“People who know my work will absolutely see a lot of me within this game” – Neill Blomkamp on Gunzilla’s upcoming AAA shooter

Given that the studio was launched less than 18 months ago, it’s no surprise that Gunzilla’s first game remains shrouded in secrecy. What we do know is that the young studio, based out of Frankfurt, Kyiv and Los Angeles (and soon the UK), is hoping to pioneer the next iteration of the AAA multiplayer shooter.

To back up its ambition, Gunzilla has hired celebrated director Neill Blomkamp (District 9), award-winning sci-fi author Richard K. Morgan (Altered Carbon) and veteran game writer Olivier Henriot – who has had a hand in the narrative arc of pretty much every Ubisoft hit of the last 20 years. It’s quite a statement of intent to assemble a creative panel of such a high calibre, but for something so transient as a multiplayer first-person shooter it might seem like overkill. For answers we went straight to the top, to Gunzilla’s co-founder and chief strategy officer Alexander Zoll, who gathered together the new recruits for a chat.

What attracted you to Gunzilla Games and to this project in particular?

Neill Blomkamp: I always found working on games very attractive. When I started out in film I was in VFX and animation, and many of those same tools are used in games. The way I was using VFX was acting as a one man crew; build the set, build the characters, light it, animate it, be the cameraman. So I was basically directing. I was using VFX to serve what I wanted to do in directing. And as I moved into real directing with real sets and actors, I always missed this feeling of creating a whole 3D world. Games offer this in spades. So for years I have wanted to find a way to work in games. One day, Richard Morgan emailed me and explained the project. Then I got to know Gunzilla and it felt like a perfect fit.

Richard Morgan: Primarily, the open nature of the brief, I think. What Vlad Korolev (co-founder, CEO) offered me was the chance to build an entire IP from the ground up.  There were one or two key premises for the game, but aside from that everything was up for grabs! And it’s not often you get handed a blank sheet of paper like that.

Olivier Henriot: I always wanted to be part of the adventure of building up a studio from the ground up and also try new things from a narrative point of view, test ideas I had in mind for a long time but couldn’t implement in my previous job. So when Vlad (Korolev) contacted me to pitch me his project, it was both love at first sight on a personal level – we spoke about the games we were playing for 20 minutes before we even got to business – and a proposition I couldn’t resist.

What is your precise role and what does it involve on a daily, weekly or monthly basis?

Olivier Henriot

Neill Blomkamp: My role is basically to help steer the project creatively, and add to and flesh out the massive world and IP we are creating. Many of the same world building and tonal tools that I use in film carry over into this project. I don’t have direct experience building games, but many of the people I work with at Gunzilla are very experienced and either help me understand, or take what I am doing and know how to integrate it.

Richard Morgan: I guess my particular brief is IP development and oversight (though my company profile job description says simply ‘Making Shit Up’). What this means in practice is that I spend my time dreaming the game world into existence. Sweet gig, like I said. Initially, that involved sitting down with Olivier and hammering out the basic assumptions of the universe, creating people and places, and backstory for it all.  These days that’s mostly squared away though, this being game development, it’s always subject to revision! – and so the day to day is more tied up with developing storylines and narrative development for the player.  So we have a Writers’ Room three to four mornings a week where we kick around the ideas and hammer them out. Then we’re in meetings with design and art on at least a weekly basis to coordinate the realisation of the world we’ve created and to ensure that the narrative dovetails smoothly with the game mechanics. And every so often there’ll be a more formal presentation or pitch session to the company at large. So, you know – keeping busy!

Olivier Henriot: My role is to coordinate the narrative team’s activity and help shape up the player’s experience, and more specifically the meaning of it. Just like Richard described, we’re having daily meetings in the writers’ room to discuss the various issues tied to anything related to the meaning of the player’s experience. I also help coordinate the cooperation with other departments, give feedback to the writers and work on the narrative design strategy of the game.

What elements of your previous work – stylistically – can people expect to discover when they eventually come to play the game?

Alexander Zoll

Neill Blomkamp: I would say for me that people who know my previous work will absolutely see a lot of me and the things I am interested in within this game. It’s very up my alley. And now that I am helping guide it, I am guiding it even more in that direction. Let’s say, near future, fucking rad.

Richard Morgan: Well, I’m still not really allowed to divulge too much here (well, I could, but then I’d have to kill you). But I think, as I said in a previous interview, it’s pretty clear I’m not being hired for my historical romance fiction chops. So yeah, it’s the future and, concurrent with my own novels, a future in which you really need to carry some heavy ordnance.  There’s no actual content from my own IPs, of course, but I think fans of my work will recognise a similar texture, let’s say.

Why is there such a focus on promoting narrative before gameplay?

Richard K. Morgan

Alexander Zoll: At Gunzilla, we’re creating the next evolution of multiplayer shooters. We want to expand the genre and make it attractive for players even if they don’t consider themselves being shooter players, as we think there is a lot of potential for it that hasn’t been explored in the past. Shooters offer many elements that are attractive for a wide range of gamers – be it their settings, design, experiences, or content that players find and love in other genres as well. At the same time, current multiplayer shooters often aren’t accessible for players as long as they aren’t die hard-genre fans. That’s something where we want to give more players the opportunity to enjoy our game. One of the key approaches to do so is to emphasise narrative elements, which opens a lot of additional opportunities for the whole development team.

Olivier Henriot: It’s not so much about promoting narrative over gameplay rather than matching the two into the perfect marriage. Integrating a meaningful narrative into a multiplayer shooter is always tricky, but we’re convinced we’ve found the right formula, by relying on a strong fantasy (the overall proposition to the player). We want to offer the players more than just a series of disconnected play sessions and to give them a sense of persistence and belonging, in order to make them the heroes of their own story, in a rather competitive environment. Also, beyond the game, we’re building an IP from the ground up so whenever we come up with an idea we can’t execute in the game, it’s not lost, simply folded for future use on a different format.

Why does it matter that a multiplayer shooter has such a focus?

Neill Blomkamp

Olivier Henriot: In most of the current multiplayer shooters, what you get is a series of moments disconnected from one another. Sure, you get to unlock items and complete a battlepass i.e., but the places you sink your time into rarely evolve, not to mention that they never acknowledge your actions. You have no impact beyond your personal result in a given session and truth be told, you don’t really care about whatever context the game is happening into, which leaves a lot of players on the fence while they would happily join if they had a sense of progression and impact on the world. This is what we’re aiming for.

Richard Morgan: Well, it’s the old question isn’t it – why have story in games? And what I find fascinating is the way the industry has been dragging this issue with it since forever!  Go back to the early Doom days and you have people saying story in video games is like story in porn; it’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important. And then you get the rise of games like Max Payne and Half-Life and, to be honest, even Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and that quote’s proven to be crock of shit.  Then we end up fighting the same battle all over again with the rise of open world games – there’s this idea that you don’t need a story, players will just wander about and do stuff. And then Far Cry 3 comes along and kicks the argument into touch all over again. And now I think we’re refighting the same boring old battle over again with multiplayer shooters.  But if you look at every multiplayer shooter developer in the industry right now, they are all, once again, chasing story! The truth is that story is how we make sense of the universe, not just in our fiction but in real life as well. Telling stories is innately human, it’s a huge part of who we are as a species and how we got to where we are, and that’s never going to go away. Story colours everything that we do, it’s how we make things matter, whether in our real lives or in our entertainment. And that means that if you’re creating some kind of entertainment experience for your audience and you’re NOT thinking about story, then you’re not doing your job properly.  It’d be like trying to paint a picture but refusing to use half of the paint spectrum!  I mean, you COULD do that – but why would you?

What games and gameplay experiences do you look to as inspiration in your role?

Neill Blomkamp: Interestingly I am not pulling from games, the whole project for me is about tone, and design, and creating the world. Talented people like Scott Probin figure out how to make that into gameplay.

Richard Morgan: For me, it’s anything that has engendered in me a strong emotional reaction, an investment in the gameworld beyond the simple urge to execute the core mechanics and stay alive. That could be anything from The Last of Us – for its intense depth of character and backstory – to Shadow of War, for the way it makes you complicit in actions that, once perfectly justified, start to seem increasingly morally compromised and lost.  Or we could talk a bit about what is still, after more than a decade and a half, my favourite game of all time, The Suffering, where gameplay mechanics dovetail at genius level with the moral questions the game is asking you.  Good inspiration, I feel, is very much where you find it, and games have been inspiring me for a solid couple of decades, so there’s no shortage of places to look!

Do you worry that having such high profile creatives on board might establish expectations that will be hard for the game to live up to?

Richard Morgan: Well, I guess…  But it would be pretty defeatist to worry about that kind of thing, wouldn’t it. Like standing in the park and saying ‘Look at all this beautiful weather! Hey, what if it rains?’

I guess in the end it’s down to how confident you are in your art. Personally, I enjoy hothouse environments, because watching highly talented and motivated people do their thing always fires my own creative engines into overdrive. There’s a kind of virtuous circle of rising energy to it; you all drive each other on.  I mean, who’d trade that for something low key and safe and cut and dried?

Alexander Zoll: Our development team is unique and everyone has been hand-picked – our team leads bring in many decades of industry experience, and each of them has worked on highly successful titles and franchises. Experience and a wide understanding of how the industry works, how genres and specific titles work inside and out are important to us, especially when aiming at evolving a whole genre.

At the same time, experience and track record alone won’t form a team, so we’re paying as much attention to how each individual would fit into a specific department, and into Gunzilla overall. Thirdly, one of our most important development approaches is that we’re all open and listening to each other – of course, our team doesn’t just consist of directors and industry veterans, but of talents on all experience levels, who are united by passion. Within Gunzilla, all feedback is taken seriously and will be listened to, as that’s how we get the right take on bringing a whole genre to its next level – via experience and with as diverse views as possible.

…How might that be avoided?

Alexander Zoll: The game that we’re working on clearly is a product of our whole team, and it wouldn’t be possible without all the creative input that every single team member brings to the table. We can see the impact and progress of that during every single meeting, every single day – and especially on a weekly basis, when everyone at Gunzilla comes together to play-test the latest build of our game. Our approach of being an open studio, in which everyone’s feedback is not just welcome, but important, ensures that we’re having a clear understanding of what we’re creating.

What can those interested in the game and its narrative backdrop expect to learn about it in the year ahead?

Alexander Zoll: We’re currently at the crossroads for many important parts of the development, where important and defining decisions are being made. Development started roughly in Summer 2020, and given the scope of our project, this is where we’re now starting to end pre-production, and defining points for the time ahead. We’re very happy with where we are and what we have achieved, but it just needs some more time until we can go into detail for many points – so most things we’ll be sharing in the near future will still be on a rather high level, until we dive deeply into everything.

What will be your focus for the coming year?

Alexander Zoll: In addition to all the important development decisions we’re currently making, another big focus point is preparing the actual reveal for our game.

While we can’t yet disclose where and when this is going to happen, we can definitely say that we can’t wait for it, are very excited about sharing all the details with everyone, and once the time comes, will be very happy to present everything that defines our game.

The inevitable question: Tie-in novels, movies, Netflix series, etc – are these being seriously considered?

Richard Morgan: Oh hell yes!  One of the reasons I’m aboard is because this was always planned as a general IP, not just a game.  We’re creating a world here, a place players will want to return to again and again, and in time we hope to pass that passion on to other kinds of audiences as well.

Alexander Zoll: Our general approach always was and is to create not just a game, but a universe that allows for all forms and elements of entertainment to take part in it. With Richard’s, Neill’s and everyone’s expertise, that’s what we’re working on, while primarily focusing on the game, of course.

About Richie Shoemaker

Prior to taking the editorial helm of MCV/DEVELOP Richie spent 20 years shovelling word-coal into the engines of numerous gaming magazines and websites, many of which are now lost beneath the churning waves of progress. If not already obvious, he is partial to the odd nautical metaphor.

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