To many of its fans, particularly those in Europe and the US, Metro is and always has been an original video game franchise.
It’s hard to blame them – the first game in the franchise, Metro 2033, is celebrating its tenth anniversary, and has seen a level of success that, outside of its Russian homeland, outshines Dmitry Glukhovsky’s novel of the same name. Indeed, the English language edition of the novel was released as a tie-in for its video game adaptation, cementing Metro’s legacy as a video game first for English-speaking audiences.
To understand the complex dynamics of developing a game that for many outshines its original source, and to look back over a decade of Metro 2033, we sat down with Jon Bloch, executive producer at 4A Games
As it turns out, rather than Metro 2033 being a child of Glukhovsky’s novel, it’s more accurate to describe them as cousins – both born from an online short story.
“Before Metro 2033 was published as a physical book, it was a slightly different and slightly shorter digital story available on the internet,” says Bloch. “Back in those days our creative director, Andrey ‘Prof’ Prokhorov, had read this story and loved it.
“He reached out to Dmitry Glukhovsky and proposed a collaboration on a game. Dmitry had heard of Prof and the team, as he was familiar with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. so it seemed a good fit, and work began on a prototype that was eventually sold to THQ at [the Leipzig] Games Convention of 2006.”
From these beginnings, Glukhovsky has remained involved in the series as it has expanded into further titles, as Bloch explains: “Dmitry has been involved in every game from start to finish. What he focuses on changes over time as we move through development, but he’s always involved to some extent. We have a highly collaborative relationship with him that starts with developing the main story of the game, refining it into chapters and missions, all the way to dialog.
“For Metro 2033, the main story and a lot of dialog was done already as we followed the book pretty closely. For Metro: Last Light and Metro Exodus we developed original stories together with Dmitry that fit into his world and paralleled some stories in his other two books Metro 2034 and Metro 2035.”
Despite having such a rich, existing blueprint for 2033, it isn’t to say that the team had an easy job adapting Glukhovsky’s novel – soon realising they had perhaps bitten off more than they could chew in their initial plans.
“The original design for Metro 2033 was a lot more ambitious than the released product. It was a much more open game, leaning on the team’s experience having just come off of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and incorporating a lot more RPG style gameplay.
“Eventually the game was redesigned to be a much more tightly constructed linear and incredibly atmospheric experience that everyone is familiar with. Only with recent advancements in technology were we able to realize part of that original dream in Metro Exodus, where we introduced the more sandbox style larger levels to the franchise.”
Of course, it wasn’t just the technology of the time holding the team back either. When you’re working as a small team on such an ambitious project, you inevitably discover that there just isn’t enough time in the day. Which not only limits your scope, but has a real detriment to your team.
“When you have a small team, with a big passion for details, time is your worst enemy. Unexpectedly, it turned out there are only 24 hours in a day, while catching up and surpassing the industry leaders seemed to require more.”
“Looking back, if we could change anything it would probably be planning and time management. A smaller team usually operates under the assumption that if you hire more senior people you don’t need to do large scale planning because the senior people can manage their own time appropriately. But when those people also have a passion for chasing perfection, and attention to detail, time becomes your worst enemy and you find ways to fight it that put your physical and emotional health at the end of your priority list.
“That leads to burnouts, and even health complications. When the team grows, and the scope increases, this only gets exponentially worse and the need for planning and time management becomes critical. We took a stand to try to change that on Metro Exodus, to try to dedicate more time to planning, and while that was a transition project for us and we certainly could have done better, we are in a better place now to move forward to protect the team while still aiming to achieve our goals.”
The importance of time management and working within your limits weren’t the only lessons learned during the development of Metro 2033. In fact, a major lesson learned is not a direct workflow issue, but an issue of understanding how your fans engage with your game.
“We discovered that the modern player needs to be hand-held through a lot of details when you make a complex game. Hundreds of tutorials explaining every tiny detail, and follow up reminders, hints etc all need to be carefully crafted and inserted throughout the experience, and that takes as much energy as any other major feature in the game.
“You have to explain everything, including those we were initially planning to leave unexplained to be discovered by players themselves. This can range from something intended to be hidden like our Karma system, or something overt like how to move.
“For example, the first game had a feature which we still consider quite cool – armor attachments worn by NPCs. We had created specific particle effects and sounds which were supposed to let the players know they were hitting such armor attachments and not dealing damage to the enemy. It was incredibly satisfying to use stealth to approach an enemy carefully in order to kill him through a gap between armor plates with a perfectly aimed throwing knife…
“So what do you think happened in the end? Most players completely missed the feature and we received tons of negative feedback about enemies being bullet sponges, taking different numbers of bullets to kill every time. It was a sobering experience, we understood that if we want the players to understand the less obvious mechanics, they need to be explained explicitly, we just can’t rely on players to discover them all by themselves.”
Still, despite the challenges, the game went on to see critical and commercial success, in no small thanks to the series’ focus on realism, a trait it inherited from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series before it.
REMEMBER YOUR MASK
One feature from 2033, which was carried forward throughout the rest of the series, is the game’s focus on its gas masks. Often used as a throwaway, forgettable accessory in many games, Metro’s gas masks are a central mechanic. They need to be maintained, and if damaged in battle you’ll need to quickly find a replacement or face the deadly consequences.
Bloch explains why this level of realism has become such an important pillar of the franchise.
“A major pillar of all the Metro games, and in general for anything we like to build at 4A Games, is realism. Not only in visual, but in backstory, justification for existence, and in experience.
“We ask questions like: What would you need in real life in this situation? Where would that come from? How would it work? Instead of gamifying it, or hiding it behind some automatic contextual animation, could we actually make players do that? What tool would they use? Where would the screws be on that device and why?
“There’s a great story from development of Exodus where game designers wanted to have an explosive tip version of the arrows for the crossbow, but weapon artists argued that the barrel would have to be enlarged to support that and if we did that, another part would end up structurally too weak to make sense. The weapon had to go through a bit of physical re-design to accommodate, and the way the explosives were attached to the arrow was rethought.
“There of course needs to be a balance between being too real, as real life is hard work, compared to the ultimately fun experience we’re trying to make in a game. But this can be seen all throughout our design philosophy ranging from intricate and mechanically sound weapon design, physicalized HUD information, features like the gasmask, and even the little micro-stories that players can experience when exploring dark corners that in other games would have been dressed with cookie cutter environment design. In particular, features like the gas mask, the watch, the charger, all contribute critically to the thick atmosphere and immersion that are unique staples of the Metro franchise.”
These unique staples are among the reasons for the franchise’s ongoing success. The past decade of the Metro video game franchise is owed in no small part to this dedication to realism and measured gameplay.
Though realism isn’t the only thing you think of when talking about Metro. The game has an unmistakably Eastern European feel – making it easily stand out from the usual pack of Western releases or Japanese titles. The game’s Russian roots run deep throughout the franchise.
“There’s still a sort of exotic impression that people in the ‘west’ have of Eastern Europe. The differences in society and culture provide a lot of opportunity for intrigue,” Bloch notes.
“Also for Americans having grown up with Hollywood always making Russians out to be villains that the Americans need to save the world from (or some other cliché), the Metro stories provide something vastly different and refreshing.
“It’s a story set in Eastern Europe, told by Eastern Europeans, that doesn’t speak to international politics, but to humanity and who we are as a species. While this means the story could have taken place anywhere in the world and had the same sort of message behind it, the perspective is very different to how this same sort of story might have been written in the west, and is a foundation of why it’s so unique, particularly for western audiences.
“The fact that there are other books in Dmitry’s universe that take place in other countries, speaks to this as well.”
Looking back, it would have been hard to predict the game’s success a decade ago. At the time, Metro 2033 was a remarkably different beast to THQ’s usual fare, and one that the publisher struggled to find a voice for. Still, with each game’s successive release, the game has slowly found its footing and gained more and more attention.
“Originally THQ was not sure what to do with Metro 2033 as it was something so different to what they were used to publishing. It is distinctly Eastern European, which was something they didn’t know how to market at the time – later stating this struggle publicly in hindsight!
“This combined with some structural changes in the company created a situation where the game didn’t get much marketing or exposure, and ended up being more of a sleeper hit over time than an initial hit. Metro: Last Light got more attention and marketing budget, but was cut a bit short by the transition to Deep Silver in the THQ bankruptcy. Metro Exodus’ exposure was built on the foundation of that slow accumulation of fans over time, and the sort of ’cult’ status that comes with that.
“There was a huge sense of pride for all of us on the team when Exodus was revealed on the Microsoft stage at E3 in front of all those eyeballs. That was the most exposure we’d ever gotten and it was a huge motivator after all that time in the metaphorical tunnels.”