Trading questions with Tom French, lead developer for The Saboteur

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I’ve been pouring hours into The Saboteur, a sandbox game designed under the creative umbrella of World War II historical fantasy. Pandemic Studios put it together, and I managed to e-mail some questions to Tom French of Pandemic before getting my hands on the game itself. I’m coming off playing Assassin’s Creed 2, another history-heavy game, and wanted to see what a World War II game had to offer from the folks who made it. You can see the e-mail Q&A after the jump. Enjoy.

Q: You could have gone various ways with putting a fresh spin on a WWII game. What was it about the aspect of sabotage that made you go in that direction?

A: It was really the inspiration of the larger-than-life real race car driver turned saboteur William Grover-Williams who inspired our hero Sean Devlin. And this is also what pushed us to wanting to make a more “Indiana Jones” type experience rather than your typical WWII soldier story. From there we really did everything we could to not only best serve the character but also separate ourselves from what the typical WWII game is. So our hero is Irish to give him no political motivations in the world, there’s car racing, Sean’s story is very personal not political, the distinct visual style of the game, armored Nazi Terror Squad soldiers, zeppelins that chase you around with mini-guns and more. It was fun to think of what “could” the Nazis have done with their research and create more of the fantasy of the war than an actual historically accurate representation of the war.

Q: Why was it so important to have a character who stood alone, at least ideologically, from such a huge conflict? It’s a revenge tale with WWII as the backdrop.

A: It definitely goes back to that Indiana Jones-type character mentality where his motivations for hating Nazis is very personal to what he believes in. WWII games have been done and in some ways to death, but Nazis are still great bad guys and the almost pulpy high spirited adventure of a racecar-driver-turned-saboteur would really only thematically work in that era. On top of that the gritty film noir influences of the game right down to the visuals really seem to fit with a more harsh revenge type story.

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Q: When you have a standalone character, the temptation is sometimes to bombard the player with that character’s personality — almost to the point where they become overbearing. When you first sat down and started working on Devlin, what kind of characters served as models for him? What am I supposed to think when I see and hear him?

A: We wanted Sean to be that action hero everyone wishes they could be in their hearts. He’s tough but still grounded and rough around the edges. We wanted Sean to go from a selfish man and go through the story and come out a hero on the other end. We also wanted keep him light hearted like John McClane in “Die Hard.” He’s in a tough situation but is still funny and it keeps him likable rather than a miserable brooding character.

Q: There’s a lot of attention on how you approached the game artistically, alternating between black-and-white and color. You’ve talked before about spending a lot of time on getting it “right.” What were the dangers of getting it wrong? What factors did you have to consider?

A: Getting it wrong would have basically broken what is essentially a very core mechanic of the game. Without the work we put into it, the black and white could have come off flat like an old movie or too dark like a lot of film noir. In a game where you can run, jump, climb, and race through the streets, being able to navigate the world is extremely important to nail. In the end what we need to get right is a world that even in the harsh black and white areas is very “readable” and still sells the mood of the world in a very direct way, and I think we definitely accomplished that.

Q: Talk a little bit about the melee system, since Sean, at the outset, seems like he would be a very physical type of character.

A: Having a melee system in the game was important for Sean to start off as a fighter but not a soldier. We wanted him to grow and learn guns as part of his story as much as it is part of the gameplay. He has a wide variety of brawler type attacks: punches, grabs, throws, head-butts, and kicks that allow him to fight several enemies in multiple directions. It’s great because it always gives Sean a tool even when his MP40 runs out of ammo.

Q: What was your approach (and some of the ideas bounced around) to how destructability would factor into the gameplay? It seems like it’s more than just blowing things up to be rid of them.

A: In a game called The Saboteur it would be hard not to have things to blow up. In a way, this is also part of the Pandemic brand and the types of games we make. We didn’t want to make everything destructible in the world because you’re not trying to destroy Paris but instead are trying to fight against the Nazis in it. In the missions we have some very key set piece type destruction moments and in the general sandbox there are lots of different destructible aspects of the occupation. These items are things like sniper towers, tanks, generals, AA emplacements, and more. For us this is like a collections mechanic but instead of the traditional open world collections where you’re just finding hidden objects, you’re blowing them up instead and they can often fight back against you when you’re in the missions or even just wreaking havoc in the sandbox. Destroying them rewards you not only contraband (our currency in the game which you can use to spend at the black markets to get more gear and upgrades) but removes them from the world forever which impacts how you escape the alarms in the world or even approach a mission objective.

Q: If you had more time to work on the game, what are some of the other things you would have wanted to put in or flesh out? Any good ideas that just didn’t make it in?

A: Every time you ship a game there’s always a wish list of things that hit the cutting room floor you wish you could put in the game. For us it was some more options in the combat of the game like meat shields or enemy dogs. Not essential to the game but just extras that fit more into that “would be nice” category. The good thing is we have all the features in the game we really felt were core to the fantasy of being a race car driver turned saboteur such as stealth kills, disguise, gunplay, driving/races, and the ability to climb everything in the world to find the occupation to sabotage.

Q: Devlin can practically climb on everything in the game, which will remind people of other climbing game characters i.e. Altair from AC or Cole from inFAMOUS. This gives the game a playful, open sandbox feel — talk a bit about the concept of exploration in the game. What are some goodies that Sean can find?

A: Yeah, having this type of mechanic is great because it really does allow you to use every part of the world from the ground to the rooftops. I remember when AC was announced, we were already working on The Saboteur and were a bit disappointed someone beat us to the punch, but as you can see with games like Infamous and Prototype it’s becoming almost a standard in these types of games. Aside from that layer of occupation type targets I mentioned before (sniper towers, AA guns, etc) there are other non-aggressive type collections to find in the world: post cards at all the major monuments (like being a virtual tourist), top spots for you to climb up to and find, resistance supply crates, and sweet jumps for you to launch off in your car. There’s about 1300 of these types of “collectibles” layering the game, constantly giving the player something to do outside the main missions of the game. Because the sheer volume of these could (and most likely would) be extremely frustrating we didn’t want the player having to hunt online for their locations. So instead, the player can use contraband to purchase maps of the different districts from the black market. Those maps will then show you where all the collectibles are. It creates a nice loop where you blow things up in the world then go back to the shops to find where you can blow up more. Basically this is great because it allows the player to play the story, enjoy the pure sandbox of the game, or a combination of both.