Joystiq interviews FarCry 2's Clint Hocking

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Ubisoft's Clint Hocking made a special trip to PAX this year to show off his latest project: FarCry 2. But this isn't your run-of-the-mill FPS sequel, as our liveblog of the demo details, but an ambitious open-world shooter set in the exotic locale of the African Savannah. We were lucky to grab a couple minutes of Clint's time following the demo for an interview where we asked about the FarCry brand, the possibility of console ports, and how long they think this open-ended game will take to finish.

Why use the FarCry brand to make this game?

Well, I think that's kind of a business question for Ubisoft but my answer to that is, Ubisoft started with FarCry, published it and obviously started making the console games. The same time they were doing that – keep in mind I started conception before FarCry Instincts even shipped. They were in production when I started conception. And Ubisoft knew at that time that they wanted a top tier PC sequel. At the same time they knew about FarCry; at that time Boiling Point was announced; we didn't know about Just Cause; they knew they were going to make at least two sequels on the console; LOST was on TV. Literally they said, "We're worried that we're going to dry up this brand."


Not to mention Crysis ...

Well, Crysis wasn't even in production at that time but they figured that Crytek would probably go on to make another awesome game, so they said, We need to not only make a sequel but we need to reinvent the brand in order to sustain it, because it's been exploited. We've used it up. So that's what they told us to do and that's what we did. We started and said, what do we have to have? We have to have the exotic world, we have to have that sense of realism, openness, freedom of gameplay; we need to have that. Everything else, they just said if you have everything except for that, we're fine. So that's what we did.

FarCry 2 is obviously a lot different than, say, Chaos Theory. As a designer, it seems like a pretty unique challenge to give yourself. To go from something like Chaos Theory to the open-world of FarCry 2.

Yeah, of course. I worked on the original Splinter Cell and for me, Chaos Theory was a chance to do everything that we wanted to do in Splinter Cell perfectly. In a sense, this belittles the year and a half I spent on that project, but in a sense it was kind of an easy mandate. We all knew how to do it right, now. All the nails are sitting in a row, we just have to knock 'em in and we're done. At the same time, Chaos Theory was the best Splinter Cell that I could make. I couldn't make a better one. And the same time I went into this project, a bunch of the core team on Chaos Theory went into Conviction which at that time was just called Splinter V and their mandate also was to reinvent the Splinter Cell brand. And I knew that was going to be the mandate of Splinter V and I said I'm not the guy to do that. I'm so steeped in 3-1/2 years of making this Splinter Cell, I can't reinvent it. It's etched in my brain this way, forever. And I'm probably not going to be beat Chaos Theory with the same thing, so I need to do something different. So I asked to go on something different, they offered me a couple things, FarCry was one of them, that sounded really hard and fun, so let's do that.

The technology you guys are using, is that all built in-house?

We started with core technology we got from CryTek in the deal. But we've gutted it. The tech director says we have 90% new runtime code, so we kept the stuff that was good, but everything else was rebuilt. The AI was rebuilt, the Real Tree is a huge component, all the open world stuff is rebuilt, so it's basically a new engine.

You said you guys have been working on actual production for three months and you're hoping for a first quarter '08 release. That's a pretty short development time for a big AAA title that, one can only imagine, is a testing nightmare.

It is gonna be pretty tough in test. We do have almost a full year of production, we have about 11 months of production once you've taken out all of the finalization stuff to market it and ship it and all of that stuff, we lose a month there or something, but we have 10 months of production. I was in production on Chaos Theory for only nine or something like that after pre-production and conception and all that. We have really good tools. It's going to be hard, but we already have ... in fact, when I get back to the office on Wednesday or whatever I should be able to – unless the guys have missed their deadlines – I should be able to run all 50 kilometers of the game continuously on my PC at my desk. Not all of the mission scripting will be in, but I should be able to run the whole game as a continuous game. There's still missing features, we're not at alpha, but once we hit alpha, that's what alpha is, it's feature complete. The world fits together. We just have to polish it from there, really. I think we can make it. I know it sounds hard, it sounds crazy to me, but the rate at which we can build this stuff is insane.

The game looks impressive for three months of full production and pre-alpha.

When we showed our demo to get through the gate into production which was also the demo we showed to the European print press when we first kicked off. That was a completely different one square kilometer. And it's not like we're going to show the same demo every time for the next eight months every time we show something. We'll probably show a different demo every time because we have this huge world and it's all there and we pick this part of the world because it had a small piece of jungle plus a lot of rolling hilly Savannah plus a good place to watch the sun set in the west. We picked it for criteria we wanted to show in this demo. We'll have other stuff we want to show so instead of having to shoehorn it in, we'll find a place in the world where it actually works.

How big is the team on FarCry 2?

It's complicated ...

I imagine you would need a lot of artists to cover 50 square miles,

You'll see that a lot of it reproduces. There's only ten blades of grass, we have a really big team, but it's not as big as the Splinter Cell team was. I think we have about one hundred guys on the real dev team. We also have a pipeline team, the engine team, that we ramped up earlier and did the technology development and they're about 35 guys, but they really are the engine team. Yes, they service us as their primary client right now – well, actually, we're not their only client anymore – but we actually give that engine out to other projects in exchange for arrangements that keep everyone's budgets balanced and all of that. But, yeah, we don't really count that in our team so we're just one hundred guys.

What about console ports? A game like FarCry 2 seems like you're necessarily limiting those possibilities ...

Yeah, I know. Our mandate, like I said, was to make Ubisoft a top-tier PC game. That's my mandate, that's what I'm doing. It's obviously Ubisoft's business if they want to do a console version.

So, in terms of design and structure, you're not really considering a future on consoles? It's all about that PC to its full power?

Well, keep in mind, we have a lot of experienced console developers. And yes, using a PC to its full potential has really big advantages but I think that pure PC and conversely pure console developers, I think a mistake they often make is to assume that you make a PC game a certain way. Actually, we have a lot of guys that are really good console developers and there are things you learn from consoles about how to make a better PC game and to just disregard those things and say, "We're PC and you can't learn anything from how to make a console game" is ridiculous. So, we've leveraged some of the things we know about the consoles in order to make the game better. Streaming is a really good example, right? On PC you have a giant hard drive with a really fat pipe coming out of it, and you can stream really, really easily, but that leads to data bloat and doing things that you maybe shouldn't be doing. On console, you don't usually have as big a hard drive or as fast a hard drive and you don't have the same technological advantages in terms of streaming, often, or if you're streaming from a disc on a console, same thing, right? You need to find ways to keep your data small; you need to find ways to get the data quickly off of the media, so we still use a lot of those tricks that we know from consoles. The engine is not alien to a console environment just because we have the expertise.

You've been talking about a strong single-player experience. Will there be a multiplayer experience?

Talking about multiplayer is sort of later in the communications plan. What I will say briefly about multiplayer is that the same way we're trying to revolutionize the first-person shooter and trying to make a game that's immersive and realistic and really has a strong sense of place. We're trying to do the same kinds of things in multiplayer so it's not just taking out all of the slow animations, putting in some flags and there you go. That's not what we're going to do, but you'll have to wait to find out more.

Alright, fair enough. In the single-player experience, what sort of length are you budgeting? With games like this, they can become huge.

Yeah, it can be huge. What we proposed at our kick-off meeting when we went into production, is that if you aggressively go mission-mission-mission-mission-mission and speedrun through it, you're looking at a ten or twelve hour game experience. I think, more feasibly, getting through the main A plot if you want, and doing a few side missions here or there, to play it normally, you're talking about a thirty plus hour game. And I think to really exhaust the content and go to all of the locations and collect all of the stuff and do every mission you can do, you can do so, you're talking about upwards of eighty to maybe even upwards of one hundred hours to really drain the content.

That's obviously a huge departure from most triple-A first person shooters, where you're talking about an eight to twelve hour game a lot of times. Are you nervous about alienating an audience that's looking for that twelve hour game.

It's possible ...

It's almost like it's an RPG in that respect.

In a sense it has those elements to it and there's a risk there, but there's lots of other things I'm nervous about to. I'm nervous about the fact the economy is going in the shitter and people don't have $80 to spend on eight different eight hour games. And maybe they'd like to spend $80 on a hundred hour game they can play as they upgrade their PC periodically and not spend $80 on a game every two months for the next two years or three years or four years or however long the game is going to look great on the PC for. I think the idea of only the twelve hour game, and you don't have a choice about it, is maybe a bit antiquated. I think, or I hope anyways, that people want to choose a little but about how long they want to engage a game for and if they want to play it aggressively and quickly in ten hours, they can. I think the main design challenge is that if people that are classic linear hardcore shooter players who want to play a game in a line and be taken on a really, heavily guided experience that's fun and has a powerful story with really strong pacing, if they try to play it that way, one of the risks is that they start to feel like they're missing something so they feel some kind of conflict, so it makes them unhappy about the content balance. Going into that without knowing how it's going to work out is, I guess, the price you have to pay. We said when we started this game, we told our bosses "first, true open world shooter." But now there's Boiling Point, there was STALKER; so we didn't end up being first. And the feedback on those games was pretty positive. Even Boiling Point, which was terribly, terribly broken, a lot of people said, "This game is so good, if only it didn't have bugs."

Well, STALKER is similar. It was delayed numerous times, and it came out and it still has a lot of bugs, but gamers were really receptive to the idea.

When we were in conception, a lot of people said, "You can't make that game. No one wants to play an open world shooter." And it turns out we have a really fun game, so we'll see what they say after they play it.

Are you guys even considering a Mac version at all?

Honestly, I have no idea. No idea. I've never heard anything about a Mac version.

Thanks for your time, Clint!
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