Interview with Bohemia Interactive, ArmA 3 Developer: Expansion, Optimization, Roadmap
Project Lead: Joris-Jan van ‘t Land
Thanks to Ian Comings, guest writer from the PC Perspective Forums who conducted the interview of Bohemia Interactive's Joris-Jan van ‘t Land. If you are interested in learning more about ArmA 3 and hanging out with some PC gamers to play it, check out the PC Perspective Gaming Forum!
I recently got the chance to send some questions to Bohemia Interactive, a computer game development company based out of Prague, Czech Republic, and a member of IDEA Games. Bohemia Interactive was founded in 1999 by CEO Marek Španěl, and it is best known for PC gaming gems like Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, The ArmA series, Take On Helicopters, and DayZ. The questions are answered by ArmA 3's Project Lead: Joris-Jan van ‘t Land.
PC Perspective: How long have you been at Bohemia Interactive?
VAN ‘T LAND: All in all, about 14 years now.
PC Perspective: What inspired you to become a Project Lead at Bohemia Interactive?
VAN ‘T LAND: During high school, it was pretty clear to me that I wanted to work in game development, and just before graduation, a friend and I saw a first preview for Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis in a magazine. It immediately looked amazing to us; we were drawn to the freedom and diversity it promised and the military theme. After helping run a fan website (Operation Flashpoint Network) for a while, I started to assist with part-time external design work on the game (scripting and scenario editing). From that point, I basically grew naturally into this role at Bohemia Interactive.
PC Perspective: What part of working at Bohemia Interactive do you find most satisfying? What do you find most challenging?
VAN ‘T LAND: The amount of freedom and autonomy is very satisfying. If you can demonstrate skills in some area, you're welcome to come up with random ideas and roll with them. Some of those ideas can result in official releases, such as Arma 3 Zeus. Another rewarding aspect is the near real-time connection to those people who are playing the game. Our daily Dev-Branch release means the work I do on Monday is live on Tuesday. Our own ambitions, on the other hand, can sometimes result in some challenges. We want to do a lot and incorporate every aspect of combat in Arma, but we're still a relatively small team. This can mean we bite off more than we can deliver at an acceptable level of quality.
PC Perspective: What are some of the problems that have plagued your team, and how have they been overcome?
VAN ‘T LAND: One key problem for us was that we had no real experience with developing a game in more than one physical location. For Arma 3, our team was split over two main offices, which caused quite a few headaches in terms of communication and data synchronization. We've since had more key team members travel between the offices more frequently and improved our various virtual communication methods. A lot of work has been done to try to ensure that both offices have the latest version of the game at any given time. That is not always easy when your bandwidth is limited and games are getting bigger and bigger.
Another issue we’ve had is that it has sometimes been hard to keep developing the live game post-release. We have the opportunity to still improve, expand, and fix the game, but we need to keep backwards compatibility in mind. It's not just our content that should keep working while we improve the game, but also a huge library of user-generated content. This has meant that sometimes we simply need to make compromises or take more time to implement a new feature in a more complicated way. This has been the case for the Firing from Vehicles feature, which could have been done more quickly if we didn't want it to be backwards compatible.
Lastly, updating the game can be a bit of a frustrating endeavor. Our intention is obviously to improve things, but it's such a complex system that a fix in one area can easily cause a new problem elsewhere. We're still improving our quality assurance methods to prevent this, focusing on things like automated testing, larger scale multi-player testing, and longer release candidate testing periods ahead of releases.
PC Perspective: Where do you see Bohemia Interactive in 5 years?
VAN ‘T LAND: The company has grown a lot these last few years, and, within the next five years, I imagine we’ll have overcome some of the growing pains. Bohemia Interactive should be a fun place to work, with several full teams developing a number of big projects. And, even though we'll be bigger, we do want to preserve our identity. There are things people have come to expect from Bohemia Interactive, some good and some less ideal (the latter we will have defeated of course!).
PC Perspective: How is Bohemia Interactive different from competitors like DICE and Activision?
VAN ‘T LAND: The fact that we are independent means that we have the freedom to explore and pioneer new genres, methods, strategies, business models, and more. We can experiment, fail, and try again without other parties dictating to us. One very specific difference is our modding scene. We've always had moddable games, and many of our developers come from a modding background. Admittedly, such an open platform can cause some headaches. Broken mods can make the game itself appear broken, and testing for all possible things modders can do is a huge amount of work. The benefits far outweigh the problems though!
PC Perspective: Bohemia Interactive is known for supporting its community through patches, free tool kits, and DLC/Expansions. With the level of support Bohemia Interactive receives, how much community input goes into the games you produce?
VAN ‘T LAND: There are many kinds of feedback that we use to improve our games. First, there is compatibility testing. Even with our growing internal quality assurance teams, we cannot replicate all the combinations of hardware, software, and peripherals that are out in the wild. Public pre-release testing lets us find and hopefully fix issues like these. We’ve had a lot of successful fixes, such as an issue that affected a group of users with a specific network card or certain graphics hardware driver errors.
Then there is feedback on technical changes, which may affect mod(der)s. For example, we recently made changes to the way muzzle velocity can be defined for weapons. The method we rolled onto our Dev-Branch worked fine for our purposes. However, community modders pointed out issues for their projects. After some discussion, we iterated towards a compromise that suited their needs also.
And, of course, there's a huge flow of feedback, ideas, suggestions, and requests coming from our forums, Feedback Tracker, social channels, Reddit, our own developers, and other sources. These do regularly make their way into our discussions and affect our prioritization. Sometimes we have to make the call that a request is not feasible for Arma 3, and we store it for the future.
PC Perspective: Please tell me about the Make ArmA Not War contest. How did it start? How did the International Red Cross get involved? Is there a winner yet?
VAN ‘T LAND: Our very own CEO, Marek Španel, first raised the idea within the company. He wanted to do something to invest in the modding community, stimulating creativity and quality. Some of the inspiration came from similar contests like "Make Something Unreal". One of the organizers, Ivan Buchta, had been speaking with the International Committee of the Red Cross regarding the use of the International Humanitarian Laws of War in video games, which got the ball rolling. Their Healthcare in Danger award provides a truly unique experience to the eventual winner. We have recently announced the 50 finalists for the four categories, and those entries have been passed to the jury, which will select the winners during the next few weeks.
PC Perspective: While ArmA 3 is a very beautiful game, it still does not seem very well optimized. What are your plans to improve the performance on both client-side and server-side?
VAN ‘T LAND: Unfortunately, things are not as simple as saying the game is optimized or not. There are many factors that can influence performance beyond our control. It's a pitfall of our platform's freedom. By allowing modding, user-made (MP) scenarios, and full control over settings, we make it possible for people to potentially break their game. We could limit this in a way other games have, such as restricting video settings or limiting modding, but have no wish to do so at all. What we can and will do is improve our presentation of vanilla versus modded game versions, so that users are more aware of what is going on.
Of course, that does not mean we cannot work on optimization, and we continuously do so, such as with the better use of multi-threading for servers and many miscellaneous engine improvements. We're working with the major hardware manufacturers, who analyze our code and offer tips on optimizations or new technologies. Finally, we need to be careful with low-level changes as they can very easily break the game.
PC Perspective: When does Bohemia Interactive plan to release a 64-bit client? Better GPU optimization?
VAN ‘T LAND: An investigation into 64-bit servers is ongoing, but we cannot confirm that all obstacles found so far can be overcome for Arma 3. A client is even less likely at this stage.
PC Perspective: Many players are angry over the DLC that has been released. Many do not believe that two helicopters are worth $15. What is Bohemia Interactive's reasoning?
VAN ‘T LAND: The price also covers the development of the platform updates we've released (Sling Loading, Firing from Vehicles, etc.). Our DLC Strategy has been created to prevent splits in the community, to allow us to work on one central version without branching, and to provide as much content as possible for everyone. This is something we could have better communicated, and I’m glad that now, a few months after the DLC release, we're seeing "Mostly Positive" reviews on Steam, as well as a broader understanding of our approach. And, ultimately, we are still a business. We do have running costs, so we cannot realistically support a game for years after its release without premium additions.
PC Perspective: Will ArmA 3 support Mantle or DirectX 12?
VAN ‘T LAND: We don't have plans for Mantle support at the moment. Microsoft's plans for Windows 10 and DirectX 12, however, look very promising and we will be investigating the SDK to see how Arma 3 may benefit.
PC Perspective: Will there be an ArmA 3 for SteamOS in the future?
VAN ‘T LAND: This would require a Linux client, which we don't have for Arma 3.
PC Perspective: In the Roadmap, Bohemia Interactive mentions the Marksman DLC improving the authenticity of firing weapons and new gameplay opportunities. Can you explain what BI means by this?
VAN ‘T LAND: It is difficult to authentically replicate weapon handling via PC peripherals, but there are things we can do to improve it. When we introduced Weapon Sway and Weapon Inertia, the feedback was mixed. With the introduction of Weapon Resting (passive) and Weapon Deployment (active), those former mechanics received a logical balancing counterpart. That whole package should provide really interesting tactics and ways to play the game. In addition, we've improved our recoil, which adds to the immersion of firing weapons.
PC Perspective: What new features can we expect to see in the ArmA 3 Expansion mentioned in the Roadmap?
VAN ‘T LAND: Our feasibility studies for the Expansion are ongoing and we're not yet ready to discuss them. We can say that some of these features benefit the new terrain. Other areas of exploration are connected to "getting into multiplayer" and "getting into mods" in a smoother fashion.
PC Perspective: A new terrain is mentioned - what can you tell us about this new terrain?
VAN ‘T LAND: Very little at the moment; your readers will need to wait a while longer. We can say that progress has been good, and the terrain is looking better and better every day. It's feeling fresh and contrasts the existing Altis and Stratis terrains. In terms of production, the environment team has sculpted the height map, determined key points, and even installed many placeholder objects.
PC Perspective: Will the ability to add ponds and water at different elevations be added to the BI Tools SDK?
VAN ‘T LAND: We're investigating ponds, but cannot promise they’ll be included. Flowing rivers and similar water bodies are not planned for Arma 3.
PC Perspective: Will the ability to add subterranean height maps be added to support tunnels and caves?
VAN ‘T LAND: We are not planning to add those to Arma 3.
PC Perspective: What does Bohemia Interactive mean by “large-scale MP performance”? Will we finally see 300+ player servers?
VAN ‘T LAND: Those numbers are unlikely to occur realistically. Some powerful servers, super connections, and use of Headless Clients may get above 100 players, but we don't think that will be the norm. Our own goals are to get a server of 100 players running better and with more stability for a longer period of time. It should also be pointed out that there is a difference between 100 clients on a Player-versus-Player server and 100 clients engaged against and alongside AI units.
PC Perspective: When will Bohemia Interactive make ArmA 3 multi-core / multi-threaded? Will ArmA 3 support all 8 cores on a CPU?
VAN ‘T LAND: “Being multi-core” is a bit too simplified in our opinion. We do use multiple cores and threads for various parts of the simulation. The load changes with scene complexity, use of AI, inclusion of multiple players, and complex settings. The distribution could be better (and you need to use command-line parameter -enableHT to use more than 4 cores). Our new engine (not for Arma 3) will likely use more modern approaches and handle advanced hardware more efficiently. Meanwhile, we'll continue to see how we can improve Arma 3's performance on various kinds of hardware.
PC Perspective: Will you be joining us for the next VLAN?
VAN ‘T LAND: Probably not the next one, but who knows, maybe a future one!
Many thanks to Joris-Jan van ‘t Land for providing us with more insight into ArmA 3 beyond what is available in Bohemia Interactive’s 2015 road map blog. The future of ArmA 3 and Bohemia Interactive looks bright, and the Marksman DLC looks to be a real game changing update! I am a little disappointed that Bohemia Interactive has no plans to release a Linux client in the future, but the fact that Bohemia Interactive provides long term support for its current game clients is always a plus in my book. It looks like I will continue to run Windows for the foreseeable future just to run ArmA 3. I highly recommend picking up a copy of ArmA 3. It can be found on Steam or through companies like G2A.com.
I would like to thank Bohemia Interactive and Joris-Jan van ‘t Land, in particular, for taking time out of his day to answer questions for us. I hope we see more of Bohemia Interactive in the future.