Bring In The Logic Probe: An Interview With Chris Whiteside
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Tron: Legacy will be hitting theaters in December, but one month earlier, players will get a chance to wield the Deadly Discs themselves in Tron: Evolution. We’ve already had a brief preview of the game thanks to E3, but at Toronto’s FanExpo, we got a chance to meet up with Design Director Chris Whiteside, of Vancouver’s own Propaganda Games. He was promoting the upcoming game for the attendants of FanExpo and we took him aside to get more details on this interesting piece of 80s nerd culture rebooted for the 21st century.
C & G Magazine: What is the role of a Design Director?
Chris Whiteside: There are a lot of different roles, depending on which part of the project you’re in. Globally, my main role is to ensure that my design team and level designers are bringing the quality of the product up to the highest standard. Another goal is to ensure the rest of the team is doing that, and then, at the start of the project… concepting, all the way to greenlighting and selling the product to pre-production and then production, the roles kind of change. At the moment, my role is very much going out, talking to fans and the press about the game and getting the message out that Evolution’s a really cool game.
CGM: What kinds of things did you do during the game’s production?
CW: During the production of the game it’s anything from designing and steering the product, championing the product, also making sure that when features are being implemented or created… sitting down with the appropriate specialist to ensure that it meets the vision and the quality that we’re expecting. If that makes sense.
CGM: Tron is a pretty substantial piece of 80s nerd pop culture. How much leeway did you get to create new things within the intellectual property and how much was set in stone and untouchable?
CW: Well that’s the cool thing about this product. We didn’t do a traditional movie game. It’s not a movie game, basically. We worked with Sean Bailey and [Joseph] Kosinski—executive producer and director respectively… we sat down right before anything was in the works to actually say “Well, what could we do with Tron? What would the art style look like? How do we want to blow out the canon of the story? What new characters do we want to introduce? Are there new cities? What do they look like? What do the Outlands look like?” All this kind of thing.
So when we went our separate ways, and continued to communicate, we then had a very good brief for both of us to ensure that we were both going down the same line. There were instances where maybe we went a little too far, and we were pulled back, but the relationship was very, very good.
So it was a completely new way to make these kinds of games.
CGM: Can you tell us anything about the story in the game?
CW: I can’t tell you spoilers and I’m not going to, but the way that Evolution works is that it’s actually the second part of a trilogy. It’s that well done. It contains as much story as the original, if not more. The things I can tell you are, one; we’ve created a new race of programs called Isos—Isomorphic Programs—which are basically sentient. No one really knows where they’ve come from, but they’re pivotal to our story and they’re pivotal to the story in the movie. I can’t go much further than that.
CGM: The Programs in the original movie already seemed pretty sentient, to a certain degree.
CW: The Users are sentient, but y’know, according to the canon, and the fiction, [the Programs] have specific tasks that they need to do. The difference with the sentients is that they have free will within the grid. So if they choose to go from this point to that point, that’s them choosing to do it. Whereas the Programs specifically go from one area to another because that’s basically their code being sent through the motherboard and so on. And their leader Radia goes even further, in that she can actually connect herself to the Grid, and she can see everything in the past and she can see a few seconds into the future. That’s pivotal.
Other aspects are that the game tells a story of some pretty cataclysmic events that rock the Tron world in a huge way that then change the way Tron looks in the film. It changes the landscape, it changes the geometry.
CGM: How did the decision come about to frame the game as a prequel rather than mirror movie events as most film tie-in games go?
CW: Because we didn’t want to do a movie game. Joe and Sean were like, “We’ll do it, but we’re not going to do a carbon copy of the film that’s already come out.” We thought that there would be more weight and more value in releasing something that was part of the trilogy as opposed to “Hey, this is just a carbon copy of that.”
Secondarily, we also wanted to prototype and test out the business model for other products potentially, going forward.
CGM: Was it difficult getting the concept past Disney and telling them you wanted to tell your own story?
CW: They loved it. It would have been more difficult for us to say “Hey, we’re going to do a carbon copy.” I think that’s what they were expecting when it was greenlit. Instead it was like, “No, we’d rather do something that’s not complementary, we want to do something that’s actually part of the trilogy.”
CGM: How was the story then conceived? Is it a collaboration between Propaganda and the film makers or did you have carte blanche to tell your own tale?
CW: It was collaboration, basically. The film had already worked out some of the fiction. Our writers worked with their writers, to build out the rest of the fiction. Basically a timeline was created. You’ll understand when you play the game and see the film. There were certain events that we knew we were definitely going to have, and then from that we basically bridge the gap and filled in the rest of the fiction. All the main characters in the movie, their first appearance is in the game. And then in the game, all the way through, the main characters are in the game. Like Quorra, for example. You’re with her throughout the whole of the product, right until the end. I’m not going to ruin the end. And then obviously, at the end of the game, when the new film starts, it starts with the knowledge of what happened from the game.
CGM: When were your writers talking to their writers? Had production on the film already wrapped up?
CW: No, no, not at all. This was at the beginning. It was a complete revision of the business model when it comes to movie games. We need to come up with a phrase that coins this better, so people stop saying “This is a movie game.” It’s not. It’s cross-media pollination basically. And we knew right from the outset that we couldn’t just say, “Hey, this is what we’re gonna’ do, we’re gonna’ do this really important game that’s gonna’ add to the canon.” We knew that we actually had to change our working practices and how we would develop the game. And throughout development, Theatrical have been very critical of us, we’ve been critical of Theatrical in a positive manner, and we’ve been working at 100 billion miles an hour, going down the same street and trying to make sure that we have this perfect parity between the products.
CGM: So there was a lot of back and forth between your studio and the film makers about what ended up on the screens for both products?
CW: Yeah, totally. There are instances where the film references the game, and there’s a section in our game—that happens in real time—that is flashed back in the movie. When someone is thinking about something that happened—I have to be very careful here, because it’s pivotal—he’s thinking about something that happened, but you play that in the game. And then in the movie, you see yourself—sorry, you see the events unfolding… Yeah, you’ll have to watch the movie.
CGM: Was there anything that your studio came up with that was incorporated into the film?
CW: Let me think… It’s hard to say. We had so many discussions with Sean and worked so collaboratively that… everything is like that. It’s not like we were saying “Oh, we’d really like to get this in, can we get permission to do it?” It had already been discussed. And that’s not to say that once we’d finished the storyline that Theatrical did passes on it to make sure… yeah, there were certain changes and so on that they wanted to make. And you’ve got to remember that we’re building a fiction almost as we’re going along, in some regards. So sometimes, Theatrical would want to go in a certain direction and we would have to re-correct and vice versa.
CGM: How much fidelity will there be between the “movie world” of Tron and the game world? Will we see things from the game carry over into the film, and conversely, will there be moments or actions in the game that you won’t see in the movie?
CW: Everything in the game you can do in the movie, and more. We do a lot of wall-running and we do a lot of capoeira. They do have capoeira in the movie, but we have way more. Like Anon has four different types of discs, each with different abilities, you don’t get that in the film. He also has a magnet disc which he uses to be pulled from one point to another, and he can pull enemies towards him and he can fire them away. So there’s a lot in the game that isn’t in the movie but it’s still part of the canon.
And the reason we were able to do this was because when we created Anon, we knew he was going to be the next generation of security program. So we were able to really tool him up with some bad ass weaponry and that kind of thing.
CW: Basically he was created by Flynn, because there’s been a disturbance on the Grid. I’m not sure I can go into exactly what, but… it’s an anomaly. He doesn’t understand why it happens, and Tron isn’t necessarily capable of being able to work out what it is. So he creates Anon to work with Tron to investigate and find out what’s going on. But very quickly, the investigation changes into a battle for survival and the protection of Quorra. And his name is short for anonymous.
CGM: Is there anything that fans of the original 80s film can look forward to in terms of nods and references to the source material?
CW: Well everything’s a nod to the original film. I think there are things in the film as well where people are going to laugh because there are going to be references to stuff that was funny in the original movie. It’s all the way through the game, essentially. There’s a little bit of humor, but one thing that has to be understood is that while the first film was a little bit dark, Tron: Evolution is very, very dark and Tron: Legacy is kind of in between.
CGM: What kind of gameplay experience is Tron looking to give? We’ve seen 3rd person action sequences and vehicular portions that evoke games like Prince of Persia and Road Rash. Is that the sum of the activity? Any puzzle solving?
CW: We totally have puzzle solving in the game. Puzzle solving like cerebral puzzle solving; solve the puzzle in the room. But we have a lot of physical puzzle solving as well. Using the abilities like have like capoeira and parkour to be able to traverse sections, or maybe buildings that are de-rezzing or jumping onto cranes. We wanted to make the Tron experience, so while we have elements of Prince of Persia, elements of [Extreme]-G and Road Rash in there, we wanted to make sure that we included everything that is in the Tron universe that fans are going to expect. That’s something that Assassin’s Creed, Prince of Persia and Road Rash… all of those games, they have sections of that, but they don’t have the whole thing.
And so really, when I’m asked that question, that answer is, we just wanted to create Tron gameplay. And obviously we’ve referenced other products, but in the same way that the original movie referenced games that were out at the time, like Combat on the 2600, obviously the tank battles and stuff… even though it wasn’t in 3D you get that kind of impression… We were very referential, and it’s not like we think we’re doing anything particularly new in the individual feature elements, but when you put the whole thing together, it’s Tron. So we’re unique in that respect.
CGM: Speaking of referential, what about Tron videogames of the past like Tron: Deadly Discs on the Intellivison or the 1982 Midway arcade game? Are there any nods to those games?
CW: Yes, there will be. There will be gameplay references which you can play. And that’s as much as I can talk about at the moment, it’ll be an announcement.
CGM: What kind of ratio of 3rd person to vehicle gameplay are we looking at?
CW: Good question. So 3rd person is 60, but that’s split into mobility, puzzles and combat. And then in terms of lightcycles and tanks, looking at about 40%. Having said that though, the reason we did that split is because online is very heavily vehicle based. And the way we’ve designed the game means that you’re going to get a good mix of everything all at one. To explain what I mean, the reasoning behind that is we wanted to make online as accessible as possible. So when you’re in single-player you can walk up to a disc station, which is essentially where you upload data to yourself, and you can go straight from single-player to online instantly. You don’t have to back out of the game.
On top of that when you purchase the product, and let’s say you get to level 20-22, whatever, ‘cause there’s levels and you power up and customize… if you go online, you bring everything with you, and vice versa. We’ve built a game that isn’t just like “Single player’s here and online’s here,” it’s much more kind of merged.
CGM: So no chance to fly around in a Recognizer with a Bit at your shoulder?
CW: So… there is the Bit in the game, he’s your navigation Bit and he tells you where to go, if you need to use it. Unfortunately, we had a section in the game where you fly on a Recognizer, you actually fly it and you blow stuff up with it. And we had a section where you fought on the top of a Recognizer, and we had to pull them, because… you know a lot of movie games have peaks and troughs in terms of quality? We had to make a really tough decision to say “Well, are we going to launch with peaks and troughs or are we just going to have a good experience across the board?” So we decided to take them out.
That said, in terms of add-ons and DLC…
CGM: I was just about to ask about that.
CW: We have the code, it runs. We just need to polish it, add new animations and so on. Oh, and also, it was announced to the press that we might be able to do 90° turns, in multi-player. On Thursday, we managed to get it into the code and it’s working. And it looks, fricken’ awesome…
CGM: So we have classic Tron-
CW: We have classic Tron, yeah. There was something wrong with online, the game didn’t feel 100% Tron and I couldn’t really put my finger on it. And when we integrated it on Thursday and play-tested it on Friday with ten people, and I was looking over someone’s shoulder, that was the point when the game came together. Seeing all the different colored trails and the 90° turns… and the guys loved it, it’s just brilliant.
CGM: Why did you decide to go the route of introducing light RPG elements rather than just go with a straightforward action title?
CW: Okay, so this has a lot to do with business and a lot to do with fun. The type of RPG elements that we have in the game are very sticky in terms of customization, powering up, gaining new stuff. We don’t have quests or anything like that, it’s a very linear, single-player storyline. But for online, I think the market expectation is for Call of Duty in terms of the RPG, and we want to make sure that for fans that plays Call of Duty, when they go into online, that they have a similar model that they can go on.
That said, we go a lot further with it than they do. We have the perks and so on, but you can also get vehicles with ours and there’s other things you can do with regards to working as a team. And so—and I’m a big fan of those types of games, and I love multi-player… and I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say it makes business sense as well. We want to create brand loyalty, we want people to be continuing to play the game. And in return, what we’re going to give the player is… we’re going to create expansions that go from level 50 to 70 with new content, 70 to 100, putting wood into the fire to keep it burning. And plus it’s fricken’ awesome to upgrade your character, right?
CGM: One thing that has a lot of people excited about the upcoming movie is the participation of Daft Punk for the score. Will they be making any contributions to the game?
CW: I can’t comment on that at the moment.
CW: I can’t, sorry. All I can say is the soundtrack in the game is awesome.
CGM: What kinds of modes are going to be included in the multi-player component?
CW: So we’ve got your typical kind of death-matching, but then it’s not typical, because it’s Tron, and death-matching in Tron is just like it was in the first movie. But we also have free for all, the arenas are massive, so you can have 10 players against 10 players. And then we’ve got team death-matching, obviously. But then you’ve got other modes that are only in Tron. We’ve got a game mode called “Power Node.” Basically you’ve got the arena and grid like this, and these power nodes are redundant, and they’re not on, and the power nodes are connect to the energy wall runs that give you health. And so when you capture a point, then basically it will link from one point to another and allow you to get health. And also you’ll have things like tank spawn areas. In order to get the tank to spawn you have to get the nodes connected to get to it, so it’s really kind of opposing forces… I’m trying to think of the term, it’s used in warfare, a constantly creeping battle-line. Forwards and backwards? You know what I mean?
And then we’ve got “Capture the Bit,” but it’s different from normal capture the flag. With capture the bit, the person holds onto it, and the idea is the person holds onto it for as long as possible before you’re de-rezzed. And the other one isn’t announced yet.
CGM: No Horde Mode style gameplay like Gears of War? It seems like co-op based gameplay is getting very popular now.
CW: We had designed that. And it was going to go into the game, and we cut it. That said though, our multi-player is very team-based and one of the reasons we have customization and RPG elements is because the combat system is quite deep, and there are different specialization trees. So if you think of World of Warcraft, and you’re a Rogue for example, and you’ve got assassinate, combat and… I forget, something else, I forget the three… We have a very similar model. We have defense, combo and scout. So, you can’t be master of all of them, just as in the same way as WoW, and so the idea is, me and you, for example, being friends, you might have a scout character that you’ve built, I’ll have a defensive character, we’ll party up together and go two on two versus other people. So that’s another reason for the RPG element.
CGM: So you want to see the RPG elements in multi-player really extending the lifespan of the game.
CW: Yeah, I really want to. The big thing for me about the game, the fantasy when I saw the movie was… when I saw the game grids, the thing that captured my heart was, I was like, “I totally want to do that.” When we were making the game we didn’t want every program to be the same, or every user to be the same. We want them to be different. And so that’s why we created it the way we did.
CGM: Will players be limited to using “deadly discs” for combat or are there any other weapons in store?
CW: We would have liked to have done that. We talked about having a staff and a katana because they have those in the movie. But instead, due to time requirements, we created four different types of discs and we didn’t go with the other weapons, unfortunately. But at least it’s an honest answer.
CGM: So no standard package of shot gun, rocket launcher-
CW: No, no, it’s not like Tron 2.0 where you’ve got like a first person shooter with machine guns. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Tron 2.0, but no… we wanted it to be totally into the spirit of Tron. No deviation. But that said, we wanted to evolve it as well.