Alex Mann caught up with Respawn Entertainment’s Community Manager (and all round rockin’ lady) Abbie Heppe at Sydney’s EB EXPO ’13 to get an idea of what to expect from the newest FPS giant.
As she overlooks the exhibition from the Microsoft booth balcony, cross-legged and casual as she is, I can’t help but compare Abbie Heppe to a princess surveying her newly-inherited kingdom. Below, gamers test an array of XBOX ONE titles: Forza, Dead Rising and Killer Instinct are chief among these; Old hats returned to pledge their swords to Microsoft’s empire. Yet judging by the ever growing line for the Titanfall booth, the lure of a fresh new studio armed with a fierce new IP has eclipsed them all.
“The reception has been absolutely fantastic” Abbie says excitedly “To be part of a new team, creating a new IP, which is part of a new console generation to me is like “why wouldn’t I want to be here?” It’s never boring, it is tiring,” (this is her sixth week on the road) “but never boring.”
And that’s just it. Everything about Titanfall screams “new”. With titles like Call of Duty coming up to their tenth (or so) iteration, Respawn’s game comes as a refreshing injection to the FPS world. “Our design team started out with two goals: they wanted to get cat and mouse gameplay, because that’s sort of the core of multiplayer – but more importantly it has to be fun. We didn’t necessarily start out to make a shooter, we didn’t start out to make giant robots, we didn’t start out to do a parkour wall running game – it was sort of like: do something and make it fun.”
Despite this, Titanfall has emerged with a primary focus around Mechs and Pilots. “Pilots are capable of wall-running, of crazy parkour abilities but at the same time they pilot Titans, and Titans are 20+ foot tall Mechs and it’s really about the gameplay between both.”
The inspiration, while drawing from a large amount of sources, seems to have come organically from the several different departments involved. “If you talk to Animation: they’ve looked at a lot of mech stuff and anime. You go to Art and there’s District 9 and like 70s and 80s sci-fi stuff. In design you can see we’ve grown up with 90s shooters, you know, with the way you can chain together the wall-running stuff with a little bit of Tribes, a little bit of Quake 3. If you talk to effects there’s, i don’t know, explosions? Can you be influenced by explosions?” She laughs at this point, criticising herself. “Really Abbie? All you could think about is explosions?” Her jaw slackens while she adopts her derp-iest voice “Robot makes things go boom!”
As Abbie composes herself, conversation turns towards the challenges of creating a map that functions vertically as much as it does horizontally. “Our design team is meticulous, and that’s for several reasons. One: they’re trying to combine 20 foot tall plus Titans, and then parkour, so you have all these challenges like “Ok so we have to make it fun for wall running, there have to be paths that keep the pilots relatively safe so that they’re not just getting stomped and crushed by Titans but you also have to make the map big enough for Titans so they have enough space to be mobile and run around and to navigate the map. It’s a high challenge, and our designers are super meticulous”
“[They’re] not designing flat maps but ones that are also vertical – as you have the ability to get very high thanks to the eject and through the climbing and double jumping and all of that. So yeah, doing maps for this game is really a challenge and we do a LOT of play testing at work to make sure they feel right and support both play styles.”
Having clocked up an impressive mount of hours in game, I ask Abbie which play-style she favours best. “I think if you broke down my stats I’d probably play more as a Pilot. I, a lot of the time, will set my Titan to guard or follow me – I do like doing that a lot – partially as a distraction because then other Titans will see it and go for [my] Titan, while I sneak around and climb up their backs. There’s so many different ways to play it… sometimes I’ll just blow mine up on purpose so I can get that really high eject because there are places in the map that are much easier to reach if you use that, or ONLY reachable when you do that, depending on the map… it gives you that birds-eye perspective and you’re like “alright, there’s dudes over there, and one over there…”
But Abbie is adamant that Titanfall in’t just for FPS-aholics. When I tell her that I am generally an embarrassment to the FPS world, she quickly comes to my rescue. “There’s a lot you can do in this game even if you’re not a super FPS person. My boyfriend is not. But he came to Eurogamer and played for the very first time. When he came out he was shaking, he was like “I did this thing and then I jumped on the other one and then and then I got on the roofs and then I was running around and then I went over here and then I totally blew up this Titan and I was…” basically, he was very excited.
“A lot of the stuff in the game that looks really complicated is not. I mean, obviously there is this huge level of depth in there that those of us who’ve played constantly and WILL play constantly get the hang of. We wanted to create a ‘minute to learn lifetime to master’ scenario so that we’re appealing to both sides. But for the casual gamer, some of the stuff that looks crazy is not hard to do. Wall running is like you jump at a wall and you just run then jump to the next one. You can chain it together, as your double jumping resets every time you hit a new wall, which means you can just keep going. If the walls are there, you can just keep doing it. Jumping on the back of a Titan is as easy as jumping on the back of a Titan. If you’re in that eject sequence, all you need to do is target [a Titan] so you’ll be falling on their back, and then you’ll automatically go into that rodeo sequence”
“So there’s ways to combine a lot of this stuff so that players who play competitively are gonna learn and master but your average player will still be get there and do a lot of cool stuff. The AI really helps with that as well. Not only can you go into battle with them – you can just kill them – and then you really feel like you did a lot, like you accomplished a lot. I’ve had a lot of people say “I thought I was on top of the leader boards! I was killing all these dudes, I mean I stomped over them with a Titan, I even punched them – but I was on the bottom. But I never felt like I was”. And I think delivering that experience to gamers is really important because you don’t want someone to just spawn in and die and then feel bad about the fact that they’re terrible at the game. Nobody wants that experience” she pauses, stares me in the eye and says “I’m sure you can attest to that.”
But, like anything, Titanfall’s jet-pack fuelled combat comes with a kink in its armour, namely the learning curve of a parkour world. “Staying on the ground is the worst way to play the game.” Abbie says in frustration “we’ve found you literally have to break people of the habit.” When asked how long it generally takes though, Abbie promptly replied “Seven minutes. No seriously, from all the observing and watching people play it really takes a bout seven minutes. Like the first five minutes are just people getting crushed by Titans and you’re just like “come on! He’s a giant! You don’t want to just walk under his feet! What did you expect to happen?… But as soon as people figure out you see it. They’re like “I JUST DID IT” because it’s actually not hard. I know what I sound like, I mean, I’ve played the game a LOT, but it is actually not hard. It’s just the mental break of saying “Oh right I’ve got to think about this in a different way.” It’s usually once they start seeing people do it, like one person figures it out and then other people see them do it they’re like, “wait, I can get up there?”, and then they go for it. It’s actually very fast, I’ve never seen it take more than a round.”
The Titan’s and the Pilots have a very distinct look, but when pressed about customisation Abbie replies “It’s not a visual customisation, it’s about customising load-outs and abilities. There’s multiple Pilots – I think there’s six different Pilots that we’re showing right now between the M-CORE and the IMC – but there’s also a few more we’re not showing.” But when I ask specifically about varying Titans, she smiles, gathers her thoughts and says “We’re only showing one right now, is my sneaky answer.”
Titanfall hasn’t received an official release date yet, but it has been dubbed a “launch window title” which means we can hopefully expect it early 2014. For more Titanfall news, including the latest trailer, check out Abbie Heppe’s EB EXPO presentation below.