Ghost Recon Online: Theo Sanders Interview
By Michael Sagoe (Mikedot), OnRPG Journalist
Ever since the late 90s, The Tom Clancy series has always been synonymous with military and espionage action. Most specifically: Ghost Recon is a well-known squad based shooter series, and now the series plans to go online as a F2P title.
Sounds like this change of pace with Ghost Recon Online is set out to put all other F2P shooters to shame. I got to chat with the guys at Ubisoft to find out more.
OnRPG: Hello! This is Michael Sagoe, writer for OnRPG.com. Before we begin the interview, would you mind telling me a little bit about yourself for our readers?
Theo: Hi, I’m Theo Sanders from the Ghost Recon Online team at Ubisoft Singapore.
OnRPG: Let’s cut to the chase: There are tons of free-to-play shooters out there, and the numbers of these shooters are increasing every day. Besides the fact that Ghost Recon is already established as a high profile series, what makes Ghost Recon Online truly stand out?
Theo: First and foremost, Ghost Recon Online is actually a game, and not a slot machine. We approach design the same way we’d approach making a AAA, boxed product – asking ourselves “what’s going to be the most fun?”, rather than “how many quarters will someone put in for this?” That approach reflects in everything that sets GRO apart from the pack.
GRO also bridges the quality gap that used to exist between retail and free-to-play, both in terms of gameplay polish and visual appeal.
OnRPG: With the recent closed beta that happened over the summer, how was the reception from closed beta testers?
Theo: Our beta testers have really been enjoying themselves.
But while it’s satisfying to hear from the community that they’re having fun, what’s most important is that our testers are also very demanding on us. They don’t accept when things are not working right, or if game systems are not as strong as they could be – and are constantly driving us to improve the game.
When you ship a retail game, you can kind of look back at the criticism and say “ok, I’ll try to do better two years from now when I ship the sequel.” During the GRO beta, players tell us “Hey, you can do better with this feature,” and that same day we’ll start working on it. That’s humbling in a sense, but also exciting.
OnRPG: Tell us more about the squad functions, such as the Team Link System.
Theo: When a team really clicks together in a shooter, it’s a lot of fun. But that seldom happens when you’re playing with a bunch of strangers online. To get that in most games, you’ve got to commit to a clan or a regular bunch of friends playing. Our big focus is breaking down the need to outright coordinate by adding intuitive systems like Team Link.
When you’re in proximity, you buff your teammates (depending on your class and choice of team upgrade) and see a visual representation of that through the CrossCom. A huge advantage of our 3rd person POV is that Team Link gives you 360-degree awareness of nearby teammates.
OnRPG: So how about those game modes?
Theo: So far, in beta we have two: Assault and Capture. In Assault, the attacking team has to capture two tactical objectives on the map to unlock the final point. Teams alternate attacking and defending. In Capture, there’s a series of five points and each team is trying to push through to the opposite end of the map to win. There’s always two points simultaneously open – one that you’re attacking and one that you’re defending.
Our design ethos has centered on creating 1-to-1 game mode and map pairings, with each map specially created for that mode. Maybe it’s a risky strategy, as quantity of maps and modes is a more common headline metric than quality – but we’re very happy about how that focused approach has turned out.
OnRPG: Tom Clancy games are also well known for their deep storylines. Despite Ghost Recon Online having a clear focus on multiplayer competition, will there be any sort of campaign or co-op game modes?
Theo: There’s nothing around that I can talk about today. I’ll just say we have a lot of fans of co-op modes on the dev team here.
OnRPG: For those that have never played a Ghost Recon game before, will there be tutorials to help them learn the basics?
Theo: We’re hoping to get one in soon.
OnRPG: How deep is character customization?
Theo: As far as your characters themselves go, I’ll be honest and say we’re not exactly The Sims. What we focused on instead is building very extensive equipment customization: weapons & attachments, body armor & inserts, and basically a whole skill-tree system guised as primarily ability upgrades.
New players don’t need to get how all of that works on day one, but there’s a ton of depth here.
OnRPG: How would you describe the game’s pacing?
Theo: The flow of the gameplay is a bit slower than your standard run & gun shooter. Most noobs in their first match will come out with guns blazing, screaming FREEEEEDOM at their monitor, but are then summarily massacred by players using cover and advancing with their team.
OnRPG: There seems to be a strong focus on urban environments. Will there be any areas such as jungles or deserts?
Theo: Yeah, so far our initial maps have all been urban or industrial (an oil rig). But we’ve got other maps coming in our pipeline set in more natural environments.
OnRPG: Will a matchmaking system be in place to balance out the newbies from the pros?
Theo: Automated matchmaking is the main entry point into GRO gameplay. It’s balancing a number of things to ensure you play with and against players of similar skill, but also ensuring you wind up on a server you have a good connection to. Through the Party system, we allow you to group up with your friends or clan.
We’re also working on some technology called Machine Learning together with a team of Ph.D.’s at the University of Montreal. Basically, this allows us to optimize matchmaking along a third axis (along with skill and ping) – fun.
Early next year, I hope to be able to share the research paper with the members of our community (at least with those not allergic to math), so they can dig into how that works.
OnRPG: For a free-to-play title, GRO sure is sporting some high quality visuals! What kind of a PC will players need to run this game? Have these system requirements been finalized?
Theo: We haven’t arrived at our final system requirements yet, but are obviously trying to be as inclusive as possible across a wide variety of machines through granular graphical options.
OnRPG: In the previous reveal trailer: Soldiers performed many different actions including slides and dives. What other types of actions can players perform in-game?
Theo: A lot of the cool moves revolve around the cover system. To work on PC, cover has to feel natural and intuitive. Imagine you and your opponent are in cover on opposite sides of the same low wall. In many games, the solution would be to get out of cover and navigate around it to shoot him. In GRO – you simply lean around (or over) it and the bad guy is dead. It’s fluid.
OnRPG: This may be a little too early to ask, but how will the item shop be structured?
Theo: In our next beta build, we’ll be testing an item model based around permanence. That means once you earn your core equipment (say, a gun) it’s yours to keep for good. That’s quite a departure from the rental model you normally see. We like it because it’s very respectful of the time players spend in the game – that isn’t taken away from them.
OnRPG: Some gamers believe that “Free-to-play” means “Pay-to-win”.
Theo: Players value a fair fight. If you die in a shooter, and the perception is “he only got me because he’s using a hack,” that’s very quickly going to turn you off from playing. The same is true, if you feel “I only died because this guy’s probably a lawyer or something IRL and I can’t afford that kind of stuff…”
Where do you draw the line? For GRO, we decided that we have to provide a fair fight or players aren’t going to stick around. So, there’s no cash- only ‘Golden M16 of Dragonslaying’. Our philosophy that it’s probably ok if some paying looks a bit cooler than you do or gets his stuff a little faster. But that anything touching game balance needs to be equally attainable for players who just want to enjoy GRO for free.
OnRPG: When can we expect another beta test or a commercial launch?
Theo: Betas are ongoing in Europe and North America. We’re growing the player base at a measured pace to make sure we don’t bite off more than we can chew on the service and technical side. The easiest way to get invited as soon as more spots open up is to head over to GhostReconOnline.com and apply.
OnRPG: Any closing comments?
Theo: I just want to say “thanks” to the OnRPG community for taking the time to read this. I really hope to see some of you guys in GRO soon!