The Collective Interview:
To say Buffy the Vampire Slayer was an unlikely movie to spawn one of the greatest television shows of this or any generation is an understatement. For five years the show used a unique blend of humor and horror to cultivate a large fanbase. However, hardcore Buffy fanatics have been going through hard times lately. Both Anthony Stewart Head and Amber Benson have left the show and season six as a whole took a serious dive when it comes to quality. The opening weeks of the seventh season currently show signs of hope in proving that it can redeem itself. Yet those looking for an escape to the glory days of season three only need to read what Nick has to say about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the game.
Thanks John. Yes, it's true that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one astounding game. While I may not be a hardcore fan of the series like John, I have been impressed with what I've seen of the show thus far. As for the game, it admirably combines an incredible fighting engine with full 3D exploration, then stands the whole thing on it's head and spins it around a couple of times. Gaming Target has been given a chance to receive the full, in-depth scoop on the new Buffy game by sitting down with it's phenomenal developing talents at The Collective and Fox Interactive producer David Stalker.
First, Let's hear what the team members at The Collective have to say about all of the hours of work required to bring a title like BTVS to the table. In the following paragraphs, lead level designer Tony Barnes (TB), fighting engine expert James "DJAMES" Goddard (DJ), artist Kye-wan Sung (KS), as well as Richard Hare (RH), Douglas Hare (DH) and Dave Winstead (DW), detail the massive undertaking a project of this magnitude inevitably becomes.
Gaming Target (GT):
What's it like creating a game based on a popular series? Were you able to directly utilize anything from the archives of the show, say sound effects, or perhaps take a peek at some original scripts for inspiration?TB:
As with any license we take on, creating a game based on a series as popular as Buffy is a rewarding and also daunting task. We are all fans of the properties we take on here and as such we approach them as a hardcore fan would. Besides the materials we get from the publisher, we spend countless hours of research and reference gathering. For Buffy, we've not only watched *every single episode* over and over again, we even visited the exact locations where they filmed the series and took extensive photos and notes. The locations are recreated as closely as possible, within the confines of the game, as many students who go to the real "Sunnydale High school" can attest. For such things as sound effects, we studied the show closely to match the aural tapestry they create and then augmented it for the game. GT: Since Buffy features recognizable characters from the show, can you please describe the unique process of creating character models that are faithful to their onscreen counterparts?
KS: Building the TV-show character is fun, but also a frustrating process. We first gather tons of reference movies and pictures and get familiar with them. We then find the best profile pictures and put them on screen as a template. As we make character models, we render them out from different directions with different lighting to check them. Each model goes through different artists and gets feedbacks from all available sources to achieve the best possible result.
GT: Did you personally get to work with any of the Buffy cast during voice recording sessions? If so, what did they think of the game?
RH: I was fortunate enough to be present during the V.O. sessions with many of the Buffy cast members. This was very cool to begin with but it was made all the cooler because of how great they were to work with. I've actually no idea whether they've seen the final product yet but it would definitely be interesting to hear what they think of it.
GT: Did any of you guys watch Buffy before you started developing the game? And has working on the game convinced any non-fans on the development team to seek out the show?
RH: Although many of us had some familiarity with the show prior to working on the game, most of us became big, big fans once we started it. A lot of the core team watched all the then available episodes (two or three every evening) so we could get up to speed and get truly immersed in the license. It actually says a lot about the quality of the show that we were able to watch three episodes a night for a couple of weeks and still enjoy it. :-)
GT: I understand that several of you gentlemen are ex-Capcom employees. Please tell us about your involvement in Street Fighter, and how that prior experience factored into the development of the fighting engine for BTVS?
DJ: I joined Capcom in early 1991, just as it SFII was getting popular at a local arcade (Sunnyvale Golfland). Within 1 year's time, though sheer passion for SFII and the upcoming games, I had become Capcom Japan's R&D support guy working directly for Mr. Okamotto, built a mini support department with fingers in 10+ games, arranged, promoted and ran the huge California SFII Tournament and created the concept for SFII: Champion Edition. I was then given the opportunity to submit tons of balance and design ideas for SFII: Champ. and later be a pitbull for balance ensuring the real designers had the best info on how to balance the game for the USA style of tournament play. It came out and kicked ass. Later, illegal "turbo kits" hit and screwed up how SFII: Champ. should be played, earnings were in jeopardy and I started pushing for an official turbo kit of our own.
I was given the opportunity to design SFII: Hyper Fighting, the new moves, the control mechanics, etc. I flew to Japan and worked directly with the programmers and lead designer Mr. Funamizu to get the changes in, then again became the pitbull for balance on location in several USA arcades to ensure Turbo SFII: Hyper Fighting would be the end all be all for tournament gaming. During this time Super SFII was in production and I had again been fortunately enough to be involved and had submitted the idea for a bad-ass high flying black martial artist with a fun loving attitude, amazingly enough he was accepted and Dee Jay was born! While I was booming as an idea and balance guy, getting my hands deeply into other games like Slam Masters, D&D, Cadillac's and Dinosaurs, etc. I was not personally doing the hard work- all credit and respect for the true success of the SFII series must go to the team that slaved on it! - and it became time to set off on my own to essentially "see the world".
I left Capcom and for the next five years figured out the hard way how to be a real developer, where at Namco Hometek I cut my teeth on my first work of passion WeaponLord for SNES and Genesis, mastering the art of working with a tool to script animation, set collision, balance hooks, etc. and then later moved into 3D fighting with a game called 10th Degree for Atari coin-op. 10th Degree unfortunately was cancelled last minute due to the floundering coin-op fighting market which was a massive blow to my ego, but the upside was I had moved into 3D space and created a beast that seamlessly combined Street Fighter with Tekken. So there I was sitting on tons of fighting experience with nowhere to apply it when in 1999 along comes Buffy. I joined the project with the proven ability to lead a team to design and execute a fighting game system/engine equivalent to the high end coin-op fighters at that time, surely that would be enough right? Wrong. Our vision of Buffy and my desire to do something crazy would require a full featured fighter turned on it's side and unleashed in a fully interactive 3D world versus multiple opponents with magic attacks and weapons seamlessly rolled into a simple control interface that would cater to both beginner and expert players.
To do a game like this you MUST have the "know how" to do high end fighting, so my experience definitely gave us an advantage, but taking it all the way and creating the "free roaming" character/fighting system in Buffy was a monstrous effort by many talented people, in the end that makes my previous experience sometimes seem like Kindergarten. I am a lucky guy needless to say to have been given so many great opportunities and Buffy is the most challenging game of my career so far!
DW: I joined Capcom when SFII Hyper Fighting was in the final stages. I helped DJames give feedback to Capcom Japan on balance and game additions for the final release. Later, I moved on to Super Street Fighter, Super Street Fighter Turbo, and then Aliens vs. Predator. Basically for these titles, I worked closely with Capcom Japan to try and bring something new the arcade fighting market. Most of the stuff that was designed for Super Street Fighter II ended up in the later release of Super Street Fighter II Turbo. Super attacks along with the proven turbo speed were some of the big additions that revived the quickly dying Street Fighter series. Alien vs. Predator was extremely fun to work on. I worked with some of the best Japanese designers of Capcom Japan to help bring some of that addictive SF combat system over to a side scrolling brawler. We were not too sure if we could pull off adding special techniques to a Final Fight type game, but the results were very pleasing.
GT: Speaking of Buffy's combat, anyone who's played the game can attest to the incredible depth and robust response the fighting system displays. Please tell us all about the design, from concept to finished code.
DJ: There were several key things I wanted to nail: 1) Ease of control, 2) Capture the vision of the shows combat with the wild flow and anything can happen factors, 3) Make it it all 3D with an organic feel- no stiff forced camera modes or imposed targeting gimmicks. Tackling those basic points lead to tons of watching Buffy, studying her moves and designing the engine features to support it like Wall Splats, weapons, collision and reaction systems, etc. From there, the outline was laid and then the hardcore system design began.
Most people think that combat is easy and take it for granted, thinking that a simple Jab Punch is only a button press, an animation and a reaction- which is why a lot of games trying it feel like ass. The truth is just to throw a simple Jab in Buffy there are about 30 things going on that make it "real" and feel good, so imagine the number of things going on under the hood at any given moment when Buffy is comboing 3 enemies with a super, bouncing 2 off a wall while throwing a stake at the third as it hits the ground! With that in mind, we made a fighting system covers a lot of territory, some of which includes: Wall splats, combos, supers, melee and projectile weapons (both magic and ammo), environmental "stunt" helpers, full 360 multiple opponent hierarchal context sensitive targeting, grappling, on the fly counters, character breaking/ ability disabling, weapon breaking/improvisation and 4 player support just in case we had time to do a secret arena mode.
So all the systems designs were nailed and I collaborated on the design for a kick-ass "character scripting" pipeline to allow designers to program the character fighting and gameplay. Then the intense "motion design", animation and scripting phase began. In the end after a grueling development process, we managed to achieve the three points above and put out something we hoped would be received well.
GT: Did Sophia Crawford (Buffy's stunt double) make any fighting style suggestions during the motion capture sessions?
DJ: Yes, Sophia and Jeff Pruitt were awesome to work with. Naturally they brought complete authenticity to the moves we had planned and helped push the intensity of the way Buffy and some of the vampires like Spike would fight. We talked a lot about what kind of moves or crazy action they would like to do in the show but had not had the chance to do yet, amazingly enough there was quite a bit so we shot a bunch of their pipe dream moves and put them in the game! Also, there was a big actor from the show, fondly referred to as "Bubba", he did the Big Vamp moves and actually picked up one of the other actors by the throat to capture the base reference for Grim's (the big vamp with overhauls) infamous Choke Toss. Working with them was fantastic, the reference motion capture we shot was crucial to were we went next with the "motion design" and animation execution of the game.
GT: Are Buffy's moves in the game based on a particular Martial Art, or an amalgam of styles?
DJ: That's a tough question! While she has some foundation in traditional arts, as in the show, she puts the Buffy spin on the execution of moves and will hit you with what ever works selling her intuitive ability to kick undead ass. So the game, identical to the show is a mixture of arts with a few old school fighting game bonuses thrown in and spit out Buffy style.
GT: Tony, as the lead level designer, can you tell us a bit about how you approached achieving a solid balance between puzzle solving, full 3D exploration, and combat? Also, what are some of the unique challenges you faced in creating levels that allow the player to combine such divergent play styles, as well as use the environment to their advantage?
TB: The toolset we have for Slayer (the engine running Buffy) is very free-form and really didn't put constraints on what we could do. As such, it was easy to envision something and then "just do it." Knowing we had the freedom made mixing the different gameplay styles easy. Some of the challenges were in how to artfully contain the player. Since Buffy is so dynamic and open, we often had to come up with clever ways of stopping the player from merely running past a challenge. Often many games just have you fight an arbitrary number of enemies and then an invisible barrier opens up. We wanted to avoid that as much as possible and thanks to the tools and perseverance, I think we did. I'm really thankful of the level design staff we have here at The Collective. They're a bunch of talented guys, who come up with a lot of great ideas.
GT: Kye-wan, the art design of the characters falls squarely upon your shoulders. Can you please tell us about the process of going from concept sketches to completed in-game models?
KS: We also had fun building original characters. This is the part actually the artists go wild. First, we have brainstorm meetings discussing all the possible enemy characters. This still has some constraints though. The enemies should fit in the Buffy world, and they also need to fit in the game design concept. We start doing rough drawings based on the discussion. To get more variety, we get sketches from all available sources. Sometimes programmers give us some nice idea sketches and feedbacks (a.k.a. Programmer Art!)
After narrowing down concepts, we start choosing color scheme for the characters. Again, this should fit in the level they are going to be placed in. With the final painted concept, we start making models in various 3D programs. Texture maps for the characters are also essential for the final look of the game. After the initial building process, we place the model in a test map to see the "In Game Look" Thanks to our Editor and Renderer, we usually get the same look that we see in the 3D programs. We usually go though a multiple revision process until everybody is happy with it.
GT: Buffy features a myriad of subtle touches, from finishing moves & specials in combat, to extensive interaction with the environment, and everything in-between. Can you detail how these ideas were formulated and implemented and explain the process of creating these custom game play features?
TB: Again, the tools and the Slayer Engine play a major role in the little nuances of Buffy. Pretty-much whatever you can think of, you can do, it's just a matter of trade offs. As we were going through the game implementing the core gameplay, we began to think of little environmental actions. This thinking snowballed into the insane amount of hidden/breakable items that most people won't even find. Some things are born out of necessity. The Environmental Staking for instance came from the *need* to be able to kill an enemy with a stake. What happens if you don't have a stake? Well, in the show, Buffy improvises so the player should be able to do the same. This turned into an amazing system that's used not only for staking, but also "guiding" enemies around for "Hollywood-style stunts", such as crashing through windows. Also, we're very competitive here and there's a great fighting game on the Xbox that happens to have "secrets" where you knock your opponent through/down to a new area. We thought, "hell we can do that and in a free-roaming 3D brawler!"
DJ: The core design for the fighting system covered how the characters would be able to do, but to make it work required perfect synergy between character and world gameplay systems. Tony's group and my group worked back and forth to pull off things we still are surprised can be done in this game. For example I put in small "critical kill" windows to nuke mid-low level vampires regardless of health if you stake them right as they lunge (ala Bald Bull baby!), Tony takes this knowledge and then places/spawns some vampires at just the right distance to conveniently make them do just the right move exposing their heart for a critical kill! I thought "well sometimes that will work", then I watch Tony one day playing as he proceeds to perfectly execute the critical kill technique in the Bronze level on vamp after vamp including blindly staking vamps just as they appear on screen to the left/right and then zooming in with the cross bow to shoot and dust a vamp mid hellfire toss windup! I was shocked. Then there are all the environmental setups with jutting stakes, fire and pools of water that can be turned into holy pools of vampiric destruction. All of these took extreme coordination between the level design and combat design staff.
GT: How did you approach the animation, gameplay planning, and character scripting? What does it take to insure that you create a balanced play experience that's off the hook in the fun department?
DW: I worked on most of the Enemies of Buffy. We would always start out with concepts of the enemies attitudes, general looks, and basic attacks. Once we had an approved base for each character type, we then looked deeper into how they would behave in different situations. We would then figure out whether the enemy would be able to dodge, pick up weapons or items, use special techniques, or posses multiple kill attacks. This is where we would start getting animations from our animators for the general attacks and movements. We then script the moves for the current animations and set them up for user control. Once we got a chance to play around with them in the game engine with player controls, it was then time to move on to AI scripting.
AI Scripting consists of attack ranges, situations, and lots of path nodes. To balance the game, we would figure out where we wanted to place these enemies, then adjust their Health Points, Offensive, and Defensive techniques. The Level Designers would then lay down a detailed and complex web of path nodes (lines in which the enemy NPCs would follow to get to checkpoints in their AI). We ended up having to make sure that not more than a few enemies will attack Buffy at one time. The game can get pretty hard in a gang attack situation. If playing the game in the most difficult setting, you will know what I mean. : )
DJ: Besides the incredible character scripting tool, I have a process I call "Motion Design" that sets up what will later be scripted. It is a combination of hardcore gameplay mechanics applied to animation planning. What the process does is take any idea and break it down into actual animation pieces that support the desired gameplay mechanic of the move while allowing the animator and combat designer to be 100% focused on designing a kick ass looking move. Everything in Buffy was done through this process including taking the motion capture and converting it via extensive hand tweaking into usable gameplay. The character scripting and animation team was one- totally in sync to make this happen. So we would plan a character, nail the design and then execute it. The key to making this turn into decent gameplay however, goes beyond being a developer--you must be a player.
While I personally scripted all of Buffy's combat moves and most of the navigation, I had to take a step back and played her all the time and get as many types of people playing her to make sure I was not on crack! LOL! There was tons of back and forth, at one point we opened the combo's up to be more friendly for the beginner player and then I compensated by adding in "2in1' supers and other advanced tricks to ensure depth, the whole time making sure the control made sense. When as a player I could bust out a 15 hit off the wall, juggling stake kill and my young daughter could still flail out 4 hit to stake combo, I was knew the control as a developer had gone past my expectations and hoped the players would find the gameplay fun as hell!
GT: What kind of reaction have you received from some of the hardcore Buffy fans?
TB: Fans really seem to like the game. They realize that we've taken the essence of Buffy, wrapped it in solid gameplay and set it on the grill to SIZZLE. ;) But seriously, hardcore or not, people are really enjoying the game. My proudest moments are when I read, "I bought the Xbox especially for this game," or "I wasn't a fan of the show before, but now I'm buying the DVDs!" That's when you know you've done good.
DW: I have been very pleased with some of the letters that we have received from Buffy fans. They have been extremely supportive. We strived to make Buffy the best licensed title out there, and just like any project that you work on for so long, you can become blind to what you have. Once the game was released and we started hearing the fan's experiences, I stepped back and realized that all the time that we spent on this product was really worth it. I definitely want to shout out a very big thanks to all of the fans out there! ^^ You make us want to bring you something even better down the road. Thank you.
GT: So, what's next for The Collective?
DH: We're just finishing up Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb for LucasArts which is shaping up to be a really great, fun game. Beyond that we're working on Wrath, which is our first wholly original game, and it really is going to be an original game. I'd really like to say more but if I did I'd have to shoot you, etc., etc. : -) Beyond Wrath we go into very mysterious territory but we've spent the last three years creating a bunch of new technologies and techniques for marrying coin-op class fighting with 3rd person action/adventure gaming so it's pretty safe bet that you'll see us building upon that.
GT: Can you leave us with a good war story, you know: deadline crunches, 3: 00 am burger runs, or anything else interesting during the creation of BTVS?
TB: There were so many crunches and *at least 6 months straight of pizza dinners*, that it's hard to pick just one out. I'm not sure if this is one of your "classic war stories", but let's try this one: We were a few weeks or so away from Beta, and because of the enormous amount of doors in the high school, people were getting lost or frustrated. Someone came up with the idea of having geometry for the doorknobs you could interact with. "Great," I said, "but who's got time to implement that?"
Well, I guess we did, because if you look, on every door you can interact with, you'll find a doorknob. Those little knobs have as many polys in them as some characters in other games. We had to place each one, make sure it was lined up, and didn't do anything "funky" like detach, twist, turn, dance, whatever. That was a joy...but I think in the end it paid off.
DJ: Ya, Pizza ugg! I will take scripting Buffy's 134 moves any day over overdosing on Pizza ever again! LOL!
GT: Guys, myself, John and the rest of the staff here at Gaming Target thank you for your time, it's been a pleasure speaking with you.