Of Machines & Men - Interview with Tetragon Works' Chad Jenkins

By Alex Connolly 04 May 2016 2

Chad Jenkins and Artyom Zuev, helmsmen of indie outfit Tetragon Works, speak my dialect. A cadence of hydraulic footfalls and hissing pistons, of glowing cockpits and articulated hands clutching the grips of over-sized firearms. Their debut project is Phantom Brigade, and we shed an excited arc light on its early form not long ago. Now, don't say I never deliver on my promises, because here's a little deeper dive with Jenkins on the influences and emphases that bring us together in the church of Battlesuit. 

Jenkins is the the founder of Tetragon Works, and lead developer of Phantom Brigade. Beyond consulting on a raft of independent projects, he's also plied his craft as a technical artist on hits like Kerbal Space Program and Universe Sandbox 2. Wingman Zuev is the technical artist for Tetragon, who also worked on Kerbal Space Program, as well as contributing to the edutainment titles from Redmadrobot. Their training and experience means they're at home wherever code and art overlap.

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Going by the pre-alpha screenery and development diary of their turn-based battlesuit strategy, the spectrum seems comfortably covered. Phantom Brigade appears the product of laser-focused inspiration, drawing from all sorts of top-shelf geekery.  

"Final Fantasy Tactics was one of my favorites," Jenkins said, Phantom Brigade's kernel concepts unfolding as he began recalling a number of formative games. "I got really invested in my soldiers as I trained them up from being squires to the higher level jobs. That's stuck with me, and I've always wanted to make a game that captures that connection with your units. From then on, I've been playing pretty much every tactical game I could get my hands on."

He went on to mention one of Squaresoft's great gifts to the West in Front Mission 3. Most who tasted Toshiro Tsuchida's geopolitical mecha fusion for the first time on the original Playstation walked away pining for more, and Jenkins was no exception. In a moment of proud preview prescience, I had picked another of his seminal gaming experiences in the Silent Storm games. "I really loved the destructible environments, and the level of simulation they had in the guns and ballistics. Those games are the inspiration for making Phantom Brigade, and they've certainly informed the design of it."

"That list wouldn't be complete without Dwarf Fortress," he added, "as it's the game that inspired me to start making games in the first place."

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Subterranean world simulators notwithstanding, the Front Mission influence permeates heavily when given the Phantom Brigade pitch. Tetragon's game puts you in control of a small squad, still fighting to take back their occupied homeland after the government officially surrenders. As the commander of this force you'll plan combat missions, deciding when and where to hit the enemy, capturing key installations and equipment in the field. Back at base, you'll manage your machines and the pilots that control them. I would have taken any sort of packaged speculative or science-fiction motorpool with that premise, but there's a certain OCU prestige that comes with the territory.

"Well, mechs are pretty awesome aren't they?" Jenkins explained. "I've been fascinated by them in games and shows ever since I was a kid. I especially loved tinkering with them for hours on end in Front Mission and Armored core. In regards to Phantom Brigade, I really wanted to focus on the player having as much control over their units as possible, and mechs are perfectly suited for that."

Jenkins continued to wax lyrical on the merits of machine-based tactics. "These are large, heavily armored, and fast machines. It doesn't make a lot of sense for them to be utilizing cover mechanics like you'd find in many recent tactical games. Systemic damage of the units becomes very important, as well as how fast you can react to threats. To either dodge out of the way and return fire, or bring a portable shield to bear in time to stop incoming rounds. The environment also plays a stronger role, as you'll be causing massive damage to the surroundings as you fight. Fire and smoke will obscure your view, and provide some passive cover to units on the other side of it. It's hard to beat the epic moments that happen when these giant war machines throw down in combat."

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However, the spectacle of throwing down is half the battle. Underlying systems need to be unique at best, robust at worst.

"We've been working on a wide range of innovative systems." Jenkins said. "On the art side, we're utilizing procedural generation techniques to help create art quickly and efficiently, as well as allowing realtime damage and destruction of the environments. The pilots are using dynamic animation with AI, to make them look and feel as believable as possible. We've done a lot of work on the shaders, and graphics tech to ensure that everything is very customizable. We're also working on dynamic music that will react to the events that unfold in battle."

Going beyond Front Missions 3's rudimentary but novel split campaign, Phantom Brigade is being designed around an entirely dynamic campaign, as Jenkins explained further. "The enemy AI will attempt to counter your strategies, if you rely on one thing like long range attacks, they'll begin to deploy shields and heavy armor to compensate. You can then attack enemy supply lines and attempt to deny them that resource."

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It sounds pretty convincing that Phantom Brigade will be something a little different. But while the field on PC is not hugely crowded, it's dominated by a Firaxis juggernaut and eking mindshare looks to be an uphill battle. Jenkins is adamant that there's enough distance and differentiation between the two.

"The games are going to be quite different mechanically. We're not making a two action, cover based game." he said. "Instead we're taking more of a simulated approach, with individual bullets, and systemic damage of the mechs. There's not going to be a case where you put a shotgun in someone's face, and all the pellets miss. If a pilot dies in battle, it will be because of the tactical decisions you made, not a bad dice roll. There's also a whole other layer, in how you configure your squad before battle, and the composition of your units. There's not going to be rigid classes or roles that you must adhere to."

It's early days for the fledgling project, but promising nonetheless. The question remains when jocks and pilots will be able to flex the actuators and strip a belt of uranium-tipped ordnance downrange. Jenkins said a soft-launch through closed beta is being planned, to be rolled out towards the end of the year. After that, wider roll-out through Steam Early Access is a good possibility. After experience with Kerbal Space Program and Universe Sandbox 2, the team are convinced of Early Access's merits in relation to iteration and constructive feedback. 

"I'm making this game because I'm passionate about turn based strategy, and I've sorely missed playing ones with mech-building in them." Jenkins said as we concluded our talk. "I suspect I'm not the only one who feels that way." 

Safest bet ever.

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