Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine has been in development for quite some time now at Relic Entertainment, and it's been a huge undertaking by the studio.
We recently had a chance to sit down and chat to THQ's global communications manager, Simon Watts, about how the project came about and what the transition was like to move from PC development to home console development.
GamingUnion.net: Relic has predominantly worked with the real-time strategy genre while on the Warhammer franchise, what was the transition like for them to move to a third-person shooter?
Simon Watts: Yea, Relic are known for their real-time strategy games and working predominantly as a PC developer, but they have got some experience with console titles. The reason that we gave them this title, and the reason we felt Relic was the right studio for it, was because Relic has this great wealth of knowledge and experience with the Warhammer 40,000 IP. They've also got this fantastic level of quality and creative design - you look at any Relic game and it's beautiful. They are always pushing the boundaries. If you look at Company of Heroes, Dawn of War and Dawn of War II and then look at the other RTS games on the market were like and how ugly they were compared to a Relic game.
Relic really knows how to make things look good and they know how to make well balanced, fun to play games - so that was all perfect. Then all we needed to do to make sure it was a really solid action shooter, so we took talent from other studios. We've got a lot of people on the team who've worked on Gears of War, we've got people who worked on God of War, we've got people who worked on Far Cry. We've kind of poached a lot of talent from other studios which were considered "console experts" and shooter experts. So we've got the best of both worlds. We've got Relic's expertise, Relic's 40k experience mixed with experts who know the ins and outs of making a successful console shooter. We've gelled those teams together to make up a team of 200+ developers who're working to pull this together.
GamingUnion.net: Well it seems like it's working well so far.
Simon Watts: Yea, it's coming together really well. There's still a lot of polish to go, we're still working on the exact feel of it, the controls, everything else. We're really interested to hear what you guys [the media] think, because it's at the stage in its development cycle where we're just finishing off alpha. So we're at the perfect stage where if people are like 'hey, you know this isn't working for us', we can go 'okay, what would work then?' We can try and change and polish things to fix it up. And obviously it looks good already, but with all game development the last 3 months is when the real level of polish comes on and I'm personally very excited to see what it looks like at launch, because based on what it looks like this far out, it's going to be pretty special.
GamingUnion.net: The game's been in development for quite a while now and a lot of companies are having shorter development times. Was that an issue for you, or did you just want to give them as much time as they needed?
Simon Watts: A lot of the time companies push for shorter development times and they do that because it's about budget. When you hear about games costing £30m, £40m and £50m, the reason they cost that much is not so much about the equipment, it's about having 200 people on a certain salary working five years solid on something. So obviously, shortening a development cycle does reduce the cost of a game. But it's also putting that pressure on the team and rushing it out - I think takes away from the level of quality. And one thing we've really got at THQ recently is, since Danny Bilson took over, that the mantra has been 'if a game's not ready, it's not coming out'. So we're really pushing to try and make sure the game is of the right quality rather than just rushing it out of the door to hit a corporate milestone.
In terms of development cycle, yes it's been going for quite a while. In terms of engine development and stuff like that, it's probably been about 4 years or so, which isn't a horrible amount of time. We had another title deceptively called the same thing, which was being developed by one of our Australian studios. It got killed before it was officially announced, but there were some leaked files and videos and stuff, so I know there's a perception that this was Space Marine as well - but that's nothing to do with this project. But yea, it's been probably about 4 years and it's changed a lot - there has been a lot of iteration. When we announced it at E3 2009 we were building it as an Action RPG and it evolved naturally and by the time we got to the stage we're at now we were like 'you know, what we really want as gamers and what we think is right for the IP is an action shooter, instead of a stat-based RPG.' So it's evolved, it's changed, but I think the development cycle is important for making sure we get the product we need.
GamingUnion.net: So what was the real impetus behind changing its genre. User feedback, or just a feeling internally?
Simon Watts: I think with all games, you start with an idea and it's the best idea in the world. But as you start working on it, you start realising that maybe it wasn't the best idea in the world, maybe it would be better to do something else. Or, maybe if we changed this and did that, it would be even cooler. It was one of those things where originally everyone thought Action RPG and thought, wouldn't it be cool if you could equip gear - a bit like Dawn of War II - where you have stats and you'd be able to choose upgrades for your guys.
GamingUnion.net: A bit like Mass Effect as well then?
Simon Watts: Yea, like Mass Effect in terms of style. But when we were all playing it - and everyone jokes and calls us Gears of Warhammer because it's a third-person space marine kind of thing - but we were all deep down thinking 'we all love Gears of War, wouldn't it be f**king awesome if it was Gears of War but with Space Marines.' I think everyone felt the game they wanted to play as gamers was a third-person shooter, but with a decent melee system, something I don't think we've seen in a shooter. It's always very light on melee or it's an action game and it's very light on shooting - it's rare to have a proper balance. And that's where we felt we had a better niche and we could tell a better story of Space Marine.
GamingUnion.net: It's well documented that in the world of first-person and third-person shooters, the narrative is often an afterthought. With Warhammer having such a rich background how're you going to raise the bar?
Simon Watts: I think we've got a fantastic universe to be working off. Let's be honest, if you look at most current generation shooters and space marine games, and there's elements of them that are probably inspired by 40k. And you've got to think that so many of the developers and the designers probably played the table top or read the books. So we've got this great universe. It's not like we've got a new franchise and we've got to decide what the history is, we've got 20+ years of history and story. There's actually so much information it's too much. But it gives you a great wealth of background to work from and we're really trying to make sure this is a cinematic blockbuster campaign. You might recognise the main character's voice as Mark Strong, who's a well known Hollywood actor - he's in Green Lantern. This is his first video game project, but we felt Mark was right for that and we thought it was right to pay for good talent.
We also have really good script writers now because of Danny Bilson. He's ex-Hollywood, he used to be a movie director and he brought over a couple of his old writing partners who now work at THQ. So we have Hollywood script writers, we have AAA Hollywood actors in the cast - we're really trying to do away with the grunty space marine and try to build a character that people are going to resonate with. We also want to tell the 40k story in a way that's accessible to 40k fans and non-40k fans alike because we don't want to make it too niche and exclusive.
Feel free to check out our hands-on preview of Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine, it's a rather interesting title, that's for sure.