Creating the perfect action game: Roland Lesterlin on Just Cause 3

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Recently at PAX Australia, Stevivor had the chance to sit and talk with Roland Lesterlin, Game Director at Avalanche Studios about the upcoming Just Cause 3.

Stevivor: To begin, could you tell us a little about the story of Just Cause 3?

Roland Lesterlin: Sure. We started thinking, “how do we tell a little more about who Rico is?”

One of the things that helps identify a character is knowing where they come from, so to learn who Rico was and why he became this awesome Latino action hero. Rico was actually born in Mexico, and when he was a little kid he moved with his parents to Medici where he grew up. When he was in his late teens, Di Ravello, the dictator, took power and there was a military coup one night. Rico was smuggled out of the island to survive and that’s where he met Sheldon and ended up doing San Esperito in Just Cause 1 and Panau in Just Cause 2. Over this time he learned the tools of the trade and became a dictator removal specialist.

So Rico finally has all these great tools and now he’s going back to the place where he grew up that started it all for him. So in doing this we have a bunch of characters that knew Rico from when he was a little kid and they don’t treat him like a big action hero, much like how your friends might treat you in real-life. We also have new characters that come in, and for the first time it’s not just about destroying everything, well, yes, it is about destroying everything, but Ricco actually cares about what happens to this place after the dictator is deposed. So over the course of events you’ll meet characters that help set the stage for the transition of the island of Medici into what it’s going to become.

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Stevivor: We’re seeing with this generation that a lot of games are moving away from single-player and more towards multiplayer. Why was the decision made to have a rich storyline in Just Cause 3 and not follow suit like so many other games?

Lesterlin: I love playing multiplayer games and if you put your focus and energy right there you can make some amazing experiences, but I still think there is a lot of room to make rich and beautiful single-player games. The more we can talked about what kind of game Just Cause 3 was, we agreed that it’s was a sandbox before it’s was open world title. I mean yes, it is an open world but that’s kind of a repercussion of it being a sandbox game. When you’re grapping four people to walls or to a helicopter and you plant the explosive on it, you’re kind of setting up your perfect action moment, that that’s kind of a personal experience.

At the same time, Just Cause is also a great spectator game. We found that with Just Cause 2 that people uploaded 12 million videos to YouTube – that’s insane! Just Cause is actually a game that is as much fun to watch as it is to play, so we put all our focus on how we could make this the most outrageous action game ever so you can upload your favourite action moments. And then we spent a lot of time since we have a lot of amazing network coders as well, on figuring out how we could do an asynchronous set-up. I have friends who live in different countries and time zones, and whenever I ask them to play online they always say it’s too early or too late. So we set up this whole system of online leaderboards and ghosting so I can download my friends’ best times in a race, see which vehicles they were in, how they got the best score and we have a feat system that calculates things like how far you flung someone on the map for example. You can then challenge your friends to things like how far you can fling someone, and then we hope this opens a dialogue where gamers chat about how they pulled it off.

When I first sat down with Microsoft, Sony and Valve and they were talking about what they were going to do in the future, and they all spoke about streaming, uploading and Twitch, we were like, “they’re building consoles for Just Cause”. Who knows what we’ll do in the future, but right now we’re trying to make the best sandbox experience.

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Stevivor: What core elements from the franchise made it into Just Cause 3, and what elements were either untouched or tweaked for the current generation?

Lesterlin: We re-touched almost everything. It takes a lot of time to do these games, and we’re always ambitious when we have all this time and talents around us. I mean, there are people around us who have worked on amazing games and they’ve all came on board and we said, “who wants to make Just Cause 3”. The series is kind of a dev darling too where a lot of developers love Just Cause. All of them want to step up to the plate and bring their system to an ultimate polish, so there’s a bit of internal competition.

We’ve redone our animation system so that it’s still responsive but also gives a lot of weight and feel like you’d expect it to. Rico has over 2500 animations just for locomotion, never mind all the combat stuff. We wanted to have a go at having a fun story and doing an old 80s action story or like a ‘Tropic Thunder’ story. So there’s a lot of humour and we don’t take ourselves too seriously so it matches the world, but we have characters that you can still fall in love with. Like an Indiana Jones story, it’s ridiculous – he’s an archaeologist with a whip who defeats Nazis, but Harrison Ford was so deft with how he handled his character that he was fun.

We re-did the grapple too. We knew that the grapple worked really great, where you could tether two things together, but you didn’t have any control. We pulled the whole thing together and asked “how do we give players the most control possible so we can get out of their way and they can do whatever they want?” That’s where the invention of being able to control the tension of the grapple line came from. We then thought, “it would be cooler if we could have more grapples”, so now you can have six.

A lot of games raise the bar so we wanted to raise the bar too. So you can take down bridges for example. Vehicles have been overhauled as well so our cars now feel good enough that even with parachutes, wing suits and grapples that people still want to race them. We had developers come on board with Need For Speed and Burnout backgrounds and said, “yup, we can take that challenge”. So you have cars that you can control in the air and do backflips with, there are stunt planes that you can walk on, and you can even get a jet and walk on the wings and grapple things to it and shoot off it. We thought of things that could be fun and said “let’s do that.”

With cars, we wanted extremes being able to brake late and shaving seconds off your lap times to allowing people who just want to hold down the accelerator and bounce of walls. We have cars from tractors to F1 cars too, but we thought we need more so we introduced a train that you can stunt on and even derail it use as a weapon. Each time we build a system we thought to ourselves, “let’s go too far”.

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Stevivor: This will be the third instalment in the franchise. As the developers what is more important – bringing in new gamers or appealing to existing fans? Is it an existing balance to find?

Lesterlin: I think it is always a difficult balance to find. You want to bring gamers into your game because the more players that come into your game more likely you’ll be able to make another one in your life. But, we found that JC2 had a really amazing hardcore fan base, and they fell in love with the sandbox elements. In the first Just Cause we figured out that the grapple hook was cool. In Just Cause 2 we figured out that the grapple hook and the parachute were amazing and tethering things together was cool, so we didn’t want to mess it up. We wanted to take that stuff and put it as a core of everything. There aren’t a lot of games that force you to get up into the air to fight from a parachute, so we thought let’s focus our attention on doing that. We build on top of that, having better cars, a story with a bit of heart and exploring Rico and we thought that this could bring in new fans. There’s no limits or walls that are stopping you from going to different parts of the map either for example.

We hoped that as any progressive generation of games, that games are unique and they get better with age, like wine. The more we learn, the more we listen to fans, read forums and watch videos, we can fine tune everything so that you can get that experience that we all dreamed off when we played the first two games. We just want to make the best Just Cause game. Journalists have been really nice and are writing great articles. We’ve been really open with it and I think people have been appreciative of this, so we’re like, “it’s just a game, go have fun”. I think the fan response has been great, we have YouTubers already playing the build. We’re finally there. December 1st is around the corner and I can’t wait to start watching videos and seeing people’s reaction of it once they get their hands on it.

Stevivor: To end, what is your favourite thing to do in Just Cause?

Lesterlin: It kind of differs depending on my week. There are some times when you need a really relaxing vacation, like when it’s raining outside or it’s cold. Sometimes I just like wing-suiting around the island for example. For a while I was doing this challenge where I would start at a base towards the bottom of the map and I’d wingsuit all the way to the top of this tall mountain, which meant crossing bodies of water, having to find boats and essentially doing it without ever using the parachute – just grapping and wingsuits. It was really hard to do and took a couple of attempts.

I then spent a lot of time with the vehicle team because I love racing games and racing in general, and I love the idea of getting that perfect drift where I just avoid that on-coming car. I smash cars sometimes too and that’s fun, but I love when you pull it off that drift and there’s that amazing feeling.

And lately I’ve even been enjoying just playing through the missions. They’re getting to a stage where they’re really polished and you can have this great experience with them. All the mechanics that you unlock in the regular game are also in the missions, so you can use things like the rebel drop, mods and the rest. So, in the middle of the mission you can spawn a destroyer ship and have it right there on the island, just sitting there. I’m having a lot of fun just poking at the system and that’s perhaps been my most recent joy.