When the original Titanfall debuted in 2014 on the Xbox One and Xbox 360, everything was a rush job. Respawn Entertainment had to hire its team, fight off an Activision lawsuit (for allegedly stealing all the talent at Infinity Ward), and create a first-person shooter game in a sci-fi setting.
But it all turned out great, as the game’s fast and fluid multiplayer was extremely addictive, with new features such as mech-like Titans that fall from the sky, as well as wall-running and vertical combat. And Titanfall generated $500 million in retail sales, a huge validation from fans for Chatsworth, Calif.-based Respawn and its publisher Electronic Arts.
Now, Titanfall 2 is poised to debut on October 28 on the Xbox One, Windows PC, and PlayStation 4. It will have both a single-player campaign and multiplayer, with a total of six Titans and new features in combat, such as stealing batteries from the Titans and turning them over to your own team. The single-player campaign follows the growth of a Grunt soldier named Jack Cooper and his ambition to become a Titan pilot during the war between the Frontier Militia and the Interstellar Manufacturing Corp. (IMC).
The veteran developers behind this title include Dusty Welch, chief operating officer at Respawn, and Drew McCoy, producer of Titanfall 2. We caught up with them at EA’s headquarters in Redwood City, Calif., this week. I played some of the single-player campaign, which started out gentle and ended in a frenzy. Then I interviewed them. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Tell us what you set out to do with Titanfall 2.
Dusty Welch: Some of the guys started out making Medal of Honor way back in the day. They moved on to make Call of Duty to take down Medal of Honor, which is kind of ironic. Then they move on and make Titanfall to, I guess, take down games like Call of Duty. The full circle would be to someday make Medal of Honor again, but here we are today.
The first Titanfall game was March of 2014. Basically a single platform at launch, Microsoft-exclusive, also on PC. Went on to do about half a billion dollars in sales. Highest-rated first-person shooter during that launch window and for a good year afterward. The audience loved it, and it was EA’s best-selling new IP in their history. That was encouraging.
For us, the first Titanfall was kind of a proof of concept, trying to innovate in the genre and come up with something new. “Something new” ended up predominantly in multiplayer, which was that fluidity of movement, the motion model that was built. You had the small thing — a pilot — and the large thing — a Titan — and how they interacted together, with the ability to get out at any time and interact with the environment. To be so mobile was unique. Most shooters are corridors and hallways, playing whack-a-mole.
GamesBeat: And now we have sci-fi and wall-running in Call of Duty.
Welch: There are attempts at it. [laughs] It’s great flattery, right? You innovate and people follow you along the way. It was a good proof of concept. Titanfall 2 is the next big leap for Respawn, making arguably the next big first-person shooter franchise. It took Call of Duty a lot of iterations to get where it is today. It’ll take Titanfall a couple to get there as well. But this is a great first step.
Multiplayer, first of all, is very balanced, honed, and refined in Titanfall 2. It’s repeatable and learnable. Drew likes to say that we can’t just say, “We did this and now multiplayer feels right,” the way Modern Warfare felt just right. It’s never one thing you do to get to that level. It’s the sum of so many parts.
From a Titan standpoint, there are now six new Titans versus the three in the original. We have more of a Street Fighter approach, if you will. They’re more class-based, for a reason. They appeal to a broader range of people with different types of play styles. That’s important for the variety and depth of gameplay.
A huge amount of customization has gone into the pilot, the Titan, and the weapons, which wasn’t there before. The progression and unlock curve is very deep compared to the first game. That was the big criticism of the first game. The first 10 minutes of Titanfall, people said it was the greatest game ever made, but there wasn’t a lot of depth after that. The concept was there, but now we have that great depth behind the multiplayer.
We have a real single-player campaign. It’s different. It’s not the traditional hallway shooter that we’ve been guilty of making throughout our careers.
GamesBeat: I was never the most skilled player. I remember, to get through the ladder, I defaulted to the one with the ball grenades, the arc grenades. You’d just lob them continuously, everywhere.
Drew McCoy: That was a big focus on the first game, trying to make a shooter for a wider variety of players. You don’t have to be the most amazing twitch player to have fun and find things to enjoy in it. That’s where stuff like the smart pistol came from. Grunts were there to serve lots of purposes, but one of them was to give more players an easier target.
GamesBeat: Is that back, the Triple Threat?
McCoy: It’s not. It was a bit of a crutch. But there are some more lenient weapons. There are a couple of things we’ve change and tweaked and made better.
For single-player specifically — we prototyped a single-player for the first game, after we prototyped the multiplayer game. The reason we didn’t do single-player — we looked at the time and the manpower we had and knew we couldn’t do both and meet our quality bar. So we focused all our attention on multiplayer for Titanfall.
For Titanfall 2, when we were starting development, we decided to go back and solve this problem and make an awesome Titanfall single-player game. It turned out to be a lot harder than we thought. You can’t graft the uniqueness of Titanfall onto a scripted, cinematic single-player game. Our lead single-player designer says “you can’t cage the bird.” In Titanfall the player is a bird. You can’t create a bunch of invisible walls and box them in.
We failed a whole bunch at the beginning, so we went back to the drawing board and what we know to be the most true north star of Respawn, which is gameplay first. We set out our designers, a week at a time, to figure out what makes single-player Titanfall fun. What can you do with it?
They made these things called “action blocks.” One week at a time, each designer made a bunch of them. We had 100 or 200 at the end of the process. Each was a little bite-sized piece of gameplay – a weapon idea, a mechanic, a level idea, an interaction with the Titan. The purpose of the exercise was to fail fast and succeed quickly. We made a lot of stuff that didn’t land. We also made a lot of stuff that really resonated. That’s our gut check. If we make something we like, there’s bound to be other people out there like us.
The thing that was striking, when we looked at a list of all the good ones, is the variety on display. It was immense. It wasn’t just shooting people with a Titan. It was traversing dangerous environments. It was solving puzzles. It was working with the Titan and doing interesting things you can’t do in other games.
The designers had this well of mechanics to pull from and string together into levels. Then we figured out a story to marry with those levels. The story focuses down, not up. This isn’t a story about a big galactic war and all the players on the board. It’s a story about one guy and his Titan.
GamesBeat: Who’s your main character?
Welch: You play the role of Jack Cooper, who starts as a grunt and eventually becomes a pilot. Lots of games have moved away from that. You’re the everyman soldier, a body in a much bigger war. This is a very personal story, which gives it a cool angle, a lot of emotional lean into the relationship between pilot and Titan.
As a result of all this stuff, we have a game you can’t just judge by a 10-minute segment that has the coolest explosions. The game builds. It has this ramp. We have so many mechanics and things to learn that we can’t throw you in the deep end. You have to start off and work your way through. The goal should be, if a new player is shown the last level, they’ll say, “There’s no way I could ever do that. It’s way too hard.” But in reality, because the game is crafted so carefully, by the time you get there you can do it. That’s proven to be a hard thing to demo. What you’ll play is a couple of different areas, and every so often I’ll pop you forward to another level with some new stuff. Each level, because of that action block process, has its own set of mechanics and things it’s introducing and iterating on for you to play with. It’s pretty unique.
The special thing about it, I think, is the way that it’s not special. Nothing is totally unique about Titanfall or Titanfall 2 except how well it’s all put together. You’ve seen double-jumping and wall-running and robots and AI in multiplayer, but you’ve never seen it the way it’s done in Titanfall. You’ve seen platforming and all these other things, but the magic is in how it’s all cooked together.
Welch: When you get done with the real single-player, call us back and let us know if you still need the crutch. [laughter] You won’t need it. The ramp will do this in the single-player, and then go crazy. Call of Duty is the same ramp all along. This is going to stay down lower, and then go crazy. You’ll learn how to be a much better player. Maybe you’ll never be the competitive guy, but you’ll be far more proficient in the mechanics of Titanfall after going through the single-player.
That’s important to us. We have a huge new PlayStation audience, and millions more people who bought an Xbox One after the launch window that didn’t get into the franchise. We needed to start somewhere, introducing mechanics of wall-running and movement, plus the weapons, plus how to work with the Titan. In single-player you’ll learn the six Titans that are in multiplayer. When you defeat each one, you get their weapon and ability and learn how to use it.
GamesBeat: There was a sort of single-player, a narrative story in the original game. It gave you a little bit of motivation to play the next round of multiplayer. I wonder how you approach story in this case, given that there’s maybe a growing appreciation for it among gamers nowadays. A lot of different approaches to storytelling are springing up.
Welch: We took the approach of “do, not show.” There are only a few places in the game where there’s a true cinematic sequence. It’s never just a video that’s playing. It’s always in-engine. Stuff happens around you. It’s more like a Half-Life than an Uncharted.
The story wasn’t actually the focus. The story is something we deal with very carefully, but it’s a means to an end, to be emotionally invested and have characters you care about. Some studios care about technology above all else. Some are storytellers, like Naughty Dog. Our bread and butter is gameplay. But with that said, knowing that — our game director chose this smaller story about Jack and his Titan, as opposed to trying to tell some big epic. That works in our favor. It’s a comprehensible story.
A problem I have with a lot of games — I can’t always finish them in one sitting. I have kids to take care of. I can’t ever just absorb it all in one go. I have to play for an hour, come back a week later, and try to keep the story together in my head. This story, you can follow it.
GamesBeat: Would you say the missions are less about a narrative, more about learning to do something?
Welch: It’s a story-driven game. There are reasons for everything that happens. It’s told in a linear way. It’s not like The Incredible Machine or something like that. But it’s a story you take part in, as opposed to just watching it happen in cutscenes.
McCoy: Science fiction is just a vehicle, but the setting is pretty timely. We see a renewed interest in sci-fi these days. Star Wars coming back doesn’t hurt. Elon Musk talking about going to live on Mars, talking about being in space. It’s a great time to be thinking about the future, where things are going. It’s a nice backdrop for Titanfall. But I love the personal story that’s told. People make a personal connection between themselves as the pilot and this Titan. Which sounds strange, but it’s like when you watch Terminator 2, Arnold bonding with the young John Connor. You find a similar relationship in the game.
GamesBeat: A boy and his dog.
Welch: Yep, a boy and his robot.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you can do these missions with, essentially, a buddy. The Titan is your sidekick. You do the pilot’s thing while sending the Titan off in another direction. Do a lot of the single-player missions call for that?
McCoy: What we found during development is that the game starts feeling pretty one-note if you’re doing the same type of thing over and over. There’s a lot of variety. That level you’re playing in the reclamation facility, with the toxic sludge and stuff, you separate and go do pilot stuff by yourself for a bit to clear a path and meet back up with BT. Then you do BT stuff again.
I was worried, when we started doing this, that people would say, “Why would I ever not be with my Titan? That’s all I want to do, right?” In reality, it’s two games in one. While you do the pilot stuff, you tend not to think “I wish I had my Titan,” because you’re so engaged with the pilot stuff. Then you get the Titan back and it’s like, “Oh, right, I have an awesome Titan, let’s go blow stuff up!” After a while we give you more pilot stuff to do and it feels great. It has this cool multi-level loop of stuff going on.
GamesBeat: There’s a fair amount of overwhelming time pressure there, where I wasn’t quite sure what was most effective. Do my rockets do more damage than the cannon? I was looking around for ways to hide and protect myself, too, and not finding much.
Welch: We warped you into that part at the end there, yeah. Over the progression of the game you would have picked up a new weapon and learned and experimented.
McCoy: You have the vortex, too, which throws it back. All the loadouts have their offensive and defensive abilities. Some of them are going to be better-suited to certain scenarios than others.
Welch: There may not always be a “right” choice. It’s what’s comfortable for you, what you’ve learned and mastered. You can use your defensive skill set, your offensive skill set, the environment you have to maneuver in, and overcome.
McCoy: A lot of our weapons and Titans are born in multiplayer. They’re crafted in an environment where we need to maintain balance. It’s not like anything is under- or over-powered.
GamesBeat: Are there some Titans that are more brawlers, more melee-focused?
McCoy: There’s Ronin, a loadout for BT where he has a sword and a shotgun. He’s all about getting in the enemy’s face, doing a lot of damage, and backing out, because he doesn’t have a lot of health. He’s pretty low on shields. It’s all a matter of play style. If you want to stay back we have North Star, a sniper who can fly.
GamesBeat: Are all of the Titans analogous to human player classes that way?
McCoy: I don’t know about analogs. The reason we went to more character-based Titans is so we could craft bespoke weapons and abilities that synergized with each other. A good example would be Scorch, the fire Titan. He’s slow and lumbering, has a lot of health, but he’s good at zoning and area denial. He can throw out a gas canister that spews out flammable gas and light it on fire with his other weapons. He’s doing concentrated damage and almost corralling the other Titans. It’s all about different play styles in the archetypes.
GamesBeat: What’s the progression in multiplayer like?
McCoy: There’s a lot more stuff to earn and unlock. We have six Titans, a whole bunch more weapons, more abilities. We have the tactical kits with the grapple and the cloak and all those other crazy things. One of our big goals was to give people more things to master. The first game, like you said, you ended up defaulting to one little corner of the arsenal. One thing we didn’t do well, we didn’t expose every part of the game so people could feel like they could learn and get really good at all of it. That’s been a huge focus.
GamesBeat: Do you think there are Titans and play styles that are more for experts as opposed to less skilled players?
McCoy: Absolutely. I really enjoy the sniper. It’s the glass cannon. It requires decent teamwork, because the other Titans can help protect you with the particle shield and other ways of keeping enemies off you. North Star is a higher risk, higher reward class in multiplayer. I’d expect new players to get absolutely waxed their first couple times out. There’s a learning curve.
GamesBeat: Call of Duty is coming out not long after you guys. It’s doing some of the same science-fiction stuff, jumping and wall-running and big robots. Would you still say it’s obviously very different?
McCoy: I feel like our brand of first-person shooter in a sci-fi world stands alone right now. I’m not looking at other games and thinking, “They do that so much better than we do. They’ve cracked a problem that we couldn’t.”
I’ve played the Infinite Warfare beta. I played the Battlefield beta a bit. I played the new Destiny expansion. I feel like all these games have their own worlds that they inhabit. We’re trying to appeal to players that have a different desire from their games, from their sessions. I feel like our game has its own identity.
GamesBeat: It’s very speedy, but at the same time it’s almost chess-like.
McCoy: That’s the great thing about the Titans. It’s two games in one. The pilots have that fast, fluid, high lethality, super competitive side of the game. The Titans are slower-paced. You can think more, create strategies. When you play a game mode like Last Titan Standing, with round-based elimination, you almost get a Counter-Strike vibe. It’s all about sight lines and map control and friendlies and where you’re going. It lights up a totally different part of your brain compared to playing as a pilot.
That’s one place I think Titanfall stands apart. There’s a lot in this game to appeal to a lot of different types of people. It’s mixed in such a cool way that you don’t ever feel like you’re getting the short end of the stick from one part of the game or another.
GamesBeat: The batteries seem very different from the last game.
McCoy: Yeah, the battery’s a whole new mechanic.
GamesBeat: You can jump on someone and pull out their battery.
McCoy: It works a little different between single-player and multiplayer. We fudge some things for the sake of fun. In single-player you can just run over a battery and pick it up as a Titan. In multiplayer you have to rodeo on the back of an enemy Titan, rip out the battery, clamber on to a friendly, and pop it in to give them some health and shields. That was one of those efforts to encourage teamwork.
GamesBeat: It seems like it gives you more of a reason to jump on somebody.
McCoy: Yeah, you’re rewarded with more than just doing damage. You can help out your teammates.
GamesBeat: How did you think about creating the different environments?
McCoy: We went through a pretty lengthy prototyping phase. At the outset, Steve said he wanted a postcard game. He didn’t want a bunch of destroyed future space cities. He wanted beautiful vistas, actual beauty in the world of Titanfall. That was the first direction.
Something we tried to do — especially in multiplayer, but it also applies to single-player — is create less visually noisy environments. That’s for gameplay’s sake. It’s harder to pick out enemies when there’s gack all over the walls. It’s hard to wall-run and all these other things. Without sacrificing fidelity, we wanted to reduce that noise. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. You can tell an artist, “Just don’t put so much stuff in the scene,” but they can’t stop themselves.
GamesBeat: Are there some multiplayer levels that feel more like arenas, as opposed to single-player maps?
McCoy: We try to create authentic environments. Some of the multiplayer maps share a location with single-player. It’s not as if we’ve taken geometry and copied it, but you’ll be like, “Oh, I remember this style of architecture. This must be in that same base.”
One thing we strived for — not just in environment design, but also in weapons and Titans and everything else — is that feeling of authenticity. Not realism, obviously. This isn’t real. But we want people to be able to suspend disbelief and immerse themselves. You feel like this all could be real in this world. It’s internally consistent and coherent.
GamesBeat: I was shocked to get killed by a grunt.
McCoy: Yeah, they were pretty harsh on you in Blood and Rust.
Welch: That’s one section where they’re particularly brutal. I don’t know why.
GamesBeat: Did you change them up with that in mind?
McCoy: Our AI got a huge amount of work for this game. In single-player we had to create a bunch of new AI types and routines and things for them to do, so they could cope with a player that’s so mobile and lethal. Also, with all the new Titans and things they can do, we had to create AI types that played to their strengths. The Ronin Titan, the brawler, his AI will try to get close to you and deal some damage, then pull back to get some cover. He’ll hunt for a battery and then come back.
The AI Titans in the first game were fairly rudimentary. When we shipped the game, they could only use the vortex shield. They couldn’t use any of the other off-hand abilities. Now they can use the full range of what’s available to them.
GamesBeat: When I watched a lot of top Black Ops III players, they were always rounding corners in flight. They’d jump up high and use the verticality to surprise somebody who isn’t looking up. That seemed to separate the stronger players from weaker ones. Is that something you see in your games as well? The people who master moving in the air are more successful?
McCoy: Absolutely. There’s a huge gulf of skill between players who stay on the ground versus the ones who can manipulate the environment. That’s one of the goals in single-player, to get people comfortable doing that. Not only are you more capable, but it’s more fun once you get comfortable with that. Just walking on the ground — it’s like when you’re a kid wearing water wings in the pool. It’s fun, but you’re not swimming yet. We want everyone to learn to swim.
GamesBeat: It’s like Spock’s line in Wrath of Khan about two-dimensional thinking.
McCoy: [laughs] Yeah, three-dimensional thinking is definitely a Titanfall thing. We’ve seen people who — it takes them a while. They’ll keep running on the ground. But then they start to see everyone around them running up the walls, and the lightbulb goes off. They can finally start playing Titanfall. There’s always that moment in focus tests. Right, there it is, now they’re playing Titanfall.
If you’re a new player, single-player is definitely a good starting place. It’s not going to make you an esports pro, but it’s a starting place. It gives you a foundation to build on.
GamesBeat: What was the development cycle like this time? You didn’t have to found a new company at the same time.
Welch: Or deal with a lawsuit.
McCoy: It was harder in some ways and easier in lots of others. It was harder in that we had a two-year cycle to iterate on what I’d call a proof of concept for multiplayer and turn it into a fleshed-out game. But we also had to invent single-player from the start, which was — we thought it would be hard, and it was even harder. It was almost a non-starter. There were times where I thought we couldn’t reconcile it all.
I’m surprised at the result. I don’t think anyone expected it to be the game that it is, as far as single-player. It’s not what we had in our mind’s eye two years ago. But it’s so much better.
Welch: What I hear the team talk about most is they’re more proud of making this game than they are of Modern Warfare. It’s shocking for me, because I was at Activision in publishing at the time. To hear the guys who made MW saying they’re more proud of this game, it speaks volumes. Do I expect it to perform in a similar way? We’ll see. But hearing them talk about how they got to make this game and how polished it is, it’s amazing.
GamesBeat: What do you think about the whole variety out this year? World War I, World War II, modern-day, science fiction.
McCoy: It’s great. If anything’s been proven, it’s that genre or time period or whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t really matter. You make a good game and people show up. That’s been our philosophy from the start. When we started on the original Titanfall, modern-day combat was the only thing you were supposed to do. That was the popular theory, the conventional wisdom. If you want to be successful you make a modern military shooter. Sci-fi is going to limit you.
The reality is, if you make something you like and enjoy, people will enjoy it with you.
Welch: You can be the first to do World War I and do it really well and people will show up.
GamesBeat: The Civil War’s waiting.
Welch: Well, you can go too far.
GamesBeat: Call of Duty Roman Wars was the big rumor.
Welch: Dinosaurs. Who knows?
McCoy: Ark, that indie game about survival, yeah. Go for it. Anything is possible with great gameplay. I love that people are willing to take more risks now.