I.Eat.Games.

Interview: Steve Gaynor

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"I think one of the most valuable things a piece of entertainment can do is make you feel empathetic towards people. Any piece of writing or fiction that focus on an individual can help you understand them better. If you understand something better then you do feel more tolerant and empathetic towards them, and if that’s part of the value of Gone Home then I think that’s a really good thing." -Steve Gaynor




Portland based developer The Fullbright Company has had one child—Gone Home. Shaped by nontraditional mainstream design theories, Gone Home makes a first-person experience profound simply by focusing on a normal family with normal issues.

I sat down with Steve Gaynor to chat at length about many things, like the initial inspiration for Minerva’s Den, why he left Irrational Games before BioShock Infinite shipped, whether or not Gone Home really is a video game, letting go of traditional genre requirements, creating sympathetic villains, PAX, The New York Times adoration for Gone Home, and what’s next for The Fullbright Company.  



Mark DeSanto: Hi Steve, it’s great to meet you! Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Let’s start out at the beginning, shall we? How did you get into making video  games?
Steve Gaynor: Hi there! Yes, nice meeting you too.

My first design job was working with a company called TimeGate Studios, who were based in  Texas, on the Perseus Mandate expansion pack for F.E.A.R., the first person shooter by Monolith.




Oh I remember that expansion pack!
Well…<laughs> I doubt very many people do. It was the second expansion pack for a game that was almost 3 years old at the time.

When I was in college I realized I was interested in game design, so I started to make my own  levels using the F.E.A.R. editor. I chose that particular level editor because I was a big fan of the game and that particular studio’s output, plus the Creative Director worked on No One Lives Forever. Anyway they released essentially their entire development toolset as a mod suite. You could add new voice files, create all new story scripting…you could do everything the developers could do.

Between all those things I knew I wanted to make single player levels for that kind of game—a big AAA title—that had a lot of expressive capability. I started making levels for that game to build up my portfolio. Then someone who worked at the studio who knew of my work sent me an email saying, “Hey I see you make levels for F.E.A.R.. We’re making an expansion for the game and think you should apply!”

I was living in the bay area at the time with my now wife—who was going to Grad school while I was working QA, plus creating levels on the side—and we just decided to move to Texas for 6 months. We shipped that expansion pack, moved back to San Francisco and then worked remotely for them for a while.

The following year (2008) I went to GDC on my own dime. I had actually been going to GDC for a few year prior through the auspices of Idle Thumbs. By the time I came back, Idle Thumbs wasn’t really publishing anything, plus it didn’t feel right getting the Press Pass that way. Anyway, when I went to GDC in 2008 I met Greg Kasavin (Bastion, Transistor, former editor-in-chief of Gamespot) face-to-face for the first time. At the time he was working at EA, but had been talking to some of the folks at 2K Marin about a job. He tipped me off to it saying, “Hey you should talk to the 2K Marin guys if you’re interested in working on BioShock stuff. I think you’d be a great fit!” Plus my good friend Chris Remo—who was a journalist for Shacknews at that time—said I should tag along with him to his appointment with Ken Levine. Between those two things I decided I had to go.

But I was thinking about the fact that I’d only shipped one expansion pack, and here they are working on BioShock—why the hell would they even consider hiring me?! I mean…I wouldn’t have even considered applying, but between the two events how could I not?




Thank GOD you went to GDC in 2008!
I know right?!




By the way Chris Remo was one of my co-hosts on an old gaming podcast called Played
.
Oh wow! No shit?



"Actually the initial inspiration was from a conversation I had with JP LeBreton. He was chatting with the Lead Designer of the original BioShock about how Rapture had all this accelerated high technology, and it would be cool if all the technology that had lead to the creation of Shodan in the System Shock universe had come from all these advancements in Rapture. It’s off the books and not official in any way whatsoever, but I was like fuck it, I’ll just do that!” -Steve Gaynor on Minerva’s Den





Yea, it was just a little side thing. It ran for roughly 3 years. It was…ok , but we had fun. Well, I was terrible, Chris and Elizabeth (Tobey) were great.
It sounds familiar. I think I remember that podcast existing, but I didn’t really check it out.




Yeah it was a while ago. I think we began recording in 2004-2005…before the Bombcast, Weekend Confirmed and even the Idle Thumbs podcast.
Actually I think I did listen to one or two episodes. I remember listening to Elizabeth on a podcast.




Anyway, back to GDC 2008…
So I met Jordan Thomas and Carlos Cuello who were two seed-personnel to 2K Marin, and we set up an interview.





At this point was BioShock 2 in pre-production?
It was. They had an idea. When I was talking to them there were still only 12 people at the studio. I think I was the 14th hire. That’s how I got from college to working on BioShock 2. It’s a crazy thing!


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At that point did Irrational Games have any input? Did they visit the studio?
They were not really that involved. They sent a contingent as a kind of cross-studio-best-practices kind of thing, but they were definitely not in a position where we were on a conference call every week. We saw them once or twice but there really wasn’t any direct input.




Did you get any sort of feeling if Irrational Games cared about BioShock 2? It sort of seems Irrational Games would have made a direct sequel to the original BioShock if they thought one need to exist. They seem to be very protective of their stuff.
I think it’s something they saw as very separate. It was part of the deal they had with the publisher. They wanted to do something that had a much longer development period. BioShock Infinite isn’t something they could have made in the amount of time the Publisher needed a BioShock 2. It had a development time of roughly 1.5 years—a rather speedy turn-around. If they had been responsible for doing BioShock 2, they wouldn’t have gotten started on the next big crazy thing.




So it was due to scheduling?
Well…let me put it like this—it’s nowhere near the same situation, but it’s also not wildly dissimilar—but Activision trades off studios with the Call of Duty franchise. 

See for us there was some shared creative-type personnel. Well…not a lot, but the core members of 2K Marin were from Irrational Games, and they built a new team to make that game that allowed the Publisher to keep the franchise active. I think it was just a more practical decision.





What was your role on BioShock 2?
I was a level designer. I worked on the Adonis Luxury Resort (1st level), and Pauper’s Drop (4th level).





When BioShock 2 was announced it was met with some trepidation from BioShock fans as they wondered why the original team wasn’t working on the sequel. I think things turned out great, but I’m curious how you feel about the game today?
It’s one of those things where it’s hard to have any sort of reasonable, objective distance from it to really tell. It’s a lot easier to consider it from a internal production perspective. The fact that 2K Marin had to build a game AND a studio at the same time, within 18 months, is pretty fucking incredible! It went both from no game to a game, and from 8 people to 80 people in the same amount of time.

I think we had a really outstanding design department that worked really well together. I worked with really, really talented people there. All these people were brought together to make this game and we hit the ground running. I’m definitely really proud of having made something as successful as BioShock 2, especially considering those constraints.



"When I worked with Ken Levine, we discussed the concept of creating sympathetic villains. He pulled this quote and it went, “No one is the villain of their own story.” Everyone is the hero of their own story, and that extends to everyone’s life. It’s not necessarily because they won the Nobel Prize, it’s because they ARE the main character in their own story.” -Steve Gaynor




It had a multiplayer component but was developed by Digital Extremes in the same amount of time, right? It’s sort of amazing all of this stuff actually came together.
Yeah! A lot of it had to do with the fact that we were working off an established game. If you start with something like BioShock 1 and then move on to BioShock 2, you have stuff to work with.

There were a lot of new and different things added to the development pipeline in terms of features and stuff that wasn’t player facing. We had some engineers who were really invested in making the design tools better. Which was cool because by the time we were farther through production there was a lot of stuff in the editor that made it a lot more efficient to build & test stuff.




Was the concept from the very beginning to play as a Big Daddy?
Yeah, I think that’s what Jordan wanted to do from the start.




Lets talk about Minerva’s Den!
Sure!


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You led the development of that DLC. How did it all begin for you?
As BioShock 2 development was winding down we knew that we had to go straight into the development for the DLC. It was all hands on deck for the development of the main game until it was completed, so the development of the DLC began as soon as it was finished.

Basically I had an idea for the DLC, showed interest in it, and emailed my pitch to some people for feedback. I also had helped with some of the writing on the game, like with some of the Splicer parts, audio diaries and some PA announcements. There were a lot of people who were eager to move on to XCOM from BioShock 2 since they had their heads in it for so long. I was still enthusiastic and interested in doing something else in the BioShock universe because we knew we had to do this DLC. So Zak McClendon (Lead Designer on BioShock 2) sat me down and said “I’m making you the Lead Designer on the DLC so…do your thing! You got nine months to get this thing through certification!” <laughs>.




For the unfamiliar, is nine months considered fairly short for something like that?
It’s very short! They needed it six months after the game shipped, so I was told I had nine months to complete it.

I actually started working on it before the main game was out the door, and that’s because there was some lag once the game was submitted for certification. Then was a submission to get re-certified once more, plus some bugs needed to be squashed. So there was a little more time here and there before the game hit shelves before I was given the nine month deadline.

But nine months is still short, especially because I did the design document on the first DLC (The Protector Trials) too, which was a challenge rooms thing. That needed to be completed two to three months after the game shipped, so most of the personnel assigned to the DLC were working on that. For the first 3 months of development on Minerva’s Den it consisted of just me and (Lead Artist) Devin St. Clair.

It turned out to be a good thing though because I was figuring out the story. So I completed a draft, sent it up to Jordan & Zak and they said “I get where you’re going with this, but it isn’t good enough yet. Can we figure out some way to make this more interesting?” So I did several revisions while the Lead Artist worked on visual identity for all the mid-century computing for the game. Once that was nailed down—which was cool—Devin (St. Clair) and I worked on the layouts for all three levels. Once we had all the grey boxing done, where you could walk through the quest line, we acquired two more level artists, level designers and programmers.

For the final six months of development I worked with the Gameplay Programmer and we were able to put in the new weapon, new Big Daddy, new plasmid, while the level designers were figuring things out with scripting and level populating. I remained the primary level designer on the first level, and also worked with the artists on weapon design and voice casting…all that stuff.

During the final six months of production it was a very collaborative process with the full team working on the game. That’s why it was sort of nine months in development but also six months in development.

It‘s interesting because, in a way, Minerva’s Den was in pre-production with a small team for a long time, which is a luxury I think most DLC probably doesn’t have.





What inspired such an interesting narrative?
It came from a very practical place. In the beginning I was thinking, “Ok, what does someone want from a single-player BioShock DLC?” and the main thing was “Hey let’s visit a part of Rapture we’ve never seen before”. There’s a lot of city and we’ve seen only so much of it.

Also there are these flying robots and turrets that clearly have Artificial Intelligence. They can perform target acquisitions and pathing, so clearly there was some form of Steampunk, mid-century computerization going on in Rapture. It’s never really directly addressed in BioShock 2 and I really wanted to address that. There would have to be some kind of Mainframe computer in Rapture—as a nerd and as a person who likes BioShock—and I would love to see what form the computer core takes.

The heritage of this series is System Shock. That’s a series about an A.I. that thinks, has a voice and fucks with you. I figured it would be really cool to have the DLC be an homage to System Shock 2. I considered, hey, what would an A.I. be like in Rapture? What story could you tell there?

Actually the initial inspiration was from a conversation I had with JP LeBreton. He was chatting with the Lead Designer of the original BioShock about how Rapture had all this accelerated high technology, and it would be cool if all the technology that had led to the creation of SHODAN in the System Shock universe had come from all these advancements in Rapture. It’s off the books and not official in any way whatsoever, but I was like fuck it, I’ll just do that! <laughs>




**System Shock 2 and Minerva’s Den Spoilers Ahead**

So the idea in Minerva’s Den is that there’s this A.I. trapped in Rapture, and it engineers a way to get the player to transport that A.I. out of the city so it can live on. This computer uses the voice of someone you know and trust, to manipulates you into supporting its self-preservation routine. That was the jumping off point.

The original story was just a retelling of System Shock 2 up to the point where you discover Janice Polito is dead. In Minerva’s Den it’s Charles Porter’s voice telling you what to do, which is fine but not really that interesting. It just wasn’t satisfying enough, and that was the point where I brought it to Jordan and Zak who said “I don’t think this is going to have the impact you want it to have.”

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That was when we starting talking about the characters. We knew we had to make the player a Big Daddy. It was one of the main DLC constraints because we weren’t going to invest time in making new player hand models or a totally new weapon set. Every Big Daddy used to be a somebody before their mind was wiped, so I said “Hey what if the player was Porter who was turned into a Big Daddy?”, and I totally remember clearly Zak was like “Yup, let’s just do that and run with it!”

That was the point where the narrative was about Porter, and you ARE the guy who is giving yourself the missions throughout the entire game, more or less. It becomes this narrative about this relationship between a man and this thing he created, doing something amazing it wasn’t explicitly programmed to do. It’s decided to save itself and its creator.

**End Spoilers**




Was there ever any feedback from Ken Levine, Nate Wells or anyone else at Irrational Games regarding Minerva’s Den?
Once I started working there! <laughs>




What were their thoughts?
Well neither Ken of Nate played it before I started working there, but they had heard it was good. Some other folks at Irrational played it before I got there and enjoyed it.

I went to Irrational for my interview with Ken Levine and he asked me some fairly normal questions. Things like “What were the biggest issues with BioShock?”, things like that. I was happy with the interview because Ken, I imagine, was probably very skeptical going into the interview, but I think he got the idea I knew what the hell I was talking about. He’s been around for a long time and talks to a lot of designers.

Anyway, at some point I asked him if he had played Minerva’s Den and he had not, so I asked him if he’d check it out, and he said “For you kid…I’ll do it.” Later, Chris Remo—who already worked at Irrational at the time—told me Ken was walking around the office asking if anyone had a Xbox 360 copy of BioShock 2.

He eventually played it and told me he liked it a lot. He said he totally bought Porter as a character and as someone who would actually exist in Rapture, which is the biggest compliment he could give to me.

I think one of things I’m good at doing is internalize tone, or the parameters of a creative paradigm. I think I have a good feel for that stuff. Ken saying “I think you got what BioShock is about. You created a character that fit into that world.” That’s a big compliment!

We worked together a lot on BioShock Infinite, and I think we had a good working relationship.

Nate and I really never talked about it. I gave him a code and I think he played it a little bit, but I think he’s just seen way too much goddamn BioShock in his life! He did play Gone Home and enjoyed it, so I’m happy about that.




So you had the interview with Ken, got the job and worked on BioShock Infinite. What exactly did you do on the game?
My title was Senior Level Designer and I worked there for a year. I started roughly 2.5 years before it shipped, where there was not a lot on screen.

When I was there, things were still coming together. There was a lot of rapid development on the campaign, but my biggest job was to basically pitch ideas to Ken. If he liked them, I would work with a level builder to create the initial layout to present to him again.

I pitched a lot of stuff that wasn’t’ built, but I pitched the parachute descent into Columbia. Ken already had the idea for the baseball scene but I put the prototype of it in the actual game. I also worked on the first pass of the carnival games and street fair. I pitched the beats for the escape from Elizabeth’s tower, but the main level I owned and was farthest into was Finkton.

Finkton was always going to be about the factory, you know, the workers versus the owner! It would take place inside the factory. I thought it would be more interesting to see where and how the workers lived. You know, see the company town. Well before you get to Finkton, the concept that Elizabeth can create tears is introduced, so I knew once you arrive in Finkton things should center around that new ability to progress the game.

If Liz is opening tears to essentially get to a reality to where the workers are rising up, that would get the game, its fiction and the mechanics all working together. That was my goal there with Finkton, and was the farthest along when I left. A lot of the geometry was all grey box and janky though. Everything that was in the shipped game was created by other people.

I did however recognized a lot of my design documents when I played through the final game. It was a little bit of a surreal experience to be like “Hey I know what’s going to happen next!” The coolest thing is just seeing what they came up with after I left. They solved a lot of problems that still existed by the time I had left. All the real work happened after I left.

Also, I discovered there was some stuff that was completely new when I played the final game, like the baptism at the beginning and the non-combat part of Town Center as well. That game is just fucking gorgeous! 



"It’s important to understand that if you don’t agree with the people who run a thing, you have no obligation to support it by being on their terms and show things in their territory. There are positive aspects to showing your stuff at PAX. I’ve seen people Tweet about amazing games they saw at the show. Ones I’d never heard of, but that’s also true of showing your game at IndieCade or IGF. Going to PAX is a really good thing for a lot of people. For fans, developers, but you can also make it if as an Indie if you don’t play by their rules.” -Steve Gaynor on PAX




Did BioShock Infinite turn out to be everything you hoped it would?
Well that’s the thing. Part of my decision to leave was, “Ok I can see that this thing is going to get all 10/10s and the Game of The Year nominations, and it doesn’t matter so much if I leave.” Yes I could continue to work on it, but leaving wasn’t going to hurt either. I could tell this game was on the path to be awesome.

After you go from leading a small team, caring about everything like I did on Minerva’s Den, to something that is very much someone else’s baby—where you have a very specific job—it’s a much different experience.

So when you say “Is it everything I hoped it would be?”, it reminds me that part of my decision to leave Irrational Games was because I wasn’t like “Oh man I have such grand hopes for this game!” I mean, I was working on it and trying to make it good, but it’s just a very different experience than Minerva’s Den or Gone Home. There were people over there who had a very personal level of investment in it, but I wasn’t super, super, personally invested in it.

It was a good experience and I’m incredibly honored I have had the opportunity to work with Ken Levine, Nate Wells, Shawn Robertson, Scott Sinclair  and Steve Alexander…people who had made things that were part of my formative gaming experiences—people I idolized! I learned a ton and I’m super-grateful they had me. They taught me how to do this kind of thing really well, but at the end of the day I worked there for a year and I realize it wasn’t interested in working on a project of that scale.




So you started your own video game company?
Well, first I decided to move to Portland. My wife and use to live here and we wanted to move back at some point. We spent years chasing school and jobs, so we just wanted to move back home. The problem was, there really are no big game studio in need of a level designer in Portland. I had to figure out how to make it work, and so I started thinking about how to make an Indie thing happen.


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When you started The Fullbright Company, was Gone Home already a concept?
I started talking to Karla (Zimonja) and Johnnemann (Nordhagen) when I was leaving Irrational. We worked together on Minerva’s Den and I worked closely with them, particularly Karla. She did all the 2D art like posters and documents, helped manage some of the voiceover work, did some script supervising and was my story partner as well.

Johnnemann was a programmer on Minerva’s Den and was interested in changing it up as well. We all wanted to do something different. I asked them if they were interested in joining me if I did my own thing and they were like “Heck yes!”, but moving to Portland was a…longer discussion since they lived in the San Francisco. We talked about what we wanted to make, decided we were interested in First-Person stuff that included environmental exploration and having it sort of experiential focused instead of making a sweet shooter.

It was something we were all excited about!





It might be simply an issue of semantics but what do you say to people who proclaim Gone Home isn’t a video game?
Well it’s a complicated question. On one hand I believe, yes, it is a video game. However it doesn’t really matter what I say because I think the discussion matters too.

I don’t think it really matters if you label something a video game or not a video game, at least in practical terms. You can call it…whatever. I think if you enjoy interfacing with it, or not, that’s really what matters. I think the reason people say “That’s not a game!” is to be dismissive. To say it doesn’t have value. To say it’s something not deserving of our attention. I think people saying that is the real crux of the argument, and are not really trying to define something in a productive way.

I feel like something is a video game if it’s on a screen and you interact with it for entertainment purposes.

You could say “Oh well is a website a video game?” Fuck off. Who cares! We all know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about video games. If you want to call a Twine game, not a game, then…fine. It’s a Twine thing. Who cares. Proteus, Dear Esther, Anichamber, 30 flights of Loving are all video games.

If you want to define a video game, then perhaps the argument could be “It needs goals, achievements, required skill and a fail-state”. That would be a more narrow definition. What’s important to me is the player’s participation is central to a meaningful experience.

All that stuff applies to Gone Home, and you do get better at it. You are mastering the house. You’re making new connections. You’re gaining knowledge by performing the interactions the game gave meaning through mechanics and how they relate to the content. There’s a reason I made the secret passage very accessible. You can get to the end of the game is less than a minute.

If your only definition of mastering a game is to get better at aiming so you can kill the guys before they killed you, then yes, this doesn’t meet your criteria. I think that’s a needlessly limited interpretation of what traditional gaming elements are.




Is Gone Home trying to say something to the industry?
Like what?



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I think it is, perhaps, but I’m not certain.
Well you asked the question, you must have some idea! <laughs>





Maybe it’s saying “There needs to be more tolerance!”, or “We don’t necessarily need violence in video games to be effective!”, or “First-Person gaming can be interesting without the use of guns”. I’m curious, as it’s creator, if there was an intention to send a message to the industry?
I blogged a lot about what directions we can go to in terms of design, but I do hope the game speaks for itself.

I feel like it’s one demonstration where we can let go of traditional genre requirements and still make something people can connect with deeply. In fact letting go of the assumption that you need explicit challenge, combat, puzzles, loot, leveling-up or whatever, actually gives you access to more kinds of subject matter.

For us it was a two-way street. We decided to make a game that didn’t have any combat or puzzles. It’s just about exploring a space, discovering what happened and reconstructing the story yourself. If anything, the story itself is the puzzle. It’s not like you’re hacking doors or anything. Since it’s not about who you’re fighting or who made some crazy puzzles, we were able to make the experience about normal people. We could say, “Hey, what’s interesting about the story in this game is not its epic revelation about world changing events, but about the stuff that happens to normal people…and it IS interesting. That notion can be expressed through a video game, and it can be done without saying “Oh hey you’re shooting zombies while doing it.”

When I worked with Ken Levine, we discussed the concept of creating sympathetic villains. He pulled this quote that went, “No one is the villain of their own story.” Everyone is the hero of their own story, and that extends to everyone’s life. It’s not necessarily because they won the Nobel Prize, but because they ARE the main character in their own story. They know all the other people involved in it, personally. They’re familiar with all the mundane events, which have real meaning to them.

For example, if you walk through a park and see a wedding—it’s just a wedding, right? To those people, however, getting married is one of the most important events in their life! Not because the wedding is amazing, but because it’s their wedding.

With Gone Home it allowed us to put the player in a position where they can get to know the characters and care, and in such a way that what happens really does matter to the player. The drama of their mostly mundane lives is actually really gripping because we give you access to understanding them as individuals by playing this thing. Hopefully that’s something people can see as a valuable demonstration of something else video games can do.


"What’s interesting about the story in this game is not its epic revelation about a world changing events, but about the stuff that happens to normal people…and it IS interesting. That notion can be expressed through a video game, and it can be done without saying “Oh hey you’re shooting zombies while doing it.”” -Steve Gaynor on Gone Home




For me, part of the magic of Gone Home is it’s immersiveness. You start out in Katie’s shoes picking up household items and personal belongings trying to figure out what the heck’s happened, and by the end of the game I felt like I was the one returning home. I was the one discovering all these stories. Not only did the experience leave a great impression on me, but also The New York Times. They said “Gone Home is the greatest video game love story ever told.” How does that make you feel?
Yeah, that’s awesome to see! I like being reviewed in the New York Times. <laughs> It’s really fantastic. If anything we benefit from being one of the few video game love stories out there. I don’t think there have been very many out there…or at least good ones.

I’ve been intensely influenced by—things I would call—great video game love stories. Most of them are rather melancholy, or even sad. Silent Hill 2 was a major influence on the work I did in Minerva’s Den. It’s about a guy trying to reunite with his dead wife, and is unable to do so. The tone of that game, and the approach they took to that narrative was a big influence on me.

One of my favorite comments we received on the first trailers we put up for Gone Home was “Her voice reminds me of Silent Hill 2.”, and I was like “YESSSS! Thank you!”. <laughs>

Full Throttle was also an influence as it’s a love story as well, and it has one of the best endings in a game I’ve ever played.  There are other things that speak to that as well, but it’s not well trodden ground, so I think we’ve benefited from that.

However the biggest things for me are all the personal emails we’ve received from people. There’s also journalist like Polygon’s Danielle Riendeau (https://twitter.com/Danielleri) and Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez (https://twitter.com/patriciaxh) who talked about the personal connection they established with the characters, and in a way they never have before.

Emails from people saying they’ve never connected with a game like this before, and thank you for making it. We received A LOT of those, and that’s not something I was expecting. It’s not something I had seen before as a developer. Obviously I was not someone who would directly get those kinds of emails before, and it meant a lot to know people had played the game and felt so compelled to write in. The New York Times is great. 10/10 is great. We’re humbled and grateful for that, but all the emails from people who took a chance, played the game and meant something to them—really was the biggest thing for us.



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The commitment to the period setting is impressive. What kind of research did you do in preparation for the game?

Well it started with “We need you not to have a cellphone”. We needed the player not to have access to computers, and we couldn’t just have a power outage. So that means the very least we could turn back the clock was to 1995. That way everything is on paper and there are things like answering machines. Once we reached that decision, we needed to do research. We ordered Sassy magazines off Ebay and bought a 1990 Sears Home catalog for the visual stuff because it has every object that a middle-american might have in that period. We also mined stuff from our memories, like dad recording movies off cable and on to VHS tapes, TV guides with circled times on it. Plus we had to figure out the release schedules of albums and TV shows.




Do you think Gone Home will come out for the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One?
We would like to, but we don’t have any concrete details yet. We’re using the Unity engine and that doesn’t work on PS4 or Xbox One yet. We’re kind of in a holding pattern on that right now. I think it would be a good fit. We designed the game in a way so it works with a gamepad, but we don’t have any announcements about that yet.





Before the game was released there were rumors regarding the existence of the supernatural in Gone Home. When I was playing the game, I have to admit, I got a little creeped out when I heard creaky floorboards and noises behind me. I assume that creepiness or scariness is intended?
I wouldn’t say the game is…scary.

When we started making Gone Home we let people know outright that it would not have any combat. Nothing would hurt you. There would be no enemies. But Gone Home is a mystery and we need you to feel some sense of urgency to solve.

I remember when I was doing some voice direction for Porter on Minerva’s Den. We were trying to figure out the characters voice and speech patterns and eventually the word we hit upon was ‘urgency’. We needed to instill in the player a sense of urgency. It’s important you do this thing. His voice and tone mattered in creating that sense of urgency.

So in creating Gone Home, we found we also needed a sense of urgency after testers were saying things like, “If I came home from a trip and no one else was home, I would probably just go upstairs and take a nap in the guest bedroom until people came home.” <laughs> Between the note on the front door, the dark and stormy house and the creaky floorboards, we felt like that sense of tension and unease made players feel that something wasn’t right. They would have that urge to want to figure out what happened.

A criticism I have with a lot of games is the atmosphere gets stale by the back-half, and it’s because you just get used to everything. There can be blood stains on the walls and dead bodies everywhere—which is freaky at first—but towards the end its like “Ok, can I just find some loot now?”

I actually rely on that at first. Gone Home might be very intense for some. Players will probably be worried something might jump out and get them, but reinforced through various things they’ll find it’s just a normal house that takes place in the real world. Near the end, the player shouldn’t be tense at all, because that feeling will be replaced by an interest in the characters and story.




What’s next for the Fullbright company?
We need to recharge for now. However, we built a really extensible interactive framework with Gone Home. We have this paradigm for exploring a space, interacting with it in meaningful ways and progressing through it. That seems like it can be extended in potentially a bunch of different ways. Take that—which is a solid foundation—and make one, interesting change that makes it a new experience without throwing out what you already have. But, what is that interesting thing? How do we make it feel like something new and not just Gone Home 2: The House Nextdoor where you’re still walking around a home. We also don’t want to throw everything out and make something like a…space MMO.

We need to find the right balance where we make a new experience that feels legitimate, and is also interesting for us to make and for players to experience. That’s the challenge!




The Fullbright Company recently pulled out of PAX in protest. Has the reaction for the gaming community been positive in your view?
Yeah it definitely has been positive. We’ve received a lot of feedback and support saying it’s nice to see a developer stand by their convictions. We definitely don’t regret it at all, and things are going fine as far as sales and public perception go.

We decided not to go to the show, PAX happened, and then Mike Krahulik said something fucking offensive again. That is why we didn’t go! Clearly there’s this pattern that’s not going to change. That was the real reason; not because what had already happened but because it was clearly still ongoing. I mean, how many times can you do the same thing and apologize for it?

We’re satisfied with our decision, and we’re glad people are still interested in supporting the game even though we didn’t go to PAX. It’s unfortunate that the biggest argument we had against us was “You guys should have been there at PAX representing something good.” We all feel there are other venues for that. Why do we have to go to your house to talk about this stuff to do good in the world? There are so many things that are NOT PAX that are positive.

It’s important to understand that if you don’t agree with the people who run a thing, you have no obligation to support it by being on their terms and show things in their territory. There are positive aspects to showing your stuff at PAX. I’ve seen people Tweet about amazing games they saw at the show. Ones I’d never heard of, but that’s also true of showing your game at IndieCade or IGF. Going to PAX is a really good thing for a lot of people. For fans, developers, but you can also make it if as an Indie if you don’t play by their rules.

I think it’s unfortunate when I see people who are opposed to this, but feel like they HAVE to show at PAX or they’re going to starve. I think that’s really not true, and there are other venues where you can show your stuff. Being online is way more important than being at any physical location.

I hope the feeling that you have no choice but to go to PAX in order to be successful as an Indie, changes.




Between some of the themes in Gone Home and the Fullbright Company’s stance on PAX, there’s seems to be a message of tolerance. Is that Fullbright’s modus operandi? A theme we can expect through future releases?
I hope so, but not because it’s a mission statement. I think one of the most valuable things a piece of entertainment can do is make you feel empathetic towards people. Any piece of writing or fiction that focuses on an individual can help you understand them better. If you understand something better then you do feel more tolerant and empathetic towards them, and if that’s part of the value of Gone Home then I think that’s a really good thing.

The problem we have that’s come out of Penny Arcade…it’s not empathetic, it’s not tolerant towards people. These are people we care about, and it’s important to have an understanding. They’ve got it fucking hard enough already without anything else working against them.

It’s not like we have a bullet point list of what we’re going to do in future games, but that stuff’s important to me at least.




When you really put yourself into a game, that kind of stuff just comes through right to the player, right?
I think so. It’s easier when there’s as little overhead as possible. It’s harder when you’re working on a direct sequel to a huge genre, Triple-A game and want to express something personal. When you have the luxury to make a game that’s built expressly in the service of what we want to get across, you have a much greater ability for the identity of the creator to show through in the product.




That’s a great message to wrap up this interview! Thanks so much for your time Steve, and good luck on your next project.
Thanks man!

Interview: Nate Wells

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"The environment really becomes a mirror to humanity. Humanity has decayed and become infected, so has their world. It’s decayed and it’s now being overrun and reclaimed by nature in the same way their bodies are. It makes a great analog, but it also makes these incredibility beautiful moments that you’re not likely to see".

-Nate Wells on The Last of Us

 

Mark DeSanto: Hi Nate, how’s it going? Anything catch your eye on the E3 showroom floor?
Nate Wells:  Yeah I took a quick look at Destiny, which looks gorgeous, and ironically I actually went to high school—I grew up in Vermont—and went to high school with Chris Barrett who’s the Art Director. So randomly these two Art Directors went to the same high School. I was friends with his brother; he was a little younger than me.

We worked for a very small company that made special education 2D games and I filled his spot as he left to go come out and work for Bungie. Years would pass and I would go through Looking Glass and then Irrational and then eventually end up here at Naughty Dog.



For the unaware, would you mind a brief rundown of your career up to The Last of Us?
Well I started as a level artist, a basic rank and file artist on Thief 1. Looking Glass was sort of an amazing place because it was very…actually it’s very similar to Naughty Dog in that generalism was encouraged in addition to specialization.

So I started there and one of the first things I did was work with Dan Thron, the Art Director, in painting those moving backgrounds for the Thief cutscenes. If you’ll remember then they were 2D…



I’m a huge fan of the Thief series and I’ve always loved the way those particular cutscenes are animated. They’re beautiful.
Yeah, it’s a tremendous amount of work. I was doing background plates for that, and I would support him and those animations. I rolled off that and I was modeling objects, you know like statues and things like that.

From there I got put on levels, and I ended up building three or four levels on Thief 1. So, you know, that was really fun. That was my first experience in the industry, which was like 96 or 97.



That’s a hell of a game to cut your teeth on.
Well at that time Irrational Games and Looking Glass were actually in the same space. Ken had started Irrational Games and rather than go to another space they basically cleared out a large office within Looking Glass, behind a door, and behind that office door was Irrational Games.

I met Ken there, and he approached me to work on System Shock 2. Looking Glass wasn’t entirely excited about it, so they ended up sub-contracting me. So while Irrational made System Shock 2, I was actually not working for them. I was working for Looking Glass as an artist.

So I built the first level, the tenth level…I ended up building like three or four levels as well as concepting all the robot enemies, concepting the crewmen suits—a lot of concepting, a lot of building.Those were the days where you built your own levels, made your own textures, made your own decor and did your own lighting all at one desk.



Now you just have one person making textures for a few years right?
Yeah, yeah. Now you just have one person doing lights, or just modeling characters.

So I also modeled characters. Back in the wild west sort of days—the first days of 3D—it was pretty fast and loose with who did what, who was responsible for what and how things got done.

Let’s see, so that’s System Shock 2 <thinks>…




"It ended up with me leaving [BioShock Infinite] at sort of an inopportune time, but it had just been extended 6 months and so I kind of thought I was on the timeline for when it was supposed to be finished, then I would be making the transition. It turned out to go on for 6 months after that. Which, you know, leaving those guys in the lurch didn’t feel great, and obviously I had built a lot of close relationships. Not the least which was with Ken, who I worked with for 13 years. So it was a big choice."

-Nate Wells on leaving Irrational Games





Thief 2?
Actually, no, at that point I left Looking Glass and was then hired and began as an Irrational employee in ‘99.

We then immediately started a project which got canceled for the PlayStation 2 called The Lost. We were very small back then, maybe 14 people—the whole company. We didn’t have development kits in hand, we only had press releases from Sony and we started developing this game. We found we were way in over our head to some degree. We didn’t understand the console, we were a young studio and this would be our first piece of console development. And then as now, console development—at least through to this generation—is really its own sort of beast, and the PC continues to be probably the easiest way to develop. But we weren’t developing to what they call “to the metal”, or to the architecture of the console. And so we just had to keep cutting and cutting and cutting until there was nothing left in the game.



What exactly was cut?
We were cutting features, total amount of polygons on screen; everything was cutting into our performance. It was a really tough process.



Why not just release The Lost on the PC?
I think there was a strategic choice probably made by us that the console was going to be the future. You know, they were making these powerful console and we wanted in! Our publisher at the time wanted in too. It just didn’t work out. The game ended up getting canceled and there was some bad blood.

The game was eventually—it was a fully playable game at the end—and was sold to an Indian start-up. They were very interested in learning how to make games and they thought this was a great opportunity. Here they had a complete game where they could see how the sausage was made by reverse engineering it. So they got all the code and they ended up recasting the main character Amanda as this apparently hot Bollywood star and it became a game called Agni



Wait, it got published?!
Yeah it got published!



Did you play it?
Noooooo I didn’t play it! <smiles>

I don’t think there’s an English version so you have to listen to the whole thing in Hindi. Or maybe there are subtitles? I don’t remember, but if you try to track it down you can probably find it.

So from The Lost we immediately started work on what we decided was be a spiritual successor to System Shock 2, which was still owned by Electronic Arts. Since we couldn’t do System Shock 3, effectively, we started a prototype—which I built and worked with Ken on—with a short narrative.

It was a super-futuristic world, undersea, with a lot of glass tubes. Ultimately a very sort of Ridley Scott kind of vibe, but in no uncertain terms was a space station underwater.

 

 

"When you go into the President’s office you’ll notice he has an Elephant’s foot umbrella stand. There’s this theme of just raping Africa in it. Like, it has no place in a tactical shooter, but we wanted to do it. We wanted everything to play out like "This place is really horrible!"

- Nate Wells on SWAT 4





…but in the same spirit right?
Right!

We actually wanted to deal with themes of using the environment to change gameplay. So, you could increase or decrease the pressure in certain areas which would have varying effects on different enemies and stuff like that. Or, say, if you lowered the pressure all the water would evaporate and cause fog, and then the sound would change as well. All kinds of things like that.


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I think we hit our first internal gameplay milestone, the Big Daddies—which I designed, they were one of the first I did and they existed very early—and the Little sisters at the time were these slugs that crawled around on the ground. The Splicers were these hybrids, huge very monstrous monsters. So the aesthetic was starting to take shape.

I don’t know when it happened exactly but it was a combination Scott Sinclair, myself and Ken [Levine]—we had this idea that it SHOULD HAVE been beautiful. Otherwise we’re just in an abandoned submarine station, and it wouldn’t have felt right. The materials were changing and it was getting less and less modern. Then something else was happening, it was starting to get stylish, and it was baby steps to that art Deco thing.  Eventually the decision was sort of made that we were going to go whole hog into this thing.

Ken took a trip to Rockefeller Center and snapped all these pictures in that main lobby, which is this absolute Art Deco masterpiece. He came back with a bunch of photos and it became clear that that’s what we were going to do. That changed everything. It changed our approach to architecture, color, how dirty things were or were not. All this stuff came in, you know, Ken started to tap into the political feelings of the 1940s, and then the Ayn Rand stuff came in with Objectivism, which is how things worked at Irrational. We’d start with the seed of the idea, get to a point and Ken would lock into it and then the narrative would take shape and that would affect the art and the two would move forward together.




You were the Art Director on the original BioShock correct?
Yeah, Technical Art Director.



Regarding the art direction and concepts with Bioshock Infinite, I’m curious if you guys knew what you wanted originally, more so than BioShock 1?
To some degree.

We talked in other areas about how we started with a European look, and it was very much a European city. Again the same thing happened, the American Exceptionalism narrative came in and then we basically shifted over.



This might be a touchy subject but I’ve got ask: Some people were shocked when they watched the credits roll on Bioshock Infinite and saw you credited under Additional Art and not as Art Director. You spent 5 years as Art Director on BioShock Infinite and to fans it appears sort of unfair to not credit you for the work.
Look with the credits thing, that’s industry standard and that’s what you do. The last 6 months are really really important. That’s when a lot of things happen, and a lot of decisions get made. To acknowledge a single person as responsible for Infinite and for Columbia is sort of ridiculous, right?

There are things coming from Junior Artist up, things coming from Ken down, and there’s all this interplay between me and Scott Sinclair. Scott was the Lead Environment Artist and then when I left he took over as Art Director. There are so many conversations, concepts, on-the-fly decisions, happy accidents that all help contribute to make that world.

Although the industry really wants to put a face to a creation—and I understand that—you can’t really. It’s in some ways it’s unfair to all the people who contribute so much. I know it’s simpler and easier to be able to point at that person and be like “That person is a fucking genius!”, whoever that may be. Pick your industry stand-out name. It’s easier to do that for the press, it’s easier to do that for the fans. They want their Michael Jordan of games, and the truth is the Michael Jordan of games is made up of 300 people behind him/her. So I understand the need and the facility of hanging creations off of a single person. There’s probably no industry, except maybe for film, where it couldn’t be less true.



Right. Steven Spielberg has a very massive, creative team behind him.
Right! Right! Those are all the “little people” you thank at the Oscars—but they’re not that little. They have a HUGE effect on the course and quality of all of Spielberg’s products. 



I know you’re incredibly proud of both the original BioShock and BioShock Infinite, but if you had to choose one that speaks to who Nate Wells is as an Art Director, which would you choose? I know this is a bit of a Sophie’s Choice
…ugh that’s a tough one. I mean, the architecture of Infinite, the building architecture that’s where my true love lies in this industry and I was able to continue to express that in The Last of Us….<pauses, thinks>

You know I forgot to mention Swat 4 which came between The Lost and BioShock, of which I was Art Director. That actually was one of my prouder games! It was an on-the-nose  tactical police shooter, you know, clearing and flash—banging rooms.

We made a decision very early on in development—lest we be completely bored to death—that we were not going to make the “real world”. We actually inherited that game from Sierra/Vivendi. They sent us a bunch of levels that were incomplete and a narrative that was incomplete. We ended up first trying to adapt, and then we were like “Nah, let’s just start over, it’s easier”

In starting over we wanted to create a world that you hadn’t seen before in a tactical shooter, which is supposed to be on-the-nose reality. You know bank robberies and jewelry store heists—which we ended up doing—BUT the approach we took was that we wanted to show how actually terrible the places that SWAT goes really are. They don’t always get to go into these glamorous places. Sometimes the people aren’t worth saving. There’s an ambiguity to it.

So we conceived the world as an East coast city—but it’s not an East Coast city—it’s an East Coast city through the lens of David Fincher. It’s like Seven. It’s always dark, it’s always rainy and things are always unbelievably grim.

One of the very first missions you go to this Chinese restaurant which is under an overpass, it’s like it’s in Queens. It’s this horrible little restaurant and upstairs is an apartment which is being leased to the person you’re trying to find. You get to the apartment and it’s dirty, there’re clothes and beer bottles everywhere, a game console, and then you go into the bedroom and see that there’s this little child’s playpen. So you know there’s this horrible, dysfunctional, probably abusive family living here. The guy you’re looking for is in there, and depending on your tactic you either arrest or kill him—and that’s it. That’s it! It’s just this ugly, ugly, ugly place to be!

We took that through every area we did. We had one area that was based on Silence of the Lambs where a student was being held in his basement. Even when we did the Diamond store I created all these fake sort of De Beers signs—you know how De Beers executives can’t leave South Africa because they’ll immediately be arrested—I used the other South African name Du Plessis and created all these really cynical posters based on the sort of “Diamonds Are Forever” thing.

When you go into the President’s office you’ll notice he has an Elephant’s foot umbrella stand. There’s this theme of just raping Africa in it. Like, it has no place in a tactical shooter, but we wanted to do it. We wanted everything to play out like “This place is really horrible!”

So yeah it was really fun, and I really like the direction we took with it.



When I began playing BioShock Infinite, after arriving in Columbia and going through the birthing canal, I reached a point where I had to take a second to gather myself before returning to the game. It was odd. I actually had to stop playing the game, and I think it was just due to a sort of sensory overload. I think it was a combination of the gorgeous art direction, the architecture, the music, the dialog, the gaemplay—it was like Irrational perfectly plucked my emotional strings to make me to feel overwhelmed. Is that something you guys set out to do?
Actually I don’t know if I’m…can we transition this conversation? Because I don’t want to this to go out there and be 75% BioShock, because it’s probably going to ruffle feathers over there and, you know, honestly these are questions you should ask Scott Sinclair—not me.

I don’t want to go back and be taking credit for… I’m fine to talk about System Shock 2 and Bioshock 1. With BioShock Infinite there’s a lot in that game that I did do, but there’s a lot I’m not responsible for—a lot of the polish and important parts. So yeah I don’t feel 100% comfortable with that.



That’s fair, and I can respect that. Let’s move on to the transition you made from Irrational Games to Naughty Dog. Were you just ready to move on? I was talking to (Naughty Dog Community Manager) Eric Monacelli and he said he jokingly sent you a private message on Facebook saying “Hey we have a position opening over here at Naughty Dog, are you interested?” and you simply replied “Yes.” Is that what got the ball rolling?
<Laughs> Yeah, well he actually sent me a message saying “Hey we have an opening for an Art Director over here at Naughty Dog, do you know anyone who would be interested?” and my response was “Yeah, me!”

So yes the ball started rolling immediately. It ended up with me leaving [BioShock Infinite] at sort of an inopportune time, but it had just been extended 6 months and so I kind of thought I was on the timeline for when it was supposed to be finished, then I would be making the transition. It turned out to go on for 6 months after that. Which, you know, leaving those guys in the lurch didn’t feel great, and obviously I had built a lot of close relationships. Not the least which was with Ken, who I worked with for 13 years. So it was a big choice.

I didn’t have any plans until…if I was going to leave for another studio it would have to be a place I respected as much as Irrational. I’m not making any judgments about anybody else but my short list was Valve, Naughty Dog, Bethesda and Bungie. Valve’s interview process is SO intimidating that I don’t even know if I would attempt it. I was thinking about all these places I would consider going, and so this falls on my lap and I had to make a decision. I had to ask myself “Are you ready to live in a city you said you would never live in? Move all the way across the country leaving all friends and family behind?” I was weighing it.

What’s interesting is at the Spike 2011 VGA awards I was seated at a table with our Marketing person from Irrational, and the rest were all Naughty Dogs. We were showing our first introduction trailer for BioShock Infinite and they were showing their introduction trailer for The Last of Us.

So I’m sitting there with those guys about to watch this thing and Troy Baker runs over to me and he’s like “Dude you’ve got to watch this! You’ve got to watch this!” and then I realize “Oh he’s playing this guy too!”

So that game was very much in my mind. I was like “Oh wow, I’d really like to work on that.” And sure enough, just a handful of months later <points to Eric Monacelli> this guy reaches out to me. <laughs>




As I was preparing for this interview I listened to an old Game Informer podcast were they sat down with some folks from Irrational Games. You were on it mentioning urban spelunking, and said “One day, I don’t know how, but it’s going to affect my work”. So now, here you are working on The Last of Us. Is this your dream project?
Oh I think it’s very much the dream project.

There’s a book that came out a few years back by a photographer name Robert Polidori called Zones of Exclusion. He went in about 20 years ago to the day into the Chernobyl site and photographed the town of Pripyat and Chernobyl. It was an inspiration during Bioshock 1, and when I came over to Naughty Dog there were 3 copies! Don’t try to get it because it’s like $400 because it’s out of print. This photographer also did Detroit and a smattering of other abandoned urban spaces. There’re also a bunch of great photographers on line too.

Those are all huge resources for us with The Last of Us, especially for lighting and the degree of decay and overgrowth. All those things. When you play the game you’ll notice those themes keep coming up.

The environment really becomes a mirror to humanity. Humanity has decayed and become infected, so has their world. It’s decayed and it’s now being overrun and reclaimed by nature in the same way their bodies are. It makes a great analog, but it also makes these incredibility beautiful moments that you’re not likely to see. To go into a beautiful hotel and see the ceiling caved in and now vines are reaching through the skylight, or to be in a space where the ceilings collapsed, seeds have fallen through and a tree has had 20 years to grow all inside a store. Those are the sort of things and the sorts of moments you want, and it’s the juxtaposition that’s so fun.

Also, with the exception of a handful of levels, the utter dependence on natural light is incredibly challenging. As soon as you go indoors— if there are no windows around—you’re in pure blackness. So you’re always thinking and making decisions based on lights, and based on how that light is going to feel.

Bruce (Straley), in his pre-production work, did a lot with ‘What is the shape of the light?  If light comes in at strange angles, what kind of emotion does that generate? Does it make you feel uneasy? If the colors have a pretty balance does it allow you to relax some?’

Also what about tonal variations? All that was thought out for each scene so the approach to lighting and it’s color palette were balanced with the emotional content of each level.



You started working at Naughty Dog in October of 2012?
Yeah I worked on the game for 10 months, which is an amazing time to jump in. It was pre-alpha at the time, so some levels looked pretty good and some were strictly built out of grey boxes where buildings would be, cover would be or where a fallen pipe would be, but it was literally built out of untextured grey polygons. That’s how you build. You build that level first and that gives you an idea of size, pacing and where combat will occur, and where it won’t.

And that’s true of every game. The last year is when things really happen because you’ve got to make these decisions. You’ve got a ship date and you can’t waffle anymore. You have to decide what that white block is going to be and how it’s going to be beautiful, how it’s going to work with design and all those things. It’s the best time to come on because you see hard decisions, final decisions being made every day. This is the same process everywhere you go. Sometimes you have to get almost to the very end, almost to the point of shipping quality before you can say “Well this is not working. We have to rework this moment.”

Actually one of my first tasks I was put on was directing The Outskirts demo, and that level was waaaay out [from completion]. There were a lot of bare bones. One of the things I wanted to achieve there was to get this overgrowth that goes halfway up a skyscraper—and you’ll see it in there—and that’s very challenging to do technically.

Game consoles don’t like to render tons and tons of leaves. They hate it! It’s what they hate the most. So there was this technical challenge. There was also a very specific look I worked on with the concept artist, and we eventually hit it. The inside of the building didn’t have character so we went in there to give it character, you know, a place in Boston. But that demo had to get to shipping-quality months and months earlier because it had to be done and playable, so it was on a super-crunchy timeline. But we did it. We pulled it off.

The rest of the game I jumped around quite a bit. I took about half of the levels and directed those and worked directly with the people on them.

Also I directed the concept and the execution of the title screen, with the window. I’d done this quick concept almost my second day at work, I was like “Neil here’s what I think the title screen should look like: No music, just the wind blowing, plants coming in and just the curtains going. I think it’s so “our world!”, and he was like <gruff voice> “Weeeell we’ll think about it.”

He comes back maybe with a month to ship and he’s like, “Do you still have that concept with the window? We’re doing that.” So we had to rush, rush, rush to get it done. It was actually far more difficult than I thought it was going to be.  We had this concept, Bruce was in love with it and hitting that in-engine took all these people working all this time to completely match it.

In the end I love it because it’s one of the most understated title screens ever.

 


So you really hit the ground running! I mean, you arrived and there was just a plethora of stuff to do?
Yeah, well…yeah. But you know, it’s really hard when a well-established company hires you for a senior position.



Because you’re the new boss, right?
No…well in some cases, but it’s like “What’re we going to have him do? Where does he fit in?” So it took a couple months to sort of juggle that around and then I settled into the space where I was doing the most good. But yeah I jumped around quite a bit.


So considering your love and interests in abandoned urban spaces, the transition to Naughty Dog and working on The Last of Us; it sounds like you’re exactly where you want to be?
Yeah, it’s right where I wanted to be. In fact I wish I could’ve been here earlier, but I got to put in a lot of good work in, I think.

But you need that time to form relationships with your artists so you understand their strengths and weaknesses. Are they fast or slow? Are they better at natural terrain or hard surfaces? Everybody has sort of a special skill set and different levels of technical proficiencies. It’s all over the board so you really need to know the individual Level Builder, individual Texture Artist, and individual Lighting Artist to understand their work before you can effectively direct them. So it should’ve taken me a couple months to settle in because I had to learn those things.

At times it was frustrating because I know the industry. There’re so many shocking differences to Irrational and so many shocking similarities. I’ve been in this industry for 15 years and the technology has changed significantly, the industry has changed, the amount the industry rakes in each year has changed significantly, but what hasn’t changed are the relationships.

I had conversations on The Last of Us that I had on Thief 1 fifteen years ago. It’s still human beings making these games. You know, it’s the classic struggle: Design wants you to do this and be fairly conservative, Art wants to be very liberal and get in as much art as they can, and then programming has to say “Neither of you can actually get what you want.” I’m joking but that’s sort of the dynamic. It doesn’t matter where you go or what studio you go to. You’ll see the same sort of dynamics develop. But, there are marked differences as well.

I think one of the incredible things about the Naughty Dog ethos is this idea of checking in [game content] and asking questions later. So if you want to try something, put it in the game and we’ll see if it works! What we won’t do is have meetings and meetings and meetings about whether we think it’ll work or not.

 


Because it’s a waste of time, right?
Right, and it’s very grass roots. An individual designer who may be brand new with an idea can take it to Bruce and he’ll say “Lets try it!” That philosophy is incredible and very different from what I’m used to which is a lot of pre-planning and a little more trepidation about just trying something and seeing if it works. That is mirrored by the technology that is at Naughty Dog, which is very interesting and very scary to when you first join.

So if you’re working at your desk checking out a piece of the game, you can make changes to it. But to see those changes you have to build the game, which essentially is to recompile the code. When you do that it, it changes for everybody. There’s one game and it’s constantly being worked on, and all changes are seen by all people. If you fuck up, everyone knows it immediately. When they run it on their development kit they see your change, so there’s this sense of “The Game” and it’s changing every day.

Try something crazy, then build it. Hey let’s try it. Does it work?  I don’t know. If it doesn’t work we can either roll it back to a previous version or change it again.

There’s this constantly evolving product, and it’s that exact thing that makes it to disk eventually. It’s where the bugs are fixed. It’s almost this “stone soup” where everybody is contributing and it’s all going to this central thing where everyone can see its evolution in real time. Everything from interface, to the way enemies behave to how many bullets you have. You’re seeing those changes as Design is trying new things.

So, you can hop on your scooter— the office is huge—and scoot over to the designer and be like “Here’s how I feel about what you did.”  I’m an artist, but everyone is encouraged to chime in and contribute even outside of their own discipline. That’s never discouraged. There’s still the final word by the Creative Director and the Game Director, but by and large it’s incredibly democratic.

The other thing is, in the twilight hours of finishing The Last of Us there were a bunch of tiny things that needed to be done. One of them was the pop-up training screens. You know, with graphics and text to explain to you how to use a new object or tactic. You read it quickly, they’re very short and you click through and now you know how to use a Molotov Cocktail, or whatever. The last week before we went gold I was doing the text on those training screens and—Game Director, Bruce—he was actually going in and hand-arranging all the text on the training screens.

I have never seen that! I have never even heard of a Game Director doing that! That’s like…an intern task. That would be an Art Intern thing, that’s what you give them…



But it’s such a prominent thing to the player, it smacks us in the face.
Right! And it’s important it be right, and he wanted it to be pretty and clearly communicated. And he’s the director of the entire game! But because he’s a former artist and a former developer, he knows when it gets down to the wire he just has to grab a mop and start mopping. If you got time to lean you got time to clean!

That spirit, that willingness to not have an ego, not to take that work and delegate that to someone else—because there is no one else, everyone else is too busy—to just take that work, that spirit of…I don’t know if you want to call Esprit de Corps, or leading from the front? It’s really the defining feature for me of Naughty Dog.



Let’s talk about hitting a technical wall with current gen consoles. Earlier you said sometimes the programmers have to step in and bring everyone back down to Earth in terms of expectations. Concessions are made by all. As an artist I imagine you want to see your work appear in a video game at its highest fidelity. The PlayStation 4 is on the horizon and developers are now transitioning from 512MB RAM to 8GBs of RAM. As an Art Lead, what are the benefits? Are you excited? Is it intimidating?
It can be.

Here’s the one problem—I’m not a gear-head about computer architecture. So in a lot of way I depend on our highly technical artists like Teagan Morrison and Tate Mosesian— and others too—to really come back and say “Hey here’s what we’re going to gain and here’s what we’re going to lose.” There’s always a tradeoff with all kinds of new technology for dealing with getting better texture quality and getting better graphical fidelity, all these different things. In some ways I’m just learning from them as they’re learning and investigating.

Remember we haven’t really had a chance to get into the guts on the new console. That’s what we’re going now. Your most technical people will dig deeply into performance and learn what we can do as far as texture, polygons, transparency, foliage, and then they’ll come back to us with guidelines.

My focus is definitely more on visual composition and narrative composition of the art. You always have to have at least a working technical suaveness to make that all work effectively.



What’s impressed you most with the Naughty Dog art team?
I think the skill level is absolutely unbelievable, the commitment is unbelievable, and the technical suaveness of the team is really amazing. It’s just really a remarkable, very self-driven group of people.

I’m use to—from an Art Direction standpoint—being a baby carrier in front of you when you’re an artist and trying to direct thing down to the tiniest detail. I’ve had to step back from that a bit, but it’s amazing when you can step back and see people doing brilliant things and you can give a long-arc guidance. These people are incredibly driven and proficient at what they do, and they take what they do very seriously. It’s still a really fun place and they’re a fun group of people. I’m impressed everyday by someone doing something, and just sort of being blown away by it.

 


Did you have any assumptions of the Naughty Dog art team before joining?
What sort of struck me about Naughty Dog is the arrangement of the company. Irrational has a lot of artists who are very good generalists, and Naughty Dog is a studio with a lot of specialists with a lot of technical knowledge. They also have generalist inclinations but the Lighters, the Texture Artist, the Level Builders, the Level Designers, the Animators, the Character Modelers—they’re all separate.

You’re going to see this in The Last of Us. They’re able to drill down into their specialty, but then also be able to constantly move around to other people’s desk constantly communicating their needs. Everyone is in the loop. All decisions made in isolation are going to have an effect on someone else. It’s a combination of that technical proficiency in a very specialized field and the ability to communicate that to other team members in other disciplines.

That’s probably, l would say, what I learned is the requirement to be a Naughty Dog.



As an Art Lead, when you look out at the industry or even here at E3, what’s impressed you? Is there any Art Direction out there that’s amazed you?
<thinks> It’s been a lot to take in these last couple days…

 

Some of the big ones are TitanFall, The Witcher 3…
I’ve not had a chance to see either of those. Like I said I think Destiny looks reaaally pretty. I’m really excited about that!

I’d like to see some of the things that are happening on the art front on some of the smaller games, like Transistor. I think it has a beautiful style. They took what they did with Bastion and really extended it into this very new, beautiful space. The game Contrast has a really interesting aesthetic. On the more realistic side—Battlefield 4.



Wow really?
Oh yeah, I’m a HUUUUGE fan! I’ve been playing Battlefield multiplayer since 1942 and I’m a diehard, diehard player, so of course I’m really excited for that.

Also the PS4 game called Rain. It’s this interesting, dark sort of puzzle game about an invisible boy who can only be seen when he steps out from an overhang into the rain, so it becomes this mechanic, it’s very interesting.

You know, with the biggest games you know what you’re going to get. You’re getting more, you’re getting it bigger and you’re getting it louder, brighter and flashier—which is great! That’s a lot of what people want out there and I think that’s fantastic, so it’s actually kind of weird to be on the floor this year with our very quiet, book of a game. It’s more quietly told. It’s more quietly shown, but I don’t think you can deny its emotional impact.

I’ll be at a store opening at 11PM tonight to sign copies, so it’ll be great to actually see the game into the hands of fans.



Nate, thanks so much for sitting down with me. It was a pleasure to finally meet you!
Thanks Mark, it was nice meeting you too.



Interview: Max Schaefer

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I would imagine the next iteration in the Torchlight universe would involve a twist, and I don’t know what that would be just yet. Our team have made the Diablos, Mythos, we’ve now worked on the Torchlights and they’ve all been action RPGs. We’re eager to break that mold a little bit.”




Mark: Hi Max! Let’s start with the launch of Torchlight 2: The game has been out for four days. What’s the general mood in the office right now?

Max: Has it only been four days? Seems like it’s been an eternity and yet it seems like it was yesterday!

The mood is very good, however we got some obsessive compulsive lead engineers who can’t accept that someone’s having trouble. They haven’t slept in four days making fix after fix for people. So yeah, people are pretty tired but the mood is very good. Reviews are coming in and they’ve been super-nice, and people in the forum are just being super-cool; so yeah, the mood is definitely very good.



What about when the game unlocked on Steam? Were you on a conference call with Valve when they pushed the big red release button?
Oh we were all huddled around computers checking out how things looked for sure, but we kind of had been doing that already since we were being pre-sold on Steam. So we were camped out on there to see how those numbers were looking. Seeing people begin to show up in games was really exciting and fun! Then things started to break…as expected. We immediately went into fix-stuff mode—our website still isn’t completely back up!

Never-the-less it was still really exciting because the vast majority of people were getting in without any problems and having a good time. The reactions from those people were great.

Oh and yes the Valve guys came over with a great big box full of booze, and that was pretty fun [laughs]! We just all hung out and drank some champagne for a little while and then we went right back into fixing stuff. It started out as a day of celebration and then ebbed back into a work day—it was really weird.



When you say you were able to see the numbers, I’m curious if you were using Valve’s tools?
We were using Valve’s tools and our own dashboard as well. We were able to see the number of people who’re using our lobby service and then the number of concurrent users on Steam’s public page (and on there you can see how many people are playing).




"We wouldn’t be able to do a $20 game of this size while running servers and trying to maintain a secure economy. It just doesn’t happen, and so that’s why you have $60 boxes for things like that."




When I interviewed you at E3 in June you said Torchlight 2 pre-sales on steam shot up 40% when Diablo 3 released, and continued to stay up. How many pre-orders did Runic end up selling before launch?
Oh gosh [thinks]. We haven’t even gone back and totaled the numbers yet but it was probably 20 times more than what we had for the original Torchlight.



Did you guys break 500,000 units?
Not in pre-sales no, and that’s just on Steam. We would need to go back and look at the smaller sites there too. But it was really good, and we’re obviously not a very large company so seeing numbers like that are pretty cool.



Regarding the launch of Torchlight 2 you also said “with any luck we’ll have our own version of [Diablo 3’s] error 37”. Did you get your wish?
[Laughs] we did! There’s no way to simulate 50,000, 80,000 or whatever concurrent amount of people made things go wrong with our website, our lobby and with our account servers. It wasn’t a complete mystery that required rocket science to solve but just stuff we had to grind out to fix. I don’t think we had anything as pervasive as [Diablo 3’s] infamous error 37, but anytime there’s a situation where someone can’t get into their game it’s a crisis to them; so we just jumped on the issues one-by-one as fast as we could. I’d say we had several pop up but most were minor issues that kept people from playing with their friends. There have been some rare cases where an old graphics card was to blame. You just have to roll through those one at a time and fix them. There’re so many weird configurations out there you can’t be totally prepared. We’re not resting until the traffic in the support forum goes down though. We knew it was going to happen and it did!



Runic supported the heck out of Torchlight. I’m curious how long you guys plan to support Torchlight 2 in terms of additional content and patches?
I know that the guys have a bunch of mods they just can’t wait to dump onto people but we don’t have any plans to do any paid DLC. We’re just doing free stuff. We’ll probably sit down after a while and evaluate if we should put a bunch of people together and make a proper expansion pack and not trickle out stuff. We would have to sit down and see if it’s something that’s big enough and adds enough to be considered a proper expansion pack we could sell.

But yeah, that’s something we need to talk about still. At the moment we just want to keep improving what we have and hope that more and more people continue to buy Torchlight 2.



How do you feel about the critical reception of the game?
It’s great! The numbers are wonderful, especially the users scores on things like Metacritic. They’re just fun to read. Obviously not everyone likes everything about the game and those are things that aren’t easy to read, but by and large they’ve been very fair reviews.



Do you think we’ll see the Mac version in 2012?
I would imagine it would be pretty close to 2012 but we’re not committing to anything at this point. It kind of depends on how everything else goes. We’re going to focus on getting the language translations done first, at least the major ones. Then we’ll start into the Mac port and until we’re well into the Mac port we can’t give any kind of release date, but I imagine it would be close to then. Two to four months - we’ll see.



What single feature are you particularly proud of in Torchlight 2?
I think it’s the diversity in the level of content. There are so many cool levels, dungeons, surprises, secrets rooms and just a bunch of little things here and there.  I look back on it and realize how many moving parts had to come together. It’s pretty cool we were able to do this with such a small team in a short amount of time.



There appears to be quite a few Easter eggs in the game. Some reference other video games, movies and even developers. Are there any you can mention that might be your favorite?
There are a couple that are now on YouTube and have been revealed so I’m not talking about anything that isn’t publicly available, but there’s a little Minecraft creeper level called Notch’s Mine. You go in there and fight some creepers which is pretty cool. There’s a robot in there called Claptrap from Borderlands. We’re releasing the same week as them so we might as well have a little shout out. There are some more in there that I cannot talk about but there’s, you know, an homage to The Goonies in one of the quests. There’s a lot sprinkled about in there.



How did that call to Gearbox go when you cleared the Borderlands reference?
Well, we wanted to make sure it was the proper Claptrap [design] and they were very very cool about it, as was Notch regarding the Minecraft stuff. It’s just fun to see that stuff happen.



Is there anything in particular you wish could have made it into the game before launch?
Well you know you’re never really done with a game. You just have to kind of decide it’s time to start selling it. I think we actually picked a good time when we said “Ok this is enough!” I think maybe a tiny more attention to get PvP arenas, but then again that’s kind of off the core mission of the game.

The thing is I think as far as the core mission of the game—we hit it! In an ideal world [a developer] could just polish and polish and polish until it’s exactly perfect—but obviously you’ll never get there—but I think the level of stuff is just right.



Player vs Player is still coming to Torchlight 2 correct?
Yea I’m sure. I don’t know in what form though.



Ok so there is no ETA on PvP?
It’s definitely something we want to get out there, but even if we didn’t someone else would probably mod it in there fairly quickly.



What took up most of the development time from beta to release?
Really what took the most time was going back and making sure each boss fight was unique, using the right combination of skills, summoning the right minions and making sure it all felt right. Also going through each area and making sure a variety of creatures were spawning and everything included as intended. That really took a long time.

There’s a lot of work that goes in there to make sure it looks and plays correctly. That was really the bulk of the time. It isn’t anything mysterious, just a lot of elbow grease. It was a lot of hours and hours and hours of playing.



Regarding the mod tools, how powerful will they be for Torchlight 2? For instance can someone create a whole new class?
Yes. I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy to do but we’re basically releasing the same tools we used to develop the game. We’re not dumbing them down at all, but we’re also not making them consumer friendly at all either—at least not very much. So yes they’re extremely powerful. You’ll be able to make new classes, new skills, change the balance overall or specifically; new scripted events, new layouts, new quests and backgrounds. This time—unlike Torchlight 1— the mod tools have access to the User Interface (UI) and those should be extremely easy to make. I’m actually really excited to see what people do with it regarding that because everyone has a different idea ideal of what a UI should look like. Oh and doing some of the wardrobe things is easier now too if you want different armors or want to work on the item level.

The mod tools touch almost everything. It’s really really powerful!



Will controller support ever come to Torchlight 2?
[Thinks] I don’t know. That’s potentially something someone could mod, but it’s something that took so much work to get it to work with Torchlight 1 (regarding the XBLA release). It really took a lot of time re-imagining and repainting the interface and to go through Torchlight 2 again to do that; it would take months. At this point I’m not sure it’s worth our time versus doing other productive things. So, again I don’t think so but I also wouldn’t rule it out 100%.



How does a console release look for Torchlight 2?
It would take a lot more re-sampling of art work and remaking areas that we didn’t have to do it Torchlight 1, so it would be substantially more work to port [Torchlight 2]. Not to mention the multiplayer stuff. Again I think it would be a really cool thing to do, I mean Torchlight 1 was really fun and cool but we’re not sure there’s a business case there with Xbox Live Arcade. We’re going to let the dust settle after the Mac port is done, make sure our translation are out, kinda see what people want us to do next. Also see what’s going to drive us creatively too. Right now we’re so immersed in the release and sleep deprived we’re not making any rational decisions in regards to long term future stuff [laughs].



I have to say I think a Game of The Year edition of Torchlight 2 with every bit of additional content compiled into one package would make an excellent launch day title for the next Xbox and PlayStation. Does that sound like a possibility?
[Laughs] I’m not going to argue that, that would be pretty cool!




"I think people are panicking because they’re thinking about Diablo 3 and what it might be like if you could cheat—and yeah it would be chaos—but that’s only in the context of having a competitive economy."





I’ve finally been able to sink my teeth into the multiplayer portion of Torchlight 2, and though I love the game I think there could be some improvements made to the lobby system and browser. For instance, there is no ping indicator for each server and it would be nice to be able to join a game directly from the friends list. Is that stuff already in the works?
Yeah, everything is on the table and fortunately we have a game that can be easily patched and modified everything is always up for discussion. The lobby was something that we first wanted to make sure was stable and worked well and not try to get something out that was too complicated and frustrating. It’s absolutely something we will look at and will add features to as time goes on.



Torchlight 2 has an overworld where as the original did not. What lessons did the team learn from shifting to this new kind of design paradigm?
I think we learned a lot about how to create a space. You know Torchlight 1 was such a rush [in development] that we were just getting used to the tools and the technology. We didn’t really have time to redo places, reiterate a ton or learn from what we were doing. we were basically trying to get things up and running, get some dungeons made, get some weapons made and then fill it full of monsters.

This time I think we learned how to create a more coherent world. Right off the bat we realized when a player start the game and runs up the path towards Estherian Enclave, though it’s a really small area on a path, just  being outside makes the world 100 times bigger! You realize that right off the bat even though you’ve seen very little and been hardly anywhere. I think there are lessons there where you don’t necessarily have to make a ton of stuff to make the world feel bigger. I think we learned a lot about creating a vast, interesting, multiplayer space and we’ll take that forward to whatever we do in the future.



Right now when a player starts a New Game +, the difficulty cannot be changed. Do you think that option could ever change?
Is that right? I know if you start a single-player game it doesn’t ask you, however if you’re in New Game + [mode] couldn’t you join someone else’s New Game + who’s playing a different difficulty level?



You know what? That’s a good question. I don’t know.
That’s initially what came to mind for me, but I don’t know for sure so I’ll look into that. Multiplayer may be the only way you can do it. That’s a good question!



Why the decision to go with open multiplayer as opposed to server-side character storage? Was it mostly for financial reasons?
Well no there are actually quite a few reasons. There are downsides to doing an open-multiplayer service, so we’re not going to say those people who oppose it are always wrong. However what we get out of having an open-multiplayer service is so much more than what we lose by it; so for us it was a fairly easy decision.

There are many reasons why, and yes one of those is financial. We wouldn’t be able to do a $20 game of this size while running servers and trying to maintain a secure economy. It just doesn’t happen, and so that’s why you have $60 boxes for things like that. Plus ongoing fees for things like auction houses, subscriptions or item sells. It changes the whole financial proposition of the game. You have to go either all the way or there’s no point in going down that road at all. For example if you’re going to support character storage it wouldn’t stop people from cheating at all. You actually have to have a fully controlled client/server game where you’re hosting secure server banks and maintaining a secure economy that people are constantly trying to break. That’s an all-encompassing mission. You’re one duplication bug away from your entire economy being screwed. Hosting a secure economy instills this sort of expectation in people who’re putting their time into playing your game that things are a safe, and will have a real work value or whatever; and so when that is violated by an exploit or whatever—it’s a code red disaster! So there’s no point in going down that road.


You either go 100% secure—which means online only—or you may as well go the other way and let people have an open system with the tools and let them take advantage of the system with the modding and some of the things people are going to see coming down the road.

Now I think people are panicking because they’re thinking about Diablo 3 and what it might be like if you could cheat—and yeah it would be chaos—but that’s only in the context of having a competitive economy. If you don’t have that, then you have no incentive to cheat. We have 4 to 6 player games that are meant to be played with friends and there’s just not a whole lot a cheater or griefer can do to ruin your experience. You can block any individual player or account. So I think it’s kind of based on players’ expectations and experiences going into it. I mean, no one complains too much about Borderlands being a peer-to-peer game and we’re pretty much the same model.

So you know, it’s a complex question with pluses and minuses on each side. Since we’re a smaller company with a smaller budget, we want this reputation of making great games at $20 instead of $60. So yeah, it was a pretty easy decision for us.



Do you think perhaps we could get the ability to never connect to someone in a multiplayer game who has made modifications to the game, be it via console of mods?
You can certainly make games that support no mods. In fact you kind of actually have to synchronize your mods with whomever you’re playing with, so some of it will actually work itself out.

Now you point out you can make items spawn from pulling down the console. Sure, and then someone else can pick it up, join another game and then give it to someone else. There’s no way to stop people for joining with overpowered items and making their own items. What I think is going to emerge is people are going to have their own groups of people they play with. People who are known to not cheat. It seems to kind of be emerging that way in the game itself. I honestly haven’t seen a lot of people cheating. It’s just really is unrewarding. There isn’t a whole lot to gain by it. We don’t have ladders or anything like that. It’s when you introduce those things people want to cheat; so I think what we are considering is perhaps down the road is maybe allow people to set up private servers of their own. It still won’t be completely cheat free but you could certainly gate who has access. That’s down the road but we are talking about it. To create a really secure environment where you can be guaranteed no one is going to duplicate an item or spawn the best items in the game is almost impossible for us.



Why are players not given access to fully respecify their talents and skills?
[Laughs] That’s one of those religious arguments! You either like to respec or you don’t.
The reason we did this is basically because it makes the character you’ve played totally yours, instead of being this clay thing that can be molded for any given situation. You actually build a character and it means something. I understand wanting to respec your character to try out new things, but it’s really at the expense of individuality. We’re really not designing our game for that level of min/max, where you have to have things charted out in Excel in order to get to the parts of the game that’re fun. We just wanted to make a game where it’s fun to try out crazy, different builds that sometimes end up contrary. Like, so far from min/max you’re almost forced to come up with a clever build someone else has never thought of before. Just, you know, have fun with replayability that way.

As soon as you allow full respec it kind of kills the fun of making cool new builds because anyone can be any build at any moment.



I know Torchlight 2’s only been out for 4 days but I’m curious if there’s already been feedback from the fans regarding the kind of additional content they would like to see?
Not really. I think people are still digesting the game, and frankly we’re spending most of our time assisting people who’re having connection problems.



Was a proper crafting system ever considered for the game?
Not really. There’s a transmuter in the game—which is a primitive crafting system—but it’s not really robust, and that shows up later in the game.



When we spoke at E3 a few months ago you said “When I was working at Blizzard a million years ago we were working on Diablo 3 and it was an MMO. We were going to do the Diablo version of World of Warcraft.” Can you go into any detail about the design goals the team had?
Well it was never going to be just World of Warcraft with a Diablo skin. We were always top-down, click on the ground to move and so we stayed with the Diablo control scheme. It was really too early for us to get a whole lot into it. We had levels and would run around killing monsters, but we hadn’t started making of the game proper yet. When we left Blizzard we were still working on the engine and the tech. We never really worked with big design specifications. We kind of had a basic framework of what we wanted and iterated as we went. We kind of were just in the phase of making combat feel good and from there we wanted to make the game world what it wanted to be. We wanted to do an MMO, a shared world. As I recall—and this was a million years ago—we didn’t have a whole lot of instancing in the plans. It was going to be a true, big MMO world but with Diablo sensibilities and controls.

"That’s kind of part of the deal with Torchlight. It was really really fun making Torchlight 2 so I suspect we’ll never get too far from that but we definitely want to put a twist on it for the next thing."




Do you know if Blizzard’s plan was to also charge a monthly fee for this version of Diablo 3?
This was a different time. Before item sales and the like, and I think people were still in the subscription infatuation at the time. So as I recall, our goal was to do a subscription game.



Were there new classes in the old Diablo 3 or did you incorporate the classes from Diablo 2?
We went all new. We were actually a 2D sprite-based game with Diablo 2, and so with our Diablo 3 we were going with our first 3D engine. Since we had to make everything completely from scratch we decided to go with new stuff all around.



Do you remember any of the new classes?
I don’t remember them, no.



Will Runic make a Torchlight 3?
Yes. However I don’t know if it will expressly be a Torchlight game but with more, in the sense that Torchlight 2 was the same as Torchlight 1 but with more. I would imagine the next iteration in the Torchlight universe would involve a twist, and I don’t know what that would be just yet. Our team have made the Diablos, Mythos, now we’ve worked on the Torchlights and they’ve all been action RPGs. We’re eager to break that mold a little bit.



So a move to a completely different genre?
Nah, I’d just say a related genre. We’re not going to do a puzzle game or anything.



What do you think it is about the isometric ARPG that Runic connects with so well?
I think it might just be our one good idea in the world [laughs]. It’s our sole marketable skill and if we weren’t doing this we would probably working at Home Depot or something. I think it’s just something we had a lot of early success with in Diablo 1 and it just sort of stuck with us. We kind of have a head start on everyone else in making them. Travis [Baldree] our president and lead programmer made Fate. He’s got a lot of experience and has had success with this genre. Starting a new company it seemed like the obvious and most responsible thing for us was to stick to what’s in our wheelhouse make something we know we can do really well. Something that would allow us to build a foundation beneath us before branching out and taking some risks. That’s kind of part of the deal with Torchlight. It was really really fun making Torchlight 2 so I suspect we’ll never get too far from that but we definitely want to put a twist on it for the next thing.



Do you think there’s a chance you could go Sci-Fi at some point?
No idea! Someone has to do a really good action RPG that’s like this control scheme. I know Borderlands is more of a first-person shooter, so I’d like to see something that’s Sci-Fi but also point and click. Whether that’s us or not, I don’t know!



Well maybe you can make that lovely game you were talking about when we spoke at E3. You said “I would want to bring in a little bit of Torchlight, a bit of Minecraft, a little more resource-based play; and then little more cooperative
stuff to bend the genres. Get you to do more than just resources or just loot.” That sounds FANTASTIC!
Still totally want to do that—absolutely.


Thanks for your time Max!
Thanks Mark!

Interview: Rafael Colantonio, Co-Creative Director on Dishonored

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Photo Source
Note: Bethesda Softworks released two Dishonored gameplay video, and I highly recommend you watch them. They can be found here and here.



Harvey Smith smiles and points to a Bethesda employee playing Dishonored in the other room. “Though he’s played this section 17 times today, he still sometimes dies!”  While amusing, it speaks to the AIs unpredictability and the challenge we can expect from this game.

It’s with a mix of enthusiasm and chagrin I admit the game was difficult to play. I died a lot. Boy, did I! However I’m smiling right along with Harvey Smith because the Dishonored experience never left me frustrated. I was consistently having a blast trying to figure it all out. Gameplay has been well-honed to provide a fairly ridged challenge while remaining exciting and fun. I left the interview finding comfort in knowing you simply cannot purchase the game, fire it up and run in with gun’s blazing. It won’t let you do that. You’re going to have to learn to speak Dishonored’s language…or at least learn to sneak around it.

After playing the game I sat down with Rafael Colantonio to talk about many things including: Support for non-lethal gameplay, Analog AI, Viktor Antonov, multiple endings, the benefits of layered systems, limb targeting, Neo-Victorian Steampunk, possessing a fish and of course…sliding under tables.



"…if you’re running away from someone down a corridor and you manage to slide under a table, you’ll disappear in the eyes of the guard. We have a system in place where he might keep going past you, and you can go up behind him and kill him, or run away. It’s pretty fun!"





Mark: Hi Raf! How are you?
Rafael: I’m doing good thanks. How are things?



I’m doing really well now that I’ve finally had a chance to play Dishonored. I’m just going to come out and say this now: Dishonored just might be my favorite game of E3, and there’s still one day left! Though I’m really impressed with what I saw, I do have a lot of questions for you.
Oh wow, thank you! I’m so excited to hear that.



For the unaware, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m the Co-Creative Director with Harvey Smith [Deus Ex, KarmaStar] on Dishonored, and this is a game about being a supernatural assassin in a Steampunk city. That’s the short summary of it.



You’ve got to confirm something for me. Can you really play through the entire game—from beginning to end—without killing someone?
This is true! It started out mostly as a little private joke amongst the team. I mean, you’re playing an assassin right? So we thought hey let’s support non-lethal play. It’s a paradox and kind of funny if you think about it! We noticed some people were interested in this so we went with it. So yes, it is possible—but it’s hard, really hard. There are also some Achievements for it as well and requires some dedication too but it is possible.



When and how did Viktor Antonov [Art Director, Half-Life 2] get involved with the game?
Well we met Viktor back in the days when we were working with the Source engine for Dark Messiah. He helped us a little bit with the visuals since he worked for Valve and the engine was proprietary to them. We continued working with him, and just got to know him. Then he wanted to go back to France. Fortunately he wanted to do some of the same games we did too, so he worked with us on The Crossing (which unfortunately never did ship) but that’s how it all happened.



It seems to me designing the controls for a game like Dishonored would be incredibly difficult. On one hand you want to make the game accessible to those who are new to the genre and interested in the game.  On the other hand you have the core audience who’ve been playing these types of games for a very long time, and you certainly don’t want them to feel like they’re making unnecessary concessions. How on Earth are you guys approaching this?
Oh that’s a very very smart and insightful question, and it lies at the heart of our challenge really. The game has a lot of depth and it’s very hardcore by nature, but at the same time we don’t want it to be inaccessible. So we’re constantly putting a lot of effort into making sure the mechanics [are playable] for anyone, without losing the depth this type of game needs. You know, depth and accessibility are not enemies. It is possible to make games that have depth and are accessible. What you don’t want is complexity. So there’s a lot of effort on our part to make the right tutorial and expose the right options to the player at all times.

So yes, to answer the question, it’s a very difficult challenge and we don’t believe we’re betraying the hardcore while bringing it to the masses.



"It started as almost a private little joke amongst the team. You’re playing an assassin right? So hey, let’s support non-lethal play! It’s a paradox and kind of funny if you think about it."






Let’s talk about the sound engine in Dishonored. I heard someone mention there’s a dynamic system in place. Can you clarify for us?
Yes there is a dynamic system in place, but there is also a blend of tagged areas with their own ambient sounds too. The dynamic stuff is contextual, and the most obvious example I can give is when you enter combat and the music changes. However we have stuff in there for the AI too. For instance when they’re searching for you, the music will quickly pick up and get more intense.

Also when you’re at a distance and you’ve been detected, we give you a short sort of violin stinger or piano string to give you a little bit of warning. It works really well to build tension too.



Is that particular instrumental sound effect in place to let you know you’re at risk of being detected, or is it there to let you know you’ve already been detected?
Well technically you’ve been detected by the systems either way, but we give the player a few seconds to recover. There’s a threshold, a little bit of a delay there between the perception and the reaction.



Can you elaborate on the 3D Audio Propagation system for us?
Well the first time we heard it was with the first Thief game. As a player I was blown away by it! I had a 4-speaker setup and I was playing in the dark—I think this was back in 1997—and I thought to myself “Wow, every game should do this!” You know what? Even today most games don’t do this, and there’s a reason for it too. It’s requires a lot of work and a lot of tagging by the sound engineer but it adds so much to the feeling of emersion for the player. Just having the ability to locate the [enemies] around you; being able to hear their footsteps behind doors or in other rooms is really awesome. So that’s what we’ve done! The sound travels through the spaces. It’ll get muffled if you’re behind a door, and I think it also helps you become more aware of the environment in general.



Tell us about the “Analog AI” system in Dishonored.
What we mean by analog AI is this: Instead of there being an abrupt switch from one AI behavior to another, we have transitional phases sitting in between the switches. If an AI is not completely sure they can see you then we have this partial failure system in place. What I mean by that is we have this internal gauge—you know, we don’t expose this to the player—that goes “Oh I see a little bit of you! Oh I can see you a little more now!”, then “Oh I can hear you too! Now I’m even more sure you’re over there!” and this gauge continues to rise. This is what we mean by analog as opposed to binary.



In terms of the analog AI system, I’m curious if its behavior affects the cool down of the AI’s search routines. Meaning, will the AI return to their original patrol state and completely forget about you?
Well there is a cool down period. So if the AI has detected you but isn’t completely sure, then they’ll go searching for you. During this investigation the cool down begins, and if they don’t find you then yes they will go out of this investigative mode. However they would remain in a higher alert mode that’s more aware than their original mode.

Now if they’ve seen you for real, have engaged in combat and then lost you, they’ll search for you essentially forever. They will return to patrol and remain in a high alert mode. This means they will no longer be relaxed and will no longer comment on things they see or hear. See when they’re in a relaxed mode they might see a flower and say something about it, but that doesn’t happen in a high alert mode. Also, every time they communicate with another guard they’ll chat about their alert level. Like “Hey, stay on your guard! There’s an assassin somewhere around here!”
So yeah, that’s the way it all works.



From what I gather there are 4 stages of alert for the AI?
Yes essentially it’s: Fully relaxed, suspicious, then they know you’re somewhere in the area, and then high alert (where they’ll never cool down).



I suspect there are some people out there, much like me, who want to be certain we understand the AIs behavior. Let’s say I trigger a guard to the highest alert level and then duck into a sewage pipe. Do I have 30 seconds for him to start patrolling again?
I think it’s about 30 seconds. <Thinks> It’s funny you bring up that number, but yes it’s about 30 seconds.

Oh! Then we have this really fun way you can trick them too. So if you’re running away from someone down a corridor and you manage to slide under a table, you’ll disappear in the eyes of the guard. We have a system in place where he might keep going past you, and you can go up behind him and kill him or run away. It’s pretty fun!



When I played the game I was presented with 3 options when I sneaked  up on someone: Neck snap, choke out, or pickpocket. I’m curious if these particular options are always presented to the player, and do they change later on throughout the game?
Basically if the NPC has something that can be taken then [the] pickpocket option will be present. Otherwise the other two options are always available (choke out and assassinate).



Is the Dark Vision power the only kind of visual modifier available in the game?
There are two levels of that power. The first level visually highlights the AIs and their vision cones and then the next level allows you to see valuable objects in the environment.



Oh so there’s a leveling system in place for every Power?
Each power has two levels. The first is the basic level and then the advanced level lies beyond that. The way to go from one level to the next is to spend Runes.



In Dishonored you gain the power to Possess living things including animals and even the target. It sounds like this could make the protagonist too powerful and possibly curtail the player from creating interesting strategies inherent to being placed within difficult situations. I mean, essentially each level is a gigantic action puzzle right? Are you guys finding it difficult to design around all these powers you’re giving the player?
You know we don’t prevent the player from doing anything really. We just give the player some tools that have their own limitations. If you possess someone—well first off it cost Essence to use the power, so you’re limited there—but you’re limited in time too. If you’re doing something and it feels like an exploit, <shrugs and smiles> better for you!



It seems like there are many different ways you can approach missions in Dishonored. I’m curious how wide or tall the levels can get?
<Thinks> we didn’t have any guidelines for the width, height or size of the levels, however the duration for each mission is kind of consistent. We give the player all these powers and possibilities so they layer on top of each other—it becomes exponentially cool! We’re always finding new strategies too, which is the beauty of having layered systems. I know is going to sound obvious, but the first time we saw someone blink (teleport) and assassinate a character from behind we were like “oh wow!”. We never really thought about that! I mean, you can run, double-jump, rotate around, blink forward and then assassinate some guy—you feel very skillful.



Why go Neo-Victorian Steampunk for Dishonored? Was this a decision you guys made early in development?
Not totally. It’s been a very organic process for us actually. The design started logically. We said “Ok, you play an assassin and you’re going to have some powers—that’s all we knew!” Then we had to think about what historical period we wanted to use, and so we thought “hey it could take place in the future, or it could be the past”.  The year 1666 was an interesting time in London because it could provide for intimate assassination attempts—you know there were mostly knifes, theater and that kind of stuff—but for gameplay reasons we wanted to add gadgetry. So we figured we’d add some kind of alternate timeline revolution—something that didn’t happen for real—so we began to create our own world. Then of course we had the magic layer, and that took the world into something else completely. So a few years into development we were not London 1666 anymore, we were something else. Initially we called it Retro-Future, but then we saw people calling it Steampunk and we were like “well, you know what? Maybe people are right, maybe it is Steampunk.” But it’s not your typical copper and rivet Steampunk, it’s more…our version of Steampunk.



How many different endings are there in Dishonored?
The game has 3.



I imagine they include a good, bad and grey-area sort of endings?
Well without giving too much away, I would say there are various flavors of the endings with some sub-variations.



When I was playing I accidentally shot someone in the leg, and I saw him buckle down as he grabbed his leg, screaming. I’d like to get some clarity on this. Can you specifically target Limbs?
Yes, you can target those limbs. Most of the time if you hit the head there is a damage bonus that is invisible to the player. Hitting the body and the arms is the least effective in terms of damage, and the feet and legs give you an advantage since they’ll fall to the ground. So yes, it will give you an advantage. We support those kinds of things.



Can’t wait for this release Rafael, thanks for taking the time to chat with me!
Thanks you!

Interview: Matt Carofano, Lead Artist on Skyrim

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I recently sat down with Matt Carofano, the Lead Artist on Skyrim, to talk about many things including; Dawnguard, the next-generation of consoles, what’s after Skyrim for Bethesda Game Studios, loot, a new epic mount, Vampire Lords, future iteration of the Creation engine, The Elder Scrolls MMO, armored Trolls, and why you cannot change your sex or race in Skyrim.




"Yes you will be feared, hated and attacked on sight if you enter a city in the Vampire Lord form. If a huge beast walks into town that’s something the local villagers will not put up with."




Mark: Hi Matt! Thanks for sitting down with me to talk about Dawnguard.
Matt: My pleasure!



When did production begin on Dawnguard?
After we shipped the game we did this Game Jam video—I don’t know if you’ve seen it—but that’s sort of what started what Dawnguard ended up becoming. A couple guys on the team got together and were really excited for Vampires, so they made a prototype of the Vampire Lord. We were like “Oh that fits in really well!” We want to expand and add to the game to make it better, and Vampires were something that we really hadn’t told a good story with—hadn’t really developed much—so we wanted to focus the DLC [Downloadable Content] on that. We just wanted to do a good job and make it the focus of the DLC.



Creating additional content for a AAA game like Skyrim well after it’s shipped doesn’t appear to be the norm in the industry. Does this speak to the culture at Bethesda Game Studios? Do you think future DLC is going to develop this way too?
When we were looking to do the Dawnguard DLC we were just looking to see how we could make the game even better, how we could add to Skyrim but tell this specific story. It was something we didn’t plan when we were working on Skyrim, it actually happened afterwards. You know, we kicked around a lot of ideas so we could see what would be a good fit. For future DLC maybe we’ll do something like that again.



Did Bethesda Game Studios learn anything from the development of Skyrim proper that was incorporated into the production of Dawnguard?
Well I guess the focus was “Hey let’s tell a new story and sort of react to the game”, so a lot of the additions to Dawnguard are things we thought we should add to Skyrim. We have some new encounters like the addition of the new high level dragons and the Dragon Bone weapons you can forge. We really wanted to expand the high level stuff too. Skyrim just took off way more than we expected and people are still playing it a ton, so we just wanted to give them some additional content.

Plus we’re looking at the Vampire Lord form because that would offer a way to play the game differently. So now you can jump into the story and play as a Vampire Lord or join the Dawnguard hunters. So you can experience the rest of the game as a Vampire or with crossbows.  So yeah we added a lot of new content to the game.



Will Tamriel have a reaction to me if I decide to become a Vampire Lord and venture out? Will the townspeople and guards flip out?
Yes you will be feared, hated and attack on sight if you enter a city in the Vampire Lord form. If a huge beast walks into town that’s something the local villagers will not put up with.



"The Dawnguard stuff has new light and heavy armor, new weapons, you can have a new type of dog companion, [and] an armored troll to come fight with you."




There seems to be a lot of really great new content in the Dawnguard DLC with the whole new storyline. You can choose between becoming a Vampire Lord or joining the Dawnguard faction, however it also sounds like there are things being added to Skyrim that really have nothing to do with the Dawnguard storyline. For instance you mentioned the additions of new dragons and the ability to craft Bone weapons with Smithing. I’m curious about the other vocations or existing skill trees? Did they get additions as well?
We tried to add a bunch of things to the game to just make it…better. We looked at it that way, but also as “Hey how can we tell this interesting story about Vampires?”, however we added things based on fan feedback too. For instance we added a character to the Thieves Guild who can change your appearance. So let’s say you’re tired of playing your character after all these hours, you can go to him and change all your facial features and hairstyles.



Can you modify your race?
We don’t allow you to change your sex or race because that’s just too important to your characters history. It’s just something fun, something extra we could add to the game for the people who want that.



Was there ever a consideration to add another guild to the game?
Well the story of the Dawnguard is about the size of one of our faction quests, so we sort of view it as “Hey you can join the Vampires or the Dawnguard!” If you decide to help the Vampires you can end the tyranny of the sun—you know block out the sun—so they can come out at night and be more powerful. Or you can join the Dawnguard and become a vampire hunter. You’ll be able to build up the Vampire hunters’ base as you recruit new members, build crossbows and even get an armored troll to come along with you to fight against the vampires. So you get both sides of it that way.



Is there anything else from the 2011 GDC  Game Jam video that’s included in the Dawnguard DLC? I know mounted combat was in the sizzle reel and that just got released right?
Yes mounted combat just went up via a patch just recently. We wanted to add that so the player could use one-handed and ranged weapons while riding a horse. You know it makes it easier while you’re getting around the world.



Is there a small team already working on the second DLC for Skyrim?
Right now we’re completely focused on Dawnguard. Everyone is working on this. Once it’s out we’ll see how it goes and see what could happen in the future.



This is one I was asked to pass on to you from several fans: How much loot, or rather, how much additional stuff is being added to the game?
Well there’s the full set of Dragon Bone weapons. <Thinks> We give you a lot of gear on the Dawnguard side. That helps balance out the Vampire Lord’s abilities.  The Dawnguard stuff has; new light and heavy armor, new weapons, you can have a new type of dog companion, [and] an armored troll to come fight with you. On the Vampire Lord side you have a whole new perk tree and we also added a whole new perk tree for Werewolves too. That’s another feature we added to the game even though it’s not part of the [Dawnguard] story. We wanted to make the Werewolves more interesting, more playable for higher levels, so we expanded on that. There’s a lot of stuff in the game.



Oh ok, so there is no specific perk tree for the Dawnguard hunters?
That’s right. Yeah they’re Vampire hunters and more gear based. They’re focused on gathering followers and building up their base.



Did I see a new mount in the Dawnguard trailer?
Yes! So in the realm of Soul Cairn—the realm of trapped souls—you can get a miscellaneous quest to find the Skull of Arvak. He’s this lost horse who’s been taken over, turned undead in this realm. So if you find his skull you can ride him all around and even back in Tamriel.



I just want to be clear on this: The player will be able to ride Arvak back into Skyrim? The player will also be able to transform into the Vampire Lord form in Skyrim?
Yes you can play through the entire game as the Vampire Lord.



Not too long ago I was watching the Fallout 3 documentary and Todd Howard mentioned Bethesda Game Studios was looking for something to do in between Elder Scrolls games. I’m curious if that is still the game plan for you guys? Are you thinking about Fallout 4 after Skyrim?
Well honestly we’re so focused on this DLC. Then I’m sure we’ll be making some more DLC in the future, and then after that we’ll see what happens.



There’s a new wave of consoles on the horizon and as the Lead Artist at Bethesda Game Studios I’m curious how you think a Fallout or Elder Scrolls game would benefit most from that transition?
<Thinks> In our games we try to throw everything into it at once. We try to make a game so you can play however you want, you can try a bunch of stuff out, have a bunch of quests going, so obviously new hardware would allow us to do even more of that. You know speaking purely from the art side of things, just having more memory! It’s something we always have to fight with. We’re looking at higher resolution characters, models and textures. It is going to look tremendously better because of the jump, but we’re really really happy with the current generation consoles with what we’ve been able to push and get out of them.



As we transition over to a new generation of consoles, I’m curious if Bethesda Game Studios has any plans to build an entirely new engine from the ground up? Update the existing Creation engine, or perhaps utilize the latest IDTECH?
We’re really happy with the creation engine. We remade every aspect of it for Skyrim and it’s a really good base for us to do the types of games we want to do.  So I suspect, going forward, I don’t know what we’re going to end up doing. This engine has been really good for us and [The Elder Scrolls games]. I mean everything is brand new from Fallout 3.



So you guys might build up from the existing Creation engine? Is it modular in design so you guys can just pull out different systems?
Yeah, I mean it’s sort of all up to what kind of things we want to focus on to change, but we have a lot of control over this engine and what we would like add it to. Every system was rewritten when we went from Fallout 3 to Skyrim so we could develop it further if we needed to.



Speaking of technical advancements, does Dawnguard bring any new modifications to the Creation engine?
No there aren’t any new technical changes to it, but we had to have a lot of code support for some of the new spells and power, like the Vampire Lord form. That’s a lot of programming time to get all these new features working for us.



With the development of The Elders Scrolls Online, I’m curious if there were any stipulations made by Bethesda Game Studios to make sure it wasn’t too much like your Elder Scrolls games? Did you sit down at all with Zenimax Online Studios and say “Ok you cannot do X, Y and Z” or “Do not make it a first-person game”? I imagine you folks would like The Elder Scrolls to retain its identity right?
Honestly we gave them complete freedom to develop the game the same we would want to work on our game, so we could make the choices we would like to make. They’re a really talented group of guys and they know MMOs really well. MMOs are a really different type of game than the ones we make, so we’ve given them the freedom to make the kind of game they think is going to be a great game. We’ve kept in contact with them along the way. They’ll ask us about lore or things like. You know “Hey does this fit the art style for this race?” In general we answer a few questions here and there, but we let them make their own decisions. I think it’s going to be a really good game.



So no real guidelines were given?
No, not too much.



Thanks Matt!
Thank you!


Interview: Max Schaefer, CEO of Runic Games

Last weeks I got to check off something on my bucketlist—land an interviewed Max Schaefer. For a man who changed the world of video games he sure is quite the humble one. He’s so easygoing going in fact the fellow answered all my questions—even the annoying ones concerning Diablo 3—then shook my hand and handed gave me a copy of the Torchlight 2 soundtrack(!).

What a guy!

We ended up discussing the future of the Torchlight series including the MMO, Diablo 3 and why its release has been very good for Torchlight 2, the now infamous Error 37 and why Max hopes Runic is fortunate enough to experience it, Torchlight 2 on Xbox Live Arcade & Macs, how Minecraft could meet Torchlight, plus his overall inspirations in games design.

Oh and if you’re interested, you can find my impressions of the Torchlight 2 beta here.




"When I was working at Blizzard a million years ago we were working on Diablo 3 and it was an MMO. We were going to do the Diablo version of World of Warcraft."




Mark: Ok Max, I’ve got to get this out of the way—What’s the anticipated release date for Torchlight 2?
Max Schaefer: We don’t have a date, but we’re getting very close to announcing that. We’re still thinking late summer. You played the beta and saw the level of polish, and I would say that’s representative of the polish level we’d like to be at for the rest of the game. We’re making really good progress, it’s actually happening faster than we anticipated. We’re also making a lot of changes based on beta feedback. So there’s some skill system changes happening, little tweaks with targeting and running, but for the most part it’s all about polishing up the last 2 acts. It’s going well!



What did Runic Games take away from the Torchlight 2 beta?
It’s funny because before we ran the beta we thought it would be dangerous! Mainly because we figured we’d get so much feedback, and you know, the guys care so much about that. We figured they would be in the forums poring over everything, and just being way too self-critical. Basically we made so many changes based on feedback from the beta—it’s just crazy. We started into it knowing it could potentially be a problem, so the plan was to shut down the beta once the network stuff was working to our satisfaction so we could get back to finishing the game. I think we got most of the stuff people were asking for. We fixed, tweaked and just got things ready to go. But it’s good we got the beta done because now we can focus on finishing the game. You can’t do that while you’re running the beta because you’re getting so much good feedback and everyone is so intense about doing the things people want.



I’m actually running Windows 7 64-bit on my iMac, and I’ve surprisingly had zero issues with the game. This leads me to my question about the Mac version of Torchlight 2. When is that due for release?
I do the same! I demo’d the game as Gamecon on my Macbook Pro using Bootcamp. About the stability, you know it’s one of our philosophies that the game needs to be running from day one, and throughout the development process so we can be tweaking gameplay and evaluating skill balance. It’s been remarkably bug-free from the beginning, and that’s a credit to our programmers. But that’s also because we have a culture of trying to keep it running stably through development, so we don’t get to the end and have 18 trillion bugs to fix. By fixing those bugs it changes the balance of the game, so then you have to rebalance everything else. We try to keep in a fairly playable state at all times.

As far as Torchlight 2 for the Mac? Right when we finish the PC version we’ll work on the Mac port.



What do you think we’re looking at in terms of time frame then? Perhaps a few weeks once the PC version is release?
It’s tough to say because our very first priority after the PC release will be to put out fires. I’m sure we’ll have our own version of Diablo 3s Error 37. With any luck you know? [laughs] What that Error 37 really means is you have 6 million people pounding on your servers, so we want our Error 37 equivalent. [laughs]



I’m curious if there’s a requirement for everyone to play Torchlight 2 everyday back at the Runic Games office?
Nah, people just do it anyway. We have a really efficient process where the level designers can get the levels into the game and test them without talking to a programmer. People are always testing their work. They’re looking at their animations, looking at their levels, checking out the new skill balances. Just before the beta ended my brother (Erich Schaefer, Runic Games co-founder) and I spent a lot of time just playing Elite Hardcore [mode] just to see if it was playable. We wanted to see how far you could go, but we never did quite finish out the beta. My brother actually made it to level 21, but he got killed by the final boss. It’s really hard!



Was there ever really a decisive push to get Torchlight 2 out before Diablo 3, or was that never really a consideration?
Yeah it was something that we talked about, but the only thing we really didn’t want was to come out right at the same time. You know, like literally within a week or two of it’s release. We didn’t care if it was before or after though. Obviously some of our partners wanted us to launch before, but they also agree with the philosophy that if we rush it out, I mean, what would be the point of that right? Then you’re just going to buy the game and play it until Diablo 3 comes out, and then that’s all people are going to play of it ever again. So we took the path where we’re going to polish the game and actually compete head-to-head for the long term, and it just comes out whenever it comes out.


"We’re doing pre-sales on steam, and the day Diablo 3 released they shot up 40% and have stayed up."




Does Torchlight 2 face different challenges now that Diablo 3 is already out?
I think we actually benefit from it. It’s a subject of debate within the studio and our partners but I think it actually helps us. We’re a small company—you know sort of indie—so we draw our customers from within the gaming community. People who already buy games, look and buy our stuff. I think when someone like Blizzard comes out with something like Diablo 3—where they’re doing TV commercials on ESPN, real mass market stuff—they’re bringing in millions of new gamers into the gaming community, and that makes our audience bigger. We’re doing pre-sales on steam, and the day Diablo 3 released they shot up 40% and have stayed up. They’re bringing in lots of people into this genre, and people are becoming aware of what we’re doing through them. We’re kind of piggybacking on their marketing.



Did Runic take anything away from the launch of Diablo 3?
Not really, I mean we all played it! [laughs] It’s totally predicable what happened on their launch. It happened to Diablo 2, it happened to World of Warcraft and it happened to Starcraft. You cannot test and prepare for that many millions of people pounding on your stuff on day one. It didn’t surprise us at all. We just figured we’d wait a couple days and it would all blow over. Once they get things running smoothly, no one will ever remember they had a rocky start. We didn’t look at it and say “Hey we gotta make sure we don’t have this happen!” because obviously they were trying to prepare for it, they’re not dumb guys at all. It’s just impossible to prepare for that [much traffic]. We were actually relieved that the game didn’t suck. It’s a good game, and we want our genre to be hot.

Also I worked on all the previous Diablos, so emotionally for me it’s important that it not suck, you know, by association. I think we look at it as a successful launch, obviously, it’s the fastest selling PC game of all time.



Are there any plans to bring Torchlight 2 to Xbox Live Arcade or the Playstation Network?
It’s something we’ve talked about. It’s definitely going to be a more difficult job than the first Torchlight because now we’ve got higher polygon models, multiplayer and it’s just so intense to do a direct port. Plus we’d have to redo the entire interface. So we’re not sure it’s going to be worth our while. We’re going to focus on the Mac version after the PC, and then we’re going to take a look at the world and see how it’s shaking out. Are people clamoring for a console version? We obviously have to take that into account. Do they want an expansion for Torchlight 2 instead? We have to take that in to account. Are we going completely insane with too much Torchlight? Do something else for a little bit? We’re just going to let the dust settle. It’s hard to make a rational decision about what’s right because we’re still in the dark days of development where everyone is exhausted and delirious so we kind of want to reserve for ourselves the ability to make that decision when the time comes. So it’s not out of the question, but it’s not something that’s in our plans.



In terms of the Torchlight series and heading in that direction, do you think additional content will be a priority over a proper sequel?
We don’t really know, I mean we may want to trickle some stuff out for the existing customers, but we also might want to package up a little expansion and do it that way. We really haven’t talked about that too much. It’s sort of like, we understand that this isn’t a fire-and-forget situation, so in some way it’s going to go on, but again that all depends on what people are asking for, and also what our heads are like.



As someone who’s both a fan and owner of the Playstation Vita and the Torchlight series, I do hope that platform will also be a consideration for you guys. I think would be a great fit!
It’s absolutely a consideration, I think it’s a great game for that too. There would have to be a good business case to make, a market and something the crew is excited to do.



Are there still plans for Runic Games to make a Torchlight MMO?
Yes and no. It’s still sort of in the long-range plan for us. The MMO market is changing right now and the traditional MMO is falling out of favor for a business model.

I like to think of MMOs more broadly though. Anything that puts a lot of players into the same world is an MMO. It doesn’t have to conform to these rigid [rules]. It doesn’t have to be exactly like World of Warcraft in every way, except in terms of the art [laughs]. When you say you’re going to do an MMO that’s immediately what a lot of people think. So yea it’s sort of in the plans but sort of…again it falls in this category of ‘When the game ships we’ll see what the world looks like”’, kind of thing. Maybe the Torchlight series will suffice. Maybe people don’t want a different style of multiplayer Torchlight, and this is what they want. If so then we’ll just do more of this.



Ok just to be clear to everyone out there—you’re not even in the beginning stages of developing an MMO?
Oh no, we’re focused on just Torchlight 2.



So a Runic developed MMO is—at the earliest—something like 7 years away?
Not necessarily, I mean, if it’s what we decide to do next then we’d try to do it more efficiently and quickly than everyone else. I would imagine it wouldn’t take anywhere near 4 years to get something like that out, but again it depends on the design and everything.



With the unfortunate collapse of 38 Studios, the decreasing number of subscribers for the Knights of the Old Republic and even World of Warcraft, I’m curious if the state of the market changes Runic’s marketing and design model for a Torchlight MMO?
Oh yeah! You have to look at the trends and project out a few years because of the development time. You don’t want to get into a dying genre, put all that work into it and then have to do a massive redesign at the end. I think it’s definitely going Free-To-Play. All the successful ones are going that way. It’s something we’re fine with too, you just have to design for it. It’s something that’s harder to do than a subscription based model because of the potential of screwing it up with all the weird item sales. You don’t want people to pay to win. You have to design it. You have to think about the additional content you put in, and each new item you put on sale has the potential to anger people and unbalance the game as opposed to a subscription model where your only goal is to make cool stuff every month. It takes a lot more design, but I think it’s the future and we just have to embrace it.

Speaking broadly, I think Free-To-Play is going to be a model for more than just traditional MMOs too.



You pioneered the Point-n-Click ARPG genre back in 1996 with the original Diablo, and I’m curious just how much your design philosophy has changed up to now? Have your overall goals changed?
I think we look at the basics of the genre—the controls and visceral feel of combat—and realize we’re just better at it now than back in the day. You know, the way we put together and make games has changed quite radically. We’re so much more tool driven now. Everything use to go through your lead programmer, and the few tools you had to put stuff together were clunky and not very powerful. We went into this with the specific intent to beat people and be competitive in the industry through being more efficient and faster. To be able to do things with less money than the competition. The way you do that is you get the most out of your people by giving them really good tools. You make the process by which you get content into the game smoothly and as streamlined as possible. Just the day-to-day work of putting the game together and adding content is so different than the old Diablo days. Today we’re able to do more, much more quickly. That’s where the big change has taken place.

Like you said in regards to the unfortunate demise of some studios out there—and with our own demise with Flagship Studios prior to Runic Games—yes that stuff is what keeps us up at night. I mean, this is the reason why Runic first did a single-player game with the original Torchlight. Just to get a game out quickly and get some revenues coming into the company, to get us more stable. It’s worked for us so far, and that’s still our motto—to do things more efficiently and faster than anyone else.



How many people are employed at Runic Games?
Thirty people.



In the past you’ve referred to it as a flat company, correct?
Yeah, we don’t even have any offices. [laughs] There is just one big pit of people, there aren’t even cubicles. It’s just a bunch of desks, and everyone works as just one big team. I think you can only do that with about 30 people or less. Once you go over that then you have to start adding management for organization. Now we just have meetings by turning around in our chairs. Everyone knows everyone and sees everyone everyday, and its small enough that we’re not getting factions and all that sort of stuff. It’s kind of the ideal size where we can do real Triple-A games and still kind of be a small studio. So we want to stay with 30 people, we won’t grow. We joke around and say we want to grow to 25 [laughs].



Let’s say Runic Games began working on 2 games, would you possibly increase the size then?
Nope, we would not grow.



So 30 is the level cap for Runic?
Yes—the level cap for Runic Games is 30! [laughs] It’s conceivable that we could do two games, but they would just be smaller. If we did an expansion pack and than a tablet game, we could do that, but in general we think of it as doing one thing at a time.



How do you feel Blizzard has handled Diablo 3 overall? To be more specific, how do you feel about the release of a sequel to something that required your unique talents to build?
Wow! You know, it’s weird, I’m not going to lie. It’s kind of cool! First of all I’m thrilled it does not suck. They did a good job and it does the franchise justice, so that’s a big relief. I’m kind of glad they did it, and we didn’t have to do it. Mainly because its impossible to beat the expectations of the people who were anticipating a Diablo sequel. I think they really did such a remarkably good job of making a slick game that’s obviously the best selling game so far, so you know, to say from a commercial perspective they did it right.

We were talking about the rocky launch earlier, but no one is going to remember it in a couple weeks after everything has been smoothed out. So yeah I’m really kind of happy that it all worked out. I’m also happy they made some decisions we wouldn’t have.



What do you mean by that in particular?
Oh with no single-player offline, and the auction house and stuff. With Torchlight 2 we already decided we were kinda going the opposite way with that, so when they came out with those announcements it was good for us because we could draw some distinctions between the two games.



In regards to the actual video game, what do you think of Diablo 3? Do you like the new skill system? The story? What classes do you enjoy playing?
All the classes are pretty fun. I like the way they tell the story, it doesn’t feel tacked on like we always did with the original Diablos. It shows they actually thought about it.

I think the art looks great! It looks like Diablo, but they have their own style, which I think they should do. You know, they shouldn’t just try to make Diablo 2 again. They’ve got a totally new crew making the game, and its always best when people are doing their version of what they’re doing, so I’m glad they put their own stamp on the style. I think it looks great and plays great! I had a fun time playing it. I haven’t really had enough time to play it because we’re obviously busy, but of what I have played I did enjoy.



I agree! It’s nice to see the game has been received so well by the critics and community. It’s a pretty amazing feat considering it’s been 10 years.
Right! How do you meet those expectations because it’s been so long and they just continue to go up over time? You kinda assume that its been in development this whole time and they’ve just been honing it and honing it, but that’s just not how it went. They did some major restarts.

You know, when I was working at Blizzard a million years ago we were working on Diablo 3 and it was an MMO. We were going to do the Diablo version of World of Warcraft. Blizzard obviously changed that pretty quickly, so we left to start Flagship Studios and we brought in a lot of the guys, so they rebooted with their own team.



Wait, the Diablo 3 MMO you were working on at Blizzard changed because Blizzard was working on World of Warcraft?
No no, they changed because once they brought it in-house down at Blizzard, they had different design priorities and goals than we did. Again I totally approve of that.



What things have influenced you and the team over the years, or at least from the beginning of Torchlight to now?
I think one of the most obvious things one notices with our game is we have a very unique art style. We first conceived of it—done by our Art Director Jason Beck—because we were looking for a low-tech, easy to produce art style that wouldn’t look cheap. One of our goals was to make a game that would run on virtually any machine. We didn’t really want to make a game with all the bells and whistles because in an ARPG frame rate is everything. So the more simple your art [style] is, the better it will run.

Art styles are weird. Once you start in on one, they kind of take on a life of their own. They develop their own characteristics. It’s become a look that our artists really understand now, even though we really don’t have any written rule-sets for it. It’s kind of weird how it takes on a life of its own and you just follow wherever it leads. It’s weird now to take a look back on the original Torchlight and see the subtle differences in styles.

<Thinks> I think that was true with the Diablo games as well. We set out to create a dark, Gothic, grey-toned, spooky world and then we created some dungeons and it took on its own life. It’s a weirdly organic thing.



Torchlight has such a lighthearted look to it and I’m curious if that specifically was an intentional design goal from the very beginning?
It was sort of intentional, but we didn’t want it to look like we were just making Diablo you know? We wanted to forge our own identity. We also had a smaller crew too.

It’s also just so fun! I think the ARPG genre is inherently comedic in a way. You’re going out and slaying thousands of monsters that are carrying around Chainmail, it’s just kind of absurd!



…and not only that, they’re dropping 87 pounds of it!
Right! Right! It’s kind of fun and liberating to be able take a more lighthearted approach to the game.



With the success of the Torchlight series, the success of Diablo 3, and the popular ARPG KickStarter projects like Path of Exile and Grim Dawn, it does seem like there’s a bit of renaissance happening for ARPGs. Do you think the interest has always been there? And do you think the market is at risk of becoming overly saturated?
I don’t think so at all. For a decided simple game, ARPGs are actually very complicated to create. I think that’s why there aren’t a lot of them. I don’t think it’s based on the market at all, because whenever they do come out they sell like hotcakes. Look at Diablo 3. It’s the fastest selling game on all time on the PC. It’s a fertile market and I don’t think one or two titles are going to saturate it.

There are so many FPS [games] out there and no one thinks that genre is dead. Every one that’s good sells like crazy. We’re pretty confident that provided we can keep our quality up, there are more buyers than there are games in this genre.

Also it’s been 10 years since the release of a Diablo game, and I think there’s a new generation of people to introduce to the genre. Again this is where Diablo 3 can help us. They’re bringing in so many new people to the genre, and so many kids are now of gamer age. We have a whole new generation to introduce to ARPGs. No one ever leaves games, once you’ve started playing games they become part of your life and you play forever. We’re just getting more and more gamers as time goes on and since there has been such a huge gap in ARPGs, its a very fertile field to plow right now.



We were talking about games that stay with us, and it’s funny you mention that because when I think of the Diablo series the very first thing I hear is that famous guitar strum. It has stuck with me for 10 years, and I know many many other Diablo fans who reminisce in the same way!
Yes it’s so crystal clear, I can hear it right now. [laughs]



My real question: The incredibly talented Matt Uelman—who composed the Diablo games—works on the Torchlight series and I’m curious if there was ever a point where you approached him to creating something as infectious? Perhaps as a wink to the fans?
No not the exact same strum, but it’s totally Matt’s style. We just wanted him to get weird with it. Every now and then when listening to the Torchlight 2 music I stop and go “is that a 12-string guitar in there?”. [laughs]



If runic wasn’t going to make an ARPG, what would it make?
Wow! Well we have 30 guys on the team so you would get 30 different answers.

You know, we don’t want to do ARPGs for the rest of our lives, so this is something we do talk about. For me personally I would like to do something that’s more of a hybrid. I wouldn’t want to do strictly a Real Time Strategy or First Person Shooter, I would want to bring a little bit of Torchlight, a bit of Minecraft, a little more resource-based play, and then little more cooperative stuff to bend the genres. Get you to do more than just resources or just loot, you know, just infuse them all a little bit.

At the same time I look at what I actually play and it’s just Word With Friends. [laughs] I just like all kinds of games.


Some photos I took at E3 2012.

Interview: Andrew Szymanski, Producer Lost Planet 3

The start of the Lost Planet 3 E3 demo follows blue-collar worker, Jim, sloshing through his daily routine. He wakes up melancholy, records a video for his lovely wife & daughter back on Earth wondering what the hell he’s doing, and then bolts out the door to mine for thermal energy. I like Jim. He’s the kind of guy you’d invite over to your place for a few beers just to hear him his talk about all his wacky adventures on an alien planet.


But will the Lost Planet 3 gameplay draw us in too? After all this isn’t going to be an experience like previous games in the series. It’s not being built from the ground up around cooperative play, oh no, that wasn’t even mentioned. This one has a 3rd-person perspective that is slightly tighter to heightening the tension and bringing you closer to the action. You now drive a Vital Suit (VS) completely from a 1st-person perspective, and if not careful, might seize up if you get caught in an Ice Storm.

It also appears Lost Planet 3 is going for more dramatic intensity in it’s narrative and gameplay. There was one segment I played were the atmosphere was obviously well steeped in the Dead Space gravy (more about that in the interview below), and to be honest it worked rather well with the frigid, creepy environments. In fact I enjoyed it more than the outdoor action in the VS. I have hopes LP3 will be good, but they need to work out some of the tedious things like the repetitive QTE.

On with the interview:



Mark: I’m curious if there’s a paranormal aspect to the game? I ask because as I was working my way through one particular part of the game—that consisted of very high contrasted lighting—desk drawers shook and a chair seemingly spun around by themselves. Ghosts? Ghost Akrids!
Andrew: It’s not paranormal but we are Sci-Fi, you know? The planet is not Earth so there are alien creatures, so. it’s not paranormal in the sense there are ghost or spirits or anything like that. It’s very much rooted in, you know, classic Sci-Fi. We’ve got some homages to [the movie] Aliens and things like that. I think a lot of what you saw and heard has to do with the [demo] setting, the sound effects can be hard to hear. If we were in a more controlled audio settings, you’d be able to hear the critters skittering about. (NOTE: we were not given headphones during our time with the game, and all the kiosks were stationed in one big room.)


I play 1st and 3rd person shooters with an inverted Y-axis, and I noticed that, though an option, the setting didn’t carry through some sequences of the game. I’ve got to ask just to be sure, but this isn’t indicative of the final game right?
Oh yes, well, we’ll have full Y-axis support in the final game. It’s a bit broken in this build.



I enjoyed the first Lost Planet quite a bit, however lost interest quickly with the second. It appears Lost Planet 3 is a fairly major departure from these games, especially with the way the menu pops up relative to the protagonist in game world. I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Dead Space. What’s the design theory for LP3? Do you want those same, intense beats every few minutes?
When we came out of captivate there were a lot of people making the Dead Space comparisons and I’ll be the first person to admit we’re big Dead Space fans.




…with what I saw I thought it worked well.
Right, and well, if you’re going to sort of do an homage to somebody it might as well be the best right? The idea of having the UI in the environment we said “Hey, that’s something everyone’s going to be doing moving forward, so let’s do it!”

What I don’t necessarily agree with in regards to the Dead Space comparisons is that…you know, that’s what [Visceral Games] does well! That’s their bread and butter. For us, the idea of having the suspense and those little scares, that really only consist of, maybe, 20% of that stuff.

So when you’re exploring these abandoned structures, yes you’re going to have some of those beats, but for us this game is really about staying true to what Lost Planet really is. Which is, you’re fighting the Akrid with balls-to-the-wall shooting! You have this gigantic robot you use to tear things limb-from-limb. That’s really the meat of the game.

But in terms of what we’re striving for with the campaign? We want a strong narrative experience where you empathize with Jim. You want see him succeed. You want to be him, and you want to experience his journey. We want there to be this amazing mixture where you’ve got your human player, this gigantic robot and these gigantic creatures they’re fighting with. That’s really what makes Lost Planet, Lost Planet!




I’m curious if the game ever open up for the player?
Yes it opens up quite a bit, but it’s not a true open world game in a [Grand Theft Auto] sense where you go anywhere and do anything at any time. What we call it in our lingo is hub-and-spoke, and there are several of these throughout the game. Those will branch off and pass through to other areas, and those will have missions and objectives within them. So, with these hub areas, you will be going back and forth to visit several times, and that’s where our dynamic storm system comes in handy. You saw the storms in the demo right?




Those were procedurally generated?
Yes they were! So if you’re passing through an area you’ve already been to we can change the weather, we can change the lighting, we can have electrical disturbances and we can throw different enemies at you too. So you’re not going to feel like you’re back tracking in that sense.

Another thing we’re doing is—you know, again, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best—is the Metroid style of “I know i can get there, but I can’t get there now, later on after I upgrade to X, Y or Z, then I’m going to be able to access this new area”.

Those provide the spokes. So some areas you’ll be able to access right off the bat, some will be obtained through narrative upgrades, and there will be areas you will have to go and others that are completely optional that are there for people to explore.




Will there be a fast travel mechanic in the game?
Uh…I don’t know if it’s too early for me to tell you this but…screw it, yes, we have fast travel! We literally just put it in too. The idea being, we do have hub areas and we do have a lot of exploration, but we don’t want to artificially pad the game play out by making you go back again and again and again.

So the first time you go to any new area, you have to go there by yourself and then come back to the base by yourself. The next time you access that area you’ll be able to fast travel from the base.




Thanks for your time Andrew!
No problem.

Interview: Gregory Lewickyj, Associate Producer on DmC Devil May Cry

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The new Dante doesn’t care what you think about him, his hairstyle or his choice in music—he just want’s to kick some demon ass. Capcom, however, does want you to care. They want you to give the new Dante a chance, and it shows. This was my initial thought after playing the new Devil May Cry and interviewing Associate Producer Gregory Lewickyj last Friday.

Hideaki Itsuno and his team are back, but this time they’re working with the fine folks over at Ninja Theory (Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West) to retool DMC. Why does Capcom feel the series needs a reboot? We can only guess, but the more important question is: Should you care? The simple answer is a resounding yes.


“There are a lot of challenges involved with [bringing the two teams together]. Obviously the language thing and making sure everyone is speaking in the same terms about the same things. I think there’s been a lot of fun there too. I think there’s been a lot of learning on both sides.” -Gregory Lewickyj



The vertical slice I played—focused mainly on a combat sequence in a burning city—was quite fun! I didn’t get to see everything the game has to offer (menus did not work), but I did notice there’s a dedicated evade button, a soft lock to enemies, a style meter and of course the new Angel/Demon modes. I admit it, I sort of cynically anticipated this game feeling awkward, making a desperate crawl towards Bayonetta’s style and mechanics. I’m happy to report I walked away not feel that way at all. It still feels like Devil May Cry, but better looking and…juicier. This is mainly due to the ability to quickly switch between Angel and Demon mode. Yes it can be done mid-flight, and there is no cooldown. So in a flash I was able to switch between the modes at the press of a trigger.



Let’s get on to the interview!


Mark: Hello!
Gregory: Hi! Right off the bat I should warn you I cannot talk too much about the game, however there are a few highlights we can hit.


Ok, you go first. What would you like to chat about?
Well one of the things we want to talk about is the work Ninja Theory is doing with Hideaki Itsuno and the rest of the Japanese team. He was involved with Devil May Cry 2, 3 and 4. So he’s also heavily involved with this new game and working very closely with those guys on a lot of different aspects of the game.

The other hit is the fluidity of going from Angel to Demon mode, and then back to combat to without. The different attacks and combos that can be done because of that, those are the highlights. We want to show people what’s in there. Were you able to experience that with you time with the game?



Oh yeah! From what I played it felt like you guys really nailed the vertical combat, which has always been the most interesting aspect of the combat for me in the series. It’s super-fast, responsive and engaging. In particular I really enjoyed the push/pull mechanics of the Angel and Demon modes. Real quick I’d like to chat a little bit about the tech, first. How much of it has migrated over from the previous games and how much of it is new? For what it’s worth I thought it looks fantastic.
So there are some behind the scenes things going on, with Hideaki Itsuno involved and some [traditional] Capcom qualities that go into some of the actual combat—those are there. But in terms of ones and zeros, there are some real differences there, but partially this is on the Unreal engine as well.


What about the motion capture technology Ninja Theory is sort of known for using?
We don’t have anything to say about that at this time.



I have to reiterate how  good the vertical combat felt. It was easy enough to thrust an enemy into the air and then juggle him, however the difficulty slightly spiked when I tried to snap to another enemy mid-air to transition that combo. Most of the difficulty had to do with switching between the Angel and Devil modes in mid-air, because it requires holding down either L2 or R2 to stay in either mode. It wasn’t long however before I started pulling these combos off, but I also have experience with the series. I wonder how newcomers will adapt to this mechanic. Will they have the patience or tenacity to experiment? Are you guys at all concerned with that level of complexity for newcomers?
I think we’re actually really hopefully and positive that there’s going to be a lot there for the fans of the series, and also for those that are trying this out for the first time. I think there is a fun experience there for both groups.



Are the complexity of the controls slowly introduced to the player as one progresses through the game, or are the Angel and Devil modes all thrown at the player at once?
We can’t talk about that now.



Is there a leveling system in place?
Also not on the table for discussion.

I think the main thing here is we want to get [the game] into peoples hands for the first time and have them experience the fluidity of the combat, and get a sense of how it really feels. Hopefully people start to take away some positive things.


How smoothly did things go when Hideaki Itsuno and his team were introduced to the folks over at Ninja theory? Were things initially a little tense between the two teams? It sounds like a complicated situation; a new direction for the series, two teams coming together from for the first time with completely different backgrounds and then there’s the language barrier.
I just hope people give [the game] a chance. Come to the game with open eyes and see what’s here.

There is a lot going on behind the scenes to really help make sure the Japanese team is working with the Ninja Theory team on a lot of different notes. I’m hopeful fans of the series will be pleasantly surprised, and hopefully some new people can approach the series for the first time. It’s going to be a lot of fun! Kicking demon ass, I mean what’s more fun than that right?



How much of the old team is involved with the new Devil May Cry?
I don’t think I have a real answer for you with that. I just want to impress upon you and your readers some key figures: Hideaki Itsuno as the director, who was vitally involved with the 3 previous titles, and there are others.



How big is the Ninja theory team?
You know I don’t have details on that, but they’re sizable. It’s a triple-A title.



How was it, getting the Japanese team and Ninja Theory together to learn to work together cohesively?
There are a lot of challenges involved with that. Obviously the language [barrier] and making sure everyone is speaking in the same terms about the same things. I think there’s been a lot of fun there too. I think there’s been a lot of learning on both sides. Both teams have been really excited about it. I know some of the Ninja guys were really on board with having those guys come out and work with them. It’s been really productive. So, yes, there have been some challenges that go into that, and some have taken a little longer to iron out, but once we got there we got to a place where there is a lot of productivity going into those conversations. Both teams are really feeling they’re getting a new perspective on some of the problems being faced in the development process. You know, how one team might look at a certain problem and address it compared to how the other time might do it, and then hashing it out.


When are we going to see the game?
2012.

Thanks Greg, and good luck!
Thank you.

Hope you enjoyed the interview folks. If you have any questions about my time with the new Devil May Cry or the interview, feel free to ask me here on my blog.

Torchlight 2 Impressions

It was 4AM and there I was, hopelessly searching for more goodies. As if I needed more loot right? Are you kidding me! My eyes darted back-and-forth sweeping the ground as I pressing my nose through the soft electric-glow of my computer screen. More! MOAR!

I was at a full-sprint gobbling up experience points, sucking up loot and well on my way towards level 21. Then it happened—BAM—I suddenly smashed my teeth into the stone wall known as the level cap. The pit in my stomach made my next move the only sensible one—I started over.

If you’ve haven’t already noticed, after spending 6 hours with most of Act 1 of Torchlight 2, I’m left utterly impressed with the overall experience. Runic has managed to expand, improve and polish just about every system, gameplay element and technology from the original.



"…I screamed through the levels. In fact it all seemed to happen almost too quickly, and frankly it appeared to be unbalanced. However I eventually realized there’s a balance to all the chaos, and it’s meant to be this furious."




The polish is already at an astoundingly high level. I experienced nary a hitch, hiccup or crash through my time with the game. The only thing I would consider mentioning is the issue I ran into with one of the graphic settings. Every time I fired up the game it defaulted to 1024x768, so I had to reset it to 2560x1440, restart the game and then I was off slaying beasts again.

Graphically speaking the game looks Fantastic! Thanks to a much larger assortment of environments I was treated to a very rich, lush and colorful palate with enough variety to keep things fresh. This is a game that REALLY pops off the screen, and yes Torchlight 2 seems to have reached a point where it’s even more World of Warcraft (aesthetically speaking) than World of Warcraft. Read that as compliment! The Torchlight series eagerly strives for that sort of look, and I love it.

Dungeon layout and design are light years beyond what we experienced in the original Torchlight, where it seemed we were constantly running through the same, mundane dungeons over and over.

One time I ran through a Pirate themed cave that was crawling with eye-patched, bandana wearing skeletons and ended with a boss named One-Eyed Willy, who’s eye could later be placed in a socket of an item. Another had me running through a frostbitten cavern, filled with yeti’s and panthers—frost panthers! My personal favorite though was a bandit warehouse that was being consumed by flames As I ran through. As I set people free it crumble around me, dropping embers and bits of burning scaffolding—it was frantically paced and loads of fun!

I played as an Outlander, and it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. With the deadly combination of dual-wielding pistols, a glaive to bounce off multiple enemies and a pet to distraction them, I screamed through the levels. In fact it all seemed to happen almost too quickly, and frankly it appeared to be unbalanced. However eventually I realized there’s a balance to all the chaos, and it’s meant to be this furious. The player is rewarded with five attribute points and one skill point for each level. There are 4 attributes to drop points into: Focus, Magic, Dexterity and Strength. The skill tree for each character appears to be mostly unique (some skills were not present and marked with a gigantic “?”), and there are three tabs in each tree. I noticed one of my Outlander’s ability went 15 points deep!

I’d probably recommend people who are interested in even the slightest of challenge to play on Veteran difficulty, because I didn’t die once. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t running low on health as I dodged boss attacks, but I do think some additional challenge outside of those circumstances would be recommended for most players.

Speaking of the bosses, their entrances were always made in a spectacularly grand fashion. I’d rather not spoil anything by talking anymore about that. However I will say the fights were always fun, over-the-top and mostly challenging, leaving me with a great sense of accomplishment.

It’s also worth mentioning there is a good variety in the enemies I encountered, and not only in appearance but also in their attack methods. Some shift through walls, some teleport, some spit goop, some charge and some even summon snot…or something. Whatever. The point is I had to vary some of my tactical strategies from time to time and it kept the combat interesting.

The GUI is unobtrusive, clean, responsive, and does exactly what it should—stay out of the way.

I’m interested in seeing if Runic Games will enable Steamworks for Torchlight 2 because it’s a great system, and I think the community would benefit tremendously from it. Also, some native support for voice chat would be nice.

I’ll leave you with this screenshot (yes I took it with my iPhone) of the thing we love most in these games—BIG, FAT CHEST FULL OF LOOT!