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The inside story behind one of the most innovative games in development
If half the battle of launching an original game is naming it, then LucasArts and Day 1 Studios are already halfway to victory with Fracture. “The game was probably the most difficult to name I’ve ever been involved with,” confides Day 1’s affable, sharp-eyed president, Denny Thorley, but the end result is a multipurpose marketing dream.
Not only does Fracture possess the requisite duosyllabic snap, it succinctly sums up everything that makes this ambitious new action epic – due in the summer of 2008 – markedly different from the run of the mill.
The first and most important fracture in Fracture is geological. Many games have called themselves ground-breaking, but Fracture has a literal claim to the term: it lets you break the ground. And raise it, and depress it, and drive spikes up through it, and burrow rockets beneath it, and gather it up into boulders that gouge troughs through it as they roll.
This is a third-person shooter in which almost every weapon you possess can deform the terrain, and not just in the destructive sense. Cover can be summoned at will, paths to inaccessible areas raised or carved, the ground literally whipped from beneath your enemies’ feet. Fracture lets you shape the battlefield yourself.
The second fracture is of a nation, and of ideologies. Set on Earth in 2161, Fracture portrays the outbreak of a war in the US between the east and west coasts, and their respective allies, over the use of technology. The Atlantic Alliance of eastern America and Europe outlaws the genetic engineering beloved of the west coast and Asia, and conflict flares between their respectively cybernetically and genetically-enhanced troops.
The game’s hero, Mason Briggs, is a demolition expert on the Atlantic Alliance side, whose adventure begins at the war’s flashpoint: San Francisco.
These two aspects of Fracture – the terrain deformation that saturates its gameplay and the surprisingly serious and detailed hard sci-fi that is the backdrop for its plot – are strikingly in tune with the mission statement set out last year by a resurgent LucasArts. Gameplay innovation through technological innovation, and a commitment to richer narrative in games, are LucasArts hallmarks of old that the company wants to put back at the centre of its philosophy.
It’s such a perfect fit on paper that it’s almost hard to believe Fracture had its genesis outside George Lucas’ campus in San Francisco. But it was Day 1, the Chicago-based developer of the MechAssault Xbox games for Microsoft and also of the console versions of Fear, that made the pitch after developing the idea and the technology internally.
As Thorley says, it was a meeting of minds. “When we went and met Peter [Hirschmann, LucasArts’ vice president of development] it was like we could complete each others’ sentences, in terms of what we expected. It’s kind of a dream from a developer’s standpoint, because LucasArts has given us the time and the financial resources to create something pretty special.”
Our first introduction to Fracture is what Day 1 describes as a ‘playground’, an open-plan, freeform sandpit – literally – that functions as a demo and design tool. Similar playpens will be included in the final game, possibly integrated into the campaign, possibly as standalone toys. Here we’re shown the weapons that mark this game out from every other of its type, starting with the two fundamental, game-defining tools: tectonic and subsonic grenades.
Tectonic grenades raise a steep mound of earth, affectionately called a ‘loaf’ by the Day 1 team. Drop one in front of you – not too close, to avoid getting caught in the blast radius – and you can use it as cover. Drop one under a broken gantry and you can climb up to it. Throw it at your enemies’ feet and they will be hurled into the air, but be careful, because a short throw results in cover which they can – and will – use.
“If you throw a grenade and miss, you’re essentially making your job harder,” says design lead Jeff Gregg. “But you have other tools to fill that hole up or make that situation advantageous to you.” Enemies will, of course, have their own terrain-deforming weaponry.
The subsonic grenade is the tectonic’s opposite. It too has a conventional explosive effect, but it also punches a deep pit in the ground that can be used as a foxhole, to dig under walls, or to block off enemy movement. Both can furthermore cause physical disturbance and destruction to objects in the game world.
They’re simple to use and their effects are smooth, fast and among the most potent and predictable in the game. Already they have as much, if not more, influence over your environment as any shooter weapon since Half-Life 2’s gravity gun, and have more serious tactical applications too. It’s likely they’ll take up permanent residence in two of the four grenade slots on the D-pad. We only see two other grenade types, but a comment from Day 1 to the effect that you’ll have to pick and choose indicates that there will be more.
The other two grenades we see fall into a second category of weapons to be found in Fracture: spectacular, arguably gimmicky, almost unbalanced, deliberately chaotic. They appeal to something that producer and Microsoft veteran Jon Kimmich identifies as one of three core elements of a ‘Day 1 game’: “A sense of exaggerated power, really incredible dynamism and over-the-top effects. When I pull the trigger, when I do something in the game, it’s a huge moment.”
(The other two elements are accessibility and multiplayer; Day 1 isn’t ready to speak about the latter yet, beyond an admission from Thorley that it represents a sizeable technical challenge.)
The spike grenade thrusts a tall crystal spike out of the ground that can lift heavy objects or propel the player to high areas, and will shatter into dangerous shards if it hits the ceiling. The vortex grenade creates a tornado of energy that sucks nearby earth, objects and enemies into a whirlwind that intensifies if you fire into it, before exploding messily. Sequences of vortex grenades can even be used to hurl Briggs around the map at speed; one of several examples of a weapon being used in a way Day 1 didn’t foresee until playtesting, but have been embraced since.
“As soon as we create something, we find five ways that it can be used that we never intended, which we’re really enamoured with,” says Thorley. Despite Day 1’s traditional devotion to high-impact armaments, Fracture’s randomness, fluidity and huge scope for player improvisation has necessitated a shift in attitude. “One of the things we’ve found out playing the game is that chaos is fun. We really had to get away from things we’d learned from other shooters that we’ve been involved with, and go to a little bit crazier and more chaotic level.”
Fracture’s firearms are slightly more conventional and down-to-earth than its grenades, with one notable exception, but they all still have terrain deformation effects. You’ll be able to carry two at a time, the ubiquitous design lift from Halo that does make sense in Fracture’s context. The freedom of choice is so broad in this game that you won’t explore its possibilities fully without a little limitation.
The Bulldog is a machine gun that chips away at terrain, allowing you to carve steps in a steep slope or a firing point in your cover. The Invader is a shotgun that raises terrain slightly and has a slow, ricocheting round on secondary fire that explodes when you release the trigger, making it possible to shoot round corners. The Black Widow can accurately plant several subsonic mines and then detonate them simultaneously, ideal for booby-traps or quick trench-digging.
The Bangalore is the Vortex-style spectacle, with a terrain-deforming rocket on primary fire and a torpedo that tunnels underground on secondary, exploding when you release the trigger with a dramatic slow-motion effect. But the unhinged highlight is the unofficially-named ‘boulder gun’. This ludicrous, enormously entertaining weapon sucks the earth up into a man-high boulder and launches it forwards, knocking down Pacificans like skittles. And it can be detonated like a huge bomb, by shooting it.
The boulder gun is still a prototype, a rough idea sketched out by a designer that has was initially thought a bit silly at Day 1, but has simply proved irresistible in practice. It’s a great example of the sudden enthusiasm for free-thinking design at the technocratic developer, prompted by its terrain deformation concept. Alongside the enormous demands of the terrain deformation and its knock-on effects (on AI and animation in particular), Day 1’s engineers have worked hard to produce tools that will allow its designers to improvise as much as, it’s hoped, players will.
“These weapons that you’re seeing, the first iterations were done on some of those by a designer before a programmer even got involved. The boulder for example,” says Mike McDonald, technical chief as well as director of its second studio near Baltimore. “It didn’t run as fast as it does now we’ve done it in code, but it gave them the ability to prototype that stuff out. That’s huge in the discovery and innovation process, to not have a bottleneck of two or three engineers. If the tools aren’t easy to use, if they’re not full-featured enough that they [the artists and designers] can just do everything they want to do with minimal engineering support, then we consider we’ve failed.”
In our very own playtest, the boulder gun also provides a perfect illustration of the happy, unforeseeable accidents constantly thrown up by Fracture’s riotous arsenal, and how admirably open Day 1’s design team is to them. At one point in the first level you’re required to warp the earth to allow you access to the first floor of a concrete bunker, defended by a squad of Pacificans. Having constructed a sort of scooped ramp from the neighbouring hillside, it was impossible to resist trying to bowl a rock down it and into the bunker and the waiting Pacificans. On the third attempt it entered – and, to howls of delight from all present, it stuck in the back of the corridor, cutting off the enemies’ exit and some of their cover.
“I’ve never seen anyone try that before,” said Gregg, visibly excited by the fact his game could still surprise him. “What went through my head was, ‘uh, I don’t know if that AI is set up to know that that’s blocked’, and it just worked. I’m going to design areas around that now. I’m no genius – I see stuff like that and I’m smart enough to say, we’re going to work that in, that is awesome.”
This attitude is important because Fracture’s design has a difficult line to walk. Notwithstanding the influence and creative freedom it affords the player – and the fact that it consequently plays out over a broader field than usual – this is still a sculpted, channelled shooter in the modern mould, with a distinct story arc to follow. It is a game of carefully-constructed set-pieces in which anything can happen.
The early sequence we play tasks Briggs with destroying two anti-aircraft batteries, covering a dropship landing, fighting through a complex and raising a sabotaged bridge. It runs from tight firefights to open skirmishing, from navigation and puzzle-solving to almost surreal physics games, and plays out in a dried-out San Francisco bay, the Golden Gate bridge towering eerily high above the scene.
The anti-aircraft guns are destroyed by planting tectonic grenades beneath them to raise them into the shields they’re surrounded with. Invader rounds are bounced around the inside of a bunker. Hyrdras – spooky, Bangalore-wielding Pacificans who can leap huge distances and only attack from high ground – are dealt with by riding a grenade spike to their level. Platforms are created by placing tectonic grenades under crates, the bridge fixed with a gigantic version of the spike that enemies wear down with their weapons. In one sequence you’re attacked from the top of a slope with large, bouncing, explosive hydrogen balls – a ludicrous weapon that justifies its existence purely by being so much fun to deal with in context. You can use the Black Widow to pit the slope and disrupt their path, tectonics to create a ramp to send them over your head, or (in Gregg’s favoured method) spikes, to start a gigantic, deadly game of pachinko.
It can be an unreal world that Fracture presents, the better to exploit the chaotic fun of its terrain deformation. But it’s one that Day 1, under LucasArts’ guidance, is working hard to ground it in recognisable themes and thorough detail.
Cinematics director Peter Krygowski (Thorley prefers to call him the ‘emotion director’) is the man tasked with humanising its pop-up playground. He’s worked out a careful future history to get us from here to there, including an opinion-dividing genetic engineering disaster towards the end of the 21st century, and a cycle of climate-change disasters that inspire the technology and create the familiar-yet-alien US landscape that the game plays out in.
“Wikipedia’s a lot of fun,” says the studious Krygowski drily of his research into the weapon technologies. “The Bangalore, for instance, is based on liquefaction technology. The terrible earthquake that hits the west coast of the United States is a horrendous blow to the US, but they learn a lot from it about how earthquakes work, about how sound works, about how liquefaction actually makes the earth soft underground.”
“I kinda geek out on thinking about how this stuff could really work,” agrees art director Josh Nizzi. If all this detail can be communicated alongside Briggs’ traditional (and as yet under wraps) personal narrative, it could give Fracture’s world the scope and tone of literary sci-fi rather than film fantasy, a rare feat in games. It’s already provided, if the re-imagined Bay Area is anything to go by, some striking locations: “We use both familiarity and unfamiliarity as tools,” explains Nizzi.
As much as LucasArts producer David Perkinson likes to stress how strong his company’s emphasis on story and character is, and how closely it’s working with Day 1 in this field, it’s where Fracture currently has the most to prove. The setting is fascinating but the presentation is a rather conventional dystopian future, all stressed concrete, dustbowls, hulking Atlantic vehicles contrasting with organic Pacifican tech.
Fracture doesn’t play like any other shooter but it looks like quite a lot of them: can it really meet LucasArts’ president Jim Ward’s demands for mass-market accessibility when, outwardly, it seems aimed squarely at the infamous ‘core gamer’?
“Certainly those are discussions we’ve had a lot throughout the development of the game,” confirms Perkinson. “We’re very sensitive to making the game appeal to too narrow an audience. We are constantly charged with keeping the experience open to all levels of gamers and just last week, Jim said: ‘I will not ship this game if I can’t finish it’.”
A strong, distinctive self-image is what Fracture needs if it’s going to capitalise on the irrepressible innovation in its gameplay, and do what LucasArts wants and needs it to do: give it a major success in original IP to sit alongside its priceless but overworked movie properties. “There was a perception that we do Indy and Star Wars. And there are people there who feel like the company is able to do a lot more interesting things,” says Perkinson. “George has made it very clear that LucasArts is going to be one of the main pistons firing in the engine for generating revenue for his company, and the best way to do that is for us to have new IP that is going to generate a lot of interest.”
Thorley is unsurprisingly full of praise for his new paymasters. “We’ve worked with publishers that would really clamp you down to milestones, got to have this, got to have that. At LucasArts it’s a little bit different, it’s like, you’ve got to innovate, innovate, innovate. Iterate and have fun! Also, because they do less titles, it gets more focused at a much more senior level. It’s kind of unique because it’s really good feedback when you’ve got people like Peter or even Jim that can give you really viable input.”
“Our organisation is pretty flat,” agrees Perkinson. “So we will present individual story bits all the way up to the president of the company. Mr Lucas has made a few comments on the game,” he adds. “How cool is that? That is so cool,” bellows Thorley. “It’s also pretty scary,” says Perkinson in a small voice.
As much as this sounds like corporate back-slapping, there is clearly an unusual rapport between Day 1 and LucasArts. The publisher’s considerable financial backing and insistence on technical and design innovation has set this developer free to really start riffing on its simple, earth-moving idea, and the sense of excitement and of liberated conceptions is palpable in Day 1’s offices. Fracture, with over a year left in development, is looking remarkably solid, playing well and setting itself apart from its rivals and Day 1’s past games.
But it’s still flexible enough to accommodate the good ideas that are still being dug up, on a daily basis, from its ever-shifting, gloriously unpredictable landscape.