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Vintage to Retro: An FPS Q & A series - James Towne, Tech-Com 2029, part 1

This interview for "Vintage to Retro" is with James Towne, the project lead for Tech-com 2029, a Terminator FPS fangame. James and I discuss Tech-com's: development, audio visuals, and characters. Part two of the interview will explore these factors in relation to vintage/retro FPS games.

You can also follow the game's ongoing development on its official Facebook page.

"From Vintage to Retro," interviews FPS players and developers. In terms of vintage FPS, the series covers includes single-player "Doom clones" and Build titles; to multiplayer frag-fests like Doom deathmatch, Quake arenas, and Unreal Tournament(s); to "pure," arcade-style shooters, "looter shooters" and FPS-RPG hybrids. In terms of retro FPS, it examines Dusk, Ion Fury and Prodeus, as well as Nightdive Studios' latter-day revival of classic FPS.

Click here to access the entire series.


Nick: Apart from watching Cameron's Terminator movies, was there a moment you knew you wanted to seriously make a AAA-quality Terminator fan game?

James: I can almost pin down the date. It was around 2010 and I saw footage from Kevin Bryant's "TerminatorFPS" project which looked frightening, exciting and most of all good quality.

I was still a junior artist at the time and the feeling inside was like "Awww, I can't do anything like that!" And Kevin, I believe, was only around nineteen at the time!

Fast forward a few years and me and Kevin were actually contracted onto the same team—and I didn't realise who he was till years later still (small industry)! It was around 2017 when I started to get the confidence and the skill to manage a project like this. My first idea was Aliens, during which I got to thinking, "Yeah, a legit Terminator game would be amazing!" Then one day I got to thinking back to seeing that "TerminatorFPS" footage, and decided: "I'm doing it, I'm gonna continue the legacy!"

Nick: Tech-com has been largely influenced by Terminator 1. What made you choose the first movie?

James: The most basic thing I wanted to accomplish in the game was Kyle's dream about fighting the HK; that was a perfect encapsulation of the future war. For Christmas ‘96, I got my first air gun and I drew endos on pieces of cardboard and held a microphone to the TV and recorded the scene so I could shoot terminators whilst listening to the sound. It hurt inside because it wasn't enough to fulfil the experience.

I couldn't decide which vision of the future I liked more as a kid—T1 or T2—but I liked the tone and the set work of T1 more as a game. So we dug into that. 

Nick: It kind of reminds me of Alien: Isolation being inspired by Alien instead of Aliens

James: Alien: Isolation was an early influence on me, from the perspective of, "Let's do for Terminator what Isolation did for Alien." I especially liked the attention to the retro technology and techniques like filming the company logo on a VHS camera and converting it back into the game. A lot of time has been spent by myself digging out analogue sound effects and studying things like stop motion and rotoscoping and finding ways of including them in the game. Pre-digital film work feels very grounded and real, so that's been an innovation of ours from the beginning.

Nick: I remember Alien: Isolation being in development the same time as Colonial Marines. How long has Tech-com 2029 been in development, and how aware were you of Terminator Resistance as it was coming along?

James: Resistance was in development years before it was announced; in fact, I believe they had the license as far back as 2013. We were surprised when it was announced as late as it was—more due to the coincidence that such an underserved license was being treated at the same time: Tech-Com went into development in December 2017, a few months before Dark Fate was announced, and over a year before Resistance was made public. The most important thing for us was not to tread on anybody's toes or hurt any company's bottom line; we're all fans not competitors. 

It was a bit of a bummer that Terminator Resistance had such a similar name to us (we were called "Los Angles Resistance" at the time) and we saw a lot of similar ideas and references in their game to ours. This meant we were on the same page—and their research was every bit as diligent as ours—but ultimately as long as the fans are being served quality products and adaptations then it's all good.

Nick: Did you or do you find yourself comparing Tech-com to Terminator Resistance, or has your vision of Cameron's universe always been its own clear idea? 

James: We all bought Resistance as soon as it came out and made all the comparisons that we could. It was very similar in some ways, but there's a lot of differences, too. You could tell the publishers of Resistance had a box-ticking mentality to the games features—with things like xp (experience points), multiple choice dialogue, inventory systems, etc—whereas we've gone for a more "retro structure" akin to '90s- and 2000s-era FPS. 

Tech-Com 2029 and Terminator Resistance are two very different games ultimately. The tone of ours is much darker, with a heavier emphasis on character and emotion in the story, as well as tougher gameplay. We’re keen to innovate on what I call "subgenre gameplay": driving and computer hacking, but maybe even survival horror and isometric gameplay.

Nick: I've heard pretty good things about the look of Terminator Resistance (re: cosmetics and Easter eggs), but that its gameplay leaves something to be desired. Even so, you've mentioned having played through the game twice. What kept you coming back?

James: We were generally impressed with Resistance. I wont deny that their level design is generally better than ours, that and stuff like collecting CPU chips to upgrade weaponry is a cool idea. But we felt bothered by things like generic sound effects, flat dialogue, and that really bright moonlight. An important thing in games design is to strip away all the advancements in modern graphics and see what you're left with; this is why things like Brutal Doom and Rust are so popular. Behind the cheap graphics is addictive, energized gameplay.

Lastly the "Infiltrator" DLC for Resistance was a great addition—one that captures the essence of Terminator in one small package.

Nick: The gunplay in Tech-com 2029 seems much more about hiding from the enemy, on par with Alien: Isolation. Was this deliberate from the outset—more of a survival experience and less of a one-man-army situation?

James: It frightened the crap out of me as a kid when I saw Ferro get blown up in one split-second shot from the HK; it made the world seem more frightening because putting a toe out of place meant you're a goner. Reese says that you had to "hide from HKs," so building the gameplay around using your wits and tactics to survive the war is [what we've chosen to focus on]. 

I didn't want the game to be non-stop action. Avoiding a "spraying fire everywhere" battlefield like Call of Duty was an important distinction for us to make.

Nick: Tech-Com has HKs, enemies whose infrared vision lets them see through walls. So total stealth isn't a priority. It sounds like, at least for the outdoor portions, Reese' objectives revolve around automated patrol machines that won't deviate too strongly from their set patrol routes. Will there be indoor sections that allow for encounters revolving around different approaches (re: Deus Ex), including stealth as a viable option against infiltrators and terminator endoskeletons? 

James: We’re making a big distinction between indoor and outdoor gameplay. The outdoor areas are tense,  dangerous and full on; the indoor sections are calm "palette cleaners," with more focus on interaction and exploration. Half-Life was a big influence here—the way it weaves in and our of lonely underground puzzle solving and big bombastic outdoor battles.

Though we have yet to decide how to handle terminator enemies when indoors, corridor-shooting bullet sponges isn't much fun. So going for an Alien: Isolation-style gameplay experience—with a single foe, or a few highly dangerous enemies, or pitched battles with groups of weaker enemies—is something for us to experiment with.

One thing to remember is terminators shouldn't treated as cannon fodder. The big machines need tactics to defeat, and an individual terminator is a big threat. Reese's life was given fighting [a T-800] one-on-one. That was another thing that drew us more to T1.

Nick: Games like Deus Ex, Mark of the Ninja, System Shock and Alien: Isolation all have stealth and hacking elements. They provide hacking as a way to open up new paths and strategies for dealing with dangerous, even unkillable foes (enemies you should probably sneak past instead of fighting outright). I'm guessing there won't be combat skill trees like in Cyberpunk: 2027 or Dishonored. But can the player hack wall consoles, computer stations, or even decommissioned Terminators or HKs?

James: System Shock and later Bioshock games have a lot to answer for when it comes to the "dumbing down" of hacking and door gating. You can see the influence of this in Resistance with things like the pace-breaking hacker mini game. Alien: Isolation, too, was a missed opportunity to me; I loved the door bypass kits the colonial marines have, but hate it when a chance to make the player think is replaced with press and hold to proceed. 

At the moment, Tech-Com has things like colored keycards, password terminals and computer interfaces as puzzles; but a big thing for me is to develop a new kind of hacking mini game, one where you can collect computer chips and install them on switch boards to open up new pathways and bypass doors that are locked by other means. For us, an example of putting thought into puzzles would be this: The player carries an Atari portfolio laptop with them and can plug it into combination locks and break the code through a process of elimination. Try doing that under stress when an endo is bashing the door down! 

For Tech-Com we’re going even further and researching into '80s analog technology: using phone numbers and dial-up internet, or copying data from one computer onto a floppy and transferring it to another, to create period-accurate puzzles. A fantastic and unknown example of this is Tartarus, an indie game on Steam that clearly imitates Alien: Isolation, but with fiendish tech-based puzzles instead of an alien monster. 

All in all, survival horror games have influenced our development for Tech-Com. I just got done recompleting the 2002 Resident Evil remake, for example. It has great items based puzzles. Honestly I'm surprised that the hacking simulation hasn't become a whole subgenre in itself; things like Uplink (2001) are a big influence on me. 

Nick: Will Tech-com have multiple difficulty modes, a la classic Doom?

James: Most probably. All it takes in a configuration file with presets for health, speed, damage, etc.

Nick: If you had to compare Tech-Com to another FPS in terms of its overall difficulty, which game would that be?

James:  I couldn't say. We didn't want to create a game with a cult-like status for difficulty—there won't be any knife-only/no damage speedruns, here. But gamers are very tenacious; give a gamer a problem with no real solution and they'll keep at it until they find an exploit.


Nick: You have the exact gun models used by the studio to stand in as future weapons in Terminator 1; they mechanically operate like traditional firearms, but shoot purple lasers. A conversation between Ferro and Reese explains how the pre-war tech was fitted with plasma condensers. Was this conversation a way to justify Cameorn's "futuristic" anachronisms in The Terminator, but also your dev team's Easter eggs?

James: A lot of exposition in T1 is just '80s jargon made to sound cool and futuristic. People weren't savvy about this stuff thirty-six years ago, so you can say things like "hyperalloy" and "defense grid" and it sounds plausible. The T-800's vision is just an Apple II memory dump overlay.

It's easy to ruin lore by over explaining it (looking at you, Prometheus) so in some cases we've added in non-destructive exposition for things like weapons (re: converting conventional weapons to fire plasma and Russian gear being better for this than American), but mystery and letting viewers and players come to their own conclusion is what keeps things sacred. We don't say what characters' birthplaces and ages are if we don't need to. Some things "just are," especially when it comes to John Connor.

Nick: The Skynet guns in Tech-Com were taken from the enemy and reverse engineered to allow for human use; in other words, Reese comments on the original weapons being too big and heavy for a human to use, hence why he and the rest of the resistance are retro-fitting pre-war tech with plasma condensers. This has a curious effect on weapon progression. Resistance has the human player start with bullet-based guns before picking up larger, heavier weapons; Tech-Com ditches the lead bullets altogether (re, Ferro: "AR-15s are useless against Terminators") and lets the player start with plasma rifles a human could reasonably be expected to carry.

This being said, Reese and his friends fired blue lasers in Terminator 1, while Skynet's weaponry always shoots purple lasers. Your demo only shows Reese shooting purple lasers. Will there be any under-powered "blue ray guns" early on? Or can the player upgrade their gear (re: the Resistance chip system)?

James: Actually the colour of the lasers seems to change depending on which edition of the film you watch. The originals were more blue; the Blu-ray rerelease was more purple if I remember correctly.

The first most important thing was to replicate the weapons seen in the film; the second thing is to integrate them into the game. Older FPS games always had a progression of melee, pistol, shotgun machinegun, grenade, rocket launcher, energy weapon and while this has a charm and a gameplay mechanic behind it it wont match the selection the films offer.

Later games likes counter strike had team based selections which really opened my eyes, then Call of Duty had wide-ranging selections with a carry limit which is something else entirely. We’re going for the middle ground with each weapon having a purpose.

The dialogue you reference was about giving the impression of the resistance being a guerilla force using whatever they can to fight—the Tech-Com division in particular (more '80s jargon) being about salvaging and improvising technology and communication. They use '80s-era methods like tel-net to hack into Skynet through its pre-war phone lines, and gather information and exploits that way.

Nick: I recall the canister bombs from the demo footage, and the outdated green-font, CRT computers. Will there be different gear and items outside of canon-based material (re: everything discussed in this video by Terminator fan channel, Tech Com?).

James: Not really. We draw as much reference from T1 as we can and only venture into T2 where material is too light or we need more variety. I think where we expand into our own territory is with items—things like floppy disks, health packs, consumables and puzzle items.

Nick: The head's-up display (HUD) in Tech-Com has a radar in the upper-right, an overhead compass, a objective list in the upper-left, a health meter to the bottom-left, and an ammo counter in the bottom-right.

Can you tell us a little about what influenced your design choices for Tech-Com's HUD? 

James: The HUD is a combination of retro HUDs like Doom and Duke Nukem. Chunky and themed with a border, it basically had to look like the human version of "terminator vision." Since development started, he HUD has been getting slowly less chunky and filled with data, but it's part of the theme to use the backlit blue monitor effect without it being distracting. It has to look like an '80s idea of what a 2000s HUD would be like—with x-rays and scrolling data—but we're stopping short of a modern minimalist display.

The radar has actually been removed because of technical issues and replaced with a handheld unit, a la Alien: Isolation, and is actually used more as an echo location device when out in the field. 

Nick: Is there a particular game that inspired the human head for your health meter? It seems really familiar, but I don't think it's Doom...

James: I think I was just searching for cool gifs. A lot of the effects we use are taken from gifs which are then converted into sprite sheets and used in-game. I think I just spotted a MRI scan and thought, "Oh, that's cool!" So I took it home with me and implemented it. Same thing for the Metal Gear-esque codec.

Nick: I didn't see armor anywhere on the HUD. Can Reese wear armor?

James: It's been considered, and quite likely will be implemented, since armor makes for another collectible and adds an extra layer of dynamics to combat (even though Reese doesn't wear armor in the film). 

To other developers this would be a perfect opportunity to feature a line about "attack guys wear these," which we definitely won't add; those kind of callbacks bug me. 

Nick: I know Terminator Resistance had a unique score, with lots of nods to Fidel's music. Can you tell me about the composer you've used for for your game, Ondrej Tvarozek, and the approach they've had for writing their own score?

James: Ondrej approached me himself and asked to be the composer. One thing I've learned is to sit back and let the right people come to you: "If you build it they will come."

His style and methodology fits perfectly with my style of development, since he uses original period instruments and mixes them using modern methods. Certainly when it comes to audio I can be a bit of a hack and just cut out sound effects and use them, whereas he will actually do a proper mix that is more pleasing to the ear. I love raw-sounding analogue mixes and crude photography, but sometimes you have to let the pros do their thing.

Nick: At its most faithful, Tvarozek's music still has some mild differences in tonalities and instrumentation. I suppose every musicians wants to distinguish themselves, but can we expect anything as faithful and exact to Fidel's work as KOSMusic covering "Reese Dreams of Future War"

James: Ondrej is scoring the game on a scene by scene basis as a composer would. So rather than individual songs or tracks, each track is written to fit a scene of the game; a tense battle, a long journey or a stalking sequence. Music in videogames is still underutilized, so we're making the best choice by scoring Tech-Com as a film. 

Nick: Will there be any groovy '80s disco music, like Tahnee Cain and the Tryanglz?

James: I had put together a little playlist of songs that would be played in a club in '80s LA for a gameplay concept; inspired by Deus Ex and Vampire the Masquerade, Reese arrives in LA and must find clothes, weapons and Sarah. But licensed music is very expensive, even obscure stuff, so we wont be featuring any in Tech-Com.

Nick: Much of Tech-Com has a look that's extremely close to the first movie. You've even created a "rear projection" technique to simulate Cameron's special effects. Personally I think this is awesome, but what made you decide to be so faithful to the original's plastic reality?

James:  The phrase "do for Terminator what Alien: Isolation did for Alien" was behind this. The more digitized films become, the less they excite me. I always say the worse thing to happen to cinematography was when the camera came off the dolly. Practical effects are still wonderful even when they're bad, so it was interesting to experiment with it using videogame tech. The tricky part is retrograding the effect; digital effects are all about getting the best possible result so most of the time you just end up with bad CGI, but I've never seen something like rotoscoping used in a game before. 

You have to be very deliberate about it. The sequence in the trailer when the endoskeleton steps out of the fire was done by tracing the animation, frame by frame; I superimposed the model over the video sequence and spent about a week nudging it bit by bit till it worked. Never quite got it right though!

Nick: Adam Greenberg played a huge role in the original's dark, gritty night photography. Was it a challenge to bring his visual style to life in Tech-Com?

James: Cinematography is a side passion of mine. It wasn't particularly difficult to match the Terminator look. Basically very desaturated base colors with 10% red, 50% green and 200% blue light, with heavy contrast shadows.

The hard part is making a scene look good in all directions. With a film it only has to work from the camera's perspective; in-game it has to work everywhere!

Nick: The style of the radio conversations between Reese and Ferro remind me a bit of Metal Gear Solid, just without the voice acting or animated portraits. Will the final game appear the same way, or will it have voice acting during the radio segments?

James: The idea of using the codec (as we call it) was so I could render dialogue without needing actors, and also it was easy to make it look like an '80s video phone. So it was more of a labor-saver than a reference (though reading subtitles is more of a chore than a pleasure compared to hearing actors' voices, so I should expect we'll give it the full voice treatment). I still want those animated portraits though...


Nick: Corporal Ferro's profile picture is a still image taken from the movie, and I love that you've included her character. Ferro's name is from the novelization. In the movie, the character was unnamed; she was also uncredited, and I always thought she was by played by Linda Hamilton's stunt double Jean Malahni. I always liked the doppelganger approach, and Reese's love for a female soldier whose role was actually to double Sarah Connor's actress. Very meta. 

What made you decide to give her a larger role? Will she appear in the game outside of radio conversations?

James: The most meta thing of all was Reese wondering what she was thinking in the photo and we discover she was thinking of him.

In actual fact, in an internet first Gary discovered the identity of Ferro—she was played by Robin Antin, founder of the Pussycat Dolls!

When Ferro gets blown up and we see Reese wince in dismay for just a moment, I always wondered what their relationship was like. Later, when Sarah asks him if there was anyone special in the future, he says "no, never" with regret. This implies he's a virgin, but actually this is a reference to Harlan Ellison's "Soldier from Tomorrow," who has never known love.

Maybe Ferro was someone special Reese had to let go of, or maybe he was Ferro's someone special and he was too busy looking at Sarah's photo to notice.

Nick: Does this preview of Kyle Reese demonstrate how the character will appear in cutscenes, if the game has any? Or is there a potential 3rd person camera (re: Blood's "chase mode" or Resident Evil's over-the-shoulder camera)?

James: We weren't going to make a terminator without a perfect rendition of Reese (even if the game is an FPS). Sometimes part of the fun in development is making things perfect, even if we don't use them fully.

Having said that, there are plans for cutscenes and maybe some 3rd person action too; once you've got all the assets, you can utilize them in all kinds of different ways.

Nick: In that photo Reese is also wearing his 1984 outfit. Is this just for the promo, or is it an extra outfit for the hero?

James: That's just a promo piece.

Nick: Will we see the 600 series with their rubber skin, or different terminator units besides the 101 played by Arnold? Perhaps a female terminator or child-sized terminator (not that we want to turn this into Screamers or anything)?

James: Certainly. Without messing with the lore too much, the 600 series is a perfect fit for a lower tier enemy.

Nick: Movie-wise, what's your opinion on the sequels? Did any of them factor in to your game design choices, including T2?

James: We dip into T2 where we needed to—mostly to expand on equipment and locations. I've actually never seen anything past Salvation, because I don't want to.

I first saw T1 when I was seven or eight, and most of what I remember was my sister's reactions to it. I didn't know what the film was, but it stayed with me. I think now I'd say I prefer it over T2, but that's because of understanding and connecting with its subtleties. T2 was never designed to have subtleties. T1 works so well because it isn't just one genre; its a horror, sci fi action, romance and noir movie all in one.

T2 was a huge part of all our childhoods. One of my earliest memories was seeing the TV promotional slot for it when I was maybe six. I saw it just before starting middle school (1997) and it influenced everything. I remember riding my bike around the suburbs in the summertime with a Red Ryder BB gun that I had sawn the stock off of. T2 is a technically superior film that has hardly aged in thirty years that also manages to play on the emotions (even though a little of Cameron's humor has started to seep in). It has Cameron's signature designer violence (that was censored on British TV at the time) and a much cleaner metallic motif overall.

T3 I was curious about when it was announced, and after seeing it I thought it was pretty good; I thought it was respectful to the lore, mostly about Skynet. I particularly liked the image of Skynet as just a disused Cold War bunker, not the grand monolith you were expecting. But after someone explained the film was a parody of T2—stripper leathers, the Elton John sunglasses, "talk to the hand"—I couldn't look at it in the same way and have since abandoned it.

I thought Salvation was a perfectly good sci-fi action film that had nothing to do with Terminator. If they just called it "Future War" or something generic like Universal Soldier and let it stand on its own it would have been fine, but there's too much to question when you connect it to lore as dense as Terminator.

I think the worst thing about Genysis was the miscasting of everybody except the T1000. Oliver Harper's retrospective YouTube channel has given me great insights into films, and his early film commentaries with Richard and Duncan are often better watches than the films he inspects. Case in point: They described Genysis as "being dragged backwards though a meadow of unwashed dicks." Reese is a buff, smug millennial jock, and Connor looks like Colm Meany playing a farmer. 

I was interested in Dark Fate when it was announced. Cameron returning to production was a big part of the draw, but soon it became evident that rot had set in and I was happy to abandon that film to its (dark) fate.

Nick: The terminator in the first movie was supposed to be liquid metal but the effects (and budget weren't there). Given your faithfulness to the aesthetic of the original, can we expect there not to be any T-1000s? I only ask because I can hear traces of the T-1000 theme by Brad Fidel in Tech-Com's OST.

James: We didn't have any plans to have a T1000 since I considered that to too closely related to T2. Then we started playing with the idea to see how it would fit and how we’d handle the technology and graphics. It started to get integrated into the story beats. At this point I think we can say we have a solid plan for the T1000. Maybe a T999 beta prototype.

I thought up a great boss battle inside ground zero at Skynet: The surfaces are all chrome and polished and the T1000 can morph into objects and surfaces when you're not looking. Sort of like Laughing Octopus in MGS4.

Nick: I assume because of the title, Tech-com will take place largely in 2029. However, liminal nightmares were a huge theme in the first Terminator movie, trapping the viewer in between the past-future and the present. Can we expect any dream-like flashbacks—perhaps from Kyle being given Sarah's photograph?

James: The whole basis of the game is Kyle's first nightmare in the car, so in a weird way its like one long dream sequence. If we extended the game to include an '80s LA second act, we’d definitely have flashbacks planted in—but that's a whole other project I'm afraid!


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