Section 8 Prejudice: How Good Can a $15 Downloadable Multiplayer FPS Be?

May 3, 2010

by Jimmy Thang

When developer TimeGate Studios released the original Section 8 back in 2009, their multiplayer-focused shooter received solid review scores from numerous publications. On review aggregate website, the game garnered a positive 72 percent rating. Because of the large scale maps coupled with the ability to jetpack nearly everywhere, publications said the original Section 8 was like Battlefield meets Tribes. Regardless of the hyperbole, the Sugar Land, Texas-based developer was not satisfied with the original game's critical success. For its sequel, Section 8: Prejudice, the company added new modes, weapons, a meatier single-player campaign, and improved the graphics. Despite these additions, did we mention that unlike the original $50 game, Prejudice is releasing for 15 bucks?

We went one-on-one with Timegate's Chief Technology Officer Denis Papp where he discusses the myriad improvements and new additions Prejudice features. So is the developer using some black magic to cram all of this content into such an affordable bundle? Read on to find out. The original Section 8 launched as a full-priced retail game. Why the decision to make its sequel only $15?

Denis Papp: Originally when we were developing Section 8: Prejudice, it was set to be full-priced. To have the content of a full retail title and it was intended to go to retail and what not. Partway through development, we decided to self publish, giving us more control over distribution over pricing and what not and the easiest way to self publish is to go digital. The other advantage of going digital and with a lower price point, you reach a larger audience.

Allowing you to navigate the vast terrain are jetpacks.

Many games, even PC titles, still feature physical retail discs in addition to downloadable versions. Do you feel like these physical copies will eventually go away?

It certainly feels that way for PC titles. I'm sure when you go to Best Buy or Gamestop and you'll notice the selection dwindling a bit as a lot more people are moving towards things like Steam and whatnot for download titles. I don’t know if that’s the future for console titles, but it certainly does feel like a trend for PC.

Were you afraid of losing sales from the casual Wal-Mart buyers?

I'm not sure that casual Wal-Mart buyers are something that… casual Wal-Mart buyers are more for consoles. I'm not really sure casual Wal-Mart buyers would be somebody really interested in our game anyways since we are more of shooter with a larger multiplayer focus.

In regards to the reviews so far, most gaming sites have given Prejudice glowing reviews. Some have said it is a landmark 15$ downloadable title. Still, public opinion is that there are a few publications out there that have seemed to review the game as if you guys were charging 50-60 dollars for it. Do you think this mindset is a bit unfair?

I can say that Prejudice delivers a lot of value and high-quality gameplay for a low price and we were really pleasantly surprised that a lot of reviewers agree. But, you can't please everybody.

A big concern gamers had with the original Section 8 pertained to the lack of weapons. Suffice it to say, Prejudice addresses that issue.

Even though Prejudice is a lot cheaper than the original game, it's supposed to feature more content. Specifically, what new modes or features can fans expect to see?

Our list is kind of large. The dropping fundamentally remains the same but it's much improved. For example, it's now in third person which gives you more control and looks much better. We have new weapons. We have a lot of weapon variants so for example there's a regular shotgun, there's the riot shotgun, there's the incendiary shotgun. We have new equipment like the jammer beacon, new vehicles, a bike. We have a new unlock system with 40 to 50 unlocks which gives players access to different weapons and equipments. We have different armor you can pick as well. We have "Swarm Mode" which is a four-player cooperative defense game where you’ve got more progressively difficult waves of enemies coming at you and you have to survive for 15 minutes. We have an improved quick-match system. We have new DCMs (dynamic combat missions), which are the secondary missions you play during the Conquest mode. We have some new modules for the load out system. Those are the things you use to modify your character, which give him armor, boost, and so on.

With the game allowing players to essentially drop wherever they choose on the multiplayer battlefield, Section 8: Prejudice uniquely does away with random spawning.

With there being so many shooters out there on the market, what makes Section 8 different or unique?

One of the biggest philosophies in the game design of Section 8 is that we never wanted things to appear out of thin air. We didn’t want spawn-camping, we didn’t want people re-spawing in the middle of nowhere. So that’s why we have dropping, which sets us apart from other shooters. This means the player can choose where they want to land on the map. And we have these anti-air turrets that players can build and can also destroy which adds a whole level of strategy. On top of the philosophy of nothing appearing, when you purchase a vehicle, anywhere on a map, you can purchase a vehicle and a drop ship comes in and drops it in. We have deployables, so you can put turrets and supply depots and sensor arrays all over the map and again, those come out of the sky. We also have little turrets that are built in to the maps that are associated with the different control points and when those get destroyed these little flying drones come out and repair them. So again, nothing actually appears out of thin air. In terms of things that make us stand out from other shooters, like I said, dropping is a big one. I think our DCMs, other shooters do have something like it, but you know we have our DCM system, we have our deployables, and our load out. I think those are the key features that help us standout and the particular combination of all these things.

In regards to the dropping system, I can't really think of any shooters that allow players to drop in from anywhere they want.

Medal of Honor: Airborne had it. You could kind of pick where to go and parachute in. I haven’t seen it in other shooters beyond that though.

While you can essentially choose where you want to drop, some places will be safer than others.

Was there a lot of hesitation to put something like that in because it is so different?

It was technically challenging when we were first working on it when did a lot of prototyping and trying different ideas, because there's a lot of performance considerations because you can see the entire map. And it really affects the workflow, particularly for the level designers, and for the testers in QA. You have to factor it into performance, cause the thing is, when you have dropping, you can land anywhere on the map, right? So I can land on this giant pillar. The level designer has to make sure that you can stand there and it doesn’t break things. Players have to be able to land there and it doesn’t cause performance problems. We also had to make sure they looked good from really high in the sky. The playable area is pretty large, something like two kilometers by two kilometers, but the visible area when you're dropping is significantly larger than that. So the artists have to go in and put lower resolution assets in what we call the out-of-bounds, non-playable areas, so when you're dropping in, you can see the entire planet. Even though you can only play on a smaller part of it.

I would imagine dropping would open up gameplay balance issues to address. Considering in most other shooters, the game generally spawns you on your "team's side."

So, number one, it is an open world so it's not like people are circumventing map typology too badly through the dropping system cause you can pretty much run and jetpack over most obstacles anyways. In terms of balance, that's where the anti-air turrets come in. So these AA turrets will basically shoot you out of the air if you tried dropping on top of them, so a large part of the strategic battle and almost sort of the zones of control, if you will, the control of territory is about taking over something and putting AA turrets there and another part of strategy is when you’re infiltrating, for example, I might break into an enemy base and take out their AA turrets so my teammates can now drop in whereas normally they would have to come in from the outside and sneak in. You can even use the load-out system to customize yourself with a load-out which could survive dropping directly into the radius of a single AA gun, although you're pretty damaged when you do that. So when the enemies see you, they'll take you out easily, and that's the thing to remember with dropping, when you look up in the sky, you can see people coming down. You can see exactly where they're coming down. So if you're dropping into enemy territory, chances are they're going to see you coming down and catch you as soon as you land.

Can you be shot down in the air?

It's pretty tricky, but yea, you can actually shoot them when they're coming down. But they come down so fast! When you drop, you can drop really quickly and you will go and hit the ground and nobody will probably notice you, but once you hit the ground, you lose about two seconds for recovery from what we call a hard landing. Or, you can hit your breaks. If you hit your breaks really early, it takes you a long time to get on the ground, but you have a lot of control of where you land. But you're a much easier target for people to shoot because you're floating slower. If you break at the perfect time, you'll land on the ground ready to go plus you'll have a little bit of control. So it's almost a mini-game where you really have to learn the perfect time to hit your break so you don’t have a hard landing.

Going back to the armor, you said there's different types of suits, what do they allow for in this game?

So the power armor in the section 8 universe allows you to survive in these hostile environments. In terms of gamplay, the first thing the power armor does is it has a jetpack, it provides a very short burst but allows you to basically jump over obstacles, get up to high ledges and people use it in combat a lot to become a hard target. The second major thing that power armors suits do are shields. So you can take several hits, you get some warning to react. You won't die in two shots. Power armor can also be configured with modules which goes back to the load-out system. So, for example, I can take my armor and I can say, "Okay, add really high shield but low damage," or it can have really high stealth. So some of the factors that can be influenced through the load out-system are shields, health, damage, a resistance to different types of things like explosions, resistance to turrets or being harder to detect. Stealth, regeneration time, these are some of the properties that you can affect in the load out system.

So there's a leveling up system?

Yea. We have ranked servers and experience and a large number of stats. You gain levels. We have 100 levels and the 100 levels are broken up into 20 ranks. As you rank, you get unlocks, you can also get additional modules to configure on your armor. You also visually appear different to others. So when you can see somebody is a captain, you'll know he is a bit tougher.

Prejudice's challenging AI will force players to work together in the cooperative modes.

How big of an element is teamwork in this game? A lot of games feature team modes but often you'll see people running off in all sorts of different directions. How might Section 8 be different?

Okay, so we have a cooperative Swarm Mode. It's players versus bots. I've played it a number of times and I can assure you that if you have four players running around, and even one player runs around in a different direction, you're going to lose. You're going to get overwhelmed by the bots. So it really requires coordination in Swarm mode, particularly in the higher difficulties. In lower difficulties, yea, you can probably lone-wolf it. On the higher difficulty, the amount of teamwork required intensifies. In Conquest mode, that's what we call versus, where team one is against team two, that benefits a lot from teamwork coordinated attacks and coordinated defenses. For example, it helps if somebody on your team is putting down AA turrets in strategic locations; maybe somebody infiltrates the enemy base and takes out the enemy turrets so the rest of your teammates can drop in. You need somebody going around repairing things and we have some vehicles like the tank. The tank can hold one to four people but it’s a lot tougher when you’ve got four people manning all the weapons in it.

Going back to the artificial intelligence, some reviewers have stated that the AI is brutally difficult at times. Others seemed to enjoy the competition. Was it a conscious goal to make the AI really challenging?

Yea, we wanted the AI to function as player replacements where players can get the full 32 player experience even though you may not actually have 32 human players involved. Also, for the offline play which you can even consider training for online play, you'll want to be playing against something that is reasonably competitive so you can actually improve as a player for online play. It was very important to us that the bots could play all the objectives, play all the DCMs, so they can use all the vehicles, they can do everything that a player does. They also do teamwork. They stick together. They'll do coordinated attacks. They’ll divide responsibilities between attacking and defending.

To sort of compensate with concerns of people, you have to realize there are five levels of difficulty for the bots. It goes from Trivial all the way to Insane. If you play on Trivial, they really are trivial. It was important for us to make the difficulty levels actually feel different. On medium, if you don't play a lot of shooters, I think you'll find the bots can be quite challenging. But as you get better at the game, you'll find that the medium bots are not that tough. We saw that in [the original] Section 8. Everybody was saying the AI was really strong when the game first shipped, but after a few months, they were saying the AI wasn't that strong and they had to notch the difficulty up.

Moving on to the visual portion of the game, does Section 8: Prejudice look better than its predecessor?

Yea. It looks much better. It's a very strong polished improvement. Section 8 was the first title in this world, in this setting, and you know, we were also getting accustomed to working with the Unreal Engine 3. Artists and level designers were struggling with getting the most amount of it. We had limited resources. In Prejudice, everything looks better. Once you see it side by side, you'll see that it’s a pretty stark difference.

Now with some experience using Unreal Engine 3, Timegate Studios promises a noticeably prettier Section 8 experience.

Can you talk about the game's sci-fi art style? Was it inspired by anything in particular?

Our art team pulled inspiration from various outlets, including movies in addition to other video games. In particular, Aliens and Final Fantasy the movie influenced environment design, while the soldier armor is a combination of the bulky designs you see in Gears of War paired with a more modern, sleek design found in Asian armor designs such as Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Section 8 will support 3D Vision. Do you feel like this new graphical layer adds to the game's presentation?

I think it actually looks pretty good. We had previously done 3D implementation for the Tron title on the PS3 and then you know we added 3D to Section 8 Prejudice for the PC. We felt it looked pretty good. And it was relatively easy to do the implementation, working with NVIDIA technology. In terms of 3D, that really depends on the individual, right? Some people like 3d and some people don't. For some people it gives you an extra sense of immersion, that extra sense of depth can help you with a little bit of confusion when things get a little crazy. It also makes the world feel a little more alive.

What was it like working with NVIDIA to incorporate 3D?

The 3D vision technology was actually pretty easy to integrate. I think the only complication we had was with the UI (user interface), that one was a little bit tricky. The NVIDIA engineers are really well versed with the technology, even with Unreal Engine 3. So if we went to them and said, "Hey, we're having this problem where the UI is not behaving correctly in 3D," Even without looking at the code they were like, "oh yea" and gave us a likely explanation for what the problem was which was right on the nose. So they were really knowledgeable.

So has this UI issue has been resolved?

Oh yea! Oh yea!

Finally, what improvements might Prejudice on the PC have over its Xbox counterpart?

So, there are some additional multiplayer configuration choices which should allow you to configure how long the match is going to be. You can turn auto-balance on and off. We gave the PC players a little more configuration. You can run a dedicated server at home. We have dedicated servers for the Xbox although you can run one but it's through a controlled environment whereas on the PC you get a lot more flexibility to what kind of change you want between the performance differences. We're expecting that the PC dedicated servers can probably host more players. The game was designed for 32 and like on the Xbox, the client actually runs pretty well with 32 but on the PC, you have more powerful hardware so it's possible to go a little higher than that number which I don’t know if we're going to officially support but I'm sure you'll see people in there running their servers with 40 plus people. The game 's graphics look better on PC. The textures are much higher resolution. I think the PC build is like five times bigger than the Xbox build and that's almost all textures.

Denis, thanks for your time.

For more information on the game, visit Prejudice's official site.