On May 13 I spoke with Technical Designer Mike Prinke for quite a while about the Heavy Gear Assault video game from Stompy Bot Productions. Based on Dream Pod 9’s Heavy Gear Arena, Heavy Gear Assault is currently on Kickstarter seeking to raise $800,000 by June 29. Mike Prinke is with MekTek Studios, the actual development studio coding and designing the game. We discuss most of the game particulars early on, though we do discuss the possibility of a single player campaign and expanded areas of play near the end of the interview. We also talked about his intriguing Super Smash Quest RPG that helped inspire him to pursue video game design, his education in digital game design, and his theories about choice-driven narratives.
MekTek Game Development
CG: First off, what does a technical designer do?
MP: Depending on the studio, the title can vary in meaning, but in the context of this team, basically I do a respectable portion of the gameplay programming for the game. Generally I help direct the team’s efforts in such a way that it’s consistent with the design team’s vision for the game mechanics. Basically I serve as a little bit of a middle man between programmers and designers in order to make sure that the game’s vision stays on track and the programmers don’t go off and just do their own thing. If they need more details on how something works I get it for them and I put it in terms that make sense to programmers, that make sense in terms of implementing the gameplay. So basically to put in layman’s terms, I’m the guy who figures out how to make the game work.
CG: What’s MekTek’s role in this versus what Stompy Bot is doing?
MP: MekTek is the developer of the game. It was originally started as a modding group that developed a set of mods for Mechwarrior IV called The Mech Packs, which expanded the game’s number of mechs by about 136, I think. And they also supported it after Microsoft stopped hosting servers. Eventually they wanted to go legit and become a real game developer. Now they’re developing Heavy Gear Assault. Stompy Bot is a publisher that was started up as a sister company to act as the publishing umbrella for Heavy Gear Assault and is looking to expand to encompass other independent productions as well.
CG: Now Gear Up 6 has an interview about Heavy Gear Assault with, is it Jack Mamais? [French production.]
MP: Jack Mamais [Muh-my-is].
CG: So you’re working under him?
MP: That is more or less correct. Jack is the fellow who introduced me to this bunch. He got me into the production. I’d been working with him on another project for a couple of months before getting involved with Heavy Gear Assault. And yeah, he introduced me to Vince, and that’s how I got started on the team. He is the Creative Director of Heavy Gear Assault, but Vince McMullin is actually my direct boss. He’s the actual head of MekTek. Jack is the Creative Director of the project though.
CG: Do you telecommute basically? Do you work from your home or do you work in the design studio?
MP: I am working from home. I am working from my home in Chicago, Illinois as a matter of fact. Basically the whole team is remote at the moment, simply because we’re just putting together the funding to make this game, let alone actually get a studio that everybody could go to work at each day. Everybody’s working from their own computers from home or – very occasionally – from an office somewhere. I know that there’s a couple of guys in Savannah from SCAD [Savannah College of Art Design].
CG: SCAD being the Savannah College of Art and Design, which you’re an alumnus of yourself?
MP: Yes, that is correct. But basically what we do is we host daily scrum meetings. Scrum is a development technique that’s used for organizing a software production. More specifically it’s called Agile actually. Scrum is a part, an aspect of Agile.
CG: Ok, I thought you were using rugby terms on me. So what’s a scrum for you guys? What’s Agile?
MP: Agile is the development method that we use to develop this game. It’s basically the process of organizing a group of developers into a series of what they call sprints. Or what they also refer to as scrums. So there’s the programming team, the art team, the marketing team, and the design team, right?
Each one of them is running their own scrum and it’s a two-week spring we call it (…usually a two-week sprint). Basically we just collect together what our goals are for those two weeks and say what feature do we want to have online and running by the end of these couple weeks. And we break it down into a list of tasks that goes on our sprint board and people just try and take whatever task they think they can do within the next day or so. They each have a time estimate allocated to them. And each day we have what’s called a sprint meeting and in the sprint meeting we just go around. In the group, there’s a person designated as the scrum master who is hosting the meeting and kind of keeping it organized and on track and you go, “Alright, so, Dan, what’d you do today?” And he’ll explain what he got done in the past day since the last meeting. You just go around in a group like that until everybody’s settled. It takes usually about ten minutes or so and then if anybody’s got any big issues, then they voice what’s going on, what they need help with or what feature has to get done before they can continue and after that’s finished, everybody just gets back to work.
Basically these daily meetings are what’s responsible for making sure that our team can – despite basically being all over the globe, and I’m not kidding about that. When we say that we have one of the most remote teams out there, there’s me in Chicago, a couple of guys down in Savannah, Georgia, there’s Vince reporting out of Canada and that’s where Stompy Bot’s headquarters is, there’s James Taylor in California, there’s Dan Lopez in Spain. We’ve got another fellow named Alexander in Serbia; just loads and loads of people just all over the globe reporting in for this, but because we keep to these daily meetings the team’s energy stays up and we keep motivated.
Heavy Gear Assault’s Development and Gameplay Specifics
CG: Great. So where is Heavy Gear Assault at in terms of development?
MP: Very, very early development. I would call it pre-alpha. We had a pre-alpha build that was playable for GDC (Game Developers’ Conference). It was not as much as what you would call an alpha build of the game as a multiplayer damage test, where we were just trying to make sure we had basic multiplayer working and trying to make sure that we had the basic damage system working before we moved on to the real deal of integrating all of our features and smoothing it out and making sure it plays very smooth.
CG: So what gears did you have available for that?
MP: Just the Hunter.
CG: Ok, so it was Hunter versus Hunter.
MP: It was pretty much Hunter versus Hunter. We would have loved to have gotten another gear in there, but at the moment we’re still trying to raise the funds to pay people to work on this.
CG: Ok, ok. So that is pretty early on then in terms of video game development?
MP: It’s very early on, yeah.
Heavy Gear Assault’s Showmanship
CG: So when you showcased this, well, would you even call it showcasing it?
MP: I certainly would, yeah.
CG: Did you have any of the showmanship aspects of Heavy Gear Assault in play?
MP: A very small portion of it, like ten percent of what we would like to have was actually present in that we did have some of Epic’s newer particle systems ready. We did have at least playable animated gears and whatnot. We had what I would consider to be the bare minimum for the presentation for this game and at present time we’re working on some much, much more ambitious features. In fact, I’m actually taking time off from a very exciting destruction demo that we’re going to be showing off soon.
CG: Oh yeah? Well, thank you for your time for that.
MP: No problem.
CG: Will the showmanship then be similar to wrestling games for console systems that had a popularity meter? Will it be something like that?
MP: We would very much like to have mechanics like that in there. That’s actually one of the more exciting aspects of working with Heavy Gear Arena as our base, that we can introduce another dimension of mechanics like that apart from just Gears fighting each other. So all of a sudden it’s not just can you blow up the other team, but there’s an element of how stylishly you can do it. There’s an element of how much you impress the crowd doing it. I think we’re actually looking to that as a potential counter-measure to camping. But yeah, that is something that we definitely want to do and we’re looking at embellishing on the movement system to kind of help supplement that.
Weaponry in Heavy Gear Assault
CG: I personally tend to be a camper, but as I know, it’s boring for people to watch, when someone’s camping, right? [He laughs] Is it too early to even distinguish between Vibro Katanas, Vibro Axes, things like that? Or is there already a difference in gameplay, in terms of look and feel? Does a Vibro Axe have a different animation and occupies a different amount of space on the screen than a Vibro Rapier or something else?
MP: Right, right. It’s a little bit too early for me to talk about the specifics of that. We are working on differentiating them, but at the moment most of the differentiation we’ve got is between one-handed weapons and two-handed weapons.
CG: What would some of the two-handed weapons be?
CG: Like a Vibro Halberd, ok.
MP: Yeah, the Vibro Halberd. There’s a lot of people on the project who would really, really love to bring in the two-handed chainblade. There’s a couple of two-handed weapons. Let me actually bring up a list really quick that I’ve got, that I can maybe drop one or two of them for you, that we want to have in the game. We have a whole animation list here that we’ve been going through. At the moment, we only really have the one-handed weapons and the shields ready for anything. Polearms… are a big thing. And then, yeah, there’s a sort of distinction of two-handed melee where we’re assuming a two-handed axe or a two-handed sword of some sort.
CG: Ok. So what’s the coolest weapon so far, I know it’s so early in terms of where the game’s at, but for right now what’s the coolest weapon for you?
MP: Rocket Pod.
CG: The Rocket Pod? So do you distinguish between a Light Rocket Pod and Medium Rocket Pod?
MP: We do. And right now it’s the Light Rocket Pod (LRP), to be very specific. We’ve sort of got this model where we start with ground-level and work our way up.
CG: And can you fire a volley or do you fire one at a time?
MP: It’s a volley.
CG: So it’s an LRP, what number is it?
MP: It’s the… let me double-check on that… it’s the LRP 32. It’s a 32-set Rocket Pod.
CG: And how many does it fire at the same time?
MP: It fires one at a time in a sequence.
Heavy Gear Assault Combo Chains and Macros
CG: Cool. So these combo chains, they set Heavy Gear Arena apart from Heavy Gear Blitz, but to me the concept seems native to video games. Am I correct? Are we going to have those fighting game combos in this game?
MP: Yes, in fact! That is one of the core features that I’ve been working. I’ve got more or less some of the implementation for it ready. It’s just that we need to fill it in with a few more art assets before it’s really worth looking at and testing. You know, it’s all well and good for me to be doing my derpy programmer art Gear swing with a programmer art polygon nail bat, but in order to actually test it out, we really need some much more strongly differentiated animations of weapons to make sure that it works properly. But yeah, that’s a system that I’ve been working on. We’re referring to it in our game as the Macro System, in terms of the in-universe terminology that we want to use to describe it, but the combos as they are set out in Heavy Gear Arena are the core inspiration for how that system works.
CG: What are you calling it? Macro?
MP: Macro moves.
CG: Like a computer macro?
MP: Yeah, that’s exactly the idea. In the universe lore, Macro Moves are basically what they sound like. It’s a control macro that you can bind preset Gear movements that would be normally too complex for a human being to manipulate a Gear into being able to do, but you make it so that you can just press a button on your controls and it instantly does it. And it’s like wow, that is perfect, that fits the concept of developing melee combat and combos and special attacks and whatnot. That fits it so well and it’s such an easy concept to implement. In terms of chaining them together, that’s something that I’m still working on a little bit internally, but yeah, we are planning on having a system where they chain together like in Heavy Gear Arena.
Mike Prinke on Getting Art Updates
CG: When you receive that artwork is that really exciting for you guys as programmers where you finally instead of having whatever kind of skin on something… can you describe that feeling?
MP: [Laughs]. Polygon nail bat. It’s a very, very gratifying moment when it does happen. The thing is, at the moment, it happens very, very few and far between because most of our resources for art are dedicated to fleshing out the arena. We’ve got a very small handful of people who work on the Gear and the weapons right now. I think John Davidson does the weapons. The thing is that we don’t get them very often at the moment because of just the way things have been organized and the shortage of resources that we’ve been having. But when we do get them in, yeah, it’s quite nice. I remember when we first replaced our old derpy Hunter with the current shiny sexy race car Hunter that we’ve got now and it was just like “Oh, my God, is this what our game’s going to look like?!”
CG: Do you know type of Hunter it is? Is it just a regular Hunter?
MP: It’s a… a high-performance Hunter that’s been…Let me think here. I want to make sure that I have my lore straight. It’s a high-performance Hunter, that’s what I’ll go with. It’s a high-performance Hunter that’s been customized by Paxton Arms with their equipment is how I describe it.
The Gears of Heavy Gear Assault
CG: Now do you know in terms of those scrums and sprints, what’s the next gear that you have planned?
MP: It’s the Jager.
CG: Which, of course, is the Southern version of Hunter.
MP: Yes. And while we’re at developing the Jager, there’s a couple of changes to the Medium Gear systems that we’re doing and we’re using the Jager as an opportunity to explore stuff I really can’t get into, that will be very, very exciting. We sort of had this debate about whether we’d be doing the Jager or the Spitting Cobra and the thoughts were that we’d get more bang for the buck out of refining what the Medium Gear does before we move onto the Assault classes and the Light classes, but those will be coming, of course. I’m not saying that those aren’t coming. It’s just that the Jager has a couple of fun systems coming along with it that we sort of didn’t get in with our last technical design pass on the Hunter and we’re sort of fleshing it out a whole lot.
CG: So it also sounds like the next move would be up to a Spitting Cobra or Grizzly instead of necessarily engineering gears.
MP: Um, yeah, that is probably the way that we’re going to do it, yeah. I mean the way that we’re developing our future Gear systems, it’d be just crazy if we had to model every single Gear from scratch and give it unique animations, right? So we want to have a system where we’ve got Light, Medium, and Heavy Gears. Or I should say Light, Medium, and Assault Gears and we have the ability to sort of construct them more modularly, not to the point where it’s like Heavy Gear 1, where you can have ape arms on a Light Gear [oversized arms], but to the point where we can more easily trade in and out parts and more easily chassises for the Gears without necessarily having to reconstruct the whole way that the rig works for their animations and whatnot. Basically we’re looking at a way we can develop them smart instead of work ourselves to death in developing these Gears.
Hand Grenades, Hard Stuff to Code, and Gravity
CG: Now Grenades and Heavy Hand Grenades, do they exist in Heavy Gear Assault or will they?
MP: Yes. We haven’t prototyped the grenades just yet.
CG: Because that would be a whole separate subroutine or subprogram for you guys? You’ve got to help me out here with the video game terms.
MP: That’s not a subroutine or a program. That’s just a separate implementation of our inventory object is all. And that’s-, to be fair, that isn’t a very difficult one to put together, which is why we haven’t prioritized it. We sort of focus on the harder stuff to implement first. And then once we’ve got that, we can create variations on that very easily and we can fill in the blanks in between as needed.
CG: So what would be some of the harder stuff?
MP: The Rocket Pod [laughs]. The Rocket Pod and the various tracking systems that go into developing tracking rockets versus the wandering systems necessary for making the rockets kind of spiral and whatnot.
CG: Oh, ok. It’s going to look very cool.
MP: Yeah. Those are very complicated projectiles to put together compared to say, the Light Auto Canon’s projectiles.
CG: And will there be gravity drop or is there gravity drop?
MP: Um, yes, there is! Depending on the projectile and its mass, it can experience more or less gravity drop, but yeah, we definitely want to preserve the simulation feel from the previous games and we want there to be a very strong element of skill in mastering these weapons, so you’re not going to be pointing instant-hit laser tag guns each other, well unless you’re using lasers, but yeah, you’d expect that. Yeah, the projectiles, they all have a velocity that they’re moving at. You’re going to need to lead targets and you’re going to need to account for projectile drop to some degree. But getting back to your original question, some of the harder things to implement are environmental destruction would be one thing. The physics in secondary movement are something that we’re putting a lot of work into. The damage system in general for Gears is something that we’ve put a whole heck of a lot of work into. It’s one of the things that I think is exciting about playing a mech simulator, is you can blow a mech’s arm off, you can blow a Gear’s arm off, and it’s still functional. It’s missing a limb, but it’s functional.
CG: Ok, so that’s some of the funnest parts about Mech Warrior and some of your developers have been involved in the MechWarrior franchise, right?
MP: Yes, Jack Mamais was the director of Mechwarrior II Mercenaries. So one of the things that he advocates here that he strongly advocated there was very dynamic damage systems on the Gear. He loves-, he’s very much into adapt to survive kind of combat.
Heavy Gear Assault vs. Heavy Gear Arena: Limb Destruction
CG: That may be a perfect segue because I think that’s a big difference between the tabletop Arena and Heavy Gear Assault would be to actually destroy individual limbs and parts, is that right?
CG: But that’s what we would expect in a video game environment?
MP: Yes. In a tabletop environment, you know, I have lots of experience actually developing tabletop games as kind of a hobby. The sort of operative word there is K.I.S.S. You want to keep it very, very simple because human beings have to keep track of all this bookkeeping that you’re doing on a character sheet. It’s more sensitive than people give it credit for in that context, if you have math that goes into just one digit too many, then people are not going to want to play that game. That’s one of the reasons that I favor actually second edition D&D over newer editions because it doesn’t go into double-digit math all that often and I can just do it in my head much quicker. Not that I have a problem doing double-digit math or anything.
CG: Of course not.
MP: [Laughs]. It’s just really, really super fast. But suddenly we’re dealing with a computer game and all that stuff that would have been on Dream Pod 9’s wish list, we can do, because the computer’s just looking at it for you.
Mike Prinke’s Tabletop RPG Days
CG: Right, right. So you just touched upon several different things that I also wanted to talk to you about. What’s your background in tabletop gaming. I can tell that you’re a hardcore gamer there.
MP: Uh, yes. I got into tabletop roleplaying games when I was around like eleven or twelve years old. My sister introduced me to second edition Dungeons & Dragons. Prior to that I’d experienced roleplaying games in the form of video games and they were always a sort of magical type of game to me in that the characters felt more real, the worlds around them felt more real, as opposed to something like Contra or Mario Brothers or something like that on the Nintendo. Playing a roleplaying game like Baldur’s Gate or some of the earlier Final Fantasy games was a more immersive experience and a more enriching experience, almost like reading a novel in a way.
And then I got introduced to Dungeons & Dragons and suddenly it was that plus ten times more, it was that, plus the ability to sort of do anything that your imagination could come up with and that absolutely fascinated me. And the idea of being a Game Master fascinated me. Suddenly I could not only be the player character, the hero, I could play all of the villains and all of the NPCs and whatnot. I could play all of the monsters and that was something that fascinated me, so very quickly I got into wanting to be a Game Master for tabletop RPGs and I started trying and failing to run games of Dungeons & Dragons with my friends. I was a bit young to fully understand the rules, so I ended up, I think, making up a lot of stuff as I went, but eventually I got the hang of it. I got into third edition D&D as I went into high school and I got the hang of those rules and ran games with my friends and whatnot.
CG: Now were you doing your own setting or were you using a published setting?
MP: I always developed my own setting, in fact, the one and only exception to that rule of mine-, I just found it more interesting to develop my own settings and my own stories, it’s just how I am. The one and only exception is actually Shadowrun, because what else are you going to do with Shadowrun other than run the Shadowrun setting? [Laughs] But after that, I got into-, it was really difficult to organize roleplaying groups for me is the thing. High school was a busy time. It kind of was the time when my friends and I were all splitting up and going separate ways. We were all old enough to have cars and go places, but we were also all old enough to be too busy to go places? I ended up running games on IRC, on mIRC, on sorcery.net.
CG: Oh wow!
MP: That’s where I got started homebrewing games. And usually I would homebrew them based on some existing intellectual property like I was a big fan of Phantasy Star for the Sega Genesis and that’s spelled with a “Ph” instead of an “F”, because Sega is weird like that. I was a big fan of that and I wanted a game that felt like that, but that wasn’t Star Wars. So I’d make a Phantasy Star RPG. The big one that I got involved in that was really, really weird was Super Smash Quest.
CG: [Laughs] Uh huh.
Super Smash Quest
MP: That’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a roleplaying game based on the Super Smash Brothers fighting game series. I had a friend in middle school who wanted to try doing that. I was like “Are you crazy? That wouldn’t make a good roleplaying game!”
CG: And are people typing out /me and typing what they do?
CG: Was anyone hitting someone with a trout?
MP: Uh, yes, very, very often!
CG: Did you have a response for the IRC trout-hitting/slapping?
MP: You know, we never statted that.
CG: Well, I meant, did you find it annoying and did you have to punish people or you just tolerated it?
MP: You know, people dropped it pretty quickly. They would just get bored with it. They would get bored with the colored text eventually too. But yeah, Smash Quest was interesting. The idea behind it was basically set after the tournament that happened in Smash Brothers Melee. Bowser and Ganondorf, being the sore losers that they were, left the stadium and decided to vow revenge against it and see it destroyed. But the stadium is like the nexus of all worlds or something like that in the Nintendo universe and so it absolutely cannot be jeopardized and if they ever destroy it, it would cause who knows what to happen. And so the thing is, is that the stadium doesn’t have it’s own guardians, right? The different worlds have their own guardians. Mushroom Kingdom has its guardians. Hyrule’s got Link and Zelda and Lylat has Fox McCloud and StarFox Team. But the stadium doesn’t have its own guardians, so Professor Oak and Egad from the Mario and Luigi games put their heads together and came up with a device called the Fighter Remote that would enable them to give the powers of the Smash Brothers fighters to ordinary fans.
CG: Ah, ok.
MP: And so the idea behind the game was that the players were fans of the stadium, ostensibly playing themselves, given the powers of the Smash Brothers fighters. And what you’d do in it, is you’d collect their moves, almost like Pokémon, with different B Button moves. So you’d get Fox’s blaster and Pikachu’s Thunder Shock and all that stuff and you could make a custom move set out of that. And that’d really capture the Nintendo spirit while also making it a fascinating tabletop game in that there was a lot of trading going around. A very, very active economy among the players. And the format of it was very mission-based, so if you could imagine, a Nintendo-version of X-Men or a Nintendo-version of Star Trek where there’s away missions and whatnot and everyone goes into the command center and Mewtwo gives them their orders. And it was Mewtwo because he was the most like Professor X. [Laughs]
CG: Did you ever watch Centurions, the cartoon?
MP: You know, I feel like that’s a familiar name, but I never saw it.
CG: Oh, they could dial-up their powers. They could name whatever particular power set and it would teleported to them, but yours they actually had some device or ability that they could trade amongst themselves?
MP: Yeah, they basically had the ability to trade powers with each other. That was all very Pokémon-inspired, where there was literally an electric chair powered by Pikachu that would let them transfer their moves between their brains is kind of how it was. It was very cartoony, but it was also immensely popular. We had about 50 players in that game at a time.
CG: Oh wow, 50?
MP: 50, yes. And they all wanted to play at the same time, but they couldn’t! Like we could at the very, very most support 12 players on a mission. We had to kind of pick and choose how we did it.
CG: Was this the late 90s or when?
MP: This was early 2000s, around 2001 and 2002. But it was a very, very successful RPG and it sort of bolstered my interest in developing tabletop RPGs, so since then I’ve developed a couple of others, ranging through different topics. Mostly I’ve been focusing on developing an original concept, but I’m not here to talk about that thing just yet.
Mike Prinke’s Miniature Gaming
CG: Yeah, we’ll have to talk about that some other time, Mike. Were you playing any miniature games at this time or war games?
MP: I didn’t get into war games for a while actually. I had wanted to get into Warhammer 40K and I had a friend who had a really impressive Tau army, but I couldn’t get into it because it was just too bloody expensive. Looking back, Warhammer miniatures are actually more affordable now than Legos so it probably would have been perfectly ok, but for whatever reason, my parents didn’t want me to get into it. They were like “Oh no! It’s too expensive, you shouldn’t- You aren’t going to paint those things!” and that kind of thing. A lot of discouragement there. But as I got into grad school at SCAD, there was a vibrant Warhammer 40K community, and I was like “Alright, I can try getting into this.” So I picked up Assault on Black Reach and decided I was going to start a Space Marines chapter called the Neon Knights.
CG: Uh oh.
MP: Their colors being a very dark Gunmetal Grey and variety of neon colors for trim. And now I’ve got a Tau army that I’m working on.
Heavy Gear Blitz, Arena, and References
CG: Do you have a Heavy Gear Arena force or stable of Gears and what about for Blitz?
MP: Unfortunately I don’t have any Heavy Gear miniatures right now. I’m sort of been meaning to pick some up, but my wallet’s been a little bit thin. This is actually a little bit odd, but I couldn’t find Heavy Gear Arena or Heavy Gear Blitz miniatures at any of my local game stores anywhere that I’ve ever been in fact. The only pictures of game stores selling it that I’ve ever seen have been from Canada. I don’t know where they sell them or even if they are sold anywhere in my state right now, being that this is Illinois and it’s a very backwater state, except for Chicago. But yeah, I’ve just not been able to track any down is all. As for ordering them online, by the time that looked like a good option, I just didn’t have a whole lot of money to spend on it.
CG: You kind of fooled me because you’ve gotten deeply into the lore, right?
MP: Yeah. Dream Pod 9 has provided us with a very, very nice collection of books, so I’ve got all the rules for virtually every Heavy Gear game that’s ever been, sitting on my hard drive right now, ready to peruse if we need to figure out something about our mechanics. And we’ve got a technical manual, which we’ve had to very, very closely study in order to get into the damage system and whatnot and how that should work, being that there aren’t any particularly detailed rules about that other than a Gear can get damaged.
CG: Exactly, it’s just damage boxes.
MP: Yeah. So I’d very much love to get a hold of some of the miniatures though.
CG: What faction were you looking at?
MP: Personally, I’d really like to pick up the Nu Coal minis. No particular reason for it, they’re just really, really slick looking minis. But if I had to pick runner-up, it’d be the North. I dig the more angular design, it speaks to a very classic sci-fi sensibility to me. It kind of reminds me a little bit of early Star Wars kind of designs if you applied it to mechs. That probably sounds very silly, but if I had to put it into words, that’s the best that I can do. Of course, I have very fond memories of playing a Kodiak when I was into Heavy Gear, the video games.
The Activision Heavy Gear 1 and Heavy Gear 2
CG: Yeah, so tell me about those Activision titles.
MP: Man! What can I say about them?
CG: So you played both of them?
MP: Yes, I did. I played both of them. My memories of Heavy Gear 1 are, at this point, so early that I can’t really recall much about it. And my experience with Heavy Gear 2 was mainly with the multiplayer, where I was in a guild, and I can’t remember what the name of the guild was for the life of me. I was in so many guilds at the time. At the same time, I think I was into Tribes 2 and I was in a guild there.
CG: Is it safe to say that you played the heck out of Heavy Gear 2 though?
MP: Yeah, I played a lot of multiplayer with my guild in Heavy Gear 2 and I was never much good at it, is the thing. Because that was right around the time when mouse control started to actually work? And I hadn’t gotten it through my head, because I was stupid and like 12. So I was still trying to aim with the arrow keys and PageUp and PageDown on my keyboard.
CG: Oh yes.
MP: So I got really good with rockets. I got really good with bazookas basically.
CG: And did you watch the old CG cartoon? Did you ever see that?
MP: No, I never did. I didn’t know that one even existed until I was on this project and people started comparing us to them.
CG: Uh oh! How did they compare?
MP: Generally the reception to the cartoon is rather negative.
CG: Yes! [Read my negative review of Battle for the Badlands here.]
MP: Because it’s a bit off-canon from the actual lore of Heavy Gear, I think. At least that’s my understanding of it. And basically people get a little bit anxious, they get a little bit, what’s the word I’m looking for? Blast it!
CG: I don’t know, anxious I think would describe how some fans would be.
MP: People get a little bit anxious about the fact that we’re using the arena setting when they feel that the cartoon wasn’t necessarily representative of how they pictured the Heavy Gear universe. And the thing is is that we’re not drawing from that cartoon, we’re drawing from the Heavy Gear Arena rulebooks. We’re drawing directly from the canon, so if there’s one thing that I’d like to set people’s minds to rest about, it’s that we’re sticking to the canon on this thing. Like, there’s a few things that we’re supplementing here and there, but usually it’s extrapolations of what’s in the rules or extrapolations of what’s in the tech manual into rules for this game. And we’re working very closely with Dream Pod 9 and we’ve even got a guy who was a marketer at Dream Pod 9.
CG: Yeah, John, John Nguyen.
MP: Yeah. We’re being very, very careful about that. Other than that I don’t have any familiarity with the cartoon.
What Mike Prinke’s Been Playing Lately
CG: In your Ten Survival Tips over at GameCareerGuide you advise future game designers to keep playing games, what have you been playing lately yourself?
MP: Let me see here. Let me bring up my list and think about that. This week has been crazy so I need to refresh my memory. Lately, let’s see, every so often I love to go back and play FTL, I think that’s a really, really awesome game.
CG: Ok, FTL, Faster Than Light?
MP: That is correct. Basically you command a ship and you’ve got a nice little top-down view of the inside of your ship and the crew and whatnot and you make jumps from star to star and sector to sector trying to outrun a rebel fleet that is just tearing apart the Federation, to deliver a message explaining what the rebel fleet’s weakness is. Basically the whole game is procedural and it gives you random missions and random events all the time, so no two play-throughs are the same. And there’s a number of ships and a number of races and things that your crewmen can belong to that give them different bonuses. Every play-through feels very, very unique and very, very exciting and it’s a very difficult and strategic game. A lot of very strong elements of meaningful decision-making to it, more so than a lot of AAA games do that try to be non-linear, simply in that they give you a goal, and tell you “However you want to accomplish it and whatever objectives you want to pursue on the way, that’s up to you. We’ll just supply the world and let you do it.” That’s a game that I return to fairly often. It’s something that you can play in an hour or two. Very often you can get lost in it where you play it over and over again, but what else here? I picked up Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and I’m looking forward to playing that that more than I’ve actually played it. Basically I bought it and then immediately had to go into hardcore development mode. Prior to that, it was a lot of Metal Gear Rising and BioShock Infinite I had to pick up, because well… I had to pick it up. It wasn’t a compulsion on my end to pick it up. Everybody was telling me to pick it up and saying “Oh yeah, it’s way better than BioShock.” So I picked it up.
CG: And do you agree with them?
MP: Uh… do I really want to get into that in this interview?
CG: Let’s say no, and keep it briefer, I suppose.
MP: Not particularly. I vastly prefer the first one. [BioShock]
Shadowrun Campaign via IRC
CG: Ok. But you’ve been busy playing several. Are you still doing any tabletop games?
MP: Yes, I am running a Shadowrun game, in fact. It’s been on a little bit of a hiatus since we’ve been very busy with our preparations for Kickstarter, but yeah, I’ve been running a Shadowrun game that takes place in Los Angeles in 2072.
CG: Do you run that in person or online?
MP: It’s online. It’s basically the same group, the core group of four people, from back in my days running Smash Quest.
CG: And what platform do you use for it now?
CG: Oh you still use mIRC! Ok.
MP: Oh yeah. It’s been on my computer for about ten years.
CG: Wow, ok. For me, that dates me to a particular era of my life, when I was using mIRC, but ok. So you use its file send function to send files to people and things like that?
MP: Not particularly. We run our games almost entirely with text. Like typing descriptions and things. It gets a little bit slow. Personally I want to use this map program called Roll 20. I’ve got one guy who just doesn’t really want to use maps and I’ve got one person who doesn’t want to do voice chat, because she’s really shy, so I’ve got to stick to mIRC for the sake of that for right now.
CG: Now did you ever get into MUSHing or MUDing?
MP: Uh, no, I never did.
CG: Ok, but you roleplay via text over the computer which is like, it’s basically like tabletop roleplaying, but you’re describing everything.
MP: Yeah, it’s just you get into a lot more description and people end up taking the roleplay aspect of it, of staying in character and whatnot an awful lot more seriously. The thing is that does come at sort of the expense of the strategic element of gameplay. You end up doing a lot less rational decision-making and a lot less planning and looking over information and detective work and whatnot than you do character-driven storyline and stuff. And personally I prefer to be doing the strategy and the detective work. I prefer to have the players looking at a floor plan almost Oceans 11 style, figuring out how they want to get through it, all the while giggling to myself about the traps they don’t know about. [Laughs] That’s where the pleasure comes from for me. But I do get a good portion of that running it through mIRC at least.
CG: Have you tried the Shadowrun Missions or do you just make your own adventures?
MP: I am making my own adventure for this one. This is actually only my second attempt at running Shadowrun. My first one didn’t go too great. I had a very vague understanding of the rules the first time. This time I sort of gave each player their own introductory session so I could both get the feel for who they are and what they want to do as players and also to get a feel for the different game mechanics, because Shadowrun is very dense on different sets of mechanics. It’s got a different set of mechanics for hacking, it’s got a different set of mechanics for the astral plane and magic. And then there’s the normal combat, there’s all this stuff. Like practically different worlds that the characters look through, but that’s one of the fascinating things about playing it. I went through them one at a time and I’m like “Ok, now this is making sense. Now I can fit this into the context of how I do it with all four of them.” Now I can kind of put it together in the context of how will all four of these characters work together? When am I going to have the hacker doing the hacking? Cybercombat. What are the other players going to be doing while the hacker’s doing that? That’s sort of a lesson that I took away from video game design is that aspect of getting yourself acclimated to the mechanics sort of one at a time.
Academic and Professional Game Design
CG: So that actually is something I wanted to touch upon. So you were at SCAD and then as an undergrad you did do a bit of video gaming design as part of your college experience?
MP: My undergraduate degree was at Michigan State University and the major that I did was Telecommunications/Information Studies Media, the specialization for which was game development, Digital Game Development. That program was going through a lot of growing pains at the time. I’ll supplement a little bit, because it’s actually a nice bridge from one of my previous talking points here. My success with Smash Quest and other tabletop games was what eventually bolstered me to want to go into developing digital games, because when you manage to develop a game that can keep 50 people riveted to their computers-, and we did sessions very frequently, like we did them once a night.
CG: Oh wow, ok.
MP: Yeah, it was really, really intense. When you can do that that successfully, you sort of sit there and think, “Hmmn, maybe I could develop games professionally.” And so that kind of bolstered me to wanting to be a digital game developer. And then, of course, there was another aspect to it, where I actually did and still do derive a bit of inspiration from George Lucas. The Star Wars films had come out on DVD at the time that I was about to go to college and with them there was a documentary called Empire of Dreams and the story basically showed me that George Lucas was a normal person like myself. He was not this extraordinary godlike human being that just pulled gold out of his rear. He was a normal person who put his pants on one leg at a time. And I sort of thought to myself, “If he could chase his dream in the entertainment industry, why can’t I chase my dream in the entertainment industry?” Which at that point was video game design. And I wasn’t even thinking that I was going to do video game design for a while. I thought I was going to do English as my major or something. Then I went to Michigan State to get back on topic here. Basically if you wanted to do video game development, that was hosted in Telecommunications and it was supposed to be cross-disciplinary, but the Art Department really didn’t want to have anything to do with us, because they were a Fine Arts department and didn’t really do commercial art.
CG: Yep, just like I’m sure with Graphic Design, they probably looked down on that.
MP: Yeah, actually graphic design was included in the Art Department and they didn’t care for us much either. Then there was Computer Science and they were more cooperative with us, but at the same time, they still didn’t really take game development seriously. Because what would happen is there’d be 300 students sitting in a lecture hall and the professor would go, “Ok, how many of you are here because you want to make video games?” And about 290 of them would raise their hands. And the professor would be sitting there thinking, “Arghh. None of these people are going to be in my class next year. None of these are going to make it into the advanced computer science courses.” And that was all too typically the case. By the time anyone got into Computer Science video game development classes – and there were a few – there was an engine-development class, for instance. By the time they got there, there’d be maybe 10 people taking that class. There’d be maybe 15 people taking a computer graphics class and that’s all just about developing a 3D rendering engine. To get there, you’d have to spend like four years doing computer science.
Meanwhile the bulk of the game development program was done in Telecom. You’d just have to do a couple of Telecom courses before you got into the game development courses, so that’s where I set my primary focus, the issue being that it didn’t really help to develop as much of a core skill as I’d put it. Everybody who’s doing digital game development, I think, has got to have a practical skill. Everybody’s got to have something that they can do on a team that they will do no matter what type of game they’re developing. Let’s say that you really aren’t interested in sports games or something like that, but you have to work on them, because you need to eat. If you’re not interested in sports games, but you’re interested in technical design or gameplay programming, then it doesn’t matter that you’re working on a sports game, you can work on the animation integration for the sports game. Then you’re doing an integration of animation technology, you’re doing physics engine stuff. That stuff interests you, so it doesn’t matter what type of game you’re making. The problem being that Telecomm was a bit of a hodgepodge at the time. It’s a lot better now, as I understand it.
So we didn’t develop much in the way of core skills, so I was sitting there like, “Ahhh… I feel like I need more training.” So I went to SCAD to do my graduate degree. Besides that, I had things I wanted to explore about game development. I had theories and ideas and things that you really didn’t get into them during undergrad and I don’t think anyone gets into them during undergrad, despite a lot of talk about how hot the student scene is right now. For instance, I did my graduate thesis on the psychological architecture of choice-driven narrative in games. Narrative in games is my big passion. In undergrad, I didn’t do anything with it. I was just feeling fortunate to have a character moving around on the screen. If something worked, it was a miracle. If we had a player model, it was a miracle. Whereas in grad school, you can actually finally start approaching those theoretical ideas – those philosophical ideas, I should say – that define the way that we think of games really and actually explore them and actually do a formalized study out of them. The kind of thing that I was expecting to do going into a game development academic program, but for better or worse we stuck to the basics until I got to grad school.
Game Design Theories: Choice-Driven Narratives and Morality
CG: What got tossed out or what got challenged? What was that experience like?
MP: It was interesting because not many people-, I shouldn’t say people didn’t challenge my theories, but they generally challenged me to formalize them more, to come up with evidence, and cite articles and things. The stuff that I was concerned with was mainly narrative, the development of narrative through games, this idea that-, and people do contest me on this thing. I believe that narrative and gameplay, mechanics I should say, complement one another. I believe that you use one to reinforce the other and that neither of the two need necessarily be considered mutually exclusive ideas. That’s how I look at it, at least. I also tend to believe in very focused form of storytelling in a way that gives you more breadth of decision-making than if you were to make a game that spans the entire universe of your story. Typically I feel that that’s a mistake that roleplaying games make all too often, is just trying to encompass too big of a story, too big of a scope, where they absolutely must go into everything that happens in the entire universe of this game and as a result, none of it gets focus, and there’s a lot of tell don’t show or as it were, tell don’t play.
I believe in the idea that if something is important to your story or to your characters, that you should make it tangible in some way. Character traits, I believe, you can make into tangible game mechanics. As an example, I point out something like Devil May Cry where the character Dante is the showboating jackass basically and the mechanics encourage you to be a showboating jackass. It’s not just about surviving the battle, it’s about showing off. It’s about doing tricks almost more than survival against demonkind. It’s very much the Tony Hawk of hack-n-slash games. And that, I found, was a very inspiring thing for me. There I am trying to apply concepts like that to a choice-driven narrative and people are like “Are you crazy?! Don’t you want to talk about Mass Effect? Isn’t that the best kind of choice-driven narrative there is?!” And I’m like, “Ehhh, I don’t really think so.” So if anything I think I spent a lot of time challenging other people, but I did get challenged in that I had at least one professor who was like, “You know, when I play a game like Mass Effect or Dragon Age or The Elder Scrolls, it seems to me that the matter of doing a choice-driven narrative doesn’t really matter because I experience it the way I experience it. And all the other possibilities basically go ignored. And sure, if I talk to people about it, fine. Basically I play it once and that’s the way I play it and it’s done.” So I needed to convince people at the same time that I was trying to tell them choice-driven narrative really gets overblown, at the same time I also needed to convince them that it was worth exploring. Sorry, I’m sort of remembering this as I go. I’m sorting of thinking aloud in a way.
CG: Yeah, you’re maybe saying in Fallout 3, that maybe you’d like to experience what Megaton is like if you don’t blow it up, versus if you do to go over to that Tenpenny Towers or whatever?
MP: Yeah, yeah. Where that comes in, where I was finally able to break the surface of that discussion was in the end, it’s not necessarily a matter of player agency. It’s not necessarily a matter of the player getting to make choices that make huge impacts on the world around them, that change literally the whole course of the story. Because there’s only so much of that you can do in a digital game at all. At the end of the day, it’s in 1’s and 0’s, it’s kind of set in stone. There’s only so much leeway you’re able to program in. The real appeal of choice-driven narrative, I postulate, is that there’s this aspect of personalization that you experience, of interpreting the story, that makes it worthwhile. So when you blow up Megaton in Fallout 3, you’re interpreting your character and the values of the story, whatever you may perceive them to be, in a different way from someone else who’s doing the same thing. It’s kind of an extrapolation of the Holodeck concept in kind of a way. Instead of exploring a story as a linear thing, as kind of being fed the story and the values that go with it, you are exploring them tangibly. You are getting hands-on experience with the themes through the interactions that you have with the game. And that particular interaction in Fallout is a very strong thematic point in that story where you’re basically making the decision about how the world should be treating itself, how it should run from this post-apocalyptic state it’s in. Should we be trying to eliminate these pockets of poverty by just getting rid of them or should we give them a chance to grow and rebuild themselves? That’s a major theme and they give you an interaction that lets you get hands-on with it. And those are the moments that I find are the most powerful in a choice-driven narrative. Likewise if I look at something like Heavy Rain, for all that game’s faults and its story, a simple moment like Ethan Mars going to his refrigerator and having to decide whether he wants to drink beer or whether he wants to drink orange juice while his son watches cartoons in the background can make a world of difference for your perception of that character. Or you can be a pig and drink both.
Coding Morality in Game Design
CG: Yeah, but what about the moralizing factor of that? Sometimes it seems like you have to figure out what the designers’ moral values are, because to us playing it, we go “That’s not bad. That’s not good. Why did I lose Karma?”
MP: That’s kind of an issue with choice-driven narrative systems, is that developers too often oversimplify it to good and evil, when, in fact, there is a huge breadth of themes that you could explore and good and evil are just one theme. If you look at something like Infamous, right? There’s a game that’s pushing the good evil thing and in a way it’s not terribly inappropriate because you’re looking at electricity and positive and negative polarity as a way to kind of connect that in, but the thing is, that’s not really what about the story is about. It’s about surviving in this city and this idea of responsibility versus selfishness. But instead of picking up on responsibility vs. selfishness, they picked on good and evil. And you can consider one value or the other to be better or worse depending on the circumstances that you’re in. If it were simply a survival situation and they said “There’s only so many resources to go around, how are you going to allocate them?” then it might have come off very differently, but instead they literally had a Good Evil meter and they had to shoehorn good and evil decisions into every beat of the story, even when there really wasn’t a difference between which one would get you further. Like very early on, there’s a scene where you can either electrocute a guy to death or you can tell him that his wife is dead and i’m sitting there going “Number 1, why do I have to electrocute him to death? Why can’t I just knock him out through the bars? Why can’t I just stun him. Number 2, why is that even a thing thematically? Why would I even think about killing him just to get past this door?” It’s a moment that’s there purely to introduce you to this mechanic of the Good-Evil Meter and there’s so many of them throughout that game.
Likewise there’s the idea of good and evil points in general, which I think is a flawed model for developing the concept of morality and decision-making in games. If you think about the decision-making process, there’s a model of decision-making called rationality. Limited rationality is the more refined way of looking at it. It basically postulates that people look at the world through a lens of risk versus reward and it’s dictated by what preferences they have for what sorts of variables they want to maximize and minimize and what options they think they have as far as getting it accomplished. If you think about good or evil points as a resource in that context, you can’t trade them. The rest of the world doesn’t work on good and evil points. You can’t go to a store and trade five points of evil karma for something. It basically has no tangible value to anyone except in very, very few peculiar instances that I think have influenced the scope of narrative-choice in a way that really shouldn’t have. Particularly, I’m thinking of Knights of the Old Republic where yeah, good and evil points are perfectly appropriate. It’s Star Wars. Literally the whole world works on this idea of Light Side and Dark Side energies conflicting, so that is absolutely a tangible resource in this world. But everybody sort of looked at that and said, “We should do good and evil points too. This is really cool.” And then it sort of went downhill, because they weren’t doing Star Wars. Star Wars is the only setting where that really works.
That’s where I think the morality idea kind of falls off. You shouldn’t be looking at it as the idea of exploring morality, because morality varies from person to person. The ideals that motivate what’s good and evil in our minds are basically… any ideology can have a very different way of looking at killing, for instance, any ideology can have a very different way of looking at a mundane thing like eating meat. It’s a question. When you talk about ideology, basically the only way you can possibly write a story is that the ideology is taken for granted. That’s the whole message behind Star Wars, in fact, is that the ideology is taken for granted. It’s the most basic type of story to tell is a morality play where you are just showing the audience what good is and what evil is and equating it to some set of values. In Star Wars, it would be probably freedom versus power. That’s really the operative theme and it’s explored through a mask of good and evil. But the key to it is good and evil are taken for granted and they don’t spend a lot of time asking what good and evil are, they just let the story take it for granted, and the action unfolds, and you get to spend time enjoying this great adventure. But then you get into something like Shadow the Hedgehog, which feels the need to belabor whether or not the lead character is a good guy or you play something like Fable. You play something like Fable which belabors the question of are you good or are you evil. Or Infamous, which belabors the question of are you good or are you evil? And by the time we get done answering this very, very basic question, not only is the game likely to be wrong in the player’s mind, but the game is also going to be over.
Story Arcs in Heavy Gear Assault? Campaign versus Arena
CG: We’ve just been talking a lot about story arcs and narrative. As far as gameplay and story arcs, will there be one in Heavy Gear Assault.
MP: [Blows air] One of our stretch goals is to try and develop a campaign. That requires a lot of resources to develop a single-player or co-op campaign, that requires an awful lot of resources, more than I think that people imagine. Single player is, on one hand, easier to program because you don’t necessarily need to do the network programming aspect of it. On the other hand, it’s more costly because you need more cinematic stuff. You need to spend time developing single player levels which you balance very differently from a multiplayer level and are much harder to test, in fact.
There’s some fun stories about what the Ratchet & Clank testing team had to go through, where they had what’s called Help Desk, which is this pop-up that comes up, telling you “You can jump over obstacles if you press the X Button.” Basically if a kid, a 3-year old kid is playing, they stay in the room too long, right, imagine having to test every single one of those. Every single message like that. If you’re building LEGO Star Wars and you’ve got messages like this that help kids through the game if they sit there for like ten minutes in the same room, imagine being the guy sitting there at the test machine moving the character through the levels sitting there for fifteen minutes desperately trying to maintain your concentration while waiting for this message to pop up so you can confirm that it pops up and that it doesn’t have spelling errors and that it stays up long enough to be readable. And then all somebody has to do is say “Hey, Mike!” over your shoulder and then you look away and then you look back and you see the pop-up disappear and you’re like “Oh crap!”
That’s the kind of thing that you have to test in a single [player campaign], and I’m not saying that Heavy Gear [Assault] would need a system like that necessarily, being that it’s a core PC game, we know that generally we’re looking at a more adult audience that can put things together for themselves. Not that we need something like that, but every interaction in a level, every scripted event in a level, right down to a simple piece of background scenery needs to be tested and confirmed, every elevator, every door has to be tested and confirmed without bugs. That process in of itself takes a whole lot of time and more people than we’ve got on this project, let alone the art resources and the level design resources necessary to create it.
CG: What fills that narrative gap then? Is it the level designs or different arenas? Different arena configurations?
MP: In terms of the narrative experience that we definitely can deliver, yeah, we’re filling in multiple different arenas in different locations. Mostly centered around Khayr ad-Din, but spread out a little bit. There’s some talk among the team of exploring a couple of other cities. And then ideally there’s a sort of, how to put this, there’s a big interaction to this that I don’t necessarily want to give away yet. What I will say is that there is we’re trying to do a little bit more than just develop a standard free-to-play game, where you just drop into a map and that’s it. We’re doing a bit more than the bare minimum Death Match sort of thing. We’re looking at a very unique system for developing player lobbies and whatnot. And we are looking at developing a stronger narrative experience through the different events that are kind of going to go on in the community. We’re looking at really using the community as our means of developing a narrative as opposed to a single player campaign at the moment. We do really want to do the single player campaign. We’ve got just awesome ideas in mind for how we’d like to develop it and the types of mechanics we’ve got go into so much more detail than the previous Heavy Gear video games, that we think we’d be able to make the most awesome single player campaign that any mech simulator has ever seen. I don’t want to say on a scope that you’ve never seen before, but there’d be interactions in ways that you haven’t seen before. Particularly revolving around your relationship with the machine, with the Gear, right. Most mech simulators are content to have you play as the mech and that’s it.
MP: Our perspective is that you are not just the mech. You are the pilot and you have a mech. And that’s about as far into that as I can go.
CG: Ok, so I’m picking up, and you don’t have to say anything to this, but maybe you could exit the mech.
MP: Maybe. [James Taylor confirms this in the GDC 2013 Interview by IndieStatik]
North vs. South, Peace River and Nu Coal
CG: OK. Do you think that players will naturally want to echo the North vs. South divide, things like that?
MP: Players will definitely have their preferences for what types of Gears they want to use. Already in the community there’s that debate happening on the Facebook page where people are going, “I’m totally sticking with my babies, the Northern Gears.” And then someone looks at a piece of Lorenz’s concept art of the Hunter versus the Jager and they’re like “I don’t know. For that Jager, I think I could be convinced to go Southern.” They just naturally want to partition themselves on North and South. I think if that’s what they want to do, just let them do it and have fun with it. If that’s where they perceive the fun of this, if they want to faction off, and they want to kind of cheerlead their side, then more power to ’em. Although we would like to explore the mechs outside of just the Northern and Southern sets of Gears.
CG: Yeah, Peace River definitely.
MP: Peace River is one of our stretch goals and then, yeah, Nu Coal is another one of our stretch goals, I think.