Video games

‘Titanfall’ turns game designers into stars

New York Times News ServiceMarch 21, 2014 


In an undated handout photo, a screenshot from the video game "Titanfall." Microsoft is hoping the game, a multiplayer science-fiction shooter for the Xbox One and this year's most anticipated and talked-about title, can help its Xbox One console overtake Sony's PlayStation 4.


Video game designers may be the world’s most anonymous creative professionals, at least among the makers of mass entertainment. That’s because game players tend to extend their loyalty to favorite franchises or proven studios rather than to individual designers.

But this isn’t always the case. Vince Zampella and his colleagues at Respawn Entertainment, a new studio founded by veterans of the military shooters “Call of Duty” and “Medal of Honor,” have quickly become celebrities in the industry. Last week, they released the year’s most anticipated and talked-about game, “Titanfall,” a multiplayer science-fiction shooter that pits people and giant robots against one another in a crucible of frustration, accomplishment and exhilaration that players describe with the word “fun.”

The marketing dollars and prowess of Microsoft, which is betting on “Titanfall” to help its Xbox One console overtake Sony’s PlayStation 4 in sales, have something to do with the newfound fame for Zampella and Respawn. Yet the faith that players have in the work of these designers - on titles like “Medal of Honor: Allied Assault,” “Call of Duty” and, especially, the billion-dollar “Modern Warfare” series - has played a much larger role in the hype. The success of Respawn and the excitement over “Titanfall” represent one of the few times a new studio has garnered considerable attention based on the reputation of its designers for doing good work elsewhere.

“Titanfall” is skillfully made with frenetic six-on-six battles among 12 players, each of whom controls an ersatz Boba Fett (the jetpack bounty hunter from the entirely unrelated “Star Wars” universe), who can run on walls, jump twice in the air before landing and summon a massive robot from the sky - the titular Titanfall - that he or she can then enter and control like a humanoid tank. The physical spaces are large and varied, with enclosed areas and buildings that can be entered only by the pilots, juxtaposed with open plains where the titans clash. A pilot can, however, take down a titan with enough skill, including a move called the “rodeo” that is executed by leaping onto the machine’s back and firing a weapon into its circuitry.

There’s a purity to the action that is appealing and invigorating. Small innovations like a race for the losing team at the end of each battle to make it aboard an evacuating helicopter provide ways for new players to feel successful even when they’re losing every match. The game is exceptionally designed. (It’s available for the Xbox One and Windows PC; a version for the Xbox 360 is pending.)

The introduction of new consoles is, to be sure, regarded as a good time to begin a game series. But it’s also a good time to establish a studio’s reputation, or even an individual’s. Bungie, the studio that created “Halo” and that is trying to transfer that success to a forthcoming game called “Destiny,” became video game famous during the early days of the first Xbox more than a decade ago. Cliff Bleszinski, formerly design director of “Gears of War” at Epic Games, made his name during the subsequent release of the Xbox 360.

Now it looks as if Zampella and Respawn have made a similar leap. The publicity for “Titanfall” was aided by the bitter feud between Bobby Kotick, chief executive of the big publisher Activision Blizzard, and Zampella (as well as Jason West, who helped found Respawn but left the company last year; West is credited in “Titanfall” as a gameplay consultant). The rift between Activision and Respawn - whose games are now published by Electronic Arts, an Activision rival - is deep, involving lawsuits and counterlawsuits. Zampella and West, after being fired by Activision in 2010, recruited almost 40 people from Infinity Ward, the studio where they turned “Call of Duty” into a behemoth, to their new venture.

And yet it’s hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment that the first fruit of the most famous dispute in memory among game creators and business executives is a shoot-’em-up, even if it is a sublime one.

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