While V1 Interactive originally set out to create a traditional top-down real-time strategy game with Disintegration, the new studio, founded by Halo co-creator Marcus Lehto, ultimately decided to develop an entirely new experience that blends first-person shooting with tactical gameplay. Review site TheSixthAxis called Disintegration “one of the most unique and consistently enjoyable sci-fi shooters of recent years.”
To see how V1 Interactive created a game that blended two distinct genres, we caught up with President and Creative Director Marcus Lehto, PvE Design Lead Rick Lesley, Design and Multiplayer Lead CJ Heine, and Technical Design Director Joe Arroyo.
Originally prototyped using a different engine, the developer asserts it switched to Unreal Engine because of the engine’s power and content-creation tools. In the discussion below, the team explains how they designed a novel control scheme that allows players to hover around environments while shooting enemies and issuing commands to AI companions. They also talk about how they created diverse maps and multiplayer modes that facilitate the game’s inventive mechanics.
Disintegration has been described as a sci-fi FPS combined with RTS elements. Can you delve into how the game's design came about?
President and Creative Director Marcus Lehto: In its earliest phase of prototyping, the game was a standard RTS, but we soon realized it would have to be something far more unique if it were to stand out in a sea of similar games. So, we decided to take a huge risk and turn the camera in the sky into an active participant in combat. We turned the player into a pilot of a vehicle we call a “Gravcycle” that has onboard offensive and defensive capabilities. Then, we retained the essential elements of commanding a set of ground units, each of whom carries special abilities that the player can use tactically in the midst of combat.
It took us years to get the core combat loop right, but I’m happy to say we developed a solution that is completely fluid with no awkward pauses and requires the player to always be thinking of the next tactical movement.
Inverse wrote that Disintegration feels like "a totally new genre." Was there a conscious effort on the studio's part to tackle something different?
Lehto: Absolutely, yes. One of the key things a new player must do is forget everything they think they know about how this game should work as a first-person shooter. If you just dive in and try to run and gun, you will be playing with one hand strapped behind your back.
It is neither a straight-up FPS, nor is it an overly complex RTS. It is something completely different as a result. We find it typically takes a new player about 10 minutes to absorb the basics of piloting and commanding, but a few hours to really master the concepts that unleash a whole new way of playing the game.
Were there any games that influenced Disintegration?
Lehto: Not many. We did look at MOBAs and the use of heroes as inspiration, but otherwise, we had to take this journey without much reference since there are too few games out there that try to do what we accomplished.
Disintegration's control schemes are quite novel. Not only will players take control of a hovering Gravcycle, which allows them to navigate the terrain with six degrees of movement, but they'll also be issuing commands to their AI ground troops and supporting them with special abilities. How did you balance this complexity while making the game accessible?
Lehto: Building out and fine-tuning the core mechanics of the game took a very long time to get right. We delved into several rabbit holes during our explorations, but we always had the goal of boiling things down to the bare essentials required to give the player agency, both as a skilled pilot and an effective commander from the air.
During the earlier stages of development, we allowed for much greater micromanagement of the ground units, but that was simply too overwhelming for the player. So, we shifted focus to making the ground unit AI far more sophisticated and autonomous. It also required us to invent brand new mechanics for how the player would engage with the ground units.
The command pulse is something you, as the player, literally fire down on the ground, just like firing a weapon, yet its function is to tell units where to go in the environment. Once units arrive, they take up smart cover positions and prepare for combat. You can also fire down on enemy units to priority target them or use them to interact with specific objectives in the world.
Each unit is also equipped with a special ability that the player can stage and fire off tactically during combat.
How did you approach designing a shooting game that would appeal to shooter fans while also injecting enough tactical gameplay to satisfy strategy fans?
Lehto: We wanted to build a game that would have something appealing to both FPS and RTS crowds. At its heart, Disintegration is an action game with fluid movement and fully real-time tactical decision making.
Considering the concept for Disintegration originally started out as a real-time strategy game, how much of that DNA is still in the title?
Lehto: All the RTS and FPS elements in the game are heavily modified to work in concert together to create something truly unique. So, players will see some things that are familiar while discovering a side to the gameplay mechanics, which will open new territory for them to explore. But, I think players will find themselves successfully managing their ground units and firing off their special abilities at tactically precise moments, and that will harken back to some of the clear RTS roots.
Disintegration features numerous Gravcycles, weapons, and ground units (called Crews) to choose from that offer different strengths and weaknesses. Can you talk about your approach to designing them?
Lehto: We treated the design of Gravcycles much like that of how car enthusiasts would look at the restoration and modification of custom vehicles.
There are three classes of Gravcycle. Light, which are fast and nimble, medium, which have thicker armor that can hold more substantial weaponry, and heavy, which are like a tank in the air, capable of withstanding intense enemy fire while also wielding very destructive weapons, but also move slower.
Within each of these classes, there are many varieties with the Gravcycle load-outs. This is true for every mission of the single-player campaign, as well as each of the themed Crews in multiplayer.
With areas that contain hills, trees, dilapidated barns, and buildings coupled with a hovering Gravcycle and ground units, can you elaborate on how you approached Disintegration's environments?
PvE Design Lead Rick Lesley: Designing a gameplay space for Disintegration is a tricky endeavor. In general, we have to think of our levels on two scales: the scale for the Gravcycle, and the scale for the Ground Units. When initially laying out a space, we try to visualize the flow routes of the Gravcycle through the space itself. This is determined by the intended battle lines, major landmarks, and how players flow into and out of a space. That high-level flow will then allow us to start planning out where we want to create good defensive positions that players can send their ground units to occupy; the goal being to make the flow routes as low friction as possible while giving players plenty of options to command their squad. This allows for quick maneuvering and easy repositioning.
For Gravcycles, we have to ask ourselves some additional questions. What can the Gravcycle fly over? What are believable barriers for the Gravcycle in the space? Is there adequate large-scale cover to use? All of these factors go into the initial design layout, and from there, we'll get more granular with the specifics of the level based on the setting. It requires a bit of rewiring of our brains for how we'd typically build a level in a traditional FPS.
Disintegration features interesting multiplayer modes that include Collector, which pits two teams against each other in a battle to see who can collect more resources, and Retrieval, which pits attackers and defenders against each other to see who can get more deliveries. Can you provide your thought process behind the creation of these multiplayer modes?
Design and Multiplayer Lead CJ Heine: When we sat down to design our multiplayer modes, we had a few goals in mind. We knew that our unique hybrid blend of FPS and RTS was going to provide an initial learning curve, so it became important for us to select modes with objectives that players might find familiar, just to keep the barrier to entry as low as possible. We wanted to make sure that players could focus on learning the core gameplay mechanics of flying, shooting, and utilizing their units, as well as learning the styles and nuances of each crew, and then approach the multiplayer modes as fun playgrounds to showcase their skills.
Knowing we wanted to use familiar objectives, like picking up an item and running to a goal, or fighting over a position as long as possible, our focus was then on modifying those concepts to emphasize our unit-based gameplay. From the initial concept phases for Zone Control and Retrieval, we identified that our units would be an integral part of the objectives, which is why only units can carry the cores in Retrieval and capture and contest the zones in Zone Control. Getting players to understand the value of their units, not just as part of their arsenal with a toolbox of abilities, but as critical to the objective modes, reinforces our goal of giving players a reason to care about their units and a need to directly attack enemy units.
This was especially important in Collector, which didn’t feature a specific unit-based objective. The mode was created when we saw an opportunity to satisfy an itch for a simple team deathmatch. Traditionally, this mode is about defeating other players and contributing to a score, but that version did little to satisfy our need to emphasize our ground units. Ultimately, we chose to have units drop cans to be picked up and scored, making them valuable targets and shifting the focus from “I need to take out that enemy Gravcycle” to “If I defeat their units before I try to defeat the Gravcycle, I’ll get more cans.” That subtle shift helped make the units more relevant to the mode, and Collector was born.
Another important element we wanted to capture in our modes was to reward defensive play as much as movement. With the Gravcycles, movement between tactical areas and objectives was a natural fit. Having units that take cover during combat, some of whom are outfitted with defensive abilities, really showed the need for objectives to reward players for holding and defending. In Zone Control, we set out to create a mode that really encouraged more defensive play around the objective locations, while ensuring that there are enough zones spaced apart from each other to create opportunities for players to find lightly defended objectives and swoop in for an easy capture. In Retrieval, we wanted to try to make the defensive moments more dynamic by featuring moving objectives. There are many more opportunities for smaller, defensive engagements at the core locations and key choke points along the objective routes, but again, the ability to flank and outmaneuver the enemy remains.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that one of our goals for these modes was that the success or failure of the match should not ever ride on a single player. All of our modes feature multiple objectives, which promote teamwork and coordination and minimize unnecessarily stressful and potentially toxic moments. It was important for us to develop and iterate on the modes to still allow for big match-winning moments that an individual player can make, like delivering the final core, winning a contested fight at a new zone, or boosting through a fight just to grab the winning can, while still making the win (or loss) reflect the effort of the team.
Set 150 years from now, Disintegration blends near-future aesthetics with robot-looking protagonists. Can you elaborate on how V1 Interactive designed the look of the game?
Lehto: The design of the game started at the character level. From the very start of this project, I focused on designing interesting characters with unique silhouettes, with clarity of form and believability of function.
I’m a big believer that form follows function and wanted to make sure that the utility of these robotic characters aligned with the needs of the fiction.
How large was the development team, and how long did the game take to make?
Lehto: I started writing the fiction for Disintegration back in 2014, but it wasn’t until a couple of years later that I hired two college students to help me build a hands-on prototype of the game. My goal was to build something that we could use as a clear example of our design intent as we started shopping it around with publishers.
After landing a publishing deal with Private Division, our studio slowly grew. It was around 15 to 20 for a majority of the three-year project, and we just reached about 30 within this last year.
Marcus, considering you co-created Halo, were there any ways in which that experience helped shape the formation of the studio and the development of Disintegration?
Lehto: Having over two decades of experience making AAA games leads to many benefits when building a brand-new studio, hiring the necessary talent, and building a very complex project with a small team.
I also had specific goals of building a studio where people have the freedom to live a healthy life outside of the office. When people are balanced with their life and work, it clearly shows in what they create.
Why was Unreal Engine a good fit for the game?
Technical Design Director Joe Arroyo: Unreal Engine is no doubt an industry standard and has a track record of successfully shipped games.
There are many other comparable contenders in the market today, but it was important for us as a small team to pick an engine that had both a solid support foundation and one that has been used for years to create high-quality products.
We originally built the prototype for Disintegration in Unity, back when there were only three of us on the team about six years ago. It was great for rapid iteration and ease of use, but when it came time to grow the team, we made the decision to move to Unreal for its power and its tools. By far, the most appealing was its content-creation tools, as they allow artists and designers to be immensely productive without relying on constant engineering support.
Do you have any tips for game designers?
Heine: There’s always the advice to be a good communicator and to be able to give and take constructive criticism and feedback, especially in a small-team environment in which everyone has a voice and likes to give feedback and pitch ideas. It’s important to be able to listen and understand the intent behind the requests (I frequently find myself asking, “Is that really what you want, or is this request a byproduct of some other solvable issue?”). I then try and find creative ways to implement or kindly defer.
The other bit of advice is to stay flexible. Great ideas can come from anyone in the studio as the project evolves. Don’t be afraid or ashamed of dismissing your own amazing idea if a better one comes along.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Disintegration?
On Tuesday, July 14, Unreal Fest Online is a free one-day virtual event that brings together Unreal Fest and Unreal Academy to offer an exciting and informative program of sessions that’s open to everyone.