For Honor, the swordfighting fantasy game coming early next year from Ubisoft, has a learning curve. It’s a unique title that requires you to master both analog and digital controls on a game controller, as I discovered while playing a preview of the title, where you get to be a samurai, viking, or medieval knight.
Jason Vandenberghe, creative director at Ubisoft Montreal and game director of For Honor, designed the game from the ground up, as if you were learning to play a first-person shooter for the first time. Except this third-person sword-wielding game will throw you for a loop first as you have to get used to the sense of timing and unique analog controls for blocking or swinging.
I attended a Ubisoft event where I was able to play the parts of For Honor that Ubisoft is showing off at the Gamescom event this week in Germany. I was able to play multiple rounds of four-on-four multiplayer combat. After that, I interviewed Vandenberghe in a one-on-one conversation.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You getting a lot of chuckles watching people play?
Jason Vandenberghe: I love watching people play. It’s the best thing ever, man. It’s so cool. I love watching the learning curve develop. I love to see people get into the mechanic and get better and better.
GamesBeat: I’m not sure I went up too much of that curve.
Vandenberghe: Well, it’s a long road, right?
GamesBeat: I had fun killing the little minion guys. But it’s a very high level of skill that you have to have to get better.
Vandenberghe: It depends on the player. The goal was definitely to create a game that was ready for anyone with a swordfighting fantasy. One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s so new, as a concept. The way that the Art of Battle fighting system works is so new. I’ve had a lot of people who are long-time gamers try the system out, and initially they’re very disoriented. They get frustrated. It’s partially because it’s been a long time since gamers have encountered a wholly new system.
GamesBeat: It’s like learning Halo controls for the first time.
Vandenberghe: That’s exactly the metaphor. The first time we got first-person shooter controls on a game pad, it was this weird “whoa, how does this work” moment. We’ve forgotten that we used to go through that all the time. Now, a lot of these game forms have been established. But we’re a new form. The style of fighting we have in For Honor is all about creating these emotions of the battlefield — putting you in control of the weapon but in an accessible way.
We find that sometimes people pick it up and they don’t get it. But what’s really happening is that’s just what learning feels like. Pretty much anybody can learn it. We’ve spent a lot of time and energy focusing on that on-ramp, on the tutorial and the learning curve, figuring out what ideas people need to have. Sometimes it takes longer. But the base skill in For Honor is available to anybody with a swordfighting fantasy, I hope.
GamesBeat: One thing I wondered: How hard was it to come up with that basic control? Up-left-right seems very simple with a stick, but the stick is analog. You seem to have to move it at the right time, too. The animation doesn’t allow you to do it super-fast.
Vandenberghe: Each stance change has a specific timing that we give it. You have to anticipate what your enemy is doing.
GamesBeat: I started getting a bit more skillful when I just sat back and practiced doing left-up-right.
Vandenberghe: Right, just getting the feel for it. We have the story campaign, and we have modes for people to practice. All of the modes are available for people to play against bots. Giving people the opportunity to play it in a safer environment is crucial for having the opportunity to get good at it.
Vandenberghe: That’s the variety in there. We want to be sure that everyone has a character they really like, that suits their style of play and personality. We have our three factions. We have the knights, the Vikings, and the samurai. They all have very different spirit, very different approaches. Each hero has a different weapon and armor and animation set. It plays different enough that we hope you’ll find a favorite in there.
That mastery just comes over time. The more you play, the more you start to internalize — oh, this one is faster. This one I need to hit a bit harder. We wanted to be sure we were making a game where you would never need to break open the rule book. You’d never need to go and research. You could just play and get a feel for it, learn it kinesthetically and intrinsically. I think we’ve done that. We’ll see. It’s always a challenge. We’re constantly doing focus tests and play tests to see if we’re meeting our goals. That first hour, the on-ramp experience, is crucial.
GamesBeat: It seems like the voice chat is critical as well for getting organized and strategized.
Vandenberghe: It’s crucial for Dominion. We wanted to make sure we had a game — and I think we have this — where you could have the best fighter on your team, but if you don’t communicate you won’t win. The better-organized team is going to win, generally. Having great fighters is key. It can really help. But if you’re not working together, strategy is going to beat skill in Dominion.
But when we’re talking about 1v1, in a duel mode, it’s the other way. If you just want to focus on skill, we have that mode as well.
GamesBeat: The norm with online games, though — it seems like people aren’t talking much. Call of Duty or even Overwatch — Overwatch benefits from a lot of communication, but I don’t see it happening. I play a lot of it, but very rarely does somebody come on voice and start chattering. How do you hope to get people to get over that?
Vandenberghe: In game design I generally don’t believe in trying to change people. I believe in creating systems that help people have a good time regardless of who they are. The best example — if the game is telling you what’s going on, on a regular basis, if it’s clear about what’s happening in the moment, then it requires less constant coordination.
A good example — very simple tools can sometimes be enough. The quick chat is a way for you to quickly say, “Here!” One of the best examples of a communication tool that’s dirt-simple but does a huge amount is the ping in League of Legends, the map ping. “Over here!” When you’re playing that kind of game, that’s enough to do a lot of your baseline organizing. At least it’ll give you a big leg up.
For people who want to talk and communicate and chat with each other, there are already systems like that. We have voice chat. People will organize and do their own communication. We have that in the game. We focus on giving players who are more shy or who don’t want to take the risk of being attacked for sharing an opinion — we give them a way to express themselves in a way that’s safer.
When you activate a feat, the character does a sound and a call that’s identifiable. The rest of your team knows what’s happening. It’s about making a game that’s dynamic enough that what you’re doing happens in the audio already. You don’t have to compensate for a lack of information. That’s the heart of what we’re trying to do.
GamesBeat: What are some good uses of the environment that you’ve seen? I was getting pushed off ledges.
Vandenberghe: It definitely happens. The ledges are there for that. We find that one of the main ways the environment is useful is to help counter being outnumbered. When you have a pack of three people coming at you, finding a doorway or fighting against a wall or using a narrow space to defend yourself — they’ll get stacked up, and there’s friendly fire. If you play defensively in a doorway, you can hold that space for a long time. That’s a big one.
The other one is using it as a counter to a better player. If you’re fighting against a better duelist, you can get in there and get hold of them and throw them off a cliff. That solves the problem. It’s a constant challenge.
GamesBeat: Did you ever experiment with archers? I wonder if they were ever considered.
Vandenberghe: Never, never, from the beginning. I’m super aware of what happens when you take a melee battlefield and put player archers into the field. It just becomes about shooting people in the neck. I wanted the duels to end with satisfaction as often as possible. There are few things more frustrating than fighting someone, being on the verge of winning, and then being shot by someone who wasn’t even there. That’s no good. Never wanted that in this game.
GamesBeat: I can imagine some things, like throwing stars, or knives….
Vandenberghe: We have that. The Orochi character has a kunai, a throwing effect.
GamesBeat: There are the little bombs, too.
Vandenberghe: Yeah, the bombs. The Viking has an axe. The feat system provides — if the guy’s running away and he’s at 10 percent health, you can finish him off. Whoosh, boom. We have that bit. But it’s not free. It takes a while to come back. You have to recharge. We limit how much ranged stuff you can do, because it’s really not in the spirit of the game. But it’s an excellent punishment for someone who’s running.
Vandenberghe: Oh, God, yes. We’ve been playtesting since day one, literally, which is great. It’s gone through a huge amount of changes. We’ve done a bunch of experiments with the stance system, the control layout, different types of powers, how the fighting system works, ranges. We were charting new territory. We didn’t have examples to follow, because there’s no other game that uses this kind of system.
There was a time where we experimented with four stances for a while. We had a low stance. We had more stances or less. Sometimes we had top right and top left. We experimented with a bunch of stuff like that. Different combos, different meters. The system you see now is a result of a bunch of evolution and testing, both with ourselves on the team and with people outside the team, to find out what works.
GamesBeat: Were the basics of the triggers and the sticks set early on? I wondered if you ever considered using buttons for some of those, like stance changes.
Vandenberghe: There were experiments around that, but to me that was actually the basic idea, the core idea. The core idea happened about 13 years ago. I took a course in German longsword, in this fighting style. I started thinking about how you could apply that style to a controller.
Putting the sword on the right stick with the stances, and having the attacks be here — those are shooter controls, right? You’re holding it like a shooter. That right stick has a physicality to it, a weight to it that buttons don’t. If you’re changing your stance digitally, it’s not as immersive. It doesn’t have the same feeling of direct control as it does with the stick. I love the weight of the right stick as a guide. My brain can tell me that it feels like a sword. That’s part of why it’s immersive.
GamesBeat: Have you also thought about how this cries out for a VR demo?
Vandenberghe: VR is a whole ‘nother thing. I get asked this question a lot, of course. We’re doing a lot of new stuff already. It’s already a big deal. The other piece of it is that it’s not clear to me that this melee fantasy, the way that we’re doing it in third-person, can be done comfortably in VR. When we were starting up the project, VR was much less certain than it is today.
I would love to come back to that topic down the road. Clearly there’s interest. But I want to be sure that we do the right thing for the core game.
GamesBeat: VR controls don’t always seem ready yet, as well, for exactly what people would want to do.
Vandenberghe: For me it’s missing the feeling of the hit. If there was a technology that stopped your hand, then yeah, I’d be in. Sign me up. But right now it’s just a swing and a miss. I think it would be weird. I’m super excited to see what happens with VR in the future, but I’m not focused on it right now.
GamesBeat: Anything else coming to mind as you’re about to ship?
Vandenberghe: I’m just excited to be showing all the multiplayer modes. Finally being able to offer a duel mode and all the heroes. Our story mode is well under way. We have more alpha and beta beats coming up. I’m looking forward to that.