Interview: Double Fine’s Trenched

Double Fine is a charismatic studio, and Brad Muir, the lead designer on Trenched, fits right in. We sat down with Muir to learn a little about him and a lot about the game he’s working on.

GameZone: What is the premise of Trenched?

Brad Muir: Trenched is a tower defense shooter. It’s like a tower defense game in how the waves are attacking and you’re placing turrets, but the whole thing is played from a third-person mech-shooter perspective.

You control this huge war machine, which we call the “mobile trench.” It’s basically a trench that’s been dug out of the ground and then has these huge mechanical legs slapped on it—and then a bunch of guns.

GZ: How did that get made?

BM: I could explain the story—the story is “easy” to explain. That’s in quotes because it’s not, really. But the story is about these two guys, Frank Woodrof and Vladimir Farmsworth. They’re both injured in World War I, so they’re both confined to wheelchairs.

GZ: So this is somewhat historical, and then it goes off the rails from there?

BM: Yeah, it’s like an alternate history post-WWI universe that we’ve created.

Anyway, the two want to keep serving their country, so they enlist in a radio listening station. They’re listening for enemy codes and things like that. Then they get hit with this signal that we never really explain called “the broadcast.” It fries most people’s brains that hear it and kills them instantly, but for these two guys it just warps their brains a little bit. When they come out of it, they’re a lot smarter; they have this capacity to create stuff. So Frank, he makes these big mechanical legs so that he can go see the world again. He even helps wounded veterans walk again.

Meanwhile, Vlad, he’s a lot more cynical. He invents the television. He does this to bring the world to him, but he’s watching it through this distorted lens of shitty programming. He goes a bit nuts and decides to destroy the world. He broadcasts his hatred throughout the entire world, [killing people] and making bodies for the televisions to inhabit.

The televisions he makes only get one channel; they’re called Monovision. Everyone has to have 20 of them in their house, so it was really easy for them to take over the world. These are the enemies in the game—they’re called Monovision constructs. They’re made from metal and wires, with the television in their throat. When you destroy them they cough up their television.

Frank has to fight back, so he takes the two things he knows best: mechanical legs and trench warfare. And that’s how you get to a mobile trench.

GZ: How is that portrayed in the gameplay?

BM: You’re defending key assets from Vlad’s forces. You’re using your mech and turrets to defend against each wave, and then when they die they cough up their televisions (that’s the currency in the game [for buying turrets]). The game has a sort of ebb and flow. When the enemies are present and attacking you you’re in shooter mode, and it plays very much like a mech game. We really wanted it to be an homage to those great old mech games like Mechwarrior, MechAssault, and Chromehounds. Chromehounds was really influential. I really loved that game.

GZ: To what extent are the mechs customizable?

BM: The mobile trenches are fully customizable: the chassis, the legs, the weapons on the right and left, and vanity options like the paint job and hats and jackets for your marine. There’s a lot of hats in the game. I like virtual hats. They don’t do anything except look awesome.

The chassis sizes are fixed by us, by design. We have really small chassis like the engineering chassis that only have access to light weapons like machine guns and shotguns, but they also have access to the entire d-pad for turrets. They can take four different types of turrets into the battle. They also have access to the really heavy emplacements, like landmines, sniper turrets, and mortar turrets.

On the other side of the spectrum we have the assault trenches. They’re really big and they have these three-slot weapons like artillery cannons. We have something we’re not showing off today, but it’s a three-slot weapon called a broadcaster. It’s a huge radar dish that shoots a cone of short wave radio waves that fries the enemies as they come into range of it. It’s kind of our version of a flame thrower.

You get access to all the weapons in the game with this assault trench, but you only have two slots on the d-pad to customize your emplacements, and you’re locked out of the heavy emplacements. You only have access to the lighter, support weapons.

GZ: So you’re not necessarily making something like a Chromehounds, where you have 18 machine guns all in a row, but …

BM: Don’t get me wrong, I really love Chromehounds, but I think it gets a bit too complex. Especially for the downloadable crowd. We tried to streamline what you see in a lot of the more complex mech games. Most of them are Japanese, like Armored Core and Chromehound. They have incredibly complicated systems. I like them, but I feel like, especially in the downloadable space, where we’re shooting for a 6-8 hour playthrough of this game, it wasn’t necessary. We wanted to chisel away a lot of what’s extraneous about mech games. So concepts like heat, weight, ammo …

GZ: So it’s not a simulator, but it carries some of those elements?

BM: I would put it sort of in-between. I thought MechAssault was maybe a little too streamlined for my tastes. Trenched is living in the middle ground between something like a Chromehounds and something like a MechAssault. All those concepts I talked about like weight and heat, I think they’re all a little too “grognard-y.” Yeah, if you get really immersed in the systems you can tell the difference between, and might get excited about, saving two heat [points] or getting an extra heat sink. But I just wanted to focus on what’s fun—what’s really viscerally, instantly fun about mech games.

GZ: You said it was a 6-8 hour experience. How does that work with the multiplayer aspect?

BM: I liken it to Diablo, where it’s like the same campaign, no matter what. We don’t have any PvP in the game, it’s PvE only. We wanted to focus on making the best thing within that space, and not worrying about balancing two different kinds of games. It’s difficult to make a game with both PvP and PvE without changing the rules a bit. It’s difficult to make it cohesive.

GZ: It can also divide the audience.

BM: Yeah, that’s the other thing. People that are hardcore PvP players are maybe not going to be into Trenched, but I think they should still check it out. I think co-op is awesome. I don’t think there are enough co-op offerings, especially in the downloadable space. I want to see more of it. I think as I get older and I lose the reflexes of my youth, I actually find myself gravitating more towards PvE and co-op games.

GZ: Double Fine moved to this downloadable game model starting with four ideas. Is this number three?

BM: This is actually number four. We had Costume Quest, Stacking, and Once Upon a Monster was just announced.

GZ: Okay, so Once Upon a Monster is considered one of the four games?

BM: Yeah, Trenched is the fourth and final of the initial pitch that we had for these smaller games.

GZ: Before these smaller games, you had just come off of Brutal Legend. Trenched seems to be playing with some similar strategy elements that maybe carried over from Brutal Legend a little bit.

BM: Absolutely. I was a designer on Brutal Legend. I worked on the entire thing for four and a half years—it’s a long time to work on one game. The original idea for Trenched came back in 2007, when we did the Amnesia Fortnight. It’s an amazing process. I hope more studios are doing something similar to this. But we pumped the brakes on Brutal Legend development for a couple weeks and split the company into four pieces. Tim [Schafer] picked four people and was like, “Hey, make a prototype in two weeks. Go!” It wasn’t exactly a break from Brutal Legend in terms of stress level, but in terms of taking a mental break from those ideas and focusing on something else, it was amazing.

I was deeply immersed in combined action and strategy together. I had been playing tower defense games, and thinking about a way of improving on that passive feeling you have when you play them. I love the strategy. You have all these different kinds of turrets, different kinds of enemies, different level layouts in some, or in others you’re building a maze. There’s just a lot of awesome, deep strategy in those games, but after you’ve placed your turrets there’s not a lot to do usually. You just sit back, watch, and cross your fingers.

So that was the idea, to take that tower defense game, and inject more action into it. Brutal Legend is a lot about playing an RTS, and being down in the action of an RTS, so this is a very similar concept. The difference is that Brutal Legend mixed brawling and driving with an RTS, whereas here we’re mixing shooting with tower defense. They’re different ingredients, but we’re still messing with the balance between action and strategy.

One of the things I really love about Trenched when you compare it to Brutal Legend is that, in Brutal Legend you’re multitasking all the time. Trenched has a more defined [gameplay loop] because of the waves coming at you. When the enemies show up, you’re playing a shooter; you can almost forget about the strategy elements. Then they all die, you get this nice, “wave completed” message, and that’s your cue to switch your brain over into strategy mode.

GZ: Last question: With the dichotomy of the two gameplay types, how hard was it to balance the difficulty of the turrets doing all the work for you versus you killing everything on your own?

BM: It was something we fiddled with throughout development. It was hard to get it right. I think we’re at that sweet spot where you can’t do it by yourself and the turrets can’t do it by themselves. We let players pick where they want to live in the difference between action and strategy. So if you go with the heavier mechs like the assault trenches, you’re going to have bigger weapons and you’re going to be more on the shooter end. On the flip side, you can be more about the tower defense and go with a lighter engineering chassis.

We have this term in the office called “sandwich mode,” and that’s when you’re playing with one of these engineering chassis and you’ve done a really good job of collecting scrap, putting the turrets in great places—and if the turrets are too powerful, you can just put the controller down and go get a sandwich. That’s definitely not what we want.

We want to throw you a lot of different curve balls: enemies that attack your turrets, Vlad has a weather device that he uses to shoot lightning at you. We have a lot of things that we try to do to make the experience more active. Trying to find the balance so that we remove sandwich mode was really important to me because at that point it’s not a tower defense shooter, it’s just a tower defense game.

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Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I’ve wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I’d rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.