There’s a peculiar conflict quite unique to the sci-fi shooter genre. Though it may be repeated many times over that ‘all games these days are muddy space shooters’, people are still buying them and developers are still raising the bar with them.
Could it be that – shock – the sci-fi shooter genre is rooted in ideas that are interesting to work on, and fun play with?
Raven Software, based in the US State of Wisconsin, is certainly looking to work to the genre’s strengths by introducing an innovative play navigation tool, the Time Manipulation Device [TMD], in their upcoming FPS Singularity.
The TMD is a player weapon that allows certain dynamic objects in Singularity to be subjected to age-reversal or age-acceleration, opening up a manner of possibilities for Raven to apply puzzles or unique challenges.
Activision Producer for Singularity Kekoa Lee-Creel explains, however, that the TMD is more than a new idea for the developer and publisher; it is a necessity for the game to have any chance of breaking into a remarkably dense market.
Develop sits down with him to discuss this key innovation, its technical limitations, and the market it is looking to overcome.
The sci-fi shooter genre is often a subject of ridicule for being overcrowded, what are the principal ideas behind Singularity to make it stand out from the crowd?
Our big hook is the Time Manipulation Device, where players are given the chance to use time as a weapon. The item ties into the narrative as well, but it has several functions that make the game unique.
But that is one of four design pillars we have. Another is the work we’ve put into make the environments epic. Obviously much of how a game looks depends on the engine that’s being used, but I think the game looks better than a lot of others coming to the market soon. Genuinely, we have an amazing art team that’s working well with the tech as well.
The other two pillars are based on creating intense combat, which not all shooters do very well, and we also have a conspiracy-driven storyline and have put a lot of work on it.
Singularity is in a tight spot in that – from my perspective – it is actually far more promising than how its concept reads on paper. Will a demo for the game be released?
We’re definitely on track to release a demo. That’s absolutely critical. Singularity plays well; the conventional weapons feel good, the TMD feels really natural being mapped to the shoulder buttons. It’s so hard to convey how a game feels, but I have confidence that once we can cross that threshold I think we’re good.
In regards to the TMD, many have likened it to the Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2. With that game, most dynamic objects were subject to physics manipulation. In Singularity, how much of a challenge has it been to apply the decompose/recompose system to so many objects?
Technologically-speaking, of course not everything can be TMDed, so there is a limitation. As technically challenging as it is, we’ve done our best to allow as many objects as we can to be manipulable.
We’ve tied these objects together through narrative; in that the story covers a reactor explosion which spread what we call Element 99 all over the area. Things that came to contact with Element 99 can be TMDed, while everything else cannot.
We’ve also made it easier for the player to distinguish between the two by using a visor which will highlight what can be manipulated and what can’t.
How much of a restriction has this been on the design process?
It’s fairly difficult. We’re up against a technological barrier, so the choices we make have to be smart ones. I think time-manipulable objects, because we only have a certain number of those, certainly restricts what we can do in terms of a puzzle or progression-stop.
So the technology behind it is a limitation, but frankly even the player could access everything, I think that would be a little overwhelming really. If the player is presented with a puzzle, and everything in front of you is time-manipulable, then it would turn everything into a simple hunt for a key.
So I don’t think we want to overwhelm the player.
But surely you would prefer the option? I know logistically it seems far beyond today’s technology, but is it not something to aspire to?
Yes it’s absolutely something to aspire to. The technicality of that is fathomable, I guess, and within reach in ten years, but in terms of what we’re trying to craft that’s not for us.
At one point we had more TMDables than we do now, and through focus tests we saw that players were a bit confused.
You tend to find in most games that the vocabulary is restricted; for example there are doors which you know clearly cannot open just by looking at them. You tend to know which items in games are valuable to manipulate, like the saw blades in Half-Life 2, and others which clearly don’t.
You need to have some limitation. So even though there’s a technological challenge to it, there’s also a precedent not to go overboard.
Many of the videos you show flaunt how much is going on in Singularity at the same time. What middleware are you using to achieve this?
Well we’re using the Unreal tech, so PhyX for the physics, Kynapse for our AI pathing systems as well.
I think the reality is that Raven is a very tech-heavy house, so it’s not as if anything stayed the way that it was. The guys at Raven are extremely tech literate, so they tend to delve in and tear things apart. They’re always up for a challenge.
Nothing is outsourced either, everything is done in-house, and I think there’s a big benefit in the whole project being with one team. It’s very challenging to effectively outsource development.
Publishers are turning to more established brands at the moment, in that respect how challenging will it be to release new IP in the middle of a console cycle?
Obviously there will be a lot of challenges. The shooter market is saturated, it’s tough to break in right now when there’s a lot of great, well-established franchises.
The best things we have going for us is Singularity’s unique hooks. We tested the concept very early on, and it tested extremely highly; in fact it saw some of the best concept-testing results in Activision’s history when Raven presented it.
I don’t think Activision would have moved with it unless they believed in it. With the game’s unique selling points and the marketing power of Activision, I think there’s a lot in place for us.
We cannot progress, as an industry, unless we throw out new ideas once in a while and see how they do.