Summary: JCal digs in and sucks answers out the TimeShift developers, including their view on the Atari/Vivendi publisher swap.
FiringSquad: First, we have to ask how Saber Interactive felt about the switch in publishers. How did this switch affect the development of the game?
Matthew Karch: We are very grateful to Atari for giving us a shot when they picked up TimeShift. We were a small, unknown developer with leading-edge tech and a good idea, and Atari allowed us to make it happen. Unfortunately, Atari at the time was going through a restructuring phase and we felt that they weren’t really able to give TimeShift the attention it deserved. Their plan was to release the game in March when we felt we needed more time to polish it and make it more competitive with the best games in the genre. Thus they felt they needed to get a demo out and released something that we were not ready or willing to share with the public. When Atari announced that they were going to sell some of their properties, multiple publishers contacted them about TimeShift. I personally flew out to California to meet with the interested companies, and while Atari received several bids we were very fortunate to have Vivendi – one of the leading publishers in the industry – pick up the game. In fact, we were lucky enough to keep our publisher side producer, Kyle Peschel, who made the move to Vivendi along with TimeShift, so the actual development process didn’t skip a beat.
The switch didn’t change development per se - we were still developing the game we had continually been making, the difference being when Vivendi picked it up they realized the potential that the game had and gave us the extra time and resources we needed to really bring it from A to triple-A caliber. Changes like a completely re-written game script and story, brand new graphics technologies, the recently announced Hollywood voice talent, and layers upon layers of polish all work towards complementing the innovative things we’re doing on the gameplay side with the manipulation of time.
FiringSquad: Saber Interactive has also spent a long time on the game itself, having seen an early build back in December 2004. How has the lengthy development time affected how the game itself has evolved?
Matthew Karch: “Evolved” is the perfect way to phrase it, especially since TimeShift originally started out as an Xbox 1 title. As we made the jump from current-gen to next-gen, then exclusively to next-gen, we were simultaneously growing the game design to take advantage of the more powerful hardware in terms of raw graphical capabilities and presentation, as well as incorporation of the time powers. So what we’ve been able to do during development is build the time power infrastructure, build the design and game scenarios, then go back and forth tweaking each element until they work in complete concordance with each other. This way the game organically grows out of its components into a cohesive whole.
Matthew Karch: Developing TimeShift was a challenge on nearly every front. It was a challenge coming up with the timeshifting mechanic and creating a consistent set of gameplay rules, it was a challenge implementing them and it was a challenge balancing them so that they smoothly enrich gameplay instead of breaking it. Happily, we’ve answered all of these difficult questions with solutions that make logical sense while being a blast to play.
The most difficult part was clarifying what role time powers should have in gameplay, eventually deciding on three fronts: Combat, Time Puzzles, and Time-based Combat. You can use the powers during combat with regular enemies, going into slow motion to dodge bullets and the like, which occurs frequently since it’s a shooter. You can even stop time and shoot rockets out of the air. Time Puzzles are situations that require the player to think carefully about their situation in the environment, and how they must use their powers to overcome the obstacle or obstruction. These range from incidental barriers to major level set-pieces, to everything in between. Lastly, Time-based Combat asks the player to combine twitch skills with a bit of problem solving, since later in the game we’ll put you up against a new breed of enemies.
The key with implementation was to make sure the powers were properly balanced so players didn’t just stop time and breeze through the levels, so we put concrete limits on how long each power lasts. So while you do have these incredible abilities to alter the world around you, you’ve got to be careful to conserve the powers and think strategically. It might seem like a lot to handle, but we’ve found that the more credibility you give to the player, the better the experience ultimately is.
FiringSquad: What are the dev team's favorite weapons to use in the game?
Matthew Karch: I’ve always been partial to the KP-HellRazer, the incendiary bullet-spitting Uzi that actually ignites enemies on impact. Its secondary fire is a flamethrower that causes just as much chaos, plus if you wave it over a metal surface, will leave little bubbled craters all over the place!
Another favorite is the MagCannon – the futuristic Imperial weapon that fires concentrated bolts of magnesium in arcs that respond to real gravity. The MagCannon is great because of the way it can be exploited – if an enemy is entrenched behind some cover, you can shoot a bolt over the object and drop the projectile down onto his head. The alternate fire is a charged-up blast that instantly eviscerates whoever it comes into contact with, definitely not a weapon to be trifled with.
FiringSquad: What else do you think will catch the player's eye while playing Timeshift?
Matthew Karch: We’ve definitely carved out our own corner of the FPS market. TimeShift’s decidedly unique feel can be attributed to a few elements: an original aesthetic that’s a unique mixture of futuristic steam-punk with a shot of alternate-reality gritty realism, and our own proprietary engine that brings it to life. The risks and rewards of building your own engine from scratch are definitely something to think about, especially if you’re a newer studio like Saber. After thinking long and hard about it we decided to go with our own, the Saber 3D engine, and after putting in the work, I can say it’s definitely been the right choice. The engine is easily as capable as the best 3rd party tech that is available for license.
Aside from graphics and atmosphere, gamers are going to be surprised by the versatility and sheer playfulness of the time powers. We’ve built some special routines into the game dealing with the powers that hopefully everyone will discover, but we’re still finding new things – I’m still experimenting with what you can do, pushing the limits to come up with new situations! Once it’s released to the hardcore audience, there’s no telling what insane scenarios will be uncovered.
Finally, our AI system is one of the best I have seen in a shooter. In addition to supporting intelligent enemy behavior, it takes into account all of the “what ifs” that TimeShifting generates. It deals with questions such as: What happens if you stop time and pass enemies – how should they react? What if they spot me and I reverse time to before they noticed me? What if I stop time in front of them and hide? Anyone that plays TimeShift will be amazed at the depth of our AI system – it is much more complicated than anything I have seen to date – primarily because of all of the variables that TimeShifting creates.
Matthew Karch: Stats-wise, we’re supporting up to 16-player matches for both PC and Xbox 360, 14 multiplayer maps of varying sizes, 7 completely customizable game modes, and 8 completely customizable game modifiers (like Low Gravity or Steel Skin). Besides customizing modes and modifiers, players can build their own gametypes from scratch. In the end, the multiplayer mode is limited only by what you can come up with.
FiringSquad: Will there be an updated demo released for the PC or a demo for the Xbox 360 game?
Matthew Karch: This has been discussed. Obviously we all think the previous demo was not a solid representation of where the game is, and certainly not now that we have polished gameplay.
FiringSquad: Are there plans to release any mod tools for the PC version of the game?
Matthew Karch: While we’re not releasing mod tools, we’ve definitely built the game with the community in mind. The time powers are tailor-made for experimentation, with all sorts of potential for creative individuals to work with in coming up with unique challenges, situations, etc. The vast customizability options available in multiplayer offer a similar opportunity for players to stretch their creative side in coming up with new modes of play, rulesets, and strategies. I’m particularly interested in seeing what the Machinima community will have to say about TimeShift, since there are many scenarios possible in the game that can’t be accomplished in other shooters.
FiringSquad: After the game's release are there plans to release additional content for the PC and Xbox 360 version?
Matthew Karch: Stay Tuned
FiringSquad: The game will have Dennis Quaid portraying the main character's voice in his game voice acting debut. Why did he agree to do the role and what was it like to work with him?
Matthew Karch: When it came time to select the voiceover talent, we wanted to find actors with star power and talent to match. I have been a fan of Dennis since DreamScape and Enemy Mine (I am sure that dates me slightly ;)). Dennis had never worked on a game before and was adamant about reading the script and familiarizing himself with the game before he committed to it. It was only after he was assured that the game was AAA quality that he decided to take the lead role.
Even though this was the first game that he has agreed to lend his voice, you wouldn’t have realized it otherwise. He instantly made the connection with Swift’s character, a torn man on an impossible mission, and worked his magic in the studio. The guy is just a class act and a real pleasure to be around - he was humble and definitely willing to take direction.
FiringSquad: What is the current status of the game's progress and when will it be released?
Matthew Karch: TimeShift is roughly 95% complete, with only a few bug fixes standing between us and store shelves. We’re looking at a September release for PC and Xbox 360.
FiringSquad: Finally is there anything else you wish to say about Timeshift?
Matthew Karch: From conception to crunch, the one belief that’s been driving this project is that there is a place in the market for a game with fun gameplay, new ideas and innovative concepts, without having to fall back on an expensive IP license or archaic tried-and-true gameplay. We’re betting that folks will check out TimeShift and realize that innovation in FPS’s isn’t a lost cause, that the potential is there – if you can find it.
The best thing about the game is that it is really infinitely replayable on both the single player and multiplayer campaigns. There are so many ways to tackle an objective (thanks to the variety that controlling time engenders) that nobody will play the game the same way, and no one gamer will play it the same way twice. We are very fortunate to have made the switch to Vivendi and are excited about the extra time they have given us to do this the right way.
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