The team, founded by John Sondecker - one of the developers responsible for the original Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six games - are hard at work on bringing tactical shooter back to their roots. Just the thought alone that a true industry veteran like Sonedecker is at the helm of Ground Branch is enough to get people excited, but after really taking a close look at the game, this is only the tip of the iceberg.
There are a plethora of reasons that Ground Branch should be getting you excited, but don't take our word for it. We had the chance to catch up with John Sonedecker, BlackFoot Studios Founder and Creative Director, to discuss the game and how his history working on such iconic titles as Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six have come to influence his development style in Ground Branch.
You can read our full interview below:
So, first off, how about some quick introductions. Who are you and how did you get your start in the gaming industry?
My name is John Sonedecker and I am the Founder and Creative Director of BlackFoot Studios. My career started back in 1997 when I decided I did not want to continue in the field of Architecture and was drawn to the interesting world of computer games. I was lucky enough to come in around the time Red Storm Entertainment was getting started and was instantly drawn to the possibility of working on a Tom Clancy style game with a new studio, so I decided to make the jump to games. I haven’t looked back since.
How did Ground Branch come into existence, how did the game get started?
I originally started BlackFoot Studios as a work for hire group. But eventually, I decided that I really wanted to try to make the type of game that I loved to play, but was currently missing from the market place. I wanted to go back and rediscover those gameplay elements and experiences that made games like Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon so special.
Was there a conscious choice to focus on the Ground Branch, rather than more cliché branches of the military special forces, such as the SEALs, Delta Force or Army Rangers?
Some of it was just that…. Cliché branches of the military. But ultimately we wanted to model a unit that was able to work outside the bounds of normal military rules. I’m sure most Tier One units skirt the bounds , but really they do not fall under the “black” or “plausible deniability” umbrella. It allows us to explore some ideas that we otherwise couldn’t while staying true to a units real world restrictions.
Sure. Natural Order of Realistic Gameplay is our approach to realistic game design. It’s basically a series of common sense, realistic rule sets for gameplay, such as mobility and weapon balance. It’s a philosophy and not a system or game mechanic and isn’t something you just “plug in” to a game engine. It’s taking the core mechanics the real-world gives us and making those the foundation of the game design.
The best 2 examples to illustrate this are jumping and weapon balancing. SOF guys jump all the time. They jump over small obstacles and ditches. But when they do, their combat effectiveness diminishes greatly. If you fire your weapon while jumping you will hit 2 things…. The ground or the sky!
Weapons are not artificially balanced in game to make sure each weapon is unique in some way or that there isn't one over powered weapon everyone uses. The real world does this automatically. With our hard point attachment system different weapons allow for different attachment types. Weapon collision with the world will make longer heavy weapons more cumbersome and slow to use in tight CQB environments. Weapon ballistics will dictate what weapon/caliber is best used for a given situation.
That is NORG in a nutshell. It makes it so players are challenged by the scenario, not crippled by the design.
With such a strong focus on realism, will there be a large learning curve in Ground Branch? Are weapons easy to get the hang of, or do the mechanics take some practice to master?
No, we don’t feel like the added realism present a larger learning curve. You still point and shoot your weapon, but you do so in a realistic manner. The control mechanics are what you are used to already. You will need to get used to dealing with targets at longer ranges due to the ballistics model as well as get the hang of more precise aiming since the weapon will not always return to precisely the middle of the screen when shooting.
If you are not familiar with the weapons in the real world then you will need to learn the difference between them and why one would be a better choice over another in certain situations. Luckily we are providing a full set of training areas and information on the subject so that players can try things out before going online.
How has your experience on previous games helped shape Ground Branch? Obviously, you have worked on such influential titles as Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon; has that experience played a role in the development of this game?
Absolutely! Working on the original Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon has shaped me as a game developer. I loved working on those games and there is a big part of me in them. They also continue to carry a lot of weight in my design theory.
Are there any trends in current shooters that you aim to change in Ground Branch? Perhaps game mechanics that are taken for granted that need a change?
First let me say that I love playing games. All kinds. I have played Battlefield 3 for countless hours of fun as an example. But, there are a few trends in gaming that I don’t care for and that Ground Branch will not cater to. The main things being micro-transactions (F2P/P2W), unlocks and continual over-priced DLC. The unlock thing is a big one for us at BlackFoot Studios.
We want our games to be the fun that drives people to continue to play, not the chase of getting something else. The game is just a means to an end really. Besides, people pay for the content so why restrict them to not be allowed to use it all from day one? To us, player skill is what makes playing games fun, not that so and so was able to level up faster and unlock XYZ uber weapon and can now rule the battlefield.
We want our game to last, to stand the test of time. Current popular FPS’s are only as good as the next yearly iteration. This plays into the unlock methodology…. Once you have everything unlocked then the fun is gone, because the core of the game isn’t there. And so the new year’s version comes out and the chase begins again.
Your experience at Ft. Bragg brings a pretty unique insight to the development of Ground Branch. How has your time working for the US Military helped in developing the game?
Yes it has. I was fortunate enough to sit side by side with some very special individuals. They are not only colleagues but friends. It’s one thing to read about guys like this, or be involved in a limited “hey how does this work” capacity that most game developers have done; But to work side by side on a daily basis, to get a better understanding of their mindset, motivation and overall demeanor is something you can’t experience on a limited basis.
I have always had a great appreciation for our military and those that do what they do so that I may do what I do. But walking into work every day, passing memorials, signs, unit compounds, “special areas” and seeing firsthand the training these find individuals go through gives one a very deep respect and gratitude that you can’t get otherwise. This translates into the game’s development by motivating me to make sure we get it right. To not overuse words like “Authenticity” or to use these guys as a ‘marketing hook’.
BlackFoot Studios is building the game around the community, rather than vice versa. How deep will the mod tools go?
We have big plans for modding Ground Branch. We will ship with the game editor and all the tools to make map, mission and weapon mods right away. We will provide a lot of content for modders to use as well. We have setup things like weapons to be content driven so there is no need to know Unreal Script or any programming to add new weapons.
Modding is a key to a game’s longevity and we fully intend for Ground Branch to be around for long time.
Anything else you’d like to share in regards to Ground Branch and the Kickstarter?
We are very passionate about what we are doing and we know there are a lot of people out there that feel the same way. We are a small self-funded studio and supporting the Kickstarter is imperative to the success of Ground Branch. Please take the time to go over the Kickstarter page, look at the official Ground Branch website. If you like what you see, or just believe in the cause, please back our Kickstarter if you can.
Special thanks to John Sonedecker and BlackFoot Studios for taking the time to chat with us. Ground Branch is an exciting title and we can't wait to follow progress on the game and its Kickstarter!