The Titanfall franchise is easily one of the most underrated new IPs created. With the initial launch of the Xbox One, Titanfall offered a multiplayer only experience that had been missing from the first-person shooter genre for some time. Respawn Entertainment had a giant mountain to climb in terms of development, but they also had something to prove as a developer.
Titanfall proved many things. It proved that you can create a deep multiplayer experience that doesn’t become tiresome and repetitive. It also proved that war shooters needed something more, that more being giant mechanized titans that could be taken down by pilots who were not commandeering titans themselves. The one thing that seemed to be missing from the complete FPS package in the original Titanfall was a single-player campaign.
Information about the Titanfall universe could be learned while playing different modes and reading pieces of backstory. There wasn’t a wholehearted narrative where you could command the main protagonist and really feel something for the characters outside of competitive multiplayer matches. Not only that, there was a need and a want for an experience where you could witness the in-game faction battles firsthand. Titanfall 2 gave us promise with the story of Jack Cooper, Militia grunt turned pilot.
I’ll say it: Titanfall 2 has one of the best single player campaigns I have played. It’s challenging, refreshing in many aspects, and hits a sweet spot in terms of length and breadth. When the opportunity to hear more about just how this design came to be during the Game Developers Conference (GDC)—I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pull up a seat.
The full title of the session hosted by Senior Game Designer, Christopher “Soupy” Dionne was “Designing Unforgettable Titanfall Single Player Levels with Action Blocks.” My first thought was that the “blocks” mentioned in the title revolved around breaking up the action of each level into more digestible parts. Meaning, they were segmented out in order to gain player engagement and design challenges around those to keep the player interested.
A form of rapid prototyping used to encourage creative play
‘Game jam’ style design sprints used throughout development to explore gameplay
Common slang for reaching the highest level in Tetris
Although this wasn’t necessarily the case, allowing us, the audience, an opportunity to take a peek inside the development process for an AAA studio was something I was more interested in.
The goal for the “blocking” was to essentially brainstorm ideas of levels, turn them into something playable, and then pick them apart. This also included trashing old ideas, running with new ones, and making the impossible possible.
One thing that Dionne made apparent during his presentation was that, when Respawn first developed Titanfall, they wanted at its core a “first-person game, with wall jumping and giant robots.” Now, that development fury was supposed to be contained and focused in order to provide those same mechanics and emphasize on them during a single player campaign experience.
So, how did the team at Respawn Entertainment not block-block themselves? More importantly, how were they going to use action blocking to turn ideas into playable levels. It all starts with the process.
In short, action blocking consists of a few key elements:
- Make a design “not perfect, but playable.”
- Make something fun for someone else to play
- At the end of each block, do a show and tell of what was created
The segments of the action blocks weren’t treated as actual level design. Rather, they were created to get a feel just how things might play out, or when a “hall tester” was pulled into Soupy’s office, he could tell them if what he had created seemed fun.
One of the most-discussed levels in the session was ‘Into the Abyss.’ For those unfamiliar with Titanfall 2, the level consists of a giant factory setting where test houses are being built.
This “Boom Town” has Cooper vaulting and scaling machine arms, having environment obstacles nipping at his heels. Sod and industrial beams are churned out on the factory line in order to create these dispensable housing units. The area proves that platforming can be executed well in an FPS experience, and also shows how an idea can be extrapolated, soliciting the efforts of multiple developer duties in order to become a playable experience. Not only that, the level is hands-down one of the most memorable in the game, if not in gaming.
If you were to look at the end result of Titanfall 2, you would think the developmental process was seamless and easy for these veterans of the industry. However, there were times when even Dionne admitted that what he had created was simply not enjoyable.
During Dionne’s presentation, he expressed that there were times when something he created was not received well. This was the case when he had created a maze in order to task the player with solving the puzzle of the environment through exploration. However, when his faithful “hall testers” would come in and play, the result was simply not fun to play.
Hearing how a Senior Game Designer could create something that wasn’t great the first time around really shed light on just how much effort, how many tweaks, and how much feedback on something you’ve created is all part of the process. This really humanized their roles. When Dionne spoke about action blocking, he emphasized more than once that going through the process was not intended to be level design. Rather, it was where the ideas and themes came together in order to envision something that would later become a level.
Towards the end of the session, there was one thing that stuck out to me most. Dionne indicated that the process of action blocking was a great way to generate ideas, create boundaries, and figure out how you were going to get the player from point A to point B. It was surprising that, out of the gallery of still images where all the action blocks lived, only one of those actual action blocks initially created made it into the game. That block was the imaginative and well executed ‘Cause and Effect and Cause’ level, which turned time traveling in real-time into something to marvel at.
It’s easy to say that a game is this or that. That a game created something special for you or was a heap of trash. In the case of Titanfall 2, it seems that the creative process was examined from brainstorm to completion, something that ended up successfully creating one of my favorite games, and a single-player experience that executed well on just about every facet it set out to achieve.