Ubisoft has big plans for the Ghost Recon series in 2012: Future Soldier for consoles and PC is weeks away from release, while Ghost Recon Online launches for PC next month and Wii U later in the year. Sitting between those two games is Ghost Recon Commander, a social game for Facebook and iOS in which players can unlock items for use in its PC and console stablemates. It's been developed by Loot Drop, the California studio set up in 2010 by Doom creator John Romero and his wife-to-be and fellow industry veteran Brenda Brathwaite. We spoke to Commander project lead Brathwaite about how the studio came to be involved in what, as the first Facebook game to be based on, and be integrated with, a core IP, could be a landmark moment in the evolution of social games.
What is it about social games that appeals to you as a designer?
Many things. First and foremost, it’s a relatively new platform with new ways to play, and it’s not been fully explored yet. I love the idea of making games for millions of people who have not traditionally played games before, especially more hardcore games like those in the Ghost Recon series. Because technology isn’t a barrier here, we’re at a stage where good design and good art stands out. In a sense, it reminds me of games in the mid to late 1980s.
The announcement trailer goes out of its way to pitch Commander as a proper gamer's game – is it that core focus that drew you to the project?
I’ve been a long-time Ghost Recon fan, going back to the first game in the series. I’ve played literally hundreds of hours of Ghost Recon. In fact, my incessant tweeting about playing it is what made Ubisoft approach Loot Drop about the game. So, for me, this was a dream project. I wanted to create something that took advantage of the platform, and the Facebook standards like the friend ladder, without forcing people into the some of the more trying aspects of Facebook games.
Do you feel any pressure using an established IP right off the bat like this, especially a core-focused one? Or is that an advantage?
I think it’s a little of both. Ghost Recon is an excellent franchise and, of course, it’s impossible not to feel pressure. That said, with tons of games on Facebook, having a strong IP is a great advantage.
It's certainly a departure from Ravenwood Fair. What were the most important lessons you learned when working on that game that have affected your development philosophy on Commander?
I made this game with a team of people who were game developers, and they let design direct the development and iteration of the game. To people in the game industry, this may not sound like a given, but in the Facebook game space, it’s not. There are really two different cultures at play when it comes to Facebook games. Most of the early companies in this space came from the web application world, and view games and their making differently than traditional game developers. Making this game was an incredible joy.
Social and 'core' game development are two markedly different disciplines. How much of your previous experience applies to social games? Is there much overlap?
There are new things to be learned, absolutely. So many things. That was a part of what drew me to making social games in the first place; learning about the platform and the new player is an ongoing thing, and it’s often a disconnect on one or both of these things that makes game designers coming from the traditional space stumble. They overestimate the player’s knowledge, change the interface too much because they’re going to "do it right", or fail to learn the mathematical models that players will tolerate, enjoy or celebrate.
Everything I knew still applies, but it’s shifted in a way that it’s never shifted before. Even going back to the Apple II, changing from machine to machine brought with it – more or less – the same audience. The same cannot be said of Facebook. That player has a style all his or her own. I guess the best thing that my experience has given me is the constant knowledge that I still have a lot to learn. The space is also rampant with copycats. We didn’t talk about the game until the last possible marketing minute for that precise reason.
You're developing the game for Facebook and iOS, and on top of that you're also working on integration with two different games on four different platforms. How will this integration work?
Hah. It sounds alarming to read it all out like that. “I have to do all that, by when?!” Basically, through Ubisoft’s uPlay, the games unlock things in the other games. So, if you’re playing Commander, you can unlock items in Online or Future Soldier. The same applies to their games. You can even unlock characters to play in our game. In the future, we’ve discussed doing some more interesting stuff in which the live games can work jointly.
And what are iOS and Facebook like to develop for, compared to the platforms you've worked on in the past?
I really enjoy the iOS ecosystem overall. Our office is all Mac, so it’s an environment we’re all comfortable in. With Facebook, the technical limitations of Flash can sometimes be limiting. You can only do so much in it, and we have pushed it to the absolute wall to bring this game out.
Are you getting much support and resources from Ubisoft and the Future Soldier and Online teams, or being left to your own devices?
Yes and yes. Ubi’s been great to work with so far. The teams talk every week, and I’m in regular contact with our producer. What I loved about this process was that within a week of us talking to Ubi about the game, I knew precisely what I wanted to make. Ubisoft let me do it. They trusted that we got the Facebook space and knew that we loved the franchise enough to do our best by it.