THERE CAME AN ECHO
Iridium Studios is making realtime strategy more personal
Alternative control schemes have rather fallen from grace since Microsoft’s Kinect proposition flopped and the device received a demotion back to peripheral status. It’s a trend Jason Wishnov, lead designer on voice-controlled RTS There Came An Echo, is keenly aware of, though he faults the implementations, not the central idea.
“The games that have used alternative control schemes haven’t tended to have the depth, narrative or gameplay experience that core gamers, or whatever you want to call them, have come to expect,” he says. “I mean, name a Kinect title that has the precision and depth of a game like Bayonetta 2, a modern FPS, or anything really. The games that tend to come out are exercise games, Dance Central, or that Sesame Street game by Double Fine – all of which are pretty fun, but they’re not something that’s going to appeal to a large segment of the traditional gamer population. So I’m trying to break the mould; I’m trying to legitimise an alternative control scheme as something that’s OK for a game that hopefully has quite a bit of depth. But it’s an uphill battle, and a difficult perception challenge.”
On early evidence, the Iridium team might just be on track to overturn the common perception. While we initially had some problems with characters not responding to orders in the alpha build, last-minute tweaks to the game’s British accent recognition delivered an immeasurable improvement. And when There Came An Echo’s systems coalesce, the effect is wondrous.
Characters can be ordered by name, or you can tell “everybody” or “everybody but” to do something. You can also ask your charges to swap between their weapons – a standard pistol and one of four special guns, which include a sniper rifle and a grenade launcher – and change batteries, which power both special weapons and shields. Plus, you can add “on my mark” to synchronise your commands before booming “mark” into the mic like you’re starring in an action thriller.
While There Came An Echo isn’t the first game to use voice commands to control troops – Tom Clancy’s EndWar and Odama preceded it – it’s a more intimate one thanks to its much tighter focus, resulting in a more personal relationship between you and those you’re ordering into the firing line.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of narrative in games,” Wishnov says. “I think EndWar missed a really great opportunity. In that game, you were just ordering these generic army soldier guys – you didn’t really feel much for them and it didn’t matter if they died. But with There Came An Echo, I really wanted to reinforce that relationship and make you care about the characters. You’re responsible for their welfare, and if they die, it’s probably your fault.” Thankfully, fallen comrades can be revived with a burst of electricity, while the forcefields that surround each fighter will take a reasonable amount of punishment before giving in. Cover further bolsters your team’s chances of survival, offering a defensive bonus by reducing enemy accuracy.
“It’s a fine balance to want to strike,” Wishnov explains. “If you’ve lined up your soldiers in an optimal position, and the enemy soldiers have done the same, then you’d theoretically just sit there as bullets fly back and forth, and that’s pretty boring. So we’re trying to achieve this feeling of urgency, but at the same time we couldn’t make it too intense – like, say, StarCraft – because you’re inherently limited in your actions per minute due to the speed of voice.”
Those orders will be delivered even more slowly if the kind of creative swearing born of unresponsive controls is ever a factor, and while traditional inputs are supported, There Came An Echo clearly depends on its vocal interface being near flawless. But when you’re barking at agents to flank the enemy and it’s all working as planned, it’s uncommonly easy to get swept up in the moment.
While There Came An Echo looks like a 2D isometric setup in screenshots, it blends 2D backgrounds with 3D geometry. “The environments in the game are actually all hand-painted 2D sprites,” Wishnov explains. “But then we create 3D geometry and make it invisible – it’s completely invisible unless light is being cast upon it, or in the absence of light to create shadow. Then that’s placed very precisely in front of the sprite in an orthographic camera to show the 2D sprite but still have the lighting and shadows fall correctly on the structure. So it creates a pseudo-3D effect.”