Saber Interactive: Classic shooters show off technical chops


Presented by Intel


With Quake Champions, Saber Interactive has set itself the task to make a modern Quake: frenetic and crazy as it ever was, but with larger-than-life champions, each with their own hooks and special abilities. It’s a fusion of the grim and gothic original, the heady, explosiveness of Quake III Arena, and a champion formula that calls to mind titles like Overwatch. It’s something old and something new.

It’s not unfamiliar territory for Saber, which has dabbled in a lot of different genres in the 16 years since it was founded by Matthew Karch, Andrey Iones, and Anton Krupkin. It’s the shooters that the studio is perhaps best known for, however. The tech side of things is what makes Saber gravitate towards them, thinks Karch. “Shooters have always been at the forefront of showing what real-time rendering is capable of,” he says. That focus has been there since the start. So when they established Saber, they had that strong technical foundation and an equally strong desire to show it off.

Bethesda and Saber had been in contact for years about potential projects, and the stars eventually aligned for Quake Champions. Bethesda and id weren’t doing anything new with the series, though Quake Live was going strong, proving there was definitely still a market for that kind of fast-paced arena shooter. Saber pitched its vision to Bethesda and id, and Karch remembers that it was close to what they wanted to do internally. Quake Champions was born.

Saber’s technical foundation is also why Quake Champions doesn’t use id Tech, instead running on a hybrid engine designed by Saber. “We did a deep dive with id’s Tim Willits,” Karch explains, “and we decided our rendering would be the better choice, but there were things that id was doing that we really wanted to incorporate. It’s probably less incorporating and more replicating. We looked at the way they handled certain types of things from cameras to controls to player physics and used what they did as a foundation.” 

Everyone’s a hero 

Key to the game are the titular champions. “It’s worked for Overwatch,” Karch says, “which is a slower paced game, but it allows every player to choose their hero to get their personality in the arena.” Saber has Quake’s lore to draw from, but beyond that, it’s also got id’s large back catalogue, and even Bethesda’s, from which it can craft new champions and their accompanying mechanics.

It’s a bit experimental. More ideas have been left on the cutting room floor than kept. These champions have to fit Quake’s very specific dynamic. “It’s a constantly evolving process,” Karch says. “This is a game as a service, and it’s only as good as the service you can provide. We think there’s a market for what we’re doing, but we see there’s room for improvement and changes. As we get player feedback, we’re trying our best to react as quickly as possible. The design is an evolving one, but the initial results are encouraging.”

Most of the Quake Champions team is on the Saber side, with only about five people—some producers and a designer—from id. So the studio has a lot of creative freedom, though Karch is quick to point out that, ultimately, the buck stops with Tim Willits, as the creative director of id. Saber is used to these kinds of collaborations. It did most of the work on Halo: Anniversary and Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and it was working on Halo Online before it was shelved indefinitely.

Quake Champions launched on Steam via early access in August. It’s the first time Saber has worked on this kind of early access game. “It’s been more good than bad, but it’s a little nerve-racking to put your baby out into the wild,” Karch admits. “You want to get everything out as quickly as possible, but the frustrating thing is that you don’t want to release everything piecemeal—you want to release big changes into the pipeline and out to the players.”

Right now, Saber’s main objective is to continue to improve the game’s accessibility. While Quake is an immensely popular series, the style and pace of today’s most successful shooters—from Call of Duty to Overwatch—is entirely different. Teaching people how to play, then, has become imperative, as has making Quake Champions appeal to a broader audience.

“We want to improve the onboarding experience,” says Karch, “and get people more familiar with the controls and the way the game works, as opposed to just dropping them right into a battle.”

Back in time

As Saber continues to work on Quake, it’s also working on other projects, most notably a follow up to its 2007 time-manipulation shooter: TimeShift. Saber hasn’t officially announced it yet, but it’s in development. It’s something of a passion project for the studio. TimeShift is a bit of a cult classic, and among the developers, it’s got a lot of fans.

“Every year we do a company party, and our biggest studio is in St. Petersburg, and every year, I kid you not, there’s a bowl, and it’s filled with rubles,” Karch laughs. “They call it the Timeshift 2 fund. Everyone comes in and puts rubles in this Timeshift 2 fund because everyone wants to work on it.”

He eventually acquiesced, and the team is now in the design prototyping phase. Of course, it can’t be called TimeShift 2, since Activision still owns the rights, so instead it’s a spiritual successor. It will be a new story with a new name, but the most important elements, like the time manipulation, will be returning. For Karch, who was the original game designer, it’s very exciting. “TimeShift was my baby in every way.”

As for the new name, nothing is set in stone, but Karch has already registered ‘Timebender’. He can’t help but chuckle when he says it.


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