16-Jun-2007 Interview: GSC's ambitious PC project is here, but it was a rocky road to release. We look back with the developer Back in late 2001 we got our first look at an impressive game called Oblivion Lost, then a squad-based action game from GSC Game World. In 2007 the title that we now know as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl finally released, plunging players into a survival-FPS-RPG hybrid and the post-apocalyptic wasteland surrounding the Chernobyl power plant after its meltdown.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was surrounded by plenty of anticipation, but what the with the lengthy development time and word leaking that certain parts of GSC's original vision for the game were being cut, concern that it wouldn't live up to hopes and expectations began to mount. However, the game turned out to be nowhere near as bad as some feared and was generally well received when it finally materialised.
With the release dust now settled, we picked up the phone and got in touch with Anton Bolshakov, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. project lead. Part one of a two-part interview is below...
S.T.A.L.K.E.R. - why exactly did it take so long?
Anton Bolshakov: Firstly, it was a big-scale project, the biggest we've done. Secondly, a lot in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was innovative (combining a shooter with RPG, open-ended world, no corridor limits etc.) and a few things were truly groundbreaking (such as A-life) - and thus tough to implement.
A mere merging of that bunch of elements and making it all work within one game was a challenge too. There was a lot of trial and error in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., but the experience gained is immense too.
So what was your reaction to S.T.A.L.K.E.R.'s reception by press and the gaming public when it finally released?
Anton Bolshakov: As there's been so much expectation out there, we were a bit anxious as to how the players and press would ultimately react to the game after so many years of wait.
However, once we got the first game reviews and letters from the happy players, we understood the game was going to be a success. And there's hardly any reward for a developer better than the words of praise from the players. The game's success gave the team a big boost to continue working on the ideas invested in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
What would you say is your greatest achievement with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and why?
Anton Bolshakov: S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is about a unique Chernobyl man-made accident atmosphere, the blend of FPS and RPG gameplay, freedom of movement and action in a shooter game.
A captivating story with seven endings which depend on the type of playthrough, a living-and-breathing world controlled by the A-life system, a variety of secondary quests and high replayability, the unique non-scripted AI, realistic guns, powerful DX9 engine and realistic graphics.
There are a few ideas introduced in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. we feel have great potential for further exciting developments, such as A-life, independent NPCs and developed groupings etc.
Imagine you were just starting work on the game now - how would your approach differ from the one you originally took?
Anton Bolshakov: I think we would plan more realistic targets to achieve, would avoid many error experiments which we had to spend loads of time on. And, most likely, we would use someone else's ready-made technology, without having to waste time on creating our proprietary one, whilst having the game developed concomitantly.
There were features originally envisaged that got cut. In hindsight, would you say your original vision for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was just too ambitious?
Anton Bolshakov: Yes, sure, the project turned out to be extremely ambitious. It appears that some features may sound good and look good on paper, while in reality they turn out either complex, uninteresting or vague from the gameplay standpoint.
For instance, the idea of a fully A-life driven game which has no story and all happens on the random basis turned out inapplicable to the original S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
De facto, such concept is an MMORPG, but without online, based in single-player, which only helps to make the already complex development of such a game even more complicated. Such a concept should be approached step-by-step, through several projects, so that in the long run the proper balance of interest and difficulty is found.
What's the one thing you would have like to have included but that didn't make it in?
Anton Bolshakov: The dynamic obstacle outskirting by AI; NPCs throwing grenades; a more developed system of relations with groupings, community; more developed groupings as they are and their actions in the Zone; the possibility to play for the groupings.
Did you ever reach a point where you wanted to throw the towel in?
Anton Bolshakov: We, the developers, never had such an idea in mind. It is quite probable, though, that it popped up in the mind of our investor and the publisher. Eventually, we all had enough morale to go against all odds and finish the project.
There have been some heated reactions to the game over bugs and rough edges. What's your reaction to that, and were you pushed into hitting a deadline when you would have liked a little more time to polish the game?
Anton Bolshakov: A developer is a creative person and he could be developing his game for his entire life. So, keeping to certain deadlines is necessary. It should be noted, we did not leave any bugs in the release intentionally.
The fact that many players have suffered the technical issues is a side effect to the hugely extensive PC market in the world, and the too many of various hardware possessed by the players.
Over 60 professional testers had been working on bug testing the game for many months, the game was released with no A-class bug we were aware of.
I also would like to stress that we worked intensely on fixing the existing problems and bugs, none of us had gone on vacation. As of today, we've released three patches already. We will keep doing the fixes until there's no single major problem remaining. We are fully prepared to support the community to the top of our ability - the players mean all to us.
Check back Monday morning for the second and concluding part of our interview with GSC.