Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour – Kenji Kataoka interview

Nick Cowen talks to producer Kenji Kataoka about the new iteration of Steel Batallion, which sees the introduction of the Kinect controller

June sees the release of Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor, the latest entry in Capcom’s series of games that feature towering battle Mechs with big guns, and the first that players will control using Kinect.

Anyone who played the first Steel Battalion may raise a quizzical eyebrow at that last fact as the first game came bundled with a control system that involved two joysticks, pedals and a ton of buttons.

So how did the developers – headed up by one of the game’s line producers, Kenji Kataoka – go about turning players into the controller for Heavy Armor?

We sat down with Kataoka-san to find out …

When did the development of Steel Battalion Heavy Armor begin? Did you pitch Microsoft after seeing Kinect, or did they approach you?To answer that simply, Kinect came first. Microsoft was pitching this new technology in the form of Project Natal to publishers. They came to us with it and when we first saw it, we immediately knew it was Steel Battalion material and we decided to work on a game with them.

Not to sound too incredulous, but how did Kinect immediately make you think of Steel Battalion? That game had a control set up that had pedals, two joysticks and a ton of buttons!Actually, the two have more in common than you think. If you think of the first Steel Battalion and Kinect, the biggest common factor there is that neither of them have a traditional control set up. There are very few games out there that don’t use the control pad as the main interface.

With Kinect, it’s more like we’re making the control system through a kind of augmented reality. Instead of pressing physical buttons in front of you, you’re assuming a control interface is there through what you can see on the screen. You’re reaching out for a lever and making the gesture of pulling it and you see the lever move on the screen. That’s almost synonymous with pulling a physical lever. In a way, the screen itself is your controller and you’re reaching out for items in the screen to control the game.

You said that Steel Battalion went into development very early on – before Project Natal became Kinect. How did the gestation of the hardware effect your game’s development?Well, I hope you can reflect my answers here as mildly as possible, because it may sound like I’m about to slag off Microsoft, which isn’t my intention.

I’ll try!Well, let’s just say there was some disparity between what became the product we know as Kinect, and the prototype we first saw that was attached to a high-end PC and the dev kit that it came with.

So you thought you were getting a Ferrari and you actually got a Ford Model T?No! Nothing as bad as that! But we saw all of these things happening in the original demo with the prototype. It was so accurate and there were so many things you could do with it. But then, that prototype was running off a high-end PC. When you got right down to it, Kinect was going to have to run off an Xbox 360 so there were going to be certain limitations – memory limitations and so on. That was quite difficult to adjust to. We managed it, but it was difficult.

But in the end, it’s actually to the benefit to the consumers. Everyone knows that a high-end gaming PC is better than any console currently out there, but the Xbox 360 has the edge with accessibility. Kinect comes in a package that you can easily plug in and run off your Xbox 360 and you don’t need to be too technical to work with it. With a PC you need some technical know-how. You don’t need any of that with Kinect and the Xbox 360.

Did the discrepancy between the latency of the Project Natal prototype and Kinect force you to junk any mechanics or features for your game?Kinect has had its ups and downs. At the beginning we pretty much had all the capabilities we’d been told it would have. Then it slightly deteriorated and lifted up again because it was being optimized and everything was being made efficient. We kind of followed that undulating line with Kinect.

One of the first things to go was the interface based around finger movements. Originally, Kinect detected every movement in your fingers and your thumbs. Those had to go because Kinect could only detect the hand as one point. Certain head movements had to go to – in fact, head movement was taken out completely at one point, because of all the tinkering – and then we brought it back in.

How far along in the development did you playing around with the game’s plot?Well, the story itself has changed quite significantly since the start of the project. Without going into specifics, we’ve probably rewritten it about four or five times. The game’s world, though, has been consistent since the game’s inception.

It’s a what-if world that we imagined our world would look like if technology had remained fairly stagnant since the second world war. We didn’t want a typical sci-fi feeling, because most of the games that involve Battle Mechs tend to go over the top and everything becomes a bit like Transformers. There’s nothing wrong with the Transformers, but we wanted a different feel to that.

All these machines were designed from scratch and they’re technically feasible. That was the mood and the look we were going for.

The setting of the story is quite interesting because the lack of technology completely overhauls the world order and what we recognise in our world as assets or resources that give certain countries an advantage are gone.

I can’t go into much detail about the game’s story itself, except to say it will shock you.

We also did a lot of work on the game’s characters. There are 30 characters in all, all of whom have their own back story in the game. Your comrades are your only means of survival in the game. Without them your chances are slim. If you don’t have a gun-loader, you won’t be able to fire shells with your Mech unless you load it yourself – and during the time it take you to do that, you might get destroyed by an enemy you didn’t see. You really have to have these NPCs and click together in order to work well.

If all 30 of the NPCs die, is the player permanently hamstrung in terms of the gameplay?Actually, we initially wanted to limit the number of comrades you have in the game to 30, but then we realised some players could kill off all of the characters and then that would make the game too hard for them. They would probably give up at that stage and we didn’t want that.

As a compromise we’ve put in soldiers who don’t have back stories and who aren’t as personable. They’re just mundane NPCs. Ideally you’ll end the game with all 30 characters still alive, but the game is hard and we know that this won’t be possible for everyone.

Speaking of the level of difficulty, don’t you think that it may jar somewhat with one of the driving principles behind Kinect, which is essentially aimed at winning over casual core players?Well, we’re aiming to deliver a higher experience with this game – and that’s not to say it’s a more difficult experience. In order to achieve this, there’s certain roleplay involved that we require from the player.

If you think of a racing game, the difficulty of driving a car is different to difficulty of each track you race on. If you’ve never played a racing game before in your life, and you have to start playing one on the game’s most difficult track, you’ll find it’s totally impossible to get to grips with. If you’re experienced with racing games, the only challenge is the course itself.

It’s the same with this: if you’ve never played with Kinect, there’s a smaller learning curve, because you’re using hand gestures and movement. You need to get used to the movements in Steel Battalion early on. Once you’re familiar with that, the challenge comes in what each level of the game has in store for you.

Finally, is there a multiplayer in the game? If so, is it co-op or competitive?There’s competitive online play, but it’s not PVP. It’s PVE – so you have up to four players and you all have to accomplish the same mission.

Were you ever tempted to do a 4-player co-op mode where the player and four friends had to sit in the same room performing different tasks in order to run the Mech as a team?

Well, in the very early stages we had thought of a 32-player mode where players control a vertical tank and you had you and your friends controlling this massive tank.

Seriously?Seriously! Of course, then we had to rethink that because players would fight over who gets to control the gun. I mean, most players would rather control the gun than sit in the engine room or work in maintenance wouldn’t they?





Nick Cowen © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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