Having played a good 90 minutes of Battlezone, ramping up from the very start of the campaign and solo play to going after some of the toughest missions on the map with three of the dev team alongside me in co-op. It’s a lot of fun, which you can read about here and watch over here.
Those three were Rebellion’s Head of Creative Tim Jones, Senior Designer Tom Rigby, and Junior Designer/underling Grant Stewart. It’s with these three that we sat down and spoke about the game, its inspirations and VR, once we took the headset off.
TSA: Why was the first game that you decided to tackle for PlayStation VR a revival of the retro classic Battlezone?
Tim Jones: Well it was a kind of confluence of events and timing that just worked out really well. We’d just recently picked up the Battlezone license from an Atari auction of its IP. To our generation, it’s a legendary title, so we were really excited about that, but didn’t really know specifically what we were intending to do with it. It was just an IP that we would like to curate and nurture, I suppose.
TSA: So, it was some of the collector’s instincts within you? No idea what you want to do with it, but it will look lovely on the mantlepiece!
Tim: Well, kind of! I mean, there’s always the intent to do right by it. But then the opportunity to develop something in VR popped up around that time – I can’t remember what the state of Morpheus was…
Tom Rigby: I think we knew about it because it had filtered down from Sony to us.
Tim: Yeah, but it was just some enthusiasm for it as another project wrapped up and the team wanted to do a prototype for Battlezone, and we decided to make it work for VR. We had no real expectations at that point, it was just prototyping it to see what we’ve got.
TSA: I guess wireframe is quite easy to prototype with, as well. [laughs]
Tim: Yeah! And certainly, doing things in low polygons. We were very keen from the outset, in our interpretation of it, to not go very realistic and flashy, but to update the retro futuristic aesthetic, if you like.
The original Battlezone’s aesthetic was very much a product of the technology that it was made with, and we kind of wanted to wear the computer generated-ness of it, have that front and centre.
Tom: We’re not directly copying Tron, we’ve got our own style!
Tim: Yeah, that’s something we always have to bring up. Battlezone came first and Tron was inspired by Battlezone. Its arcade machine is visible in shots in Finn’s arcade! But Tron is an awesome film to be associated with!
TSA: You’ve had a lot of fun with all the retro stuff as well, you’ve got things like the COIN, but they’re not used as lives, are they?
Tom: No, no. They’re supposed to be your pilot’s little identification token, the Combat Operative Identification… Nexus?
Tim: Come on Tom!
Tom: I didn’t make the acronym for it, Steve did! But most of the design team are definitely old enough to be heavily influenced by arcades.
Grant Stewart: Even the thing of going across the campaign map and getting to the volcano is a reference to the myth about the old Battlezone, where if you kept driving you would get to a volcano.
Tom: Right. You could see it in the distance, but you could never get there. We’ve got that, but you can get there now.
Tim: If was one thing we were going to do with the game, it was let you get to the volcano!
TSA: The power of PlayStation 4 means you can now get to the volcano!
So, the big feature you recently started talking about was the co-op! When you put on the headset, you’ve very isolated, so it might not be the first thing you think of. So how big a deal is having co-op?
Tom: It’s always been a major goal of ours to have co-op, right from the start actually. It just seemed really natural, and I don’t think many people are doing a co-op VR game. It seems really natural, because as soon as you put the headset on, you are isolated, but as soon as someone else joins you, you’re whisked away into believing they really are there with you, I think.
Also, it kind of works with the classic Battlezone gameplay. You could add more tanks to the original and it would probably work quite well. We’ve had experience of co-op before, as well, and it’s always been a fun thing to have.
Tim: It’s been a big aspect of a lot of our games, like Sniper Elite.
TSA: There’s the roguelike structure to the overall campaign and the randomised map of hexagons, but how do you populate the map and keep the variety?
Tom: Well first of all, we’ve got a large pool of stuff to choose from, like a lot of maps. That was one of the main things we thought about, so we had three or four designers just on maps and missions, and there’s hundreds of combinations there, really.
The map itself is quite a smart thing. It might not look it sometimes, but it tries to spread things out cleverly and give you an interesting route. It knows what the main route should be, so if there’s a shop down here, it will give that great weapons, so you know you can head down there to get weapons and then head back up. It tries to force you off the path a little bit, especially with the nemesis as well, which should push you around the map a bit.
Tim: Yeah, it’s a combination of various different systems that come together and become more than the sum of their parts.
Tom: The events, as well, they’re something we added fairly late, just to pepper around the map and give you a bit more variety, like a lucky dip.
TSA: Yeah, it feels a bit like the Community Chest in Monopoly to me.
Tom: I like the comparison, yeah. We always compare them with FTL, and the campaign with FTL, in the sense that you can choose where you want to go and make a beeline for the volcano, or you can hoover up shops and you’ve got these little narrative events.
Tim: But there’s always the pressure of, you know, you can’t just spend all your time doing every hex to be thorough about it, because the AI get more difficult.
Tom: Well, I have done every hex on a map.
Tim: Have you?
Tom: Once, we did it just for fun…
TSA: Solo? [laughs]
Tom: No, no. A couple of us.
Tim: Did you have cheats on?
Tom: It took ages, like. It was a really good fun mission, and we enjoyed the campaign, but god, it took a long time! […] It’s a lovely feeling at the end to see them all coloured in blue.
It certainly beats working! [laughs]
TSA: [laughs] You’ve got all these unlocks and things in the game, and there’s actually quite a lot of weapons. Is there something you do in particular to push people to try out new weapons, as they play?
Tim: Well, I think the fact that the supply points offer you up an unpredictable selection of things to purchase, it often forces you into making choices that wouldn’t necessarily be your first choice of favourite thing. You’ll often discover a new favourite because you’re like, “I’ll take that because it’s level 4, so it’s probably quite good and I’ll give it a go.” And then that forces you to play the game in a different style.
It’s not a heavy handed “You must do this!”
Tom: But you do tend to be semi-deliberately exposed to things you wouldn’t ordinarily use. […] I quite like that I’ve got weapons that I’ll obviously favour, but I’ll still use a massive variety. I always end up umming and ahing.
TSA: It works well with the co-op as well, where you can have different people with different weapons, but also with the tank chassis. I played as the Medium tank, but there’s nine different ones, I think you said?
Tom: There’s nine varieties tanks, yeah, and they’ve all got different loadouts or tweaks to them, like with the Minesweeper. They’re all worth unlocking and seeing, definitely.
TSA: You mentioned the nemesis that roam the map, and which managed to fight earlier, but how do they work? Do they chase after you or hang about in one area?
Tom: It depends. Basically there’s three or four types of them.
Grant: They’ll chase you down, pick a place to go and patrol, amble around where they started, or they’ll slowly wend their way towards you, rather than making a beeline.
Tom: You never know what they’re going to do. It’s always a good feeling when you take a step towards them and they take a step away.
TSA: Finally, seeing as he’s hanging around at a volcano, is the final boos Sauron?
Tom: [laughs] We’re going to remain tight lipped on that… You’ll be really surprised if it is!
Tim: As will the owners of the Lord of the Rings license!
Tom: I won’t say anything specific about the final boss, but it’s worth getting to the volcano, definitely. Hopefully it’s what everyone imagined in the 80s when they saw it…
Thanks to Tim, Tom and Grant for, not only chatting with us about Battlezone, but playing the game with us in co-op. You can check out our video of that here, as well as read our impressions here.
Expect to see more about Battlezone and a ton of other VR games as we get closer to the PlayStation VR launch on October 13th.