29 May 2019 (released)
29 May 2019
Game-News was able to speak with Craig Hubbard, Lead Designer behind the legendary FPS titles No On Lives Forever and F.E.A.R. He worked at Monolith as a programmer since the early days and worked as Lead Designer on a number of Monolith's most renowned titles and on what are considered some of the best First Person Shooters of all time.
We spoke with Craig Hubbard in regards to his work on F.E.A.R and to find out more on this fantastic shooter 14 years on.
What was the inspiration for creating F.E.A.R?
I was a huge fan of Hong Kong action movies and really wanted to capture the chaotic intensity of a John Woo or Ringo Lam shootout, so we started prototyping with that objective in mind. It became obvious pretty quickly that we were onto something.
But we were also in the process of overhauling some core aspects of our engine, including the renderer, and were starting to get an idea of what the tech would mean in terms of level design, art direction, and content creation. What it came down to is that we were going to be constrained to much tighter, darker environments than we'd been anticipating. It seemed like the sensible solution was to turn a weakness into a strength by giving the game an eerie angle, so I started pitching the idea of combining Hong Kong action with another of my favorite subgenres: ghost stories.
The intent was never to make a horror game, because we wanted a broadly appealing IP and considered horror too niche, so we were frustrated when the name F.E.A.R. was chosen, but luckily it didn't end up being a liability. The game was plenty successful.
Was it a difficult task to successfully blend together John Woo style action, intense paranormal horror and elements of Eastern Horror films into one game?
Our references for tone and pacing were things like Aliens, Jurassic Park, and Terminator, all of which very effectively combined suspense with action, so it didn't seem especially risky.
Early on, I put together a cinematic of a special forces team encountering and getting wiped out by Alma that's still my favorite representation of the core premise. I had a very specific idea of the tone and type of gore I wanted, so the cutscene was partly proof of concept and partly tech demo. While we had to make lots of painful compromises and depressing cuts along the way, I think the final product stayed pretty true to that original intention. The scene didn't make it into the game because it didn't really fit anywhere, though we did show it at the end of the E3 2004 demo.
F.E.A.R’s intense and brutal gunplay is legendary to FPS fans. How did you and the team at Monolith manage to perfect F.E.A.R’s “Gun-fu” style gameplay?
I guess the simple answer is that we made it a priority. We knew how we wanted combat to look and feel (a key reference was the tea house scene from Hard-Boiled), so it was largely a matter of experimenting and iterating to see what was actually doable in terms of performance. That meant focusing on weapons, AI, combat spaces, FX, and so on from the earliest phase of the project all the way to the end and not wasting resources on features that didn't serve the essential experience.
And of course we playtested constantly. Especially PVP. We found that people tend to overlook clunkiness in the core mechanics in solo play but are extremely finicky as soon as they're playing competitively, so PVP testing helped us flag issues that we might have missed otherwise. If someone keeps losing fights because their weapon takes too long to reload or needs to reload too frequently, you're guaranteed to hear about it in the feedback session afterward, whereas in a single player test, it would most likely never even come up.
Was there anything you had to remove or wanted to include for the final version of F.E.A.R?
We had to cut a huge amount of content because our estimates on world and character art had turned out to be much too optimistic. It was a huge headache because we were in a fairly awkward position when we realized how far off target we were. We'd prioritized content based on a sort of risk/value estimate, with the idea that we'd frontload some of the more critical or tricky elements and postpone safer but no less essential elements until later. So it became a process of stitching together a coherent experience from the wreckage of the original plan, working with components that weren't the ones we necessarily would have chosen if we'd known how much things were actually going to cost.
A good example is the cast of characters, which we'd conceived and prioritized assuming a much bigger game. When we had to drastically reduce scope, we were left with a number of NPCs who'd become largely superfluous because there was nowhere to fit them. Douglas Holiday was originally a FEAR team member focused on demolitions, but we repurposed him as a Delta operator. We had only built one scene that required him and it worked better to make him military both for relatability and storytelling economy.
Jin Sun-Kwon was supposed to be a sniper, but we hadn't finished any scenes that featured her in that role, so we turned her into more a forensic specialist. Paxton Fettel was originally a supporting villain, but we felt he was more interesting than our main antagonist, so we cut the other guy and used him instead. Had we recognized the scope issues earlier in development, we would have assembled a very different cast and probably made a more cohesive game.
I guess a way to summarize the situation was that we reacted early enough to make the game hold together but not in time to fully recover.
But separate from all that, one specific feature I really wanted that we couldn't do for performance reasons was a katana that severed along the line of impact. When I saw the first Metal Gear Rising footage years later, I was extremely jealous. We actually could have done a pretty satisfying katana with the severing system we had, but it would have come at the expense of something more critical. So I pushed one into Gotham City Impostors instead--though without the gore, naturally.
Anything that was a real problem during development?
The simple summary is that we were building a new IP, a new team, and new tech all at the same time, and we ran into challenges with all three. No project is easy, but FEAR was extremely and consistently challenging. It was the first project I worked on that suffered a significant delay, being postponed by about six months.
But I think most if not all of us believed in the game, which tends to help immensely. It's another reason why I'm a proponent of getting your game playable early and making polish a priority from the start.
As script writer for F.E.A.R and other video games, do you believe having a compelling narrative is vital in making a great game?
Not at all.
I do believe that if you're including narrative in your game, it had better be compelling. By that I mean that it engages players, not that it's flawlessly architected or realized. The function of narrative is to make players care more than they would otherwise. Dull narrative not only doesn't accomplish that but can actually make players care less, so it isn't worth the development effort.
I also feel very strongly that narrative should align with and support gameplay and vice versa. Otherwise it's likely to feel inconsequential or distracting.
Most of my favorite narrative experiences are from games like Inside, Journey, the Souls series, Ico and other Fumita Uedo games, Stalker, the original Half-Life, etc., most of which could be considered light on traditional storytelling. But it's not how much dialogue or lore you expose to the player but how effectively you excite their imaginations and trigger their emotions. You can tell the most elaborate, structurally elegant story ever conceived but it doesn't matter if it doesn't get under anybody's skin.
Obviously, this is a very subjective topic and you're never going to satisfy everyone, but games succeed when they appeal very powerfully to a specific audience and fail when they don't connect with anyone. Narrative is just another tool to help pull players in.
Alma was an incredible force to be reckoned with and one that managed to bury herself underneath the player’s skin. How were you inspired you to create such a menacing yet tragic antagonist?
The original idea came directly from the little girl ghosts in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Seance and Hideo Nakata's Dark Water, but there were lots of influences, including Ring, The Eye, Shutter, Pulse (also Kiyoshi Kurosawa), Ju-on (aka The Grudge), The Shining, Peter Straub's Ghost Story (Alma's name is a tribute to Alma Mobley), Sixth Sense, Fatal Frame (released as Project Zero in Europe), countless other ghost stories, novels, films, games, and even some childhood traumas.
As with anything creative, the hope is to draw from enough different sources of inspiration that you produce something distinctive even if it's familiar and personal even if it's universal. I wanted Alma to be terrifying but relatable: a monster but also a victim. Of course, I'll never be able to perceive her objectively, but it's great that you describe her as menacing yet tragic.
F.E.A.R’s cinematic opening is so effective, managing to setup the story and tone for the game perfectly. How were you and team able to achieve this?
It was a fairly intuitive process. I had a script and shot list for the motion capture session, of course, but I just kind of felt my way through the scene as I was piecing it together. I got the idea of having Fettel's cry reverberate and awaken the replica soldiers, so I played around with time-stretching the VO, eventually arriving at the result you hear in the game. That became the spine of the scene.
I was also working with a draft of the music that Nathan Grigg composed, which I found very evocative and inspirational. It really helped shape the cinematic.
F.E.A.R’s remarkable enemy AI holds up extremely well to this day. How were able to create such intelligent enemies and encounters which differed in each play-through of F.E.A.R?
As I mentioned above, AI was one of our chief priorities. And we had a brilliant AI engineer (Jeff Orkin), who'd joined us on NOLF 2, and we'd learned a lot of really valuable lessons from our previous two games.
With NOLF 2, our emphasis for AI was on stealth gameplay: making enemies fun to sneak up on by having them behave in surprising and credible ways when they weren't aware of you or were searching for you. But they were less compelling once the shooting started, so we decided to put that same level of effort into combat AI for FEAR.
I put together a list of behaviors I thought would get us good results and collaborated with Jeff and our lead level designer, John Mulkey, on implementation strategies and priorities. And as with everything else that turned out good in the game, we did lots of playtesting and iteration and reprioritization throughout development.
John and the rest of the LDs moved over to a new project about six months before we shipped and Jeff left to go to MIT shortly after that, but luckily we got some support from Brian Legge, the AI engineer from Condemned, who had collaborated with Jeff on various aspects of the system.
Those final months were the hardest but also the most rewarding phase of the project for me because it wholly about playing and iterating on the game. It felt like every task resulted in meaningful, measurable improvements. I ended up having to rip out and reimplement a lot of the basic AI infrastructure in the levels and do lots of tuning and tweaking, but the work was actually a blast because the underlying system was so strong that it was so easy to get satisfying and surprising results.
How did you feel with the gameplay changes made in F.E.A.R 2 and how F.3.A.R concluded the story you started?
I have a complicated relationship with FEAR 2.
Originally my team was meant to make a direct sequel on PC with another team developing a console-only FEAR title, similar to what was happening with the Call of Duty franchise around that time with Big Red One. At some point, though, we were asked to shift focus to developing a new IP and the console project became the official sequel.
We'd had fairly ambitious plans for FEAR 2, whereas the console team's leadership was taking a more conservative approach. Which was fine and sensible, except what ended up happening is that they decided to prioritize environmental detail and narrative because those had been (completely fair) criticisms of the first game. Which again, wasn't fundamentally a problem. What WAS a problem is that they took core gameplay for granted. As I said above, the combat in FEAR turned out good because it was our focus from preproduction on and we constantly tested and iterated on it. That didn't happen on FEAR 2.
I got my first indication of how much trouble they were in when I was asked to pick up some level design work to help keep them on schedule. I remember asking what I should look at as a reference for a representative combat encounter and was shocked to find that they didn't have anything despite being deep in production. They had some encounters, of course, but they were all pretty rudimentary. I panicked a bit at that point and sure enough it wasn't long before the entire company had to be pulled in to help ship the game. And it still got substantially delayed. Instead of helping out for a few weeks, I ended up being on it for about 13 months and was eventually put in charge after the original creative director left the company. But by that point we couldn't afford to make the significant changes I felt the game needed, so it was situation where you were laboring to finish something you didn't really believe in. Or at least I was.
There's a lot of good stuff in the game and everyone really came together and turned things around, but overall I'm not fond of the final product. Part of it is certainly that it derailed the title I'd been working on and passionate about, but ultimately I just don't think FEAR 2 was enough of a sequel in any respect, especially its combat scenarios and mechanics, which I felt needed to be a significant leap and were instead a bit of a step backward. Also, I rewrote as much of the script as I was allowed to and pushed for a much darker, more horrifying ending than what was originally planned, but I don't really like the narrative approach that was taken. I'll refer to my comment above about the role of narrative in games.
FEAR 3 (sorry, I can't bring myself to write it the other way) had started off as a completely different game when Monolith and Sierra parted ways. Sierra retained the name and we retained the IP, so they were doing a FEAR title in name only while we were making a direct sequel that would have to use a different name. Then that sorted itself out and both projects moved forward and the Sierra game got reworked into a more direct sequel with the creative director from the Condemned series helping them out.
I never actually made it all the way through FEAR 3. Again, I thought there were good elements in the game but it didn't do much for me overall.
I guess the bottom line is that for me, combat is the core of the franchise and neither of those sequels made it enough of a priority. That's not the way you grow a franchise, which is probably the reason there isn't a franchise any more.
You were the Lead designer for several of Monolith’s most renowned titles. Would you say that F.E.A.R was your greatest accomplish as Director?
Before FEAR, my team had a reputation for being able to deliver critical success but not commercial success. FEAR changed that perception, so it opened a lot of doors. And it's kind of amazing to still see it come up from time to time well over a decade later, especially given how many amazing shooters have been released since.
But it kind of depends on how you think about accomplishments. Shogo was a trainwreck when I was given the lead designer role. The final product is still kind of a trainwreck, but I think we prioritized the right things to ensure it was at least a fun, fairly coherent mess instead of a boring, discombobulated mess, and ultimately it was successful enough that it gave us the opportunity to create the game that eventually became No One Lives Forever. Which, in itself, was a pretty significant accomplishment despite its shortcomings and rough edges. I like NOLF 2 better as a game but a little less as an overall experience, but it too was quite an ordeal, so its critical reception was also very rewarding.
And even Gotham City Impostors, which was the last game I shipped at Monolith, was made by a small team in a short amount of time and was pretty challenging in every respect. It didn't review super well, at least partly due to factors that had nothing to do with the actual game experience, but I think it turned out fun and surprisingly balanced given how much freedom players had to customize their loadouts.
So I guess the bottom line is that FEAR was probably my greatest overall success as a director/lead designer, but every project was an accomplishment in its own way.
Lastly, F.E.A.R included some remarkable and highly destructive guns, such as the Penetrator and Particle Weapon. Personally, what was your favourite?
It really depended on the day. Because I was the one balancing the weapons, I tried to cycle through the arsenal regularly for our daily playtests so that I wouldn't get too comfortable with any one weapon. I love shotguns in FPSes and am very fond of FEAR's, but I also love the ASP rifle, the dual pistols, and the particle weapon.
Craig Hubbard co-founded Black Powder Games and released the critically acclaimed Betrayer in 2014. He worked on a number of Monolith's games including Blood 2 and was lead designer for No One Lives Forever and Shogo.