At some point we as gamers have a desire to delve back into a particular genre or partake in certain scenarios. The only downside to such a feeling is the fact that our needs and wants may not be fulfilled due to a multitude of reasons, one of which is the somewhat dour occasion of a game not existing to provide what we want the most.
We may have dozens of different genres represented in games today, a few of which are actually hybrids that combine things to provide new experiences. Yet when it comes to good old-fashioned tactical combat games there’s been a gaping hole in the games industry. With the advent of modern warfare titles such as Call of Duty, the tactical combat genre has sadly fallen aside in recent years since blowing stuff up real good is more appealing to some folks rather than expertly engaging in combat with nothing but headshots.
Though the big publishers in the games industry may be content with giving us the same old stuff, the developers at Special Operations Force Studios have stepped up to the plate to provide the tactical combat experience some gamers have been waiting years for. The game in question is H-Hour: World’s Elite, a new tactical combat title that is being headed up by former Zipper Interactive Creative Director David Sears (SOCOM 1, SOCOM 2).
Utilizing his expertise developing games in the tactical combat genre, H-Hour is not only looking to follow in the steps of the SOCOM series but to improve the tactical combat genre in various ways. You can find out how David and the team at SOF Studios are planning to revitalize things with H-Hour in this lengthy interview.
Ian Fisher: Can you talk a bit about how the concept for H-Hour: World’s Elite came about? Obviously you have a background in developing tactical combat games given your time at Zipper Interactive, but has this concept been brewing for a while now and more importantly what made you and the dev team want to do the game now?
David Sears: Sure. This project isn’t really my return to tactical shooters. Until fairly recently I was creative director for Rainbow Six: Patriots for Ubisoft. I haven’t gone too far from the genre and have definitely been keeping my eye on it.
SOF Studios was founded to make tactical, team-based military shooters and they needed someone to direct and design their first game so they hired me to handle that part for them.
I think the founders and more importantly the shooter gaming community, really wants a return to gaming that requires and rewards skill, isn’t about all the add-on stuff such as kill streaks, and focuses on core gameplay, community/clan support, and plausible authenticity that honors the contributions of military men and women around the world. It’s a project predicated on putting the gamers and real world heroes first. I think that’s overdue so the time is now.
Ian: In some ways H-Hour is a spiritual successor to the SOCOM series but it’s seeking to do more within the genre rather than being more of the same. So what are your big goals within H-Hour to not only expand the tactical combat genre beyond what was delivered in SOCOM, but to evolve it as well?
David: You’re right, it’s at its heart a recreation of what was fun about those early games and the chance to address some of the flaws (based on community input). It’s a lot more though, as you say. The original design for SOCOM was always subtly or not so subtly reminding players that teamwork and tactics would get you closer to victory than being reckless. We’re building in mechanics that even more overtly encourage players to cooperate as teams and in smaller groups within teams.
The original SOCOMs did as much as we could to foster clan and community but they were, in some ways, ahead of their time. Today we see less rather than more clan support, though there are exceptions. H-Hour is one of those exceptions. You’ll be able to create and manage your clan from within the game itself and easily issue and manage clan challenges. Plus with analytics behind them, clan leaders will be able to better guide and identify players who need improvement with different aspects of their play.
Another improvement that players can expect is a game with production values that match those of AAA blockbusters while maintaining the pure core gameplay people loved about the first SOCOMs. We’re not going to try to match big publishers in terms of numbers of maps and game modes but instead concentrate on making fewer maps and game modes better all the while paying close attention to new design possibilities that the technology now offers.
Ian: An interesting aspect of H-Hour is how the gameplay mixes the 3rd and 1st person perspectives for general navigation and actual combat. Was this always the decision for H-Hour or were other avenues originally pursued? And in general will this be the only way to play/experience the game or will additional elements be provided (such as first-person only view), whether it’s at launch or later via DLC?
David: The inclusion of first and third person POVs was always planned for H-Hour. First person is more for precision shooting and creating the feeling that you are closer to your targets while third person offers a greater sense of situational awareness. By default and by design players are free to switch these views as they feel the situation demands. Having said that they will also be able to limit the view to either or both POVs in online matches. This will be available at launch.
Ian: There’s certainly an audience out there that’s yearning for a realistic/grounded tactical shooter, whether it’s of the first or third person variety. With that said, how are you and the team approaching things given how long it has been since we’ve received a proper tactical combat game amidst all the “blockbuster” like titles such as Call of Duty and Battlefield? Are you and the development team just going full-on with an approach that’s more grounded, or are you considering leveraging those elements with some that we see in other games today – minus of course going into full-on action spectacle territory that makes for an absurd experience?
David: Our approach is to have AAA production values but grounded, team-based gameplay. You could say “looks like CoD, plays like early SOCOM.” We’re saying no to long cinematics and yes to parallel animated events that happen around you as you play. No long walk-and-talks. Story happens best when your character and your actions are the focus of the game. And really Special Forces operators are all about focus. The world can be exploding around them and if it isn’t going to blow them up, they stay on mission and it’s only after that mission that they can reflect on the bigger picture. For gamers who want to return to addictive core gameplay, all the super expensive movie stuff isn’t as important as the feel of the game itself.
Concept art for H-Hour: World's Elite
Ian: Sometimes the single-player portion of a tactical combat game can be looked upon as an afterthought since the multiplayer mode is usually the main attraction. How is the development team approaching the single-player side of things and what sort of tone will the story have, particularly when it pertains to the chatter between the members of the squad?
David: You are so right about that. This is why we’ve chosen to focus entirely on multiplayer first, then to shift most of the team to single player after launch. With a smaller studio it’s difficult to do both at once and to do both justice.
The point of view of our stories is very human-centric meaning as much as possible we want to communicate the emotional state of the main character, his team, the noncombatants and the enemy through animation and strong vocal performances. Overall the tone is very serious and this is certainly reflected in the dialogue. Expect some moments of levity between the good guys though because this is exactly how they are in real life. We intend to give players a window into what that real life is really like.
Ian: A key element of any tactical combat game is the weapons roster and how they can subsequently be altered by the player through noteworthy mods such as scopes, suppressors, and other key pieces of tactical gear. So can you delve a bit into what you and the team at SOFs are prepping for H-Hour? Will things be fairly straightforward in the weapons department are you looking at doing things a bit differently?
David: Players will be able to customize their weapons in plausible ways. So no shotguns with suppressors and scopes. But if Special Forces (or terrorists for that matter) configure their real world weapons in a certain way, players will be able to do that.
We will launch with quite a few weapons and then regularly release additions—both weapons and attachments—in conjunction with DLC. All players will receive the new weapons at no cost but we hope that people will also buy the low cost DLC at the same time.
Finally, I often say it’s not about the weapon, it’s about the operator. In order to give players the opportunity to become skilled with every weapon, we’re creating an advanced ballistics model that simulates—in a fun way—most of the physical parameters of the firearms, flight trajectories, and human biomechanics. Working in conjunction with a real world weapons engineer, we intend to get the balance of ballistics and fun gameplay right.
H-Hour: World's Elite concept art
Ian: I know it’s still relatively early in the development of H-Hour, but without saying more than you can, what sort of multiplayer game modes can we expect in the game? Will we roughly see modes that pertain to things such as bomb defusing and protecting a target NPC, or will there be a few unexpected modes that we previously haven’t seen in a tactical shooter before?
David: Absolutely you will see the return of game modes inspired by what was once called ESCORT, DEMOLITION, and so on. With superior AI NPCs, of course and some twists to the formulas as player controlled options. Besides that there are two additional all new game modes planned that are different from anything that I’ve seen so far.
Ian: Besides the game modes, what are the main things that you and the rest of the development team are really focused on providing within the multiplayer component of H-Hour? Is the goal just to have a fun and well-balanced game or are you striving to give a new sense of tactical freedom and options to players that will keep them coming back for more?
David: Goal number one is definitely a fun and well-balanced game and making that happen is a big job in itself. At the same time we’re creating features that will help new players learn the value of tactics and team work and why run and gun is a risky proposition for them and their teams. Which is not to say that won’t happen in the game because it happens in real life during Special Forces missions. Our approach, like that of the Special Forces, is that it is always better to have a plan even though that plan will probably not survive contact with the enemy. But the plan gives you the edge.
At the same time we are putting a lot of effort into clan management tools so that people can build lasting relationships with one another. It’s important to give players a sense of belonging to a group because it encourages them to work as a team with the success of their clan always in mind.
Ian: With H-Hour you’re going in a direction that sadly few action games do these days as you’re basing the scenarios on real-life Special Operations events. So since the scenarios in H-Hour are based on real events, what sort of approach is the development team taking towards them? Will we see an almost 100% accurate depiction of events pertaining to combat tactics/scenarios, or will these events be used as a template while things are enhanced to make it more approachable within a game?
David: We’re taking the major dramatic moments from those stories and staging them for the game. These range from enemy encounters to very human-centric contact with noncombatants. We do have to be careful to change names, places and to some extent dates to avoid compromising national security of course. And we need to fill in the parts where nothing was really happening to move the player from point A to B where the most intense action occurred. This is a concession to the game being a game. We have the option to merge storylines to create these story “bridges” or to create gameplay that is true to the main story. All this has to be agreed upon with the man who owns the story—the man who lived it.
Ian: On the topic of basing missions/scenarios in the game on real-world events, is it hard to keep things consistent in a way that doesn’t trivialize certain events or in some cases lessens the immediate danger that they imposed? Obviously H-Hour is a video game whose goal is to be fun, but with certain members of the development team being former military veterans has it been hard to make sure that the game is being utterly respectful to those in the military, all while trying to make sure the game conveys the feeling of what it’s like to be on the battlefield?
David: That can be challenging but my academic training is in film, English literature, and weirdly, literary theory and criticism. I also went through a challenging series of creative writing workshops in college. Studying these disciplines taught me to respect the source material, to understand the motivations of characters, and how to create believable worlds, among other things that turned out to be very useful in making games.
And it’s not hard to make a respectful game when you have respect for your colleagues, in this case the retired Special Forces community. Going all the way back to SOCOM I knew that many aspects of a military operation weren’t entertainment—they were pretty miserable or boring. Things such as lying in the mud in weeds for two days waiting on your target to finally show up. Our collaborators understand that we don’t want to create a simulation of their experience but to create a stylized game that resonates with their personal experiences. You choose the most memorable details and present those in a compelling context. Having said all that, multiplayer tends to take on a life of its own that designers may not have intended.
Comedy happens. But if the authenticity in map, weapon, and character design is there, the game still feels authentic. In fact, I think the contrast between some player’s crazy antics and the overall realism in the game’s presentation is something that people really enjoy seeing.
Another look at H-Hour: World's Elite
Ian: Your last official project at Zipper Interactive while being the Creative Director was the massive battlefield action game MAG for the PlayStation 3. There was a good community for MAG since it was an impressive game, but it seemed as if it didn’t reach the initial sales projections/hopes that Sony may have had for it, thus we never saw a sequel. So while the game was far from being a failure since it was fun to play, do you think MAG was just ahead of its time in respect to allowing 256 players partake in huge online battles? Or did it just attempt to do too much and not focus on finer elements?
David: I was the CD [Creative Director] for the studio and started work on MAG, that’s true. It was very ambitious. I think the fundamental design flaw was that it was simply too big and your enemies while, often very far from you, were able to take you out within seconds of your spawning in. Bigger isn’t always better. The managerial overhead that’s required to coordinate 256 players is huge. I know that some people love that kind of challenge but how many of them are there playing shooters? SOCOM was most successful when it focused on the coordinated efforts of smaller groups so while MAG was a cool experiment, it proved to me that it’s not something I’d want to attempt again. In my opinion it’s better to improve on the core gameplay rather than shoot for big numbers of players.
Ian: With the arrival of H-Hour as yet another tactical shooting game that’s seeking to deliver a sense of realism to the gaming world, do you think the tactical combat genre is poised to make a comeback for good? Or will it still be considered a “niche” thing compared to the titles we’re used to seeing as of late?
David: It’s a genre that I don’t think you can every exterminate—done well it’s extremely satisfying. People play tactical shooters and realize that their skills matter. SOCOM was certainly not niche in its heyday. Millions and millions of people played those games and it set online simultaneous usage records. The beautiful part is whether H-Hour is considered niche or not is that the cost of making it is relatively low compared to the “not tactical” AAA shooters I think you are referencing. So even with a niche audience of oh, say two million players, you’ll still be able to find a match online when you want one and SOF Studios will be profitable enough to keep making content and features for that player base.
I’ve said publicly that I don’t think the current AAA model for shooters is sustainable. Production and marketing budgets are astronomical which forces publishers to minimize risk. Or think they are minimizing risk. What we’re seeing is more features that take us farther away from the core design of those games and more homogenization across the board as everyone chasing the number one slot tries to be “just like those guys.” One day in the not so distant future players are going to realize that they’re bored with it and look for alternatives. We intend to be there for them.
Ian: Obviously things can change since the game is still in development, but what’s the road map for H-Hour: World’s Elite right now in terms of being released, both for the PC and PlayStation 4? Will things be delayed a bit if the Kickstarter campaign sadly fails or will that just be a slight bump in the road?
David: Well, failure on Kickstarter would certainly delay things. I can’t really predict how long it would take to get the game made.
Ian: As a developer that has been closely tied to tactical shooting games and simply as a gamer, what are you the most excited about when it comes to H-Hour: World’s Elite?
David: First, the fact that making H-Hour allows me to connect with players on a personal level. On the Kickstarter site there’s very much a feeling of being “in it together” and I look forward to being in it for a long time to come. Regarding the game itself, I’m probably most excited to recreate the experience that so many people loved and to fix some of the flaws that they didn’t—little things that have bugged me for the last seven years or so, and to help usher in the Golden Age of clans. All the rest—features and new content--is exciting but the best part is finally getting to say “there, now it’s perfect!” Or as close as a designer can make a game perfect.
For the folks such as I who played the SOCOM games on the PS2, H-Hour is the closet we'll get to a game that matches the intensity found in that series all while providing the same fun factor - except this time it's wrapped in a brand new package that actually evolves key concepts.
If you're a tactical combat fan that wants to support H-Hour: World's Elite then you may want to scope out the Kickstarter page as the project has eleven days left in its campaign.
I want to extend a huge thanks to David for taking out the time in his schedule to participate in the interview.