Interview: Jim Rossignol, You Are Being Hunted

We talk to Big Robot's Jim Rossignol to find out what TweedPunk is really all about and what it has to do with killer robots.

Announced earlier this year Sir, You Are Being Hunted caught the attention of gamers at large with its top hat wearing, monocle sporting robots. Billed as a stealth and survival focused FPS, it will task players with evading their robot hunters while searching for a way home. Embracing a Brit sci-fi/horror aesthetic, the game is set on an archipelago of islands, full of murky moors and stately homes. The maps, and everything in them will be procedurally generated, meaning every player will be in for a different experience. We catch up with Big Robot's Jim Rossignol to get the low down on the challenges facing the small team, from making sure the AI does what it's told and how it fits in with their grand ambitions, to shooting privilege in the face. First off, what is Sir, You Are Being Hunted all about? It's about two things. For the player it's about surviving in a bleak British landscape as you're hunted by killer robots wearing top hats. For the developer it's about us working out how to build large landscapes procedurally. We haven't placed a single blade of grass in our countryside maps by hand: it's all automagic. Sir, You Are Being Hunted came about as an off shoot to your other project Lodestone. Just to fill in the gaps for people who may have missed it, could you explain what Project Lodestone is and what you're aiming to do with it? Lodestone and Sir are both aspects of our interest in mathematically created worlds. Lodestone is an engine which can, currently, create infinite world geometry. We eventually intend for it to build entire alien planets, complete with flora and fauna, but we're some way off that, and so got stuck into a side project, which has become Sir You Are Being Hunted. What is the goal your team are striving towards with Hunted? How does it relate to Lodestone? The main goal is explore AI in open-world scenarios. Once we've created the maps we populate them with robots, and have them hunt the player. The robots also have some agendas of their own, so if you stay hidden you'll be able to see them going about their business, and even getting into fights with each other. Are both projects being developed alongside each other, with what you learn with Hunted being continuously added to Lodestone, or is the team concentrating on Hunted first, with plans to go back to Lodestone in the future? We're hoping that what we learn about AI - and what we code to control AI - will be dropped right into Lodestone, so that we can populate that world with killer robots, too. We'll see how that pans out! What challenges has the team faced so far with regards to dynamic AI which lies at the heart of the game? Has it been as big a struggle as you may have thought it would be in the beginning, with regards to creating a constantly flowing and dynamic world? It's very challenging. Doing anything ambitious with AI takes a lot of programming and a lot of testing. We're only a small team, so it's been quite a fear to get things operational. We've learned a lot about path-finding and character behaviour in large, open environments. It's definitely easier to set these games in closed environments - corridors and so on - and we have an extra challenge of having a randomised landscape. The AI has to be dynamic enough to deal with any situation it might encounter. I could imagine it would be quite a complicated process having different routines ready depending on which factions run into each other while roaming the open world environment of the game. Then taking into account the different types of enemies and their various tactics. It sounds like it could get confusing fast! Yes, and that's really the aspect of the project that is taking the most time. Not only creating the routines that the AI needs to follow, but then balancing them. Just adjusting things like what their field of view is as they move can have knock-on effects for other aspects of the game. The unforeseen chain of consequences for any given change is one of the fascinating things about dealing with a systems-driven game like ours. There's been mention of mechanical hounds roaming the moors, will there be any other mechanical wildlife to contend with? Will the player for instance, from behind a bush be able to see some hunters take down a mechanical fox in the absence of the more desirable human prey? That all depends how popular the initial release of the game is with our audience. Right now we're aiming to include Hunters, Hounds, and three other adversaries - we'd love to work on more if people like what we've already managed to produce. Now the game is set in the English countryside. How did you even come up with the idea of combining tea and tweed with robo-hunters? Is this you secretly telling people you want to shoot members of the aristocracy? Yeah, I guess there is a political aspect to our game, at least in a satirical sort of way. We live in the countryside, and we get to see quite how privileged British aristocrats are... and what their politics are like. And we don't really agree with it. Posh people make a good enemy. But yeah, we came up with the idea when we were searching for the best antagonist. Initially I'd envisioned a game where you were hunted by pretty classical killer robots, but then as we thought about it, we realised something that spoke from our roots in the countryside made sense. Was this simply the best of a bunch of other crazy concepts the team came up with? It was sort of an evolution of a single theme, rather than one in a series of concepts. We tend to spend a long time (in country pubs, over a beer) discussing how games should work, and the ideas slowly evolve. It's not often we see a game with this kind of humour and look to it. How have people responded to it so far? The response has been incredible. People really like the idea, and definitely find the sort of dark-and-silly approach to their liking. I hope the game can make people laugh, and scare them too. Set in an open world, I take it there will be a large emphasis on exploration? Its been likened to an indie S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Is this accurate and are there any other influences the team is drawing from? Yes, it's really all about exploration. You are searching the islands for fragments of a machine that will get you home. We love the freedom and pace of open worlds - those situations where you get to hang back, perhaps watch what's happening with binoculars before getting stuck in. I think all games that give the player some kind of freedom in that regard have influenced us in some way. In your mind how big a part will combat play within the game? Will players be discouraged from fighting their metallic foes? You aren't discouraged, but you will face a serious challenge. You are probably going to want to kill some of them, but it should be possible to get through the game without firing a shot. Big Robot has also riled against labelling the game as steam punk, preferring instead to call it Tweed Punk. Is this simply to support the games unique character, or does it run deeper than that? Well, perhaps what isn't clear from the visuals we've released so far is that the game is set in the modern day. There will be contemporary buildings and so on - although we haven't dropped many of those in yet. Steam punk, to us, means something that's actually set in an alternate history. This is more like an alternate present. Calling it "tweedpunk" was a throwaway like, but people were amused by it, so we ended up using it in the trailer. Finally, if one of our readers were to suddenly find themselves being hunted by robots, be it in England or any other part of the world, what's the most important thing they should bear in mind? That running away, rather than fighting, is always an option... While there's no release date in sight, the guys over at Big Robot are hoping to get it out some time next year.
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Corey's been in love with games ever since he first met a bandicoot many moons ago. Since then he's discovered he'll play pretty much anything, except karaoke games. He spends his time writing, listening to classic rock and drinking perhaps a little too much Guinness. You can follow his Irish internet ramblings on his Twitter @Corey_Milne