Beyond Flesh and Blood Developer Interview – Phillip Muwanga & Lee Blacklock

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There were lots of cool indie games on display at this year’s EGX Rezzed, and among the titles I was keen to try out and play was the latest playable demo of Beyond Flesh and Blood, by Mancunian studio Pixelbomb Games.

If you missed my impressions on the demo, here’s a quick rundown on Beyond. The game is a third-person mech shooter set in a post-apocalyptic Manchester in the year 2281. When a meteor containing some nasty extra-terrestrial creepy crawlies hits the planet, you’re sent in as a mech pilot to retake key strategic Earth cities (AKA Manchester) and get them back under control from gun-slinging bandits and bitey alien lifeforms. From what I’ve played and seen of the game so far, it’s shaping up to be a cool shooter that brings some interesting new tweaks to the mechanical mayhem of the mech genre.

I had the chance to chat with the two project leads, Coder Phillip Muwanga and Game Designer Lee Blacklock and talk about Manchester, mechs, meatsplosions and more.

Tom: What was the original inspiration for Beyond Flesh and Blood, and what inspired you to make a mech shooter specifically?

Lee: We’ve got a big love of anime and mechs, and being a dev company in Manchester, we wanted to set the game in a post-apocalyptic version of our city. We thought that a combination of these two things would be quite a playful scenario.

Phil: The basic thing is we love mechs, we love science fiction, we love action games, so we are finally able to make the game that we want to make.

Mech games in the past such as Steel Battalion and Titanfall have traditionally favoured a first-person camera view to get that cockpit experience. What was the decision behind deciding to go with a third-person camera?

Lee: Interestingly, when people ask us what the genre of the game is, we say that it’s a third-person action shooter, which is different from your typical mech shooter. It’s a third-person game, you just happen to be controlling mechs. We absolutely love robots and all forms of them, from the Japanese ones to the big stomping western mechs, so things like Steel Battalion were a big influence.

Phil: It pains me that I never got to play Steel Battalion on the big forty-button controller. I like the idea of a game where when you die, if you don’t press the eject button, you lose your save file. That’s a wonderful thing!

Townhall Concept

The game is set in Manchester, and the maps feature prominent Mancunian landmarks in their design – did you run into any issues with getting permission to use their likenesses in-game, and what other locations are you planning to get into the final game?

Phil: The main thing is that you’re fine to use the exteriors, but if you want to use the interiors then that’s when you need to get permission. But, of course, you can make a building that’s inspired by something, and that’s okay. For example, we’ve replicated my favourite bar in The Triangle – mainly because I want to fight in front of a bar that I drink in! (Laughs) There are a few other areas that we’re not talking about, but the main focal points are Deansgate, The Triangle and in front of the Hilton. We’ve purposely stayed away from having the Man United or City stadium because if you pick a side then we’ll alienate half the audience!

Lee: I think for us is the fact that the game is concentrated in the city centre as well, so to go to another location would mean jumping out of the city and we really want to focus on that sort of overgrown future version of Manchester.

Phil: The political answer is we have members of our team who support Man U and members who support Man City.

BF+B Play Expo Stand

You demoed the game last year at the Manchester Play Expo – how was that experience, and do you have any plans to take Beyond to any other shows or Expos after Rezzed?

Phil: Yes, that was a wonderful Expo. It was nice to do an Expo in our home town with a game that’s based in Manchester – we got a lot of positive feedback. There are a few big shows that we’d like to take it to, but we are mainly focused on just finishing the final thing now. What will be quite nice is that once we’re closer to release we’ll have a more stable build, so we won’t have to spend quite so much time getting a build ready to tour at Expos. It is important to get the game out and to talk to members of the press so that people can hear about it.

The game is designed as a singleplayer experience with a solo campaign, but have you got any plans to implement any online multiplayer features into the horde mode maps at a later date?

Phil: The gameplay that we’re showing here is from our wave-based mode – this is an added extra that comes with the game, the singleplayer story is the primary focus. We’re not showing much of that because we don’t want to spoil the story. Let’s just say that it does take place in these areas here, and that it involves mechs and people being torn to pieces.

Within the world that we’ve made, there are various factions and it would be wonderful to do a multiplayer shooter where they fight against each other. We’re talking and thinking about that, but at the moment we are focusing on making the best singleplayer experience that we can. The campaign is our focus. What we didn’t want to do was to tack on a multiplayer component just to have a tick on the back of the box. If we were to do multiplayer, we would want to be properly focused on that.

Lee: When we’ve been developing in the studio, we’ve actually switched the player camera around and switched to the other AI classes that we’ve got so we can run around as them. It’s not going to happen for the game, but it’s just what we’ve been doing in-house just to have a play around, so like Phil said that’s given us the multiplayer ideas, and we’d love to do a lot more in the world of Beyond Flesh and Blood.

Dropship

I appreciate that you don’t want to say too much about the story, but what challenges did you have in writing a story around what’s essentially a faceless robot character?

Phil: The interesting thing is that you can’t die in this game. You’re in a space station in orbit, so if you’re suit is killed then they just send in another suit from orbit. It is not a big deal for them (The United Global Remnant, the in-game faction you play for). We try to tie this mechanic into the gameplay of the world – these soldiers on the ground, because they can die, they will comment on the fact that you’re not really there or that it all feels like a game to you. These are some of the areas that we wanted to explore in this.

Lee: We’ve not really had difficulties, but it’s more about the amount of choices we’ve got – we’ve got to keep narrowing it down. Like Phil said, there’s lots of themes we’d like to explore but it’s a case of just how many of these we can effectively explore in the timeframe.

Phil: The hardest bit that we’ve had is trying to squeeze all of our ideas into this game. It is a combat-focused game, so we want the gameplay mechanics to tell most of the story, rather than have a lot of expensive cutscenes and FMVs. Those two fields do not have to be mutually exclusive; we do have a story that we want to tell, but we are focused on making a fun, enjoyable gameplay experience. At the end of the day, we are a small indie studio – we’re not a big triple-A studio who can afford to hire all the animators it takes to do your cutscenes.

Mark 1

When I played the previous demo myself I used mouse and keyboard controls. I’m normally a player who favours using a controller, but I have to say I thought that the way you’ve designed the keyboard controls was spot-on. You really get a feel of each mech’s weight and momentum, especially the Mark 1.

Lee: That’s definitely something that we want you to feel as you go through the different mechs – we will have four mechs, so as you go through each one that feeling will feel different, but we still want it to feel very meaty. Like you were saying, in the Mark 1 you can really stomp around with it. The mouse and keyboard controls still need work though at the minute, they are still in development so that they can be even better.

So there’s four mechs in total?

Phil: You start off with the Mark 1 – he’s basically a walking JCB; he’s a slow engineering mech and can’t dodge so far. He can use his size to tear people to pieces and to pick up large objects and to interact with the world in a very physical way. As you move up through the marks they become smaller but more agile, but they lose the physical powers that the Mark 1 has.

Next is the Mark 2 – he’s the baby brother of the Mark 1. He isn’t quite as strong, but he’s faster and a more agile engineering mech overall. He’s still not purpose-built for combat, but he does have a welding laser which is really effective. The special thing about this mech though is that he’s got awesome extendable arms; if you think of the Mark 1 as the JCB, then the Mark 2 is like the forklift version if you will. Obviously it’s still very powerful – he can use his arms to extend himself up in the air and slam down on enemies. We’ve used his arms in a number of the sync kills which are unlocked through story means.

Eventually, you get to 4th mark, the Prototype Suit.

Mech Landing

Is that different from the Prototype Suit featured in the demo then?

Phil: Yes – I know the terms are the same, but the Prototype Suit that you’re seeing here is the prototype that we internally made as our test, and not the finished thing.

Lee: We made this in-house prototype so that we could get a sense of its scale and movement speed, and how that will differ in comparison to a larger mech.

Phil: The actual Prototype Suit in the final game is an advanced suit which has all sorts of interesting tweaks to it. It’ll be able to do all sorts of wonderful things.

Unlike a lot of other third-person shooters, you’ve got these big open environments in Beyond which aren’t littered with a load of conveniently-placed thigh-high walls to hide behind for cover, plus you can actually improvise and arrange your own cover using the items in the environment.

Phil: One of the choices that we made was that the player cannot take cover in our game. The AI can, but you instead have to rely on the suit’s powers and abilities, and the fact that you can slow down time and dodge. I love Gears of War, but I don’t want to make another game where you hide behind a chest-high wall, wait for yourself to auto-heal and then you come back. It’s why, from a gameplay point of view, you don’t recharge your health; the only way to get your health back in Beyond Flesh and Blood is to kill your enemies, so you can’t hide. If you want to stay alive, you’ve got to get into the fray and get into the fight.

I like the game’s tower mechanic – it’s a cool way of reining in the player’s power and reach without it feeling overtly restricting.

Phil: The main reason why we have them is that in the singleplayer campaign, we don’t like it when the player encounters an invisible wall, so the towers are our way of leashing the player to where we want them to be.

Lee: The story element of it is that the pilot controlling the mech is on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, controlling his mech with his mind – he constantly needs connection to that mech through the towers, so when you die, that connection is severed. Another mech gets sent in and your mind reconnects to the replacement.

In one of your previous interviews you mention that you specifically didn’t want the game to be too hand-holding when it came to difficulty. Is that a personal reaction against the design of modern shooters, or rather a case of giving the game some of that old-school shooter difficulty?

Phil: I’m an old-school gamer – I like games that are hard, that you actually have to think about them and learn the gameplay mechanics. One of the things that I don’t like is when people take a dislike to a certain game because it doesn’t feel like a game that they already know. If you don’t like a shooter because it doesn’t play like Call of Duty, then fair enough that’s your personal choice, but perhaps you should try and learn that game’s own gameplay mechanics. The configuration of the pad doesn’t have to be locked, I’d much rather a game dev did different things with it.

As for the holding hands bit, I like hard games. It pains me that nowadays quite a few games just give you this sort of rollercoaster ride. We want our players to really have to think about the game and understand the mechanics to be able to progress.

Speaking of old-school, Beyond has some crazy levels of gore going on – is that also a throwback to older shooters like Unreal Tournament and Quake and things like that where gore was a big part of the shooter zeitgeist of the time?

Phil: We are late ’90s gamers. I like games with gore in them. The big thing that I always say is that we’re not making a torture-porn game – it is over-the-top action movie gore, where you shoot someone and they explode into gibs. The violence is easier to palate the more extreme it is, as it takes on a cartoon-esque vibe.

Lee: Phil is also working on a new dismemberment system, and new sync kills – the melee kill animations that the mechs perform they tear people apart. We’re still working on them, but we’ve managed to get a lot of the new animations in. These are going to be a lot more detailed – we’ll be releasing some more footage sometime soon.

Phil: With the Unreal 3 build there was only so much that we could do. Now, I can tear any limb off any person and punch holes in people – basically all the things that my sick mind wanted to be able to do to people in games! (Laughs)

Printworks

How was the transition going from the Unreal 3 engine to Unreal 4? I’m guessing that it wasn’t just a simple ‘right-click – save as’ process?

Phil: No – I’ve not had much sleep over the past two months and the whole team has been working incredibly hard to port all of the assets over. It’s worthwhile, but it’s not a simple job; we’ve had to rebuild the game from the ground up.

Lee: I think Epic have done some things to help this process, like there are exporters for things like content, but it’s still a big job to move the code base over for our AI, the shaders, the dismemberment system and a lot of the assets.

Phil: It’ll be worthwhile, but I’ll be glad when it’s done because we have a nice stable build here, we need to get our Unreal 4 build to feel as polished as our Unreal 3 build does.

Lee: We’ve definitely got both feet in Unreal 4 now, but it’s just a case of continuing on with that process.

I’ve read that you’d also made changes to the enemy AI since the previous demo – how exactly have you changed those systems?

Phil: They are smarter, we’ve used everything that we’d learned in the Unreal 3 build to make the Unreal 4 AI a hell of a lot better. They have squad-based AI now, so they know where you are in relation to the rest of their teammates and will try to flank you. The AI is an important part of the experience – we don’t just want them to blindly fire at you. We want them to apply pressure.

Lee: Even in the AI themselves, we’ve got separate classes of AI that will respond to you slightly differently as part of their own AI class but will operate together as one when part of a squad.

On a related note, can we expect to see any more extra-terrestrial enemy types in the final game i.e. ranged variants?

Phil: We aren’t talking about that faction yet, but let’s just say that we have a crack team of artists who are making some interesting content. (Laughs) We do have to keep some things back for the singleplayer.

The game is coming to the Xbox One and PS4 after the PC release – do you have any plans to use the unique hardware and features of those consoles? Any plans to use the DualShock 4’s touchpad or the Xbox One’s Kinect?

Lee: With the Kinect personally, aside from what we’re doing with our game, I was really excited when it came bundled with Xbox One. Now that it’s an optional extra, you can never be sure that every user has a Kinect, so we’re not 100% certain about those elements.

Phil: Unfortunately because the marketplace has now been split with the Xbox One, you need to cater for people who don’t have one.

Anything in mind for the PS4 touchpad?

Phil: It would be nice, but just as long as it doesn’t influence the core gameplay too much.

Any plans or thoughts on integrating VR or Oculus Rift support into the game in the future?

Phil: We’re aiming to get the game to run at a stable 60 frames-per-second, but to integrate VR we would have to half that, and do it all in 3D. It’s something we’re not heavily focused on – we’re focused on making this the best singleplayer experience that we can, but just for my own personal pride I would like to see it working on Oculus.

Lee: I’ve played other games on VR and I think it’s an excellent experience so I hope that it definitely does take off. It’s interesting now that Valve is releasing its own VR headset (the HTC Vive) now.

Phil: It does feel like this is now an actual thing; VR is happening, and the future is all about these new headsets.

It’s funny how VR is still a concept that’s in vogue today after it turned out to be nothing more than a kind of a gimmicky fad back in the ’80s with things like the Nintendo Virtual Boy. In such a short period of time it’s come back and it’s now a very real possibility and practically an inevitable thing at this point.

Phil: I think it was at EGX last year that I played Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus, and that was a mind-blowing experience. If that is just the baseline of it, then the future is going to be bright.

Lee: Yeah, and that was on unreleased hardware as well, so hopefully it’ll just keep getting better and better.

Main Title

Anything else that you’d like to say about the game that we didn’t get chance to cover? When can players expect to get their hands on the final version of the game – Summer 2015 right?

Phil: Yeah that’s correct, we have a free demo of the game that players can download from our website (www.beyondfleshandbloodgame.com) so if you’re interested then you should get it downloaded.

Lee: Also, for anyone who’s interested in the game to keep an eye on our content releases, as we’ll be releasing more things to do with Unreal Engine 4.

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