Wolfenstein: The New Order and MachineGames Creative Director, Jens Matthies, may not be a household name for gamers but he has worked on some of the most critically acclaimed games across this generation and the last. Do games like The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena ring a bell? How about The Darkness? If you have experienced these games then you know his work as an artist. He left Starbreeze in 2009 to start up MachineGames with several other former Starbreeze employees. Then in 2010 Bethesda Softworks’ parent company, Zenimax, acquired MachineGames for 8 million dollars.
With their first game, Wolfenstein: The New Order set to arrive during “Q4 2013,” I was lucky enough to attend a hands-on demo of the game and sit down with Jens Matthies to discuss the game, the demo, working for Bethesda and why the Wolfenstein brand means so much to him and MachineGames.
In the first scene, one of the first things I noticed was the facial animations which looked great. Was that motion capture?
We used a ridiculous amount of full performance capture. So every time, every time, all of those scenes in the game–and there is a lot of content–it’s all of the actors together on a mo-cap stage. So, in that scene for example, it’s BJ sitting, and those two people, and there’s a guard in the background–all of that is captured simultaneously as one unit and they’re all interacting with each other. And we capture all of their facial animation and audio at the same time so we do the best we can to reproduce that performance in the game. That’s also the absolute best way of getting really good performance–having the actors interact with each other as opposed to recording it in a voice booth and trying to put it together afterwards.
This is running at 60 frames per second?
I noticed that for that first scene it was in game and later there are pre-rendered cut-scenes. What was the decision there?
The pre-rendered cut scenes are actually rendered with the game engine. So it’s not a technical limitation in that sense, but we use the cinematics to cover our loads. So for example when (BJ and Anya) are talking in the lab there is the split-screen cinematic, the game is loading in the background. So those are actually two levels but we wanted it to feel like a seamless experience. That’s why we chose to do it that way.
So this is being developed for the current gen and next gen.
Is 60 frames per second the target for current gen as well?
It’s hardwired for 60fps so we can’t really do anything else (laughs)
Ah, perfect. What are you doing to make up for the differences between platforms and generations?
We’re developing for next gen so it’s just about optimizing and doing what needs to be done on current gen. I’m sure there will be visual differences but we don’t really know exactly where that lies. It’s a work in progress but yes, it will look better on the new consoles. We hope to maintain the exact same gameplay so the only differences will be in visual fidelity, basically.
Am I correct in understanding that this game has been in development since 2010?
Preproduction started in October 2010.
So coming from Starbreeze, Chronicles of Riddick still stands as one my all time favourite games, this gen and last, why Wolfenstein? You have a new studio, why is Wolfenstein the first project (for MachineGames)?
A lot of it has to do with that we are all huge… Obviously we are all huge first person people, right? We love first person, single player experiences. If you do that, the reason why you do that is because of id Software. Because of what they did. I’ve been making games now, professionally, for 15 years and I was with Starbreeze for 11 years before we left in 2009 and started MachineGames and the reason I am even in this business is because of id Software. When they released Quake and it was possible to make modifications with it, that’s like game developer school, you know? And Wolfenstein, I never did any mods with it–I didn’t even know if that was possible–it was such a mind blowing experience to me. I was always into games before that, when I was really young, and I would always have this fantasy like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to see the world from your own eyes and really be in the world” and then this game comes out and does it and it’s like “this is possible?!?” So when Wolfenstein was on the table, we were like, “Yes, let us do that!” (laughs)
And you’re owned by Bethesda?
They own us, like id Software, Bethesda Games Studio, or Tango or Arkane. We’re all part of it.
So in that regard, when you say, “Wolfenstein was on the table,” (Bethesda) came to you and said, “These are the things we have, what would you like to work on?” Or….
Yeah, it’s all part of a negotiation. When we started MachineGames we talked to a lot of different publishers, of course. (laughs) It’s so bizarre because we learned so much at Starbreeze, I was there for 11 years and over that period of time you make so many mistakes. Some of them are about how you construct your games, some of them are about how the company functions, so this time when we started MachineGames, we thought “This time we’re going to do everything right.” So we listed everything–what type of projects? What type of publisher? And so we had this wish list and we were just talking to different people and just trying to get as close as possible to maxing it out and Bethesda were the type of people we wanted to work with because we know they have a quality focus and they give their dev teams an extreme amount of creative freedom. That can be a positive and a negative depending on the developer, but this was just a dream for us. And they’ve had this thing going in Bethesda Game Studios for so long, where they’ve done awesome, just kick ass games every time. Just super great games so they have a lot of understanding of what it takes to make a great game so they don’t mess with stuff that doesn’t need to be messed with. So for us that was the dream. So we talked to them and they had acquired id one year earlier so they had these id properties in their portfolio that no one was working on so we said, “Yes, please.” (laughs)
It’s weird in this day and age that this is a big deal, but a big deal has been made that (Wolfenstein: The New Order) is going to be a single player only game. Was multiplayer on the table ever or was it just like, “Nope, we only want to do single player?”
It was never on the table for us. It would be possible for us to make a really kick ass multiplayer game, but it would be at the expense of the single player game and we are not ready to do that. We are really passionate about single player experiences and that’s also the great thing about Bethesda, right? They have a proven track record of successful games that are single player only so it’s not a concern for them it’s just “make the game really awesome.” That’s the only thing that matters to them and that’s the only thing that matters to us so that’s what we do.
Playing through the demo, I noticed that certain things came naturally like aiming down the sights with left trigger and such, but I had to work through where I should go next, there wasn’t that marker or compass.
Even the things that were highlighted that you could interact with were very, very subtle. Was that your design philosophy, or were you actively against using that? Like Call of Duty, as much as I like that series, is very much like “We are going to lead you to where you need to go.”
Actually, it’s a little bit of both. We don’t ever want to confuse the player and there are moments that are in there that we know are confusing and we are, of course, going to correct those but in order to identify those, you need a lot of people playing so you can say “OK these 40 people had no issue, but this 41st person decided to do this thing and that made them think this was the way forward? OK we’ve got to solve that somehow and we have to figure that out.” If they try that, we have to inform them that this is not the way. There is an aspect of that that is about reducing the player confusion and affirming the player when they are doing the right thing, right? That is just about iteration and making the game better. But there is another side of that that is like, yes we don’t want to make a Modern Warfare clone. There are so many things about the classic shooters that we love, but there are a lot of things about the new shooters that we love too. We just want to take the best out of both worlds and we just want to create the “Super Shooter.”(laughs)
Being very experienced in console shooters, you get to a point, where–I’ll be honest with you, Call of Duty had fine tuned, like Left Trigger to aim down the sights, Left Stick to sprint. Things like that.
Yeah, we don’t fuck with stuff that doesn’t need fucking with, right? It’s all about creating that sense of… There are many things, like for instance a modern shooter, these days it’s about you come to an area and “OK, there’s my cover point” and you take cover and your enemies are in cover too and you’re picking them off in a certain way and we want to break that. What we’ve found is that is a little bit of a learning curve for people who aren’t used to it but we think there are ways to get a more profound experience out off having the enemies charge you sometimes and flush you out. And you have to be moving and you have to be constantly thinking and it doesn’t become this repetitive, you know…
Right, exactly. So every sort of combat scenario we create we design it as its own unit, as its own entity. If you play it multiple times you will get drastically different experiences because the A.I. is very good at figuring out how to approach you if you do something else. There is a lot variation on how those scenarios can play out but it’s all about creating that variation from encounter to encounter.
So like you see in this demo is that first Panzer in that sort of maze thing? “Panzer Hund” is what we call the robot dog. (laughs a lot) And that obviously doesn’t have to do with shooting at all. It’s all about figuring out the lay of the land here, and “how do I need to approach this?” And then you have this first robot encounter and then you have your limited places to take cover. And then you have this colossal mayhem scene where shit is breaking and you have to run around because if you stay in position, they’ll find you and crush you.
Yep, because that happened to me.
(laughs a lot) And then you come into the moon dome and everything is vertical. So there’s a lot of looking in different directions and (enemies) can come from all sides. And then you have the puzzle to solve there, and OH first there is the dual wielding shotguns through the corridors. So it’s all about these beats, you know, and we conceptualize those beats in pre-production and we think, “OK does this lead in to something else that’s awesome? How do we keep building and create ebbs and flows and valleys and peaks throughout this level?” We do that for all levels and we try to make a lot of variations in the levels.
OK, last question. Coming from the original Xbox Riddick all the way through now, how are you utilizing the power of the new consoles now that there is almost parity with PC in terms of power?
Some of it is so new. There are a bunch of different aspects. There are things that you can do in terms of visuals that just weren’t possible before, like the people on the train. We have wrinkle maps and proper skin shaders, that kind of thing but that’s more on the visual side. On the gameplay side, I don’t think that’s where the challenges are anymore. In video games now, whatever you can dream of you can basically do, so it’s the power of the dream that’s important. It’s how well you conceptualize it and how well you convey that to your team, how willing are you to release your precious darlings that aren’t working and how willing are you to iterate and really reach the next level of execution. I think that is more important than “Oh, we can have twice as many people on screen now.” For this kind of game.
I think that is very liberating too. It used to be about the USP (unique selling point), like “Oh what’s the USP in this game?” When the Gravity Gun came, and that was super awesome but it’s not about that anymore. Like we have this thing that can cut free-form and it’s this really cool thing and in the olden days that would be the USP, you know. That’s what would be in all the promotional material. But we’re past that now, it’s not about that one thing. It’s about the whole idea. It’s about that journey in this strange world and I’m really happy about that. I think that’s exciting and where the future is going in terms of games–a holistic approach as opposed to milking your one thing.