Below is a excerpt from The Final Hours of Titanfall, a new 25,000 word longform app about the creation of the new video game from Respawn Entertainment. The full story is available for iOS, PC/Mac, Surface, Android, and other platforms. Find out more at www.finalhoursoftitanfall.com
Chapter 11: Finding The Fun
Joseph Roland Barbera arrived for his first day of work at the new MGM Animation studio in Hollywood in August 1937. A skilled cartoonist from New York, Barbera had been lured to Hollywood with promises of a bigger salary. He settled into his desk and met the man sitting next to him, William Danby Hanna. Together, the two cartoonists went on to make Tom and Jerry (first known as Puss Gets the Boot) in 1940, a legendary cartoon series with 114 shorts made between 1940 and 1957.
As anyone who has seen a Tom and Jerry cartoon knows, the comical yet surprisingly violent battles between Tom, a gray and white cat, and Jerry, a small brown house mouse, were always entertaining. Time and again Tom would try to lure Jerry out of his mouse hole and into traps, setting up a classic battle of a big cat versus a small and agile mouse. “I liked it because the minute you saw a cat and mouse, half your story was done,” Barbera once said. “You know there will be a conflict and you will have a chase.”
In early 2013 the gameplay of Titan Wars was starting to feel like a futuristic, grittier version of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Massive hulking titans would roam across maps like Fracture, a former mining colony, and fire Sidewinder missiles into dilapidated buildings where wall-running pilots would cloak themselves to avoid detection. The cat and mouse–like gameplay made Titan Wars feel different from other first-person action games, adding an element of strategy and verticality to a well-worn multiplayer formula.
That big-versus-small recipe was front and center in the eight-minute video Respawn created for EA’s GPMM meeting in Barcelona. Set on Fracture, the video showcased pilot and titan gameplay across the map. As the team looked at the final demo it realized just how many of the early design concepts remained. There was wall running, the smart pistol, the fire team (as computer controlled AI) and the titan as centerpieces to the experience. While some EA executives complained that the game’s graphics weren’t looking as beautiful as the company’s forthcoming shooter Battlefield 4, there was no denying that the demo looked fast, fun and fluid. EA could finally see the true potential in Titan Wars.
That potential was confirmed when Respawn QA lead Chris Hughes brought consumers into the office for “Kleenex tests,” named that way because every subject sees the game only once. Testers reported a sense of joy after their titan entered the “doomed” state and they were forced to eject. Instead of just climbing out, players rocketed high up into the air on an ejection seat, and, if they had their timing right, could land on top of or “rodeo” another titan on the battlefield on the way down.
On Feb. 1 Jason West emailed the studio with the news that everyone knew was coming: He was ejecting from Respawn. “I’ve worked with some of you guys for 17 years, half my life,” his note began. West explained that he would be officially leaving Respawn and moving to North Carolina, in part to care for his mother who had fallen ill over the holidays with a respiratory infection. “I’m confident in your future successes,” he said to the team at the end of his note, and invited everyone to a dinner that night at the local John O’Groats restaurant as a goodbye.
After years of intra-office strife, no one was certain if Respawn could take the 8-minute demo of Titan Wars and scale it into full game in less than a year. That would be a tall order even under the best circumstances, and Respawn was still recovering from years of turmoil. Wounds weren’t fully healed and the organizational structure of the team was unclear.
Zampella, however, wasn’t willing to give up on the game — or the team. With EA’s backing he worked to re-align the studio around a new set of leads and smooth out the lingering tensions between departments. Besides Hendry’s position as lead designer, Emslie was appointed to take over as lead artist from Matt Codd, who left in late 2012. The audio department was similarly re-jiggered, with a new lead, Erik Kraber, joining from EALA to save the sound design, which was widely considered one of the bigger messes on the project.
“Vince deserves a lot of credit for leading the team through a very rocky period and keeping the product alive,” says Riccitiello, who left his post as CEO of EA in March 2013, just as Zampella and the crew dug in for the hardest development sprint it had experienced in the past 15 years. It would take plenty of blood, toil, tears and sweat over the next 12 months to finish the game, but Zampella instilled a sense of confidence in the team.
The looming production deadline was made more intimidating by another troubling revelation. Hendry and the designers realized that the game wasn’t very fun to play as a titan. In playtests it became clear that Titan Wars was turning into a game not unlike the plastic toy Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. The titans were too powerful, resulting in matches that were like bumper cars at a local amusement park. Players were mindlessly punching each other as titans and bumping into one another because the titans were so invulnerable. The Herculean titan strength was largely a result of the regenerative health system that the designers assigned to both pilots and titans. Regenerative health is a now-common feature pioneered by Halo that lets players automatically recover their in-game health by avoiding enemy fire for a period of time.
The lack of confidence in the titan mode led to a drastic design change in February 2013. Originally each player began a game inside a 24-foot-high titan, only to become a pilot as an “extra life” after being forced to eject out of the doomed titan. Now the formula was reversed. Players began as a pilot and then called in their titan from the sky during the game (hence the game’s new name, Titanfall). Starting players on foot would be more familiar, Respawn argued. It also added another layer of strategy. How quickly a player could summon their titan was determined by their early success in each game mission.
At night Hendry and the design team would sit in the offices and play game matches again and again, discussing the results and then editing numbers in a configuration file to manipulate the strength, firing rate and capacity of weapons and the titans. The team experimented with changing titan health to a permanent system with no automatic recharging, but that introduced another problem: The winner of a so-called TvT fight (for titan vs. titan) would come out of a battle so battered that their titan was practically doomed anyway. A concept of dying titans dropping health packs to power-up the winner’s titan was tested, but that led to a so-called “Voltron effect” where one team could overpower the other during a match and create an all titan army. The fun finally started to emerge when the team came up with a way to split the difference: No regenerative health but rather a regenerative shield bar for titans.
As the designers iterated on the design, Zampella worked behind the scenes to drum up support and interest with partners including Xbox, which saw the game for the first time in February. Without much in the way of early information about the PlayStation 4, it was a virtual certainty that Respawn would ship Titanfall as an exclusive title for the Xbox One. Given the small team size it made sense for Respawn to focus on one console platform, and Microsoft was willing to invest in development to ensure the game appeared first on Xbox. A third-party studio, Bluepoint Games in Austin, Texas, would be brought in by EA to handle creating a version of the game for the Xbox 360.
Impressed by the early demo, Xbox began discussing the idea of Titanfall closing Xbox’s E3 press conference with Zampella—a slot that was occupied the previous year by Call of Duty.
The burst of excitement from Xbox was much needed for a team that was still unsure of Titanfall’s potential. Zampella tweeted on Feb. 25 to kick off a hype train that would lead into the June reveal:
In the months leading into E3 the team turned to other concerns. Level designers struggled to build environments that would not only accommodate massive titans and smaller pilots but also force the two classes to intersect with each other. “We had to think of players like cattle we had to herd,” says designer Geoff Smith. Tight indoor spaces gave pilots the comfort of cover, but levels also had to be designed in a way so titans wouldn’t get stuck on the map or boxed in by low-hanging geometry. The pilot wall-running ability helped make pilots more competitive on the battlefield, and the powerful “anti-titan weapon” let pilots even the scoreboard against their metallic foes.
The Respawn Audio Team, as Photographed by Art Strieber
The audio suites at Respawn also started to ramp up under the direction of audio lead Kraber, who had previously worked on the original Medal of Honor at EA. While music is not typically a huge part of multiplayer, Respawn commissioned a 110-minute score by composer Steven Barton for the campaign multiplayer, including themes for both factions, the IMC and the Militia. Layered on top of that score were sound effects for weapons and the titans, including the titan start up sound, which came from an escalator in Singapore. Even little touches mattered, like the volume of gunshots from AI grunts being slightly softer than weapons fired by real players to create a more fun and dynamic play experience.
IT WAS THE FRIDAY BEFORE E3, THE ANNUAL VIDEO GAME TRADE SHOW, and Vince Zampella was getting ready for his team’s big reveal. Over the past few months a few details about Titanfall had leaked online to gaming blogs like Kotaku, but by and large Respawn’s new project had been kept remarkably top secret over the past three years.
Everything was starting to fall into place. The game was looking good, and rehearsals would commence later in the afternoon at the Galen Center in Los Angeles for the Xbox E3 press conference, set for Monday morning. That’s when Titanfall would officially be announced at the close of the show, complete with a live game demo and trailer.
But within minutes what looked to be a great day turned into yet another roller-coaster ride.
On his way to work Zampella’s minivan was rear-ended and totaled. And then, in the middle of dealing with the aftermath of the accident another shoe dropped: The popular video game magazine Game Informer mistakenly posted its Titanfall cover story that it had written under embargo. The magazine quickly removed the digital copy, but some basic information leaked out online about Titanfall. Zampella’s phone started incessantly vibrating with texts from friends in the industry.
On Sunday evening Zampella, Abbie Heppe, McCoy and Fukuda headed to the final dress rehearsal for the Xbox press conference. With many Xbox staff and game publishers in attendance, the demo wowed the developers of games like Battlefield and Halo. Don Mattrick, the head of Xbox, approached Zampella at the end of the rehearsal to personally congratulate him and the team. The reveal of the new Xbox One had gotten off to a rocky start for Microsoft just a few weeks earlier and the company desperately needed a big game at E3 to turn around the momentum. Titanfall was looking like Halo for the next generation of game consoles.
Titanfall looked good, but it played even better. VIPs and E3 judges went hands-on at the Electronic Arts booth and found a game that was fast and responsive and felt like a fresh take on multiplayer. And to bring things full circle, even Steven Spielberg, the creator of the original Medal of Honor franchise, came by to check out the game and sang its praises.
By the third day of E3 the Titanfall theater door was adorned with dozens of ribbons, placards and signs. The new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were supposed to be the big stories at E3 2013, yet Titanfall had stolen their thunder. It won the Game of the Show award from the E3 Game Critics. Suddenly three years of torment and hardship disappeared into the ether. Respawn felt like it was back on top of the world.
To celebrate, everyone headed to the atrium of the L.A. Convention Center for a team photo beneath “Betty,” the name for the life-size 24-foot Atlas titan that the art team had built with a Hollywood prop company. Titanfall had officially conquered E3, and community manager Heppe started to make plans to take the game on the road to various press and fan events around the world, including GamesCom in Germany, PAX in Seattle and the Eurogamer Expo in London.
The buzz around Titanfall did have one drawback. PlayStation fans, who had long played Call of Duty and Medal of Honor games, were going to be left out in the cold, at least initially. Respawn had planned to focus on one main platform at launch and release Titanfall first for Xbox One and PC. But as PlayStation 4 gained more and more buzz and consumer attention coming out of E3, the requests for a PS4 version started intensifying.
The way Respawn saw it, the developer had never agreed to full exclusivity for Titanfall on Xbox platforms, only an exclusive window of up to 13 months. Zampella maintains that the team only found out that EA had turned an exclusive window deal into permanent exclusivity in the summer of 2013, weeks after the game’s spectacular showing at E3.
The deal was a complicated one as Respawn wasn’t dealing directly with Xbox. Instead, terms were negotiated through EA, which signed a larger, overarching partnership deal with Microsoft for the Xbox One. In order to make the economics work and keep Titanfall alive, EA needed a first-party publisher to invest. Xbox was willing to step up and save the project, which turned out to be a wise bet. Xbox now has one of the biggest games of the year as an exclusive to its platforms, although it lays no claim to any sequels.
Always one to be honest and direct with his fans, Zampella took to Twitter to explain that it wasn’t Respawn’s choice to never release the first Titanfall on PlayStation 4:
The thrill of winning Best of Show at E3 was a much-needed motivator for the team. That feeling of victory was short lived, however, once the team realized how much work was left to do over the summer and fall. Designer Alavi, who surprised even himself with his interest in the multiplayer-focus of the game, dug in for the long haul. He brought four changes of clothes every Monday and spent the entire week working and sleeping at the office for just three hours a night. On weekends he’d head home to hang out with his girlfriend and build Legos.
Acutely aware that the team was running behind schedule, Fukuda started sending out a weekly “Core Gameplay Hitlist” email shortly after E3. “Embark times need to be consistent no matter the angle at ~3.4 seconds” he wrote in the email, referring to the moment when a player hits X to jump into a titan. Other elements that needed tweaking included everything from removing the ability for EMP grenades to freeze titans dead in their tracks to making it more difficult to see cloaked pilots when you are playing as a titan. Small modifications to the formula were made by hand in text files and then the designers, led by Hendry, played the game for a few hours to see if the changes made the combat more or less interesting. Everything was tested, from titan combat to gunplay with weapons like the R97 and Smart Pistol. The goal was to create an experience that lived up to the acronym MLLM for minute to learn, lifetime to master.
The number of players on a multiplayer map was also a subject of debate. Earlier in the year the team had experimented with everything from 4v4 teams up to 8v8. At E3 the game had been set to 7v7, but by July it became clear that 6v6 was likely the best sized team to “mitigate the chaos factor” as noted in Respawn’s internal Titanfall wikia page.
The new team structure led to faster design iteration and better communication, but by mid-August designers McCandlish and McLeod approached Fukuda and Hendry with a major concern.
“There’s too much pending on this game, I don’t think we’re going to be able to ship it on time,” McCandlish told the leads. He and Richard Baker began pushing to cut the game down to just one class of titan, the Atlas, leaving the tank-like Ogre and the fast and lightweight Stryder on the cutting room floor.
Ultimately, Zampella and Fukuda pushed hard to keep the other titan classes in the game. Saving those titans classes became one of the top three priorities for development alongside the creation of more multiplayer game modes. Another prioritized item was burn cards, special single-use power-ups to temporarily boost the player’s abilities in some way, like Conscription, which credits players with kills made by nearby grunts on a game map. Burn Cards began development on August 16 but weren’t completed until December.
Campaign multiplayer was also in a state of constant evolution. At one point Hendry considered branching narrative levels like the old game Darius Gaiden, but then the reality set in about the scope of the current game. By September the script and dialogue recording hadn’t even started. Jesse Stern, the writer of Modern Warfare 1 and 2 was brought in to script out the 18 levels of the campaign multiplayer game and plan out the dialogue that would be spoken by actors and Abbie Heppe, Respawn’s community manager who also plays the voice of Sarah in the shipping game.
On Oct. 18, 2013, Alavi posted on his Facebook a major milestone for the project with a single word: alpha. In the game industry the alpha version refers to the point in a project when all the elements are fully playable and ready to start testing. Titanfall’s alpha stretched the definition of that term. Some major features were still being debated in the fall. Generations, the game’s progression and leveling system for multiplayer, wasn’t conceived or implemented until December 2013. Titan tactical abilities like the Atlas’ damage core, a rage-like mode for super powered weapons, was a late addition as well.
The pace of innovation at Respawn was rapid, proving that Zampella’s new team structure and Fukuda’s hitlist schedule approach fostered inter-departmental collaboration and focus. Despite the long hours the team had found its stride. “Things are better here now, you should come back,” Geoff Smith told designer turned pilot Alex Roycewicz, who rejoined the team for the final stretch of development. “It felt like an all-new company Vince had put together when I came back, and it helped that everyone knew that the game was turning out pretty good,” admits Roycewicz.
Shortly after reaching alpha, Vince Zampella is sitting in his backyard in front of his fire pit. Lately he’s been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto V, but tonight he’s starting to think about the afterword he has to write for the Art of Titanfall book. It’s one of the first times Zampella has been asked to reflect directly on the entire project, a game that has consumed his life for the past four years. With the kids asleep and the dogs resting, he heads inside to write about how it feels to now be leading Respawn by himself.
“I have seen people I admired do things that made me sad and confused,” he types, subtly referencing his struggles with Activision. “I have also seen people stand up for what they believe is right, no matter the cost.” He continues writing an afterword that is a tribute to the team of Respawners who locked arms with him and walked across fire to create a game. The development of Titanfall was a crucible, and anyone can come out of an inflection point like that feeling bigger or growing smaller. Those who remained at Respawn had formed a unique bond with each other.
Zampella decides to add a quote to his afterword that sums up the conflicting emotions he is feeling about the team, the game and the journey to create Respawn. The line comes from Douglas Adams’ The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul and it reads: “I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be.”
To read the other 11 chapters, download The Final Hours of Titanfall longform app, available for $1.99