Respawn Entertainment’s Abbie Heppe on Titanfall

10 October 2013

While attending the EB Games Expo last week, we had the opportunity to sit down with Abbie Heppe, Community Manager at Respawn Entertainment (above left), to discuss the upcoming Titanfall. Below we discuss some of the new features of the game, including the new wall-running mechanics and how the multiplayer campaign caters to those gamers who typically have been into single-player only.

Stevivor: Titanfall is a game that I know a lot of people are looking forward to next year. To begin, could you tell us a little about the story in the game, and what are some of the things we can expect to see?

Abbie Heppe: Sure. So Titanfall takes place on what we call the ‘Frontier’, which are a series of planets on the edge of the known universe. It’s a long, arduous journey to get there, akin to the stories of the American Wild Wild West. There are two factions in the game- the IMC, which are the corporate entity and the self-appointed peace-keepers of the far planets, and M-COR, which are more of a rag-tag, operate-on-their-own group, who steal a lot of resources from the IMC, but which claim to be doing it on behalf of the settlers. We try to keep a lot of grey area though because gamers are going to be playing through the campaign as both sides. Each mission that you play will take you through a bit of the story and give you more of a background to the characters, as well as  an introduction to the world. We’re not getting super into the details right now, but we will reveal more in the upcoming months.

In the hands-on demo today, you’ll be attempting rescuing a pilot who is key to the resistance and you’ll be playing as the M-COR side. Obviously if you’re on the IMC side then you’ll be trying to stop this, but the cool thing about integrating the single-player components into multiplayer, is trying to create these epic moments and at the same time, also having these characters that you can identify with, as well as having those “stop, and say oh my god” set-piece stuff. You’ll also have the freedom to play which kind of modes you like with friends (like death-match).

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Stevivor: We know that founders of Respawn Entertainment were behind Infinity Ward and the extremely popular Call of Duty franchise. What benefits does that sort of experience bring, and how has that shaped what kind of game Titanfall is?

Heppe: We have a really experienced studio, especially when it comes to shooters. We weren’t dead-set on creating a shooter when the company was started, but it was obviously an option as it runs in the DNA of a lot of the founders. We’ve picked up a lot of people from Sony Santa Monica team, and a lot of people from other well-known studios too . The cool thing about the team is that there are people who have been working together for the past 10-12 years, back to 2015 Medal of Honor days, and I think there is sort of a closeness and communication that happens and people know how everyone works, and I think that brings everyone closer together. I think it helps us to be a really functioning team and family, and at the same time, there are even people who joined this project that have worked with team members on other projects at previous companies years and years ago.

It’s a close-nit team and there’s a great feeling at the studio, and obviously when you’re dealing with anybody that has 10-12 years of experience , you have a lot of senior staff who have been doing this for a long time, and they are super-helpful because you have these people who have been through all the different problems you can have in making a game, and you know how to approach those from an engineering level, from a text design, or an animation level, and it’s really cool and great to work with them.

Stevivor: When there are so many shooters in the market, what sort of things does Titanfall do differently that makes this game unique from what we’ve seen in the past?

Heppe: Giant robots certainly helps! But really, it’s not just about that, it’s about the pilots and how they move, and the ability to play the game from a truly 3D way. In Titanfall you’ve got to think about levels not just from the ground, but also going up buildings and thinking of how you’re going to navigate throughout the map, often at times without touching the ground at all.  So combing these wall-running and parkour elements along with the scale from the titans is a challenge on all fronts because you need to build maps differently. Some of the maps built for verticality but they also offer pathways for the pilots to escape quickly, but at the same time they also need to be big enough to accommodate for the titans. I would say that this is sort of a medium to small map in the larger scale of things, but it’s funny, you sort of change one thing and then you need to change everything. You need to have titans and then you have pilots, which have to be fast so you’ll be able to make escapes so that the game is fair and balanced. I always just tell people that they should play the game first and then they can tell me the answer to that question! *laughs*

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Stevivor: I’ve noticed from the videos so far that you can free-run along walls and other structures, as well as the inclusion of thrusters in your suit. In which ways does this change the way the combat plays in Titanfall?

Heppe: Well as I was just saying, you need to think about the map from all these different perspectives. I mean, in most games if you’re walking along the ground, essentially your line of sight is never much taller than say, two storeys. Whereas in here, there are levels that are much higher than that, but it’s also that all angles are at play too. My favourite part of it is that you can’t really camp – because let’s be honest, nobody likes campers and everybody complains about them. I actually invite people to go ahead and try to camp though, because people are going to be able to get behind you and above you. Additionally, you can sit there and just not see someone because there are just so many different pathways throughout the levels, where, while you can take the stairs, I highly recommend you take the walls.

It really opens up the gameplay, and I think it also solves a lot of problems that other shooters face. Granted, this also causes its own, because as I said, you need to change how you make maps and design a level, but at the same time, stuff like camping doesn’t really become a problem anymore.

Stevivor: Did those functions change up gameplay in ways you didn’t anticipate when testing? How so, and how did that effect development, if at all?

Heppe: It’s funny there – especially when you’re working with really interesting movement, there’s always stuff that people figure out how to do that you didn’t originally think about. These aren’t really ‘mistakes’, they’re just things that you didn’t consider – for example, someone stops and hangs on a wall, and another player comes along and jump-kicks them off, or if someone runs all the way up a building, only to have someone knock them off at the top. It really just combines all these fun and crazy ways to play.

We’re not in beta now, and we’re not in full release stage either, so there’s going to that period of time before the game’s out that we learn a whole lot more about what people like doing in the game. I really enjoy how a lot of the tools and abilities that we’ve given you, combined with the new things that we don’t original plan for, allow for those moments that make you go “woah, that was really awesome”. There is bound to be a lot more moments that I don’t think were originally the intention when it was designed, but it ends up working really well and it’s weird because design is such a meticulous thing but at the same time, you discover these cool things when they happen for the first time.

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Stevivor: Titanfall is described as changing the future of online multiplayer, by blending fast-paced multiplayer action with dramatically charged moments of a cinematic universe. Now there are some games I’ve played where the developers have pushed this multiplayer side so much to the point that the single-player aspect falls flat. Will Titanfall still offer those gamers who prefer to play alone, an engaging and enjoyable experience?

Heppe: You know, our essentially ‘single player campaign’ is an online multiplayer campaign. I know that’s really daunting to a lot of people who don’t generally play those kind of games, but there’s a lot of things in-place in Titanfall to help those gamers. Just with having AI in the world, you’ll get so many more kills, you’ll feel like you’re doing something on the battlefield, but on the other-hand, a lot of the things which look visually stunning when you see them in the trailers or in the gameplay videos are not hard to pull off. For example, wall-running is integrated very naturally and jumping on the back of titans is simple (you just jump on its back, or you eject out and you fall on his back and you go into that sequence).

One of the design goals for our design team was having something that your average gamer can pick up and play, feel like they had a great time and not just get shot and die straight away. The titans help with that too, where you essentially get a second life. You fall down your titan and you get into it, and you know you’re going to live for a couple more minutes, and you can do some really neat stuff. It’s really all about making that life cycle not just shoot, die, respawn, shoot, die, respawn, because if we were doing that, we wouldn’t engage those people who otherwise  be put off by the multiplayer idea. I’m the community manager and I hear from those people still who are like, “no single player – screw you guys” and I want to tell them, “just try it, and if you don’t like it then don’t forget to tell me I’m a jerk and that the team let you down, but really, just try it”.

Stevivor: During my playthrough I noticed that you can play the game as either a pilot (foot soldier) or a titan (mech). Which of the two do you prefer, and why?

Heppe: I love crawling down the titan and there’s something so satisfying about getting inside, but as someone who has been playing shooters since I was about twelve, being able to do the wall-running and the parkour is the best – I just love it. Sometimes I’m just running around the levels and I’ll forget that I’m supposed to be shooting stuff and take down the titans, because it’s just so much fun. It’s really liberating too – you really haven’t played a game that gives you this kind of freedom – especially a multiplayer game. I go and I play other games now and I just want to be able to move like that – I’ll be playing something like GTA and I just wish I could bounce off the walls.

So yeah, I tend to gravitate towards the pilots, but I really found that I tend to play a balanced mix of the two. I’ll always prefer to be on foot, but at the end of the day, there’s just something awesome about being able to say, “screw it, I’m getting in [a titan]”, and the moment you first punch a pilot in mid-air with a titan melee, you’ll realise why you like doing it.

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Stevivor: What challenges have the developers faced in having to create a game that will be made exclusively for the next generation of gaming? On the flip-side, what are the advantages this has brought?

Heppe: It’s always challenging when you’re at the beginning of a console cycle and you’re given new hardware – I mean, that’s just part of doing it for everybody , whether you’re developing for the Xbox One or for PS4. It’s kind of crazy to think just how far video games have come in the last 20-30 years, going from 8-bit to where we are now, is just amazing. So there are challenges, but there are always challenges in game development, whether it’s on the design-side or the engineering-side, and you just need to get past them to make great games.

On the plus-side (and there has to be a plus-side otherwise we wouldn’t bother developing for the new consoles at all), the fact that we are going to be able to have dedicated servers at a low cost is great. What people don’t know about dedicated servers is that they are freaking expensive, and as a new studio on our first project, that would be a tremendous burden for us to carry. So being able to use those without the cost to us, is brilliant, because it allows us to deliver a consistent experience to gamers. It allows us to offload a lot of our AI physics processing to the cloud, and it just helps us give gamers a better experience. There’s also some really neat stuff from a community perspective that Microsoft is giving us when it comes to match-making, and I love some of the stuff they’ve done with the last generation that is also being brought into the new generation (and expanding on), like adding content after launch, pushing updates and being able to offer stuff like content packs that isn’t just maps, but it helps sustain the gaming experience over the course of months. So I think a lot of that stuff is really awesome and very cool.

Stevivor: Can you tell us a little about some of the new features we can expect to see with the multiplayer side of the game?

Heppe: Some of the stuff I can’t talk about just yet (like the match-making), that I can wait to discuss later on though. The dedicated servers across all three skews, not just the Xbox One is a big jump for us and it’s weird, because the game in of itself is just something new to multiplayer – just having the campaign in multiplayer and the story-telling and narrative-driven stuff, and even just the detail that our designers, animators, and art team have put into the many different ways you can enter your titans, where you’re not just hitting ‘X’ and you’re in your vehicle. There’s a lot of attention to detail, there’s a lot of cool fluidity that I think is being brought to it and of course …. seven-metre mechs! That’s a new one for the FPS world too.

We’d like to thank EA Games Australia and Abbie Heppe for the opportunity to discuss Titanfall. 

Titanfall will be available on Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC in 2014.