Medal of Honor Airborne has the distinction as the final World War II themed game in the long-running EA franchise. The game — which has been out on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 since 2007 — was unique at the time, allowing players to drop into combat and land anywhere on the map.
Before the game came out, we sat down for an interview with Patrick Gilmore, the Executive Producer of Medal of Honor Airborne at Electronic Arts Los Angeles. We discussed everything from the scripted AI in older shooters to the unorthodox choice of going with a more open world experience (Medal of Honor games, like most WWII shooters, had been linear up to this point). It’s an interview that up until now was only published on YouTube.
You’re using some of the same operations in Airborne as you did in Medal of Honor Vanguard like Neptune, Market Garden and Husky. What similarities and differences will there be for gamers to experience between the two games?
Medal of Honor Vanguard and Medal of Honor Airborne are completely different games. They were in development at the same time which is why some of the content is similar but the whole idea of starting anywhere and non-linear gameplay and the kind of digging deep into airborne operations is really unique to Airborne. It really is kind of the core of that product.
How did you guys come up with the idea for the airdrops?
The idea for the airdrop came from really a drive to reinvent Medal of Honor in general and reinvent it away from kind of the greatest hits of World War II. You know in previous incarnations in general World War II FPS’s, you get almost the greatest hits of World War II. We’re going to fit at Monte Cassino, then we’re going to fight at the Battle of the Bulge, then we’re going to do the Pacific Theater.
Where’s the thread that joins it all and how do I know who I am? What is the central drive for the whole product? I really want it to follow a single thread that we can follow through the arc of the war believably.
When we first started talking about it, we talked about the airborne and immediately everybody said, “Well yeah, who hasn’t thought about jumping out of an airplane?” Who didn’t kind climb up to the roof and throw little toy soldiers off with the baggies attached to them as a kid? And all of that lore comes from World War II and comes from the airborne forces. So we started to get into that and we saw these are like the biggest airdrops in the history of the world — and just kind of dug into the scope and it became the story that we all wanted to tell.
Since Airborne is all about dropping into the action and letting players control their landing, tell us some of the advantages and disadvantages of some of the drop zones.
Well, you can land anywhere in the combat space. As soon as you jump out of the door C47 and your chute pops, you have full control over it. As you look down on the battlefield you should notice a few things. One of the first things you’ll notice is searchlights. Generally searchlights are placed in areas of high enemy concentration so if you land close to a searchlight you’re going to land in kind of a thicket of enemies.
The second thing you might notice are green marker flares, which were placed there to mark safe zones in the landing area. If you land there, you’re going to be on the Allied side of the front and you’re probably going to be a lot more safe. That takes care of about twenty percent of the environment.
The rest of the environment is kind of what we consider to be contested. And landing in there probably means you’re going to be at or close to a front or you’re going to be surrounding by characters that are moving in toward a front. Those are the areas where tracking with your squad is really important and helping them do what we call “popping the cork” by moving your squad forward toward an objective. That’s kind of some of the gameplay that you get there.
The advantage of landing where there is high enemy concentration is you’re close to your objectives and if you’re a great player you’ll be able to eliminate a lot of enemies quickly and advance on your objectives fast. The advantage of landing in the marked flares is you get kind of a steady supply of allies and med kits and ammunition.
Then there are things like the rooftops, which gives you kind of a vertical affordance and allows you to engage the combat from the relative safety of a vertical, kind of an elevated position. Then there are other, far more detailed places to land like crashing through windows, landing on walls and balconies and stairways and things like that. There are a lot of flanking routes just woven through the environment, and landing in one of those allows you to assault an objective quickly but do it from relative safety. Those are kind of harder to discover and you only really learn where they are through experimentation.
Can you go a little deeper into the Affordance AI?
Sure, so Affordance AI was conceived as a replacement for the traditional scripted AI that you use in a more linear game. In a linear game the player goes into an environment, he hits a trigger, that activates a series of scripts or pre-authored animations to cause characters to do what the designers want them to do in order to create a simulation of combat. Often in scripted AI there’s not real intelligence that underlies the actions of the characters. They’re just animations that play, that sort of simulate a lot of intelligence.
What we tried to do with the Affordance engine is give a lot more intelligence to the characters in the environment and the way we did that was by assigning scores to all of the objects in the environment. An affordance — in kind of classic military terms — is simply a good place to be when you’re being shot at. What that means is, you know, when we build an environment we run the Affordance system on it and it in essence scores all of the objects in that environment and then informs the AI, this wall is a good place to hide from these positions. This doorway is a good place to guard. This access way is how you get to one of your objectives. Basically the AI kind of behind the scenes and under the hood kind of reads all of that data and has much more intelligent behavior and can traverse the whole world and can synthesize encounters on the fly based on the player approaching from anywhere, including the air.
Are there different difficulty settings?
Yes. There will be different settings for different difficulty levels. Generally speaking we have easy, medium and hard. The things that we affect during those different difficulty settings are kind of the traditional how much damage enemies do to you, how much health you as a player have. But beyond that we also tweaked little things like how fast the enemy acquires you when they’re aiming at you, how long they hide when they’re suppressed. Things like that so all of those things get lightly touched with the different difficulty settings.
What’s kind of interesting about the drop zones is that in itself it’s kind of a different difficulty setting depending on where you land.
Yes. There are definitely easier and more difficult areas of the environment. And during the briefing, I don’t know if you noticed but we tried to show that to the player by marking some zones as red indicating areas of high enemy concentration. But certainly, you can make the game easier or harder based on playing with your head.
When I was playing the game I kind of noticed that when you’re going after the enemy, if you don’t force your position on him, he tends to respawn a lot. Are there a finite number of enemies that are in an area?
I can answer that. I don’t know the exact number of how many enemies and how many Allies there are in Husky. It is a finite number but obviously we don’t simulate all of those characters at one time. The AI routines that are running are pretty complex and we maintain a fairly large number of AI at any given time but we can’t simulate an entire combat going at that level of detail going on between two-hundred and fifty Allies and two-hundred and fifty Axis.
Does it depend on the behavior of the gamer though?
Yes it does. Basically we simulate at high fidelity. We simulate the whole world but at high fidelity we simulate an environment around the player. So if you hang back, you’ll see AI utilizing affordances in relatively predictable ways. You know, you may see an AI attempting to mount a machine gun, right? Because that’s the best affordance in that particular environment. You may see them repeatedly using similar pieces of cover because that’s the best cover in that particular combat space.
What the AI tend to do, if the player is not actively pressuring them, is the AI usually advance. So for the really conservative player, you’ll get push back. You know if you ultimately hang in one place for a while and if you just pick off guys as they move into position. Ultimately the AI will get smart to that and start to push forward and they can overwhelm your allies and force you to push back.The system depends on a certain level of aggression from the player or it responds by getting aggressive itself.
I noticed that. I usually play pretty conservatively and I like to snipe a lot. It didn’t really work.
Yeah. We’re still tuning it. We want that to be a satisfying type of gameplay for people but you know in the real world a sniper gets off one or two shots before people know where he is. So we do want to try to simulate that. Sniping is a great tactic but you’ve got to snipe, you’ve got to post up, find a location and take out a couple guys and then move to a different location to be effective as a sniper.