One of the best-kept secrets in video gaming was revealed during the Xbox One press event before the E3 game expo in Los Angeles last June. Titanfall had been in development for over two and a half years at that point, but barely a whisper had leaked out of debutante studio Respawn, founded by some of the top minds behind the Call of Duty franchise.
It's a staggeringly large project for a relatively small studio making their first game. Titanfall is a story-driven online shooter, with each mission introduced by the kind of fully voiced and animated cinematic scenes that we are used to only seeing in single-player games. The action itself is something radically different as well, pitting ground troops against gigantic robots in an asymmetric but still remarkably balanced mixture of scales.
Titanfall was very well received at both E3, and a few months later in Cologne at Gamescom, where the gaming press got their first hands-on time with it. It snapped up a host of "best in show" awards at both events.
There should be no surprise then, that last week's closed beta event - intended to stress test the multiplayer servers and check the gameplay balance - attracted two million players on PC and Xbox One. The beta event has also attracted glowing praise from across the gaming press, so when the game launches in just two weeks it is expected to be a huge success.
Late last year I spoke to Abbie Heppe, community manager for Titanfall. She has what many would consider to be a dream job: playing hours of Titanfall every week, giving feedback to the development team, and going out into the world and telling everyone else about it. When I spoke to her she was clearly still enthusiastic, despite being worn out by a long day of interviews.
"I've been on the project more than two and a half years now," she told me. "I remember when it wasn't Titanfall!"
I asked her about the origins of the project, and how such an unusual idea took shape. "If you talk to anyone on the team about their inspirations, it's different for everyone," she said. "Different for the animation team, different for the art team, different for design. Everybody had their own things that all converged and created Titanfall."
"I think there was always the idea of cat-and-mouse gameplay, because that's really compelling in the first person shooter world," she recalled. "It evolved in weird little steps from there. There was a point where there were no titans, but there was exoskeleton military armour, then one day one of the artist was looking at the scale diagram, and he put an even smaller figure next to it, and that was when the lightbulb went off."
Titanfall is remarkable in that the small infantry (dubbed pilots) and the lumbering titans are not two distinct forces who only fight amongst themselves; players will begin the match with their pilots on foot, and will have the opportunity to climb into a titan if they choose. Even more remarkable, while titans will fight titans and pilots will fight pilots, pilots also have powerful anti-titan weaponry that they can use to take down enemy machines in a tense game of hide and seek.
Pilots are assisted in this uneven fight by their superior mobility. They are equipped with jetpacks that allow them to travel quickly and nimbly, run along walls, jump in and out of windows, and more. While a player in a huge, slow titan will usually be able to kill an enemy pilot with a single shot, she will have to hit him first, and the pilots can be very tricky targets.
"The pilot movement came out of all the experimentation that the designers were doing with how to make movement fun and how to counteract the scale of the titans with something that's fast and nimble," Heppe explained. It works well, too; in my time playing in the beta, I think I destroyed more titans as a pilot using anti-armour weapons than I did from within my own titan.
"It's such a collaboration between departments," she continued. "I mean, there's code working with animation working with design, and it's come out so well. It had to work well, feel good, feel fluid, and it's easy enough to just pick up the controller and start doing it."
Heppe explained that making the pilots and titans play well together and feel fair was a major design challenge. "It takes a lot of balancing to get it just right," she said. "We spend a lot of time in the office playing, and it really takes the feedback of the whole team to get that balance straight. Sometimes we don't all agree, one person thinking something's over-powered and someone else thinking it was fine, and it's really up to the designers to assess all of the feedback and incorporate it into their work."
Balancing the mixed scales hasn't been the only challenge, either. Getting the pacing perfect has also been a big concern for the design team, according to Heppe. "There's a challenge for animation, because you want, like, getting into the titan - you get picked up, or you slide between the legs, or you get grabbed out of the air - to be both fast and cool. You don't want it to get boring and repetitive, but you also don't want it to ruin the flow of the game; if it takes too long, people will complain."
Incorporating story elements into online multiplayer matches was also difficult to get right. "You don't want to feel like you're being nagged while you're playing," Heppe said, "but you don't want to feel like you're missing story elements. It's been a really big challenge, and I'm really happy with where the team has taken it."
Those who just want to play quick matches and would prefer not to bother with a story-driven campaign will be happy to know that they too are being catered to, with multiple game modes available at launch. "We have traditional modes for those who just want to jump into their favourite game type and play that," Heppe said. "There's also a multiplayer campaign that has an overarching story feeding into it, that teaches you all about what the world of Titanfall is."
"It takes place on what we've called The Frontier, which is a bunch of planets on the edge of the known universe that's been settled and colonised. It's not overly populated, though it does have some cities. The futuristic, science fiction aspects allow us to do a lot of things, and one of them was to make these really neat environments aren't earth. It allows us to have a lot of variety."
Even the individual battles have their own little narratives. Rather than being a simple race to a certain score, every fight takes place in multiple stages. In the beta, the losing team would have an opportunity to escape from the battlefield by running to a drop ship, all while the winning team attempted to pick them off as they fled. "It's a way to reward players," Heppe said. "Even if you lose the match, you still have either an extended life or you can get a lot more points. It's just a sort of bonus, a nice way to wrap up the level."
Another big challenge resulting from the mix of scales is level design. "We had to accommodate titans and pilots, so it was like building this huge map with these smaller maps within it - like a Battlefield map with a Counterstrike map inside it. It's a huge undertaking, and it hasn't been easy because of all the elements that have been added into the game."
I asked Heppe if the team at Respawn had ever been tempted to add destructible terrain into the game, considering the destructive potential of the titans, and she nodded. "It was absolutely a temptation, something we had to think about, but then you get into the consideration of the pilots, and it's so necessary for them to have cover and escape routes. Is destructible terrain a great idea? Yeah! Does it work for Titanfall? No."
With everything that's going into this game, I was somewhat shocked when Heppe told me how small the team is at Respawn. "There's not a lot of us. We're actually rather small in the scale of things. With QA we'd be in the 80s. We like to keep it small."
"The founders of the studio were the heads of Infinity Ward, who made Call of Duty, and somewhere between 35 and 40 people on the team are from Infinity Ward. We have developers who worked on God of War, League of Legends, and more."
With that kind of pedigree on the team, the choice of such a difficult project for a debut game starts to make more sense. Infinity Ward, it could be argued, invented the online shooter as we know it today. Their Call of Duty franchise, in particular the Modern Warfare entries, set the industry standard for how multiplayer shooters should work, with smooth framerates and fast, fun gunplay.
Heppe has a simpler explanation as to why they chose to make Titanfall. "We just wanted to make something fun. We say that all the time, but it's no joke; we wanted to make a game that we wanted to play, and we do, we play it all the time, and we love it. We hope gamers will feel the same way."
Titanfall goes on sale in Australia on 13 March, for Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Windows PC.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
Screen Play is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez