Electronic Arts' Los Angeles studio (EALA) has spent the better part of a decade building the most successful World War II shooter franchise in games. The original Medal of Honor, which was conceived by Steven Spielberg after he had filmed Saving Private Ryan, was released in 1999. The latest game, and first to appear on next-generation platforms Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Medal of Honor Airborne, shipped in 2007.
During the development of the latest game, which also was released on the PC, EALA decided to switch over to Epic Games' Unreal Engine 3 technology during the development cycle. Mark Dochtermann, technical director, EALA, said that changing technologies proved to be quite challenging.
"Games are a product of a fiction, a design and a technology," said Dochtermann. "Each element shapes the other, and when you suddenly disturb the balance, some aspects of your game may no longer work. When we decided to use UE3 for Airborne, we knew that we were going to have to reconsider many of our previous assumptions. Fortunately, the game development tools and technology made it very easy for us to first stand up our game and then ultimately re-balance the trio of factors that make a great game. The fact that UE3 is built on a history of excellent first-person shooter technology made it the perfect vessel for our creative vision."
The latest Medal of Honor game follows each of the key Airborne missions of the Second World War, including Operation Neptune, Operation Husky and Operation Market Garden. The game separates itself from other WWII shooters by giving players the freedom to parachute anywhere they want inside a level. The heavily populated, multi-level environments open up numerous ways to accomplish any given mission. Players can land on a rooftop and snipe Germans below or congregate with paratroopers in the outskirts of town and sneak in.
"UE3 and the next generation of consoles allowed Airborne to live up to its potential of having a game where you could literally jump out of a plane, land anywhere and engage the enemy as you saw fit," said Dochtermann. "Designing a game around this core concept is very difficult, but the fast iteration time and horsepower of UE3 and next-gen consoles allowed us to realize this design goal."
While developing the game, Dochtermann said the decision to give players an open-ended sandbox to game in shook the foundations of the team's understanding of a first-person shooter experience.
"Scripting went out the window along with many other traditional linear techniques we have come to rely on over the years," said Dochtermann. "Verticality, in both single and multiplayer, became incredibly relevant, which was a welcome addition to FPS mechanics. Our designers and artists started thinking about rooftops, towers and every other surface as playable space, instead of the traditional ground and interiors. This really breathed new life into the designs of our levels. Overall, I think that Airborne is one of the most replayable game experiences you'll come across because it never really does play out exactly the same way two times in a row."
Dochtermann said his proudest achievement with this game was being able to deliver one of the first open FPS experiences gamers have ever seen. He added that accomplishing this was a great collaboration between technology and design.
"Using UE3 certainly opened our eyes to new possibilities and features we were not originally planning on, but we stayed the course and focused on the core of our game," said Dochtermann. "UE3 has laid an excellent foundation for us to explore new areas of the FPS space as it pertains to Medal of Honor moving forward."
Although the protagonist that players step into the boots of in this game, Boyd Travers, is fictional, the 82nd Airborne, the missions, the towns, the weapons and the Germans are all based on historical research the team has conducted over the years with each new game.
In fact, the game's final level features a German flakturm (flak tower), a heavily fortified fortress that has never been seen in a game before.
"Airborne is almost entirely based on actual Airborne operations that were flown during World War II," said Dochtermann. "We wouldn't have been able to bring these great moments in history to life without having technology like UE3 there to support our efforts. Epic has consistently improved their technology to take advantage of the latest graphics cards, physics libraries and consoles, but most importantly, they have never lost sight of what makes Unreal Technology great: the toolset. Unreal consistently delivers a user-friendly platform upon which developers are able to focus on the most important aspect of video game development--making the game."
Because the team did make the switch during development, Dochtermann found the Unreal Development Network extremely beneficial during the creation of the WWII shooter.
"UDN is a great resource for developers to share ideas, report problems and ramp up," said Dochtermann. "During the development of Airborne we benefited greatly from participating in the network and I encouraged my engineers to post fixes and improvements back to UDN whenever possible."
One of the benefits that many developers are finding with UE3 is the cross-console interoperability of the technology. EA creates games for multiple platforms, which requires development studios like EALA to craft the best possible gameplay experience for each target console.
"While the consoles never truly catch up to the PC, they do make great leaps forward in simulation and graphics processing," said Dochtermann. "But the PC is never tied for very long. UE3 is written to work well with all relevant platforms, but it also always has an eye on the future. For this reason, Unreal Technology will continue to be relevant for the current console cycle and beyond."
EALA has plans to continue its best-selling WWII franchise and with the next game, the team will be starting from the outset with UE3 in place, as well as with new ideas of where to push this technology in the shooter genre.