An Interview with “The Wheelman’s” Lead Mission Designer Mark Thompson

Even Vin Diesel probably didn’t anticipate the success of 2004’s Escape from Butcher Bay, despite his role as the lead character Riddick. The mature (for a point of reference, think of HBO’s prison drama “OZ”) first-person videogame tie-in to the box office flop “The Chronicles of Riddick” overcame the dirty licensed property stigma and is now considered by many one of the greatest games of the last console generation. But can Diesel’s own Tigon Studios (one half of Butcher Bay’s developers) use their videogame sorcery to stave off the insatiable franchise demons once more?

Forgive me. Technically the studio’s next project, “The Wheelman,” exists solely as a videogame property. A film set in the same universe starring Mr. Diesel entered pre-production years ago, and was supposed to see a simultaneous release with the videogame, but as far as we all know, the film’s stuck in development hell. I blame the low ticket sales of “Babylon A.D.,” “Find Me Guilty,” and “The Pacifier.”

It’s a shame, though. Hollywood (always) needs more high-speed chase movies, especially those teeming with special effects-free “airjackings” (see the video below).

Mark Thompson of Midway Newcastle, the other half of “The Wheelman’s” two-part development team,  might have one of the most challenging positions associated with the project. As the lead mission designer, he must sculpt the game mechanics and narrative  into an elegant and cohesive form; keeping in mind desired game length and player expectations. If he’s not creative enough, players might get bored repeating the same types of missions over and over again. If he becomes too ambitious, the game might become a mess of experiemental design – never really capitalizing on what works. On behalf of Red Flag Media, I recently interviewed Thompson. Finding myself with a surplus of information. I pieced the best of the best into the Frankestein Q & A below.

IPR: How involved with the project was/is Vin Diesel?

Mark Thompson: Vin Diesel has been involved from the very start of the project. Wheelman was always intended as an intellectual property (IP) that could be developed across multiple platforms in a way that strengthens, rather than compromises, the IP. Wheelman is far from being a movie tie-in game and Vin Diesel and his Tigon studio have already proven that they are more than capable of delivering quality in this space. As well as being involved in the development process Vin Diesel plays the protagonist of Wheelman, Milo Burik, lending his voice and likeness to the role.

IPR: How did “The Wheelman” benefit and/or suffer from having two developers?

MT: When you have a collaborative relationship with a studio like Tigon there are only benefits to be had. They have been an excellent resource for us, bringing in Hollywood script writers and storyboard artists to nail the cinematic scenes which drive the game’s narrative. They also have some very experienced creative development staff, people who worked on the much lauded “Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay”, for example and they play the game as much as we do and are a constant source of invaluable feedback.

IPR: Where did the inspiration for “airjacking” come from?

MT: A key component of Wheelman is the fast paced vehicle action. Visceral combat can leave your car a burning wreck, tires shot out, chassis twisted, moments from explosion. This isn’t the time or place to pull up to a stop, get out, find another vehicle, walk to it, get in, accelerate up to speed. The airjack allows you to leap through the fire and flames and into another moving vehicle. This maintains the speed and intensity of the chases, something you will really miss when you play similar games without the airjack mechanic.

IPR: Early previews indicated 80% of gameplay would involve driving, with the other 20% focusing on foot. Since then, have these percentages changed? Additionally, would they change if you were to make a sequel?

MT: I think that number is still accurate, although it’s hard to quantify that given that a number of objectives in the game can be approached in a vehicle or on foot, or even a combination of both. For different players that number could be very different. As for shifting the balance in a sequel, I’m not sure I would want to change this and detract from the awesome vehicle-based experience that we have created with Wheelman.

IPR: Since so much of the game takes place in the vehicles, a lot of people are assuming the gameplay will get old very quickly. How do you plan on proving them wrong?

MT: I think is a mistaken assumption based on people’s experience with other games which, on the surface, look similar. With Wheelman we went very deep on the driving experience, from the outset we wanted to redefine vehicle combat and the car chase experience. The unique supermoves like the cyclone and aimed shot are just a small part of this experience. When you add in the over the top blockbuster story, driven by the intense mission-based gameplay, there is no danger of repetition. Rarely has a game like Wheelman taken tightly choreographed mission gameplay to the production levels traditionally seen in first person shooters and injected the speed and ferocity, whilst at the same time empowering the player with an arsenal of supermoves and objectives that can be approached for a number of different ways. When I see people playing through the later missions in the game I still get caught out, surprised by the way people approach an encounter, making choices that seemed totally illogical for me but given their experience and their freedom to choose it makes perfect sense for that player.

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