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Interview with High Voltage Software's Josh Olson

by Aaron Kaluszka - March 15, 2010, 8:07 pm EDT

We talk to the producer of The Conduit about lessons learned from that game, as well as what we can expect from their upcoming games.

High Voltage Software is a game developer located in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, one of the few developers left near Chicago. Initially a developer of licensed games, the company has grown tremendously over the past few years to well over 100 employees; their parking lot has overflowed into surrounding lots. High Voltage's labyrinthine office hides groups of talented artists, designers, programmers, and testers. The company even has its own motion capture studio, Red Eye Studio, located nearby. The Conduit, an acclaimed first-person shooter for the Wii, was their first completely independent design. We sat down with Joshua Olson, producer of The Conduit, to talk about lessons learned from the development of that game. Later, we chat about their upcoming games, Tournament of Legends and The Grinder.

High Voltage Software's office in Hoffman Estates, IL

Nintendo World Report: The Conduit has received some mixed reviews overall. What do you think of this outcome, and how will it affect future games?

Joshua Olson: We've been very happy, and the publisher has been very happy with the results of The Conduit, an original IP coming out, especially when the market's been down; it's been a very positive experience for us. In terms of reviews, it's interesting. We're all over the board. I think our high was 91 on Metacritic, down to a 40, I think? Reading the reviews, the positives are always pointed out as being positive, and the negatives are negatives. It's not this mixed bag of one person saying, "This really sucked" and another person saying, "This was really awesome." I think the way the scores work is people's biases or opinions of the Wii as a console, or FPSs on the Wii, or the control scheme; they come in with some baggage. If they're really into the Wii and they get the controls, I think we score really well. If they're playing FPSs and they're on the hardcore side and they're playing PS3 and 360, they want the eye-candy and they want a robust online experience that Xbox LIVE and PlayStation offer, then we come up short. The viewers can either overlook that and see us for what we are, or hold us up to some comparison on other consoles that we can't match due to being on the Wii. It hurts a little bit, seeing some of the negative reviews, but seeing the positive stuff and the fan feedback and the e-mails we get keeps us pumped up, and I think the best is still in store for us here at High Voltage.

NWR: Ignoring the reviews, how do you and Sega feel about the reception of The Conduit?

JO: Sega was very pleased, and we were very pleased. Like I said, with an original IP introduced into a market that is down, sales have been very good, so we're very happy.

High Voltage has a long history of licensed development, spanning back to the infamous White Men Can't Jump on the Atari Jaguar

NWR: What are the major takeaway criticisms that you've seen from the reviews and the fan feedback?

JO: I like stories in games, and they're rarely told well. I think we had a good story in The Conduit, but I don't think we presented it particularly well. We worked really hard to make sure that the story didn't interfere with the gameplay. So if you weren't interested in the story, which I think there's a large section of gamers that couldn't care less, it doesn't stop you or interrupt you; it doesn't take control away from you. We wanted the player to have control at all times. In retrospect, I think we could have presented it a little better. The stuff is there, but I don't think people spent the time looking for it, or putting it together. So, that's something, moving forward, in future titles that we're taking a look at.

One of the big takeaways, too, is that Quantum3 was in development while we were working on the game, so I think in a few cases, art, or looking good, or showing off the new tech trumped gameplay. And that's something that we've learned as well. Gameplay needs to be number one. Something needs to look good, but gameplay has to be more important. That's something too in our level design, and how we played out in our engagements and built our levels, that we've definitely learned from and are going to address in future titles.

NWR: This isn't meant to be taken strictly as criticism, but The Conduit looks pretty generic in terms of art and character design. If the series continues, do you intend to spruce things up a bit?

JO: I think that's a very fair criticism. Looking at The Conduit, you're not really sure that you're in the world of The Conduit. Like you said, it's kind of generic. You could be anywhere. I think that was driven a lot by our push to make The Conduit in D.C. in realistic-looking environments, we wanted to make the graphics look as real as possible. But on the flipside of that, it tended to make it look a little generic, a bit mundane. If you're playing Halo, or look at a screenshot, you know you're in Halo. I don't think that's the case with The Conduit. It's a very valid criticism that we took to heart and we're hoping to address in future games.

From the hallways to the meeting rooms, High Voltage's artists have left their mark

NWR: Would you also be making more unique enemy designs or even main character designs?

JO: Yeah, especially with Ford, you never really see him. We wanted it to be a very first-person experience. I think Half-Life does a good job of the player injecting their own personality into Gordon. Gordon never talks; our Ford does talk. I don't think we did a great job making Ford super-interesting. Part of the issue was that he never interacts with anyone. It's just in his earpiece, hearing Ford or Prometheus and the ASE. There's not that kind of human contact that Half-Life does so well where you get more of a feel for the characters. So that's definitely something we're looking at in terms of our stories and gameplay and making our protagonists more interesting.

We've gotten the criticisms that enemies are guys in suits. I think there's some validity to that. Moving forward, there's definitely some directions to take that makes it less like Bigfoot, Sasquatch, like a "Where's the zipper?" kind of thing, looking at some designs that maybe aren't bipedal. Again, it goes back to the point of looking at it and knowing that this is The Conduit.

NWR: The later levels seemed to have a lot of enemy repetition.

JO: One of the things with the enemies is that if you see a drone in The Conduit he's always carrying the strike rifle. If you see a human, a Trust agent, they're always carrying either the SCAR or SMG. You weren't seeing different weapons with the enemies, so if you see an enemy you know what his weapon is going to be. So I think that was one of our problems that made it feel like you were fighting the same guy over and over again.

The High Voltage brand adorns everything from floormats...

NWR: What have you learned about developing online functionality for the Wii?

JO: Quite a bit. I think Wii's Wi-Fi Connection is a good system. There's a lot there, but it takes some additional work to get it in there and working. For our multiplayer, we're very proud of it. We think it's as streamlined as it can get, considering Nintendo's regulations and guidelines. We're talking with Gamespy as well, with certain things we'd like to see in terms of functionality that will improve the experience for everyone. The bottom line is we want gamers to be able to get in quickly, find their friends, and have fun. I think we did a fairly good job with the friend codes, but there's always room for improvement and things we'd like to see that would make the experience better for users and give them what they expect in an online experience.

NWR: At GDC 2009, Gamespy talked about the online service they provided for the Wii. They made the claim that they had everything out there that they had on their PC service and that it was basically the developers' fault if games didn't have certain features. Do you find that to be the case? It sounds like you wanted to talk to Gamespy about adding a lot of features.

JO: We had a chat with them at E3. They're very receptive. Pretty much every issue we raised with them they had a solution for, and they were going to be rolling out, introducing, and supporting it, so that was very good to hear. In terms of developers being lazy, I don't know. We worked really hard on The Conduit and we think we did a lot of very good things.

... to parking signs

NWR: Was there a lot of low-level stuff that you had to program in to get the online to work?

JO: We used a middleware solution through Quazal. They were great too, and they've done a lot of Wii stuff as well. It's never going to be as slick as Xbox LIVE where you have a persistent Gamertag, or PlayStation Network where you have your ID that's persistent across any game, any title. So, there are extra hoops you have to jump through for each game. You have to enter a friend code, and then I think there's confusion in terms of the end user on the difference between the Wii console ID and the game friend code. But Gamespy provides a good service. Working with Nintendo to get through their requirements and regulations is kind of the main issue.

NWR: At the beginning there were problems with hackers and that seemed to be spawning issues. Were those patched online?

JO: We work pretty closely with Nintendo, both on the exploits and the cheater front. We ban cheaters. We detect them and find them. We worked with Nintendo as well to solve some of the network issues, and the spawn issue -- the "black ring." We found out about it, determined what the issue was, and we worked to address it. It's much more complicated with Nintendo to try to figure out a patch solution, or a way to get your code back out there into the wild, but it's something we've worked on.

Nintendo was impressed enough with The Conduit to send HVS a display console

NWR: Was the number of friends that you can add in The Conduit a limitation set by you guys?

JO: Thirty-two was a limitation set by us. That comes up a lot in the feedback; players would like to do more. One of the big issues, believe it or not, is getting all the testers online and banging on the system to make sure it works right. If you want to go 64, you'd have to have 64 kits and 64 testers out there; it becomes quite a bit of work. There's really no reason we couldn't have gotten 64 other than wanting to make sure it worked well.

NWR: What do you see as the advantages and drawbacks to your strategy of direct publicity with online outlets and fans?

JO: I think it's been great for us, and that really put our name out there. We announced The Conduit way back when, and Tournament of Legends and The Grinder since then. I think media is changing and PR and marketing is changing, and there's much more access now between developers and the fans out there that hasn't always been the case. So it's something that's very important to us. The fans got us where we are today and we'll continue to have that outreach. We get tons of e-mails every week. I try to answer five a week. That was my goal initially. It's tapered off a bit. But that goes a long way with fans. We do listen, we do care. We look at everything, the leads all look at it. It's very important to us. But we're also a small company, and unfortunately we don't have a community manager who could help us with all that. But it's huge. I think it's super-important.

Part of the team behind The Conduit

NWR: [Chief Creative Officer] Eric Nofsinger said that you answered pretty much every well-posed question that you get.

JO: It's always more interesting if there's a well-thought-out question rather than some run-on sentence rant about something. Those are tougher to answer. But we do get a lot of very well-thought-out questions. In one sent in recently, he clearly spent a lot of time on it and he really nailed issues with our game that we should look at. So I really tried to give a nice, personalized response. It's important to us. I wish I had more time to spend doing that. Jeremiah [Cauthorn] answers stuff, I answer stuff, and even Kerry [Ganofsky], our founder, answers stuff occasionally. It's worth the effort on our part. We don't want to be this closed-door, "Fortress of Solitude" here in Hoffman Estates. We want to be able to have that outreach with our fans, and hopefully they respect that and understand that, and continue to give us feedback, and understand if we don't answer their e-mail.

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