Image courtesy of Cold Iron Studios

How Aliens: Fireteam Elite emphasizes intense action over creeping horror

Brian Crecente |
November 22, 2021
Craig Zinkievich runs a team of talented, experienced game developers at Cold Iron Studios, the San Jose-based company he helped found in 2015.

With decades of applicable games industry experience under his belt, there is hardly an aspect of interactive development, publishing, and operations Craig has not led. His two decades of industry experience includes outstanding achievements made as Chief Operating Officer, Executive Producer, and Game Director on the following beloved and long-running MMOs: Star Trek Online, City of Heroes, and Dungeons & Dragons Neverwinter.

At Cold Iron Studios, Craig is focused on building an inclusive culture where world-class developers may collaborate on PC and console multiplayer online action games for fun and profit.
Aliens: Fireteam Elite is the sort of cooperative survival shooter that Aliens, not Alien, seems made for. Players buddy up with two others—either AI-controlled synthetics or player marines—and then slowly, carefully, and tactically fight their way through the game’s four-chapter campaigns. What could feel like an abbreviated experience is given more life with game-changing challenge cards that can do everything from forcing gun jams to requiring headshots. The difficulty settings also make for massive changes in gameplay by not just making enemies more difficult to kill, but also more difficult to spot.

We chatted with Craig Zinkievich, CEO & founder of Cold Iron Studios, about the team’s approach to designing the game, how Unreal helped with iteration, and how the game will continue to evolve with post-launch support.
 

How did Cold Iron Studios come about, and how would you describe a Cold Iron Studios game?
 
Craig Zinkievich, CEO & Founder of Cold Iron Studios:
Matt, Shannon, and I founded Cold Iron Studios in 2015. All three of us love to be hands-on and part of daily game development, so we wanted to build a studio where we could continue to do that with talented developers.
 
Throughout our careers, we’ve worked on online co-op experiences and tried to make them more visceral. For games we’ve worked on in the past, we’ve always been champions for pushing the boundaries of the sort of moment-to-moment gameplay that was attainable. So, the moment-to-moment loop is very important to us and takes center stage. Don’t get us wrong, we love co-op gameplay, interactive narrative, and innovative RPG systems, so those will always be a part of Cold Iron games. However, making sure the 15-second loop feels tight is something we strive for.
Image courtesy of Cold Iron Studios
The Alien franchise has a rich history across film, comics, books, video games, and more. How did that influence your early design choices and approach to the sort of game you wanted to make?
 
Zinkievich:
We’re huge fans of the franchise, always have been—have seen the movies, read the comics and books, and played the video games. When we started making Aliens: Fireteam Elite, we asked ourselves the simple question “What Alien video game experience do we want to play?” The experience of being part of a team of badass marines taking on waves of terrifying, intelligent enemies that swarm through doors and vents, scramble across walls and ceilings, and ambush your fireteam from every angle.
 
Aliens: Fireteam Elite plays very much like an Aliens, not an Alien game, with a greater focus on strategy and hunting than on running and surviving. What made you decide to take that approach and how did you balance the action with the innate horror of the franchise?
 
Zinkievich:
It’s definitely an Aliens with an S game.
 
When you look at both of the original movies, you can see that they had significantly different stories and ways of telling those stories. The second movie largely featured the colonial marines, and the Xenomorphs were present in swarms, many of which get taken out by the marines themselves throughout the movie. So, Aliens: Fireteam Elite is much more closely inspired by the second movie, and by titling our game with Aliens rather than Alien, we hope to communicate what kind of story players should expect and where we drew most of our inspiration from.
 
The horror or tension in Aliens: Fireteam Elite doesn’t come from wondering if there’s something stalking you in the dark. It comes from thinking you have a situation under control, then all hell breaks loose and you wonder if you’re going to get through it.
Image courtesy of Cold Iron Studios
What made you decide to present the game through a third-person perspective rather than a first-person and did that come with challenges when trying to instill a sense of fear in the players?
 
Zinkievich:
It came down to several factors: We’ve got great customization options for your marine and we wanted you to be able to see them. There’s a cover system in the game that’s needed when you fight some of the enemies in the game, those are hard to pull off in first-person. And, with the number of Xenomorphs we wanted the player fighting and how they swarm and surround you, we found that little, extra bit of 360 visibility was important to help manage the innate chaos of our combat.
 
The movement of the various forms of Xenomorphs you come across during the game is enthralling. They stalk, run, some of them run up walls or skitter along the ceiling. How did you design around such freedom of movement?
 
Zinkievich:
It was certainly tricky! Most games of our genre stick to floor-bound enemies, but to really sell the Xenomorph threat, we had to make them come “outta the goddamn walls,” as it were. Our systems designers and engineers worked together to create Xenomorphs that could traverse walls and ceilings. From there, our level designers took special care to design spaces they could maneuver through utilizing these unusual methods. It took quite a lot of iteration to make sure we were hitting the right notes and giving the enemies choices without completely overwhelming the fireteam. The end result makes encounters challenging—you have to watch all methods of approach in order to succeed.
Image courtesy of Cold Iron Studios
The game’s difficulty settings can really shape the experience, impacting not just the effectiveness of your weapons and the strength of your enemies, but things like whether Xenomorphs are outlined by your weapons. What made you decide to take this approach, and can you explain in more detail how it works?
 
Zinkievich:
When looking at the survival-shooter genre, one of the key elements that makes it work is the feeling of being in danger and struggling to push through a difficult fight. There are many types of game players out there, with lots of different skill levels, and lots of different preferences as to what they personally enjoy. Being authentic to the Alien universe, where very few characters survive in the movies, we felt that making sure things felt difficult but fun was important.
 
Early on, we had only three difficulty settings and felt that in order to hit a broad enough appeal for the large and varied community, we had to expand that out to capture the groups of players that want a very unforgiving experience to play with their tight-knit group of friends, while also allowing Alien fans that don’t normally play shooters to each have the experiences they wanted. We went through a lot of internal tuning of each difficulty mode during development, and some of the features (like outlining enemies) came online later in that process due to feedback and iteration letting us know what issues were getting in the way for some players.
 
For us, each difficulty tunes a set of variables about the game - things like enemy health, types and numbers of critters that spawn in encounters, amount of times a player can be revived, amount of medkits found, etc. Each one of those variables plays into the feeling of what we wanted each difficulty to have—keeping that feeling of resource scarcity and team-awareness (via reduced ammo and friendly fire damage) on higher difficulties or reducing concerns of ammo scarcity or hidden enemies in the lower difficulties.
Image courtesy of Cold Iron Studios
How did you settle on the classes in the game, and how do they affect gameplay?
 
Zinkievich:
The loadout kits in our game came from years of internally playing the game. We had early designs for many kits, and played with lots of them to find the fun in each kit, and then refined what worked best in the game we were making. Designers prototyped lots of abilities directly in Blueprints, which let us try out lots of different types of abilities. We then found the ones we wanted to fully support and moved lots of that tech into code to help make it more performant and reliable.
 
In Aliens: Fireteam Elite, the kits affect your gameplay by providing you with different types of guns (rifles versus handguns, for example) that you can bring, two unique abilities (for Gunner, a grenade and Overclock, a buff that vastly increases your teams fire-rate; vs Technician, an automated gun turret and Charged Coils that slow down nearby enemies), and a customizable grid of perks that can further modify your gameplay. Some perks are wholly unique to each kit, and some can be swapped around.
 
There’s a surprising amount of story buried in the game, which is told not just through voice-overs, but also things like conversations on your ship, the discovery of items on your missions, and the sort of tableaus you discover as you work your way through the campaign. What inspired you to take this approach in storytelling?

Zinkievich:
Our gameplay is focused on fast-paced fighting, and we didn’t want to interrupt that core by injecting story where it would feel jarring. But this is still an Aliens game. It’s important to give players a sense of place in the overall story of the franchise, particularly for big fans! By utilizing our intel system and giving characters information to share back on the Endeavor, we allow folks to engage with the story at their own pace.
Image courtesy of Cold Iron Studios
How does Aliens: Fireteam Elite fit into the Alien universe and storylines and is it considered official canon?
 
Zinkievich:
The narrative in Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a brand-new story in the Alien universe. It’s set in the year 2202, a few decades after the events of Aliens, so we have some room to move the story forward and add to the universe. We do have an overarching story that ties everything together and picks up right after where the Aliens Infiltrator book left off, but we drew inspiration from the entire lore of the universe, and we weaved plenty of moments into the game that a player might recognize from other Alien stories. There are definitely deeper mysteries left to uncover.
 
Will the game have post-release support and what sort of work did you do to increase the replayability of the game once a person plays through the missions?
 
Zinkievich:
Replayability is very important for the co-op survival shooter genre. We put a lot in the game to make sure that people could keep replaying the campaign and horde mode for a long time.
 
We’ve got code and heuristics running behind the scenes, paying attention to what the players are doing and controlling the enemy population to make sure that there’s continued pressure. There’s randomness in each one of the missions, sometimes objectives change or different rooms or paths open.
 
But we didn’t want to just recreate the classic co-op survival shooter experience; we wanted to innovate and expand the genre with some additional items.
 
We love RPGs and put a lot of RPG elements into the game. We’ve got six classes or kits that players can equip and level up. They define your gameplay role and you can swap these whenever you want. Each comes with perks that, once unlocked, can be used on any other kit you may have. There are dozens of weapons in the game that also level up and allow for further customization. And there’s tons of collectible loot—attachments, cosmetics, lore items, decals, and hats—that you can find and earn in the game.
 
We added five difficulty levels, so players always have a good challenge in front of them.
 
Speaking of challenges, one of the features that the fans are really enjoying is the “Challenge Cards.” These are mission mutators players play at the beginning of the mission. Some add cosmetic overlays to the screen, some give the players goals (such as finish the mission in 15 minutes or less), and some change the core gameplay a lot. One card might make your guns randomly jam throughout the mission. Another might force you to play with only your sidearm. Another might greatly decrease normal damage but increase weak-point damage, forcing you to make headshots to be effective. Completing a mission with one of the dozens of Challenge Cards gets you additional rewards.
 
As for post-launch content, Season 1: Phalanx was released several weeks after launch, introducing a new class kit to the game. We’ve announced that there will be at least three other updates throughout the coming year - adding new gameplay, systems, class kits, weapons, and additional rewards. While there will be a cosmetic DLC pack released with each of these seasons, all of these gameplay additions will be included for free with the base game.
Image courtesy of Cold Iron Studios
What excites you and your team the most about the long-term possibilities of next-gen hardware and Unreal Engine?
 
Zinkievich:
For any sized dev team, but especially a smaller one like Cold Iron, iteration speed is important. Unreal Engine has allowed us to iterate incredibly quickly, and it has a toolset that opens up feature prototyping to every part of our team—not only programmers. When looking at next-gen hardware, being able to quickly prototype and explore new engine features will let us utilize them in a way that isn’t just a cool tech demo, but serves the goals of the game and makes for a better gameplay experience for players.
 
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Where can people find out more about Cold Iron Studios and Aliens: Fireteam Elite?
 
You can find out more about Aliens: Fireteam Elite at aliensfireteamelite.com and all of our social channels, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

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