I've been fascinated by Lost Planet 3 since the moment I first saw the game at last year's Captivate showcase. While the Internet's general consensus on the game seems pretty downbeat -- developer Spark doesn't have the best reputation, and LP3 strays considerably from the previous games -- I'm coming into the game fresh, free of preconceptions. Never having played anything by Spark or spent much time with the first two Lost Planets, I have minimal baggage to deal with. What I've really centered in on, though, has been the game's world-weary protagonist, an extraplanetary miner by the name of Jim. Middle-aged, bearded, pining for his family back home, Jim seems an unlikely choice for an action hero. I spoke recently with the game's producer, Capcom's Andrew Szymanski, about the unconventional thinking behind Jim... as well as the perhaps all-too-conventional thinking behind LP3's multiplayer design.
USgamer: You're nearly finished with Lost Planet 3 at this point. Is all the content for the game on the disc, or is there a DLC plan?
Andrew Szymanski: We're looking at what we want to do post-launch. We haven't actually announced anything. But I can say with certainty that anything we do post-launch… We won't have started making it until the game is done. Nothing on-disc, nothing we're holding back. That's not what we're doing.
USG: So the story, the campaign, is complete in the packaged product.
AS: Sure. In fact, I don't want to spoil it, but we've got a few surprises for people, to not only tell the story of Jim in the past but also to sort of hint at how that interacts with the rest of the franchise as well. The goal was to kind of bookend things, so that by the time you're done with Lost Planet 3, you see how all three games come together.
USG: How is LP3's multiplayer different from that of previous games in the series?
AS: It's quite different. We try to keep the core elements that people expect from Lost Planet in general, and also from multiplayer Lost Planet. You've got the Vital Suit, the robots, the Akrid, and then we have a lot of multiplayer maps where the Akrid are actually attacking you while you're in multiplayer. Of course you've got the NEVEC and Snow Pirate factions and the grappling hook and everything like that. But we're rearranging it in a different way now, so the pacing is a bit different.
The first two Lost Planet games were very action-focused. It was about traversal and about avoidance. The shooting felt like… I don't want to call it an afterthought, because that would do it a disservice, but basically, it was an action game in which your method of attack is shooting, if that makes sense. I think that Lost Planet 3 feels more like a shooter in the sense that that's more the core of the gameplay. Everything else helps build that up.
One of the things that's brand new this time around is we have an entire progression system in multiplayer. As you're playing matches, you earn credits. You can go in and unlock weapons, upgrades, player skins, and for the first time we actually have abilities – passive and active deployables and things like that. As you play matches and unlock these things, you can build a character out the way you want to. If you want to be a support class, more of a medic style, or if you want to be more of a straight-up attack style. There's a lot more customizing features than there were in the past.
USG: It sounds very Call of Duty-ish.
AS: A little bit, a little bit. Again, it's like, how do we take the Lost Planet formula and make it a little bit more compelling in terms of longevity? LP2 had upgrades, but it was this weird kind of slot-machine system where it was all random. You could play a match and then you wouldn't know if you were getting something you wanted or not. We're trying to make it a little bit more methodical as far as the unlocks.
USG: This habit of looking to Call of Duty is a pretty prevalent trend in the industry right now. What is it about Lost Planet's multiplayer, besides the core mechanics, that sets it apart? Especially with the progression systems. Someone who's invested a hundred hours into Call of Duty, why would they want to jump over to this?
AS: We're positioning it as what I like to call a palate cleanser. If you've been playing Call of Duty, playing other shooters, you can jump on with your friends for a while and have a different type of experience. Again, each of the things in and of itself is an individual element, but you're bringing it together and you get that chemistry that you don't necessarily get in another shooter. We have the vehicles. We have the Akrid that jump in. You're doing what's basically a PvP match, but then you have to deal with these AI-controlled enemies that are jumping into the map. Sometimes they actually form the goal of the map. Even though it's a team-based match, killing the Akrid can be part of the mission goals.
It's hard to describe without having it in front of me to show you and have you play it and see, but we've found that there are things that organically happen throughout the match that you wouldn't expect to see in another type of game. I was watching guys play at E3, and there was a guy who had the high ground. He's looking down at a guy who's pretty far away. He's in a very advantageous position. Then all of a sudden the guy turns and fires the grappling hook, and two seconds later he's right in front of him, then goes behind him and gets him with a takedown. That grappling hook, viewed as a single mechanic, is just that. It's just one element. But when you look at it as part of the sandbox, you'll get situations that you won't get in other shooters.
We're not trying to necessarily be the game that you're going to play nonstop for 10 hours a day. What we hope we are is the thing that's a little bit more of a change of pace. You can get on with some buddies and… It's still a competitive atmosphere in the PvP modes, but hopefully a little bit less of that sports kind of feel that Call of Duty tends to have. If that makes any sense.
USG: The way you describe it sounds like you're positioning it almost as the "other game" that people play. Not necessarily that you want this to be someone's main addiction, but you're okay with being the afterthought.
AS: "Afterthought" might be too harsh. Let's say "backup." I guess the way to put it is, the single-player is super important for us. We've talked about this in the past. We had a big decision to make when we started making LP3. Time and resources are limited. There's only a certain amount of things that you can do. Did we want to go back to the LP2 route, where everything has a multiplayer component, and therefore every piece of content you're making has something to do with multiplayer? But that is in direct conflict with the idea of telling a character-driven story and being really focused on the characters, which is something else we wanted.
So we decided to split it up. If we had devoted all our resources to multiplayer, would we be pushing it out as, "This is what you want to play nonstop, every hour of every day"? Perhaps. What I like to think of it is… Buy the game, play through the single-player – that is, in and of itself, hopefully one of the best experiences you can get in terms of narrative and understanding the world and Jim and everything – and then the multiplayer is a way to get a change of pace.
I think if you look at that as a package, hopefully that's compelling. But I have to be realistic in looking at the multiplayer and saying… Lost Planet's always had multiplayer. It has a great, passionate fanbase. We want to give those people what they expect out of the multiplayer. But it's not about aping Call of Duty or trying to be the next Call of Duty, because there's a lot of games that are bigger than we are that have tried to be the next Call of Duty and haven't succeeded. So trying to do that is not really a goal.
It's not about aping Call of Duty or trying to be the next Call of Duty, because there's a lot of games that are bigger than we are that have tried to be the next Call of Duty and haven't succeeded.
USG: Do you feel that the main motivation for having the multiplayer component is to satisfy that fan base, or as you were developing the single-player, was there something that made you say, "This would be cool with other people?"
AS: A lot of it, to a certain extent, has to do with publisher identity. When you look at Capcom, you have Monster Hunter, which is really well-known for local multiplayer play, although it does support other kinds. Lost Planet has always been our big multiplayer franchise in a lot of ways, particularly when it comes to online multiplayer. It was one of the first games that supported that many players that Capcom ever did. There was a certain amount of tradition involved, which is going in and saying, "If we're going to do Lost Planet, there's a tradition of revolving around multiplayer." So it was always in the plan at the beginning.
It was developed in another team behind Spark, kind of separate from the single-player. But there's a lot of things that inform each other. When we were building cover for the multiplayer, for instance, we said, "Okay, now we have a cover system. Let's put that in the single-player." And vice versa. Especially, for instance, the weapons.
A lot of the weapons started out as the single-player team developing the weapons, and then they pulled them in and balanced them. There are slightly different values for balancing in multiplayer to make sure that everything is balanced out. A lot of those things crossed over. For instance, the grappling hook – you use that much more in multiplayer than you do in single-player. In single-player it's very much a traversal mechanism. It's a gating mechanism. It's a way to get to areas that you haven't previously been able to access. In multiplayer it's totally strategic. It's about taking the high ground, zipping past a guy. There are ziplines throughout the maps that you can latch on to and it allows you to access areas quicker and things like that. The two definitely informed each other.
USG: So you've tried to separate the multiplayer from the single-player and let those stand on their own as separate entities.
AS: Yes. If somebody were to say, "Hey, look, I don't care about multiplayer, I want to play the single-player," I would tell them… If you collect every item in the game and explore every nook and cranny, it's a 20-hour single-player game. I don't feel bad at all saying you could just play the single-player and be satisfied with that. My hope, of course, is that people play the single-player and jump into the multiplayer. But there's no requirement one way or the other. We don't force you to unlock things. The progression is totally separate.
USG: It seems like a lot of franchises are uncoupling the multiplayer and campaign. For the longest time, the Halo series was very religious about vertically balancing both multiplayer and single-player and making sure that those things were totally in parity, even to the point of when they started to add the multiplayer co-op campaign stuff. That carried through and it made sense. But they've moved away from that with the most recent Halo games. I don't know. Do you think there's any advantage to keeping those things together? Was there a reason that you decided not to do that -- coming from LP2, where it was much more that way?
AS: There's a lot of reasons to do that. I can't be the only one who jumped into, say, Halo 3 for instance, where you've got Master Chief and Arbiter – which is great if you've got two guys – but then they other two are these nameless, faceless guys. I can't be the only one who thought that was weird. Who are these guys? What are they supposed to be? I thought all the Spartans were gone. I'm a huge Halo fanboy, and even I have trouble [with that].
Again, it's great if all you want is to have that online experience and go to town. But if you want to really get into the story and understand what's going on, it's not the best method. So for Lost Planet 3, it was a very similar situation, where we're dealing with this character Jim who's a very fleshed-out, strong main character. It's about his story. It's about his journey, his trials and tribulations from the time he arrives on the planet until the end of the game. A lot of our themes deal with loneliness and desperation and being out in the wilderness and having no one to rely on and how that makes him feel. He's sending video messages back to his wife and he's kind of hiding his trepidation by putting up a strong face for her. We've gone through all these nuances. If we threw a clone of Jim in there with a mask on and said, "This is Mitch!" Or "This is James!" or "Bob" or whatever. It just doesn't have that same effect.
You either have to build that from scratch – I think Gears is a great example of that, because the other guy is always there, whether he's a player character or not. They built in branching paths and everything. I thought that was a great execution for a co-op-focused game that could also be single-player. For us, the whole concept of the game revolves around Jim in the base, with the human interactions, and then Jim outside the base, with the solitude of being outside the base. Co-op did not work with that.
USG: I have to ask, since the two games have been compared so much… What did you think of the way Dead Space 3 handled the jump in, jump out co-op?
AS: I thought, personally, that the co-op was one of the best parts of the game. It's interesting in that they kind of went the opposite direction. They were single-player only, and then they jumped into co-op and we jumped out of co-op. But out of all the different elements in Dead Space 3, I thought that was one of the ones that was really fleshed out. It was obvious that they had put a lot of thought into it.
USG: You're talking about Jim and about the themes of the game. The heavily story- and character-focused approach is new to Lost Planet. Can you talk about bringing that… What's the term? That approach, that philosophy and style, to a series that hasn't been known for its characters.
AS: In a sense, it's a selfish decision, because that's what I want to see. When I talk to the guys on the team, that's what they want to see. Every time you embark on a new project, especially a game, you have to decide, what are our core competencies going to be? When you're working on a franchise title, a lot of it is choosing what you want to keep and what you want to change.
We had a team that gathered together and said, "We like classic sci-fi. We love the first two Alien movies. We love The Thing by John Carpenter." Which have obvious parallels. We want to have that feeling. You want to have the feeling of this idea of exploration on an alien planet. This kind of group of hodge-podge multinational colonists who come together and try to eke out an existence, all the intrigue and everything, that's what we want to hit on.
Again, it was going in and saying, "We've got this great Lost Planet framework. We've got the planet, we've got the Akrid, we've got the robots, we've got NEVEC and the Snow Pirates. We're going to keep all that, but we're going to take those building blocks and reform them into something that feels much more like classic sci-fi in execution." That was totally a decision that we made because that was what we would want to play. Ultimately, the best way to make something interesting is to make what you yourself would want to consume.
USG: I was describing Jim to one of my co-workers: A blue-collar dude, wife and kids back home. He kind of scoffed and said, "That's not really someone the target market can relate to." I don't know. How do you feel about that? What are you really aiming for as your market? Do you care that a 15-year-old kid's not going to be able to say, "There's my dad as the hero"?
AS: The typical marketing-driven answer I would give you is that we have plenty of action that's going to talk to that 15-year-old boy. I think that's true to a certain extent. When you're in the combat, our game is very action-heavy and action-oriented. Even while we've been doing test playthroughs, when we've gotten people in to playtest the game, we've found that the younger audience… A lot of the larger themes sort of go over their head, but they love going in and just shooting big bugs. So that's great. I would be remiss if I didn't try to bring those people in as much as possible.
But at the core of it, we want guys like us. Guys who love sci-fi, who love reading classic sci-fi novels – Heinlein, great, Niven, great. Those are the kinds of things that we look at as inspirations for what we're doing. With so many gamers out there that grew up, as we all did, playing on 8-bit and going from there, we really wanted to have something that felt like it wasn't talking down to you.
Yes, it's a game about shooting giant bugs. Our task was, do we want to make it a game about shooting giant bugs that's about shooting giant bugs, or do we want to make it a game about shooting giant bugs that's about something more? We chose the latter, and that will hopefully come through to people and resonate with them.
USG: Jim, as an archetype, is very common in movies, but not in video games. Can you talk about that a little bit?
AS: Sure. I think that's an astute observation. I think that was intentional for us in a lot of ways. We didn't want to do a typical video game character. That kind of tied in to your colleague's question – why would make a married…?
USG: Well, that question came out of that conversation.
AS: Exactly. So it all comes down to, once again, do you want to make this character a cipher, that really doesn't have much of his personality that you have to jump into? Master Chief is a great example. Halo 4 gave him a little bit more of a background, a little bit more of a personality, but going back to Halo 1 and 2, he really was kind of the silent, strong hero. You pour yourself into that vessel and now you are him.
We chose to go the opposite route, which is figuring out somebody who feels like a real human being. We wanted all the characters – not just Jim, but everybody else – to feel like they could actually exist in the real world. We wanted to get away from the space-marine type of stereotype. Let's face it. The guy spends the whole game shooting giant bugs. He knows his way around a gun. He's not a pacifist or anything like that.
But we didn't want the main thrust of the game to be about a militaristic type of situation. We didn't want the main thrust of the game to be "Invade this planet and kill the aliens." We wanted to give it a little bit more of a feeling where… The story starts with this exploratory, almost scientific Star Trek-style feel, and then it gradually starts getting more sinister and Jim is wrapped up in it. We wanted you to feel that transition. So when – again, I don't want to spoil it too much – when the real soldiers do show up, there has to be a contrast between them and Jim. When you look at the narrative as a whole from start to finish, it makes a lot more sense, where Jim's background is and where he's trying to get to.