Bloodlines 2 preview: Hardsuit Labs on resurrecting a cult classic

It’s still a surprise to remember that, in fact, yes, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 is a thing that exists and is releasing in 2020. A sequel to 2004’s game of the same name (minus that identifying number) really does feel like the stuff of impossible dreams, even now, mere months ahead of its launch. And with that self-imposed hype comes pressure: Hardsuit Labs, developer of Bloodlines 2, only has one launched title under its belt, 2012’s free-to-play FPS Blacklight: Retribution. Vampire: The Masquerade has a committed fanbase. Bloodlines, Troika’s original game, has something of a rabid fanbase. If Hardsuit gets it wrong, the community will – somewhat fittingly – be out for blood.

So it is that we find ourselves in a situation where there’s real trepidation about a much-wanted sequel. When a game releases, withers on the vine, but lives on through community support and intense fandom – as Bloodlines did – there’s rarely a real hope of anything official following it up. But that announcement, those first looks at the sequel that does exist, that release date offering an actual time and place you’ll be able to play it. It’s all a bit too much. Surely it’s a fever dream? Surely it can’t go well? Surely something has to go wrong? We spoke to Russell Nelson, CTO and co-founder at Hardsuit Labs, to find out why, actually, there’s a real confidence this could be the impossible sequel Bloodlines fans have been craving.

How long has Bloodlines 2 been in development?

The moment we found out that Paradox had acquired World of Darkness, Ka’ai Cluney, our creative director, went to work. He contacted Brian Mitsoda, who was the lead writer on the original Bloodlines, and who he had worked with previously, and asked if he wanted to make another Bloodlines game. Brian was in so the two of them literally worked out the setting and main story beats over a weekend and a bottle of whiskey. Ka’ai then went to Andy [Kipling], CEO of Hardsuit Labs, and asked if he knew anyone at Paradox.

We pitched the game to the team at Paradox in February 2016, much to their surprise and delight. It’s extremely rare for a small game studio to spend their own time and capital on developing a pitch to a single company. It’s high-risk, and Paradox honestly didn’t quite know what to make of the request. But after the pitch, they knew everything they needed to – that we could make this game.

Pre-preproduction began in March 2016, and we were officially green-lit in October 2016.

Bloodlines 2, as you might expect, avoids most natural sources of light.

What was the mood like in the studio before revealing the game’s existence?

Our biggest fear was that we’d announce the game and people would respond ‘So what?’. But that genuinely wasn’t the case. When we did closed-door playthroughs before the announcement, people would walk in, see the opening splash screen with the logo and respond with genuine excitement. That was a huge indicator to the team that Bloodlines 2 would be well received. This is the first original game made by Hardsuit Labs, and it is the follow-up to a cult-classic. While in development, you are so close to the game that all you see are flaws – what you don’t see is the reaction of a first-time player, especially the reaction of a fan who loved the original game.

Have things changed around the studio much since beginning the project?

We have tripled in size since the start of the project, and there are always challenges associated with growing that quickly. Each challenge has given us an opportunity to learn, and the important thing is that we keep moving forward. One key learning was that we needed more producers, so we have expanded a lot in that regard. Production helps keep people focused on important tasks and avoid randomisation. Production can be a force multiplier when it comes to focus.

How does Hardsuit’s experience with Blacklight feed into creating a single-player RPG?

There are quite a few foundational things we were able to take from the experience making Blacklight: Retribution and apply them to Bloodlines 2. Things like optimisation, user flows, first-person camera controls, and hierarchies in messaging. Player progression and in-game economies can translate well, but the player motivation is different. Most of Bloodlines 2 was built from the ground up with a team crafted around the RPG experience.

Death, unsurprisingly, plays a central role in the world of the Masquerade.

Were there any tricks you learned from work on Blacklight that transferred over to Bloodlines 2?

Run on the lowest-end platform you intend to support as much as possible. More importantly, make certain your tools are friendly to your developer colleagues that are creating content; nothing is more important than removing the friction of adding an asset to a game. Also, playtest with as many diverse groups as you possibly can. There’s so much that goes into making a game that it’s easy to miss something critical, but having many different eyes, ears, and appendages on the game can help.

How does Bloodlines 2 factor in the tabletop RPG it is based on? Does it stick strictly to the rule set, as well as to the overall narrative themes?

The first Bloodlines game was very true to the tabletop, many of the systems and interfaces being direct translations from the tabletop game. This wasn’t always successful in a video game environment since the two formats and experiences are quite different. For Bloodlines 2, we are less interested in a one-to-one implementation of the tabletop systems and more interested in what is at the core of those mechanics: being a vampire.

When [we were] developing the core gameplay of Bloodlines 2, we [remained] in constant contact with the tabletop team while they were working on V5 of Vampire: The Masquerade. Many of our systems were developed together.

While the game is a sequel, is it still fair to say it’s quite the departure from the original Bloodlines?

Throughout development, one of the game’s core pillars is to be a true successor to Bloodlines. That means everything we do is in service to that goal. It’s been great having Brian Mitsoda back to both write and guide the game – his involvement ensures we stay on track to achieve our ambitions for Bloodlines 2.

The major differences between Bloodlines 2 and the original game that came out in 2004 are the technology and subject matter. We are using Unreal Engine 4 to develop the game, which is incredibly powerful and allows us to do things that weren’t remotely possible with the original Bloodlines. But more importantly, we are more conscious and sensitive to certain subject matter in this game. For example, the Malkavian clan deals a lot with mental illness. This was used mostly for comedic effect in the first game, but we have a greater understanding of mental illness and how it impacts people now. This is a subject we are not taking lightly, and we want to give the Malkavians’ representation of mental illness the respect and dignity it deserves in Bloodlines 2.

Unarmed? Sure, but also you’re a vampire. Tends to help a smidge.

How is the representation of vampires being modernised or updated? Is it even being modernised/updated to begin with?

The mechanical parts of being a vampire are timeless – drinking blood, immortality, aversion to daylight – but it’s up to the player to navigate how to do those things in a modern setting. Vampire: The Masquerade, and the larger World of Darkness, have always explored what it means to be a monster. How does being immortal impact your daily life and outlook on the future? What does feeding on human blood mean to you ethically? How do you approach relationships with other monsters, especially when resources are on the line? How can you survive in a world with increasing connection and isolation?

Bloodlines 2 takes place in the modern day, just as the first one did. There have been some major societal shifts in the 15 years between games, and we’ve been able to integrate them into Bloodlines 2. For example, the Masquerade is more difficult to maintain out in public because of the abundance of mobile devices and cameras. Anyone with a smartphone can take photos of vampire shenanigans and immediately show it to the world, resulting in harsh consequences for the player. But we balance that with areas where the player can perform those things outside of public view, either where they won’t be seen or where people no longer care. Being a vampire hasn’t changed all that much, but the ability to be a vampire is something we get to leverage in the playable spaces of the game.

What’s been something you were champing at the bit to change, upgrade, or fix from the original Bloodlines?

We looked very carefully at the first game and reviewed what was needed for the sequel. We looked at the things we wanted to keep and where we could improve on the first game. The combat experience was at the top of the list of opportunities for improvement. We really wanted to emphasise the vampire strength, agility, and abilities in combat to make the player feel like a monster. When you’re a vampire, weapons are meant to be fleeting accessories, your fists tear through human flesh like tissue paper, and vampiric abilities – or Disciplines – are powerful and fulfilling to use. Players can customise their preferred combat methods – they can even create a character that can resolve some situations through manipulation and coercion to get what they want.

What’s been the most challenging aspect to bring into the sequel from the tabletop original?

Player choice and reactivity is at the core of pretty much everything we do. Tabletop RPGs are great because of how free-form and choice-driven they are, which gives players a lot of freedom. The players can do anything at any time. Video games are more restrictive because of the format and the technology, but we can still design for enhancing player choice and reactivity. The player may not have the same amount of freedom as the tabletop, but we can get very close with good design.

When developing the game, we always keep player choice in mind. How would a player with a non-combat build get through this encounter? Can we have more entrances to this building that take advantage of the player’s Discipline choice? If the player puts all their points into this one skill, how will that impact their game experience? The player gets to decide the monster they want to be, and our goal is to have the game react accordingly.

Hardsuit Labs has certainly crafted an atmospheric world.

It has to be strange dealing with the hype/expectation surrounding Bloodlines 2 – how do you deal with that strange mix of pressure and lack of pressure?

You concentrate on making the game you want to make. While we felt the pressure from expectation early on, the more we worked on it, the more secure we were in knowing we were making a Bloodlines game. While the first game didn’t sell well at launch, over the years it has become a cult classic that has millions of fans all over the world. To this day, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a fan of RPGs who hasn’t at least heard stories about the greatness of Bloodlines. If the response from the gaming community at large is any indication, I think we have a hit on our hands.

What are your hopes for Bloodlines 2 on release? What do you want to see it achieve?

We want to deliver a true successor to Bloodlines, and everything that goes with it – something fans of the first one and players new to the franchise will enjoy. We want people to have meaningful conversations about the story and the choices they made. We, as a team, understand how much the original means to people (because it means a lot to many of us), and we’re not taking that lightly.

Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines 2 releases on PC, PS4, and Xbox One later in 2020.

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