Interview: Zipper’s Kevin Schmitt Talks SOCOM 4 Multiplayer

At PAX East 2011, Senior Editor Nicole Kline and I got to have a lengthy chat with Kevin Schmitt, Lead Multiplayer Designer for SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy Seals. We got to talk extensively about the multiplayer, from game modes to progression paths, and how the buddy system plays a large role in the game. We also got some interesting insights from Schmitt, including what it’s like to be a lead designer on his first game at Zipper and the challenges and benefits of dealing with a long established fan base, whom he affectionately refers to as free labor. Playing the game got me really excited for its release and talking with Schmitt only compounded it. Hit the jump for the full interview on one of the most anticipated games of April.

Mike Gutierrez, Warp Zoned News Editor: I was wondering how the team at Zipper pulls off their map design, because I was playing a lot of MAG over the last year, and there you have huge maps. But every inch there, and with what we saw today, every inch of your maps are made for awesome firefights.

Kevin Schmitt, Zipper Interactive Lead Multiplayer Designer: Well, there’s a couple of different methods, but usually, what we do is I would start out by building the basic layout of the map. Then, I work closely with two level artists and a couple different asset artists. So as soon as we get a rough layout, [we] throw it right down to test: we get 32 people in, we run around, and all that feedback starts happening. And then we sit down with a level artist. There’s a lot of stuff like, say, “I want a firefight here,” and this is a big block, so you turn it into whatever looks pretty, a pile of barrels, a catwalk or whatever. So I’ll do the basic layout and then we’ll just move stuff around, and those guys are super responsive because they play, too. They’re in those tests with us as well, so they themselves, when they’re done, they say, “I put this pole here, and it’s blocking my sight, I’m gonna take it out.” They rip it right out, because they’re like, “AAARGH!” So we start with a basic map and we play the heck out of it.

Everybody at Zipper was assigned a clan, and Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we do two hour clan matches with everybody in the team, and I was involved with all of those. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we did two one-hour tests with our whole FPQA, first party QA [quality assurance] team from Sony, they’re down in San Diego, and they played with us. And they send us their feedback. But what happens with the internal matches is we all go to a conference room and everybody just airs their grievances, like, “what did you like?” Somebody will be like, “I didn’t know what the game objective was;” well, that’s because we don’t have the HUD in yet, so yeah, that can be hard to understand. Or, “we need a new audio line here.” everything you can think of: I don’t like the speed at which the player turns, I don’t like the jump, everything comes out in those things, and it’s such a great place to air that and we sort of adopted a policy. Like, I’m in these meetings, this is my baby, but I’m not going to hold it against you. It’s better we get that stuff out, than it goes out to the public and everybody says, “your game’s flawed,” in this way or the other. So I’m like, “please, don’t hold back, tell me everything…” It’s not just dislike, it’s everything you like and dislike.

So the one [mode] that they’re playing now – that’s Bomb Squad. It’s split up so one member of one team is a Bomb Technician unit. He’s got a suit… have you seen The Hurt Locker? The big Bomb Tech suit, he runs a little bit slower, but since he has all that padding, he takes way less damage, he takes less explosive impact damage, and he’s also equipped with an auto shotgun and a multiple grenade launcher. And a lot of that stuff came out of, “I don’t like playing as that character, what can we do to make this character better? Do you like playing him now? Okay, well, we’ll add this, do you like playing him now?” We didn’t want to reach a point where we were tipping the scales too much in his favor… put some stuff in and everybody’s like, “I love playing the Bomb Technician because he just kills anything!” So we may have to dial it back a bit, it’s a constant touch and go with it; it’s all this feedback, and it’s really just a lot of play, and that’s how we get our levels done.

WZ – Mike: So did the multiplayer development start at the beginning of the whole project?

Schmitt: We started from the beginning, and I was hired on specifically to do that…

WZ -Mike: SOCOM 4?

Schmitt: Yeah, and that’s all I’ve been doing for the last three and a half years or whatever – since it was an all-new experience for us, it’s an all-new SOCOM on the PS3, the complete package, right? We had a lot of base: the network code was great from MAG, we have some base assets which I use to roughly map out the levels. We already had a level creation tool, so a lot of that stuff I could get early and just get the basic mechanics, like the basic Suppression [Team Deathmatch] feel. Then once we have that, everything started to feel well, now I’ll start looking at game types. We had maybe half a dozen game types and we whittled those down and played those, so it’s been going on for the beginning.

WZ – Mike: What’s your favorite mode that’s going to be in the game?

Schmitt: My favorite was Last Defense, but I think it’s slowly tipping to Bomb Squad, because I love playing that Technician guy, he’s awesome! (laughing)

WZ – Mike: Now, do the multiplayer levels take place in the same setting as the single player or was there like, “hey, I’d really like to go here, let’s do that…”

Schmitt: There’s sort of a correlation between them. The outpost at night here, that is a collection of assets from one of the single player missions. But obviously single player is designed totally different, so it’s not a good idea to just take this and say, “it’s multiplayer now!” So it’s similar in feel, but there’s one map that worked out really well. In one of the single player levels it’s a shipyard, or it’s a dry dock for this stealth frigate that’s in the single player campaign… I don’t want to get too much into the single player campaign, but it takes place there! So we took that area and we’re like, “you know what? I think if we take the basic layout and move this here and move this here, this will make a great MP map.” So there are some direct links, but there’s a lot of original stuff, too.

WZ – Mike: What about the settings and the region? Did you think, “oh, I really want to make a map in the Antarctic” – is there anything crazy like that??

Schmitt: There’s nothing super crazy; we have a jungle relic area, there’s a coastal fort. We’re up in Seattle, and there’s an area, I think it’s called the Defense Triangle, [he may be referring to the “Triangle of Fire” of Fort Casey, Fort Flagler, and Fort Worden in Washington state -Mike] and they have a bunch of old coastal fort bunkers. Ryan and Travis and I took a field trip out there, and we’re like, “you know what? This would really be awesome if we make a multiplayer [map].” We took a bunch of pictures and came back and laid it out and everything, it was a lot of fun. So that just came out of, “this would be cool.” And I actually think they ended up adopting [it]. There’s a single player level that they then decided to theme as a coastal fort because they liked the way ours was looking, so we changed a lot of assets around for that and that was really cool.

WZ – Mike: Can we talk about the weapons in the game? What’s the ballpark of what’s going to be in the game, because I know some games you wish there were a lot more, but other games it’s like, “they’re just bombarding me with the same thing over and over again.”

Schmitt: I’m not sure the exact number, but I think it’s around 39 weapons total, likely even 40. But when you play multiplayer, it’s split between sides, so the Insurgents have a list of weapons that are sort of paired to the Spec Ops list of weapons, but there’s no correlation. If you’re [Nicole] playing as Spec Ops and he’s [Mike] playing as Insurgents, and you kill him, you can take his weapon and use it, but it won’t be available in your inventory as a Spec Ops player. So we have all those weapons.

It was hard to pick up, you see that little yellow bar underneath the weapon there? That’s the weapon experience bar. So each hit, headshot, and kill you get, they’re valued at different points. Those add up to that experience on that weapon and what that does is it starts to unlock mods. Everyone starts at Mod 0 and then you go to Mod 1, which may add better optics or an extended magazine or a suppressor. Each weapon, each of the 39 weapons has five stages. That goes up to Mod 5 attachment process that you can add onto it. And none of those attachments, they don’t dampen the weapon’s ability. But they also don’t make it into an uber weapon. There’s nothing that’s like this super bullet or giant missile gun. So what we’re doing is basically giving you as a player more tools to improve your skill as a player, because SOCOM’s always been a thinking man’s shooter, so we’re carrying that whole idea it into that. There’s no big ultimate weapon. We’ll give you better optics, we’ll give you a suppressor, we’ll give you a fore grip. You use it, you still have to use it to your effect. We’re giving you everything you need to do that.

Nicole Kline, Warp Zoned Senior Editor: Are you going to have classes?

Schmitt: No, there’s no classes. But the Mod paths are designed to enhance the skill, in the same sense when you start going down a tree in MAG. With the sniper rifle, you get your standard optics and Mod 1 might be an adjustable, variable level scope, and then a high level scope, then a suppressor, then a fore grip to stabilize it. So if you really want to be a sniper, you can hone that weapon and the power of that weapon by just keep using that weapon.

We went to GDC [this year], and some people are like, “I’m not sure I’m getting it…” and we’re like, “well, what role do you like playing?” The one girl was like, “I really like sniping!” So I explain the system to her, and one of the things we do to promote teamwork and promote that role aspect is, if you guys are the same team, and you’re down in the thick of it, and she’s [Nicole] up there covering you [Mike], and I come in as an enemy and I start shooting you, and she kills me, she’s going to get extra points for protecting you, because you guys are on the same team and she’s essentially performing her role on the team as defending you. So we do that sort of buddy system to help you. You can sort of adapt your own role then we support you in that role.

WZ – Mike: I was wondering how much of this carried over from MAG, is it the same engine? I noticed the holographic sight I was using was a lot like the Valor sight in that game.

Schmmitt: Yeah, there’s some carry over there, we still try to give its own unique flavor to it all. The network code [from MAG], obviously that was awesome, we weren’t going to touch that! (laughing)

WZ – Mike: I know, right!

Schmitt: If It ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

WZ – Nicole: I love third person games, I liked that a lot here, when we played it earlier, I was like “this is fantastic!”

Schmitt: Yeah, we like showing the character because it all comes down to skill and strategy, too, and depending on what skin you use, you can see how your surrounding environment effects you.

WZ – Mike: So you said this was your first game at Zipper – what was it like coming in on an established franchise? Was it challenging? And also, were you a fan of SOCOM before?

Schmitt: Yeah, I was a fan of SOCOM before. But my first job was at LucasArts, working on Star Wars titles. And there’s another group of passionate fans that are very vocal. I was totally used to that aspect of the community. Coming here, I was like, “Oh, I really love these games;” I totally adapted perfectly, because I know how to handle that, get that feedback. We have a bunch of great community managers who take anything that really bubbles up and ship it to us, like, “okay, let’s go back to the design table, and see all these questions came up, let’s take a look at these and see how they effect the game.” So it wasn’t hard at all. I love our fans. It’s awesome, because it’s almost like free labor: we have all these people passionately playing the game, and these guys are playing it for 700 hours. I’m not making it for me, I’m making it for all you guys, so tell me what you like and what you don’t like, because I will be playing it all the time, but there’s a lot of people who will be playing a lot of the time, too.

WZ – Mike: So has the community inclusion made a big difference? I know in the last year you brought on Jeremy Dunham and Chris Roper and made a big thing with the Blog and the community…

Schmitt: I love those guys. Their interaction with the fans is awesome. Jeremy got sick the day we were supposed to fly out, so he couldn’t make it, and Chris, his wife is expecting, so they were both so bummed to miss it, because this is the first public unveiling. We had media and private events, but shows like PAX I love going to, because you get that engagement with the fans and those guys really love it, because they’re like “oh, hey, I know you from the boards,” and they can interact with them directly so much more than we can. So I know they were really bummed about missing it.

And even like E3, I was scheduled to be in the upper floor in the Sony booth, doing press interviews, and I was like, “I wanna be down there where the people are playing it, because that’s the people I want to talk to!” So we had to sit up there a lot and wait for press interviews, I’m like, “this is boring!” Because all the people are coming in and telling me that they like it, so I would make any excuse to go downstairs and talk to those guys about the game. But at that time, I couldn’t say anything about multiplayer, the only thing I could confirm is: there are no vehicles, and it’s up to 32 [players]. So people were like, “what do you do?” And I’m like, “um, I’m a multiplayer designer…” “TELL ME ABOUT IT!” “I would totally love to, but I can’t!” I was chomping at the bit to just… blaah!! So I’m glad I can finally talk about it.

So yeah, Bomb Squad we revealed [at] GDC [this year], one of our producers at Sony really loves that game type. So when we showed him it, we’re like, “okay, we’re ready to unveil everything to the public,” he’s like, “no, hold on to that, we’ll unveil that separately,” and we’re like, “why?” And he’s like, “because I love that mode! It’s gonna be its own event!”

WZ – Mike: I saw that on the PlayStation Blog, it was its own post, just Bomb Squad! (laughing)

Schmitt: So I was like, “I guess that’s good! But I wanna talk about it!” So that whole event [at GDC] was the unveil of Bomb Squad. It’s good that we have that support of executive management up there.

WZ – Mike: I know you brought in new game mechanics for this one, like taking cover now. Have any of those inclusions, as a fan and also as the designer, has that made the process harder to balance? Have you struggled to make it feel like the older SOCOM games? What has that experience been like?

Schmitt: So as a designer, I like the mechanic, it’s a really good mechanic and we‘re trying to keep it similar across all modes. We didn’t want to produce something that felt different form one experience to the next, so it still has that feel to it. And the cover mechanic, we had two guys almost dedicated to that entirely, just to figure out how the player feels, go into it and popping out, is it too fast or too slow, can I peek out the side… So all that stuff, we had people on it the whole time.

WZ – Nicole: It’s great, it’s really fluid, I really enjoyed it.

Schmitt: Yeah, so I think it’s good. There’s no lean in this SOCOM, which a lot of people have been commenting on. But I think once they get their hands on [it, they’ll like it].

Actually in the community day, this is one of the things people were worried about. And do you guys know about the classic modes? We have three queue, we have those four game modes in the standard queue, with some mix and match of smaller maps and larger maps. And then we have the classic mode, which is more classic SOCOM rules. So it’s those four game types with no respawn, no health regen. That originally included no cover as well. But on the community day, they were like, “you know what, I think this mode, this classic mode, would work really well with cover. Now that we have our hands on it, it feels okay.” So we actually made that switch to then include cover. Because we didn’t know how they would respond and they were like, “you know what, throw it in.”

Another thing about events like this is it’s changing people’s attitudes. I think a lot of people were skeptical and I’ve heard pretty much 99.99% positive things coming out of the booth. Which is validating to us, but also, I think when they go back and go on the board and evangelize it, they say, “you know what, I tried it and it’s awesome.” So it’s really getting more people exposed and get their feelings out there, I think the communiy‘s starting to warm up to it, people are excited about the beta, they’re like, “I’ll wait, I’ll try it,” but I think everybody’s going to love it once they get a chance to start playing it.

WZ – Nicole: The first multiplayer game i really got into was Uncharted 2, and this feels really, really good, coming from someone who loves the third person multiplayer.

WZ – Mike: She was doing good, she even got the air strike earlier!

Schmitt: Nice! And like I said, you can develop your own role, define what you like to do. Another guy at the GDC event, he was like, “I like heavy weapons and defending!” And I’m like, “alright, go to the armory, choose this, they’re all going to be coming to defuse this bomb, so sit here…” and he got 5 kills in 15 seconds! He was like, “alright, I can get into this!” You know, defining his own role.

WZ – Mike: With the air strikes, are there going to be other killstreaks other than that, is it dependent on points or kills?

Schmitt: It depends on what game type you’re playing. With Suppression [TDM], when you get five kills, you get a killstreak, you get an air strike. With Bomb Squad, there’s two ways to get it, one for each side of the team. If you’re attacking the Bomb Technician, if you kill the bomb technician, you get an air strike. So one of the things we’re doing to promote teamwork, again, is, say you’re the bomb technician [Nicole] and you’re on his team [Mike], if you’re in his radius, you get a defensive buff for being near him. Because, again, you’re playing your position as defending him, to get to the objective, to win the game. If you get three kills in that radius, you get an air strike, too. So we’re rewarding you for defending him. As the Bomb Technician, you get an auto shotgun and a multiple grenade launcher. So you get those awesome weapons, get a lot of kills, she gets points and rewarded for protecting you. And then Last Defense is like a multi-stage game type. It starts with three neutral points on the map, so when one team controls all three of those neutral points, they lock out and that exposes the enemy’s base, so then you rush in to plant a beacon and call in an air strike. And so you’re focused on these three objectives and it changes and everybody’s like, “okay, gotta run to these two points!” So those three points in the middle, if you take one of those for your team, you get rewarded an air strike. And, again, to promote the buddy system, say you’re taking that point, if he’s got your back and is killing people as they’re coming in, he gets points for protecting you, because you’re doing your job, and he’s protecting you. Then once you own it, you guys just stay there and get more kills, you’re defending that area, so you’re also doing your roles, we give you more points for that, too.

WZ – Nicole: I like that map we were playing, that was in a junkyard or something? I think the crane has those treaded tires and you can shoot guys between those, I was blown away.

Schmitt: That’s probably one of the most difficult things, because they build stuff so accurately, we’re like, “you know what, we gotta make sure where the collision is, so you can get in between that.” And I would send back anything that you couldn’t shoot through, like, “no, you gotta fix this collision,” because people are gonna do that, they’re gonna wait right there and they’re gonna wait for that guy’s head, and pop, you gotta make sure that that has collision through it.

WZ – Nicole: So now that you can talk about everything, what’s your favorite thing to tell people about?

Schmitt: Everything I just said, just repeat that! (laughing)

I think we offer a different experience in the shooter market, and I’m really proud to present that to the gamers out there.

WZ – Nicole: this is definitely unique, i like it, i liked it a lot. Do you want to ask anything else?

WZ – Mike: No, I think that’s it.

WZ – Nicole: He’s like, so ready to play!

WZ – Mike: Yeah, I wanna hop in line again!!!

Schmitt: Go ahead, get in line man!

WZ – Nicole: Thank you so much!

Schmitt: Thank you!

WZ – Mike: Thanks a lot, man, we appreciate it.

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