CGSociety :: Game Production Focus

18 January 2012, by Peter Rizkalla

Developers Epic Games and People Can Fly's Bulletstorm was released to very positive critical acclaim last year, which is often very hard for a brand new intellectual property these days. It was also very well received by the gaming community. The whole goal of developer People Can Fly was to create a shooter that broke the norm of the never-ending stream of 'realistic' military shooter games.

I got to talk with the Game Designer at People Can Fly [PCF], (also known as Epic Games – Poland) who also happens to have one of the coolest names a gamer could possibly have, Arcade Berg. Arcade starts off by explaining what he wants players to take away from the game, “We want players to remember Bulletstorm as greatly insane adventure.” He goes on to say. “Even though it sounds like a cliché, we designed the game to play out like a rollercoaster ride with ups and downs and awesome surprises that can happen at any time. We want the player to always stay in the moment, to be fully absorbed whilst enjoying an experience that’s crazy yet conceivable. The game is meant to feel visceral, which is partly why it’s an First Person Shooter (FPS). You’re a space pirate in this pulpy sci-fi adventure, surviving in a world with many extremes.”


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I went straight towards the visuals first. I wanted to know what tools were used to flesh out the graphics of Bulletstorm. “Our studio uses a range of content creation tools,” says Arcade. “We have artists working in Maya, 3ds Max, modo, ZBrush and many other smaller programs. The result is the most important thing around here, and the software is just one way to achieve our creative vision. In PCF’s character team department, our Maya, Max and modo users all work together without any problems. If we need to exchange data there are many file formats we can use to communicate across software. ZBrush can be a great way to start models using sketching tools, Zspheres and by simply moving older base meshes around, scaling limbs, rotating joints. This is best for organic stuff.”




The characters in Bulletstorm are no doubt flamboyantly designed so I was interested to find out how they were pieced together. “The way a character is conceived varies depending on the artist. We have different internal workflows; some build a base mesh entirely in their 3D package of choice using existing concept art as a guide, while others jump between ZBrush and 3D software using GoZ to build the base.” Staying true to Epic’s masculine-hero image, Bulletstorm’s main character Grayson Hunt looks very Gears-ish but is completely an independent character in his own right and coming up with his design did not come without its challenges. “Designing the main characters of any game is never easy. There are so many games already available and so many different heroes known to the public, so with a new IP like Bulletstorm we had to think smart and be very creative in terms of character aesthetics, their personality profiles, how they react in certain situations, what’s motivating them to achieve their goals and so on. We had many, many, many iterations of the characters. A number of concepts were carried out just to prove bad ideas. We spent a lot of time drawing, sketching and writing content that isn’t close to what we have today, and overall, it really helped achieve the final result. You have to sell the personality with the looks, of course. Just look at Gray. His hair is rugged and unkempt, just like his character. He’s not only unreliable, but a complete mess. He’s the antithesis of the stereotypical bald space marine.”


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Arcade also talks a little about the design of a few other characters in Bulletstorm such as the main bad guy Sarrano and he-woman protagonist Trishka Novak. “Sarrano is somewhat of a totalitarian, with his dark clothes adorned with red insignias. That’s what you’d expect from a totalitarian, after all. We wanted to show that he isn’t a pencil pusher. He looks tough and can hold his own on the battlefield. Trishka is a born fighter. Sure, women can have a hard time amongst the male military but she can hold her own. When the guys crack jokes, she pushes back even harder. She’s a badass but still daddy’s little girl, which is denoted by the small icon on her shirt. She’s not trying to be a man. She’s totally cool with being a woman and having feminine perks. She just wants to be the best. It’s not about the gender.”


Alright, let’s talk about the feel of the bad guys! “We want you to go through a range of emotions when destroying Bulletstorm’s baddies,” says Arcade. “Some are pretty basic ones, but still. We want you to feel rage after the Skulls kill members of your team. Then, we want you to feel good when you exact revenge on them in the most brutal way imaginable. We do not want you to feel remorse. That’s why every enemy is a real absolute bastard. You’re killing really bad dudes. There’s no grey area in this. Pun not intended. In combat there’s first anger and then satisfaction from the kill. Sometimes, we even try to stir up some fear. It’s the normal stuff, really. We worked to really crank up the intimate feel. This is a Space Pirate Story and we want excitement! As a hero, we want you to feel like a real badass.”

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“There was one more goal to achieve in our game,” says Arcade. “We wanted to sustain the graphical excellence of Epic but we didn’t want our game to look like Gears of War.” That, in itself, is a lot to ask. Epic is synonymous with Gears of War and it’s a big challenge to create a game like Bulletstorm while still differentiating it from the Gears series. The key to making Bulletstorm fabulous in it’s own right was creating a world with colors and aspects very much different to than anything found in Gears. “The first things that we agreed on were some color palettes,” Arcade explains. “We wanted saturated and vibrant environments but mostly 'dirty' colors. A dangerous sci-fi world need not be desaturated but also can't feel like a children’s cartoon with cheerfully clean hues. That was our main and obvious rule, which corresponded really well to a story that’s believable but not hyper-realistic. The story is akin to the pulp comic book style, so we decided to use post-processing to enhance the visuals with an atmospheric and moody climate and to make the colors vibrant. We also carefully used bloom and depth of field to make Bulletstorm’s visuals more interesting but not to the point of fantasy, as you’d think of it in the traditional sense. Large is good, huge is better. Gigantic, futuristic structures as well as huge outdoor and indoor levels that stray away from earlier games’ medium-sized arenas divided by tight corridors or other visibility blockers are desirable.”


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The all-around design of Bulletstorm attributed greatly to how the gameplay panned out. How the player would be immersed into the game determined big things like whether the game would be in first-person or third-person. “Third-person can be immersive but you’re still admiring someone else’s actions onscreen, and that guy is not necessarily you,” says Arcade “It can be tough in first person as well, because it’s like ‘Hey, you’re this guy! But look, he has a name and a personality,’ so at times it can become a bit schizophrenic. A lot of developers encounter this problem. But nonetheless, FPS does bring you one step closer to being there, being the character, doing the moves. We saw during play tests that in first-person people physically move in their chairs when trying to dodge bullets in-game. They’re leaning to look around cover and so forth. This doesn’t happen nearly as much when playing in third-person view. This tells us that players are one step further into immersion with first-person. First-person is also much more ‘in your face!’ visceral. Finally, since our game is about Skillshots and precise aiming, the controls are very important and it’s considered easier to aim in first-person.”


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What Might Have Been

I always love to ask developers about the ideas that didn’t go through and I was happy to hear from Arcade that a lot of interesting revisions to Bulletstorm took place before the final game came through. “The Bulletstorm today is nothing like it was a long time ago,” he says. “As examples, Ishi was black, his name was Kei, and Bulletstorm began in third person perspective. Early on, Bulletstorm wasn’t a bad game at all. It was a little too strange, though. It took place in an ironworks, plus the setting was sci-fi, which added another layer of weirdness to it. All in all, it became too alien. Not many people have been in an ironworks; people don’t know what these facilities look like. Adding a layer of sci-fi added more unfamiliarity. It was hard to make it immersive because you didn’t understand the surrounding or the characters. So, we basically did a reboot and found the ‘true Bulletstorm’ back in early 2008. That was definitely the biggest thing that happened during development.” To be honest, I would have loved to see a black Ishi but I understand the reason for making him Asian as to stay away from over-similarity to Gears of War’s Cole Train character.


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Playing through Bulletstorm gives one the impression that this was a developer’s playground for the guys and gals at People Can Fly. The fantastic art and Skillshot saturated gameplay gives players a sense of freedom and emotionally satisfying gaming experiences. Not to mention a barge-load of hilarious dialogue and kills. Bulletstorm is a 2012 must play for anyone with either an Xbox 360, a PS3 or a PC.