Ghost Recon Wildlands Lead Designer Talks Open World, Customization

Hardcore Gamer got to speak with Dominic Butler, the lead designer behind Ghost Recon Wildlands. Butler was able to speak about the design of the systems in the game as well as its overall vision.

[Hardcore Gamer] So what would you say is the biggest change to the Ghost Recon series that this game makes other than the open-world and the co-op?

[Dominic Butler] Well, in fact that is the big change, the big change is not necessarily the open-world, but it’s the fact — it’s the freedom of choice. Ghost Recon has always been like a tactical military shooter, but now, leveraging the power of the modern consoles and the PCs, we’re able to give a world with a kind of strong narrative, lots of things to do, lots of systems happening at once, but allowing the player to approach that and engage with that in any order they want. I think that’s the biggest change for us. And that comes with the co-op, it comes with that open world, but at its heart, it’s still a Ghost Recon game and it’s still made by teams that have made Future Soldier and previous Ghost Recon titles, so they know the brand very well. They have wanted to make this, they’ve wanted to make this game, actually for quite a while, but it’s a massive technical hurtle, so now they’ve been able to realize it and finally we’re able to put it in your hands today.

How was that for the team, making the pretty drastic shift from that to what Wildlands is?

It’s definitely been a learning experience for us. It’s definitely a design challenge, it’s a technical challenge, you know, how do we fit all this into a world without any loading when going from one area to another, how do we make sure it still makes sense for players that want to join each other’s games because they can join in different parts of the narrative arcs? So it’s a challenge for sure, but what’s important was it was something that we wanted to do from the outset, so when it came to really day one, what is the next version, what is the next evolution of Ghost Recon going to be, it was about that freedom of choice, the freedom to play the way you want, move where you want, engage how you want, and so that’s informed all of our decisions since then, if that makes sense. So we didn’t necessarily have all the answers on day one on how we were going to do that, but we knew we wanted to do it, we knew we were confident we could, and it has just meant that every time we discussed new AI options or new tools or new things like oh wouldn’t it be great if we were able to do this with this, or let the player do x-y-z, it always had to immediately pass through that filter of like, is it in support of that freedom of choice, is it sort of making it a better experience for the player?

You can really do whichever boss takedown you want at any time, but there’s some leveling, where some will be harder and some will be less difficult — how drastic is that?

Yeah, it can be quite severe, and in terms of how we restrict the player or how do we lock certain areas that might be too difficult for you. In fact, we decided to go the other way, and say that look, if we’re going to talk about freedom of choice, and I mean you can move wherever you want, then I have to be free to just get on a road and just keep driving, regardless of where it takes me, and through what province, and what I might see. And I need to be able to do that, and that means that I am going to find myself sometimes going up against heavier forces, things that — areas with much tighter security, with regular helicopter patrols, with a lot of UNIDAD guys, one of our factions that is very well equipped with heavy armor, you know, really serious guys, but we make sure to do is highlight not only on the Tac-Map you can see immediately, even if you haven’t done any missions in the province, you’ll be able to see ahead of time, because this is going to be largely, not narratively difficult to complete, but it’s just the enemies, the types of things you’re going to see, the camp ingredients that we use in that province are going to be more difficult, right? There’s going to be a lot of surface to air missiles, you know, things like this, and drone jammers, and electrified fences, and things like this that the player is going to have to deal with, as well as the regular challenge of dealing with the AI, right? And so we want to make sure that the player has — can definitely understand it, and see, but what we don’t want to get into is a situation where we say oh you’re a level three and you need to be level five to enter this province, so there’s like a big invisible wall blocking you from entering it. We wanted to make sure that we never did that. So yes, sometimes you can go up against a challenge that’s too much for you, but that’s ok and actually it’s kind of fun because it’s the times when sometimes you’ll just do something crazy to get out of that situation and then you find oh, that kind of worked, and you know, now I’m going to try doing that in a slightly more controlled way, and that can be fun too, right, is like getting access to high level enemies gives you something to aspire to and say, you know what, I’m going to level up, I’m going to get higher ordinance, I’m going to get better explosives, get better, more advanced recon stuff so I can really identify everybody in the camp before I go in. That’s going to give me that advantage the next time I go after these guys. That’s something you can do with our progression system. We make sure to give you all the cool tools that you need to play the way you want.

And then you can even go after El Sueño first?

You do need to go after his lieutenants. I don’t know if you got a chance to see our cartel overview, so you have your provinces, so you’ve got 21 provinces, and the provinces are largely to bosses that are relative to the local industry, right? So you’ve got four main operations in the cartel, the smuggling, production, influence, and security, and these are like the different aspects of the business, basically. And so you’ve got bosses that are associated with those guys, but it’s largely based on what’s happening in that province, so is it a province where there are a lot of training camps? In that case, it’s probably going to be security, or maybe it’s somewhere where they’re doing a lot of smuggling, so it’s got like docks and it’s convoys and routes and things like that. And so you’ll have bosses associated with that. You do need to do a certain amount of destabilization of the cartel before you can go after Sueño, but you don’t have to do 100% of the stuff before you go after him.

With the customization of the characters and guns, how does that affect the overall gameplay and co-op?

We have from the outset a character customization, so you get to set your gender and your race and your hair and tattoos and clothes that you’re wearing and things like this, and there’s really a kind of visual look that you’re customizing is how they look and how you appear to other Ghosts. On top of that you’re going to do customization of your loadout on a macro level, like what am I going to take onto the field with me? C4, mines, flare guns to attract enemy factions and cause a faction fight and that kind of stuff. And then on a more micro level you’ve got your actual weapons, so the Gunsmith comes back from previous Ghost Recons, and this allows you to really get close and intimate with the weapons, but also to attach different types of real world attachments that are going to modify how that weapon handles and feels, and the damage and the noise and basically all the different parameters can be affected. It’s not always going to be boosts, sometimes you’ll opt for more piercing damage, but you’re going to be noisier, right? So you’re going to make that choice based on how you play, what suits you. You’ll also be able to add different paints to your weapon to make it look nice because that’s something that we know our players like to do as well. And it’s really about like all of those things coming together to make the Ghost kind of look and then also play the way you want.

How did gun customization affect how you designed the maps and the world?

I was again knowing that — it comes back to that first point of the freedom of choice to use whatever want, you know? So we have the different vehicle types if that’s different ways to get around the world, but also how you interact with the world, whether you go for shotguns or snipers or LMGs or assault rifles or whatever that may be, whether you tend to be a noisier player, you go in more assault, or you’re very quiet and a lot more long range, or some kind of mix of the two, this is something that knowing we were going to have those options right from the beginning, that the player has a loadout, it’s not a case like in previous games where we’ve got a linear level, you’re going to play a series of these linear levels, and at the start of the level we’re going to give you a specific loadout or a choice of two or three, but within a small range, because we know this suits the level. And knowing from the outset that we were going to say it’s up to you, you’re going to have a chance to find new weapons and new equipment, well that means we’ve got to build camps, we’ve got to build a world that supports that too. So it does mean a lot of iteration, it does mean a lot of play and replay and rebuild and you can’t really fight it, it’s happening. We knew we were going to do it, we were committed to it across the board, and so it was just in the same way, we had to learn how to tell stories in a world like this. We also had to learn how to build our worlds in a situation like this.

What was the gameplay element that was kind of hardest to implement? We assume it was the freedom of choice?

Yeah, freedom of choice, but I mean in terms of very specific element I would say one of the most difficult was definitely having a narrative system that — having a narrative system that A. allows me as a player to interact with it at different points of let’s say a bigger story, right? So it’s not like I deal with these two guys, then these two guys, then those two guys, then discover that he’s the brother of him, and then keep moving in quite a linear fashion. In fact, I could start doing these missions in this province, and then before I finished it, just keep kind of wandering following a convoy or whatever, and I end up in another province, oh now I’m doing something else, you know, you can always come back, but I start to unlock other stuff so I partially do the story here or partially do it there, and then I complete this, and I max out all the smuggling stuff because I love those missions, and that’s — that already represents a challenge in how do you tell a story that’s interesting and makes sense and is something that I want to see through to the end. And then you add the fact that we can do it in solo or co-op, and the co-op, every other player that joins is going to have their own progression, so we have a system that merges those for the session, and lets you keep playing, and let’s you not have to go back to the menu or say ok, I’m going to load into your world and whatever your reality is, I’ll play it, and then when I’m done, like your progression has gone very well and now I go back and I load my progression and I play my game — I’m always playing my own progression, what we do is we merge them so that we can do missions together, it’ll count for both of us, but the ones that you’ve completed and I haven’t, they won’t auto-complete on my side, but we will be able to replay together those missions to make sure we’ve both got them done if we want. And I think that, making this story compelling, makes sense, allowing you to engage with it and then say oh, by the way, you can do it in co-op as well, that, I think, as a big feature, that’s probably the most challenging for us.

There was something we asked Nouredine about — it was about drop-in, drop-out co-op. How important is it for people who don’t know each other but drop into someone’s game that they don’t know to be able to talk on microphones to each other?

When you’re in more micro sense, in a tactical military shooter, it’s going to be pretty important for when you’re making decisions, but we’re also aware that sometimes people don’t like talking on the mics, and some don’t have them, sometimes there’s a language difference, you know, there’s all sorts of reasons you might not have it, and there’s always going to be an advantage when you’re talking. You see it in the demos we did today, the teams that you hear a lot of chatter between them, even if it’s kind of small stuff, it’s still going to be more effective as a group because they know what’s going on, but it’s not restricted to that, so what we’ve made is we’ve got an order wheel, a command wheel, that you, when you’re playing in solo you use to give orders to your AI teammates. Very simple stuff, you’re not micromanaging them, so it’s like on me, or fire, or like hold this position, that kind of stuff to kind of supplement the stuff they do anyway. When you’re in co-op, those options change to like simple commands, simple communications to the other guys like hey, let’s go, or good job, or like small things that are there to kind of emulate the non-verbal stuff. So that is to kind of keep communication channels open, so you can quickly just pop a yup, OK let’s go or whatever, so you just get that as a message in the corner, but you also have the ability, like in solo play, you can put a beacon if you want to mark an area and say I’m going to go here, so you set a beacon. But you’ve also got in co-op, you’ve got a ping, which sort of works in a very similar way, but it lets you kind of say, look, I — you can imagine if there’s four of us and we’re all trying to place the same beacon, it’s going to get shifted all around, because you’re seeing hey, there’s a sniper over here, and you want to tell me I see enemies over here, but you can’t literally point on my screen, so you mark something, and then I go but I’m looking at something over here, and then I’m shifting it around and it becomes a mess. So what we have in co-op is that each of us can have a particular mark, so I can say hey, there’s a guy here, and then you can leave a mark and all of those marks appear for all of us in that session, so it’s not ever going to replace regular verbal communication, but we’re very aware that it’s not always the case and we want all players to be able to keep up and play together.

There you have it — more about how the game was designed and what options you’ll have when the game releases on March 7. Be sure to check out the rest of our Ghost Recon Wildlands coverage throughout the week, including our in-depth preview here and our interview with Senior Producer, Nouredine Abboud, here.