Gunzilla Q&A – Altered Carbon Writer and Ubisoft Veteran Discuss Plans to Inject Narrative into Multiplayer Shooters
Recently established gaming studio Gunzilla Games is looking to come out with a bang with its first project, a multiplayer shooter that promises to attract all kinds of players mainly with its strong focus on narrative, something that's usually considered to be essentially unnecessary if not even harmful in multiplayer shooter games.
It would be an extremely tall order for anyone, let alone a brand new company, but Gunzilla has been hiring industry veterans from Ubisoft, EA, THQ, Crytek, and more for their teams located in Frankfurt, Kyiv, and Los Angeles, which already feature about 85 employees with 50 open positions and an ultimate goal of reaching a headcount of 200. Even more interestingly, they've brought on some stellar writing talent with Richard K. Morgan, the author of the acclaimed Altered Carbon series (which granted him the Philip K. Dick Award) who previously worked in the gaming industry on Crysis 2 and the Syndicate remake that came out in 2012. He's not the only famous name either, given that movie director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium, Chappie) joined Gunzilla too as Chief Visionary Officer.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with Richard and with Executive Narrative Director Olivier Henriot (a nearly 20-year Ubisoft veteran who worked as a writer on franchises like Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon, Far Cry, Assassin's Creed, Watch_Dogs, and more) to learn more about this highly ambitious endeavor, which will be built upon a brand new IP.
I was wondering if you can begin by talking a bit about creating a studio during the pandemic, because as far as I understand that's what happened with Gunzilla, right?
Richard: Yeah, that's been interesting. I think what's happened over the pandemic is that we've found out just how much can get done remotely, how well you can actually end up working over Slack and Zoom, and whatever other software you can lay your hands on. All my games work previously had been done largely face to face, I spent an immense amount of time when I was working with Crytek flying backwards and forwards from the UK to Germany.
Olivier: We waited for like a year to actually meet in person.
Richard: Olivier and I have been working together since September and we put together most of the IP, most of this world, well before we actually had a physical meeting. It was weird, but it's doable, but had this happened even five years ago, I think the tech wasn't ready then. But now it is and it's been remarkably productive. In common with quite a lot of other people I know in a variety of industries, we're finding that although there are downsides to the whole remote work thing, there are also some considerable upsides as well. It's a new way of working, but so far it has not proven itself to be inferior to the old way.
Olivier: We actually had to build and develop both a project and a culture and create a bond between the people working at Gunzilla long before we actually got back to the office. We're located in both Frankfurt and Kyiv for the development side, and I joined Godzilla in September 2020 and I first started working at the office in July 2021. So yeah, I moved to Germany to do work from home for nine months and yes, indeed, I actually met with the principal writer a year after we started working together and yet it worked. I have no idea how common or not it is, but what I can say is that we're quite pretty happy with the result indeed.
Richard: In some ways, I suppose it's different than if you had an already established studio that suddenly had to deal with the shock impact of lockdown and COVID, that would be a very different thing. But being born into the lockdown, I think Gunzilla had that the advantage of it's like, well this is the way we're getting stuff done anyway, we didn't know any other way to do it.
Olivier: We didn't have much choice anyway.
Richard: Not exactly, and it's become second nature. It's just comfortable. It's the physical meetings that felt slightly weird and it took time to be accustomed to them. In fact, the last time I was in Kiev with Olivier I felt quite unproductive. We were sort of sitting at a desk next to each other and I was like, I'm really not sure how to do this.
Olivier: For me, it was a bit different because back when I was working at Ubisoft, I was located at Ubisoft HQ and I would work with a lot of different teams over the world. One of Ubisoft's strengths, actually, is to be able to develop those huge projects with teams in different studios on the five continents and different time zones, so it was something that was rather natural for me to actually start working with some people and not meet with them before long because I actually had already done that and I knew how to make this work?
Going forward when we hopefully won't have to stay necessarily apart anymore, are you looking to do a hybrid model between remote work and office work at Gunzilla?
Olivier: Whatever works for the company and for the project. We actually believe in what is efficient rather than a specific philosophy about work even. I have to say that having tested both, you can solve so many things with a simple ten minutes discussion when you're actually in the office, especially in the creative industry. That can take several one-on-one work calls because you actually have to plan for this when you're working remote, and the energy that can be in a room... For example, we have a virtual writing room that we're attending pretty much every day, Richard and me plus two narrative designers. Having worked in a physical writing room, I can tell that indeed there's something of that energy that I'm missing.
Richard: We're missing the whiteboard!
Olivier: Yeah, exactly, and we miss the whiteboard. We miss the fact that at any moment you can stand up and go write something on the whiteboard to better explain what you're trying to say, so I would say that maybe in terms of efficiency, probably the office leads by a small margin.
Fair enough. Let's jump to your project and its strong emphasis on narration in a multiplayer shooter, which is certainly something that we don't see every day. It's also especially hard, at least in my experience as a player, because most of the time when you're playing with others, even if you are a player who's into listening to all the dialogues and stuff like that, most of your friends tend to want to skip forward to the actual gameplay. That kind of ruins immersion a bit, so I wonder if you have a solution for that.
Olivier: Well, maybe they were skipping because those cutscenes are basically the space that the very meaning of your experience is taking that didn't get anywhere else, or not in large quantity enough, in the rest of the game.
Maybe this is exactly the reason why they skip them, because they are not given the opportunity and also the reason to care on a second-to-second, minute-to-minute experience while playing the game. Maybe there's this disconnection, and it actually comes from, you know what they say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions? It actually comes from the right place, which is, let's try not to bother the players with this too much, so let's insulate this in specific, limited moments. But the result is you don't care or you stop caring quite quickly and we want to try to solve that. We understand the number of challenges that we're facing, we understand why most of the time multiplayer games are structured this way.
Richard: I think it's about making the player want the content. I mean, I go back a few years and I remember before the Uncharted games came out, there was a joke about cutscenes. There used to be a feature in The Escapist, a thing called Unskippable, and the whole point was that it was joking about cutscenes, and the idea was the standing joke in gaming was that because people always skipped the cutscenes. And then Naughty Dog came along with Uncharted and they were 'No no, we're going to create cut scenes and you will want to watch them because they will be high quality, well written, well-executed. They will capture your eye, they'll capture your feelings, you'll be engaged and you will want to watch these cutscenes', and that in effect was what they did.
I mean, Naughty Dog rewired how cutscenes were perceived in games, and I think that's a general ruling in gaming that until someone just goes ahead and does something everyone kind of just goes 'Oh well, we don't want to be bothered with that' and then someone shows that actually, it has value, it adds to the game, it doesn't take away from it. Once it's been proven, then everyone scrambles to do it. We're ahead of the curve here in the sense that what we're trying to do I hope will be the multiplayer shooter equivalent of what Naughty Dog did back then with Uncharted. We'll create this content and deliver it in such a way as the player will go 'No, no, no. I want to hear this, I wanna watch this, I want to know what this is'. But it's always a challenge when it's not been done before, it's always a challenge when the prevailing opinion is that it doesn't matter.
Naughty Dog rewired how cutscenes were perceived in games with Uncharted, and I hope what we'll do will be the multiplayer shooter equivalent.
Olivier: The idea is to find other ways to engage the player other than cutscenes, and there's also the fact that in most multiplayer games, not a lot of players actually matter. At the end of the day, even the three best players of any given match only exist for a really short moment. Each session is basically somehow disconnected from one another. It's hard to get a sense of persistence and even more to feel like you belong to the world in which the game is taking place. At Gunzilla, we want to try to bridge the gap that exists in most multiplayer shooters, in our opinion, between the player's experience and what's actually happening in the game.
Richard: Yeah, because we're looking to create a world that isn't just an arena for killing people. In most multiplayer shooters that's what you have, an arena, and it can look more or less pretty, artistically more or less brown, but you go into it and you fight it out and you emerge at the end with whatever kills were part of the gameplay dynamics. What we're building here is not that, what we're building here is a living, breathing game space that responds to the player's decisions, that there's a perception that the world is changing, that stuff is happening in the world, and that you as a player have an impact upon that. If it works, the feedback from that is that the player is invested, wants to know more, they want to be aware of what is happening and why. What is the direction that these things are shifting in and what impact am I having on these?
Those are all things we're aiming to inject into it, and as Olivier said, cutscenes to be honest wouldn't be one of our favorite narrative channels to do that with. We're looking at the ways in which we can import the same sense of belonging and meaning that you find in other kinds of games into this arena.
If you are not looking to use cutscenes too much, is the narration and lore going to be delivered via text means?
Olivier: We're going to use a lot of different narrative channels.
Richard: One of the guys in the writers' room was tasked with writing down the narrative channels so that we could present them as a document. He keeps going back and adding to the sheer number of narrative channels that we're working on, that we're thinking about at the moment.
It just keeps going up, you know? It's a large list of different channels.
Olivier: The thing is, you have to plan for this. We were fortunate with Gunzilla in that we were given the time to plan this ahead because most of the time you'll basically build your game and then you'll try to convey a lot of different information, but you didn't plan for the tools to convey that narrative and the very meaning of your experience. What you end up with is something that is quite dry in that regard and that is most of the time quickly dismissed by the players. But here, the idea is to basically avoid that and have people come for the game and stay for the world.
Of course, the game has to be good. We're not saying that what we call the toy, so basically what you'll be doing gameplay wise, doesn't matter - far from it. But the idea is how can we blend the toy and the narrative together.
Richard: It is written into the DNA of the game. When I was hired originally, that was how they got me on board. I was told 'Look, we want you to build an IP, don't even worry about gameplay at this stage'. There were a couple of basic precepts that were already set in stone. We had some ideas about the world and it was literally 'Take this and go away and build the IP from the ground up, build a living, breathing world'. When the time comes to actually start layering on the gameplay and what the game dynamics are, what the feedback loops are, all of this stuff is coming from a foundation that already has narrative built into it. It's an intrinsic part of what we're creating.
Since you have been building this IP from scratch, did you try to do it with a particular eye for games and for these types of games specifically?
Richard: Yeah, we knew what game was going to be built in the sense that we already had a couple of basic precepts. We knew what kind of game Gunzilla was wanting to create, albeit in a general sense. We didn't have specifics and so that was like an anchor point if you like, but the brief was much broader than that. The brief was this is an IP. This is not just for this game, this is something that potentially we can unpack into all sorts of other things. Maybe we can unpack it into a movie at some point, maybe we can unpack it into comic books.
The sense is that what we're creating is a fictional world that lives and breathes and therefore has life way beyond just the context of the game that we will initially build. So yeah, there were anchor points, obviously, because we did know roughly what we were steaming towards, but we were given a very free hand in how we approached that.
Olivier: We were asked to come up with a universe deep enough so that it could indeed be developed on other formats as well beyond games. Indeed, that was part of our mandate because, oftentimes, what you'll see is a game suddenly getting such a level of success that it calls for all the forms of adaptations and the truth is, one, the creators are way too busy basically trying to actually operate the game and second, this wasn't necessarily planned ahead, meaning that they have to basically slap things over something that actually hadn't much a texture or depth initially and we want to avoid that syndrome as well.
It makes sense that you are looking into potentially expanding the IP to other mediums, given that you have onboard an accomplished author of novels. I've also read that Neill Blomkamp is working on the project, right?
Olivier: Yes, yes, yeah.
Richard: He is and that is I feel a testament to the IP that we've built because initially, we contacted him because we were interested purely in getting his advice. We wanted to say look, can you have a look at this and we'd like to retain you in an advisory capacity to help us out, and the end result is that he's come aboard as Chief Visionary Officer, so he's literally just bought into the extent that it's like 'Wow guys, I really want to be a part of this. I really want to be involved in developing this because it looks great'. That's the sort of first testament to how much texture there is in the world that we've built, how much living detail.
Neill Blomkamp's involvement is a testament to the IP that we've built. Initially, we contacted him to get advice, but he eventualy wanted to be a part of this.
Olivier: That was an interesting development actually that came out from the situation. Meaning that first, yes, we just wanted to have Neill in an advisory capacity, and he was so enthusiastic about what we pitched him that at some point he told us 'You know what guys? I want in, I want to be actively part of this. It was basically a happy accident, you know?
Is he overseeing the plot? Can you speak to the specifics of his involvement?
Olivier: He's actually contributing. A lot of people are contributing to several aspects of the game, but yes, he's helping us to strengthen both the universe and the narrative, which are two different things, and of course the visual aspect of the game as well as what I call the look and feel, which is basically a mix between the two. Basically, that's how the whole thing is supposed to play. It has to do with both controls and what you get out of the experience so it's basically what makes Call of Duty and CS: GO and Battlefield different. They're all shooters but they all you instantly know which is which, because they have an extremely strong identity and it's something you can actually feel. And of course, our ambition is to come up with something that has a very unique identity.
I'm wondering, given the involvement of both Richard and Neill, is it going to be a science fiction IP or something else instead?
Richard: No, no-no. It's Stone Age!
Olivier: Let's say that they both have a huge interest in the genre indeed, but it's something a bit different, though we can't share much at this point.
Richard: But I mean yeah, as you say, you look at my work, you look at Neill's work, you'll be aware of the ballpark I think.
Okay, good enough. Going back a bit to the gameplay side when you mentioned that you would like players to feel like they are making a difference of sorts in the game. Does that mean you are looking to add some elements of persistence from genres like MMO, or RPGs, where what you do effectively changes the narrative and possibly even the gameplay?
Olivier: We want to find a way for the players to actually have an impact in the world they'll be playing in. Then how we will do that, we're still exploring. We have a pretty good idea of what we want to do, but indeed at this point it's not something we can discuss much more than that, but it's not an RPG, it's a multiplayer shooter. It's a genre that we're actually all fans of. We play a lot of these games, probably an unhealthy amount of them, which is a weird thing for a narrative guy like me. But I've always been very much into competitive multiplayer games, and especially shooters.
We want to try to bridge the gap that exists in most multiplayer shooters, in our opinion, between the player's experience and what's actually happening in the game. We want to find a way for the players to actually have an impact in the world they'll be playing in.
Is there also going to be any cooperative element, or is it going to be just competitive?
Olivier: You will be able to play with your friends, yes. We'd be foolish not to allow players to have their friends with them. Some nights you spend playing with friends online are pretty much as valuable if not sometimes more than hanging around at a party. You probably drink less, too.
Can you discuss whether the game is planning meaningful post-launch support? For example, one of the recent multiplayer shooters that came out, Outriders, wasn't built as a game as a service. Basically, it was more or less what they launched with and some minor updates. But most multiplayer shooters are games as service, so, what about yours?
Olivier: We would like to see it live for a long time, yes.
Can you talk about which engine you are using or planning to use?
Olivier: Don't ask us. We're just the writers, they don't let us anywhere near this.
Richard: It will do all sorts of very cool things.That's all they tell us.
PR: It's the Unreal Engine.
Nice to know! I don't know if you have anything more that you can share about the narrative and storytelling components of the game.
Richard: I think what I would like to say probably is that what I find with the multiplayer shooter thing is that if you get into the water cooler chat around these games, it will consist almost entirely of 'Wow, I really fucking killed those guys!' It's a kind of moment-to-moment thing, it's about a particular encounter and how you sniped somebody from a rooftop or you fought it out in a room and just managed to get away but it's very much about the moment to moment gameplay, which is obviously very cool and visceral and impactful, but it also evaporates really fast in terms of your attention to it. You go on to the next round and then it's all forgotten because you're playing another 20 minute round and you're doing something else. What I'm looking for in this narrative is, I want the water cooler gossip. It can include that stuff, obviously, because it is a multiplayer shooter so it will. But what I'm also looking for is that the water cooler gossip is going to be like 'You get to the top of that mountain and there's that weird noise like a bellwether. What was that about and someone else goes 'If you go talk to the NPC down by the harbor like he's got something to say about that, and I think I know what it's got to do with and I'm going to go and have a look over on this side of the map because we think that that's probably what's behind it'.
That's the level of engagement I'm looking for from the world. It's a world that contains mystery, that contains characters you can emotionally engage with, NPCs you can engage with emotionally. The water cooler chat will start to include all sorts of much longer range and more enduring concerns from the players. It will pique their interest to other layers and hopefully, those are layers that last that have the endurance beyond the sort of momentary celebration of a kickass victory.
That potentially sounds like something I'd like to play.
Richard: Well, that's why we're building it. And that's a good point, I think Olivier alluded to it but maybe I can reinforce it. We are very much building the game we want to play. I know from personal experience in novel writing that the novels I've written have been the novels I wanted to read. Altered Carbon was the book that no one else would write. I found that Ridley Scott was never going to make Blade Runner 2 and William Gibson stopped writing his hardboiled stories. I literally wrote that book because I wanted to read it and I think that there's a vibe of that at Gunzilla as well. We play these games, we were in playtests a lot of the time as well and there's a very real sense that we're trying to build the game that we want to play, and hopefully that you will want to play as well.
Thank you for your time.
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