respect people with something they want, and good quality, you will get success, or you will have more chance of success. Guaranteed, if it's just business oriented, you will fail big time.
Army of Two: The 40th Day will ship on January 8, 2010 in Europe.