We're sat watching videos of some of the coolest moments Peter Tamte has recorded while playing Breach, and it looks like there's plenty of them, as players blast through walls to launch unexpected ambushes or shoot out the support struts of a balcony to crush a player below and topple a player above.
Having been stung by Konami bailing out on their previous game, Six Days in Fallujah, Atomic Games is back with a new XBLA title based upon its training simulations built for the US military. Breach is different in that it enables players to destroy cover, whether it's internal walls, floors, ceilings or wooden bridges.
Sitting down to chat to Atomic Games' President, Peter Tamte - who is enthusiastic and incredibly excited about his new project – we quizzed the developer on the future of downloadable games (incidentally, he thinks Blacklight: Tango Down is a pretty cool game) his time as VP of Bungie and his experience with Six Days in Fallujah and the ensuing fallout following its cancellation.
How did Breach come about? Was it off the back of Six Days in Fallujah?
Breach and Six Days in Fallujah are very different games, so Six Days is very serious in tone, telling stories with a lot of human drama in there, whereas Breach is a fragfest. So, it's a very different game, but it does share the same technology as Six Days, so when we were building training simulations for military organisations, as part of that work we learned some of the tactics that those military intelligence organisations use in the field and a lot of that does revolve around the use of cover and destruction of cover. And we just didn't see an engine out there that would allow us to do that, so we built the Hydrogen Engine for Six Days in Fallujah, then when Konami pulled out of Six Days we were thinking, what can we use what we've already got? That was very important and that's when we started to build Breach.
Do you think that EA has encroached on your territory, which you planned to explore in Six Days in Fallujah, in creating Medal of Honor?
Well, there's a lot of arrows in our back that are not in EA's back! (laughs) But on the other hand, I think they also legitimised the idea of doing a game based on a modern war. Now, what we wanted to do with Six Days in Fallujah was very very different to what EA ended up doing with Medal of Honor. In Six Days in Fallujah, the soul of the game is the recreation of these true stories of the marines and EA has been very forthcoming in saying that Medal of Honor is historical fiction that might be inspired by some of these true stories, but there's no effort to really tell those specific stories.
What elements of Breach's simulation aspects did you have to adjust to ensure that it works as a game?
Well, the two are very different experiences, right? So the training systems that we create use the same technology and artwork, but they're really designed to recreate specific scenarios and situations based on curriculum that the students have just learned in the classroom. If you know how to use these tactics; if you learn these tactics in the classroom; you know you can do a lot of that in Breach. But the real value of course, to the military intelligence organisation is this complete line that starts in the classroom, you practice it in the virtual world we create and then practice it out in the field.
As a former Vice-President of Bungie, what experience would you say you've brought over to Atomic Games having worked with that team?
Before I was at Bungie I was at Apple as well, and both of those organisations' use technology... They create unique capabilities through their technologies, so the idea of licensing somebody else's technology is not a part of the Apple or Bungie philosophy, because the whole idea is to create an experience that people haven't already had before and to use their technology to do that. That's very much what we've been trying to do at Atomic as well, so I'd say what we like to do is take interesting moments in history, use the things that we've learnt through our training work and mix that with new technology to create a fresh kind of playing experience.
Have you found that there have been limitations or restrictions in developing Breach as a downloadable title?
The economics are a little bit different right now, especially on the console side. But the download market on the console side has been focused on more niche game experiences that typically would not be available through a retail store, for example. Our whole point with Breach is to try and create a game that could be a retail game if it wanted to be and the PC version is going to be available both at retail and as a download.
Do you think that it might become part of Atomic's strategy to target the digital distribution market rather than developing riskier full retail titles in the future?
I think that needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis with each product, but I think our industry is kind of at this crossroads right now, where we're watching what's happening with media content overall becoming more and more downloadable. While the media content is becoming more downloadable in other industries, our industry is really, really slow to adapt to digital download and I think that part of that has to do with the kinds of experiences that are being made available. When Apple launched iTunes, they launched it with content that was just as strong as what you'd find in a retail store, but maybe that will happen in the video game industry as well.
Do you think that it'll reach a point where digital distribution will take over completely and be the only option, or do you think there will always be demand for a physical product?
I think it'll be a long time before retail goes away and I don't actually think it's going to go away to be honest with you. If it does, it's going to be a long, long time from now and there are very important roles for retailers, even in a download market. For example, in the United States, GameStop have been creating store environments within their stores to educate consumers about games that are downloadable as well as retail. I mean, look at what HMV have got here with Gamerbase: it's a place where gamers can gather and have fun with each other, so whether it's with a game that's available through download or in a box may someday be irrelevant.
The role of retailers will probably change over time, as more and more content gets downloaded. But from the perspective of a video game creator, we don't just compete against other games, we compete against all forms of media. As those other forms of media become increasingly downloadable, that is a threat to the time that people spend playing video games, so we have to be there with downloadable content or we have to make that content more compelling than it is right now. That's one of the reasons we created Breach.
What's the coolest thing you've seen happen while playing Breach?
To me the coolest thing in Breach is the element of surprise. Because people are so used to playing with fixed walls, when there's something different to that, it shocks them and that element of surprise has some cool factors to it, right? [Tamte proceeds to show us videos of emergent gameplay moments captured from the game] So what's cool is when multiple things happen at the same time, like for instance, if one guy comes around a corner, blows a hole in a wall, then a guy runs in through a doorway, you don't expect that to happen, so that kind of thing is really cool.
Was building Breach a huge challenge or was much of it adapted from the training simulators you've developed for the US military?
The environments themselves are completely original and they're built on a lot of playtesting, so yes it was a challenge, because the number of variables are ridiculous, because the environment gets changed in a different way every time.
There are five classes in the game. Which is your favourite?
I end up playing as the Rifleman class the most I suppose, just because it's the bread and butter class. But I go for the experience points. Kills, assists and victories earn you experience points that can unlock new weapons - of which there are about 22 in the game - and you can also buy attachments for those weapons, and purchase new gadgets and battlefield perks.
Do you have any outlandish ideas for wacky gadgets for the game then?
We do, but I'm not going to tell you about them!
So no jetpacks then?
(Laughs) No, but there were a few that we thought about, but said no, we're not going to go with that. But I told you about the 'bionic ear' and the 'sniper reflector'. We were very particular when we were putting spy gadgets in the game, that we know Operators actually use them, so there's nothing like the mirror thing...
A stealth suit?
Yeah, a stealth suit. That's not in the game, no.
A trend that a lot of developers seem to follow these days is pre-empting their game's launch by talking about downloadable add-on content. Have you planned any post-launch DLC yet?
It'll depend on how successful the game is. If the community reacts positively to the game, we absolutely want to create DLC and it's our intention to create DLC.
Breach is slated for release on XBLA in January 2011 for 1200 Microsoft Points. Check out our recent hands-on preview here.