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John Sonedecker Interview
By: Whiteknight
Published : January 27th, 2009

Interview : John Sonedecker, Game Designer, Blackfoot Studios
Interviewer : Whiteknight, GhostRecon.net


John Sonedecker is a name many tactical shooter gamers will have heard of already. Known for his work on the Rainbow Six series of games John has never been far from the tactical shooter scene.

Blackfoot Studios Sky Gods

In this second interview by Whiteknight, John talks openly about projects currently being developed at Blackfoot Studios.

The Interview

Here we are again with a new interview, or an extension of the first one I first did some 3 years ago. Good to be able to ask you some questions again.

WK: Hi John, how are ya doing?

Pretty good. But I think I have a few more gray hairs since our last chat

WK: What has transpired since the first interview you gave me about you and your studio 3 years ago?

I guess both a lot and a little..LOL. We have done many experiments and prototypes in the engine and think we have a really good handle on things to start a good push into full production. We have had some people move on from the project in search of stability and for personal reasons. At this stage, BFS doesn't offer any stability or steady income so we must adapt to each person's situations.

WK: What do you intend to do with your games?

Provide a style of game play that is currently not readily available.

WK: Are you happy with the progress you have made?

In the grand scheme of things I would say yes. We certainly have not made the overall progress I would have hoped, but we have had many obstacles to overcome along the way for sure.

WK: What number of sales would you consider a success?

To me, anything over break even is a success in principal. Obviously, the more the better, but building a solid customer base and keeping them happy is the most important thing. Given our structure and resources, we have realistic goals and simply are not trying to compete with the main FPS titles for market share, sales or production values. Although we can hold our own in production values for the most part.

WK: Do you care if mainstream or average gamers find your games accessible?

Sure. Are they our target audience… no. But I certainly care about introducing people to our style of games. It's important for the game to be easy to understand but require skill to master. That is to say that making a game initially complex simply to make it appear more “hard core” is not the correct way to go about it.

Any game player should be able to start our game up, jump in and get the basics of movement and shooting without much hassle. However, becoming fluent in those mechanics and playing the game should require thought, practice and honing of one’s skills to truly appreciate the title.

WK: Why are you building games from the ground up and in your words, what does NORG (Natural Order of Realistic Gameplay) mean to you?

The easy answer is because there aren't any games out there like what we are trying to do. Sure there are games with realistic themes, weapons and environments but nothing that plays like we would like or covers the scope of design that we are going after. NORG is a doctrine of thinking and not a stead fast set of rules that must be followed. It's a framework for game design that spares us from endless "balancing" and making artificial trade offs to justify that balancing. The real world has a funny way of creating balance in a lot of situations.

WK: Do you see gamers in your forums catching on to the NORG principle and do you think they understand it?

Yeah I do. Some people over think things though and try to make NORG the end all be all law of the gaming universe. We simply cannot make EVERYTHING realistic In a game. It would be too cumbersome and honestly not fun. But for the most part, people will all of a sudden “get it” and understand the basics behind it after a few discussions.

WK: Where do you see Sky Gods and Ground Branch heading in the future?

Sky Gods - Blackfoot Studios

Sky Gods

I don’t know. I have high hopes that they will be titles that catch on enough to fund continued development for one. These are games I like playing as well as making so I will enjoy a healthy community playing them just as much as you.

WK: Have you learned much about what spec-ops do due to your involvement with Hatchetforce?

Absolutely. I had a good working knowledge before hand, but he brings a new depth of knowledge and insight that you simply do not get from regular research or even from a typical advisor for that matter. I’m sure there are many more interesting stories and topics out there that he simply cannot talk about.

WK: How is it working with him? Is it all serious business or do y'all cut up some when in studio together?

We aren’t together all that much actually, but talk on the phone all the time. He is an interesting person on many levels and is always good for a conversation. He is an information sponge and I have a hard time keeping up some times! 

It’s really nice that he is a full on gamer and our conversations span the gap of Son Tay Raiders to stray dogs. It’s great having him around.

WK: How was it working with him in the motion capture sessions? Did you learn anything?

I learned that I’m glad I didn’t suit up and try to do this stuff! He was great and we had a lot of fun. We also learned that we need to make some adjustments to the suit to get some cleaner data, but hey, we had a limited schedule for that shoot. I also learned a lot about how fluid these guys can move. I have seen it before of course, but not in such a hands on way.

WK: What have Harntrox, Beppo and Snowfella brought to the studios as far as game ideas?

Well Harntrox decided to move on from the project last year. He wanted to pursue some non programming opportunities that fell in front of him and he jumped at it. I also think he was more than a little burnt out on the game development scene as well.

Snowfella has been a great addition to helping get our weapons top grade quality and I truly hope to someday rightly reward him for the effort. He isn’t really involved in the design of the game, though he will be in the very early play testing. ;-)

Snowfella Weapon Modelling - Blackfoot Studios

Beppo is a true visionary. His ideas and implementations are very forward thinking. He isn’t constrained by the typical game dev “box” and constantly focuses on how to get such and such idea in the game without getting bogged down with typical “it’s not supposed to do that” thinking.

WK: What ideas has BFS gotten from the community as far as gameplay or game modes?

There are a few we like outright, but for the most part the discussions lead us in all kinds of directions and trains of thought that we might not have taken on our own. There is no way we could include all the ideas the community comes up with, and we wouldn’t want to, but the discussions are a great tool to vet ideas as well as work through others with a thousand different perspectives!

WK: Gamers keep saying that they want options and that is not a bad idea, but do you think there are some things that should be set in stone as far as game mechanics?

Yeah, I think some things should, but it’s a very fine line. Some would argue that too many options dilute the player base and I tend to agree. But on the other hand, not enough forces people to play in a set style too much. So you need to identify the options that allow for different play styles but don’t dilute the player base by scattering people amongst way too many diverse servers.

WK: After Sky Gods is released, will you have an expansion pack to give us more missions to play or will you concentrate on Ground Branch?

Not sure at this point. I just want to get something released!

WK: What is your main goal with Ground Branch?

First and foremost to release a title that fills the market gap that exists for these style games. Secondly, to complete the title with a more secure studio setup so that we can fully concentrate on the game(s) and not worry so much about the other business related items.

As for the game itself, I would really like to achieve a full scale co-op campaign that is engaging and well executed.

WK: Do you think you will be able to attain that goal?

I sure hope so. Time will tell.

WK: What do you hope gamers get out of Ground Branch?

An appreciation that realism can be fun and an understanding that building a true success story takes time and insane amounts of effort.

WK: There has been much in the news about copyright protection and DRM schemes that deter paying customers from actually playing a game that they bought a license to play, and not being able to or being held to ridiculous activation and revocation rules to be able to play said game(s) in the future, and that these schemes are driving more people to pirate games. What are your thoughts on such action and what are your plans for Sky Gods and Ground Branch?

Oh boy… that would take a very lengthy discussion. The short answer is that I am in the middle somewhere. I fully believe that content holders have every right to not have their stuff taken for free. It’s also their right to do whatever they feel is necessary to do so. However, I think most current DRM solutions are misguided and do nothing to properly address the situation. For the most part, current DRM simply drives customers away.

Ground Branch - Blackfoot Studios

Ground Branch

I don’t claim to have all the answers or really even a good idea of how to do it effectively. Valve has a good system that works as far as curbing piracy, but introduces the issue of being shackled to their client. Not a bad thing overall and it actually has a lot of great features, but at the end of the day you are still living inside of Valve’s controlled compound with no way out. What if they decide to change the way something works? You have to go along or lose your game that you purchased. Will something drastic happen? I doubt it, but the possibility is there. Overall it’s a pretty good setup though.

We haven’t decided what we are going to do other than we certainly are not going to go with some stupid install limit or other ineffective solution. It will most likely be a simple CD key and be done with it. Maybe we’ll do nothing and conduct an experiment with that and Bit Torrent distribution. Who knows?

WK: Are there any companies that you look at in ways that give those who pay for their games the ability to play with minimum hassle?

I think Stardock comes to mind first. Valve would be another as long as you play their games within their system of doing business. Play in their “sandbox” and everything works great and is super easy to get along with, but try to take your toys out of that “sandbox” and you have issues.

WK: What will you do to deter piracy of BFS games?

Make a good game that people feel compelled to pay for. It doesn’t have to be the best game in the world but as long as people feel they are getting their monies worth then they will more than likely feel compelled to pay. Of course there are those that just pirate because they can, but we don’t care about those people since they would never buy something anyway.

WK: Do you plan on releasing a product with intentional bugs to know who pirated your games as some companies do or do you have something else in mind?

No. I’m not sure if that works or not, but since we are small we will have enough trouble keeping track of any real bugs that come up. LOL!

WK: Do you have any ideas for new games in the future or do you expect to take Ground Branch past a couple of expansion packs?

We have all kinds of new ideas and couldn’t make all those games in the time we have left on this earth. I’m not sure what we are going to do after Ground Branch though. I really just want to get something out before worrying about what comes next.

WK: What are your thoughts on console gaming?

I love console gaming.

WK: Do you see console gaming regressing from the ease of play that it used to be?

I don’t see gaming regressing but I do see some trends in the presentation of console gaming regressing. It’s arguable, but I feel the trend of title updates, console updates and patches is both a blessing and a curse. Sure, getting things updating is generally a good thing, but it also introduces a lot of the “downsides” people gripe about with PC gaming.

The introduction of multiplayer play (not splitscreen) on consoles more or less necessitates moving things this way, but I can’t help but cringe when I purchase a game and when putting the disc in for the first time I am told it needs to install 4gb worth of data to my HD. Then when I finally start the game I need to go online and get a title update, which is a fancy term for patch. Is that PC or console gaming? Not sure anymore.

WK: Do you think developers and publishers have gotten sloppy while developing for consoles?

I don’t think “sloppy” is the proper term. Developing games these days is insanely complex. I think what does happen though is the introduction of “title updates” does allow them to push off a known issue until later. Where as in the past, what you shipped is what you got so there was extra care in making sure things worked properly.

Ground Branch - Blackfoot Studios

Ground Branch

On the flip side of things….. The introduction of online multiplayer by nature, introduces enormous potential for issues that simply could not be tested for. It never ceases to amaze me what the online community can come up with in multiplayer games. They will find glitches and bad movement combos that are way to out of the ordinary to find in normal testing. So it’s not the developers fault in a lot of cases.

WK: What should be done to reverse said tendencies to dumbing down console games?

I don’t like the term “dumbing down” because I don’t think that’s what happens in most cases. Think of it like the difference between DOS and Windows. Was Windows a dumbed down version of DOS because it was easier for most people to use and brought in millions more computer users? A DOS die hard might say yes, but generally speaking the answer is no.

Making games is a business and the key to a financially successful business is to sell more product. The key to selling more product is to gain more customers. The key to gaining more customers is to make you product appeal to more people. So in reality, a lot of games are simply trying to broaden their appeal.

The trick for a business is knowing who your target customer is and focusing on them. If you can sustain your business with that target and are happy with the returns then great.

WK: Do you think other game companies will try to emulate BFS and try to capitalize on the new game mechanics BFS worked up?

I doubt anyone is going to try to emulate BFS as a company. However, any time a game is successful others will pull bits and pieces out of it to incorporate in some form or another into their products. So if we are successful then I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few things pop up in other games.

WK: Thanks again for your time John and I look forward to interviewing you again, after a game has been released.

No problem.

© 2009 WhiteKnight77

© 2009 GhostRecon.net

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