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Titanfall Smashes The Line Between Solo And Multiplayer Experiences

by Jeff Cork on Jun 17, 2013 at 09:00 AM

When it comes to shooters, people often draw lines between single- and multiplayer experiences. Some players happily cruise through the storyline soaking up every set piece without once going online and fragging strangers. Their counterparts probably couldn’t even tell you where their favorite multiplayer maps are set; as long as there’s a line of new opponents, they’re happy. That schism creates all sorts of problems for developers.

“There’s a lot of times where you’ll spend months and months and months putting together this single-player level that someone will try to run through in six minutes,” says Vince Zampella, co-founder and general manager of Respawn Entertainment. “All that effort you put into it doesn’t get seen, doesn’t get used – it’s kind of wasted.” 

As a new studio, Respawn doesn’t have resources to waste. Rather than put out diluted versions of the ordinarily separate modes, the company took the unusual approach of merging the two to create one highly polished experience in Titanfall – something the studio is calling “campaign multiplayer.”

“The idea of trying to take a single-player experience and imprinting it onto a multiplayer world was not something we came to immediately,” says producer Drew McCoy. “It actually was a couple years into the process where we realized that we have people here who are really good at making addictive, fun, fast, fluid multiplayer games, and we also have people who are making believable characters, moments, and situations. There’s this huge bifurcation of those two experiences in current offerings of games.”

Single-player modes in shooters usually offer a narrative – hardly a strong suit for multiplayer – but the differences go deeper. Campaigns are normally built around players going from point A to point B, instead of dumping them in unstructured arenas. As such, designers can create bombastic moments when players reach certain spots on levels. It’s more difficult to incorporate those kinds of storytelling techniques in multiplayer matches, where a dozen players are too busy scrambling to fulfill their own in-game needs to notice a collapsing bridge in the background.

“We really wanted to try and meld the two together and get our strengths combined and just make one big, deep, awesome experience that everyone could see all of,” says producer Drew McCoy. “We wanted to reconcile the two of those things together and make one cohesive game.” 

Respawn is developing the game for high-end PCs and the Xbox One, which affords them additional in-game horsepower. One noticeable implementation of that power comes in the battlefields themselves, which can be filled with dozens of AI characters. These characters act as both friend and foe, and help to make the matches feel as densely populated as traditional FPS story missions. They do more than shout “reloading” and “cover me,” too. Some are used in scripted vignettes, so you might enter a room and see several soldiers clustered around a wounded comrade as another performs CPR. Or you could surprise a group and watch them scatter in fear.

Respawn says the game’s story, which highlights a conflict between far-flung galactic settlers and their corporate counterparts, is being told with the cinematic flair that’s typically reserved for single-player campaigns. The overall story arc is told through discrete missions, with prefaces and epilogues, as well as the set-piece moments normally found in contemporary single-player campaigns. Moment-to-moment gameplay is also driven by video-comm displays, which provide direction on what needs to be done next as well as adding situational flavor.

In one section we saw, the player sneaked up on an opponent and killed him with a melee takedown. Rather than show the simple knifing animation that we expected, the action triggered a showy move where the player snapped the enemy’s neck, flipped the shotgun he was holding out of his hands, and then used the newly acquired weapon to clear the room. Players who get close enough to a wounded Titan can ride on its back, plant explosives, and then watch the fireworks. These types of interactions are relatively standard for single-player games, but it’s a rare treat to see them in multiplayer battles.

The campaign multiplayer approach plays to the team’s strengths, though it creates a new set of challenges. “From the art side, levels are a bear,” says lead artist Joel Emslie. “When you’re doing a single-player game, you’re just on a rail usually. It’ll open up and bottleneck and do that stuff, but that makes wrapping your head around building and making things look gorgeous as you can get them pretty manageable. When we stepped into this stuff, you have to go over every square inch of these environments because the player is going to be at some point, someone is going to go there, and it needs to look up to par.”

The entire team is working on the game as a whole – without divisions between the single- and multiplayer development – and Respawn says the approach is paying off. “[W]e can take all that effort and instead put it into multiplayer, where you’ll see it multiple times, you’ll see it again and again, so now the animations are going to be richer, the world is going to be more alive and more engrossing, and you’re going to see it more,” Zampalla says. “The work that people do here is more appreciated, so it makes the team feel better. The world that the players see is going to be more enriched, so they’re going to appreciate it. So it’s a great feeling for us.”

One of the unknowns at this point is how Respawn plans to tell a story when players are essentially experiencing a set of linked multiplayer matches. How does the campaign account for the times when your side loses? Respawn won’t elaborate on how it works, though the team says you don’t have to replay missions. The developers have set a stiff challenge for themselves that could nonetheless have a hefty payoff in delivering a satisfying and at least semi-cohesive story out of these seemingly fragmented sections.