Working with Outside IP, Part 2

Working with Outside IP, Part 2

In October 2010, Georgia-based Hi-Rez Studios purchased the Tribes franchise from InstantAction. This article is the second in a multipart series analyzing why the company made its decision and how it plans to incorporate this externally created game. Part I examined some of the reasons behind the acquisition. Part III, after The new Tribes game is released, will address how reality met intentions.

Buying something as involved as a video game IP that has gone through multiple owners, a variety of titles, and even more designers takes time and effort. Turning that acquisition into something worthwhile takes far more. Some IPs, like the Prince of Persia line, have held up well through multiple owners and developers. Others have suffered in the transition. There is no sure science to this, but there are steps a company can take to bolster its chances.

Part II: The Hows

1. Receive Fan Input

Having a built-in fan base was one of the reasons Hi-Rez Studios bought the Tribes line. However, such an asset cannot and should not be just purchased and forgotten. While a company may have invested a lot of money in purchasing an IP, fans have invested time, commitment and passion. They have played the game in ways its developers never imagined, and in many cases have designed their own mods, fanfic, and other creative endeavors built off of the original game. While the Hi-Rez developers have emphasized that they are making their own contribution to the Tribes IP, one of the first steps they took was to begin gathering comments from the existing Tribes community.

“I do read the forums and crawl the net after work, looking for suggestions,” said Sean McBride, lead character artist for The new Tribes game. “I’m always looking for that golden nugget.”

Some of those comments have already made their way into the team’s work. “We had some experiments that we tried based on external feedback,” said Mick Larkins, a programmer on the new Tribes game. “A lot of people are excited about the game. Some people are concerned, which is obviously understandable too. If you have a concern about the game, or really want to tell us something, we are listening.”

There is an old adage among game designers that what players say they want and what they really want are two different things. MMO creators are especially careful about this, since the complaints about nerfing a character class often stem from attempts to address player concerns about being over or underpowered. Designers learn to listen to what is at the heart of player concerns, and not just the immediate forum post. In the end, after all, it is the designers who take the blame for whatever goes wrong. “We’re not looking to the community to design the game,” Larkins said.

Fan input also comes via mechanisms other than forums and e-mails. Since there are no official Tribes servers operating, fan servers have kept the game alive. The Hi-Rez developers have played these, as well as many of the player-created mods. They have even dived into the code to make the game play the way they want it to.

“There are all kinds of people on line who have posted really amazing algorithms on how to recreate the (skiing) bug that was in Tribes 1 because Tribes 2, ‘did it completely wrong,’” Larkins said.

Still, the team makes it clear that just recreating an older version of Tribes is not their goal. “I’ve seen two different types of Tribes fans,” Larkins said. “There are the ones who want either Tribes 1 or 2 – usually it’s not Vengeance. They say, ‘Do it exactly like this. Don’t mess with the skiing. Don’t mess with the weapon loadout.’ Or you have the other group of Tribes’ fans who (feel that) a lot of the things that are unique to Tribes, like skiing or spinfusors or wide-open maps, those need to be there, but they’re more accepting of taking it to the next step.”

The team has said that while receiving fan input was their first step, it is one that will continue. “Once we reach the Alpha stage there will be a lot more formal mechanisms for input from our Alpha Tester community (surveys, focus groups, etc.),” said Stew Chisam, executive producer for The new Tribes game. “Until then, the forums are the best place for the community to interact, and we do read them frequently.”

2. Gain Familiarity

The second step the team took was to gain familiarity with all aspects of the Tribes franchise. This included installing all versions of Tribes, finding the old strategy guides, reading what had been written elsewhere, and trying them all in depth, both on line and in house.

“It’s very important that the developers understand all the nuances. Especially the first two Tribes, they had a lot of intricate gameplay, with the sensors, and sensor jamming, and the cloaking, and the generator. You don’t really get exposed to that until you get deeper into the game,” Larkins said. “Each of the previous Tribes games has strengths.”

“We’ve been picking apart the game,” McBride said. “We’re still picking it apart.”

3. Clarify Aims

With this feedback and analysis underway, exactly what the team wanted to do became clearer. “Our aim is that we take the spirit of Tribes 1, the depth of Tribes 2, the accessibility of Tribes Vengeance, and iterate on that,” Larkins said. “If you have to put us as a game we’re closest to at the moment in terms of our design, it’s definitely Tribes 2.” Aspects like moving via skis and ramps, level design that features wide-open early stage battles culminating in close-confine base assaults, and intelligent use of vehicles all play a part.

“The Tribes feeling just came from the actual gameplay,” McBride said. “We will have our own feeling, but the bread and butter of what made Tribes fun is still going to be there. My idea (of the Tribes feeling) was always the camaraderie of your team, and having the vehicle combat that wasn’t overpowering.”

McBride noted that the similarities to Tribes 2 did not stop at gameplay. “That’s what we’re looking to for inspiration and art,” he said, though he stressed that it would not be a duplicate. “(Some fans) wouldn’t be happy unless you made a pixel-perfect representation of what exactly existed, and that stuff is really, really campy looking.”

Clarifying what The new Tribes game would be also meant understanding what it would not be. “The important thing to realize is that we are NOT making Global Agenda 2. It’s not as if we said, ‘We are going to take Global Agenda and take it to the next step but, you know, we need to give it a Tribes name,’” Larkins said.

Like Tribes 1 and 2, The new Tribes game features player-versus-player gameplay, with little-to-no emphasis on player versus environment. “It’s important to realize that whereas Global Agenda was very broad and had a wide breadth of things to do, you could argue that it really didn’t go too deep into any one of the things. I think it’s still the best value in gaming … But what we really want to do with this title is to go deep and narrow. Nobody knows exactly where it’s going to end up, but we have directions, and those are very focused directions,” Larkins said.

“What we did from a technical standpoint was that we branched off from Global Agenda. There’s a lot of tech in there that can be used or tweaked or changed. It’s the Unreal Engine. It’s a very flexible platform. The very first thing we did was actually strip down GA and identified main concepts that we wanted to prove out. We took that stripped-down version and did performance testing. We spent a couple weeks or so just putting together these different combinations of things to see where our limits were. That helped fuel some of the big design questions that we wanted to tackle with this game.” This included searching for ways to allow for high-performance battles involving 100 or more participants.

4. Iterate

Hi-Rez Studios followed a scrum-style agile design methodology for Global Agenda, which meant that instead of starting with a formal design document detailing what the game would be like when finished, they regularly made new iterations of the game, kept what they thought worked, and changed or discarded those features that did not.

“Now that we’ve found the direction we want to take with (the new Tribes game), we’re implementing this more rigorous production schedule,” Larkins said. “We work in weekly sprints. We define what our goals are for that sprint for every department, and we work on that. Some things may change within the week, in which case we’ll have meetings to determine what the aims are.” The results are then presented to the rest of the team for testing.

The iteration process began almost immediately after acquiring the Tribes IP and continues to the present time. They began by incorporating much of the older Tribes assets and game play into their own engine. “When you start a new project you want to get something up and running so you can iterate on your design and start playtesting,” Larkins said.

According to executive producer Chisam, the Tribes IP lets the team do this more quickly than they could with their previous title. “I think the main difference is that we are able to move much faster on this project – a luxury afforded by the infrastructure and processes we developed while building Global Agenda, as well as assisted by the IP, which gives greater focus to exactly what we are building.”

5. Test

The various iterations of the new Tribes game do little good unless they are tested and analyzed, with the good parts kept and refined and the parts that did not work well discarded. The team began with only holding playtests when they had specific features they needed to review. In late November 2010, however, they began regular playtesting. Larkins categorizes this as transitioning from preproduction into production.

“We’ve always been really good at the studio with playtesting on a daily basis,” Larkins said. For (the new Tribes game), this means not only having the team working on it test constantly, but also bringing over their co-workers from the Global Agenda team.

“I always maintain that my toughest critics are my co-workers,” Larkins said. When you become a two-game studio, or multigame studio, there’s an objectivity that presents itself.”

As the new Tribes game goes through development, testing will become more public. With the help of the Georgia Game Developers Association, Hi-Rez Studios already established a playtest group involving students from game design programs at Atlanta colleges and universities.

The first public version of the new Tribes game, due out in early 2011, will be an alpha version focusing on technical issues.

“We’ll be able to be much more interactive and open with our Alpha Tester community than we are able to be to the general/public population, as the Alpha Community will be under non-disclosure agreement. There’s honestly a limit to how much detailed back and forth we can have with the community regarding specific design issues ahead of then,” Chisam said.

The Final Factor

Utilizing a preexisting IP automatically restrains some of a design team’s creativity, as aspects the team could usually sort through on its own come predefined. This is even more so when the IP was developed externally, as the creators invariably had their own hopes for ways their initial creation would grow – hopes the new team has no way of knowing.

On the other hand, the same IP can actually stimulate creativity when it becomes the foundation on which the new developers can build their own structures. Having worked on a number of licensed products (Street Fighter, Star Trek, Warhammer 40K, etc.), I’ve found that having such a base allows designers to focus on specific gameplay elements instead of spreading themselves too thin trying to create everything. This does not guarantee that those elements will be handled well, however, and many gamers point to various superhero titles and remakes of classic games  to illustrate how designers can fail with established IP.

A company takes a risk making a new version of an established line, no matter what their reasons or how careful they are along the way. “It would be a mistake to piss our fan base off,” Larkins noted.

Full Disclosure: While not a Hi-Rez Studio employee, author Andrew Greenberg is credited on Global Agenda as a writer.

About Andrew Greenberg
Andrew Greenberg, games designer, co-created the “Fading Suns” titles and was the original developer of White Wolf’s “Vampire: The Masquerade.” The co-founder of Holistic Design, he’s also director of the Southern Interactive Entertainment and Games Expo and is currently working on a new Tycoon game that will be announced in 2011.

5 Comments

  1. I think that a video game IP is a lot like a franchise. Its success depends partially on brand recognition, but without skilled management it will fold and be a waste of money. I work in game design and I’ve seen it happen many times.

  2. Guitar Hero and Rock Band seem to be the latest proofs of what you say, Bonnie

  3. Why would they try to copy Tribes 2 when Tribes 1 was the only successful game of the franchise?

  4. I’m pretty sure Tribes 2 though problematic was commecially successful. It at least spawned a sequel.

  5. Deaths Jester

    To say tribes 1 was better then tribes 2 is wrong. I have played both tribes 1,2 & tribes V both 1 and 2 where great games not so much Tribes V. But their are ppl out there that love tribes V.

    Those games are great classic games. I still have them too.
    Tribes 1,2 and V in as a whole are above the rest of other 1st person shooters in many was. I played all BF games dod cs so on and so and on. But I won’t becuase there not enough room 8P. Thats my 2 cents

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