Senior Designer Gary Napper talks how the alien in Alien Isolation is perhaps the greatest representation of AI in video games.
Alien Isolation is setting up to be a solid entry in the long running Aliens franchise. The series has now been handed over to The Creative Assembly, which is a BAFTA award-winning studio based in the UK. For those who are unaware the studio has worked on the critically acclaimed Total War series so the franchise is in safe hands.
GamingBolt caught up with Alien Isolation’s game designer, Gary Napper and were able to discuss the AI of the Alien. The Creative Assembly has been touting the Alien’s AI as one of the selling points of the game so it’s intriguing to understand how it works. In addition to that, we also discuss a bit about the new consoles, weapons, gadgets and the direction that survival horror games are going into these days.
Leonid Melikhov: For a developer that has been so focused on strategy titles in the past several years, when did the motivation suddenly arise to do a first-person survival horror title? What challenges did the genre present to The Creative Assembly?
Gary Napper: So the Creative Assembly actually created this team to make the game from scratch. It was kind of reminiscent of the console team we got together and they put together a pitch for an Alien game. They found out Sega had the license and the team really thought no one made a game with just one alien in it. They all loved the first film and I am a massive fan of the first flim. So, it was a chance for us to go “You know what; we can actually make that game” so we pitched it. We pitched it to Fox and Sega and we weren’t sure if they were going to accept it, but from the demo that was made they just absolutely loved it and they green lit it.
That was over 3 years ago, since then its been in development and we actually built the team from scratch. So, we hired people from Crytek and Ubisoft and EA all to come in and work on this game. We have some real industry experience to make it. I think the biggest challenge we faced wasn’t really one between formats, because a lot of us were more experienced in console development, it was about getting the alien to feel like it was that believable and terrifying creature that’s in that first film. So, that’s where a-lot our focus has been on the team and yes I think you can see from the results.
"We worked very closely with 20th Century Fox. We had lots of conference calls with them, we sent them builds of the game and they play it and they give us feedback on it. You know, we haven’t just cut them out of process, so they’ve dictated to us, it’s a real kind of working partnership."
Leonid Melikhov: We’ve heard everything we need to hear about the game’s premise and how it will adhere to the first Alien film’s survival horror premise, but what mechanics are helping you in translating this to compelling gameplay?
Gary Napper: When we first started developing the alien, we made a very smart and sophisticated hunter that could find you anywhere and kill you. And it turned out that it wasn’t very fun (laughs), because it just knew where you were. Every time we tried to tone it down, it felt like it was dumb. So, we tried to find a really fine balance of making a creature feel intelligent, but also give you a chance to let you play with it. And a-lot of that came down to the gameplay of the devices you’d find in the world and the options you have as a player.
So you can find things, you can build things out of them and craft devices and then use them to use them to either cause distraction or defend yourself against the alien. Watching the alien react and adapt his behavior to these things is where the core gameplay is, because the longer you play it, the more you start to notice subtleties in the way the alien behaves. You craft devices and you think “this is how I am going to survive this bit”, you try out your plan and all of the sudden it doesn’t quite work and you suddenly realize the alien is adapting. That is a massive moment for the game.
Leonid Melikhov: Along with archived data relating to the original film, how else did 20th Century Fox assist in Alien: Isolation to help capture that authentic, film grade atmosphere?
Gary Napper: We worked very closely with 20th Century Fox. We had lots of conference calls with them, we sent them builds of the game and they play it and they give us feedback on it. You know, we haven’t just cut them out of process, so they’ve dictated to us, it’s a real kind of working partnership. I think the funniest thing is that we were almost more critical on ourselves than anyone else, because the entire team is a huge alien fan. When we see something on screen that isn’t right – “that doesn’t look right! That shouldn’t be in the game!” We’re very critical on the detail.
Leonid Melikhov: What are your thoughts on developing for consoles, especially the PS4 and Xbox One, as opposed to the mostly PC-centric development that The Creative Assembly usually does?
Gary Napper: Like I said it’s a console team we’ve created. It’s interesting to answer that because we’ve actually developed the game itself like almost platform agnostic, we’ve developed a central version of it and were using the engine we’ve made and we export that version out to the different platforms.
As a designer I like to take advantage of some of the mechanics on each of them like the touchpad and the flashing on the PS4 light and then some of the Kinect functionalities as well. There are several advantages we can take from each of the platforms. I think overall, we’ve just approached this as a “game first” and then take the second steps afterwards.
"The amount of detail they’ve done in building these things just goes through every single piece of geometry they’ve made. When you enter a brand new area we created from complete scratch, it just looks like it should be in the alien universe, because it’s the same measurements, the angles are the same, the materials are the same."
Leonid Melikhov: Will you be looking to push the resolution to 1080p and the frame-rate to 60 fps for the Xbox One and PS4 versions?
Gary Napper: Well, we are still in the final stages of development on the game so, so we’d definitely be aiming as high and as fast as we can.
Leonid Melikhov: Any challenges you faced while developing the Xbox One version especially due to the eSRAM?
Gary Napper: Well again, we haven’t really had any version specific issues because we’ve developed the game as a central version first. I think mostly what we care about is the gameplay feeling right, that’s not costing anything depending on what platform. Were also making it for PS3 and Xbox 360, so we have to make sure that the previous-gen is still supported and it’s still same essential core game there.
Leonid Melikhov: So you didn’t have any problems with like the new hardware, like some of the other developers did.
Gary Napper: Not that I am aware, no. No I mean, I don’t want to jinx it, but so far it’s been pretty good (laughs).
Leonid Melikhov: How do you best strike a visual balance in the art style so as to stay true to the original film, but still offer plenty of creative leg room for new content?
Gary Napper: The way the art team has done this is really intelligent. They’ve broke down the original film set into components and then gave them archetypes, so this one is engineering, this one is medical, this one science and then basically tried to build new geometry and textures and wall bases from those parts. The theory is if you were in the set in 1979, you’d turn right instead of left you could discover one of the rooms we created.
The amount of detail they’ve done in building these things just goes through every single piece of geometry they’ve made. When you enter a brand new area we created from complete scratch, it just looks like it should be in the alien universe, because it’s the same measurements, the angles are the same, the materials are the same. Those were one of the best things from Fox actually, because they’ve sent us this huge 3 terabyte drive of all this incredible stuff.
Leonid Melikhov: A lot of data.
Gary Napper: Yeah, and the artist got to see stuff (not just the measurements) but what it was made from. They were able to tell what the texture, the weight and how these things would feel.
Leonid Melikhov: Materials.
Gary Napper: Exactly, yeah. So, a lot has gone into the details of the world.
"The sound of the game is very important, not just from the atmospheric point of view but it sets the tension. We’ve used parts of the original score; we re-recorded parts of the score as well to last for the full campaign. From the information point of view, it is very vital to the player."
Leonid Melikhov: Excellent. What more can you tell us about the sound effects of the game? Can you give us some examples on how the sounds change based on different scenarios?
Gary Napper: The sound of the game is very important, not just from the atmospheric point of view but it sets the tension. We’ve used parts of the original score; we re-recorded parts of the score as well to last for the full campaign. From the information point of view, it is very vital to the player. The alien doesn’t have any way of you know like.. (there is no information in the world with holograms so that the player can just see and go “Ah.. I know the alien spotted me.”)
It all has to be done with sound and animation. So, when you see the alien you need to be able to hear what the alien has done and the hisses and various noises he makes, and as a player you start to read his behavior from that, which is really quite exciting to do. Then when all the steam kicks off and all the alarms start going off you can’t hear him so well so it becomes even more terrifying.
Leonid Melikhov: When I was playing the game I saw him on my radar.
Gary Napper: On the motion tracker.
Leonid Melikhov: Yeah, so I am like “ok well…I can go into a locker or I can try to use my flamethrower”. So, I went in the locker and what upset me was that he was just in front of the locker going left and right. (laughs)
Gary Napper: (laughs)
Leonid Melikhov: Ok then, I guess I am gonna have to come out and use my flamethrower, because there is nothing else I’ve could of done. Which I think was pretty cool and I am like “great, I am stuck here.”
Gary Napper: (laughs)
Leonid Melikhov: So, how did he know I was in the locker even though he didn’t see me? Do they scent you in some sort of way?
Gary Napper: The way the AI was designed was..If I put you in a building you’d never been in before and told you to find someone and there was nobody else there. You would look around, you’d be quite curious, you’d look around corridors and stuff. But if you heard something, you’d go “ahh.. there is something there” and you’d focus your search a bit more. You’d go “I’ve definitely heard something in this room.” And then you’d check every area in that room for a while and then if you’d got a sense that there is someone there you wouldn’t leave.
Leonid Melikhov: Is there a time limit on when they leave?
Gary Napper: That’d be seeing far too much behind the curtains (laughs). I’d say the best way to answer that is the alien is based on senses. So, he can hear you, he can see you and he sees movement and light and that affects his behavior.
Leonid Melikhov: So it’s not like a very simple AI, it’s much more dynamic.
Gary Napper: When we put him in the level for the first time, we don’t know where he is going to go and what he is going to do and that’s really exciting for us to play.
Leonid Melikhov: Sega West’s Mike Hayes says Alien: Isolation will be a peer to Dead Space 2 but given the evolution of the genre since, will that be enough?
Gary Napper: Hahahah (laughs). I am a huge fan Dead Space, the original game, I loved it.
Leonid Melikhov: Third one…hmm..was alright in my opinion.
Gary Napper: I think the direction the franchise took was something different in what I really love in games. It kind of went more a-bit more action and a-bit more co-op and it appealed to a-lot more people and I think it was the right decision for those guys. But for me as I gamer I still wanted that solo terrifying experience. I think that’s exactly what we focus on, I’d say if you were a fan of Dead Space 1 you will absolutely love Alien Isolation.
I was a-bit concerned because of the direction we choose to go people might not like the game, but the reaction we’ve seen from everybody playing it has been so good.
"As soon as you add co-op, you get into a situation where it becomes a-lot less scary. If you’re there with someone else and someone to rely on and talk to and share the moment with then it feels a-bit strange when you’re in a horror game. It doesn’t become about being isolated and being scared and being on your own."
Leonid Melikhov: A-lot of my friends are like “I want a good survival-horror”.
Gary Napper: (laughs)
Leonid Melikhov: Ever since after Resident Evil 4 and then Resident Evil 5, 6, you know those games turned into action games and people were like “what’s going on…? Where is all the good survival-horror?” Then Dead Space came in and that turned into an action game and then Amnesia came in. I am sure you guys took a-lot of inspiration from all kinds of survival-horror games.
Gary Napper: It’s quite fun because like I said we’ve been developing the game for quite a long time, about 3 years. And over that time there has been some great survival-horror games come out from all the indies. There is a game coming out called Routine soon and that looks amazing. But the entire time I am sitting there, you know working in secret, hoping no one is going make a game like ours. because what were making is really special and great fun. I want to make sure we were the only ones doing it, so far I haven’t seen any game that has comes close to the dynamic and reactive AI of the alien we have.
Leonid Melikhov: What kind of play-time can we expect from Alien: Isolation? Also, was there any consideration in adding co-op elements to the game?
Gary Napper: As soon as you add co-op, you get into a situation where it becomes a-lot less scary. If you’re there with someone else and someone to rely on and talk to and share the moment with then it feels a-bit strange when you’re in a horror game. It doesn’t become about being isolated and being scared and being on your own. A friend is with you and you know if the alien is jumping on them and you run away then it feels fineIt’s very much about having a single-player game for us and focusing on what it felt like to be alone with the alien.
The play-time for the game is kind of tricky. Because of the systematic AI and because of the fact that so many different things can happen. You can have some players that will play for a long time and never seen the alien. Other players will have deadly stand-offs and die a few times and maybe some humans might appear or androids. So, we see massively varied game-times from this way. But we are kind of aiming for a 12-15 hour campaign.
Leonid Melikhov: Sounds good. How do you guys balance the motion tracker, because one of the challenges asked me not to take out the motion tracker. So, where does the mechanic come in on how I know when to not use and when I should use it?
Gary Napper: It’s one of those things where you can learn the core basic rules of the game the longer you play it. We drop you guys in a deep end in this demo quite a-lot. We just say “here you go (laughs) try and survive” When you’re first meeting the alien, you just have to learn the alien without the motion tracker for a start. And then you gradually get devices that can help you along the way and you’re learning how far away you can be from the alien before you get spotted, or how much noise you can make before the alien will react and then how quickly will the alien leave and things like that.
It’s all about learning how he reacts to you and what his behaviors are, so learning when to use the motion tracker is part of that. I’ve had moments where I am hiding and then alien comes around the corner and I think he is gone. I bring out the motion tracker and then I see him turn “ohh noooo (laugh).” So, yeah you do learn it as you play.
"Well, there is not just the alien in the game, there are other threats aboard the station. We have synthetics around and we have humans. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t just going to overload you with shooting humans. We wanted to make it feel real."
Leonid Melikhov: The flame-thrower was in the game, do you guys have any kind of gadgets?
Gary Napper: There are, yes. The crafting system is where you can build IDs and devices to help you, there are also several weapons in the game. But, we don’t give you any kind of super weapons like machine guns or sniper rifles or rockets launchers or any of that. It’s all things that you can either build yourself or are that relevant to the situation.
It wouldn’t make sense to open up a coverer and find machine guns and stuff, because it’s a space station. If you and I were locked up in a mole and there was an alien there how would we defend ourselves? We’d probably get to the security office and we might find a pistol or might find a taser or something. Ultimately, nothing is going to save us aside from being able to evade it.
Leonid Melikhov: What about the melee? Why did you guys put the melee in the game and what is it useful for? When would I use it or should be using it?
Gary Napper: Well, there is not just the alien in the game, there are other threats aboard the station. We have synthetics around and we have humans. We wanted to make sure that we weren’t just going to overload you with shooting humans. We wanted to make it feel real. So, not all the humans on the station are aggressive, some of them are just civilians going away and we wanted to make sure the aggressive humans you do meet don’t just kill you for no reason. When you do get near them they shout warnings “oohh wait, hold up there buddy.” Back-off kind of thing.. When you just say “ok, that’s cool” and you walk away they say “yeah, keep walking,” You feel like those guys are up to no good and I’ll stay away and that’s absolutely fine.
With the weapon system, the melee, we wanted the player to feel like they had something in their hands even though it was useless. It was kind of like clinging to something while hiding in a corner, just a bat.
Leonid Melikhov: Is it more just a psychological thing?
Gary Napper: No, you can use it for things in the game.
Leonid Melikhov: Right, but does it actually have good impact?
Gary Napper: It does, yes. You can use it to attack androids or synthetics. You can use it to attack humans if you really want too. But it’s kind of a balance. If you look at the character you’re playing as (Amanda) she’s not the type of person that would just go out and slaughter a bunch of people, but you know some players want to do that.
So, we tried to make that fair, we didn’t want you killing innocent civilians for no reason. You could play the entire game through without killing a single human and I really think that’s a cool thing to try for as well. You can use a melee weapon to attack other things in the world that is not the alien. One thing I like to use it for is hitting a surface with it and then go and hide. If the alien comes along, I know I am in trouble. I kind of use it to test where the alien is and draw attraction to bring people in and stuff.
"If you come across a group of enemies and you don’t worry about whether you can kill them, making a noise is going to attract the alien."
Leonid Melikhov: Are there any scenarios where you can see an alien running down a hallway while you’re hiding but it kills other people in there?:
Gary Napper: Very much so, that happens a-lot. If you come across a group of enemies and you don’t worry about whether you can kill them, making a noise is going to attract the alien. If they start arguing or if they fire a weapon or something then that’s going to bring the alien. Even if the alien does come down and kill them, you’re in a worse situation because now you have the alien there.
Leonid Melikhov: But can you use that as a distraction, while his fighting them for you to get away?
Gary Napper: That’s one of the tricks I like to do. I listen out for the screams and the gunfire and know I got a few moments to get away (laughs).
Leonid Melikhov: Alright man sounds good, thank you so much Gary.
Gary Napper: Cool, anytime.