Jagged Alliance: Flashback interview - Full Control's CEO on Kickstarter, mods and mercs

Dan Griliopoulos

Copenhagen mini-studio Full Control are avowedly fan-developers, and CEO Thomas Hentschel Lund happily admits it. It's his blessing, after years of pitching, that he's finally working on the Space Hulk game he's always wanted. And now, thanks to bitComposer, he's going to be working on a Jagged Alliance prequel too, which he's attempting to fund through Kickstarter ( Update: the Kickstarter drive will kick off next week). Will it use the same hybrid real-time/turn-based system as the original? Will Ivan be in it? Will it have '80s action movie perms? We caught up with Lund on Monday to find out more.

PC Gamer: So, you're doing lots of things right now. You told me about Jagged Alliance when I saw Space Hulk at GDC but is that it? Do you have more we should know about?

Lund: [laughs] I have more wishes but, no, right now, those are the ones that we're running with. We're what 12, 13, 14? guys now and it's limited how much we can do at the same time.

PC Gamer: Yeah, I can imagine. Obviously I know Space Hulk is relatively limited once you've built the engine and the level editor - you've just got to lay the levels out and stitch them together and that's relatively straightforward - but Jagged Alliance is a big project.

Lund: It's a big project, yeah – it's a huge project. We really really hope that people will back us up on this and give us a lot of money so that we can actually make a really big, cool Jagged Alliance. That's how we would like to have it – I mean obviously there's a limit of what we can expect and what we can actually do on the budgets given; and we don't want to ask for too much and fail because we'd rather make a small really cool Jagged Alliance than fail with a big Kickstarter.

PC Gamer: Yeah these days I think it's much better to start with a low target and have good stretch goals than to start with a high target like the Molyneux and the David Brabens of this world did.

Lund: Yeah and really it's a balance because, as you were saying, Jagged Alliance is a big thing and it has to have tonnes of mercenaries and tonnes of missions. That's how we structured the stretch goals in terms of being able to add more and more mercenaries into the game and more and more individual levels. So we hope that being able to do this core game that we're asking for and then having more and more stretch goals that people can stretch into defines for the community what kinds of features and how much content they can expect. I think the original Jagged Alliance 2 from what I remember that was like $5m project for Sir-tech - that's a number I've heard somewhere on the internet. And that was in 19…90? So that's a shitload of money. So I think that was why they went bankrupt because there was no way they could recoup that.

PC Gamer: Yeah it's interesting to think about how many of these hugely-popular older games were commercial failures for the companies working on them. People don't think about that, they just think 'we love this game'.

Lund: Yeah. Kickstarter is the place to go for this type of games. Let's just say we could hopefully get like a million dollars or one and a half million dollars to make this game. It's impossible these days to find that kind of money loose in a publisher's pocket for a turn-based strategy game.

Yeah it's because PC development has become more realistic, I think.

Lund: Yeah, so the ability to engage the fans in a Kickstarter and actually trying to make a fan-based game from a fan studio for fans instead of something that's purely commercial driven by a marketing department – that's a perfect chance and we hope that it gets support. But no guarantees. That's the other side of the coin.

PC Gamer: Have you got anybody from the original team involved?

Lund: Not directly. We had some of the original team contact us – primarily smaller things like translations and similar that they really would like to do more work for us. But other than that no, we don't have any of the original people involved yet. Let's see what's possible once we go ahead there.

PC Gamer: And are you going for a re-boot of the series? Are you going for a sequel? What's the decision?

"We are going for a prequel. We're going to tell the story of how AIM came around and how it was founded, and by whom"

Lund: We are going for a prequel. We're going to tell the story of how AIM came around and how it was founded, and by whom and why it was founded in the first place. This allows us to both introduce the founders – never been done before – and it allows us to scope things in a way that we can introduce some of the old mercenaries and go into their back-stories and pull out – say, Ivan. He was a colonel in the Red Army. Why did he suddenly turn mercenary? Something like that, we can take him and make a whole side story based on that. So when you meet Ivan the first time in the game, he's just a regular colonel and somehow during this game and the story that progresses he will jump over to your side – turn mercenary, become one of the really iconic game mercenaries and yeah, suddenly you know why. So we can scope this based on the stretch goals so we can add more and more side missions based on the game based on the pledges, so it's both an interesting way of telling a story and it allows scaling based on the amount of money that we can get.

PC Gamer: One of my friends asks, who's a huge Jagged Alliance fan; will the characters still have their hidden relationships – will they still have those bits to give you hidden bonuses and modifiers?

Lund: That's one of those things that was really missing out on in recent ones, the hidden personality part. Instead of just having basically a generic shell of a character that they actually have personalities in there – they like and dislike each other and you get advantages and bonuses if you pick a team that like each other versus people that hate each other. I think it's some of these things that really make JA iconic in its way. You have this cheesy or this B-movie story and you fix that with these really weirdo characters that are psychotic in many ways. It just adds that humour part which is missing in many other games.

PC Gamer: It's interesting - I interviewed Ray Muzyka about Baldurs Gate and he said that what inspired BG's characters and structure, was JA. They talked and argued, with you and with each other.

Lund: Yeah, you can see a lot of that in how Minsc acts, you know, Ivan-like. I think those are the things that make the game stand out as something that's special. Thinking a lot about the games where you can build your own character, it's not necessarily the personality that the character has in the game that we define - it just gives it a different way of doing it. I think both types have a place and that's also some of the things that JA gives you – you can make your own character based on the IP system. So that both of these worlds with predefined characters with fun story and fun dialogue that can happen and on the other hand you can have the customization option.

PC Gamer: Who was your favourite character from the games? It sounds like Ivan's up there, but who else?

Lund: Yes, I'm rabbiting around Ivan! I just think he and Minsc were the two characters I just really loved 'cause they were like big humpty dumpty guys and a little weird and screwed up - I really loved those stereotyped kinds of guy. They were definitely my favourites, and Ivan is going to come into the game, period. It's one of those things where if you design the game you can put your own preferences in there as well.

What element are you most keen to get into the game that's going to be most difficult and what element are you most unlikely to get in?

"We're going back into the turn based hybrid system that was in there in JA II"

Lund: Top down, we're going back into the turn based hybrid system that was in there in JA II. That's like the core mechanics that have to be there – that you're moving around in real time and then the once you get into the line of sight of enemies it becomes a turn-based strategy game. I think BIA made a big mistake in removing that and turning it into plan and go system I think they call it. Our main pitch is that we have to bring that back, because we believe that's where JA has its core mechanic.

The most difficult part of setting this up and the most expensive is the art production of so many levels and so many characters in a 3D world. Since we are going to do it as a 3D isometric game where you have some camera control, the amount of animations and characters that we have to set up is going to be one of those places where the money goes big time. It's simply just expensive to make 3D, unfortunately.

PC Gamer: I don't personally think 3D is always worth the effort - hand-drawn art is often superior.

Lund: The art direction is one of those places where we also want to do some changes from the existing JA game. If you take a look at them from an artistic point of view, they're trying – especially the latest ones – they're trying to go into a direction of realism and it just feels bland, it doesn't reach that humorous quirkiness in the game. It's just trying to be a CoD kind of game. So we're scaling that part down a little and then implementing an artistic style that is similar in direction to Wastelands 2 for example or the latest Tintin movie - without having the comic part. Using realistic textures but in a stylistic way so that when you look at the screenshots you'll immediately say 'That is JA flashback.' Just doing realism is very expensive and it doesn't give a style. That's one of the mistakes that many start out with when they do 3D games – they try to do it realistic. My concept artist and lead artist are really pushing hard to get something that looks iconic as well.

PC Gamer: Will the character bios still reflect that kitschy 80s VHS action film angle of the original, or are you going to go more authentic?

Lund: Yeah, since we're telling the prequel of how the game was founded, we can't put in the laptop as such, but we are doing a similar direction where we want to expand a little bit on base-management where you have a different way of representing it but as you play the game you will unlock both new and old mercenaries and they will slowly show up in this Rolodex of mercenaries which will then turn into the AIMS system. Depending on what kinds of paths you take in the storyline, and who you rescue and who you kill you can unlock different old mercenaries. It might be that some of them are the local butcher and if you go and talk to him then he could be one of the known mercenaries.

PC Gamer: Are you writing the story yourselves, or do you have somebody on board for that?

Lund: Right now we're in pre-pre production; the story-writing will take place during the summer and into the fall if it's successful. That way we can engage with the community through Kickstarter backing to let them help us create some of these things. And then we'll go and hire a really cool good old fan of the JA story to sit down and do the writing for us.

PC Gamer: What about the improvements introduced by the community and modders for JA? Will you be bringing any of those into the game?

Lund: Yeah we're going to take a look in particular at the 1.13 patch community and see what that brings along. One of the things that I've been eyeing is a more visual representation of how cover is shown in the UI so that people actually know where cover is and how much there is. There's also a lot of weapon modifications and so on. We're going to take a look at those and see how much of it we can bring in without sacrificing our vision and then the possibilities within the budgets.

Unlike Jagged Alliance 2, Flashback is being built in a 3D engine.

PC Gamer: How easy will it be for people to mod your game? I know with Space Hulk you're putting out the level editor.

Lund: The core engine that we're going to use for JA is the same as for Space Hulk and the previous games that we had. The modding part is one of these really big questions of what's actually needed versus what's driven by need. Nobody expanded further on the game. It's easier for us to engage with the community moving forward than adding things ourselves as they come up. And updates – supporting the games actually. On the other hand having some of these more useable tools to enable people to customize something fully like coding your own functionality and things, that's most likely not going to happen unless we reach some really high stretch goals. But it doesn't mean it's going to be impossible.

PC Gamer: Is there any modern tech from other strategy games that you're going to integrate – or subvert – into JA?

Lund: Don't know yet.

PC Gamer: What have you learnt from previous games that you're going to bring to JA?

"JA is complicated. It has a lot of systems that interact with each other. We don't want to remove those or dumb them down."

Lund: One of the things for JA is that we don't want to only cater for old core players but we also want to see if we can expand on the user base. And one of the things I'm always concerned about is accessibility and usability  So having a less steep learning curve in the beginning, that's one of those things. Being able to introduce people to the mechanics more easily without people thinking 'oh, shit – I have to use the manual to play this game'. But also things like enabling the hard core players to jump straight into it and go ahead. One of those things that XCom had was the optional tutorial kind of thing, where you were guided into things, or you could just turn it off and jump in and do what you want. Those kinds of things are things that I think are essential to the kinds of games we are making – being able to play these types of games without sitting with a 200 page manual next to you, but still having the option of full-fledged strategy system. JA is complicated. It has a lot of systems that interact with each other. And I think that's one of the core things; we don't want to remove those or dumb them down.

PC Gamer: It's a huge game and a little studio so I wish you the best of luck.

Lund: Thanks, yeah, the size of what we can do is hugely dependent on the amount of funding that we can pull through out of the Kickstarter, any support is the defining factor because as a small studio we can't do this alone. We don't have the finances to pull off a huge thing like that. So, without support from the community, no JA.

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