It’s never easy trying to reboot a franchise, especially when you’re doing it to an IP that has as much history as Wolfenstein. But new developer MachineGames wasn’t going to let that deter them from telling the kind of story they felt B.J. Blazkowicz deserved. We sat down and talked with Jens Matthies, Wolfenstein: The New Order’s creative director, to get the lowdown on this process and how the project first came about.
EGM: How did Wolfenstein: The New Order come about?
Jens Matthies: We knew [Zenimax] had bought id Software at that time about a year earlier and had all of their IP, and everyone at MachineGames are huge id Software fans. We all grew up playing their games. Games like Quake are the reason many of us at MachineGames are even in the industry, because you could modify that game. I started building levels and textures for Quake, and that allowed me to build a portfolio, and that allowed me to get a job in the industry back in the day. So, for me personally, id’s games have a special place in my heart.
When we started talking with Bethesda the first thing we asked them was if anyone was working on Wolfenstein. They said nobody was, so we responded by asking if we could give it a crack. Then we reached out to id and talked some with them, and everything just grew from that. We had a number of meetings with id Software, where they talked to us more in depth about Wolfenstein, and from there we started tinkering with several ideas for the kind of setting for a new game. This idea of the Nazis taking over the world, and having done so using some sort of very advanced technology came about. Then we figured we could move the timeline forward, so the world would be completely different from what you were used to with a Wolfenstein game. This was a very powerful concept for us, because it had such fertile soil for us to build creative ideas on.
We pitched it to id and they really liked it, and then we pitched it to Bethesda and they really liked it, and that was the game that we made.
EGM: For a very long time, people really didn’t know what to expect from this game. It never really seemed to fully come together until people sat down and actually played the game the entire way through. How hard was it to convey this was still a Wolfenstein game to people while saving all the major details that made it so good in the end?
JM: It’s always a problem for us to really sum up the experience in a short segment because of the kinds of games that we make. One of the reasons is that we love to give lots of variations in terms of settings and player interactions and storytelling. So, if you cut a half-hour segment out of the game, it’s not representative enough of the game, because the next half-hour will be different and the half-hour after that will be different from those. It’s hard for us to condense it into something that gives an overview. Depending on what half-hour segment you pick of the game, you’d have a different view of what the game is [based on] that snippet.
I think that’s very different from most other games, which tend to be more vertical slice–focused, where you have that half-hour and the rest of the game simply repeats that half-hour. It has the same look and feel and the same gameplay rhythm. Whereas we just don’t operate in that way. We look at the game holistically and build an arc for the player from start to finish, with ebbs and flows, and that has a much more strategic narrative flow. But I’m very happy now that the game is out and people are out there playing it and we can communicate about it since people understand fully what it is now.
EGM: Wolfenstein is a gaming franchise with a very rich legacy. Was it ever extra daunting or intimidating once it sank in, that you were working on the next chapter on a franchise with so much history?
JM: Well, I wouldn’t say it was extra daunting, because anytime you do this kind of game, it’s such a monumental undertaking that even if everything goes perfectly, it’s still at least a three-year process. This game ended up being three and a half years for us. That’s a big chunk of your life. That’s a big chunk of the whole team’s life. And it’s very important then that at the end of the development process you have something that was worth that kind of commitment in regards to the work and time you put into it. I think that, more than anything, is where the pressure comes from. Whatever IP you’re working on carries less pressure than the fact you are spending such an incredible amount of time and money and resources on making something, and it’s really important that it comes together.
Most of the major decisions that you make are early on. Things that don’t get their final polish and their final stage of execution until the final months of the project have all been planned and conceptualized very meticulously in the early months of the project. So it’s very important that the foundation you build early on is solid enough so it doesn’t break halfway through, or suddenly lots of things don’t work and you can’t do anything about it because the train is already in motion. I think that’s something we’ve gotten progressively better at over the years. There’s been a lot less rolling with the punches this time around, and we could focus on executing the vision we had early on.
EGM: You guys bucked the trend by not including a multiplayer mode, which is almost unheard of nowadays for a FPS game. What went into that decision? Was there ever any push back?
JM: This was really a testament to Bethesda as a publisher. They will give you a huge amount of trust as a developer. Whenever we say things like we feel the best possible game we can make is when the team is just focusing on one thing—in this case the single player—and we eliminate all the distractions around that, Bethesda is the kind of publisher that respects that. They trust the developer, but they are also primarily focused on whatever factors there are that can provide the best possible game, because they feel comfortable on selling a game on it’s merits and its quality. And this is vastly different from many other publishers, which operate under different sets of rules. Other publishers, they talk about a lot of things that are marketing-driven, a lot of things that are driven by other goals than what the developer feels will make the best possible game. This is also the big reason why we really wanted to work with Bethesda, because they have this tremendous process of working with developers. There was never any pushback. Obviously, questions were asked, but this is a publisher that you can explain your point of view and they’ll get it, and that’s very rare in our industry. It’s an amazing thing as a developer.
EGM: Let’s talk about B.J. a little bit. This is the most fully fleshed out B.J. has ever been as a character. Was it difficult expanding on a character who already had a bit of a history in gaming? Were there specific things from the past you wanted to keep? Was it hard filling in the blanks?
JM: The thing about B.J. is that, when we started this project, he was a lot more open because he’s been interpreted differently a couple of times before in different games, and the agreed upon facts about him are fairly few. There’s some backstory and some lore, but there was never an in-depth characterization we had to worry about conflicting with. The hard part was making our own choices on what we considered to be the roots of the character and building on those to make the most compelling character we could.
Very early on, we settled on his image from the pixel face in the original Wolfenstein 3D, because we felt that was the most pure and true piece of information about him. At that time, when the guys at id decided, with the sensibilities they had at the time, inventing a genre as young guys, that this was the guy, with the square jaw and the muscles on this grunt—which I’m sure was very inspired by the Sylvester Stallones and Arnold Schwarzeneggers of the late ’80s and early ’90s. And that, at least, we didn’t want to shy away from. We wanted to see if we could make that character, who is really sort of an action hero cliché, and give him the depth and really make the player experience what it is to be this guy. That, to us, was just so much more interesting than doing some sort of modern version that just turns [him] into, like, a Nathan Drake clone, because that’s what most shooter protagonists are like these days. But that was our thought process around that.
EGM: Will shooting Nazis ever get old?
JM: [Laughs] Well, there certainly was a period there with Call of Duty and Medal of Honor where that was the norm. And I guess Battlefield did that, too. But it’s been a while, so I think the timing felt especially right to bring back some good old fashioned Nazi killing.
EGM: I think the moments in Wolfenstein: The New Order that surprised me the most were the downtime segments you had in the resistance base. It was such a huge change of pace, and almost felt RPG-like in regards to the missions you had to do there. What was the reasoning behind those levels and what were you hoping to accomplish with them?
JM: From very early on, both internally and from when we started talking to the media about the game, we wanted this to be an action-adventure shooter more than just a straight-up FPS game. In broad stroke terms, it is good for pacing because if it was all action all the time the game could get numbing after a while. You need to mix it up and activate different problem-solving skills in the brain just to keep everything fresh and interesting. But it’s also great to find a way to anchor the story and the player experience into something that is more emotional relatable, because a game like this, fundamentally, is just so over-the-top crazy that if you don’t provide a counter-balance with intimacy or drama that you can feel something towards it can become alienating emotionally for a player. So, the moments with the resistance serve that purpose.
It’s all well and good to have strong gameplay mechanics and an addictive gameplay loop, but if you can also anchor that in a way that makes the player feel like they’re fighting for something worth fighting for then it just makes the experience that much stronger, and that’s always our goal. We want to integrate the story and the gameplay in a way that they’re both pulling you in the same direction. The story reinforces the gameplay and the gameplay reinforces the story.
EGM: The New Order has a perk system where you normally have to accomplish a certain set of objectives to activate the next set of potential perks to then unlock. Is setting that up in a linear order like you did a way to challenge players to possibly try different play-styles in the campaign? What was the reasoning behind that?
JM: Another focus for Wolfenstein: The New Order was definitely that you could play it in a broad array of ways. It allows for many playstyles. You can play it more tactically and stealthily, creeping forward through the levels. Some situations force you think more on your feet, with enemies charging you and the cover breaking so you can’t really camp out for too long, but it’s definitely easy to miss out on some of those aspects of the gameplay. So the perks were a way to incentivize the player to try different things. You can also play the game very aggressively, dual-wielding massive shotguns and whatnot. The perks system was a way to make you get a taste of different playstyles if you wanted to unlock their rewards. Plus, it could be a bit of an eye-opener if you’d suddenly rather play these other ways. What we found was people who default into one playstyle or another, would incorporate these other methods at certain points and broaden their playstyle over the course of the entire game.
The reason why they’re not all unlockable at the start is that they would just unlock too randomly. We want you to engage more directly with the system and think about how you’re taking on each situation strategically. If everything was unlockable from the start, the system could end just being some sort of background noise for you, and suddenly you’d get better or have more of something and not realize why because you’re engaging less with the system. But by structuring the system the way we did, everything happens less by chance and more by you choosing to go after a perk and unlocking it. This also makes it feel more like an actual achievement for the player and not a random reward.
EGM: Part of what that also speaks to, I believe, is that it adds another layer of replayability to the campaign. Another aspect of replayability came through in the critical choice you force players to make at the start of the campaign. What was the inspiration behind that singular choice and what affect did it have on you developing the game?
JM: It had to do with creating meaningful, emotional engines for the player to propel them through the narrative. That’s the thing with a game: It’s not enough to just have a story, or just have context, because, in a game, you as a player are in charge of advancing it and finishing it or not. From a story point of view, then, you need players emotionally invested in the outcome. When we develop and antagonist like Deathshead, he has to do something to you, the player, that motivates you to hunt this guy down and sticks with you the whole game so that you keep going after him to put an end to him. That choice was one of those things where if you, the player, are the one making the choice, then you are emotionally invested from then on for the rest of the game. Once we came up with it, we realized that we had to do these two timelines and decided how we would separate them from one another. There was a huge ripple effect from that one idea, but we felt that it was so cool because no one had really done anything like that before in this kind of game.
EGM: Were you ever tempted to insert more choices like that and have several branches in the story?
JM: It’s an interesting question, and I think it’s just the difference between how we view the game as the developer and how a journalist or just a player might view it. For us, it’s not about milking an idea until its dead. We do a lot of things in the game only once, because it’s really powerful once, but the more you do something, the less powerful it gets. Whatever ideas we may have, its rare that we think we should do it 20 more times. It’s more that we have a cool idea, we implement it, and then try to come up with more cool ideas. It helps build up a unique narration full of unique moments as opposed to just variation on the same moment. And, of course, doing something like this has a production aspect to it. If we were to branch off several more times, it would lead to a copious amount of work to support all that. But we never really got into that discussion. We felt like the choice was a really great, signature moment from the game and we never felt like that needed to be repeated.
EGM: The atmosphere of the game is almost unto a character in and of itself. Can you talk to us some about the use of music and voice acting was critical to helping convey some more subtle messages within the game?
JM: There is one aspect of it that has to do with sticking with the vision. And that is harder than you may think, because there are so many different disciplines that go into making a game. It’s very easy for the disciplines to get atomized and isolated from each other, but what you really need in order to execute a project properly is cross-disciplinary cohesion. So, if I write a scene, just because I know what the scene is about and what the scene is supposed to convey, I will have information about that, which can help guide other aspects of it. It’s everything from audio to lighting and camera angles. If we had hired some script guy to write the script and someone else to record the voices and someone else to lay music over that, it wouldn’t be as strong. You need the understanding about what everything is and what they mean and why they’re there to in order to be available to everyone who might work with it. So that’s one side of it, and why we keep everything that has to do with that original vision very active throughout the development.
The other aspect is that you have to have really talented people that can take an idea and actually execute it the way it needs to be executed. The audio designers, for example, are involved with the creative process the entire way through, and the composer that we hired, Mick Gordon, is just an incredibly talented guy. We could just give him very basic, broad stroke thoughts about a scene or a moment or a gameplay section, and he was able to turn those ideas into the perfect pieces of music. Unless you have those kinds of people on the team, it just doesn’t work, but we are fortunate to have a lot of talented people here.
Same thing with the voice performance aspect. Our director specializes in directing actors. His name is Tom Keegan, and he is very much my mentor when it comes to directing actors. We had this very intense collaboration with everything from the casting to all of the recording of the performances. Just making sure you cast a game correctly is incredibly important. I had worked on a couple of games before, and that extra experience when it comes to casting was critical. Its weird, too, because there are some parts that you think are going to be hard to cast turn out to be easy and some parts you think will be easy to fill turn out to be extremely hard. But you cannot compromise on that. And then you get into the studio for full performance capture, which we helped pioneer back in 2005 with The Darkness, so we have a lot of experience with it. That helps, because it is a completely alien environment. [The actors] have nothing they can relate to with regard to real world objects or people because everyone is dressed up in these crazy looking tights. In that high pressure environment, the actors have to find an emotional truth for them to express, and directing all of that it is critical to know exactly what you’re after so that you can help the actor get there. So when we’re in a recording session, I’m the only one in the room who has some sort of conceptual understanding of how that will look in the game. Everyone else doesn’t know how everything will come together in the end, so you have to have that vision with you all the way through so you can measure what you’re seeing and recording and see how all the puzzle pieces will go to together in the end.
Basically, over the years you accumulate a backlog of f***-ups and you try not to do them again. That’s what experience is all about.
EGM: You mentioned earlier the advantages of cross-disciplinary knowledge. Does that help you maintain focus over a three and a half year development cycle?
JM: I think it does. I started out making textures and levels. I’ve done art for computer graphics in one way or another longer than anything. I started when I was 12, so it’s been a long time. I’m very much an artist; it’s my foundation and visuals have always interested me. The more experience I got in making games, the more I realized it wasn’t enough making sure textures and levels looked good. There are so many other dimensions to a game that matter, and if they don’t do their part it doesn’t matter if the textures and levels look good. What started happening was, I started broadening my skillset and scope of a game and from that I became an art director and from that I started dabbling in the story aspects and that naturally got me into dealing with the animation side of things, which led to audio, and then for this game I figured I might as well write the whole thing myself. It’s not all me, of course—I had help—but I had never really been behind the keyboard before. Actually writing the story, I’d write a scene here or there and I’d be more focused on the execution of the story on the recording side and the implementation side and all that. But that’s been my journey, to broaden my skillset and the depth and breadth of my scope. I think it has to be that way.
This kind of game is so big and so vast in its complexity that one person cannot be on top of everything, though. There has to be so much cooperation for everything to work and negotiating with people’s different sense of sensibilities to come together into a cohesive whole. That is essentially what it’s all about. But there is also the side of it where it’s very personally rewarding for me to do different kinds of work throughout the process. In the beginning it was just me and the keyboard writing text. Then later it’s massive shoots and recording sessions, and even later on after that it’s doing camera work for our cinematics and just talking to the audio people and the animators and the lighting people and the modelers, and its very rewarding to have that much variation in your work.
EGM: The game has been well received by fans and press alike. At this point it’s been a few months after the release. Have you given any thought as to what MachineGames next project may be going forward at this point in time?
JM: We think about that all the time and we would love to do a sequel. We always thought about a sequel while making this game, so we have a lot of ideas in The New Order that we could build upon for a sequel. A sequel would be the dream next project for us.