TimeShift Interview 360, PS3, PC

After many delays, reworkings, changes of publisher and, in all honesty, complete turnarounds in story and content the much awaited TimeShift by Saber Interactive has at last found itself on the final road to being released. With the game now confirmed to be heading to PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 later this year we thought we’d have a chat with James Bonti, the game’s associate producer to hear his thoughts on the game. How much has really changed since that demo you played way back in early 2006?

Q: Could you tell us your name and position within Vivendi please?

Hi, I’m James Bonti and I’m the associate producer on Timeshift for Vivendi Sierra.

Q: You’ve been keen to define the time shifting abilities as in integral part of gameplay, can you give us some example of this as opposed to instances where time mechanics have been previously used as a mere gimmick?

Well, it’s an integral process in several ways. For instance, we have circumstances where a rocket may be coming towards the player so if it’s heading straight at you, you can use the time power to either reverse, slow down or stop the flow of time. Now, if you opt for ‘stop’ or ‘slow down’ you have the opportunity to shoot the rocket and blow it up in mid air – actually, if you shoot it close enough to the rocket launcher you’ll blow the guy up that’s holding it. This is just one instance, but we have many examples throughout the game where the manipulation of time is a key feature, but it’s also an integral part of our general gameplay mechanics. We want the player to experiment with the time features and the game’s Havoc physics engine throughout.

Q: We’ve seen the example where you use time to freeze a rocking pipe in order to create a temporary bridge. Are there many other puzzle elements like this in the game?

There are several different types of puzzle throughout the game and we’re still refining them at this point. As we’re playing through the game in quality assurance, we’re checking to see which are really fun and intuitive and which aren’t. Those that disappoint are being removed.

Q: Your time suit has a new character personality called SAM. How does she define herself throughout out the game and does that definition change at all?

SAM right now is a simple AI system that’s going to help you throughout the game and give you suggestions on what time powers you should use. She’s basically going to gently guide you and give you your objectives. Ultimately, the plot centres around you and your suit going through this adventure together.

Q: There’s also an element there of her malfunctioning, isn’t there? Does that become a key part of the plot at all?

At the beginning of the game, yes. You start off in a standard first-person manner. Then, thanks to a crisis that threatens the suit, it auto recalls you in order to save itself. It’s in this initial jump back through time that the malfunction happens and, as a result, you play through a skewed sequence of the event you’ve just witnessed. The key factor here is that SAM now has the ability to control the flow of time.

Q: So what percentage of the original game has been retained? And what sort of difficulties have the development team been facing in integrating an existing structure into this new format?

Well, we originally had 34 levels, just to put the changes into context. What we’ve done is remove the first three levels and we’ve created three new ones from the ground up. We’ve also completely revamped the final level. Originally the first three were loosely based around a tutorial theme, but we found they were just too slow. We’ve also reduced the number of levels to 24 – basically, the ones we felt were the most dramatic, most impactful, and full of fun gameplay. We’re currently re-evaluating all the remaining levels and we’re going through piece by piece to try and make sure we bring the best experience to the player

Q: Were there major difficulties in welding the old and new elements together or is everything structurally seamless now?

Yeah, everything’s definitely structurally seamless. What we did was we removed the initial story and then we hired a writer, Michael Hall. Michael’s mainly been working out of LA, but he’s also been out to Russia and has been involved with the project for several months. As a result, everything’s coming together and is pretty cohesive now.

Q: So he took the existing levels and their narration and married them up then?

Exactly.

Q: Did you have to do a storyboard for him initially, or did you let him play the game and say ‘can you create a story that integrates these new elements’?

Michael basically pulled apart the original story and the original game. Now we’re constantly getting builds over to him and updating storyboards so he’s completely in the creative loop.

Q: How does Chrone engineer his take over of the world? Previously he went back in time and sets everything up and then shoots himself. Is that still in there or is that part of the structure that has been changed?

The whole story has been changed. Previously there were 18 minutes of FMV, this has now been removed. We’re currently rerecording four minutes of FMV and it’s going to be more dramatic with some really cool visual twists. The main aim here is to lay out the new story for the player. So, no, Chrone doesn’t go back and shoot himself. He still has an Alpha suit – the precursor of SAM – and he still travels to an alternate timestream. What happens next is you end up getting the beta suit and jumping across to his timestream. Your suit gets damaged and the only way to get out of there is to get his suit. That’s the basic premise of the plot.

Q: Are there any weapons in the game that benefit from the timeshift ability? Previously you could temper the ferocity of certain fire fights and use the sniper rifle in a more measures manner. Has this combination made it through, and are there any other elements like this?

With all the guns, you have the ability to slow, stop and reverse time, As such, you can find some really interesting ways to use them. One cool example is that the Havoc physics system allows you to shoot a guy in mid air after an explosion. Once shot, he’ll drop his gun. You can then catch that weapons and move forward into the level.

Q: Do the time physics work with grenades as well?

Definitely. In the game’s multi-player we have implemented the three time systems into grenade based weapons – i.e. reverse, stop and slow. You can actually throw them and use them to obtain tactical advantages throughout the combat. So, if you have ‘time slow’ you throw it down to create a bubble which you can trap an enemy in. Once you do, they start slowing down and then you can rip them apart

Q: Involving time mechanics must make ‘capture the flag’ styled matches a real nightmare.

Well, it’s not going to work the way we have operating in single player – you won’t be able to control the whole world around you with your time mechanics. The effects are localised. So you throw a ‘stop’ grenade down as your opponent jumps for the flag and he’ll just stop in mid air. Then he looks at you and you look at him and then you just take him out. It’s great fun.

Q: How have the dev team coped working on the project for such a long time? For instance, has it been hard keeping the levels of motivation up?

The game has been through a few iterations as you know but this last push is really a push for quality. From Sierra’s point of view we’ve taken people from the FEAR team, namely Chris Miller, and we’ve got Kyle Peschel, of course, still working on it. Then there’s me and Ryan French from Scarface and we’re also pulling in programmers and sound people from Radical too. If you’re working on something for so long there’s only so far you can push people. But now everybody can see the hard work’s starting to pay off with Sabre Interactive reaching such a high level of quality. Everybody is suddenly re-energised and we’re just trying to get it out and finish it and create the best game we can.

Q: has there been any new blood coming to the project at all?

Originally, Sabre had like 25 people on the team and now we’re up to 75 and we’re getting a tremendous amount of work done on each build. So, quite an influx of talent, yes.

Q: Surely mixing the capricious nature of altering time with the first-person format must be some kind of logistical nightmare. Are there any tactics you have in place to tackle the strange elements of causality? For example, can you shoot yourself in your own head, or is the level design so tight those kind of things don’t happen?

We really wanted to create an experience that everybody can enjoy – something that generates plenty of those ‘wow’ moments, you know? We want people to have fun using the time powers whenever they want, but we also kind of want to lean towards using certain powers at certain times. This helps us to create situations that are more impactful for the player. For instance, previously if you were to use the reverse power at any given time you could press reverse for 12 seconds and then you would see guys spawning into the level. Obviously, some issues there. So, while we don’t want the player to feel like they’re being lead through the events of the game, we need to protect against instances like this. So there’ll will be areas SAM will guide the player away from something that could possibly lead to broken gameplay and frustration.

Q: Are there still aerial combat elements?

Yes. We condensed a few of the aerial levels and merged them together and we’re currently streamlining them. We hope to end up with a really kick ass aerial level.

Q: With the idea of time as a backdrop, where might future iterations of the game go? Are we ever going to see marines versus pirates or a raptor ripping up a shopping centre?

Well, in this iteration there are no raptors or ninjas. What it comes down to is Vivendi and Sabre being really dedicated to this project and we’re really working hard to make it a triple-A title. We don’t know what the future holds for the game, only time will tell.