John Sonedecker was a long-time part of a few Tom Clancy gaming franchises. A member of Red Storm Entertainment since its inception, Sonedecker worked on the original Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and Rogue Spear. He left Red Storm shortly after it was acquired by Ubisoft, sensing a change of culture. After briefly spending time as part of a startup company, Sonedecker opted to go the indie development route, founding BlackFoot Studios in 2004 as one of the first game development studios in the state of Ohio. Finally, after eight years, Sonedecker has unveiled the company's first project.
Ground Branch brings back a sense of gameplay that has been missing from recent military-based shooters, one more akin to the original Ghost Recon, Sonedecker said. It's an online multiplayer shooter that promises to emphasize authenticity, a word that is more than a mere marketing phrase.
For Sonedecker, authenticity means doing away with several military FPS tropes. There is no regenerating health. Firearms are made unique and distinctive. Teams must operate as a cohesive unit. Map design is decidedly non-linear with randomized objectives and spawn points. Winning means players must work with teammates, adapt to unforeseen circumstances, and learn which weapon works best for their personal play style.
"Weapons behave as they should and are not artificially balanced," explains Sonedecker. "Ground Branch is about player choices and realistic consequences. Your skill and ingenuity will be what allows you to succeed. Ballistics will be modeled in a realistic way, because it makes the combat more interesting and fun. Projectiles will penetrate certain materials, lose velocity, et cetera. The player dictates their success and is not funneled into a certain way of playing by a forced game mechanic."
To put Ground Branch in perspective, don't expect another summer blockbuster-style military FPS like Call of Duty or the current line of Tom Clancy games. However, just because BlackFoot is aiming for authenticity, it doesn't mean players should expect a game like ArmA. In fact, Sonedecker details the differences between his upcoming game and Bohemia Interactive's military title -- the main one being BlackFoot's approach to Special Forces infantry combat.
"ArmA is a great platform for modeling 'War' as a whole," said Sonedecker. "Bohemia Interactive attempts to model multiple military branches and supports things like armored combat, aerial battles and infantry combat. While it's cool to support all of that, some would argue that certain aspects of that whole suffer as a result. Personally, while I purchase and enjoy those games to some degree, I've always been frustrated by the 'clunky' nature of the first-person infantry experience. The controls never felt like they were all that they could be, and shooting a weapon never really felt like a violent action. Ground Branch focuses on delivering an immersive and believable infantry experience. We are specifically modeling a Special Forces branch of the military that sort of gets to operate outside of the typical Military Regiment. This allows us to ignore things like a 'class system' and pre-defined loadouts or kits, allowing the players to make their own decisions amongst their teams. Also, our levels are individually crafted, 100 percent from scratch with no copy-and-paste towns. This is extremely important in a game of this type, as players will be able to communicate using unique landmark features."
In another effort to set itself apart from the competition, Ground Branch also does away with unlockables and the level system. Sonedecker attributes this idea to eliminating the "trophy hunt" mentality of other military FPS titles, which leads to a reduced emphasis on teamwork. He also points out that games like Quake, Half-Life, and the original Ghost Recon used to be played solely for fun. "The current climate of game development fits right into the notion of a new release every year and the unlock system is the carrot that keeps people buying so they can start the chase all over again," he said. "We want to give the player an even playing field right from the start and to let the gameplay speak for itself. Ground Branch will be supported for a long time. We are not interested in spitting out a new rehashed version for $60 every year."
While BlackFoot will aim to support Ground Branch in the future, the door has also been opened to the PC modding community. The game's Kickstarter page promises full modding support, which falls in line with Sonedecker's feelings on PC mods.
"Modding is the lifeblood of a PC game that aims for longevity and community support," said Sonedecker. "I was a very big supporter of modding while at Red Storm, championing the release of the mod tools. I won't lie -- mods help sell more copies of a game. Just look at DayZ for ArmA II. But more importantly, it allows us to have a greater connection with our communities. It makes people have more of an investment in the game than just a regular consumer. It also allows more interesting and diverse things to be explored than we could ever accomplish on our own. One thing about using Unreal Engine 3 is that it includes an awesome set of tools and those tools will be available at release time. This allows modding of maps, weapons, characters and anything else you can think of. We have also worked hard to make a lot of the less complex modding tasks (like making a new weapon) more accessible by making them almost 100 percent content driven. So no more learning UnrealScript just to make a new weapon. It's all done in the editor. We want to make modding fun and part of the Ground Branch experience."
Sonedecker even offers up some modding suggestions. He notes that vehicle combat will not be a part of the main Ground Branch game, since it focuses mainly on infantry combat. However, he notes that the basic script setups for creating land, air, and sea-based vehicles will be left in the game's code. Intrepid modders can use any of these available scripts to create vehicles for any Ground Branch mods.
Ground Branch currently has a Kickstarter in progress, but they are less than a quarter of the way to their $425,000 goal with only eight days to go. If the campaign is a success, Sonedecker hopes to have the game ready for PC and Mac in August 2013, though the possibility for a console release remains on the table. "We would like to do console versions at some point as well, but that requires a lot more money and resources and beyond our scope for now. Maybe if Ground Branch sells well initially."