Ambitious 256-player first-person shooter MAG has already split FPS fans down the middle. On one side are the doubters who say MAG is a frustrating, often boring, lag fest. On the other side are the enthusiasts who say the doubters just don't get it. At a recent hands-on event in London, we not only played the hell out of the PS3 exclusive but also quizzed senior designer Scott Rudi's thoughts on some of MAG's more unique features.
Q. Congratulations on MAG. You've just come out of open beta. Did any of the feedback surprise you, or was it all pretty much what you expected?
Scott Rudi: Always we get some surprises. With the first betas, the early closed betas, those probably had the most surprises because that was the first time we saw non development or non testers play. As developers we know this, that there's going to be unforeseen... people play very different than developers. But as each beta version came out we saw less and less real surprises, and it got to the point where we were just fine tuning and polishing and stuff like that, rather than any major changes.
Q. Would you say MAG's a hardcore shooter for hardcore shooter fans?
SR: No. Actually, one of our goals was to make it accessible for as many people as possible. We need a lot of people to be playing this game, and to rely only on the hardcore shooters is something we can't do. One of the things we've been doing throughout beta and obviously today, is we've been running accelerated entry into some of our harder game modes. When we ship, to get from level one to the point where can get into those big Domination maps, will take you a little while, and hopefully get you used to the game. A lot of the massive online games, you start out first level, you can only do a few things and as you level up you get to do more and more. We're taking the same approach, where when you first buy MAG, you get to play the training and the Suppression. You have to do that a few times to get more comfortable with the basic gameplay. And then you notice when you're in Sabotage, we introduce objectives. And then with Acquisition you've got vehicles and bunkers, and that will usually take quite a while for you to get there. Hopefully you're comfortable with the various aspects by the time you hit the more elaborate things.
Q: The open beta, which we played extensively, had only one game mode available to play for the first ten levels. It won't be like that in the final version?
SR: Right. There will be a lot more steps within that. This last beta, Acquisition wasn't available. That's a bridge, especially in complexity. We just had to ensure we could focus people where we needed them testing the most at that time.
Q: You have a rolling spawn mechanic, which is designed to make players spawn at the same time so they can tackle objectives together. But some players feel like they are waiting too long to spawn. How do you resolve that?
SR: Yes. That's a lot of what we've been honing over time, is trying to resolve those issues. Especially at first, you felt like you waited too long and then when you spawn you run too far etc. So a lot of our attention has been trying to minimise that. I'm confident when we ship it's going to be much less of an issue for a lot of people. Some of the frustration where some of our beta testers, we were pushing along too much, and before they learned that they had to use cover and teamwork and not just run out all Rambo style, they get killed and back in the queue. Where if you play a little bit more intelligently, using cover and using tactics and teamwork, you survive a lot longer and it's a lot less noticeable. The rolling spawn rate was to get more of a game balance system going in.
Q: How will the rolling spawn system be different for the final version?
SR: Speeding up a few of the little systems in there.
Q: Will it be the same as it is in the build we played today?
SR: We're re-using the latest. I'm not saying it's a radical change, but it's on the level of a little polish and fine tuning at this point.
Q: So we weren't playing the final version today?
SR: You were close to it, if this wasn't the final. Pretty close. I don't know if you'd even notice the difference at this point.
Q: So the spawn system we played with is what we'll get in final?
SR: I would call them pretty near what you'll see in ship.
Q: You also have a bleed-out system, which we reckon relies on communication and players' willingness to heal and revive, otherwise you spend all that time bleeding out, then no-one heals you, then you have to wait for the spawn. Did you consider having a countdown ticker for the rolling spawn so players could look at that while they bleed-out and time it so they spawn with minimal wait?
SR: Absolutely. And without letting too much out, yes. And yes, look for that in the future. And a lot of other little improvements to that, like messaging. One of the main things is if you don't communicate with your microphone, a lot of people don't realise that a medic is on the way, or that somebody needs a revive. So we're looking for ways to improve both lines of communication, to say I need a revive, and even for ways for people to say, hey, you're way behind enemy lines, you better just bleed-out because there's no way we can get to you. So we're looking to improve that.
Q: Is that something you can do with patch?
SR: Yes. It's not a major patch.
Q: Will the patch be released soon after launch or a while after?
SR: We'll see. I can't say.
Q: Zipper Interactive is a PS3-exclusive developer. What advantages does that give the development team in terms of what they can do?
SR: Well, unfettered access to the PS3 architecture was the biggest one. Very early we were able to learn about the inner workings of the PS3 from the people who made it. That was very helpful. As well as just a really close relationship with Sony, and able to communicate with them instantaneously, get their feedback right away, tell them what we need and what they've got to give us. It was very helpful, actually. That and also having the whole company behind you, because being an exclusive, they're depending on you in some ways, and you're also depending on them. It brings you a lot tighter together.
Q: Is MAG a better game for being a PS3 exclusive than it would have been as a multiplatform title?
SR: I don't even know if it's possible for multiplatform. We're using so many architectural features unique to the PS3, like the Cell system, that I would be hard pressed to - and I'm not a programmer or anything - but from what I've been hearing, this is what the PS3 can do and few others can.
Q: So it might not be possible for MAG to work on Xbox 360?
SR: As a game player I'd love to see someone else try.
Q: MAG's hook is that it's a 256 player FPS. We can't think of many harder challenges from a design point of view than to work out how to divide up the players and still make them feel like they're in a battle with lots of other people and not just their squad doing their own thing.
SR: You put it exactly how I would have. That has been our major challenge: how to make it feel like your small unit of specialists are special, and yet make you feel like you're part of a larger war. If you've seen what was shown at E3 and first beta, you've seen that we've been moving the pieces around to optimise that. One of the things we did was - especially in Domination - all the various sides start in their unique area, and then they push forward towards a common area. Really the intensity and the number of friends and enemies you see increases during the match. That seems to have worked out very well, where the intensity builds and you end on a crescendo. It's a climax of the gameplay when the game ends.
Q: MAG is an online focused shooter. Are dedicated servers essential to the success of online-focused shooters?
SR: For us it is, partially because of our persistence. The fact that how your PMC does effects the larger benefits - the Shadow War is what we're calling it - every 24 hours we look at the performance of each of the PMCs on various game types, and the winner of all of those matches at the end of the 24 hour period, they receive a bonus to their various abilities for the next 24 hours. That requires dedicated servers, or else it's not secure. We control those servers to ensure it's legitimate. We can also do a lot more than if we went more of a broad base server base. We have Ferraris instead of a bunch of Yugos powering MAG, to put it that way. Nothing against Yugos - very good car!
Q: There were issues with Modern Warfare 2 and Infinity Ward's decision not to provide dedicated servers.
SR: It's a very different game, though. For Modern Warfare, which I like playing personally, I feel it's a good game although it's different from us. For us, the fact that it's 256 players and secure persistent is just... you know it's just the way it's got to be for it to work. I can't imagine us trying to do it another way.
Q: You mentioned you've played Modern Warfare 2. What do you think of the terrorist level?
SR: I'm here to talk about MAG. I tip my hat to those guys. That's about all I want to say.
Q: Another unique feature of MAG is the command structure. It seems to us that the game is designed with the use of headsets in mind.
SR: It helps. It greatly enhances the game. One thing I got to say about our command structure is it's not mandatory. One of our big design sayings is, it's all carrots and no sticks. We never punish a player for not behaving as a good teammate. As long as he's contributing by killing the enemy... if you've paid $60 for this game, you should have fun no matter how you want to play it, as long as you're not griefing or something. But we offer incentives - carrots - for those who want to play, take objectives, move with their squad and revive teammates. It's all about enticing people to play how we want them to, but never punishing them for not doing so.
Q: But the rewards for doing so are great.
SR: Accelerated experience, yeah. If you're in it for the long run, or even in the short run, that extra experience really pays off.
Q: With development of MAG wrapping up, what is Zipper turning to you next? Are you able to take a break and take stock and react to the community, or will you jump straight in to something else?
SR: Absolutely we're paying close attention to what happens when we launch. That will be the focus of our attention. As for beyond that, we haven't really made any announcements or anything, so keep your ears open. But we're very excited about this new product and line, so keep your ears open. We plan to be very active.
Q: Lots of fans are hoping for SOCOM 4. Any word for the fans on that?
SR: You know, honestly, we're just here to talk about MAG this time. That's all I can say.
MAG is due out exclusively on the PS3 this Friday.