Sony San Diego is hard at work on the free to play 5 vs. 2 vs. 5 shooter Kill Strain, and in order to learn more about the game, which is supposed to be available as a closed beta soon, I had a chat with Director of Development Pierre Hintze.
Hintze went into many details about gameplay, the business model, the peculiar team setup, and he even talked about the free to play trend in general and how it applies to the PS4.
We also get a lovely overview of the relationships between Sony San Diego and other Sony studios and executives.
Giuseppe: first of all, could you introduce yourself for our readers?
Pierre Hintze: My name is Pierre Hintze, I’m the director of the SDI team, the Internal development team here in San Diego. We have two teams, one of them is the MLB team which develops the baseball game The Show, which is incredibly successful for Sony, and we call ourselves “the others.” And then as a third arm, there’s external development, which is an independent group. So we actually have three groups here, and I’m the director of one of these groups.
G: Let’s move directly to Kill Strain. It definitely has an interesting layout for the teams. It’s 5 vs. 2 vs. 5. Lately we have seen a a few mismatched team setups with Evolve for instance, but this one, I think, is quite original. Can you tell us a bit more about the philosophy behind this setup and how it works?
PH: Absolutely. Let’s start from the top, I actually was in the room I’m sitting in right now, and one of our designers and I broke down on the whiteboard what we had from a gameplay perspective: I wrote down “human vs. mutants” and then I kept writing, but all of a sudden he said “stop.” I went “What do ymean?” He said “Go back to that, why can’t it be human vs. mutants vs. humans?”
That was the beginning. I played a lot of games in the genre, and the most fun I had was always when there were uneven team sizes. For instance in League of Legends, when you have 4 vs. 5 and you win, it’s incredibly satisfying.
So we talked about it, and for us, what really set us apart, and what’s really exciting is the notion of how the transitions comes about. Evolve is an amazing game, from my perspective, but I think we took it a step forward with the dynamic transition from one team to the other, and the ability for the mutants to turn humans gives us that.
Back in the day when this game was initially conceptualized, the original premise was a zombie game. You had zombies hunting humans.
G: Oh my God… Zombies again…
PH: Yeah… The zombies killed the humans and turned them into zombies. That was the only aspect that I found interesting because at that point zombies were incredibly played out, but more importantly, it was really at the point in which zombies even in their own movies are the extras. They’re never the heroes. And we’re trying to create an experience where the player can identify himself with one or the other party in this game.
When everything came together, we felt the moment in which you get turned into a human is a totally new experience, and we added another key ingredient to it, which was that all human characters are ranged characters, and all of the mutant characters are melee characters.
We also needed a delivery platform, which we call the “Strain” (hence: Kill Strain), which brings these melee characters close to their targets. And that, I think, is the essence of our game, with the shock effect when you walk down a path and then all of a sudden a mutant comes out of the strain and attacks you. That uncertainty is very powerful for our gameplay experience.
G: So, basically, when you get turned into a mutant you feel like a loser.
PH: That’s a really interesting question, because that was one of the biggest concerns when we conceptualized this idea. We thought “what am I going to do when I’m no longer with my team?” For us it was very clear from the beginning that you play as part of a team as a matter of convenience, not because it’s a team sport.
And the convenience is to give you the highest possible score. As a group, you’re more functional at the beginning of the game than when you’re alone, because the mutants at the beginning of the game are more powerful than the humans. If you move as a group, you have a chance to survive. If you move alone, chances are that you won’t survive.
Later on, when we got to the point of really conveying this to the players, that the score and being on top of the table is what would drive you the most, that’s when the true essence of the game came about.
We put players in a moral dilemma: imagine that you and I play on the same team. You’re on top of the leaderboards with 100 points more than me. I know that if you die and I kill the mutant that kills you, I get 600 points. If a mutant attacks you, I have the choice to defend you, and watch the mutant kill you and then kill him. Guess what I’m gonna do?
G: I’m guessing the latter…
PH: That moral dilemma was incredibly powerful. And imagine two humans fighting against each other and a mutant comes out of the strain, and that mutant is currently at the top of the leaderboard. All of a sudden these humans will stop fighting each other and will destroy the mutant.
Thisn kind of moral dilemmas and this kind of spice in the gameplay experience is fresh and hasn’t been done before. I think that’s what makes this dynamic so unique.
G: Is your team working on any measures to prevent matches becoming purely a number game, with the team outnumbering the others winning with no way to turn the tables? For instance, I noticed that players in outnumbered teams level up quicker.
PH: We have end conditions, which are that one of the three bases get destroyed, or the mutants turn all the humans into other mutants. These are to give players on top of the leaderboard the ability to end the match and solidify their win.
Yet, there’s a whole lot of other factors we implemented in order to control the balance. We control the frequency of resources spawning. We make sure that the travel distance between bases and resources are equal in length and that movement is equal. What is not controlled by us is your skill.
Every level starts at level zero. Every action he executes successfully contributes to level him up. Your skillset determines at what rate you “snowball.” This whole game is about “snowballing.” You noticed that when there are less players on a team they level up quicker. That’s correct. But you also see the numerical advantage of the other team and how hard it will snowball.
We have moments that we call standoffs when two guys try to defend themselves for two or three minutes, but the mutants are still destroying the end condition, so there’s very little to gain in just surviving. The objective still has to be to kill as many mutants as possible and try to get to the top of the leaderboard. It’s really hard to wrap your head around the concept that the result of the team is not as important as the success of the player himself.
G: So basically you play for yourself and who cares about the team?
PH: We also want to make sure that this doesn’t become a single minded game, so recently we added a whole set of rewards and subsets of recognition which has nothing to do with you being on top of the leaderboard, but have to do with how well do you support the overall objective, or well do you participate as a player and how your playing behavior was conducive to everyone having a good experience.
That’s something we’re working on really hard, to make sure you get the right measure of that kind of reward and that kind of recognition.
G: So you can play both for yourself and for the team?
PH: No. You can set your own objectives. As an example, we have this concept of in-game leveling based on your skillset, which is gonna be reset at the beginning of each match, but also a concept of account leveling. A reward at the end of each match allows you to level up your account, opening up for you as a player more and more areas of the game, which you would normally have to grind for a long time.
You can decide you want to get better at destroying the Strain, or at healing others, or at fulfilling objectives. That’s a personal goal, and we’ll recognize your behavior and we’ll give you a reward at the end. Of course it’s proportional to your position on the leaderboard, but it’s still a reward. The key for us is to encourage the kind of gameplay which will maximize the fun people have in our game.
G: So, even if you lose, in the end you still get something.
PH: Yes. That’s a given.
G: We’ve started sniffing the project over a year ago when we saw some career opportunity ads mentioning free to play. How long has Kill Strain been in development?
PH: I’ve been at Sony San Diego Studio for nearly nineteen months. Especially from my arrival we shifted away from a game idea that we called “Zombie Hide and Seek” to Kill Strain, so it’s about eighteen months in development.
G: Sony aside, you’re quite the veteran of the industry. I believe you started at Sega almost two decades ago. Let’s talk a little about the raise of free to play games from the point of view of someone who is pouring his soul into one. What do you think about this trend?
PH: I think we’re seeing an evolution in that space. Free to play is just a business model, and it gets interpreted and applied in many different ways. Take the free to play which is incredibly successful in the mobile market. That free to play model is something which I’m not interested in, at all. That’s where you create artificial paywalls and manipulate people into a point in which they feel they have to pay or they have no continued enjoyment of what they’ve been engaged with.
For me, what I got really inspired by are games like League of Legends, where you have the enjoyment of participating in a gameplay experience with others, and based on the quality of that enjoyment, you decide if you wanna engage even further and customize that gameplay experience. That’s where you contribute to the model.
I’ve been doing this for quite a while, and there was a pinnacle moment in my career when I had my nephews from the United Kingdom visiting me in the United States, and they stayed from six weeks. I have pretty much every console you can shake a stick at, and in those six weeks they played on console maybe four of five blockbuster games, but most of their game consumption came from free to play games they could access on the web for nothing, and more importantly the social aspect of these.
The fact that the entry level of the enjoyment is zero, in terms of monetary costs, all of their friends engaged, and all of those games had something in common, which was a very very strong social fabric which tied the players together. And that for me was a high moment, because I really felt it combined a lot of things which I wanted to do and I wanted to get in games in one model, which was a strong social bond, which is truly built on the players’ desire to enjoy an experience together, and a very low entry level which doesn’t require sixty dollars of sixty euros for you to participate.
I’ve seen that model work in different ways on mobile devices and on PC, and when I got the opportunity to join Sony, it was an incredibly exciting moment for me, because I could see PlayStation Network as a perfect platform for that type of engagement, because here at Sony we’re heavily into the social component, and if we reduce the entry level to zero, I think we have the opportunity to create great experiences and quality games.
G: So, do you see the popularity of free to play games growing on PS4, considering that it’s very much oriented towards social aspects and sharing?
PH: I cannot really speak for Sony as a whole. I think we made really clear during our press conference twelve months ago that we have interest in that space. We’re trying to learn about that space and developing products for that space. I can speak for Sony San Diego Studios, and everything that has not to do with MLB: The Show is focusing on games as a service, so various models, anything from free to play to… Again, this has to do with the strategy here at SDI and Sony San Diego Studios. Free to play for us is something we’re committed to and we see as a great opportunity, but always believe that there will be a market for premium titles, there will be a market for freemium titles, and there will be a market for games as a service.
I think that the advantage of developing those type of titles on PlayStation Network is that you have the security and quality and continuity which you get from developing games on a console and playing games on a console, combined with the monetary advantage of free to play. That’s, on paper, a marriage made in heaven.
G: We really need another ModNation Racing, maybe free to play. That’s a personal suggestion.
PH: Trust me, we had this suggestion coming our way quite frequently.
G: Is it easier for free to play games to thrive and get noticed on a platform like the PS4, that still isn’t saturated by them, as opposite to mobile and PC?
PH: PlayStation Network is not as crowded as the PC market, and being a first party developer gives us a greater level of access to social channels, and more importantly awareness among our fans and players.
G: On the other hand, do you think it’s also difficult to market and crate expectation for a free to play game on a console. There’s a little big of a stigma among certain areas of the gaming community.
PH: It’s funny, because most of that type of reaction we had when we interacted with our fans in Europe. Especially in Asia and North America that type of view has actually kind of normalized. If you look at the success of League of Legends, Smite and DOTA 2, I think none of those titles suffers from that kind of stigma. I think it has actually become an expectation.
My philosophy, and that’s my personal opinion, it’s the genius out of the bottle. The moment in which you give somebody a great experience for nothing, the base expectation will be that that will become the status quo.
So yeah. I think this is something from which we’re suffering a little bit in Europe, especially due to the perception of what’s going on in the mobile space there, but here in North America and in Asia I haven’t met any of that kind of feedback.
G: Since we’re talking about free to play games, let’s talk about what won’t be free. How will the monetization work in Kill Strain?
PH: We have one foundational belief, and that will never change. You will not pay to win. That’s one. The other one is that we have absolutely no desire to create artificial barriers which force you to pay.
What we’re really interested in monetizing are things which allow you to personalize your experience in terms of personalizing your character, choosing a specific set of characters, and fine-tune the way your character plays by trading off certain areas for other areas.
We have a concept similar to what you see on DOTA 2, Smite and League of Legends, a concept of augmenting your character, and creating mastery sets for it, and that’s where we see our opportunity.
G: So those characters won’t be more powerful than others, but just more specialized?
PH: They won’t be more powerful. They will just be more tailored to your gameplay preferences.
That’s a very, very important distinction. The pay to win model is very popular in Asia, and there’s a market for it, but we’re not interested at all in that model. We have no interest in deceiving our players and get them to the point in which, yes, of course you’re now more powerful.
I’ll give you an example: if you have muscle memory, or skill that enables you to avoid incoming skillshots, but move your character in positions where he can effectively launch attacks, and you augment your character to enhance that, that’s a customization of your playstyle. The trade-off is that your character might not have the same kind of… I don’t know… Armor abilities than a character which is not augmented in that way. That’s basically the foundation of our formula, where we try to avoid the “more powerful” aspect of it.
G: Sony Worldwide Studios are considered by many one of the best development environments in the world. Could you tell us how it is to work under Sony’s umbrella, and what kind of collaboration there is between the Studio in San Diego and the other teams within Sony.
PH: I’ve been working for Sony Worldwide Studios for eighteen months now, so with regards to the direct collaboration, we have developers out of San Mateo in Internal Development, which we consider our brothers, because they are working on similar projects. We have a good relationship with our friends at Naughty Dog and Santa Monica Studios, it is a really healthy environment for me.
But what really struck me the most when I joined here was the level of genuine gamers who are working in senior positions in this organization. It’s pretty amazing. It goes all the way from to Shu to Rhode and my boss Christian Philips. They’re gamers.
You cannot just sit there and tell them something about a feature that you think should go a certain way. Rhode is a perfect example. When we started at the beginning of the development of Kill Strain, he sat with us quite a bit and critiqued the way our melee behavior for the mutants was, and made suggestion on how to improve it and why it should have been improved.
You can only give advice like that if you have the respect of your guys, and they know you’re a gamer and for Rhode that was never a problem. That’s encouraging, and it’s one of the most beautiful traits at Worldwide studios in my opinion.
G: Kill Strain seems to be a very fast-paced game. Are you guys targeting the “magical” 1080p, 60 frames per second combo?
PH: That’s the goal: I mean, we’re trying to have as good of a frame rate as we can get, simply because we all know that ideally 60 frames per second gives you a very, very smooth experience.
G: Do we have any kind of time frame for the early access or beta, or we have to be content with the usual “SoonTM?”
PH: Do me a favor, just believe me. Our closed beta here in North America is incredibly imminent. With the way these things work, if the closed beta performs as we hope it to perform, this title is going to be in our consumer’s hands definitely this summer, in one form or the other depending on what type of beta stage we’re going to be in there.
G: Thank you for your time. Do you have any parting words for our readers?
PH: I can’t wait for people in Europe to get their hands on the game. We can see already a great reaction here in North America. We had a play with the developers event in London, and people were exposed for the first time to our game, and I can’t wait to hear out of the first events going in Italy, France, Germany and Spain as an example.