Jason Vandenberghe is the creative director on Red Steel 2, and a man who loves his swords. This week we sat down to chat about the new game, the future of the Wii, and the effect of FPS games on the human Lizard Brain. No, really!
Q: So Jason, you seem pretty excited today...
Jason Vandenberghe: I am pretty excited. But you know, that's me - I'm just nuts! You shouldn't take that as too much of an indicator. But yeah, for sure: I'm thrilled about this game. It's my favourite game I've ever worked on. It's a sword-fighting game, and we're pushing the envelope for sword-fighting experiences. I love this sort of graphic novel style, and the story is really over-the-top. I feel really personally connected to every piece of this game. I didn't make it all, of course! The team made the game.
Q: You've been working on this game for quite a while. What's been the hardest part of the project?
JV: Really it was the controls and getting the inputs right. We sort of stumbled into this new kind of gameplay with the Wii MotionPlus... I'm trying to think of ways to express this that don't sound like PR bullshit, but it's really true. We started out making a first person shooter, and when we got the Wii MotionPlus, suddenly we could make this brawler! We could make a first-person brawler, and that's what I've always wanted to do! So then we started chasing that, and what we learned is that all the stuff that works in third-person for action fighting... a lot of it does not translate into first-person.
Q: Because you don't have the same perspective...
JV: Exactly. And not only that, but something really weird happens to people's brains, to the Lizard Brain. When you're playing God of War and you're back here [gestures], a guy comes along and your brain goes, "He's close! I should beat him up." When you're playing Red Steel, there's a guy right in your face, beating on you with a sword, and your thought process is [adopts caveman voice] "UGG!". There's no time to be thinking about button combos, and it's really intense! So we had to reduce our expectation about the player's ability to chain inputs. Our combos are two inputs, sometimes it's three but really it's two. And we had to discover that - it's not like we didn't try all of the other versions. There were seven different combo systems that we built over the course of the project, none of which worked.
Q: Because they were too complex?
JV:Yeah, or they weren't engaging, weren't rewarding enough. You could do them, but it wasn't cool enough. Finding that right game balance, between doing something that was motivating and exciting - Yes! I got another move AND I want to use it - that was a really tricky thing. It was a lot of work, and it took a lot of research. But that's why we're in games, right? To discover these new things and to have a chance to invent them. I told the team when we were doing it, "Guys, I know this is hard, but we're not going to get many chances to actually innovate." Everyone claims that they're innovating in the games industry, and this is only the second time that I've actually innovated something.
Q: What was the first?
JV: Everything Or Nothing was the first third-person shooting lock game. We had nothing to compare it to, and so we had to invent this mechanic, figure out how to mix lock shooting with crouch cover and that kind of thing. I mean, it wasn't this huge innovation, but when it came out our friends in the industry were like "Wow! Look what you did." That was cool, and there aren't that many chances to do that. It was luck of the draw really. Ubisoft asked me to come and help out with this, so I just got lucky. That alignment [of guns and swords in first-person] was something that Ubisoft had sitting there with the original Red Steel, and then when we got the Wii MotionPlus the concept sort of appeared and we felt we should do something with it, chase it as far as it can go. We got the MotionPlus, the project was already underway, and then when we showed up the team executed on it. I have a really skilled team who had spent the previous two years with the Wii, trying to learn what does and doesn't work with controls, so they were really able to pick up the ball and run with it.
Q: From what I've played so far, it feels like you've nailed the whole issue of how to do sword combat with the Wii Remote, but now we've got Natal and Arc coming out this year. You've already said that you had to put a lot of effort into your controls, so do you think this game could work with that kind of tech? Or would you always need a controller of some kind?
JV: For this game, flat out. I mean, I would love to get hold of the Natal team and talk to them about it. Maybe I'm wrong, I could be completely wrong about this, but for me in first-person action games, you need a stick. I need clear, accurate input - I don't want to be using one hand to pretend to be my feet. I want to use both my hands for input. Maybe in ten years we'll be used to it; today I want a stick. So I hope with Natal there will be an option to hold a controller, or to use a one-handed controller of some kind that will allow me to have that analogue stick and then do the motion. If I hand an analogue stick, and then a [sword-like] stick in my hand, yeah, we could do something like this experience. Now, Red Steel 2 is a Wii exclusive and we're not going anywhere with it. This is going to stay Wii exclusive.
Q: But if Ubisoft asked you to make Red Steel 3 and they asked you to use Natal and Arc technology, would you be intimidated by that?
JV: No, no, no! I would be thrilled at the opportunity! Where do I sign, dude? I love the experience, I'm a big sword geek, so the chance to explore even higher levels of fidelity... And you know, I'm sure Nintendo is going to come back and answer all the other crap that Sony and Microsoft has been doing, so it's going to keep going, right? This isn't going to be a one, two-year conversation. It'll be something we keep talking about. I've always wanted to make a first-person sword-fighting game that's a direct experience of sword-fighting, and now that I've made one all I want to do is to make another one. I'm thrilled to have had the chance to do it. I couldn't be happier.
Q: You seem very happy, which is nice!
JV: Yeah, it's great. Like I said at the beginning of the presentation, it's nice to be presenting you with a game that I genuinely like, as opposed to one that I hope will make its sales figures.
Q: What features would you really like to see in Nintendo's next console, assuming you could have anything?
JV: You know what? Personally, I'd really like to see this kind of motion input completed. There are certain problems that we have with motion input, based around different human motions, and what happens if you turn out of view. On the Wii you have this problem where if you turn away from the sensor bar you're screwed. There's all this technical crap, right? Sony has their camera version, and that's really nice but you still have some fidelity issues. So I'd just like to see the next step forward. But honestly, we're this close [holds up two fingers with a small gap], this f-ing close to what I think of as the perfect storm of solutions. That would be full motion control on both hands, and a stick on at least one, with no orientation or alignment bullshit and no problems with multiple players. Right now, I can't do sword and shield - I can only half-ass it. If we had two... My original pitch for Red Steel 2 was to use two Wii Remotes. But you can't sell that, right?
Q: There was no chance they'd have gone for that?
JV: No, it's just not possible. The headline would be "Ubisoft publishes game that costs 150 bucks!" And we needed to prove ourselves first.
Q: Maybe next time...
JV: Maybe. Because to me, if I had the option to have two, then we could do long sword and Florentine, sword and shield... there's no end to the number of solutions! But I have no idea what will happen. I'm not even in the secret NDA [Non Disclosure Agreement].
Q: You're not part of the Illuminati?
JV: I'm not! I would love to be, but they don't quite trust me that much. High risk, high risk.
Red Steel 2 will be released exclusively on Wii on March 26.