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4A Games interview on Games Day


During the recent Games Day video game expo, a small expo in Kyiv, Ukraine, we, at AveGamers, had a chance to speak with Metro 2033 developers, 4A Games. Creative director of 4A games - Andrew Prokhorov aka PROF, senior game designer - Evgeniy Fedorets aka Lin and lead game designer - Slava Aristov aka Must, drinking beer to ease their minds after another day in the long process of developing the awaited sequel, Metro: Last Light, answered our questions about the past, the present and the future. PR campaign for the sequel is not in its full power yet, a lot of things are still kept secret and some things are still being balanced out. And yet, we never hit any "no comments yet" questions. Read on to find out, what we talked about

Diodoroff: A lot of foreign sites say that Metro 2033 is a "Russian game", does it frustrate you?:)

Evgeniy Fedorets: No, actually. It's not frustrating much. It's usually considered a "Russian game" because the story is about Moscow metro, after all.

Andrew Prokhorov: Well, it's sometimes annoying. But not that really.

Dio: I just haven't seen it being said anywhere it was made in Ukraine.

EF: It sometimes is.

AP: They write "Russian game, made in Ukraine". But only the most learned journalists do that.:)

Slava Aristov: Well, Americans don't care who made Call of Duty. If some stereotypical farmer from Texas buys the game, it's because he saw an ad for it during the Super Bowl.:)

Klarden: You were probably asked a lot about it, but... The game is about Moscow metro, but the train cars were...

AP: From Kyiv metro, yeah. We were asked a lot about it. When the game was in development, we were asked about it too: Will you change it later? We were: Sure, no problem! It's just a different texture. But forgot about it. It happens like that: We have to change this! And then it's like: sure, yeah, haha. So it gets in the release version...:)

SA: And we don't know why the war started, anyway.

Kla: The war started because of the wrong train cars, heh. So, the game was in development for quite a long time. And it looked like, for me personally, as if when THQ came on board they just went: ok, guys, now we go and finally finish the game. Or was it different?

AP: When we founded 4A Games, our main quartet - lead designers from STALKER - we were wearing the rose-colored glasses. We were like: We made STALKER! - it was actually in the testing phase - We'll quickly find the publisher and make the game in half a year! But we were searching for a publisher for a year and a half instead. Little financing during that time, so the full production was about two years and a half. It doesn't sound long, but if you add that year and a half, when a small team was trying to find publisher - it's four years of development. And a year and a half went on creating the technology itself. At first it was done in really... Well, Slava and me, we worked since the first day... even since the minus... half a year day.:) And there were no mechanics, nothing. We were creating the game second by second. I mean the demo. Each second had some specific action...

Kla: Kind of a storyboard?

AP: Yeah, it was a linear thing.

Kla: The demo, to show to the publishers, right?

AP: Yes. After half a year we created it, finally. And then, we were searching for a publisher for a year... We were lucky with THQ - they knew us from the STALKER development. Otherwise i don't know how things would've gone...

Kla: They decided to not publish STALKER sequels in the end.

AP: Yep. When we came to them with the demo, they were definitely not sure and suspicious about it. But everything went great after that. We had a really small budget before that moment. But when you find the publisher, everything is great. You have food to eat... *laughs* And before that moment we actually had a local investor, but... Well, local investors are a fun bunch. Once, we were sitting with guys, drinking beer... (to Slava) You tell the story, you had more moments like that. But it often happens like that. "Oh, I heard you were talking about videogames. I had this idea..."

SA: So, we were sitting in the pub. A small nice place on Podol (part of Kyiv). I was with another game designer talking about games. And there's one guy coming up and going : Wow, so, you make games? Maybe he read about it on the internet or something. So he continues: Hey, let's make a game! How much will it cost? I go: Well, which platforms? Two platforms and worldwide release? He's: Yeah, sure! Then I go: Ok, let's count... You need a team of, well, fifty people. Let's think of their monthly pay. Now multiply it by two years of development... So, you give us two million and we start working tomorrow if needed. And POOF the guy was gone. I guess, he was expecting like 10-12 thousand.

AP: Hryvnia. (currently, 1USD=about 8 UAH)

*we laugh*

SA: I mean, of course if someone is just creating some gameplay at home for fun, without cool visuals and stuff - that's one thing. But when there are a lot of people, working on a game each day - that's s completely different thing in terms of money. Everything depends on the amount of people and the development time. But we had people like that guy from time to time. They expect to invest 10 thousand and get 10 times more.

Dio: Recently there was a lot of talk about Metro: Last Light being like CoD. And you did some comparisons yourself several times. What can you tell us about this rumor?

AP: All the talk started after an E3 demo. We had to create a 12-minute demo. And if the demo consists of a character walking in tunnels and "experiencing the atmosphere"... well, it doesn't work for a game expo. So we had to create something fast and intense, something CoD-like. And we still couldn't fit the monsters or any of the atmospheric stuff in it. So this myth was born, that the game will be like Call of Duty. Trust us, it won't be. The main concept was: don't break what works, fix what's broken.

Dio: What was fixed or improved?

AP: Well, the main complaints we had, were about the AI and the weapons. That the weapons were weak... Stuff like that. But, again, it's not that simple. We were thinking: people can't have great weapons in this poor world. People create some handmade bullets. And also we had this... a lot of time was spent on creating the armor system. It was done in a way, that when the bullet hits the armor, game calculates how much energy armor absorbs, and how much hits the body. And we were thinking if we should tell the player about this system or not. We decided that it was interesting to find out on your own, that you better hit enemies in the gap between the armor pieces. But players didn't get it. "I'm shooting at an enemy and he won't die". If we made tooltips, or a tutorial of some kind, people would have fun. But in the end, nobody got it and did not have fun. We learned it the hard way.

Dio: So, what did you do in the sequel: a tutorial or better weapons?

AP: Well... both, I guess. We're not discarding the old idea. We made it easier to understand, made weapons faster and more powerful... But it's still being tested and balanced out. We're still playtesting it.

Dio: Do you have a planned release date? Estimated one?

AP: Erm... someday next year... When it's done:) Definitely not four years later this time.

Kla: Back to the thing with armor... There's this site, called Destructoid, and they once did a non-review of Metro 2033 - reviewer didn't finish the game because, among other things, he didn't get how a headshot couldn't kill and enemy (he hit the helmet). And a year later, just recently, another reviewer decided to give the game another chance...

AP: Yeah, it was really nice of him, by the way.

Kla: And he really liked the feel of the game. So he also had some fears that the survival and the feel of the game will be thrown out to make the game more action-based. It is understandable, that expos need a more action-based demos, like it happened with Hitman, but still...

SA: Yes, videogame shows need demos, filled with wow moments. Later, when the PR campaign will fully start and we will have some dev diaries and will be able to tell more about the game, we will show other ways of playing the game as well.

Dio: So, what platforms do you cover this time?

AP: The same as before plus PS3 aaand plus Wii U... The fun thing about the last one is, that it was our lead programmer, who insisted on a Wii U release. When we went to E3 and saw our game in the Wii U rooster we were like: WHAT? There will be a Wii U version? But, challenge accepted, i guess.:)

SA: And the PS3 version was demoed on TGS.

Dio: Ok, back to the Metro 2033 questions: was there something that you wanted to implement in the game, there were problems while doing it, but in the end you did what you wanted?

EF: Nothing specific, really. It was rather hard as a whole. And I'd call them difficulties, not problems. For example, we had difficulties with making the game varied. It's hard to create a level that has a central theme. And it's hard to make every level varied, yet unique and memorable. We wanted the player to constantly deal with something new and exciting. But no real problems, no. Just difficulties with elements like this.

AP: I would also like to add, that it was hard developing the game without the completed technology. You plan on doing something, knowing that soon there will be means to do that, but you can't just sit doing nothing. So you do it some other way. And in the end you have to redo it entirely, when the proper means are ready.

Dio: Now everything is finalized, you only update it?

AP: Well, you shouldn't really stop with the engine development. There's something new every day.

Dio: Last game had "cool stuff", like tessellation, are you adding something like that in the sequel?

SA: Tessellation is just a render thing - programmers do this stuff. There are other things. We have Game designers, adding new gameplay elements...

We: Mechanics.

SA: Yeah, new mechanics. We have art department, who constantly think of something cool and new. Some flowing dirt, cool particle effects and stuff. And each day we have something new like this. Tessellation is simple. You just write "tessellation=1" or "true".


Dio: If only the programmers were here now to hear it.:)

SA: I mean, the thing is, that's programmers stuff - they work on designers and artists, add new cool stuff. And every day we have something new. The visuals, the optimisations and gameplay mechanics - everything changes every single day. It's not like we took Metro 2033, did something quick and dirty and voila - a new game. No, it's a huge step forward, everything's going to be much more awesome. Mostly it's because we started like: txt, lua-file. 10 seconds, 15 seconds, we have a monster running. Now we have powerful tools, updated daily.

EF: Becoming more user-friendly.

Kla: You have a good toolkit now?

EF: Yes, very good and it gets better with each day.

SA: If we have a chance someday, we would really like to release an SDK, so other people could work with it. There are lots of talented modders out there. A lot of people come to developing games after the modding experience. We have several people on our team who made some mods for STALKER, for example.

Kla: I won't be surprised if Valve has half the staff, who were modders as well.

AP: Because it's one of the best ways to find new talents. We have a severe shortage of game developer professionals in Ukraine. Lots of enthusiasts, mid-level specialists... Well, professionals and modders are different, of course. But talented young people, who already know how to work with you engine - this is always a plus. We did want to release an SDK before. "When will you release it?" "Probably, after we finish the first game." But instead we started working on the second game.

Dio: SDK for mods often implies a non-linear game that has something to add upon its structure.

SA: What about Half-Life?

Dio: People created completely different games based on it.

SA: Well, Counter-Strike is a completely different game, yeah. But it was a technology of a linear game that allowed creating it. Or Team Fortress. Thing is, Source is a very flexible engine, so modders could create some incredible things with it. We hope our engine to be is as flexible. I mean, if someone wants, he can go and create some Space Wars game with it right now.

AP: We are often asked "When will you turn Metro back to STALKER?" No problems.

SA: Yeah, we can do it right now, no problems with that.

AP: No problems with the engine. There is with the setting. We don't want to lower the quality bar we set with the first game, but creating a fully explorable Moscow... it will take a lot of time. We really don't want to work on a game for 6 years.

Kla: I would've been hard to explain with the story as well.

AP: It's not like an open world always asks for an explanation, really. It's just that, entering another six-year development cycle... Everything in this world is evolving very fast now. With STALKER it was: 2004 - we have the best visuals, we're awesome. "We're going to release the game in half a year anyway!" When it was finally released in March 2007 it wasn't looking that great, really.

Dio: But you were working on Metro 2033 already... So, the next game will have a more open world?

AP: Well...

Dio: You were saying that it's hard to make the game varied, how do you deal with this difficulty during the development of the sequel?

EF: It's really hard to combine the cinematic experience with an open world. It's hard to make that every piece of that open world has unique and exciting moments, some interactions for the player. So the game is still focused on a more linear cinematic action approach. There are moments in the game, when player is given more open locations. We decided to think of the best way to vary between the tight-packed cinematic moments and open levels, where player can explore, interact and do some side quests. We're fusing these two approaches in one game.

Kla: So, basically, you have the same idea as with Metro 2033, but evolve it even more?

AP: Yes we do. In a reasonable way.:)

Dio: Any restrictions because of the console versions? In terms of memory, space or design?

Kla: Or optimisation troubles?

AP: No, not really.

EF: We're doing fine, so far.

AP: Not to speak to soon, but we're doing really fine.

EF: Yet, still, the more space you want to have, the less details you can have in it.

We forgot if we wanted to ask anything else and were going to leave, when I suddenly remembered few things.

Kla: Oh, right! The name change. Why exactly was it decided to call it Last Light instead of 2034?

AP: We wanted to go with Metro 2034. A really fun and original name for a sequel, I think. But Glukhovsky said that since his book of the same name was not connected with the game, it would be better to change the name, to avoid confusion.

SA: And the name we have now works really well with the storyline of the game.

Kla: *hint-hint*

SA: Yep. So, to avoid confusion, we changed the name. Otherwise Moscovites would read the book, buy the game and will go "WTF is this?" Oh, sorry, i wanted to say: Moscovites would download the game from torrents...


Kla: "My download rating is more important than this game!"

SA: Yeah, exactly.:) So, we have a different name for a different story.

Kla: Was it profitable to release the game on Steam? It was THQ's decision, right?

SA: Well, we were... it's not really our field, but I think we were in the top games for a while.

EF: We just pressed the magic "upload" button. Not our area of expertise.:)

Kla: And what about the translation of the game and the achievements and stuff? Also THQ work?

SA: Sure.

AP: We sent them the Russian script. They checked it for internationalization stuff, so everything is understandable for English-speaking players. Then they sent the translation back to us. Glukhovsky speaks English well, he checked it...

SA: They had their own great US writer who worked on the localisation. Then he sent the localised text to us, but translated back into Russian. And then Glukhovsky edited the text, so both versions have as less differences as possible.

Dio: About Steam: my girlfriend bought the game first, and then i played it and bought it on a recent Steam sale.

SA: For five bucks, sure.

AP: Yeah, this is why Steam is good.

Dio: Yeah, so it's also to say, that not only manly guys play your game.:)

SA: Good point, by the way. When we were showing the first game at Igromir - it was almost ready back then - we had lots of fans of Metro universe. And there were lots of girls as well. They were excited about the game. When they played a moment where you shoot nosalises with a duplet, they were definitely not expecting the gameplay to be so fast, though.:)

AP: But there were lots of people, who read the book and were interested in the game.

SA: There were people, who never played before. Old or young. And we taught them to play the game, how to use the mouse...

AP: W to walk forward... Touching moment.:)

Kla: Well, the game did feel like a book. I think a lot of people were interested.

SA: It was interesting to see people, who read the book, reacting to the game. Interesting to see if it meets their expectations.

AP: On the other hand, they were the harshest critics as well. "I was expecting this to be different!"


Ave: Thank you for your time.

After the interview, they were answering fan questions on stage. The answers gave more insights about Metro: Last Light.

PC version of Metro: Last Light will have Steamworks support and will be released on Steam.

There will be multiplayer in the game, with unique game modes being developed right now. Developers test it daily, balance the maps and weapons out. On PC it will use the usual Steam conveniences and VAC to fight cheating.

There will also be a co-op game mode, but nothing can be told about it right now.

There will be new mutants in the sequel, having new animations and tactics. But the “main villain” of the game is, pretty much, the people living in the Metro themselves. An important part of the story will revolve around preventing an open war between stations.

Artem will revisit some of the stations from the first game and will see the new ones. Also, much more time will be spent on the surface this time, since he is a Ranger now.

Developers are not planning to create non-Moscow subway games (there are other cities in the expanded universe). But if they release an SDK, modders will be able to create something like that with ease. Interestingly, Andrew explained that before he was given Metro 2033 book, they were thinking about a game in the ruined Kyiv. But "It would be a shame to destroy Kyiv and it wasn't like that with Moscow" they joked, being Kyivians themselves.

While they don't know if Glukhovsky ever finished the first game, he did work on the story for the second one.

Second game will have more anomalies. Developers couldn't find a great way to introduce more anomalies apart from the moment with Khan in the first game. The sequel will have more time for Khan as well. Also, there is a chance Artem will meet the boy he saved in the first game.

The minigun in the E3 demo was created as a wow moment and it will have a smaller role in the final version of the game. But it will be in the game and it's actually also handmade "using alarm clock parts".

The entire E3 demo level was destructible. Final game will be balanced in terms of physics and destruction for optimisations. Also, Metro show stand attendees were apparently very happy with the idea of being given a free soviet-made gas mask.

DX11 will get you the best visual quality, but is not required. nVidia called 3D in Metro 2033 the best 3D in any game on any platform and it will definitely be upgraded even further in the sequel.

They joke, that nVidia really helps them by "inviting them to restaurants". But, obviously, 4A programmers are really happy with the support nVidia constantly gives them with code and driver optimisations.

Yet, there is no "leading" platform for the game. It will be definitely best looking on hi-end PCs, but the game itself is the same on all platforms.

HUD and other interface elements in the sequel will be better and more intuitive. And you will be able to configure the HUD on any difficulty, completely removing it and reticules.

Stealth will also become more intuitive and easier to understand. Most situations of the game will have a stealth approach. You will be able to just kill everyone, or destroy or "unscrew" the light bulbs and use stealth. Someone instantly asked if you will be able to sell the bulbs you've unscrewed, to which devs joked that this is why the game is called Last Light.

The other thing, that will be easier to understand, is the karma system. Sequel will also have multiple endings, but now the story will also be less linear and reacting to player choices.

The game might have a semi-open beta phase closer to the release. There will be a collectors edition of the game and DLCs, but they are unsure at present if THQ will make some pre-order bonuses available. What game will definitely not have is crafting.

And in the end, one person decided to ask the developers, how they came to be in the game development. Slava, apparently, was just lucky, Evgeniy was a dreaming about it and Andrew was always motivated to work in the game industry as well. Answering the question: Do you have anyone with the IT diploma? they joked that "Well, our programmers are supposed to. But we're not really sure."
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About Klardenone of us since 2:37 PM on 08.09.2009