Slide To Play Q and A: Breach & Clear

Breach & Clear is a tactical strategy game that we liked quite a bit when it came out last month. So we chatted with Wes Keltner, the president of Gun and creative director on the game, to talk about its inception, release, and what’s planned for the future. Read on for the goods.

Slide To Play: Can you tell us about how to the project came to be? How did you build the team that would eventually produce Breach & Clear?

Wes Keltner: Breach & Clear was something I had been thinking about since 2006. I spent a lot of time playing the old Rainbow Six series on PC; I loved the pre-planning as much as (sometimes more than) the actual action. But it wasn’t until I was unpacking a moving box that I thought more in-depth about B&C. I opened a box that was labeled “Old Stuff.” There with the ancient prom pictures, graduation tassel, and other artifacts from high school I found my copy of Rainbow Six Rogue Spear.

I began thinking about how much meticulous fun I had with that title. “Why isn’t there a game like this right now? Is there not an audience anymore for this type of cerebral planning shooter?” I thought there still was, but there wasn’t a great platform for it. Fast forward to the first time I touched a generation one iPad. It was at that point that I started thinking more about making something like B&C. But I knew it would take a solid team to make something like that.

I wrote the design doc for B&C in the spring of 2012. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wrote ideas for gameplay, UI/UX, teams, etc., all down in a wire-bound notebook. It was a mess. Calling it a “design doc” was a stretch. But I had the basic idea, the bones of B&C, but I needed a developer. I got introduced to several developers, each with their own catalog of titles and specialized teams. One of those was Mighty Rabbit, out of Holly Springs, NC. They had just launched Saturday Morning RPG. I checked it out and loved the ’80s nostalgia within. We had lunch together, chatted about games we loved to play, and we hit it off. They were a young, hungry, and crazy-talented team. I had found my dev partners. Now, I needed to find someone who could help me guide the project. That’s when I met Robert Bowling.

Bowling had just announced he was leaving Infinity Ward. It was a total shot in the dark, but I emailed him. I told him a little bit about Gun and basically said if he ever wanted to talk shop, I’d love to meet. He responded and we both got together over a 10 sack of White Castles in northern Kentucky. Yeah, crazy right? That’s a whole other article…

STP: What inspired the original design of the title? Is the final product close to your early concepts?

Keltner: As mentioned previously, Rainbow Six on PC was a huge inspiration. But so were other titles including SWAT, Full Spectrum Warrior, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Ghost Recon to name a few. But we also found a muse in titles that are less apparent, like football games for example. In one of the many conversations during the exploratory phase of B&C, Gun and Mighty Rabbit were discussing how the planning would work. I think we drew an analogy to football and Josh at Mighty Rabbit began referencing how you read, asses, and call plays in NFL 2K1 for Dreamcast.

STP: B&C is a fresh take on turn based strategy games, a genre that has a seen a welcomed resurgence in the past couple years. What were some of the design and engineering challenges in building such a complex game?

Keltner: From the very beginning we knew that a traditional turn-based strategy didn’t fit with B&C. The Special Operations Forces world of close-quarter combat room clearing is about speed, overwhelming force, and complete domination of the room. If B&C had been a true turn-based game, we felt the balance would have been off. We wanted the planning phase to be slow and methodical, while conversely the action phase would be fast, powerful, and full of energetic frenzy.

Pacing and balance were always at the forefront of each stage of development. But with this new hybrid turn-based concept came challenges for the dev team. Mighty Rabbit came up with a genius solution: time. Each turn or action phase is around 5 seconds, therefore distance is a direct calculation of time. How far your soldier can move from starting waypoint to ending waypoint is measured by time, not so much distance. It was that one decision by Kurt and Adrian at Mighty Rabbit that echoed throughout B&C. The tick marks on the movement line for each soldier are marked for seconds. How the user chooses to distribute XP across categories like reaction and overall speed, as well as decisions on gear and weapons affecting mobility, all are based on the element of time in B&C.

STP: Making games is tough work, so what is the most rewarding aspect of the process?

Keltner: That’s a tough one because there have been several rewarding moments. That first time you get a playable build of your baby. The hours spent in the mo-cap studio, then to see your soldiers come to life once married to the rigging. Working with a solid dev team and watching them grow passionate about the vision. Of course, launch day is super rewarding. There’s some vindication in that day. It’s the crescendo that screams, “I knew this was a good idea, I just knew it!”

However, one of my favorite, most memorable moments was at PAX East, where we unveiled a playable version of B&C to the world. The ludicrous hours the dev team poured into that build, just to get it ready. The days spent designing the logo, backdrop, and total layout of the booth. The hundreds and hundreds of things to achieve on the “to do” checklist just to get there. Arranging flights, hotels, and badges for the team, when I think about it all, it was a miracle we pulled it off. The doors opened and within 10 minutes our booth was packed. I didn’t know what to expect to be honest. I thought maybe we would have a couple iPad stations going, but mostly we would be hanging around the booth. Oh, how I was wrong.

Open to close, all three days of PAX East, we had all six iPad stations filled, the booth was crammed full with people spilling out into the main path. We were grossly understaffed and overwhelmed. It was awesome. I remember about 30 minutes into day one, I looked over at my wife, who was doing her best at crowd control. Through the chaos, the noise, and costumed attendees, I managed to hear her say three words; “You did it!” I’ll never forget that moment for the rest of my life. The fact that I got to share that with my best friend and partner, it’s hard to explain.

STP: In a recent livestream session of B&C with Slide To Play, you talked briefly about working with veterans and counter terrorist experts. What was the extent of this collaboration, and what impact did that have on development? Additionally, what were the most interesting things that your learned from these experts?

Keltner: I can’t discuss who these individuals are, nor what division/units they are with, but I can say these guys are incredible at their jobs and define the word brave. What they do for a living is mind-blowing. Their situational awareness is off the charts, and one discussion with them you will realize you have no idea what’s really going on around you. These guys are 100% alpha personalities. With one handshake and one exchange of introductions, you will see it. They are cut from a different cloth. The information they could legally share with us completely changed the design of B&C.

One immense epiphany I had was after having dinner with a member of the Special Operations Forces. I asked the operator what it felt like to stand outside a room, those few seconds before the breach charge went off. What did he think about just before the chaos. “Nothing… I think of nothing just seconds before. My mind is clear, I’m calm,” he said to me.

I was a little shocked to hear this. “But you have no idea what’s on the other side of that door. And there’s a good chance it’s a guy with a gun, waiting to kill you.” He goes on to tell me that enemies aren’t the real threat in their line of work. It’s the room layouts that get operators killed. That’s why these guys train endlessly in kill houses. They rearrange the walls, doors, and debris that could be used for cover. They train until they can do it in their sleep, then they change the layouts, and train more. The reason for all this is muscle memory. So they can be dropped anytime, anywhere into any situation, with very little intel, and complete the mission. Corner fed rooms versus center fed rooms became a very in-depth conversation between the operators and myself.

Doorways, or the “fatal funnel” as it’s known, are categorized as either corner fed, meaning the entrance to the room has an adjacent wall, and center fed rooms, which means the entrance opens into a room, with no wall to the immediate right or left. This was a huge eye opening moment for us. Seems pretty simple, but we hadn’t even thought about it. Center fed rooms are tremendously harder to enter compared to corner fed. The team has no cover when entering a center fed room. The threats could be to the left, right or straight ahead. This is how we made rooms more challenging in B&C. As you progress through the levels, they become harder and harder to clear. You’ll notice one of the reasons it feels harder is because there are more center fed rooms than corner.

STP: Taking down terrorists requires state of the art equipment. Would you share with us how you decided on the initial weapon and gear offerings in B&C? What considerations did you make when balancing the stats for the guns?

Keltner: Ben Strauss, our community manager and military expert, put the list together of what equipment should be in B&C. Ben is a walking encyclopedia of military history and equipment knowledge. This could be an entire separate interview, just with Ben. The stats on the equipment came down to a very simple mantra of sorts for the dev team. For every decision, a consequence.

Want a high speed team? No problem, you can set your load out to be super fast and light. However, you’ll take a hit to protection. Want an extremely accurate weapon? Go ahead, put foregrips, IR devices, and optics on it. But all those attachments make the weapon slightly heavier, which decreases your mobility and speed. Having this kind of balancing never allows a team to be too powerful, but does allow the user to setup individuals within the team precisely how they want. This might sound tedious to some players, but once you look at the classes you can choose from, the active perks and abilities each class provides, you start to see how your loadout decisions need to harmonize with your soldier’s class/tactics.

STP: What was the play testing process like, and what information did you glean from observing new players?

Keltner: We held small group play testing among Gun and Mighty Rabbit. I watched countless people, from all ranges of demographics, play B&C. But the single largest play test we did was PAX East. Thousands came by the booth to play, every day. We briefed each player with the basics, and then turned them loose to clear rooms. The data was overwhelming. Watching how players interacted, touched the screen, and seeing if the expected outcome played out for the user, allowed us to fine-tune several aspects of B&C. The gameplay UI was one of the largest. Some players would tap the screen to set a waypoint, while others found it more comfortable to drag waypoints. We were on the fence as to which should stay in the game, but post PAX it was clear that both needed to stay in.

STP: What did you learn during the development of B&C that your team can apply to future games?

Keltner: I learned that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. (Laughs). This was my freshman attempt at designing a game. If I hadn’t surrounded myself with people that were smarter and more talented than me, I fear the outcome of B&C would be less than stellar.

I also learned that arguing is good. Some might think that arguing is negative or unproductive. But arguing is the first sign that what you’re building is good. If it wasn’t, your team wouldn’t care. They would just go with the flow, and phone it in. “Tell me what to build, and I’ll build it.” That type of mentality kills a game. You still might make a “good” game, but it won’t achieve greatness. Good is the enemy of great. It takes some passionate arguing and internal critiques to make a great game. I feel B&C is at the cusp of being great. And with the future updates we have planned, B&C will reveal facets and depth yet to be realized. We’ve got a real shot at greatness. That’s exciting.

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STP: B&C has been released, reviewed, and critiqued. How important are the reviews and scores to your team? How do you feel about the response from fans and critics alike since release?

Keltner: Every single comment, every review, every email, Facebook and Twitter message is read. All are taken into consideration. We put together a document of all the issues, comments, and suggestions from fans. We identified the ones that were frequent and put together a dev plan to facilitate.

The fan outpouring has been beyond my wildest dreams. There has been so much support for B&C so far, it’s amazing. The reviews that came from the enthusiast press were read in great detail by the team. A lot of their concerns and comments are spot on. But that’s the beauty of mobile. It’s a flexible enough platform that we can push updates with incredible speed. We listened to our fans and critics; now we’re the action phase.

STP: Can you share anything with us about the future updates to B&C?

Keltner: Sure. As you can see within the menus of B&C, there’s some “coming soon” content. Germany and Mexico are the two new environments. And how the user will play them will be different. The level design for these new environments are challenging and there are situations where choosing the right tactic at the right moment is incredibly rewarding. Also, the environment itself is visually much different than the other missions. Each should have its own color palette, pacing, and depth.

Germany, for example, will be the first “Greenside” AO (area of operation) in B&C. Greenside is the military designation for an operation conducted in a rural, forested area. This will be more open and mid-to-long distance conflicts, a stark change from the CQB battles in previous environments.

Mexico will be the first “MOUT” themed environment. MOUT or Military Operations on Urban Terrain, is the military designation for conflicts that occur in cities/urban areas. Users will be pushing their teams down city streets, fighting between cars, and moving through/clearing buildings. Again, each new environment should play differently; that’s the objective for all future DLC on B&C.